I remember the first time a friend asked me for personal finance advice.
Huh? I was surprised. I thought everyone knew how to deal with money. Boy, was I naïve.
As a helping person does, I created a personal finance workshop for my friend. He said it was useful, enlightening even. We set up a system together, and he said it instantly relieved him of a burden of constantly nagging stress.
A few months later, another friend asked if I could help him with the same thing. I repeated the workshop. Then a few others asked. And then I did the workshop for 40 people, at some other friend’s birthday party. With Powerpoint slides. Yes, you read that right. I went to a birthday party equipped with slides about personal finance. You have been warned.
This post is that workshop in text form. It is everything you’ll ever need to know about basic personal finance.
If you implement what is written here, your money will be automated by a simple system that works for you 24/7, so you never have to think about them during your day to day life again.
At this point you might be thinking “great, another article about budgeting!”, or “I’ve tried to every finance tip out there, but it never seems to stick”. Perfect. This post is written for you.
You DON’T Need a Budget
Every personal finance guru will tell you the same thing – set up a budget. Plan out how much you’re going to spend on what, down to the smallest detail. Then just stick to your budget. Simple, right?
Budgets suck. If they were fun to set up and easy to follow, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Budgets are boring to make, and hard to follow. They mostly focus on what you can’t spend your money on, and they tend to leave a bad taste in your mouth when you inevitably break them. You know exactly what I’m talking about.
You don’t need a budget. Instead, you need an allowance.
Remember when you were a kid? Did you bring an elaborate budget to the candy store, some complex spreadsheet print-out that said how much you could spend on candy for the month? Of course not. You brought an allowance, a chunk of change that you could spend, guilt-free, on whatever sweets you wanted then and there.
Now, listen up. You are still that kid when it comes to dealing with your money. Your little kid brain will buy the sweets (or the hand bags, fancy clothes, gadgets, fine wine, whatever your thing is) when you are hungry, tired, depressed, lonely or just plain whiny. No need to fight or deny it – just accept that this is who you are. Then give yourself an allowance.
Here is how you do that in three simple steps: first, you must set up two different bank accounts. The first one is called your inbox account, and this is where your salary comes in on payday – you already have this account, so just rename it to “Inbox”. Then create another bank account, and call this one “Life Is Fun”.
Second, you order a debit card that is linked to Life Is Fun.
Third, you set up a weekly automatic transfer of a fixed amount of money from the Inbox to the Life Is Fun account. Schedule this transfer to happen every Monday morning. This is your weekly allowance.
This is where the magic begins. As you go about your daily life, only use the debit card linked to your Life Is Fun account. This means you only use the money you have decided to spend on a weekly basis. No more, because if you try, your card will be rejected.
Just like the kid in the candy store, you know you can spend all the money in this account on whatever you please. Completely, utterly guilt-free.
The only thing you need to do now, is to keep a half eye on the account balance on the Life Is Fun account. How often do you need to check the account balance? Not often. Why? Because it gets refilled every Monday!
The weekly cadence is manageable. If you overspend a little on a late night Friday, it’s not that long to wait until Monday for a new top-up. Compare that to the typical monthly budget, where you have to plan and save your money for up to 30 days into the future. You can probably hear your late Friday night self proclaim raucously – “Who cares about 30 days from now? We need another round of martiiiinis!”
A Cautionary Tale: Why Most People Mess Up with Their Money
Replacing your budget with an allowance is just one part of an automated personal finance system I have set up for myself. It is quite simple, and extremely helpful. And my favourite part: you “set it and forget it”. You can spend two hours setting it up, and that’s it. Then it just works for you automatically, 24/7.
I’ll show you the rest of the system in a moment, but first, let’s explore what most people do with their money, and why that causes financial problems, stress and worry.
Meet Average Anton. He lives a decent life in a mid-sized city, working for a soulless, ginormous corporation as a marketing manager. He doesn’t love his job, but, as he will tell you unconvincingly, “the people are all right”. Anton makes good money, which enters his one and only bank account once a month.
From there, his money seeps out of his account in all directions. His rent, car payment and regular bills eat up a lot of it. The gym, Spotify, Netflix and various random expenses take some more.
Then there are the everyday expenses that occur during Anton’s life. Like any good millennial, he likes boozy brunches with burnt avocado toast, chai latte and people who are almost his friends. He often goes shopping for shit he doesn’t need, in order to forget about his depressing, radically meaningless day at work. He buys a few drinks at networking events, rents the occasional Airbnb for a weekend getaway now and then, and shells out $60 for LinkedIn Premium each month, his golden lifeline of hope for a better professional future.
