Look more closely at those numbers

As you develop your spending plan, give every cent you spend the third degree. Just because everyone else seems to be buying something or going somewhere is no excuse. If everybody else jumped off a roof — well, you could probably have your choice of nice, affordable high-rise apartments and high-paying jobs with corner offices, but only if you didn’t follow the crowd. Ahem!

What about cable television and broadband access? Telephone, both landline and cellular?

If you use air conditioning, can you find ways to use it less often? Can you wait longer in the autumn to turn on the thermostat — and ways to turn it off earlier in the springtime? Or the reverse, for the air conditioning?

What about your auto insurance? Is it time to switch agents or raise your deductible?

Question every expenditure. Is it necessary? Is it worth the extra cost? What can you eliminate?

What would you add to this list? What tips would you share?

How about lunch?

The lunchtime routine can easily add up. Even at $50 a week, that comes out to $2,500 a year. The vending machine snacks add up quickly, too. At $5 a day, that comes to another $1,250 a year without even thinking.

Now look at the alternatives. Good leftovers basically cost nothing! Over a five-year period, however, this can even add up to the price of a new car. Economy model, of course, but you’d be paying cash — and look at all the bank interest you’d be saving.

Economy model? Still, it’s one less debt you’d be facing.

By the way, when I was single, I was usually “ordering out” with the gang at lunch. Once I remarried, my wife started having me carry leftovers instead. I was amazed how much we saved, but better yet, my food was truly delicious. My coworkers were unabashedly envious.

How many times a week do you eat out? Why? Why not? How much are you spending?

Do you buy your lunch at work? How much is this costing? Could you pack a lunch at home beforehand? How much would you save? Why don’t you?

How much are you spending on coffee, sodas, candy, and other snacks? Could you carry a Thermos instead or buy in bulk at the grocery? How much would you save? Do the national name brands taste that much better than the knockoffs?

There are three basic money steps to climb

We’re back to what Lu calls your spending plan.

As you shape yours, the first goal should be to get out of debt. Finance charges and interest are simply extra expenses that get you nowhere. They add up.

The second goal should be imposing focus and limits that will keep you out of debt.

The third goal should be building up your savings, which can then be converted to more lucrative investments.

The savings also become the cushion for unanticipated large expenses — the big auto repair, the leaky roof replacement, your part of the bill when your kid’s wisdom teeth have to come out.

Savings provide the satisfaction of knowing you’re covered, rather than panicked.

The usual recommended amount of liquidity, by the way, is the figure you’d need to cover six months of joblessness. In the newspaper business, it used to be called the “go-to-hell” account — for those times when you and your boss had a big blowout.

The beauty of reducing your basic expenses, incidentally, is that you can divert more of those savings into investments, which then earn income.

Look at these three goals.

Which goal is your primary concern now?

What suggestions do you have for moving forward?

Focusing on a big goal makes a big difference

Before being introduced to Joe and Vicki’s approach, I had always thought of budgeting as accounting, pure and simple. You know, like balancing your checkbook. Maybe nothing more. (You do that, right? Have you ever been surprised to learn that some friends or coworkers don’t? How do they survive? Well, I can tell a few stories of friends who woke up with rude surprises.)

The idea of saving more than I earned was always built into my mindset, but not always my reality. And my impression of the kind of penny-pinching examination Joe and Vicki were advancing seemed to fit people who were trying to dig out from a deep hole — the kind that might have them losing their car and home or filing for bankruptcy. That wasn’t me.

Budgeting like that could be pretty drastic, right?

But that little plus sign — + — Joe and Vicki allowed you to put under expenses where spending more would give you more pleasure carried a positive message. It hinted at dreams. By spending less on other items, you could direct more toward what you found more life-enhancing. What they offered was definitely different.

Quite simply, once you’ve determined where your income is going, you can begin to decide where you really want it to go. Here, your reflections on personal values sharpen your thinking. The more focused your life, the more likely your success in fulfilling your ambitions. That part really appealed to me.

Just think.

Maybe you’ve wanted to start your own business but need to build equity first. Or you’d like to go back to school and finish that degree. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to travel but just couldn’t manage. Joe and Vicki were giving you a key to achieve this. You set an annual goal — or even one five years down the pike and set milestones to get there.

But then Joe and Vicki raised the horizon on the big goal. They called for life-mission goals that your budgeting would advance.

Their original premise had people work intensely for five years and then essentially retire, living on the dividends from their nest-egg investment. The underlying conditions for that plan have changed dramatically, but it was a fascinating concept.

My life goal had been to have time to concentrate more fully on my writing. A few years before engaging in these exercises, I had an unanticipated opportunity to give myself a sabbatical — a year free of daily employment — and it had been extremely productive and psychologically renewing for me. What I drafted in that period gave me the foundation for what I would revise over the next three decades, leading to six of my seven novels now available as ebooks at Smashwords.com. The conventional reasoning would have demanded jumping straight ahead into a new job and investing the savings in a condo or an Investment Retirement Account or the like rather than holing up in an apartment.

Do I have any regrets? My retirement would have been much more financially secure, yes, but the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of catching the experiences on paper when I did definitely lifted a burden from my soul. I’ll leave the rest of this for writers’ conferences, should you be interested.

Could their plan really allow me to do this for the rest of my life? I was dubious. My income barely covered the basics, and there was only one of me, not two. Besides, I’m sure they had more lucrative careers.

When I first sat down to run the calculations, I was skeptical. I was barely scraping by as it was, and the amount to set aside was nearly my entire income over the five-year period. As the numbers came together, though, I discovered the goal was not nearly as impossible as I’d originally deemed. By working one overtime shift each week, taking in a housemate, getting by without an automobile, reducing my spending to a bare minimum, and investing my savings shrewdly, it could be done. At least I lived close enough to work, I could walk the three miles each way. And I’m guessing that I assumed the housemate would have wheels to make the grocery runs and the like. This was truly shocking.

As you will find, “running the numbers” on a five-year plan like this is eye-opening.

What would your big goal be? Your big dream?

That price tag gets personal

Comparing the price of an item or service against my working hours definitely transformed my relationship to money. That price was no longer an abstract figure, vaguely set as a proportion of my income. No, it was now personal. I was asking myself if I’d rather be out of the office than have this.

Think of a really hard day, if you need to. Are you enduring this just to have that?

As much as I found my job generally engaging and serving a public good, there were many nights and weekends I would have loved to have been elsewhere. A birthday party or a play or concert, for instance. You get the picture.

What’s your reaction when you compare the cost of an item or service against the amount of time you worked to pay for it?

Would that perspective change your decision to buy?