One of the most underrated elements of personal finance is behavioral in nature. Being human, we are emotional beings. While not a bad thing, it can lead us to make some poor financial decisions. Our financial decision-making processes, influenced by a mix of logic and emotion, can be structured to reduce the temptation to spend spontaneously.
A few years ago, I designed and implemented the following cash flow management process as part of my own financial plan. I’ve been extremely happy with how easily I’ve been able to reach some of my life goals and objectives by reducing the influence my emotions have on my financial decisions. I have a feeling that this cash management system will help you too.
1. Calculate and Categorize Expenses
The first step of any financial analysis and system design endeavor is to gather the relevant data. In this case, you will want to start by determining your monthly expenses and pooling them into different types or categories.
One of the best ways to categorize your expenses is to lump all of your monthly household bills in one category and discretionary expenses in another. To accomplish this, you should take your mortgage, phone, utilities (water and electricity), and internet bill and determine what you pay for all of those expenses in an average month. Next, total how much you spent on coffee, clothing, food, gas, and any other day-to-day expenses on a monthly basis.
Once you have calculated your “fixed” monthly costs, you should make the decision to use what’s left over to invest, pay down debt, and accomplish your life goals.
2. Plan for Savings and Investments
With the understanding that life can throw some unexpected (and sometimes expensive) events at you, think about having a safety fund. Your safety fund should be denominated in cash and equal to three to six months worth of your total cash outflows. I’ve found that the best way to fund a safety net is by placing a few hundred dollars in a savings account every month.
Once your safety net is completely funded, it would be wise to keep funding the account with the same amount of cash. This will allow you to save the additional cash needed to make additional payments on your mortgage principal. You can also decide to use the additional savings to fund an IRA or other tax advantaged investment account as well.
3. Create Separate Bank Accounts
To reduce the temptation to spend the money that you would rather save and invest, you can utilize a couple of separate bank accounts for each expense category. With this in mind, open a checking account with your mortgage lender and use that account to pay all of your household bills (mortgage, phone, utilities, etc.). This account can also be used to store your safety funds and additional savings.
Additionally, the income that is left over after funding your “household account” can be sent to a “day-to-day expense” checking account. This way, your income allotments match your expenses and you have built an automatic cash flow system.
4. Use Direct Deposit and Automatic Allotments
In order to eliminate the burden of having to manually transfer funds between your various bank accounts, you can take advantage of direct deposit, automatic allotments and your bank’s online bill payment system. These tools will allow to reduce the time it takes to manage your personal finances.
To accomplish this task, estimate how much money you will need to send to your household account every month. Remember that you will need enough to pay your monthly expenses and still have some left over for your safety fund. Once the estimate is complete, set up an allotment to transfer half of those funds to your household bank account each paycheck.
The remaining funds (left over after the household expense allotment) should be deposited into your “everyday” expense account. These funds can be used to purchase food, clothes, gas and any other personal items that you might want.
5. Implement and Monitor Your Progress
Once you have all of these pieces lined up (amounts determined, bank accounts opened and allotments made), all that is left to do is implement and monitor your new cash flow system. The best part about making the decision to automate your cash flow is that it reduces the temptation (usually emotional in nature) to break your budget.
A few months after implementation, you might notice that you have over or under-estimated how much you need for the various expense categories. Whichever the case, you will need to make adjustments to your allotments and/or your purchasing behavior.
Keep in mind that a great cash flow management system is worthless if it’s not implemented. The most important part in the financial planning process is putting in the work and taking action.