How to Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
Part 6–So the Bank Said “No Way, José,” Huh?

Oh Dear...So you asked your bank for a line of credit (LoC) but they looked at you and laughed, huh? Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that! It would have been helpful but either the bank rep you spoke to is an asshole or your credit is so bad that it was high time that you started doing something about it.

Well okay… *SIGH* No point crying over spilled milk. At least if you’re still reading through this series, it means you’ve done your homework and you know that there’s more money coming in than there needs to go out, so you’re not a candidate for bankruptcy …at least not yet. That’s if you told me everything, right? For if indeed your needs including minimum payments on your credit cards have you right up against the wall with no room to move, then yeah, maybe you came too late to the realization that you’re in deep financial trouble.

Maybe that’s why the bank laughed at you.

Oops! Sorry… Oh cheer up! Perhaps my method can be applied in the framework of a consumer proposal plan or, if it’s really bad, outright bankruptcy. If you’re well behaved, you’re likely to be given very limited credit in a year or two to prove you can be responsible with credit and at the same time start rebuilding your credit history while you’re still under bankruptcy (NOT under a consumer proposal, though), which typically last 7 years. And you’ll definitely be able to use my method to do that and stay out of debt afterwards.

Wait! What’s that? You’re not up against the wall? My method showed you that you DO have some manoeuvring room but it’s just that the bank didn’t buy into your idea for a LoC?

Well then, in that case, there’s a well-known tried-and-true alternative for you. I don’t like it as much as the LoC method because you’ll end up having paid a lot more interest by the time you finish getting out of debt, not to mention that you’ll have to keep your eyes on several balls at once. However, if those are the cards you’re being dealt, you’ll just have to grin a bear it.

The Debt-Stacking Method
Here I’m just going to point you to Wikipedia.

The debt-snowball method is a debt reduction strategy, whereby one who owes on more than one account pays off the accounts starting with the smallest balances first, while paying the minimum payment on larger debts. Once the smallest debt is paid off, one proceeds to the next slightly larger small debt above that, so on and so forth, gradually proceeding to the larger ones later. This method is sometimes contrasted with the debt stacking method, also called the “debt avalanche method,” where one pays off accounts on the highest interest rate first. (emphasis mine)

As you have guessed from what I’ve written previously, I prefer getting rid of the debt with the highest interest rate first, regardless of whether it’s the smallest or the largest. I understand that it might not reduce your number of debts quite as fast, but the interest rates are the real killer.

Before you even start, you should also see if you can transfer the balance from your high-interest cards to the lowest-interest card you have, effectively still attempting a kind of consolidation. In fact, while the bank may not have wanted to give you a LoC to consolidate your debt, it might accept to replace your current card with one with a low-interest option and transfer the balance onto it. Since this card will become your LoC substitute, you can only add extreme “contingency” spending on it, like a flat tire or something you couldn’t reasonably see coming because, from now on, that’s the only way you’ll ever be using credit.

The bank will probably try to talk you out of their low-interest option card if you’re the one who brings it up, though. They’ll say stuff like, “Oh, but there’s an annual fee of $20 on that one and yours has no annual fee, plus it doesn’t give you any air miles/cash back,” but just give them your best “Are You Seriously Kidding Me” look because $20 is a drop in the bucket compared to how much you owe and how much interest you’ll have to pay on your lousy current card. They’re making more money on your back in the pickle you’re in now, thus why they’ll resist the idea of the low-interest option card.

So here’s a simple illustration. Let’s say that you have 5 accounts to which you owe and $225 per paycheque to distribute. Instead of doing one payment per month, you’re going to use my reserve method which is every 2 weeks (assuming you get paid as I do). The most “expensive” debt (highest interest rate) is in the first column, the second-most “expensive” next, and so on. If two are as “expensive,” then put the smallest amount owed first so that you can get the kick of seeing that one fall off sooner.

