I may be dating myself by discussing check registers. In this age of ubiquitous electronic payments, few use checks anymore. Today payments are posted to your account nearly immediately, so what you see online in your account really is what you have.
But it still may not be what you can spend. If you haven’t accounted for future expenses, it is easy to overspend, and that can result in an increasing credit card balance. With a simple check register you can create a plan for your money and avoid overspending.
Before electronic payments became so prevalent, it used to be you paid all your bills with a check, and it could take days, if not weeks, for the money to be withdrawn from your account. To avoid over drafting your account, you had to keep track of the checks you had already written but which hadn’t yet cleared. You did this in a check register.
Now days, I see people running into a different problem with their bank accounts. Because they aren’t keeping track, it’s easy to overspend. While you don’t have to worry that your account balance shows more money than you really have due to outstanding, un-cashed checks, you still can’t just go out and spend the money that’s there.
I recently helped a young woman, Kara, take control of her money by using a check register. Rather than using it to record money she had already spent, I encouraged her to use it to record money she expected to spend.
With each paycheck, Kara listed the deposit and then what would happen with every dollar of the money. She listed each bill she had to pay with the check. She also listed what she expected to spend on groceries, hair cuts, gas for the car, and other unavoidable expenses. Before she spent a dime, she knew exactly what it would be spent on.
In addition to the expenses that came up every month, she also allocated money for expenses that would come up in the future. Each paycheck, she set aside money for future car repairs and a trip she wanted to take. This way she knew how much money she really had to spend on non-essentials.
Back in the day, at the end of each month, good money management practice was to reconcile your bank balance with your check register. In this exercise, you accounted for all outstanding checks and made sure you corrected any errors. Similarly, Kara needed to reconcile the way she actually spent her money with how she had planned to spend it.
In addition to recording the deposit of her paycheck, Kara verified that the balance she predicted she would have was the balance she did have. In between paychecks, if she had unavoidable unplanned expenses, she recorded those and adjusted her spending plans accordingly.
Sometimes things come up that you don’t foresee. You forget your lunch, so you have to buy it. You’re running late, so you have to drive, and pay for parking, rather than take the bus. Your electric bill is unusually high. By recording these kinds of unplanned expenses in her check register, Kara could see what needed to change before she spent more than she wanted.
It didn’t take long for Kara to get out of debt and begin to save money. She no longer needed to bridge the gap between her bills and her money with a credit card. She did it with a very old fashioned tool, the check register.
What she had actually done was create a budget. There are all kinds of high-tech tools for creating a budget. But when you boil it down, you still have to do the work of figuring out where your money is going to go. Sometimes it’s easier to see how things will play out if you build your plan by hand.
While you may no longer need to write checks, you do still need to keep track of where your money is going. A simple no-cost tool for doing that is a check register. It’s value today isn’t in recording the money that you’ve already spent. Instead, use it to record the money you plan to spend, and you will avoid spending more than you can afford.