Creating a sustainable financial plan is difficult. There are so many different sources of information out there. It can be hard to figure out which saving and spending routes to take, especially in these current times.
There really isn’t a one size fits all answer but that doesn’t stop the financial gurus from selling us this idea.
There are a lot of finance influencers out there. These range from guys who torment your Youtube ads showing you their Lamborghini to the people that eat nothing but beans bought by the 100lb sack.
In reality these people fall into one of two camps, True Believers and Salespeople. Neither live in the reality of the vast majority of people looking to save. They live inside a religion of thrift or a multi-level marketing scheme.
The True Believers have adopted a lifestyle akin to that of a monk. Sacrifice is their religion or they have had success and now have their ‘journey’ as their church (have a look at this article on survivorship bias).
These people are much rarer because they aren’t generally trying to sell you anything. They are generally trying to convert you to their mini-ideology.
The Salespeople however, are just that, salespeople. They’re trying to sell you something with the promise that you will achieve what they have. Normally they are a millionaire or close to it and if you give them $19.99 you can be too!
Sometimes they tell you that by eating beans and following their advice you can buy a home with cash by age 35 but these people seem to be less common.
The BearMoney Angle
This blog is somewhere in the middle. We genuinely believe that these tips will help you, and it is a side business/creative outlet. However, our advice isn’t going to make you a millionaire.
Also, we don’t care if you only adopt 10% of our tips because they’re the only ones you agree with. Take away what works, ditch the rest.
The goal is to help you become financially stable with enough growth potential to improve your life.
You take that and become a millionaire? Great! That’ll be because of you not us. All BearMoney will have done is to help you build a solid foundation and save smarter. Sharing tips, encouraging critical thinking and hopefully driving a discussion is the aim of BM.
That being said, let’s jump into the six skills that financially secure people practice on daily basis.
Balance: Scarcity vs Abundance AKA Highway to the Lycra Zone
The first thing everybody needs to do when they want manage their money better is to obtain a balanced view of spending. When we consistently think in an unbalanced manner, we are incapable of adopting any long-term positive habits. But, what does balance look like?
As we mentioned in our article about mindset shifts, balance is located somewhere between hoarding industrial quantities of rice and spending $800 on a pair of sneakers. It’s about appreciating that buying in bulk and buying the most expensive sneakers is good up to a point.
After that point, your discipline will change to compulsion and you will enter the Lycra Zone.
-It’s a vivid image that most people can visualize easily
-I was stuck in traffic behind a gaggle of cyclists for 10 miles while mulling around these general ideas. So, don’t @me if you’re a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra).
Now don’t misunderstand, I think cycling is great exercise and I’d never try to talk people out of engaging in healthy, social, and eco-friendly activities.
My point is about the level of seriousness you have to take this activity to happily dress like a twinkie in saran wrap.
When it goes past fun into passion and finally compulsion. When the hours you invest in it are returning less benefit for every increment of time and money.
Looking Critically at Spending
Are the health benefits of 15 hours cycling a week on a $5,000 bicycle more beneficial for your life than a three-way split of cycling on a $500 bicycle, Strength Training ($1,500 of home equipment), and Yoga ($500 class or your know, a $50 yoga mat and Yoga with Adriene)?
This is an absolute no-brainer if fitness is your goal: A $2,500 investment yielding better results than a $5,000 one.
*A few people have said that the compulsion of the activity is a form of competitive spirit that can give positive effects in other areas and be a net benefit. I can accept a small measure of that. However, if you’re spending money and time on your ego you’re going to struggle to defend that successfully enough to make option B above stop being a no-brainer. In fact, having three areas to compete in is going to yield as good, if not better results.
Again, I’m not just picking out cyclists, this can apply to anything you do. Whether you’re an amateur sound engineer buying studio-grade equipment or spending $25 on bottled water with ‘extra vitamins’ it is the over-application of ego in your spending that is sinking a lot of your efforts.
Notice I said the over-application of ego. Some egoism is necessary. If you swing too far in the other direction you will become something almost as bad. You go full monk.
Going Too Far Towards Thrift – Monks
The vast majority of finance commentators don’t recognize that a lot of their advice applied too faithfully can lead people to compulsive behavior. ‘Overthrifting’ is just as an imbalanced way of operating as the ‘Lycra Zone’.