Description Debt 1 Debt 2 Debt 3 Debt 4 Debt 5
Minimum Monthly Payment 45.00 27.00 160.00 9.00 31.00
Week 1 Minimium Payment 22.50 13.50 80.00 4.50 15.50
Week 1 Top Up 89.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Week 2 Minimium Payment 22.50 13.50 80.00 4.50 15.50
Week 2 Top Up 89.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Paid Over Two Periods 223.00 27.00 160.00 9.00 31.00

Assuming you’re not adding any more to these debts (ahum!), the next series of minimum payments should be lower, although the difference should be most noticeable for Debt 1. Repeat half the minimum payment per period on all cards and the remainder of what’s left to distribute on Debt 1.

Eventually the balance owed on Debt 1 might be the minimum payment plus a portion of the available “top up” amount, so in that case you’ll be in a transitional period when you’ll be able to put some extra on two debts. (The minimum payments below are for illustrative purposes only and could be higher or lower depending on balance owed, interest rate, time, and so on.)

Description Debt 1 Debt 2 Debt 3 Debt 4 Debt 5
Minimum Monthly Payment 5.00 24.00 145.00 5.00 28.00
Week 1 Minimium Payment 2.50 12.00 72.50 2.50 14.00
Week 1 Top Up 98.78 22.72 0.00 0.00 0.00
Week 2 Minimium Payment 0.00 12.00 72.50 2.50 14.00
Week 2 Top Up 0.00 124.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Paid Over Two Periods 101.28 170.72 145.00 5.00 28.00

Be careful, however, with Debt 1! There might be residual interest to pay from the last month during which you had a balance owing, so you’ll have to throw a few final dollars on it before you can finally consider it really done.

It’s also possible that a debt like Debt 4 in the illustration above might be ripe to be wiped off by topping it up now rather than waiting for its time mathematically. I know that it would make me feel good to knock it off if part or the entirety of the Week 2 top up would be enough to do so even though that debt is not as expensive as Debts 2 and 3. So I leave that up to you!

There’s another thing you need to consider. Maybe the amount you can put toward your debt is so low that, although you can implement this debt-stacking scheme, it will take you more than 3 years to find yourself debt-free. If so, you’re risking debt repayment fatigue.

In that case, if I were you, I would use this scheme for one year and then go back to the bank and try again for a LoC so that you can benefit of the much lower interest rate it imposes. Always paying all your minimum payments for a year — and possibly having paid off a debt or two — will have done a remakable amount of good to your credit rating. And maybe — maybe! — the bank will see that you’re serious about restoring your financial health, so this time they might not laugh you out of the bank when you ask for a LoC.

If they do, change bank.

Your Credit Score = Your Profitability, Not Your Financial Health
Unlike what you might think, your credit score is not about your financial health. In other words, it’s not as much about your trustworthiness with credit as it is about your profitability to lenders. They WANT you to carry a balance. They WANT you to pay only the minimum balance. That’s how they make money on you.

Ironically, while you’ll be following this scheme for a while and pay all your minimum payments and then some in a few cases, your credit score might eventually become better than mine! That’s because lenders don’t like someone like me (and what you’ll eventually become) — someone who pays off his cards in full every month. I’m not profitable in the eyes of lenders. In fact I’m their worst nightmare because I make money off my main credit card!

Your credit score might even take a hit for a few months after you close an account you’ve paid off, so instead you might consider keeping those cards but sticking them under the fridge. However, when you get to be my age and reach not only debt-free status but also have real savings socked away, you won’t really care about your credit score because you won’t need credit that much anymore. Yet if you do need to get a big loan, you’ll be able to point to your assets instead of relying on that score which, quite frankly, is biased since it doesn’t represent what you perhaps always thought it represents…

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How to Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
Part 5–Cash-Flow Time-Mapping

Spreadsheet Heaven or HellIn traditional accounting, cash-flow mapping is not a budgeting tool but an awareness tool designed to show you what’s left after you’ve taken care of all your fixed expenses (that I call needs) and how you then disburse what’s left.

What I needed after figuring out how much I have to put aside per paycheque for each of my need categories is my own cash-flow time-mapping method, which consists of chronologically plotting by pay period for an entire year exactly when sums of money will be coming in and when sums of money will be going out. But I still needed two amounts: How much would I putting on the debt each period and how much did I have to eat and live?

