All Work And No Play Makes Budgeting Miserable

It’s arguably the most famous quote from one of America’s most popular horror movies. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” uttered Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, in the 1980 thriller “The Shining.”

Turns out, all work and no play makes me a very dull person, too.

I’m not talking about the writing process – which slowly drove Nicholson’s character insane – but the budgeting process. Years of meticulously tracking, recording and weighing the use of every dime earned, budgeting can start to feel like monotonous, tedious work. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” goes one of Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted epigrams, published in Poor Richard’s Almanack. But save too many of those pennies, and you’re liable to follow Jack Torrance’s lead and go crazy.

Saving Money Is Hard Work

If you’re a hard-core money manager, you know that living on a budget is hard work. It means allocating the funds for your day to day needs, weighing the pros and cons of potential budget busters and preparing for potential financial disasters. No matter how you track your spending, you know keeping tabs on your daily, monthly and yearly expenses requires restraint and foresight, with the ability to prioritize your needs over your wants.

The Budgeting “Needs”

The first step in setting up a budget on which you can live – successfully – in the long-term is to separate your “must haves” from your “like to haves.” The items that fall into this category vary from person to person. My friend, Michelle, swears by her iPhone with unlimited monthly data plan; her boyfriend thinks it’s unnecessary, sticking to a base service plan – just talk, no texting or Internet – on his antique of a cell phone. My basic list of “needs” includes:

  • Shelter – Depending on your situation, this could be rent or a mortgage payment. No, a second mortgage on a vacation home in the Maldives does not count.
  • Food – As in your grocery bills, not your Starbucks habit or penchant for a bottle of wine at dinner.
  • Utilities – We’re talking electricity bills, heating bills, water bills. Some of you might consider Internet costs, cable service, and cell phone plans a necessity too.
  • Transportation – This could be gas, loan payments, and maintenance on your car; or, if you’re a city dweller, it may mean a monthly budget for public transportation or parking costs.
  • Insurance – Be it home insurance, car insurance, or medical insurance, these premiums can seem unnecessary, especially if you never find yourself needing the services they cover. Trust me, they need to be a priority.

I’d make one very important addition to this list of basic “needs”: building your emergency fund and investment portfolio. It’s standard protocol to build your emergency fund to cover at least six months of your basic expenses – the items outlined above. It’s also standard to sock away ten percent of your income for retirement – a concept akin to tithing yourself- but that assumes you started saving early and plan to retire after Social Security kicks in. Wait until you’re 35 to start building your retirement fund and you’ll have to save nearly a quarter of your income if you want to retire at 65. Saving for the future shouldn’t be a want – it’s a need.

The Budgeting “Wants”

There’s an old personal finance adage that you shouldn’t spend more than one percent of a windfall on splurges. But what about budgeting for your every day splurges – the things that make life a little more enjoyable? Part of budgeting includes learning how to have fun with money.

This is where the “all work and no play” rule comes in. If your family’s budget only allows for the “needs” – with flexibility for building your investment portfolio – you’re liable to snap. Take a lesson from my friend, Jameson, who vowed to save every bit of discretionary income for a period of three years. Two years in, he’d squirreled away nearly $60,000… which he subsequently blew on a Porsche. Did I mention Jameson lives in upstate New York, where the snow and ice preclude him from driving the Porsche nine months out of the year?

Budgeting In Some Wiggle Room

Liz Weston from MSN Money suggests budgeting for your wants, allowing you to be both fun and frugal. According to her formula, half of your post-tax income should go to pay for your needs– she puts investments, debt repayment and savings into another column, garnering 20 percent of your adjusted income.

That extra 30 percent? Liz suggests having a little fun with it, and I agree: although 30 percent of your adjusted income might be a little high. After all, if you’re earning $51,000 a year – the median household income from 2006-2010 – you’re bringing home nearly $37,000 after taxes; you don’t really need to put a full $12,000 of that toward your “fun money” fund.

Slash that number in half – 15 percent of your adjusted gross income, or, for the average American household, roughly $6,000 a year – and you’ve got a more realistic number. What could you do with $6,000 in discretionary income every year?

Probably more than you think.

Do you include wiggle room in the budgeting process? How much do “fun money” do you allot on a monthly basis?

8 Responses to All Work And No Play Makes Budgeting Miserable

  1. Michelle says:

    We have wiggle room and definitely have fun money. You should have fun in life as well!

  2. Emily @ evolvingPF says:

    I think budgeting for fun has helped me spend more money (responsibly) on fun than if I didn’t. I tend to say “no” to expenses a lot, and having a budget for our entertainment allows me to say “yes” stress-free.

    We save $50/month to our Entertainment savings account, most of which is for two once-per-year purchases of season tickets (the Broadway musicals series at our local theater and tickets to our university’s men’s basketball games) as well as a few miscellaneous other activities. We budget $60/month for eating out (generally with friends). We also save $60/month into our Appearance savings account for new clothes and $25/month into our Electronics savings account for when my husband “has to” have a new computer accessory.

    Our big fun expenditure is travel. We want to be able to say “yes” to wedding invitations and other events we need to fly to. Just this month we dropped our savings to our Travel account from $500 down to $300, but I suspect we’ll increase it again in a few months when we see more events on the horizon.

    I think that’s all of our “fun” money, although we do budget for a few “wants” as well like a bigger apartment than necessary, a smartphone, internet at home, and lots of meat.

  3. I don’t build any wiggle room in our budget, but we have enough flexibility in our cash reserves and such that we allow ourselves wiggle room when the opportunities arise and feel right. The month to month fluctuations in spending help us with this too as some months see us spend more but others less and they usually work themselves out in the long run.

  4. Julie @ Freedom 48 says:

    We spend whatever we spend, including all wants, and save the rest. No “budgeting” really. Lucky for us we both are pretty low key people with predominantly cheap (or free) habits, hobbies and interests.

  5. Marianne says:

    We don’t budget for a lot of wiggle room but we do allow ourselves to ‘borrow’ from ourselves. I’ve blogged about it here: http://preservingpennies.com/our-january-budget/ This gives us ‘wiggle’ room and then forces us to pay ourselves back. So it’s more about flexibility than extra spending.

  6. Chuck says:

    All I budget for is plenty of golf balls in my bag. It is the simple things in life that make us happy…do more simple things folks!

  7. We have a bit of wiggle room although it isn’t really too necessary since we also use 20% of the budget for fun. The wiggle money usually ends up going into savings.

  8. In our monthly budget we allow for something called “blow money.” It’s a set amount that my wife and I get each month and we’re allowed to do whatever we want with it. (This is on top of our family’s eating out/entertainment money)

    Right now we only allow for $60/person/month but that will certainly increase over time as our disposable income changes.

    For years we lived without any “fun money” and it’s simply impossible to maintain that lifestyle for a long period of time. You earned it…it’s okay to spend some of it!

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