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Debt Management - Budgeting and Financial Controls - Articles Surfing
The most fundamental basic of debt (or money) management is to be in control. To know about every penny that comes in and where every penny goes. Ideally, when you open those envelopes that arrive on the door mat every day there should be no surprises.
If you are in debt and/or having financial difficulties, you need to bring yourself around to a situation where your income exceeds your expenditure - you need to establish a budget and stick to it.
Budgeting and sticking to it are two separate things. In this article I am going to cover setting the budget only, sticking to the budget will follow in a subsequent article.
Before carrying on it is worth noting that the principles outlined below are good for not only reducing debt, but also growing personal wealth overall - effectively an investment for the future.
Establishing Costs and Income
The first thing to do is to recognise that all spending is not equal: that some monthly expenditure is more important than others. For example, not paying your council tax for a few months could land you in jail.
The next thing to recognise is that some outgoings are fixed and others are flexible. With this knowledge you can begin to tackle your flexible monthly expenditure intelligently and make progressive steps to reduce outgoings both immediately and over time.
Additionally, you also need to recognise that even fixed expenditure may be reduced with the right approach.
The next thing to do is to list everything you spend money on over the course of the year.
I have put together a budget planning sheet for the purpose of helping you do this. You can download it by using this budget planning sheet link, http://tips.cars-and-money.co.uk and clicking on budget sheet on the right hand menu, or by going directly to the file download by using: http://www.cars-and-money.co.uk/tips/debt-management/downloads/budget-sheet-p1.xls
You will see that the sheet is split into specific sections to provide some guidance on how to breakdown the list. The sheet is also split into columns for yearly, monthly and weekly expenditure so that it is easier to group all like expenditure together even if you pay for it in different ways.
The most critical items are towards the top of the list, i.e.:
- rates and utilities;
- important household services;
- personal insurances.
With the critical items, the consequences of non payment can either be very high and/or occur very quickly, e.g. loss of house, loss of electric, water or gas supplies, imprisonment etc. It therefore makes sense to attend to these bills first.
The next part of the list is critical in terms of day to day living, but much more discretionary, i.e.:
- motoring expenses;
- food and housekeeping;
- miscellaneous goods and services;
- personal and leisure;
- sundries and emergencies.
This group includes some very fundamental items such as food; however, how food is purchased can have a massive impact on monthly expenses. For example, living on takeaways is obviously much more expensive than shopping carefully in the local price leading supermarket.
While detailing the first section is usually fairly clear cut (just check past bills), this section is fraught with difficulty as most of it can be cash or lumped spending. That is, a figure of *150 charged to a card from the local supermarket says nothing about what was purchased on the final bill - who knows, it might have been *150 of beer and crisps - it can be difficult to recall everything.
If it is just you in the household you have the relatively simple task of being honest with yourself about this sort of expenditure so that you can recognise how much is really being spent on what. If you have a partner, or live in a family group, it can be much tougher. The key word is of course honest. You will have to draw out the truth about what is really being spent and who is doing it. If it is the two of you, you may have to recognise there is a key culprit, or that you are both as bad as each other.
In any event this section is a land of opportunity as far cost reduction is concerned so spend time on it, get out past bank and card statements and go through them line by line. If necessary walk through a typical week, or have everyone involved keep an expenditure diary so that everything is exposed.
The third section in the budget sheet is entitled 'credit card and other debt': in other words unsecured debt. Unsecured this may be, but non payment still has consequences in terms of your credit worthiness and other debt collection measures - including the use of county court judgements and even bailiffs. The only difference between this debt and many of the more critical fixed costs outlined above is the time it takes for the consequences to bite.
If you are having financial difficulties then the figures that should go in this section are minimum payments only. You will need to stop using all cards until the situation is resolved.
The last section on the budget sheet is for income. That is, income after tax - employable cash.
Make sure all income is included. So, if you do have shares that earn dividends, or bank accounts that earn interest, then these figures need to be included as well as any salary income from yourself, your partner or anyone else in the household that may contribute to the monthly bills.
With all costs and income identified, we are now in a position to look at the overall picture and start developing a plan that will ultimately become our budget.
With everything in place, there can only be three scenarios:
1 - Income exceeds outgoings
2 - Outgoings equal income
3 - Outgoings exceed income
If income is greater than outgoings then you can continue comfortably. Cost reduction, budgeting and careful saving will pay dividends in terms of loan reduction, early mortgage repayment, or even building up savings and personal wealth.
If income equals outgoings, then the situation is a borderline one and action to reduce costs will need to be taken. However, it is unlikely that savings cannot be made and there is a strong likelihood you have caught things on time and can turn it around.
If outgoings exceed income, then this exercise has not come a minute too soon and it is now time to grab the bull by the horns and turn the situation around.
Planning the Budget
In the previous exercise, we have identified all costs and all income and now have a clear picture of the current situation. Using this information, the budget we set will, in effect, be an overview of how we live our lives from this point on. There will be certain rules that we have to stick with, but we will know that sticking to the rules will allow us to achieve our future financial goals.
The next part of the process is a little more painful and certainly more laborious than the last, but nevertheless must be done.
Begin with the easy stuff first. This is the middle section on the budget sheet, i.e.:
- motoring expenses;
- food and housekeeping;
- miscellaneous goods and services;
- personal and leisure;
- sundries and emergencies.
There will be lots of low hanging fruit here (easy savings to be made).