In other words, Anton consumes at whim, spending his way through the month, hoping and praying his cash will last until the next payday. He often gets stressed out and slightly worried about his financial situation. More than once, he has ended up with more month left at the end of his money.
But Anton has learned to calm himself down such in times of financial uncertainty – after all, he has a few credit cards in backup, “just in case” (so does many other people – this is how American consumers ended up with a cool $829 BILLION in credit card debt in 2019)*.
The photo below illustrates Anton’s money streams. The blue arrows represent automatic cash flows, the yellow represent transactions Anton carries out himself, be it bank transfers to pay his rent, or swiping his card at a sunday brunch.
Note the yellow dotted line to his savings. Anton saves when there is something left to save at the end of the month. Unfortunately, there is rarely anything left at all, so the pink pig is rather empty.
This approach is problematic and unpredictable. You never know how long your money will last. You always need to check your account balances. You must constantly try to plan ahead to the day the next paycheck arrives, and do your best to remember all the upcoming expenses you have to cover before payday comes around.
This is very stressful and draining, especially for your little kid brain. Just imagine sending a 5-year old into the candy store with a massive pile of cash that is supposed to cover all his expenses for the coming month, while telling him to “only spend what you can”. Ridiculous, right? Unfortunately, that’s what most of us do every day.
It’s not a good way to live. It causes anxiety, stress and bad sleep. Let’s not live our financial lives like Anton anymore. Let’s instead live like Systematic Susan.
The Only Personal Finance System You Need
Susan is the same age as Anton. She has a job that pays less than his. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, her financial situation is much better than Anton’s. It is calmer, more predictable, with zero negative surprises.
This is thanks to a simple, automated system Susan has set up for herself. Let’s have a look at the money streams that flow in and out of Susan’s life.
Susan has many different bank accounts (blue boxes in the image). At the heart of her system is an account called Inbox. This account collects every incoming dollar, from her paycheck, to Venmos from her friends, to gifts from grandma, to her side hustle income from selling home made bow ties on Etsy.
From the Inbox, there are a set of blue arrows that represent automatic money transfers that execute at frequent intervals, typically once a month. These are rent payments, repeating bills, gym memberships and so on.
But there are more blue lines than just for her monthly expenses. These point to other bank accounts that Susan has set up for herself.
There are self-explanatory savings accounts named “Investments”, “Travel” and “Learning”. There’s the “Rainy Day” account, dedicated to unexpected expenses that life brings about sometimes. When the dishwasher breaks, or when Susan gets the occasional parking ticket, she doesn’t get angry or stressed out, because she has expected the unexpected, and saved up for it.
Then there’s an obnoxious account named “Fuck You Money”, which is a buffer set aside in case Susan ever wants to say F it to her current life, quit her job and YOLO for some time. This account makes Susan feel free as a bird.
All these accounts get filled up with predetermined sums of money every month, without Susan having to think about it one bit. As opposed to Average Anton, who saves what (if anything) is left at the end of the month, Systematic Susan saves first and then spends what is left afterwards.
Which brings us to the final and most important part of her system: her Life Is Fun account. This account gets automatically topped up with money every week. This is her weekly allowance, as discussed at the beginning of this article. With the debit card linked to this account, she can spend whatever is available in the account, guilt-free, on whatever she wants. After all, all the important things are taken care of and saved for on the back end.
If Susan splurges on something that sends the balance in her Life is Fun account to zero, she just eats cheap noodles and lives frugally for a few days, because a new allowance is coming every Monday. On the other hand, if she doesn’t spend everything in the account one week, she has more to play with the next week. At all times, it is extremely easy for Susan to understand how much she can spend – she only needs to check the balance on the Life Is Fun account. If there’s money in the account, she can spend it on whatever she wants. Simple as that.
Anton’s and Susan’s approaches to money are different. Anton’s leads to problems, uncertainty, worry and nagging stress. Susan’s leads to calm, a sense of control and predictability, and a worry-free financial life.
Paradoxically, Susan’s approach requires much less time and energy than Anton’s, yet yields much better results. Such is the power of automation – spend two hours to set up a system now, then let the system work for you on the back end forever.
It’s time to set it and forget it. Here’s what you should do now: block off two hours in your calendar some time this week to set up your own system of bank accounts, automatic transfers, and your weekly allowance.
Your future self will thank you.
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* = Credit card debt figure from Experian’s State of Credit Cards report.
Special thanks to Terri Lonier, Bob Barnard, Alex Azoury, Maria Luisa Martinez and Elfarina Zaid for providing early draft feedback on this article.
Also published on Medium.