What if budgeting is the problem, not the solution?

Budgeting is a must-do. Like flossing. By setting targets and spending within each of the categories, we are spared from financial ruin. We can even set aside some money for savings. But does it actually work? Has anyone budgeted their way to wealth? And why are personal finances getting worse, despite all the new budgeting tools? Is budgeting a bit like dieting?

Budgeting has some built in flaws

It is really tough to do. Unexpected expenses pop up. Splurges throw the whole the whole thing askew. And setting up and tracking the results, even with an app, isn’t fun. Like an unscheduled meeting with HR.

But there’s more. Some cash outflows like education, meditation, exercise and healthy eating can improve our personal and financial wealth while others like fast food, oversized bar tabs and “retail therapy” send our health, wealth and happiness in reverse.

Budgets are built around the idea of fitting expenses into an income level. A luxury new car lease may fit into a budget, but might a simpler used car free up money for debt reduction or investment? And how would your life really change with a less costly vehicle? Or what about one less car in your life, and some biking, walking, transiting and Ubering in its place?

Budgets also have a static feel, once you “make” a budget in a month, the job is complete. If you are under an expenditure target, it frees up funds for more expenses as a spending reward. That could have been a wealth builder.

To build wealth, why not track wealth?

In business, we manage what we measure. So why track expenses to build wealth? Why not track wealth to build wealth?

Wealth, or net worth is the difference of what we own and what we owe. If we start to track our wealth instead of our expenses, some interesting things happen:

  1. We view “good” and “bad” expenditures differently. Spending on learning and tools can lead to future wealth increases. Spending on things that depreciate drags down our wealth.
  2. Raises represent an opportunity to save more and retire more debt, rather than an opportunity to increase the household budget.
  3. Reducing debt comes into focus as high interest costs drag down our wealth and slows our progress in paying them off.
  4. Staying tuned to our investment performance becomes important as it can build wealth while we sleep. Or while scuba diving in Cozumel.
  5. Expenses are still important since reducing them frees up money for building wealth. A focus on wealth helps us cut boring expenses like utilities, repairs and insurance costs while freeing funds for experiences, travel and wellness. We can seek out “do-betters” by scanning last month’s credit and debit card statements.
  6. Thinking about net worth helps us steer away from Hedonic expenditures and the negative effects they have on our psyche and finances. Check out Mr. Money Moustache’s great post on Hacking Hedonic Adaptation.
  7. Having a net worth focus makes us want to set up an automatic savings deduction from each paycheque, and increase it as we find more efficient ways to spend.

Let’s look at some examples

What does a purchase of a $40,000 new car do to our net worth? Driving it off the lot, its value drops by 15% or about $6,000. Sales taxes are $5,200 where I live. Air conditioning tax of $500, tire tax of $100, Freight and dealer prep of $800. All vaporized. So, the day we buy the car we dropour net worth by $12,600. Financial freedom delayed. Maybe cancelled.

Buying a year old one for $32,000 sees no depreciation the day we buy it, taxes are $4,160 and the other expenses disappear. So, we drop our net worth by just the taxes, preserving about $8,000 of net worth and moving us closer to financial freedom. And that is just on the day of purchase. More savings every year that follow. Notice too, that financing makes the new car financially uglier.

Looking at the performance and cost of our investments is an area that doesn’t even show up on a budget but it easily visible in a net worth chart. Having money in high cost mutual funds that have lagged the market vs seeing stronger performance through savvy low-cost investing, or a robo or human advisor with a strong performance record can easily double our returns.

Finally, debts don’t show up on a typical budget, but their interest costs slow our progress to financial freedom. Monitor the value of your debt over time and keep a separate debt sheet to look at the interest expense of each. Dave Ramsey suggests a “snowball approach” to pay off the smallest debt first, then apply those payments to the next larger one. Clever.

How to get started on wealth tracking

Making financial decisions based on what you can “afford” in your budget is a way to keep things in balance for the short term. Taking a net worth view can help you build wealth over time. Start by building a simple net worth statement. You can build your own or start with the Cashflow Cookbook Net Worth sheet and Debt sheet. Download them for free here. Enter everything you own, and everything you owe. Update it every month to start and then switch to quarterly after 6 months or so. It will change the way to think about your finances and set you on a path to financial independence.

Let me know your thoughts.

Want to accelerate your debt reduction and savings? Check out Cashflow Cookbook. 60 financial recipes that can add more than $2 Million of net worth over 10 years.

 

 

 

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