Beyond Needs: How to Distribute the Remainder
My situation was peculiar because only days prior to starting my budget, I had asked my employer to stop deducting an extra $225 per paycheque for income tax. I had made that request when I started working in mid-March 2006 under what was officially a one-year contract because I thought at the time that I would be able to continue work on my freelance business in the evenings and on weekends, but for two reasons it didn’t work out that way.

  1. The day job was far more intense than I imagined it would be and thus I didn’t have much energy left in me on weeknights to do anything but zone out.
  2. I didn’t charge clients for work I did manage to do on the side out some sort of weird sense of obligation that I had to complete, albeit late, stuff to which I’d committed myself prior to starting my day job (which demonstrates why I was a lousy freelancer).

At the end of the first year at the day job, I got renewed for another six months and, before that came to term, I became a permanent employee. By that time, however, I was no longer doing any work on the side but, thinking that I might still come back to it one day, I didn’t ask my employer to stop deducting that extra $225 per paycheque.

One thing I did do while I was still considered a contract worker is to fool myself into thinking that the job would remain a contract and would eventually end. So I came up with a crude budgeting method at the time that had me living as though my income had remained below poverty level and I would put every cent I didn’t spend on living toward my debt which, at that time, was about $33K. By living as a pauper with a decent salary, I got my debt down to the high $9K in a year and a half.

Alas, personal events in subsequent years, like getting married and divorced almost à la Britney Spears, permanently moved my eyes from freelancing, yet still that extra deduction kept being retained from my paycheque. Worse, I completely abandoned any semblance of budgeting and started getting back into debt. So when I finally got my employer to stop making the extra income tax deduction, that $225 that I never got to see, let alone spend, in over 5 years became my mental benchmark of the least I should be putting towards my debt every payday.

My situation was peculiar if not unique. However, your equivalent might be that 5 percent per paycheque you’re automatically stashing into self-directed savings or a percentage you’re voluntarily contributing into a non-registered shared-dividends savings program at work. (“Non-registered” would mean that you’re not getting a tax break for your contributions and the dividends your employer pays you are taxable on your tax return each year.) During your debt repayment phase, you should certainly discontinue the former and find out if you can temporarily opt out of the latter with little or no penalty until you get your financial house in order. This is all part of maximizing the impact of any savings you have. And if you’re allowed to withdraw part or all of what’s in that savings plan without penalty or tax consequence, you should in order to use that money as part of implementing your reserve account and possibly even put a dent on your debt if the withdrawn amount is sizable.

When I restarted to budget in late 2011, I was at an emotionally and psychologically low point of my life. Outside therapy, I asked myself when was the last time I felt really GOOD and, moreover, what contributed to that feeling. I realized that it was when I had become permanent at work in the summer of 2007, which coincided with the time I had just cleared a shitload of debt. I felt so proud of that achievement that I felt invincible and, more importantly, that I had a more certain future and some flexibility to make choices. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned yet that flexibility only comes when you’re totally out of debt, not just partially.

Nevertheless, by late 2011, my state of mind was such that I had neither the energy nor the desire to cook at home. I lived on take-out and restaurants. But now I was confronted with this pesky matter of the cost of eating, one of several needs I hadn’t accounted for yet. Thankfully, my brush with poverty had instilled in me a way of eating cheaply, albeit not necessarily healthfully.

So I combed through several months’ worth of statements to try to find out how much I spent on average on eating, including the odd groceries I’d sometimes get. When I discovered, much to my surprise, that I averaged about $100 a week and considered that this was one area that I probably shouldn’t skimp or make contingent on always eating at home, I decided to keep that number — so, $200 per paycheque for food, whether groceries or eating out.

To that I added the bi-weekly cost of cigarettes while, at the same time, tried a new-to-me quit-smoking method. If that method worked, I would eliminate an expense; if it didn’t, I had planned for that expense. It turned out it failed, so the latter applied in my case and I didn’t beat myself up for having spent close to $1,000 on something that didn’t work.

