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Life Kit: How To Make Budgeting A Successful New Year's Resolution


Saving more and spending less is a popular New Year's resolution, which doesn't sound like a lot of fun. So why are some of our listeners talking about budgeting like this?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm actually super jazzed about it (laughter). It's, like, all I want to talk about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And I am a budgeting wizard.

MARTIN: A budgeting wizard - super jazzed - what's going on with these people? What are their secrets? NPR's Chris Arnold from our Life Kit podcast says this does not need to be a dreaded task.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: OK. Let's start with this. Don't start a budget just because you think it's something that you should do. Like, oh, geez. I'm a grown-up. I need to do this tedious thing now.

KRISTIN WONG: I think most of us, when we start budgeting or start wanting to get our finances in order, that's the goal, the best goal that we come up with.

ARNOLD: That's Kristin Wong. She's written a book called "Get Money." And she says, instead, think of a specific goal to motivate you to budget - a trip, paying off a debt, working towards a down payment on a house.

WONG: I mean, also, like, who wants to be a responsible adult (laughter), you know? That just doesn't sound fun.

ARNOLD: Deep down, that's not really what we want. So if you've got your goal, now it's time to break out the pencils. And Wong says it's a good rule of thumb here that a lot of experts refer to. It's called 50/30/20. And Elizabeth Warren actually used to talk about this back when she was a Harvard professor, and she was looking into the pressures that middle-class families face - 50/30/20.

WONG: It goes like this. Fifty percent of your after-tax take-home income should go toward basic living necessities like your rent, like your groceries, like your utility bill.

ARNOLD: Your car payment, too. So that's easy - half your income for the big fixed costs in life.

WONG: And then 30% should go toward discretionary expenses - things that you don't necessarily need but you want, like your Netflix subscription, restaurant spending, you know, clothing, makeup - stuff like that.

ARNOLD: And then at last part, the 20% that's left over...

WONG: Should go toward savings and debt goals.

ARNOLD: The saving, of course, can be really hard. But making automatic deposits into an account for savings can help a lot. And with this 50/30/20 thing, what you're doing is you're starting to organize and place limits on your spending.

JESSE MECHAM: The budget - it's a tool to manufacture scarcity regularly.

ARNOLD: That's Jesse Mecham. He started the budgeting program You Need A Budget, or YNAB for short. And we should say the company's been a sponsor of NPR before. Mecham says, however you budget, you want to harness the power of scarcity.

MECHAM: We've eliminated the scarcity because banks have introduced very profitable mechanisms to have you just walk past zero and overdraft a little bit and pay them a fee. Or you can just - if you run out of money in your checking account, you just swipe your credit card, and you've walked past zero again. We've gotten really used to the idea that we never really run out of money.

ARNOLD: So Mecham says you get specific. I'm only going to spend this much on groceries or eating out, and you stick to it. And he says people associate budgeting with imprisonments. But actually, he says, it's the opposite.

MECHAM: It's really about being liberated to start to decide what you want to do instead of just reacting to everything that comes your way. And so it's not about saying, hey, don't spend here. Don't spend there. Cut back on this. Never eat out. None of that - it's just about saying, what do you really want?

ARNOLD: And this is why some people get really into budgeting - actually enjoy it - because it puts you in the driver's seat making better decisions. And that trip to the Yucatan or buying a house can actually happen.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

MARTIN: For more tips on budgeting, saving, investing and lots of other tools to help you get it together, check out NPR's Life Kit podcast at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.