Ahh Budget. My favourite B word. Call it a ‘spending plan’, call it ‘money management’, knowing where your money is coming from and going to is the single most important thing you can do to make sure you stay on track. Everything after that is just icing on the cake.
I have no way of knowing for certain, but I imagine that budgeting as a proper adult is quite simple once you get the hang of it. You have x amount coming in, and as long as you limit yourself to n amount going out, you’re away laughing.
But what if you have no idea what your x amount is going to be from week to week?
As discomforting as it may seem, this is the reality for most creatives. Jobs or auditions can crop up at any moment, so the constraints of a standard 9-5 are usually far from appealing. Instead, it’s common for performers like myself to juggle one or more jobs – usually in a casual capacity. Flicking through my diary for the past couple of months, I’ve worked everything from 8 to 56 hours in a week. How can someone possibly budget with such a huge variation?
Over the past five years or so, I’ve worked out a system that works well for me. I’ve managed to build up a solid amount of savings, invest some money in shares, and survive the ridiculous costs of renting alone. While your circumstances may differ, I decided to share my budgeting steps in the hope that it may help someone out there get out of their casual working nightmare.
1. Know exactly what your expenses are
I mean exactly. And no, brunch twice a week is not an expense. These expenses are things that must be paid by a due date. Think rent, insurance, power bills, transport costs- anything that is going to come out of your bank whether you like it or not. Doesn’t matter if it’s weekly, monthly, or annually- work out how much you’re paying for that bill every week and write that number down.
2. Calculate how many hours a week you have to work to cover those expenses
This is going to be your Baseline. I know that if I work 22 hours a week, my bills are going to be covered. Anything over this is an expense, and anything under this is going to have to be made up somehow. If I get a job that pays twice as well as my day job, that counts as double hours in my mental tally. Four times as well? Four hours. You get the idea?
Note: If this number is already more hours than you can work in a week, it’s time to re-asses your Expenses because I can already tell you this isn’t going to work.
3. Find a way that works for you to track your money
Like a diet, tracking your money is incredibly personal- what works for your best friend may drive you crazy. But if you want to have any certainty of bills being paid when they’re due, tracking of some sort is absolutely essential.
I personally like to use Goodbudget for all of my finances. It’s an app that lets you get as detailed or simple with your money as you like, and it tracks how you’re going with spending for the month. You can link it up to your bank account, or handle the transactions manually.
At the very least, I would recommend you have one Envelope for your rent, one for your monthly bills, and one for your annual bills. This means that at any point, you can look at your phone and know that you’re not going to get kicked out of your place any time soon, can keep that refrigerator running, and aren’t going to completely melt down when that huge annual car payment rolls in.
4. Realistically budget how much you want to save and spend every week
This is so incredibly personal, and it’s also going to be the most fluid part of your budget.
For me, I budget $200 a week for all discretionary spending. That means every cost that isn’t part of my pre-approved ‘Expenses’ list comes out of that figure. If I have a pricier supermarket shop that week, there’s less to spend on brunch. If I know I have a big night up later in the week, I might kick my 5 Ways I Slash My Spending into action and stretch that money a little further. Because I’m me, I also try and tuck some of that money into a physical piggy bank to save for a rainy day
If sticking to a spending limit is tricky for you, I strongly recommend pulling out cash and sticking with it. I withdraw $150 cash every week and leave a buffer of $50 in my bank account for unexpected Uber trips and late night cocktails at the theater (you would be surprised how often those two coincide).
I also have some pretty over-confident Savings Goals that I want to achieve before the end of the year, so I have a figure that I want to save each week on top of my spending money.
With these two figures, you’ve got a pretty accurate idea of your Ideal Weekly Income. This is what I aim to work every week, but as long as I know that I’m hitting that 22 hours more or less consistently, I know that I’m ready to move on to Step 4.
Note. Aiming to work means you actively try to hit this number of hours every week, even if it means picking up an extra shift or two. Don’t aim to hit this income like I aim to go to the gym, or this system probably isn’t going to work for you.
4. Decide on your hierarchy
Now that you’ve got your Baseline income and your Ideal income, you need to decide what’s most important to you from Point 4. Any money that you earn over your Baseline income is going to be directed towards this first, and then all of your other Ideal savings in order. For me, that hierarchy looks a bit like this:
- Spending money
- House deposit
- Travel savings
- General savings
As I mentioned above, I budget for $200 discretionary spending per week. Any money I earn over my Baseline Income will be prioritised for that, and then any remaining will be tucked into my house deposit fund, then my travel savings, and so on. The less of a priority a certain savings goal is, the earlier it is cut when my earnings dip below normal.
If moving your money around imaginary envelopes like Scrooge McDuck doesn’t sound appealing to you, your hierachy make look more like this:
- Spending Money
0.5 Spending Money
Decide what matters to you, and rearrange that Ideal Income accordingly.
5. Build your buffer
This is the important bit! If you’ve been paying attention, you might be crying ‘But Abbie, you said that you worked 8 hours one week- that’s way below your Baseline income! However did you survive?’
It’s time meet your Buffer.
Any week that I earn enough to make sure my Baseline and Ideal Income is met (I’m looking at you, 56 hour week), I focus on building my Buffer – in my case, that means that every penny of the extra money gets thrown into my General Savings account before I get a sniff of that online sale and blow it all at once.
Being disciplined about building a buffer is going to make all the difference when the work dries up or a passion project starts calling. It may take time to accumulate, but having a savings account to pull from when hours are slim is going to make all the difference when it comes to covering those bills- just make sure to only pull what you need for that week, and only if your working hours slip below that Baseline Income. Otherwise you’re going to see those hard-earned savings fritter away on an outfit here and a dinner out there (or is that just me?)
If you’ve got the hang of this and you’re a financial control freak like me, you can also start adding more detailed envelopes in Goodbudget– I’ve got accounts ranging from ‘Birthdays’ (because I was sick of birthday presents chipping into my weekly spending money) to Cat, to ‘Splurge’ (because sometimes you need a little blowout). These also get topped up every time I get a windfall, and the money waits there until it’s needed.
At the end of the day, living with a casual job (or three) is about being incredibly disciplined and amazingly flexible at the same time. It’s easy to go spend-crazy at the end of a big week- you’ve earned it!– and then chew your nails down to a nub when the work dries up. Taking the time to build a plan for your income(s) is going to be the key to finally stop living hand to mouth and start working towards those financial goals. You may not be working like a grown-up, but at least you can start saving like one!