Fine, but even with a number for food and cigs, there was no living in there — no occasional coffee on Friday night, no movie nights out, no bottle of wine to sip on while watching TV on weekends, no gas in the car, no nothing! Yet what I wanted most eagerly is to get out of debt. So thus begun an afternoon of working on two cells and two cells only in my then workbook. What was the most I could put on debt repayment without driving myself crazy, which would effectively sabotage my whole plan? By what date might I be out of debt if I put this much rather than that much? I knew that these were merely estimates, since I lacked a crystal ball to predict the unexpected which, indeed, did come. Should I stick to $225 per paycheque on debt and the remainder go on food, cigs and etcetera, or should I keep the latter as low as possible to attack the debt more aggressively?

I opted for a compromise. Again taking into account my state of mind at the time, I realized that I would feel resentful if I cut too close to the bone (for example, “Here I am, making good money for a single Canadian male, and I can’t even afford a cheap bottle of plonk!”). So I gave myself what I viewed as a generous allowance of $400 per paycheque. (Remember that I’ve known practically not having a pot to piss in, so that’s why that amount struck me as generous.) If I spent it, fine! It was planned in the budget. But if I didn’t spend it, whatever was left from this period’s $400 would automatically be added to debt repayment in the next period.

The only condition I imposed was that I was not allowed to go beyond $400 and, if I did go over a little bit, it would be deducted from the $400 for the next period. I only started using my savings account as “reserve account” a year later as part of an effort to understand why my budget had needed a few adjustments in its first year, so if I did go over in a period, the deficit was on paper only and there were funds in the account to cover it. (It turned out that the adjustments were necessary due to an error in the logic in my spreadsheet rather than a problem caused by not physically moving reserved funds into another account, but I figured that out only after I had convinced myself that the “reserve account” idea was cleaner.)

So I devised a spreadsheet to record day by day how I spent my period’s allowance and connected it to my cash-flow time-mapping spreadsheet below. Over the years I revised the detailed spending spreadsheet so that I can report exactly how much I’ve spent on about 75 categories of expenses — some needs, most wants. Compared to most people, I have a lot of wants on which I’ve spent nothing, but those are the choices I’ve been making and I haven’t felt in the least bit deprived.

One Period More or Less Like Any Other
The following excerpt showing my mapping for the period from 24 Nov 2016 to 7 Dec 2016 is an interesting example because there’s one expense (Dentist) that comes only 3 times a year while the others are monthly.

Cleared Date Description Amount Tally Real Balance Reserve*
24 Nov Paycheque 1,579.11 1,579.11 1,579.11
24 Nov Fixed Reserve -1,229.11 350.00 1,579.11
24 Nov Planned Expenses for Period 1,758.70 2,108.70 1,579.11 -529.59
x 24 Nov Long-Term Savings Account 1 0.00 2,108.70 1,579.11
24 Nov Long-Term Savings Account 2 -508.65 1,600.05 1,579.11
28 Nov Dentist -150.00 1,450.05 1,579.11
30 Nov Expense Reimbursement 50.00 1,500.05 1,579.11
01 Dec Apartment Insurance -35.05 1,465.00 1,579.11
05 Dec Apartment & Garage Rental -1,020.00 445.00 1,579.11
05 Dec Monthly Web Hosting Fee -45.00 400.00 1,579.11
07 Dec Cash flow (Food, Cigs., Housecleaner, etc.) -400.00 0.00 1,579.11
  • On 24 Nov and beyond, this spreadsheet automatically marks the first and last row as cleared.
  • * Reserve: When the amount is negative as it is here, that means I have to transfer that amount from the reserve to the chequing account in order to cover the coming expenses and my $400 period allowance. But had the amount been positive, that would have meant I would have had to transfer that amount from the chequing to the reserve account yet still get to cover coming expenses and my $400 period allowance.
  • I know I wrote previously that you should assume that a cheque will clear your account on the day that’s written on the cheque, but I’ve come to know my landlord well enough by now to know that 5 days into the month is the earliest he’ll probably deposit it. But on the reserve side of my ledger, I stick to the unlikely assumption that the cheque will clear on the first business day of the month.
  • The cell in the last row that current reads -400.00 is connected to another spreadsheet on which I keep track of each day’s spending. On 24 Nov, it automatically changes to 0.00 and then goes down each time I enter an amount spent on the other spreadsheet.
  • Each time I manually mark an entry as cleared, the corresponding number under real balance (in green) changes to the exact balance in my account, except the cell in that column on the last row (in dark red) always shows the exact amount in my bank account that I can freely spend from my per-period “allowance” (thus preventing me from spending money that’s already been earmarked for something else).

