One word seems to turn off consumers like no other -- no matter how strapped they are: "budget."
Some personal finance experts won't even use the word. Some refer to it in hushed tones as the B-word. Others substitute euphemisms, such as "spending plan." Others openly rail against household budgets, proposing new systems that, in reality, are budgets in sheep's clothing.
The bottom line is, you shouldn't run your household finances with one giant slush fund and hope everything works out.
Budgets allow you to do two fundamental things: discover where your money has gone and plan for where it will go.
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Here are some notions about what budgets build:
* Freedom: We Americans love our freedom, and many view budgets as restricting that. Budgets might tell us no to dining out, buying a new iPhone or remodeling the kitchen. But they are really about freedom: about buying something you want guilt-free because you can afford it. Budgets are about freedom from worrying about whether you can pay for kids' college, survive a layoff or retire with respect.
* Flexibility: With budgets, you're in control. If you want to dine out more and buy clothes less, revise your budget categories. You control the budget, not the other way around.
Inflexible budgets set you up to fail, said Bob Brooks, a financial planner, radio-show host and author of the book "Deceptive Money."
"One of reasons traditional budgets don't work is the mindset that now I'm in a budget box and I'm restricted to this amount of money that I have to spend on this item during this month," he said. "The problem is people have a tendency to panic and give up."
* Tracking rules: Knowing where your money went is crucial. Only then can you determine whether you're spending smart -- spending on purpose, rather than by accident and habit.
One of the easiest ways to track is to charge everything on a credit card, so your statement becomes a snapshot of your recent money life. Brooks has a $5 rule -- charge anything that costs $5 or more. If credit cards get you into trouble, use a debit card.
Tracking and categorizing expenditures is also a prerequisite for budgeting future spending.
Brooks suggests examining spending and identifying purchases that make you feel guilty, a dead giveaway the purchase doesn't match your priorities.
* Emergency fund: It's difficult to anticipate every infrequent expenditure, such as surprise car repairs, a root canal or a burst pipe in the bathroom. That's why you need a catch-all category for emergencies. Money needs to flow into this account until it's large enough to cover one of the worst-case scenarios: losing your job and having greatly reduced income for six months.
The details of setting up a budget -- paper and pencil or software, bank accounts for specific goals -- are less important than overcoming your fear of the B-word.