Developing a budget? Watch out for Those Budget-Bursting Gremlins

If you've developed a household budget to get your spending back in line or to just reduce stress, good for you! Creating and sticking to a budget isn't easy by all means. But it represents the best way by far to manage your finances so you can relax and worry about other things.

A budget can also be a very useful tool for ending financial arguments -- assuming that you and your spouse agree how much to allocate for each of the categories in your budget.

The big categories are usually the easy ones. You know how much you pay for rent or your mortgage. Ditto other items such as your car payment(s), heating bill, phone bill and the like.

These are all fixed expenses. In other words, they are expenses that cannot be easily cut. They can be reduced but not without a major effort. For example, you could sell your home and buy one that requires a monthly mortgage payment.

However, many of the other items in your budget are discretionary expenses. In other words, they are expenses you can control and cut. This category includes items such as clothing, entertainment, insurance (yes, you can cut the cost of your car and health insurance), cable or satellite and groceries.

Some of these categories can also become budget busters or what I call budget gremlins if you are not really careful.

One of the biggest of these is entertainment ? which should include the cost of eating out. You may find there's only a little money left over for entertainment. Yet, it's very easy to overspend by "rewarding" yourself after a hard week or month by taking your family out to eat at an expensive restaurant. Or by treating you and your spouse to a night on the town, complete with a babysitter for the kids. If you're not careful, you can lose track of these spur-of-the-minute expenses. Come the end of the month, you might wake up and realize that these little "rewards" have cost you $100, $150 or even more over budget.

Another category that can be a budget gremlin is clothing. In the first place, it's a difficult budget category as it is next to impossible to forecast with complete accuracy what your family will need in the way of clothing over the next 12 months. Even if you budget very accurately, there is always that great suit or dress that's on sale, or that really neat athletic jacket your son is begging for. Again, you need to be very careful or you may find that what you spent on clothing last month was actually50% more than you had budgeted.

Here's another potential budget gremlin. If you have a pet, make sure you budget for pet care and supplies. Just one trip to the vet with your furry friend can cost big dollars. And what about gifts? This is also a category where costs can get away from you unless you watch them closely.

Finally, for a budget to work, you and your spouse need to have some "miscellaneous" money or money that doesn't have to be accounted for each month. For example, you might allocate $50 or $100 monthly for each of you. That way, you could each "splurge" on something without feeling guilty because you're breaking the budget or taking money away from other, more important things.

Creating and sticking to a budget isn't easy, but it can be a real life and marriage saver.

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Reassessing Personal Finances  The New York Times

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