By this period, I’ve already maxed out my contributions to the Québec Pension Plan and Employment Insurance, but having looked a year ahead, I don’t spend the extra cash. Instead, I put much more aside into long-term savings than I normally can through the first 10 months of the year. And I even get to pay myself a $50 bonus over the period that covers Christmas, which I suppose I could also afford to do for my birthday period as well, for if I start doing that for the next 8 years, I don’t think the missing $400 will make much difference when I’m retired. Again, see how budgeting actually increases choices you can make?

This whole plan of using the year as my base and projecting far into the future worked like a charm! Even while I was attacking my debt, I knew I could still go out if I wanted to — and I did! — but the challenge to myself was to see how little I could spend in two weeks. The fact I set my start date sometime in early November 2011 helped, as I’m notorious for not going out more than I have to during the winter. But when I began to see the long-term effect of throwing an extra $20, $50, even sometimes $100 here and there on the debt, the game actually became fun! Seeing how soon (relatively speaking) the debt would go below $20K, $15K, $10K (!!!) only encouraged me to try harder. If I recall correctly, my initial projection of reaching debt-free status was sometime in mid- or late-Winter 2014, but by challenging myself at my game of “How Little Can You Spend,” I reached this status months ahead of schedule, namely on Thursday, October 17, 2013.

Since that date, I use this method for saving instead of paying debt except that I’m not as hard on myself — although, by managing on average from year to year to put aside 1 dollar out of every 5 I take home, I think it’s safe to say that I probably fall into the category of “super saver.” And that doesn’t even take into account how much I save by contributing to my employer’s pension and shared-dividends savings program, nor how much interest I’m earning on savings under both registered and non-registered plans.

When I say “I’m not as hard on myself,” I mean that if I finally go on that trip to Mykonos that I’ve long been promising myself, I won’t regret it when I’m a pensioner because I know I won’t be a starving pensioner due to going on that trip. Even the $400 100-ml bottle of that perfume I like so much is not even a dot on the radar! The number I’m staring at for Retirement Day is pretty sweet considering it doesn’t even take into account the pensions I’ll be getting when I retire.

I just KNEW that looking beyond the paycheque or even the month held the secret to successful budgeting! Of course, planning and some discipline is also part of the equation, but being a total cheap wad is not. My experience does lend some credence to Scotiabank’s slogan, “You’re richer than you think!” But there’s one important condition for that to be true. When you finally do climb out of debt, promise yourself to never, ever go back there. If you can’t afford something right now or in the very near future, or that getting that something will seriously compromise your so-called golden years, that means you can’t afford it, PERIOD. Suck it up, buttercup!

In a later part of this series, I’ll look at how you should consider dividing up your savings, because as much as it’s important to think of retirement, you probably have a whole lot of living before then, so you need not to put all your proverbial eggs in the same basket. However, this is quite enough for this part…

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How to Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
Part 4–The Planned Reserve & Resetting the Expense Counters to Zero

Reactive ApproachThe problem with the combined paycheque-to-paycheque and month-to-month approach to personal budgeting is that you end up saying stuff like, “Oh, well a huge chunk of this paycheque is going to get eaten up by rent (or the mortgage)” and “This paycheque has to cover those bills that come due X number of days after payday but Y days before next payday.” It’s a terribly reactive, “putting out the fires” approach and, while it’s arguably a kind of planning, it’s too short-sighted.

What happens with this approach is that whatever is left over after you deduct those amounts from your paycheque is what you’re likely to fritter away because you’re incorrectly going to assume that’s your discretionary income. Combine that big mistake with another doozie, which is to exclusively trust what the bank tells you is the balance in your account without thinking carefully about what did clear your account and what will clear your account soon, and the only epithet that can be ascribed to your personal financial style is indeed “reactive.”

