Saturday, February 2, 2008

Budget Schmudget, Or How to Have a Budget Meeting

With a not-so excited spouse.  

I believe in Quarterly to Semi-Annual 'State of the State' meetings for couples.  For my husband and I, we go through our budget, we talk about our goals, we talk about what we can and can't accomplish from both a monetary and time perspective, and we take a look at our net worth.

It isn't always easy.  

To be fair to my husband, he's very interested in what we can accomplish using the budget.  But the budget design and maintenance is my job, and the tools I use and the way I track things isn't always meaningful.  

Before I really 'got' that about our budget format, I would get very frustrated when I tried to go over the details, and so would he.  Now that we've gotten some of that on the table, I reworked my approach into something that has started to work better.

For the spouse who is 'running' the meeting, there is homework to be done.  I needed to present a clear picture of all our assets and liabilities - car loan, mortgage , retirement account balances, bank account balances, investment accounts, and so on.  Whatever makes up the picture.

Debts subtracted from your assets is your net worth.
That means ours, despite savings and investments,  is negative right now, but I'll get to that in a minute.  

It helps, in my opinion, to bring a clear picture of all spending.  If we budget $400 a month for groceries, personal care and cleaning products, are we always running over?  Why?  I track for a while and see.

It also helps to bring a list of our goals and their approximate cost.  For example, this year we want to rebuild a small outbuilding on our property, a shed/mini-barn that will become my husband's woodworking workshop.  I've put aside money in the budget, but it's unclear if that is enough.

We schedule the meeting for a Sunday afternoon, or a quiet day when no stress abounds.  We actually made a date for it this time around, and it worked  great.  Basically, it sets some boundaries around it.  Most importantly, that it will end at a defined point.  

I also have found that I wasn't always clear about what I wanted.  Once I explained to my husband that I felt that any item that got added needed to have an equal and opposite subtraction in another area to 'balance out' we did much better.  "Obvious" you say.  "Not so", says I.  Just because I thought it was perfectly obvious doesn't mean he realized that there was not room to add without subtractions.

So we had our agenda, our time, and our documentation.  This time, we spent about 45 minutes and went through June - 5 months is about as good as it gets for us at a time.  Some things required adding in, some needed to be deferred- a chainsaw to take down some trees this spring ousted a photo printer, as the trees were more critical.  And so on.

As for the net worth thing, it was a little depressing, but gave us something to work towards. Despite the fact that we save quite a bit and have only our mortgage and a car loan for debt, the amount of the mortgage means that we have a negative net worth.  

Our goal for 6 years out is to get to zero - where our assets equal our mortgage liability.  This is going to take a lot of work.  But after that, there is nowhere to go but up.  

After our meeting, I came away with a list of things that needed to be added or reworked.  He came away with a clear picture of how much we are spending and saving, and further appreciation for how much work it can be to keep us on track.  

And we both came away feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as a team, instead of tense and stressed, to have a cozy dinner of  homemade clam chowder and popovers in front of a warm fire.  

Because teams should always celebrate their victories, even the small ones.

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