You derive your self-worth from ‘beating the system’ in even the most minute way. In one sentence, if you get excited about saving 10c on a bag of carrots, you’ve gone too far.
Now we have to be very careful here because it is definitely a good thing to save money wherever possible and many more of us are financially irresponsible than overly thrifty. Not to mention the thrifty don’t have as negative and effect on society and the planet as the wasteful.
You should not, however, deprive yourself of good food, good clothing, good fun, and good shelter just to save a small amount of money. What you also do not do is value your time at nothing.
Your Free Time Has Value
Your free time is worth at least a minimum wage, let’s say $15 an hour. This should always be in your mind when you are trying to find new ways to save.
Even if you walk everywhere and we don’t factor in transport costs the math of spending an extra 30 mins to go to a second store to save $5 does not add up*
*This rule doesn’t apply to situation where there is a marked difference in quality
Similarly, buying non-perishable food in bulk is a great idea, but just be sensible about it. If you’re bringing in sacks of rice or flour that are 40 lbs and up it’s probably only saving you marginal amounts of money.
There are no hard and fast rules but there are some helpful benchmarks you can use when comparing buying something now vs trying to find a deal elsewhere*;
-If it’s below $5 in cost you can accept paying up to double if it’s convenience (e.g. A $2 bag of chips now vs a $1 bag of chips in another store further away)
-If it’s between $5-20 you can accept paying up to 50% more (e.g. A $15 burger vs a $10 burger)
-If it’s between $20-50 you can accept paying up to 25% more (e.g. $50 shoes vs and $40 shoes)
-If it’s between $50-100 you can accept paying up to 10-20% more (e.g. A $90 jacket vs an $80 jacket)
-Anything above $100 you should feel free to shop around because setting this as the level our thrift is going to more useful than it is compulsive, just don’t agonize over $100 vs $101!
*Elsewhere means somewhere that’s not convenient or nearby.
If you can keep these guidelines in your head and be mindful of the overall utility of your choices (as in the cycling vs 3 other exercises example) and their role in goal achievement these will become hard-wired habits.
Once really thinking about your spending within a balanced framework is a habit, you’ve won half the battle of sound financial thinking and action.
Monitoring you spending; Cash is still king (sort of)
I love modern technology. I love data. It really is amazing (and scary) the amount of information we can access about ourselves, especially our spending. We often have access to free and powerful tools to help us monitor spending and save easier.
We are living in a convenient society moving toward a cashless norm. Some aspects of this are very encouraging and exciting, but make no mistake, contactless payment is the devil.
It’s difficult to divide this without sounding like a caveman so suffice to say that it can’t be denied that your banking or card app that gives you a rolling total of expenditure is a god send for the budgeter.
However, the cost of this has been increasing the ease at which we use our credit/debit cards, just tapping a card is quick, convenient, and dangerous. Anything that makes you think less about your spending is not helpful and let’s be honest here, you’re checking your spending app less than you’re tapping that card…
The best practice is to engage with both modern tools and the old reliable, i.e. cash. Cash has one clear advantage; it has physical form and your brain can easily see it shrink as you spend money. I would argue that this is at least as helpful as diligently checking your apps.
Bringing Cash back into the Equation
A good use for this is to take out your weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly grocery budget in cash. This will allow you to accurately track what you are spending across as the different stores.
When you see a 50 turn into a 10 you will find it easier to reign in your spending. This of course requires you to have the self-discipline to only spend what you took out. Also try not to make regular excuses for extra spending (but that’s another problem entirely).
An added benefit to this is that you will occasionally unconsciously end up with a bit of extra cash. Now you have a small amount of money that you are free to spend however you want. Just bear in mind our months vs years and compartmentalization changes.
Suppose you end up with a spare $25 through finding bargains, grab yourself a take-out or some other treat. Maybe split it 50/50 and keep spare cash for the next spending period, do whatever!
I’d be willing to bet that you won’t spend it all however, as the physical sight of that extra cash has a small but noticeable psychological effect.
Now this approach has its limits. It should only be used for regular spending that’s a moderate and varied amount, if your rent is $800 don’t carry around $800 and so on.