Indeed, that’s NOT your discretionary income and that’s NOT how much money you really have in the bank, and therein lies the problem. What’s left after paying the next bills is money you should be setting aside incrementally for later rather than spending now, and the balance the bank is reporting back to you is only a snapshot in time — a mere sentence in a story being told to you by a very accurate but uninspired bean counter. You need to break free from these two terrible financial trompe-oeils.

Putting Out Fires Without Seeming To Be Doing So
The question I really wanted answered when I began budgeting is, “How much money do I need to have at any specific point in time?” I wanted to know how much money comes in and when and how much has to go out and when so that the sums needed will be ready when they need to exit my account.

Ideally, what I wanted to make my life easier is to pay everything that needs to be paid in the course of the year on payday — 26 times a year.

— I need to pay you $X per year? Here’s $X / 26 today.
— I owe you $Y every year? Here’s $Y / 26 today.
And so on.

That ideal was just that: an ideal that could never be turned into a workable idea, because who I am to single-handedly change how the world does business just to cater to my quirky desire? Or could the spirit of this ideal be made to work in the real world?

So I started to think about having dividers in my bank account, an idea I freely admit was inspired by Gail Vaz-Oxlade‘s “magic jars” except that I visualized my jars as being electronic and I wouldn’t be filling them up front with the amount of the next payment in that category.

Indeed, I wanted to have something like “sub-accounts” within my account so that I would be able to say at any time, “This amount is how much I have set aside so far for the next rent payment” and “This amount is how much I have set aside so far for my next dentist’s appointment.” I wanted ONE number for each big category of needs as if I were able to make an installment on each on payday, but instead I would squirrel away each amount it its own divider so that it would be ready when the time to pay would come. If only I could figure out the amount I should have in each category right now and applied that theory going forward, none of my sub-accounts would ever go below zero, right?

There were only two problems with this idea as I pondered it for a little while.

  1. I couldn’t set up such virtual dividers in my account — at least at my bank and I doubt at any bank — and having a separate account for each need would not only be unmanagable but probably would also be disallowed by the bank.
  2. It seemed rather silly to have a “large” amount of cash sitting in a regular chequing account that returned no interest on deposits, not to mention that I could, in a moment of inattention, become a victim of the second trompe-oeil I mentioned above.

Those weren’t really problems, though. I would just have to represent my dividers on a spreadsheet, and the bank not only allows me to have a separate savings account that gives a bit of interest on deposit but also permits unlimited transfers back and forth between my chequing and savings account. So on each payday, I need to know exactly how much I need to set aside (the sum of all my needs) and exactly how much will be payable in the next 14 days. If the former is larger than the latter, I move the difference to my savings account, and I transfer in the opposite direction if the latter is larger than the former.

Thus that savings account, which gives me ridiculously-low-but-better-than-nothing interest on deposits, has become my “reserve” bank account, and I have a spreadsheet tracking it with all my wonderful “needs” category (see Table 1). Each category of fixed expenses has two columns: the first to enter money being deposited or taken from that category and the second for the balance within that category. Each payday has two rows: one to deposit the amounts and one to withdraw the amounts. And there’s an extra row for the first business day of every month to record the interest that the bank pays me, which goes into a “contingency” savings set of columns that I try to keep at $1,000 at all times. Despite what I’m about to tell you below, I recommend that you give yourself that float even if you’re in debt repayment mode.

The “Reserve” Account: Implementing the Yearly Approach to Budgeting
You need to find a point in time — normally a day or two before the payday when you want to start your budget to get out and stay out of debt — to set the counter for each of your need categories to zero — that is, make sure you have what you ought to have right now in each category.

To achieve this, you need to find out exactly how much cash you have on hand at this moment, excluding what should have cleared your account but hasn’t yet for whatever reason. That amount might be insufficient to reset your counters to zero but you’ll just have to borrow the difference. That idea might sound crazy on the surface but that’s exactly what you would have done before you embarked on the budgeting backwagon, except now you’re promising to yourself that this is going to be the last time you’re ever going to borrow from Peter to pay Paul.

