Peter Zhang

Budgeting

Intro

I went to Trader Joe’s yesterday (a friend introduced me to chocolate oat milk1, which is dangerously good). Walking back to my dorm, I got a call from mom. We usually talk on our Saturday catch-ups. But yesterday was a Monday, so when I answered the call, I expected either really good news or really bad news.

“Hello?”

“Peter, 爱雅. What are you doing?” she said. “You’ve spent thousands of dollars already on food. That’s more than the rest of our family combined!”

There was an awkward pause. She waited patiently for a response, an apology. I was scrolling through my phone.

“No, mom.” I confidently replied, probably smiling. “Only $1,611.82!”2

I moved to campus at the end of February. One of the biggest shocks by far is how much it costs to live: rent, utilities, appliances, furniture, random household supplies, Ubers, and—of course—all of that goddamn food.

At least I know I have a problem. In November of last year, I started logging every purchase I made. Sure, I don’t have a real income, but still think the effort has been valuable. First, tracking my petty everyday expenses instills good habits; if I can maintain my boba budget, I can definitely track bigger purchases like phones. Second, I begin to see magnitude of my privilege. At home, it’s hard to realize the costs of bagels in the pantry, warm running water, and paper towels. It makes you grateful. It makes you sympathize with those who never had the privilege of ignoring prices.

It’s been a while since my post on time tracking. Here’s the next entry in that series!

Guide

Setup

  1. Make a copy of my Google Sheets budgeting template.3

  2. Make a copy of this Google Form template. Link the responses of the form to a new tab in the Sheet. Call that tab “Log.”
  3. Customize the setup. Create new categories for your purchases (e.g. household supplies, health, etc.). Add new fields to the form (e.g. a flag for “paid over Venmo”).

Operation

Separate and list your income sources. Put repeat expenses like rent or insurance in the “Fixed Expenses” section. For everything else, use the form to log each expense. The spreadsheet automatically sorts and sums the form responses. Here’s how it should look:4

Commitment

  1. Every time you buy something, the receipt should be your cue to log the cost. Make it easy for yourself: have the form bookmarked on your phone, minimize the number of fields, and do it before you leave. Pretty soon, logging each purchase will become an instinct.
  2. At the end of each month, designate a “budget review” day. Scroll through your transaction history (whether on Paypal, Venmo, or your bank’s website) and add anything you missed. Use this only as a backup!
  3. Take action! Make cuts where and when you need to. Allocate a fixed proportion of income for savings. Much more advice on r/personalfinance. Steady improvement is powerful motivation with stick with it.

Footnotes

  1. The “Non-Dairy Chocolate Oat Beverage” is creamy and rich without feeling heavy. It has the texture of water and the taste of Nesquik. Legendary. 

  2. My grocery bill includes eating out, my roommate’s food, as well as anything I pick up while grocery shopping, so my estimate was probably inflated. It’s still a fuck-ton of money. 

  3. Based heavily on this template from Reddit. 

  4. Values may have been altered. Or not. Maybe I’m just poor. 

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