I still don’t know how much I’m going to make on a normal paycheck (I did get paid on time this week, but it was weird because none of the 403(b) or tax withholding paperwork had gone through yet) so I can’t work out a proper budget until the end of the month. But I was thinking today about the different ways people can use a budget.
Right now I’d say I see a budget as a disciplinary tool. If I want to save X amount, then I only have Y amount to spend. I’ve set my various discretionary budgets (groceries, entertainment, that kind of thing) pretty low, low enough that I am constantly at a low level of stress about them. Sometimes that works out pretty well. Like, today I really wanted to stop on the way home from work and buy a scone or a brownie or something. But I knew that would be in the range of $3 and my food budget for the month is on the brink of not making it. So I came home instead and made brownies with stuff I already had. But a lot of mental energy went into that decision!
I can envision another way of budgeting that would be a lot more relaxed. Right now I’ve set my food budget at $250 a month, and I also have $50 “pocket money” a month, and I suspect about half of that will end up going to food too. Probably, if I set my food budget at $400, I would occasionally have to stop and think, and I certainly wouldn’t be booking reservations at Per Se. But I also would be able to pretty much pick up whatever I wanted in terms of groceries, and eat out a couple of times a month in a low-key way. If I set it at $500, I could have all those things and I’d probably have money left in the category to roll over and save up for big events like hosting Thanksgiving or something.
In that case, budgeting is less a tool to keep the less than totally frugal in line, and more a way to roughly allocate income to different categories. If I magically start making more money next year, I’d like to switch to that way of budgeting; what I’m doing now is good for me in some ways (I probably didn’t need that scone anyway!) but also really is a kind of permanent stressor.
How do you use your budget? Is it more about restraining you from reasonable things that you can’t afford, or more about giving guidelines?