As I mentioned in Part 3 of this series, if you have any accessible savings, namely those that aren’t tied up in an RRSP or non-refundable GICs, you need to count them as “cash on hand” because they have no significance when you owe far more than what you have.

So true is this statement that even if you do have a non-registered, non-refundable GIC, you should think long and hard. Isn’t it worth foregoing the interest for cashing it in before maturity if doing so will bring the date you’ll be reaching debt-free status closer, and by how much would you be delaying that date if you don’t cash it in now? How much more interest will you have to pay on your debt for not putting this GIC in the till now? Indeed, the odds are virtually nil that you’ll earn more interest by leaving that GIC mature rather than cashing it in now. If this non-refundable GIC is with the same bank as where you have (or are planning to have) your LoC, you might have more luck in being released from such a GIC, especially if the bank knows what you’re trying to achieve and understands that you’re not just being a flake.

Table 1–The Reserve Account
In this example, I’m pretending that I’m starting my budget on the period of 10 Nov 2016. I’m only showing 3 categories due to space limitations and I’m skipping the monthly row where I record the interest I receive and automatically move to savings.

I currently have 13 “needs” column set in my real spreadsheet. The last set of columns — with three columns instead of just two — allows me to manually enter whatever is left over from the paycheque that will go toward debt repayment (when you’re paying off debt) or savings (once you’re in the clear). Plus as I just mentioned, I also keep a loose $1,000 in this account as a contingency fund that I can dip into for unforeseen expenses, which I bring back to $1,000 as soon as possible even if it means less debt repayment (or real savings in my case) during the next period or two.

The first step is to go down the “+/-” column, one category at a time, to enter as a negative the amount that must go out (that is, be returned to your chequing account) in each “Amounts due” row — but leave it blank if nothing is to come out during that period. To do this, I found it helpful to map it out on a sheet of paper. On the page, one row represented a category and, next to it, I would list the due dates. For example, I had “Electricity: 17 Feb, 17 Apr, 17 Jun, 17 Aug, 17 Oct, 17 Dec,” but I simplified in cases like “Rent: 1st of month” or “Car Insurance: 19th of month.” I also had a perpetual online calendar handy to keep track of when those dates fell on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday so that I could advance the date of payment to the next business day, which sometimes meant that a payment due at first glance in a given period should be advanced to the next period. This is more likely to happen around end-of-year holidays.

Then, go back to the top and, in the same category column but in the “Reserve” rows, enter the amount that should have been contributed by paycheque (see Table 2). The further into the future you go, the better, although I don’t know too many people who are as compulsive as I am and will go 10 years ahead.

By the way, the “Floor” cell for each category has a formula to find the smallest value in that category’s “Bal.” column and you will use it to ensure you never go down below 0.00 in that category.

Date Description Account Rent Garage Electricity
+/- Bal. +/- Bal. +/- Bal. +/- Bal.
Floors >>>   0.00   0.00   0.00
09 Nov ’16 RESET TO ZERO 256.87 256.87 207.60 207.60 27.72 27.72 21.55 21.55
10 Nov ’16 Reserve 486.93 743.80 415.40 623.00 55.38 83.10 16.15 37.70
10 Nov ’16 Amounts due 0.00 743.80   623.00   83.10   37.70
24 Nov ’16 Reserve 486.93 1,230.73 415.40 1,038.40 55.38 138.48 16.15 53.85
24 Nov ’16 Amounts due -1,020.00 210.73 -900.00 138.40 -120.00 18.48   53.85
08 Dec ’16 Reserve 486.93 697.66 415.40 553.80 55.38 73.86 16.15 70.00
08 Dec ’16 Amounts due -70.00 627.66   553.80   73.86 -70.00 0.00
22 Dec ’16 Reserve 486.93 1,114.59 415.40 969.20 55.38 129.24 16.15 16.15
22 Dec ’16 Amounts due -1,020.00 94.59 -900.00 69.20 -120.00 9.24   16.15

For each category set, the “Floors” cell should show the lowest amount in that column, which is most likely a negative. Enter that amount as a positive in the cell at the intersection of “RESET TO ZERO” and “+/-“.

