Setting Up a Budget Based on Your Values

At a recent breakfast, a friend shared the process he and his wife use in place of traditional budgeting. It takes them less than 15 minutes a month, and after the first month, it’s already had a massive impact on the way they use money. Think of this as a little case study, one that shows exactly how easy it can be to align your spending with what you say is important to you.

First, they started by tracking their spending. You might call it budgeting. You might even use budgeting software. It doesn’t matter. Write it down. Use a spreadsheet. Download your credit card statement. Print your bank transactions. Whatever you do, put together a simple list of all your monthly spending.

Second, they went through every transaction, one by one, and asked a series of three questions for each:

1. Does this expense align with our values?

2. What value does it align with?

3. Is there a substitute that might cost less?

As they went down the list of transactions, they answered the first question with a “yes” or “no.” I suggest physically doing something for this part of the exercise. For example, if you printed your transactions, mark each transaction “yes” or “no” with a pencil. If you’re using a spreadsheet, you could add a column and type in “yes or “no.” I find the physical act tends to make the intangible nature of money a bit more real.

At this point, it’s really important that you don’t get caught up in shaming or blaming. Just answer the question and give your spouse or partner room to do to the same. You are simply noticing what aligns with you values and what doesn’t.

The second question challenged them to define what they valued and why. This conversation was eye-opening and helped them better understand each other’s buying decisions.

The third question represented a shortcut to finding a “third way.” Remember the third way? It’s a great tool for discussions that get stuck in “my way” versus “your way.” Asking what they could substitute offered a third, better way forward.

My friend shared a great example of the process with me. He has a close friend, the next closest thing to a brother, in fact. But this friend always seemed to be experiencing hard times and never had any money. Every time they got together, they went out to eat. No surprise, my friend always paid. After looking back at their expenses over the years, my friend and his wife discovered that those meals were costing them about $70 a month.

So they used their three-question process to work through this expense. My friend made the case that buying those meals aligned with their values. Then they moved to question 2 and explored what value it was aligned with.

“I just want to be there for him,” said my friend. “He’s there for me. There’s value in that relationship.”

This is super fascinating.

Notice that the value he expressed — spending time with someone — had nothing to do with spending money at all, let alone $70. In this case, it wasn’t about the money. It was about the time together. The money just happened to be the default setting for how that value was expressed.

With the third question, my friend and his wife found a third way, a substitute that delivered the same desired value without the expense. Both men loved to hike and mountain bike, so they decided that instead of meeting for a meal, they would find an activity to do together that didn’t cost money, or at least cost less than $70.

It’s important to point out that this was not a negotiated settlement between my friend and his wife. This was not a fight between his way and her way. This solution was not “between.” It was better! By exploring what was actually valuable about the experiences with his friend, they found a better way to honor that value, independent of the financial considerations.

But they didn’t stop there.

They are supersmart people, and what they did next confirms it. They were wise enough to know they needed behavioral guardrails to keep them on track. Instead of just looking at that $70 and saying, “Cool, we won’t spend it,” they immediately went to their automated investment account and increased their monthly savings by $70.

In effect, they made the savings a mandatory expense. The money is already spent. The next time he hangs out with his friend, the temptation to go out for “just one more meal” is gone because the money is already “spent” on their low-cost index fund. That’s really cool behavioral engineering.

We know that $70 matters. Add up $70 every month for 10, 20, even 30 years, and it’s a lot of money. Throw in compound interest and that measly $70 can make a huge impact.

At the end of our conversation, my friend made it clear that they weren’t done looking for more money to save. They were fired up to see how much they could find the next month. And it took them all of 15 minutes.

Maybe it will take you an hour, or even three hours, each month, but I doubt it. Once you create that automated process, the results will start to build over time. Even if it’s only $10 extra every month, that’s $10 more than you saved before. Track your spending, ask the questions, and when you find the savings, do everything you can to automate the best behavior possible.

This commentary originally appeared August 10 on NYTimes.com

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The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2015, The BAM ALLIANCE

Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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