Nevertheless, it’s a simple tip that can have massive benefits in reversing wasteful thinking and wasteful spending.
One thing that can be useful is to get a little bag or box for your ‘petty cash’ and save it up over a period of time. Some people can end up with a couple of hundred dollars in coins over the course of few months. You can feel free to waste this on whatever you want, in fact, it might be healthy to do so and reign in other wasteful spending by concentrating it in one purposefully wasteful purchase. Make it rain quarters!
Setting Realistic Targets: Tap Water Doesn’t Buy Houses
One of our favorite sayings at BearMoney is that a goal without a plan is just a dream. It’s important to have both a savings plan and a savings goal to keep you moving forwards.
The problem is that you have two influential resources that are unfortunately finite, your time and your money.
There is a maximum of how much money you can save/time you can invest while still retaining your sanity. If you’re living a thrifty life and can only save $6,000 a year then that is the space you have to either maintain or improve your life.
This amount is going to be plenty for a lot of people and will help them grow towards their personal and professional goals.
If it is not enough, either it, or your time can be used to increase your saving potential by increasing your income relative to your costs.
Planning For Your Reality
So, whether your savings are designed to be invested in yourself or financial instruments you have to be realistic about what you can expect in the long run. You aren’t going to make 15-20% net annual returns investing the money in stocks for example, at least not in the medium to long term.
Similarly, if you invest in a training or education course the pay off is likely to take a bit of time and bear fruit more gradually*.
You’re rarely going to find a $500 course that increases your annual income by $5,000 for example (technically possible though!).
*Some certifications can drastically increase your current earning potential or open up new career pathways. These are worth serious consideration but they vary by location and industry. Have a look at the most in-demand jobs in the USA & Canada over the next ten years.
Making the Plan
Cutting $100 a month from your spending is admirable and the compound effect if you put it to good use will be significant. However, you cannot expect to somehow go from a net annual surplus of $1,200 to one of $12,000 just through sensible savings.
Your goal should be the save the maximum amount with regard to your current lifestyle and career. How long this takes and the doors this freed up money opens for you depends entirely on your personal circumstances. Generally, however, I recommend the following four medium terms goals;
-Obtain 6MCS, BearMoney’s basic unit of financial health (see below)
-Obtain post 6MCS Surplus of $1,000-$12,000
-Invest 80-100% of Surplus in an economically beneficial way (you have to skim a bit for treats!)
-Grow net income by 10% relative to your MCS (accounting for increased spending)
-Repeat steps 2-4 until your current net income is 1.5X your net income when you started.
-Create a flexible investment that holds 12MCS.
-Cycle through as much as you want while still sane.
1.Jan works in logistics as a senior operative and earns $42,000 after taxes etc. with a Monthly Current Spend of $2,000 and a net monthly surplus of $1,500.
2.She will save for 8 months to reach 6MCS ($12,000) with the other 4 months giving her $6,000 to play with.
3.Jan spends $2,500 of that extra on an accredited certification in logistics administration.
4.She takes on new responsibilities or a new role by leveraging her skill increase so that she is now earning $47,000 after taxes etc.
5.Jan’s next 12-month cycle will now generate up to $11,000 extra.
1.Toby works as an administrative assistant and earns $24,000 after taxes etc. with a Monthly Current Spend of $1,250 and a net monthly surplus of $750.
2.Toby can save for 10 months to reach 6MCS ($7,500) with the other 2 months giving him $1,500 to play with
3.Toby invests $500 over a period of time into selling crochet at a farmer’s market and online. The net return on this is $1,000 over 12 months.
4.Toby now has enough money to attempt to scale or upskill in his admin role.
These are generalized examples but you get the idea, it’s about setting realistic goals and learning to invest in yourself until you get can live and cyclically save to meet your goals.
Being Thrifty: Live Like You’re Broke, Not Boring
We all like a little bit of luxury in our lives, and most of us have at least one thing we spend a larger than normal amount of money on to make us happy. This can be anything from only buying meat from a ‘craft butcher’ to only buying a particular moisturizer etc.
Naturally it is a serious problem if you do this in too many areas of your life, but it’s also just as fatal to long term success to do it in no areas.