Then, if you notice that the balance in that category never goes back to 0.00 after the first time, you can reduce the amount in the “Reserve >>> +/-” directly above the smallest balance by the amount of that balance. Indeed, that means that you’ll occasionally set aside a bit less in some periods. It might only be a few cents or a few dollars, but it’s still worth the effort to assign it instead to debt repayment or savings, depending on what stage you’re at in your financial life. I’ve bother doing this for amounts as low as $0.95!

The result will be that the tiny balance will become 0.00 in the row showing when the payment gets transferred to your chequing account. You might detect a pattern and insert tweaks to the amount to be saved every Xth period to force a category’s counter to go down to 0.00 more frequently, as there’s no point in having a surplus locked into a category column when it would serve you better to pay off debt or in savings.

Of course, it’s a sad fact that prices tend to change — mostly upwards but occasionally downwards. Fortunately, they tend to change one at a time rather than all at once. You’ll need to update that category from the time of the price change (the amount due starting from the date of the increase onwards) and the amount to set aside going forward (per Table 2 below). This would be a good opportunity to reset the column’s counter to zero from the point of the increase. However, what you’ll find interesting is that even a substantial increase won’t seem so bad. In the span of a year when I went from owning an old car to a new car, the insurance on it went up several hundred dollars a year but this increase translated to only $14 per paycheque, which demonstrates very well the “shock absorbance” qualities of the yearly approach to budgeting.

After you will have repeated this exercise for each column set, the “Bal.” cell at the intersection of the “Account” column on the “RESET TO ZERO” row may show an amount that is greater than the amount of cash you have on hand. But that’s okay. Part of your debt consolidation plan might mean that you’ll have to increase your debt sligthly by borrowing from a line of credit or, if you must, a credit card cash advance, just to bring each of your “must pay” columns where they should be at this point.

Table 2–The Fixed Amounts Per Category
My fixed reserve categories are as follows, but yours could obviously be different (for example, if you have a student loan or a car payment). Notice how 2 times what’s in the period column doesn’t add up to the amount in the month column? That’s why I’ve been saying all along that taking a monthly view doesn’t work! If you get paid 26 times a year as I do, you’ll have to save a bit less each paycheque than the monthly amount divided by 2. THIS is how you get to see the effect of your two “extra” paycheques!

Description Amount Time / Yr $ / Yr $ / Month $/Period
Housing Rent 900.00 12 10,800.00 900.00 415.40
Insurance 35.05 12 420.60 35.05 16.18
Electricity 70.00 ¤ 6 420.00 35.00 16.15
Water Heater 26.07 6 156.42 13.04 6.02
Transportation Insurance 100.64 12 1,207.68 100.64 46.45
On-Star Roadside 700.20 0.33 233.40 19.45 8.98
Garage Rental 120.00 12 1,440.00 120.00 55.38
Permit & Registration 345.06 1 345.06 28.76 13.27
Telephony Cell Phone 45.37 12 544.44 45.37 20.94
Technology Cable & Internet 130.97 12 1,571.64 130.97 60.45
Web Hosting 45.00 * 12 740.00 61.97 * 28.46
Medical Dentist 150.00 3 450.00 37.50 17.31
Personal Haircut 46.00 9 ** 414.00 34.50 15.92
TOTALS 18,743.24 1,561.94 720.91
¤ Often a bit less than that, requiring occasionally adjustments to reset to 0.00.
* A service certificate for about $200 CAD is renewed once a year but the monthly fee is about $45/month the rest of the year. Amounts vary a bit due to the CAD/USD exchange rate, requiring occasionally adjustments to reset to 0.00.
** It’s really 8.77 over several years but I use 9 as the denominator and occasionally make adjustments to reset to 0.00.

I don’t know about you, but I find it very interesting that the amount I have to save each paycheque ($720.91) is considerably less (and less painful!) that my biggest expense each month (apartment and garage rents, $1,020.00). Plus I love no longer being among those who say, “Oh, well a huge chunk of this paycheque is going to get eaten up by rent.”

Note that my food allowance is not here because it’s part of the $400 per paycheque “allowance” I give myself that also includes my housecleaner and …uhmmm …yeah, smokes, all of which I’ll explain in next part of this series.

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