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Monday, March 9, 2015

Envelope Budgeting- Save Money with the Envelope System

What is Envelope Budgeting?

Envelope Budgeting System
Money Envelope System For Budgeting:  All You Need Is Money and an Envelope!
Image Source: Wikipedia/Michiel1972 cc-by-sa

Envelope budgeting is a simple and effective way to both keep track of spending and avoid going over your budget.  When you get your paycheck, get cash for the amount you budget for an expense category and put it in an envelope.  For this discussion, I'll use your grocery budget as an example.

Let's say you get paid every two weeks and your grocery budget is $500 for two weeks.  On payday, get $500 cash and put it in an envelope for groceries.  Every time you buy groceries, take money from the grocery envelope and put the change back in the envelope.  You can check at any time how much you have spent on groceries by counting the money in the envelope.  If you like, you can keep your grocery receipts in the envelope so you can see exactly where your grocery budget went.

How Does Envelope Budgeting Work?

There is something about spending cash that is more difficult psychologically than spending money using a credit card.  I learned this myself when we tried out the envelope system for food this month.  I was planning to bring my wife some lunch at work.  The thought of spending cash to buy her a sub at Subway was painful.  I texted her and asked if a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be OK.  That is a good example of how the envelope system works.  When you have cash and can see it, it is hard to spend.

The other way that the envelope system works is that it provides a natural limit on spending.  If you buy groceries using a credit card with a $5,000 credit limit, there isn't much of a limit on how much you can spend on groceries.  If you aren't paying attention, there is no feedback at all that you have overspend until you get your credit card bill the following month.  Of course, you can check you credit card balance any time, but this requires effort.  If you buy all of your groceries using cash from your envelope, it requires no extra effort to see when you are running out of money!

Downsides of Envelope Budgeting

During the month trying out envelope budgeting, I have noticed a few negative aspects of this system:

  1. You have to get cash to put in the envelope.  For me, this means a trip to the bank.  Buying with credit cards does not require a trip to the bank, so using a credit card is more convenient.  However, convenience isn't the point of envelope budgeting- saving money is the point.  So if I can save money, it is worth the hassle to go to the  bank a couple times a month to get cash for the money envelope.
  2. There is risk in carrying cash around.  I recently went to the grocery store after stocking my envelope with cash.  I felt a bit uncomfortable pulling out the envelope and digging through $500 in cash to find the right bills to pay for $40 worth of groceries.  It would be easy for someone to grab the envelope and run, or to break into my car or house and steal the envelope.  However, I live in a safe neighborhood, so there is little actual risk of the cash being stolen.  I will probably be able to get comfortable with carrying some cash around with practice.
  3. Dealing with change is a hassle.  It seems to take more time to count out bills to pay at the grocery store and then have the cashier deal with making correct change.  Credit cards are certainly a faster and easier way to pay.  But again, this is not about convenience- in some ways the envelope system is about making spending more inconvenient so you won't do it as much!
  4. It is easy to end up at the store without your envelope.  What do you do then?  For maximum effectiveness of the envelope system, you should drive home and get the envelope.  However, what I have actually done is used a credit card from my wallet, kept track of the amount, and then adjusted the envelope later.  I couldn't deal with wasting money and time driving around when I could easily make up the difference and get back on track with the envelope system.

How Much Can You Save Using Cash Envelopes?

Again, I am just getting started with the envelope system, but I can see that we are saving money on food spending.  Knowing that you have a limited amount to spend that can run out, and being able to see when you are getting low on money in the envelope provides powerful feedback to help limit spending.  Using an envelope of cash for budgeting seems to be pretty simple and pretty effective.

If you don't want to deal with actually carrying cash around, there are software packages and apps for smart phones that can help you do envelope budgeting using credit cards or bank accounts.  The software helps keep track of your spending by category and provides a virtual envelope.  This would be more convenient than carrying cash around, but I do not think it would be as effective.  It is hard to spend "real money" and that is a good thing when you are trying to stay on a budget.

Keep Some Cash Around for Disasters

Another benefit of keeping an envelope of cash around is that it could function as an additional supply of emergency cash in case electronic transactions are not available.  We already keep some emergency cash around, but in an emergency the envelope would give us even more cash if needed.  In this case, by "emergency", I mean a situation where electronic funds are not available.  For example, cash could be the only way to make purchases if there is a widespread power outage or if electronic banking system get hacked or some other disaster occurs and credit cards and bank cards are not working.  Once during a flood and power outage, I saw people with credit cards and bank cards turned away from the grocery store.  Signs were taped to the door that said "cash only".  I think having some cash around at all times is a good idea.

Update:  Money Envelope Tips

Well, I have stayed with the money envelope system for several months now!  It is working to help keep us on target on our budget.  Here is an article I wrote with more tips on saving money with the money envelope system:

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