For example, let's say your daily expenditure diary reveals that on your commute to work you buy a newspaper at the railway station and a coffee while you wait for the train. You buy lunch at the deli around the corner, but go to the local pub for a sit down lunch and a drink on a Friday. You have a drink with colleagues after work on average 2 nights a week and buy an evening paper to read on the train on the way back from work. This is what this expenditure looks like over the week:
Morning coffee: 1.50 x 5 = 7.50
Morning paper: 0.60 x 5 = 3.00
Lunch at the deli 2.50 x 4 = 10.00
Bar lunch: 7.50 x 1 = 7.50
After work drinks: 2.80 x 2 = 5.60
Evening paper: 0.50 x 5 = 2.50
Weekly total: 7.50 + 3 + 10 + 7.50 + 5.60 + 2.50 = *36.10
Look at this again. Every single item is discretionary, yet it will cost you *144.40 in a 4 week month.
You may not be able to give everything up on the list, but taking a flask of coffee to work with a packed lunch may be a start. Many newspapers now offer yearly subscriptions that will cut the weekly bill by more than half - if you still need to have a newspaper every morning and every evening (do you?). The pub lunch could be dropped and the drinks with the colleagues after work cut back to one drink one evening a week - still sociable enough for most people.
In this example we might get back something like *130 per month. If there are two of you doing it, it might be more like *260 per month.
You need to do this type of breakdown and cost reduction exercise on each line item. Drop things like takeaways to a once a month treat and (if you do not already) learn to cook and cut out ready meals and other prepared food. You will not only save money, you will find you start living healthier too.
Examine closely how you do your motoring. Could you mange with one car instead of two? Could you get rid of the gas guzzling 4 x 4, which would reduce insurance, maintenance, road tax and fuel bills - all at once? Take a look at a company like Cash Drive (http://www.cash-drive.co.uk) to see if you could buy a smaller car at a sensible rate.
Hopefully you are getting the idea by now.
Once the individual figures have been reviewed and cost reductions identified, you can put the new figures into the budget sheet and we can now start to see the new budget taking shape.
Next we can look at the first section. That is:
-rates and utilities;
-important household services;
These are largely fixed costs, but there are opportunities here too. Housing costs such as rent or mortgages can be reduced. Mortgage deals can be switched to take advantage of new lender deals, or fixed rate schemes taken on if interest rates look like rising in the near future. The term of the loan can be extended or (if things are really tight) payments dropped to interest only for a while. You need to ask the question.
If you are renting, could you manage with a smaller property, or a one in a less fashionable area? Could you move closer to work at the same time and reduce daily travelling costs?
Take a look at what seems to be fixed costs such as personal, or household, insurances and compare rates and benefits. Deals in this area change literally every week.
Gas and electric costs can be reduced by switching supplier or, better still, turning down the heating and switching off lights and appliances when they are not being used. Focus on this for a while and you might be pleasantly surprised at the difference it will make.
And so on.
The last cost section is the credit card and unsecured debt one. Much like insurances this may be a more flexible area than you think.
If your credit rating is good then you have lots of room here to take on new cards and deals with 0% interest rates. Make sure when you do this that you close down the accounts you are transferring from. That is, you do not increase your overall indebtedness, or availability of debt.
If your credit rating is already poor, or bad, this may not be an option for you, so you will have to find other ways to reduce your repayments. One thing that creditors like to see is that their debtors are in control of the situation. A well put together budget sheet like the one we are in the process of outlining here can be a huge help.
Using the budget sheet you can identify all income and expenditure that needs to be made before handling your unsecured debt. This will leave you a set amount that can be used to negotiate reduced payments to your creditors.
This is a separate subject in its own right, but showing you are in control of your own finances may allow you to negotiate a reduced payment plan with the companies concerned.
Any other thing you can do in this area to consolidate debt and reduce overall interest payments needs to be examined closely.
However, you need to resist the temptation to make any loan consolidations that involve using your property for security. There is probably another way, so explore the other ways first.
The last section is income. You may have been tough with yourself in the cost section, but the other dimension to the budget is of course income. The more you increase your income, the less you need to cut back (or the bigger the benefit if you do).
Whilst writing 'increase your income' is very easy for me to do, in reality it is much harder to do. However, there may be opportunities you had not considered which may be worth exploring such as overtime, weekend shifts, unsociable shifts, additional responsibilities that could be taken on, or even a second job. Switching jobs could also be an option as could be starting a completely new career.
In other words increasing income is not always about getting further up the greasy pole, sometimes it is about taking a sideways move into any area you had not considered before.
One last point on income: while you have the budget sheet in front of you it is worth evaluating the cost of work. In other words, when you add up travel, parking, fuel, dry cleaning, child care, work wear etc then subtract it from your income - that will give you a true figure of what you earn.
Finalising the Budget
The above represents a substantial investment in time and effort. The end result will be a budget sheet which is accurate, personally optimised and which puts you in control of your own finances.
Having made this effort, you should now have identified specific allowances for each item and you now need to be sure that money is allocated each month to cover those items whether they occur weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly.
It is unlikely that you will be able to reduce all of your costs, move house, change jobs, etc, all at once, so you may have recognised already that this budgeting exercise can be a progressive thing that happens over time.
Therefore, to begin with, you will need to ensure that costs are under control and, as a minimum, outgoings equal income. Over time you will look for cost savings and income increasing opportunities and, once taken advantage of, you can then revisit the budget sheet, put in the new figures and move on.
One completely free benefit to all of this is that, once it is all complete and you are sticking to it, you get a full night's sleep whenever you want.
Sticking to the budget
Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).
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