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"it is" vs. "i will": prescriptive and descriptive budgeting


A lot of people shudder when they hear the word “budget”. And why shouldn’t they? The popular view is that a budget is like a diet writ large — but instead of just limiting your eating, it’s limiting every fun part of your life! No wonder virtually no one keeps a budget — trying to actively limit every single aspect of your spending is a sure recipe for burnout!

Luckily, budgeting doesn’t have to be like that. Enter descriptive budgeting.

Prescriptive budgeting is what you traditionally think of when you think of budgeting: “I’m going to write this number down and pinky swear (or, even better, establish a system like the envelope method) that I’m not going to spend more than X amount on Y.” It’s certainly not a bad thing, and it’s often quite necessary, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of budgeting. As I mentioned before, trying to make it the be-all and end-all can quickly sap your motivation.

Descriptive budgeting is simply entering into your budget what you predict you will spend. You’re not making any effort to throttle back; you’re just stepping outside yourself and saying, “Given what I know about myself (or my family), and what YNAB/mint.com/Quicken says we’ve spent in the past, how much will we probably end up spending this month?” You already use this for mostly-constant bills, like auto insurance or your rent, and even bills over which you only have partial influence, like your utility bill.

Note: you can combine the envelope method and descriptive budgeting! In other words, just because you’ve decided to pay cash for everything doesn’t mean that you’re actively limiting your spending everywhere. For example, I know some dedicated Ramseyites who pay cash when fueling up their car — not because they’re trying to cut back on gas, but simply because they don’t want to use plastic anywhere. In most of these cases, they use descriptive budgeting to allocate what they think they’re likely going to spend to that envelope. (A little more, actually, because running out of gas money before you run out of month would be pretty disastrous to most Americans!)

So to summarize: with your descriptive budget categories, you’re just putting down What It Is, while with prescriptive categories, you’re putting down What You Want To Do. “OK,” you say. “That’s an interesting little bit of semantics, but…so what? Why even bother with descriptive budgeting at all?”

Fear not — these questions and others will be answered in next week’s post!

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