Tired Of Thinking About Money

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

I love a challenge.  That fuels my personal budgeting, retirement planning, and part of my writing career.  Money is a pain to deal with, but when you gamify it, it becomes fun.  Finances can be like a game, and I savor the challenge of getting it right.

As of late, I became aware of how much I thought about money.  It was more than I was comfortable with.

Could I jump on a trend and write this book?  Could I monetize this idea?  Could this book be more profitable if it was a second edition?  When you have a monetizable hobby like mine – writing – it’s easy to fall into the “money mindset” all the time (and it’s easy anyway).

When I decided to take time to have “space” for creative work, experimentation not planned works, I found monetization sneaking into my calculations.  Could I do X not Y with this fun project and make money.

My reaction to this realization was “what the hell is wrong with me?”  Why was I seeing so much in term of money – and not even in the fun way of gamifying it.

The truth is our society emphasizes monetizing everything.  Hobbies are side hustles, a job is an endless treadmill of promotions, you can sell your memorabilia, etc.  Companies want you to use their service to turn your grindset mindset into their profit – use their services, their marketing, etc.  We’re drowning in the idea that everything has to be for the money.

Worse, for the money is an excuse for bad behavior.  If it’s for the money it’s treated as OK, no matter how awful a person you are – which is probably why many a Forbes “30 over 30” young entrepreneur ends up in court.  Money excuses all ills and all ill behavior.

Thanks to this realization,  I’ve been reclaiming my vision and joy of creativity without the view of monetizing everything.  There’s space in my plans to just mess around.  I feel more free, more creative, and more connected to people.  When you remove finance from every interaction, you discover real human interactions.

I recommend my fellow creatives take a step back as well.  Are you unconsciously monetizing everything?  Maybe it’s time you stop – before you stop being a creative and just become a profit optimizing machine.  Or, worse, end up on the Forbes 30 under 30 and then in the news.

(And if you’re over 30, don’t waste the time or wisdom you have monetizing everything.)

Steven Savage

Steve’s Almost Zero-Sum Budgeting

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Some friends and I discussed money management, both in general and how to handle it during the Dumb Apocalypse. I use a version of Zero-Sum budgeting they were interested in, so I wrote it up to share it.

You know me – most things I wrote up become blog posts. I’m no expert, so use my advice at your discretion, but I hope it helps.

The basic idea of Zero-Sum budgeting is that you assign purpose to your money – all of your money. In theory, your budget is so perfected you know what you need to save, when you spend it, and every dollar goes somewhere.

Now I’m not trying to make it perfect. I include leeways for error in my method, but the basic idea is something I’ve done for over twenty-five years in one form or another. I never heard of zero-sum budgeting – it’s just what I came up with, and later found it had a name.


First, let’s get to the goal – because the only purpose of using this method is to meet a goal. Simply, my idea is to manage my money so I’m aware of how much I have and use it properly, working towards living well and retiring happily.

Here’s the basic idea of my “Zeroish Sum Budgeting”:

  • Know what your expenses are.
  • Assign money to them, essentially setting it aside for appropriate times.
  • Make sure every dollar is assigned (even if it’s “here’s my rainy day fund”).
  • Have a buffer because you may screw it up.
  • Move your money around to reflect these plans.
  • Keep checking this budget and making sure it works.

OK, so how do you do this? Here’s what I do.


First, see where you are. That consists of:

  • Assess how much money you have. This should be liquid funds, not investments. I track investments separately, and that’s not my focus.
  • Evaluate your income by year.

Taking this step is simple, but needed – learning what you’ve got to work with.

Next up.


Core expenses are those things you do to live – food, rent, etc. This is not what you should spend, but what you’re spending now.

Figure out your annual expenses on things like:

  • Rent/home payment
  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Insurance
  • Medical care (on average)
  • Transportation (Gas, etc.)
  • Medical and Dental Care

By the way, notice the last one? That’s kind of iffy, right? Do your best to project what your average medical care will cost per year. Now that may be regular, or it may be something you save up for and tap occasionally. This is where you get into a big thing for Zero-Sum (or whatever I do) – projecting expenses.

How do you find this info? Well, your past expenses, credit card bills, and so on. oMake your best guess – because you’ll improve over time. Just do your best now!

Now that you’ve got these expenses, it’s time to apply my 10/20/30 rule. If you’re a bit unsure of an expense, add 10%. If you’re more unsure, add 20%. If you think you need 30%, then you need to rethink your estimates and try again.

You’ll also see how much money you have after these expenses (which helps you plan further or spend better).


Now you’ve got your basics. Not only is that helpful, but it’s also good practice – figuring out your annual expenses for everything else. This will be a challenge.

Some expenses are weekly, like food. Some are monthly, like rent. Some are yearly like insurance. Some stretch over the years, like saving for a car or a computer. Some are unpredictable, like clothing.

Here are some ideas:

  • Home electronics (Computers, phone)
  • Clothes
  • Housewares (blender, silverware)
  • Education
  • Car/car loan
  • Car repair
  • Licenses.

As noted, some of these are unpredictable or spread over time. What I usually do for these is figure out:

  • How much I spend within a timeframe (you purchase a new refrigerator once a decade).
  • Divide that up by how many years it takes.

But as we get here, some of this is unpredictable! Other things may be so far in the future (like a car) inflation may be a worry. This is where my 10-20-30 rule comes in as well.

Notice that we didn’t cover investment or having fun? I save those for later. So anyway, next up.


At this point, you know what you need to live, what you want to live with, and hopefully, have money left over. Now you figure out how much you can invest and how much I need “for fun.” These are the last numbers, and I hold them for last as they can be variable.