Even people living off-grid more than likely have brands they trust or like and pay a bit more for the guarantee of quality or enjoyment*.
If these goods/services aren’t cheap you can’t afford to cycle through multiple cheaper options hoping that one will be be superior from a cost/benefit sense.
So, what’s the solution to budgeting but still enjoying life? Quite simply it is applying a bit of creativity and patience.
Whatever your ‘thing’ is, technology, food, fashion, board-games, it can still be a core part of your life on a budget. I’m not going to lie to you however and tell you that it you’ll be able to have just as much of it as you did when you weren’t budgeting.
It’s definitely possible, but sadly (and logically) it’s unlikely. You are going to need to trim the portion of your hobbies that are financially mindless.
Let’s take board games as an example because they’ve seemed to explode back to relevance in recent years. Board games are ridiculously expensive for their content, many of them are $100+ for about $15 worth of components.
However, if you actually use the board game it will end up being a very cheap form of entertainment per hour spent. What board games you buy and when is where patience and creativity come into the equation.
A perfect example of this is a game such as Dungeons and Dragons where a beginner’s load out can be purchased for between $30-$50. Compare this with a board game such as Buckaroo at the same price point and it is easy to see that gap in use between both.
Maximize Your Fun, Minimize Your Costs
It wouldn’t be too controversial to say the D&D is 5X more entertaining over the course of a year than many alternatives.
If you spend a little time thinking about what kind of games you like and then picking up one at a time you can soon have a sustainable hobby that offer a lot of different ways of having fun.
Not to mention the fact that this will save you hundreds of dollars a year if you’re a board game nerd.
You could even try to find like minded people with different games and increase both your access to your hobby and social interaction.
The same logic can be applied to food if that is your hobby. There is no excuse to not look for and easily find deals in your local restaurants or to set up rotating (budgeted!) dinner parties with your friends, family, or spouse.
You can have nice clothes, you can have nice food, you can have cool gadgets, you just have to spend a bit more time thinking about what things add most to your life and actually planning how to get there. Be aware though, this level of patience can be tiring.
Building the buffer: Paycheck to Paycheck isn’t a foundation
It’s always difficult to know what exact level to write these posts at due to the broad range of readers personal circumstances.
We try to provide advice for people in what was general know as the ‘middle class’ . To put it more accurately, people who earn enough above the living wage to have spare cash each monthly. Sadly these days that’s less and less people
We know this is not the reality for many people. Nevertheless, we believe it would be insulting to give budgeting advice to people who are more worried about how they’ll afford food full stop and not whether it is brand name or not.
The 6MCS Saving Target
One of the core concepts on this blog is 6MCS which is a figure of related to Six Months at Current Spending. This is the amount of money that you need to pay all your bills for six months.
In order to reach this buffer, it goes without saying that you need to be able to save each month. Not only that but you need to be able to save enough to get to 6MCS with 12-24 Months.
If you cannot do this it is important to save what you can and try to invest in yourself at low cost to try to improve your financial situation.
This is easier said than done in a lot of cases but if we are talking about people who are reasonably healthy with at least 5-10 hours spare weekly then it is absolutely possible to grow enough financially over a 12-24 month period.
Even $50 a month for year 1 invested in year 2 could lead to a noticeable increase in your financial buffer. You don’t have to be perfect or the best, you just have to keep trying. Eventually you will move from a place where your focus is to survive and move on to strive, and finally, thrive.
If you are currently living in the ‘pre-buffer’ stage then getting past that should be the only concern, all advice flows from that.
Failure as Lessons: Nobody got rich through 100% success
It seems a little cliché these days with so many influencers and social media posts about self belief but accepting failure remains a big problem for many people.
Every single one of us has gotten too emotionally affected by a small failure. Anybody that tells you different is likely lying.
A core part of becoming financially sustainable is to take all failures as lessons and always keep moving forward (no matter how slowly). It is key to understand one thing about this though, sometimes the lesson is that you randomly fail.
You tried, you did everything right, but you still failed. A 9/10 human being is going to have this happen 10 times out of 100 to them. In this case you just take the L and keep going.
So what type of lessons will you learn via failure when thrifting?
