Living Truly Within Your Means

We hear a lot these days about money, don’t we? Refinancing mortgages, reverse mortgages, credit card debt, overdrafts… it’s a lot to take in. A lot of peoples’ money woes comes from overextending themselves, buying things that they can’t necessarily afford and purchasing things that they don’t yet have the money to pay off if they needed to. This is referred to as “living beyond one’s means”. People will often rationalize it by making the argument that they can’t buy what they want or need without doing so; this guide is designed to show how to make sure that you can still buy what you need, and most of what you want, without running the risk of going over-budget.

1. Calculate your “ghost” money
“Ghost” money is a term I personally use to refer to money that you technically don’t have. These are the absolute essentials, such as the mortgage on the house, the payment for the car that you need to drive to work, and the most basic of payments like the water and electric bills. This does not include dining out expenses, one-time purchases you expect like a shopping spree (these will be discussed later), or other luxury items. Just the bare-bones, total minimum amount of money that you must set aside to keep living and earn an income.

2. Figure out at the start of your job what money you actually take home
This is important, because it is wholly half of the equation you’re going to be balancing. At the start of the job you have, or the start of the fiscal year, figure out how much money you actually will be earning each month. If you have a traditional job, this is made easier by payroll taxes which automatically withhold your money for tax purposes. However, be sure to research thoroughly how you will be paid regardless to ensure that you know exactly how much you will walk home with at the end of the day.

3. Talk to your bank about automating payments
This is a technique that gets highly undervalued: talk to your bank about options for automating your payments. If you want to save your money and see every penny that you actually have, this is a great idea. First, it ensures that you don’t believe you have money that you really don’t. Second, it keeps you from forgetting to pay for such things. Either your bank or the individual company can set this valuable tool up for you so you don’t throw off your budget.

4. Have an emergency fund available
Consider again your “ghost” money, that is, the essential payments you need to make. Part of living within your means is being sure that you can afford that no matter what happens. An emergency fund should be set up as quickly as possible when you have a steady income, and make sure you can cover anywhere from 6 to 12 months of the bare essentials. Living paycheck to paycheck is viable as long as you’re guaranteed to get paid, but in today’s uncertain economy, a back-up plan is essential for just about everyone. A buffer of 6 months to a year is ideal, giving you plenty of time to find a comparable job that will meet those financial needs.

5. Don’t charge to your credit card unless you can pay for it immediately
A credit card’s original intended use has been lost over the decades, it seems. Many people now seem to treat credit cards as free money, not as a loan to be paid back. Quite the opposite, charging any expense to your plastic should be reserved only for those things that you can pay for from other funds that aren’t immediately on hand. The ultimate goal of using a credit card is to prove to banks that you can be responsible with a long-term loan; paying off your debts as you incur them is an excellent way to do that, and likewise an extended negative balance is an equally effective way to destroy a bank’s faith in you to pay for larger, more important loans. Use the credit card as a convenience and not as a crutch, and you can dodge both a low credit score and some hefty fees.

By reducing the amount of ‘ghost” money you pay, keeping your net income accurate, spending the money you can’t afford to not spend immediately, and keeping emergency funds for hard times only, you can most likely come out with a positive balance each paycheck. Get these set up, keep them maintained every year, and the rest of that money is yours to spend however you want. Yes, being frugal doesn’t mean forgoing what you want; it just means waiting to get it. Which brings me to the final point:

6. Wait 2 weeks before making any major purchase
Big purchases, the ones you simply have to make because who could pass up a deal like that? Take an appreciable amount of time to think about it before you make it. Impulse buying is a great way to reason your way into debt; if you truly need something even though your wallet says you can’t afford it, then your feelings about it won’t change over the course of a week or two. If you come back after that period of time and suddenly it doesn’t seem that important? You have just successfully avoided an impulse buy.

Keep in mind these simple rules, and you’ll never find yourself up to your eyeballs in debt. If you want to hit a ritzy restaurant or buy a fancy new toy? Living within your means will let you do that. Try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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