Now is a good time to start budgeting for holidays
It's not just your imagination if you're feeling a little down, thinking about the winter weather, broken resolutions and holiday bills. According to a mathematical formula by U.K. psychologist Cliff Arnall, the third Monday of January is the most depressing day of the year. This year, that day was Jan. 21.
Arnall's theory, it should be noted, was created as part of a travel company's marketing campaign in 2005. Regardless of whether there is any truth to the theory, Monday is a good day to get your finances in order according to Daniel Botz, assistant professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University Salina.
"It's never too early to start planning for the holidays, at least financially speaking," Botz said. "Efficiently and effectively paying off debt and saving both require a budget. Budgets really are not scary things, but they do require time and commitment to work."
Botz says to sit down with all of your expense records, such as checkbooks, credit card statements and bank statements from the past year. If you don't have these records, then take one to three months to carefully track all of your expenses and add in important expenses that occur infrequently, such as insurance payments, car tags and taxes, and school fees.
"If you never seem to have enough money, your expenses are probably too high," he said. "If you would like to save for something, like a car, home, retirement or to pay off debt, use your budget to find expenses you can reduce and reallocate that money to your savings goal. Most important is that the budget be in writing. Many people are surprised about where large amounts of their money actually go."
Like diets, budgets are very common New Year's resolutions, but they are subject the same problem: not being realistic, Botz said.
"It is not possible to afford extravagant vacations, expensive cars and large houses if you are making minimum wage," he said. "However, fun is also a required expense in a budget, one that many people forget to include. It is OK to eat out, see a movie or take a vacation, but those expenses must be in your budget. Like a diet without an occasional bowl of ice cream, a budget without entertainment expenses will fail."
Botz also cautions that budgets should incorporate savings for unexpected expenses, such as replacing an appliance or losing income.
"Establishing and funding an emergency fund--money for unexpected expenses--is usually a priority over paying off debt," he said.
Once you have that emergency fund, Botz said it almost always makes more sense to pay off debt before saving because interest rates on debt are usually higher than those for saving. But he said there are some exceptions to this general rule.
"Always take advantage of tax deductible IRAs and employer retirement plans, especially those with matching contributions," he said. "Home loans, which carry lower interest rates that are also tax deductible, are usually the lowest priority debts to be paid off."
Some free or low-cost options Botz recommends for help with creating a budget include borrowing books on the subject from the library, searching online for articles and budget-building tools, and finding a credit counselor or financial planner, who is usually available locally for no or low out-of-pocket cost.
"You can work in a factory for your money, or you can have a factory of money working for you," Botz said. "Using a budget to pay off debts and to save, you can create that factory of money working for you."