Lesson 1: Timing
Being thrifty means shifting your thinking from weeks to months/quarters/years. A lot of what we spend our money on is either impulsive, or just poorly thought out.
During your journey to financial sense you will be forced to think about all your spending. This includes buying goods and services relative to your current savings, future savings, and long-term goals.
The end result of this is picking the right time to spend money on things. A good example is buying your next winter coat at the start of Spring.
A slightly less serious example of this would be stocking up on chocolate immediately after Easter.
The lesson you will learn here is primarily one of patience and recognizing pricing cycles. Eventually you will know around when you should buy what (like not hitting the gym the first week of January!).
You will of course get this wrong sometimes (more often in the short term) but overall, it will save you money.
Lesson 2: Needs/Wants
We’ve already gone through this in some detail but it is definitely something that we all need to practice on. Sit down and go through your needs, semi-needs, and wants. You will gain the first and most valuable picture of your spending.
The grocery bill is usually the best place to start for this. The realization of just how much money you waste will provide motivation to look at other areas in your life.
The lesson here is not so much that you ‘want’ too much but rather that you aren’t really thinking about how you are spending your money.
Of course, this is a process, and you’ll waste money or wrongly tag a need as a want over the short-term. With practice however you will have a great basic knowledge your spending. You’ll also collect a list pointless things you won’t buy again. Eventually you’re default mode will be to save and spend wisely.
Lesson 3: Monk/Lycra
Another one we’ve covered in detail. Suffice to say that you will often find yourself going a little bit too far in one direction or the other. The lesson here is much more straightforward.
When you fail here you have reference points for similar spending decisions later. If you find yourself grabbing that Lycra in the store, step away!
Lesson 4: Return on Investment
This blog is a big advocate of investing in yourself, whether that’s through your employment, education, or entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, though, investments don’t always pay off as much as we want (sometimes they don’t pay off at all).
It is quite possible that you might invest $1,000 in training only to find that you cannot leverage this for better pay/more money.
Nevertheless, you should have gained some sort of valuable skill or experience that could be useful down the line (this is assuming you aren’t choosing economically pointless investments). It might take a few years for your investments in yourself to translate into a better financial position.
The lesson here is not to give up and to accept that your efforts at investing in yourself will inevitably bear fruit. A great example of this is jobs in IT.
With so many different programs and certifications you may find yourself collecting training and education but not getting any financial benefit. However, if you remain persistent an opportunity will present itself that is tailor-made for your skills.
This can even be completely unrelated to your field, for example you might take a course in graphic design as an administrative assistant. This could give you enough knowledge to land a job at better pay elsewhere.
Your home baking side business can teach you logistical and production lessons you may never have had a chance to learn before.
In one sentence: Constantly invest in yourself and think long term. Success will come.
Lesson 5: Best Laid Plans
Life is uncertain. It would be wonderful to know exactly what our income and expenses would be over long periods of time.
Unfortunately, changing circumstances both external and personal can lead to a drop in income or an increase in expenditure. It is possible that you may be ill over a period of time, or that you might need to repair or replace key items in your life. It is important to realize that sometimes you will not meet you goals and it won’t be your fault.
This is the single most important lesson of being financially responsible. You cannot budget for everything. The best you can do is to assess your life, save your buffer of 6MCS, and continue to put into practice the skills that you have learned.
Having to go back to square one because or redundancy is one of the most distressing feelings imaginable but you can still bounce back from it. It is also worth considering the problem of expected expenses that require long-term planning that our friends over at ‘Project Financially Free‘ have strategized out for you.
Believe in yourself and start the cycle again you will return to the path you were on soon.
This isn’t a pep-talk. It’s an acknowledgement that if you have acted mindfully and attained your 6MCS then you can focus your energy and come back stronger, always.
If you fail, learn, and try again.
Saving and spending is a minefield, but the right mindset can make it bearable (pun intended). If you read this article and apply some of the concepts you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve. Taking a balanced approach and regularly reevaluating is the key to long term success. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake will prevent burnout.
You can save and spend sanely. You can grow significantly in a short space of time. Start small and think clearly and you will stay sane along the way!
Let us know in the comments what your favorite spending/saving tips are.