Envelope Budgeting System

Debit cards have been sold as a safer alternative to credit cards, but when it comes to budgeting they can be just as dangerous. That’s because debit cards offer the same convenience as credit cards and people don’t feel the emotional twinge of money actually leaving their wallets. For this reason, my family recently went to a cash-only envelope budgeting system.

Listed below are the steps we took to implement our envelope budgeting system:

Step 1: Determine which categories to include in your budget. Not everything in your household budget can fit into an envelope, literally. Things like utilities, subscriptions, and other recurring monthly bills are typically paid online or via bank draft. The real spending categories we are interested in are discretionary spending categories.

For our family these are food, household products, gifts, entertainment, and clothing. In the beginning we also included gasoline, but the pay-at-the-pump feature is just too convenient to pass up on a cold, rainy day, so we still use our debit card at the pump. Who wants to carry kids into a convenience store to pay for $30 worth of gas in cash?

Step 2: Use past spending to establish initial budget amount. Using Mvelopes and my online banking system’s export feature, I downloaded our last 90 days of transaction history. I identified which transactions fit into each of the five categories listed above. This is not an exact science as $45.90 spent at Walmart won’t help you remember the itemized list of transactions, and to which category they belong. If you still have some receipts, great. If not, just estimate your typical breakdown on a trip to Walmart.

For us a $45 transaction at Walmart might look like: $20 on groceries, $10 on clothing, $15 on household products. Using your best estimate come up with an average monthly expenditure for each category.

Step 3: Create a budget envelope for each spending category. Write the name of the category and the monthly amount budgeted on the outside of the envelope. You may not have enough float in your checking account to withdraw all the cash to fill all the envelopes with your first paycheck each month. That’s fine, just break down the monthly budget amount by the number of times you are paid in a month. In our family the “Food” envelope gets $200 every two weeks (I am paid biweekly), for a $400 monthly grocery budget.

Step 4: When the budgeting envelope is empty, stop spending. The only way this budgeting system will work is if you make a pact up front not to move money between envelopes, and to not spend additional money in a category when the envelope runs dry. If the “Food” envelope is empty three days before payday then you better start searching the freezer for those two-year old corn dogs. If your “Clothing” envelope only has two dollars in it you have to pass up those “fabulous shoes” on sale at the mall.

Step 5: Revise and repeat. No budget is going to be perfect from month-to-month, and envelope budgeting systems are certainly no exception. At the end of the month look back at your spending and determine where you could have allocated a little more, and where you assigned too much of your paycheck.

We routinely have more in our clothing envelope than planned, but we simply leave the money in there because clothing purchases tend to come in waves when the weather changes, or as the kids outgrow their current wardrobe. We empty the other envelopes at the end of the month to make an extra contribution to our debt snowball. This gives us a little extra incentive to try to stay under budget in each category.

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