Think that’s it? No! Read on!


Now you can set up a spreadsheet with all these numbers, and see how your income is distributed over the year! And you can see if it works. And then you’re going to probably want to rethink it all again.

That’s part of this whole process – assessing and reassessing. Don’t worry, you’ll do this a lot, but over time you won’t do it as much.

Save this spreadsheet. You’ll turn it into a budgeting tool!


Now you have an idea of what you’ll be spending and saving over the years, so take that money you’ve saved and assign it to those categories you came up with. How much is in food? Rent? etc. Do your best with that, and stick that in savings.

An important note – I leave a buffer fund of about half a paycheck to half a month of money in checking.

Initially I didn’t keep everything in savings and spend from there – things like rent and food I kept in my checking account because it was predictable enough. But the Pandemic, which has altered a lot of my spending patterns, has made me see the virtue of tracking more tightly.


So here’s what I do to track my funds week by week.

First, I set up a spreadsheet that lets me see what I should allocate weekly to my expenses. This way I know how my money is supposed to be saved.

Then, every week, I allocate money, moving it to savings. As you can guess, that’s a lot of categories to keep track of, so I just set up a spreadsheet to update itself with a simple cut and paste. I see what’s currently allocated to each category, what I add each week, and what it should be – then take the latter and copy it to the allocation column.

Then, guess what? I move that money once a week! That way I see where it’s going! But . . .

I also see if I have anything wrong. Did I cross my buffer? Did I have more left than thought? Was there some surprise? Each week provides me more feedback!

Plus you get feedback when you spend money!


As noted I’d take money out weekly for things like food, but in general, what I did was put things on a credit card or write a check. To cover those, I’d use my spreadsheet to figure out how much money had to come out of savings and go into paying those things. That way, I see where my money is going every month or more.

By spending money you get feedback. Did I spend too much? Less? How is my savings going in categories that aren’t going to be touched for years?

I find that except for basic expenses (like food), its hard to track things every day, so I usually do weeks and months. If you can do daily great, but don’t drive yourself nuts.


Sometimes, like in the case of investment, you have to move money too. I won’t go into investment (I’m a max-out-the-401k/403b type guy into index funds otherwise). But that is something you set up as needed. For instance, in our current crisis and stock ups and downs, I held off on investing.


Finally, you should always, always learn and check your money. If something is suspicious, go over your numbers. If you need to rethink expenses, do so – prices change.

A personal example from recent events; I noticed some gaps in my spending – my cash flow had a weird anomaly of a few hundred dollars. That’s when I realized I hadn’t worked in changes to retirement – I became eligible for a matching plan and had more money taken out of my paycheck. Then forgot to update my spreadsheet.


Look, you can probably find some books and guides and articles. But this is what I do. Just me, some calculations, and a spreadsheet.

It won’t solve all your problems. It will help you track your money, so you have a chance to deal with those problems.

Steven Savage

It’s Fine To Spend Money

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

America has a weird approach to money.  On one level, we love to spend it (if we have it) to judge by the things that people buy.  On another level, we continuously shame people for buying things. It’s a strange duality – until you think about it for a few minutes.

Americans believe money is a measure of virtue.  We believe having it shows virtue (even if someone inherited it or made it in questionable ways).  We believe spending it somehow shows virtue as long as it’s the right things.  To have money and spend it has a weird moral quality – if you’re the right person or kind of person.

On the other hand, we view the wrong people spending things on the wrong things to be bad.  Millennials get constantly bashed for A) wasting money while B) killing industries by not buying stuff they can’t afford anyway.  I’m sure you’ve encountered various cases of some scold telling you not to buy things – that they, of course, would do.

Me, I’m frugal.  OK, I’m quite cheap in some ways.  I am the last person to tell someone to spend money for no good reason.  So I’d like to chime in that it’s damn fine to spend money on things because sometimes it makes sense and is better than saving it.  Use this the next time you feel guilty, or some jerk decides to make you feel guilty.

Here’s where I think it’s damned fine to spend money.

Sometimes it’s fun.  There’s nothing wrong with fun.  People need more fun in their lives as far as I’m concerned.  So go, spend, have fun.

Sometimes it’s therapeutic.  I mean if a bar of chocolate or a mimosa makes you feel better, spend the money.  Indulge, feel better – I learned from my studies on diet and exercise that indulgences can be incredibly valuable to sanity.

It saves time.  Pay for that food to be delivered, pay for that restaurant to send you a pizza, spring for postage.  If time is money, sometimes you have to spend money to save time.

Capability.  Maybe you need to spend money on something you can’t do yourself due to not having the skills, illness, physical limitations, etc.  Know what, it’s fine to spring for someone to clean the apartment if you can’t, I mean seriously.

Cost-benefit.  Sometimes you get more out of spending money than not doing it.  That reasonably priced laptop that lets you send email, do your job search, practice your skills, etc. is worth it.

Sometimes you must do it.  Look sometimes stuff costs money and you can’t go without that stuff.  Don’t let the scolds tell you not to do it.

Temporary situations.  If you get sick and have to order out, fine, spend money.  Must change apartments because of a job move, fine, pay the move fees.  Spending money is not always a constant; sometimes it’s temporary.

Spending money as fine.  As an official skinflint, a man that has an involvement with spreadsheets bordering on the romantic, please, spend money.  Don’t listen to the scolds and the puritans who want to tell you what not to do so they can feel superior (and often they have money and positions that you don’t).

I’m all for frugality.  I’m all for careful spending.  But money is just a tool, and sometimes you gotta open the toolkit.  

Steven Savage