My UnBudget: Using Meaningful Categories

Just about everything written about getting on your financial feet starts with “make a budget.” Well, as a brokeaholic, I can tell you that putting my expenses under that much scrutiny for the very first step has pretty much shut me down every time I’ve tried to do this. And believe me, I’ve tried many many times.

Yes, I know there’s software that will help. I have even had a few budget-tracking apps loaded onto my phone at various times. And I have a Mint account. And I’ve used Quicken and Quickbooks before. And I’m solid with excel. And with a pen and paper.

It’s not about the tools. Sometimes it’s not even about knowledge – because I do actually know a lot. Dealing with my brokeaholism has been about dealing with my thinking.

But it is also true that I needed a way to see track what I was spending in a way that made sense to me, and which didn’t shut me down.

I am not interested in keeping money for its own sake, but once I started getting concrete and focusing on what that money would do for me, I was more inclined to keep it. I also learned that my years of generally avoiding thinking about finances left me with one major habit: I often know approximately how much money I have in my main account but not outside of that. While tracking things mentally is clearly not optimum (and can be remarkably ineffective), I decided to use this habit rather than fight it. I re-named my checking account “Daily Living Account” and use it for my regular expenses. And I then diverted money out of it into savings accounts* named after different Meaningful Categories — which then let my mind “forget” about that money so I wouldn’t spend it.

The first Meaningful Category for me for savings was the Emergency Fund. I know eventually I need to have a savings account that I totally leave alone, but the ever-present fear I lived with was not having any kind of fallback. This is most urgent for those of us who don’t have family members we can turn to should we get into a financial crisis due to the sudden loss of a job, getting injured, or something else unexpected. Lots of financial books suggest that your Emergency Fund should be able to cover 3 months’ worth of expenses, but I found that arbitrary and therefore unmotivating. It’s more useful to think about how much money you’ll need to bridge the time until you can get another job or find some kind of income source, and this can range from a month to a year (or more) depending on where you live and what you do and what’s happening in the job market overall. (Note that if you have dependents, you need to add in what it will cost to cover their expenses and emergencies during this period as well.) And while I’m still working on saving up this amount, I’ve found that almost no matter how much I have in there, just knowing that I have the account makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself so I don’t end up in the kinds of crazy stress-panic moments I’ve had in the past.

The next Meaningful Category was the retirement account. Once again, I started with the premise that starting with something now was better than waiting, even if now was small. (Read up on compound interest if you don’t know why this is so.) I have a small amount withdrawn automatically from my bank account every month and added to my retirement account. It really helps me to not have to think about this one again after initially setting it up. (Darren Hardy’s book “The Compound Effect” is a great one on this topic)

I then have several Meaningful Categories that each relate to something that costs a lot that I want to save up for: a trip, a new piece of gear, etc. While I have more than one, I am careful not to have too many – these are big costly things that I know I definitely want or have to plan for, not urges that will go away soon. It’s pretty great to watch those accounts increase, knowing that I’m building towards something. Sometimes I have to siphon money back out of these accounts to cover something (particularly if I didn’t yet have enough in my savings account) and this just reminds me that I’m going to have to wait longer to get that thing. As an added bonus, research has demonstrated that being skilled at delayed gratification can lead to greater life satisfaction as well as more success. So it’s useful in a number of ways to identify what I want and how much it costs and then save up for it slowly.

I also have “Play” as a Meaningful Category. I got this one from “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.” Basically, Eker points out that if all we focus on is saving, then we’re likely to either rebel at some point and start spending without thinking, or we risk getting crabby and miserly. Eker suggests in addition to creating savings categories that you designate a play category – money that you don’t need to justify, money you can spend on things that feel indulgent or silly or wasteful. The thing that’s cool about it is that you decide in advance how much you can “waste” which helps keep those costs from hitting your daily budget (and send you dipping into overdraft for something frivolous, which for me only heightens my sense of shame). When I want to buy something on impulse, I know have a single place to check (my “Play” savings account) to see if have enough for it, without having to mentally track my upcoming expenses, etc. I’ll write more about this and how I calculate amounts in a future post.

Recently, I added another Meaningful Category that has made a huge difference in my overall attitude about myself and money: Tithing. I noticed one of thing I spent on that I didn’t track very well: money that I donated. If the cause was important to me, I would just contribute, but then would forget to add that into my “regular expenses” because it didn’t fit that category, and sometimes I would give more than I could afford. I didn’t want to stop giving, but I needed to keep track. I read about how people from various religions ranging from Orthodox Jews to Mormons would “tithe” a portion of their earnings to the church. I’m not religious so that particular form doesn’t resonate with me, but I do really like to contribute to the arts and to social causes that matter to me. So I created a “Tithe for Donations” category, and it has been amazing. I was prepared for the added feeling of control over my spending habits that it gave me, but was unprepared for how much it affected my self-perception. I will write about this more in the future, but for now I’ll say that it’s a tremendous difference to have a concrete example of having more than I need and being able to be generous with it.

Summary of Meaningful Categories:

  • Daily Living
  • Retirement
  • Wants/Needs (Big ticket items)
  • Play (aka No Need to Justify)
  • Tithe

This odd kind of “UnBudget” has really helped me keep track of my overall spending without getting so much in the weeds that I mentally shut down and ended up doing nothing at all. As I get more comfortable with these I imagine I’ll do even more on the planning side, but for now this works great as a start.

Do you have systems that work for you? Write about them in the comments field below so we can all learn from each other!


* My bank allows me to create multiple savings accounts and add “nicknames” to each one. It also doesn’t charge for money transfers between accounts. All this makes the process I outline here much easier. Some people prefer to do this via a spreadsheet or budget system instead of creating separate accounts. Doesn’t matter how you do it; it only matters that you choose a system you’ll actually use.