Visualize What it Costs to be You

Visualize What It Costs To Be You

What would happen if you could see and feel your budget?

Real Life Example:

“Budgeting is not fun for me.” This phrase came up while working with a client couple recently. The client was simply expressing that looking at numbers was a draining activity for them. Their partner was more into numbers, organization, spreadsheets. This division of labor or interests is common in couples. But c’mon, is budgeting fun for anyone? I think not.

Budgeting is a set of constraints, and most of us don’t like being constrained. I prefer not to talk about budgeting, and I find the work of budgeting – literally setting spending limits by category – to be complete drudgery.

Most budgeting methods and tools drive you into unnecessary levels of categorical detail, which for many people is draining, overwhelming or unmotivating. Take a look at the default categories in Mint (an online budget tool), for example. Do you really need to distinguish between Coffee Shops, Fast Food and Restaurants? How about we just call that Dining Out? There’s a better way to do it.

Learn What it Costs to be You

Do you know what it costs to be you? Can you say out loud how much you spend per month or per year? This is a gap – or a struggle – for many people. Budgeting is annoying, but the tracking part is essential.

Track: If you already track – regardless of method – great! If you don’t, try using an online tool (Mint, YNAB, Tiller) to aggregate and gather the data for you. Enter bank accounts and credit cards, because that’s where your spending lives. Pencils work also. 🙂

Categorize: Make a list of ten or less categories and write down your spending in each category for 3 months. If you’re using a tool, run a report or summary. Here’s a starter set of categories:
Dining Out
Bills and Utilities
Health and Fitness
Personal / Family / Shopping

Visualize It!

Gather 200 Widgets. Do you have any blocks? Poker Chips? Bucket of pennies? Legos? Grab something physical that you can use to represent units, something that’s uniform in size. You’re going to want 200 of them. Post-Its® work also.

Assign a Widget Value. Total up your monthly net income – the amount of cash that deposits to your bank account each month (after taxes, etc). Divide by your quantity of widgets. If your monthly net income is $5,000 and you have 200 widgets, each widget is $25. Your widgets will gather or pile up like buildings in a small city. (Stay with me with my silly metaphor, please).

Build your Money City. Stack or group your widgets into your categories. If you spent $2,000 on housing at $25/widget, that’s 80 widgets for housing. When you’re done, behold your Money City. You now have a physical, visual representation of your spending in front of you.

Is That Our City? Do I want to live there? Look at your city (example below). What do you see? Most people see something they like or don’t like, something they want to adjust. Do you wish that one tower was smaller? Would you prefer that strip mall was larger? Did you run out of widgets or do you have extra widgets? If you want to change something, why? Are you spending on what’s important to you, what you value?

Visualizing your spending – visualizing what it costs to be you – will increase your overall awareness of your spending patterns. The awareness, and the experience of looking at the widgets, often sparks the best conversations about whether and how you should change something about your spending. It’s more fun, and more effective than traditional budgeting.

Can’t find any widgets in your house? Try these blocks tailor-made for this exercise.

As always, drop me a line to let me know what you think or give me a real life example to write about. 🙂

Why You Need a Cash Flow Projection for the Year

Real Life Example: “My company’s laying people off. We have some big expenses coming up. Will we make it?”

One of the most powerful things you can do to reduce the anxiety of an uncertain world and the risks it poses to your personal finances is build a simple cash flow projection. Do you have an Emergency Fund? Check. Are you doing some budgeting and expense tracking? Check. Cash flow projection? Um, what?

Given what you know and some of what you don’t know, will you still have money in the bank at the end of the summer, at the end of the year, next spring? Keeping this question answered is both easy and powerful.

Step 1: Known and Steady

First you need to capture your known and steady income and expenses. These are the amounts that you probably know the best. You know how much income is deposited into your checking account each month, and you probably know how much you spend in a normal month.

Those amounts are both known and steady, meaning you know about them and they happen every month.

Write down those two numbers: steady monthly income, steady monthly expenses.

Step 2: Known and Lumpy

Now make a list of items that are known but unsteady, or lumpy. These might be income items (like a bonus), but the list of expense items is probably longer: a vacation, an insurance payment, property tax payments, or a planned home improvement. 

Write out your list of known, lumpy expenses and what month you expect them to happen.

Step 3: Unknown, Steady or Lumpy

This is the group that can be scary, the “what-ifs”. What if I lose my job? What if one of us gets sick? When we talk about emergency funds, we’re talking about coverage for these types of unknowns. Instead of trying to predict the future and guess what these might be, just think for a moment about the ones that bother you, the ones you already think about.

Write down 1-3 What-If situations you actually want to examine. Don’t worry about numbers yet, just the situations for now. While doing so might feel unpleasant or scary, the process of writing it down and later examining the possible impact will reduce uncertainty and either 1) build confidence that you can weather a storm or 2) inspire you to change your course accordingly.

Step 4: Make a Happy Path Projection

Now make a simple projection across 6-18 months. Use a spreadsheet if you can. For each month, here’s your equation:  Starting bank balance + steady income – steady expense – known, lumpy expense (if there is one for that month) = Expected ending balance. You don’t know what your bank balance will be at the end of the month, but now you have a projection.

Now setup the same equation for next month, using this month’s projected ending balance for your next month starting balance. Repeat for 12-18 months. Revisit the known, lumpy expenses – are they all there? 

You should now have a projection of your bank balance at the end of that 12-18 months. How’s it look? Do you need to adjust anything? Any surprises? Everything OK?

Here’s the last bit: at the end of each month, record your actual ending bank balance on top of what you projected. This should replace the starting balance for next month and adjust your entire projection. This is how you keep the projection fresh.

If you’d like a simple, pre-built spreadsheet for the above, just email me at and I’ll send it your way to get you started.

Step 5: Adjust Your Projection for “What-if” Scenarios

Lastly, if you want to stress-test your forecast for something unexpected and undesired, like a layoff, you can do that. Using the layoff example, the known, steady income number will drop with your loss of income, and that drop might be partially offset by unemployment benefits or other temporary benefit. Adjust your model to work that in, and see how it looks. How many months before you run out of cash? Do you need (or simply want) more in your emergency fund? What expenses will you cut if that event happens?

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Please drop me a line and give me your real life example questions.

Things I Wish I’d Done When I was 18-24

Real Life Example: I wish I’d known about the most important things I could do in my twenties when I had no money and wasn’t likely to get some. What practical things could I have been doing?

I love this question because most of us (well, me anyway) just weren’t that smart in the early adult years. I might have spent more on compact discs than I did on rent for a couple years. I loved music and still do, but that choice didn’t help me start smoothly.

Here are three buckets you can start with:

Start Learning What it Costs to be You

You don’t need to torture yourself with budgeting. Rather, build your own awareness of what you’re spending and why. Just the awareness and the occasional review will have a powerful positive impact on your entire financial life.

Manage Your Debt

If you’re between 18 and 24, there’s a strong chance you have debt or are building some up. As of this writing, student loans in America are generally associated with the word, “crisis”. Consumer debt and student loan debt need attention as early as possible in your life. You want your money to grow, not your debt.

Your First Jobs and Saving

Saving at this age can be tough and sometimes impossible. Here’s why you should make it possible: the more you can save, the more options you’ll have when your life presents choices. In the early years, that might mean enough savings to cover a $400 emergency (12% of Americans can’t). In your late twenties or thirties, that might mean enough money to comfortably change jobs or buy your own place to live. The more you save, the more you build circumstantial freedom of choice.

If you can get those three things started in a good direction, your momentum will build steadily. If those three feel like too much, just do the first one. That single thing – the awareness of what it costs to be you – produces great results.