Pete the Planner: When budgeting, it helps to know your ugly months

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The birds are chirping, the ground is warming, and the flowers are blooming. Spring is here, and so is my most expensive season of the year.

I’ve long thought the winter holidays consumed the largest share of my seasonal spending. But after careful consideration and adding up more numbers than I cared to add up, it appears spring sets off my debit card bonanza like no other.

In no particular order, the first 45 days of spring in my house includes: Six family members’ birthdays, two little league registration fees, five cubic yards of mulch, lawn fertilization, spring break, license plate renewal fees and increased trips to the farmers’ market. It’s brutal. While I know all of these expenses are my reality, it’s pretty easy to ignore and deny their existence. Even if we take it easy, we’ll spend well over $1,000 on these seasonal items. If we don’t take it easy,  it could mean thousands (with an “s”).

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized how each different season brought with it such unique financial challenges. My best guess is that my two children might be the biggest factor in this, as their activities increase over the years. But whether they’re the cause of the spending increase or not, I have to find a way to fund the increase.

I have three choices: cut spending in another area, blow through my savings, or go into debt. In fact, every month in which I have unusual expenses, I’ll have the same three choices. But really, I only have two choices, because I’m not going to go into debt for, well, anything. Unfortunately, dipping into savings isn’t a great option either because, given the constant presence of unusual expenses, my savings would be empty faster than I could say “minimum balance fee.”

Hopefully, the biggest problem has already become obvious to you. It’s a problem you deal with almost every month of the year, every year of your life. Every month brings a new set of both voluntary and involuntary unique expenses. And that’s on top of your typical fixed and variable monthly expenses. In other words, you know that relenting feeling that there’s always something screaming for your money? There is. It’s not a feeling. It’s real.

Your goal is to eliminate the surprise, and lessen the impact of these unusual expenses.

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I have an exercise for you, but I have to warn you: It’s 50% enlightening and 50% pain-inducing. The whole ordeal shouldn’t take more than an hour, if you’re doing it properly. It’s time to price out all the months, and see which month is the hardest for you.

To begin, you’ll need one of the most valuable budgeting tools in your life – a calendar.

Your calendar is your budget’s best friend. If you happen to be the paper calendar type, grab it, a calculator and some soothing music to lessen the impact of the math you’re about to perform. Just as the year does, start in January. Take your time, scan the days, and start thinking through what happens financially during that month. Add up all the unusual expenses, and then write the total very largely at the top of the page. Repeat for all the other months.

It might help to recruit a fellow family member to jog your memory. Last year’s bank records could come in handy, too.

Very quickly you will begin to find heinously expensive months which have always felt tight, but you didn’t know for sure why they were bad until now. Fortunately, there are other months in the year in which very little money is spent, based on what month it is. Here’s to you, February and October.

Eliminate the guessing. Find your ugly months. And resolve to reduce spending to fund them, instead of going into debt or blowing through your savings.

Peter Dunn is an author, speaker and radio host, and he has a free podcast: Million Dollar Plan. Have a question about money for Pete the Planner? Email him at[email protected]

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