Monday 26 June 2023

Moving away from budgeting

When we first got married, Martin and I decided to budget our expenses.  I don't remember the reasoning at the time, but it became a really powerful tool to help us live our values.

We started with simply keeping all our receipts for 3 months, and from that worked out reasonable budget categories and amounts.  After a couple of years we moved from a physical ledger to the GNUCash accounting programme (a shift for which I took a lot of persuading!), which enabled our system to become more powerful.  By 2023 we had over 60 expense categories (many of them sub-catergories or sub-sub-categories off primary categories) and a really good overview of our financial situation.  Over the last 15 years we know where all but about $700 of our money has gone....


But over the past six months or so, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the situation.  On the one hand, a practical consideration.  Just Kai has been growing; our accounts were taking around an hour every week - sometimes more, rarely less - and that was time I'd much rather give to Just Kai.  On the other, more of a theological one.

Some years back I was very struck when Martin and I read Luke's account of Jesus' life and ministry in the Bible.  I'd always been a bit puzzled as to what Jesus meant, in Luke 20:25 when Jesus told his disciples to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.  But, reading that text straight after reading all the other bits of Luke that led up to it, it felt really clear.  I think what Jesus was saying was something like: "If Caesar wants some silly unimportant money, just give it to him; but remember that everything belongs to God."  I wrote more about that at the time but, in brief, it seemed to me that one of the themes in Luke is that money just isn't that important.

And I began to feel that our accounting system - taking so much care with it, putting a big chunk of time into it - was making money far more important than it should be.

So, in early May we ditched our long-standing system and replaced it with something much simpler.

Martin's salary now goes into a bank account labelled 'Donations'.  At the beginning of each month, 90% of the amount of money we would receive if we were on NZ Super* automatically transfers across to a bank account called 'Spending'; another chunk transfers across into retirements savings.

In the accounts system I have a handful of sub-accounts to Spending (big irregular things we want to make sure we have funds for, like Christmas spending, as well as things like our individual discretionary spending money), plus some money also automatically transfers out of Spending into separate accounts for savings for various big expenses like house maintenance.  All income we receive beyond the "90% of Super" and what we are saving for retirement stays in Donations and is expected to be given away.

Our previous budget was shaped around the same spending targets (90% of Super for all spending on our current lives, retirement savings to self-fund a similar lifestyle, everything else for donations), but achieved it through detailed tracking of many expenses.  Now we're achieving it by simply making 90% of Super being all that is readily available to us.

*In recent years we have budgeted to spend 90% of what we would spend if we received Super.  That's seemed like a good 'frugal but not too tough' goal for rich people such as ourselves - after all, Super is a sum that the government considers a reasonable base-level long-term income and, if we were really living on Super, we expect we would want to donate 10%-ish of that money.

Changing across was logistically complicated (zeroing things, setting up APs for the new accounts etc.) and took ages, but now we have a system that takes 10-15 minutes to reconcile each week, and a smidge more at the end of each month.

But what's been most interesting is how I've felt about it.  In short: very insecure.

I used to make all manner of decisions based on whether or not we had sufficient money for that thing in the budget.  Presents budget running low... it's worth waiting for a really good deal on TradeMe... presents budget unusually flush... let's just by this thing I found - they'll really like it.  That's a thought-process I was going through remarkably often.

And now I'm a bit at sea: how do I know what's a reasonable way to spend?

And that, I've come to think, confirms that my hunch that things were well out of perspective was very right.

I've often pondered one of the strong themes I feel runs through the Old Testament of the Bible.  The people of Israel get nervous that maybe God won't look after them or help them, so they turn to worshiping other gods and/or they do deals with nearby countries so they will look after them.  And then God gets angry and reminds them that if they want Him then He's the only God they get, and they repent and God goes back to looking after them.  And then the cycle repeats.

I've realised that my budgeting has become a 'god'.  I have come to believe, if I follow this system, I will be safe - we will have the money we need for our daily living, as well as money to provide for fun stuff and for emergencies that come up.  And I know I'm safe, because GNUCash tells me so.

Without that, I've been surprised how nervous I've been about it all.

I've definitely considered going back, but I'm loving the simplicity of how things are now.  And I'm also appreciating the value of a new discipline I'm having to follow.

If something unexpected comes up (such as a wanting to give someone a present for an occasion we hadn't known was coming up), I can't go to GNUCash and ask it how much to spend.  Instead, Martin and I talk about it and pray about it and then make a decision in faith - without knowing exactly what consequences that decision will have.

And I do think that that's a more Christian way for me to live than where I was a few months' back.

Which is not to say that Christians shouldn't budget.  Our budget has been immensely powerful for us.  The budget made us really think about our spending, and about what priorities we should have, as very wealthy people who also follow Jesus (if you'd like to know more about that, read what I wrote in March 2019 for a friend's blog).  But it's very much outlasted it's usefulness and I'm (mostly) relieved to see it go - and expectant to see what God will teach us in this new season.  And I also remain both nervous and insecure - but that mostly just confirms to me that this was a decision we needed to make!

And for those who've read this far, I realise it's ages since last I blogged!  Here are a few photos from some recent adventures :-)

Our friend from church, Lagi, graduated from Laidlaw :-)  Here she is at the reception at our church hall after.

It was a much grander event than we'd expected, and it was an honour to be part of it.

After maybe 20 years, I finally went back to the Kauaeranga Valley Christian Camp (my second-home through my teenage years) and got to see lots of familiar places - and some familiar faces, too, as friends from across the years gathered to celebrate John Edwards' 70th birthday.

The old BMX track and confidence course is now a space where they can host a second camp.

I was particularly pleased to catch up with Mary Popping.  She worked at the camp during the second half of my association with it, and was the only person there who took the trouble to really understand why I was studying chemistry and what it meant to me.  I was immensely grateful for the way she took such an interest in my other life, and was glad to have the opportunity to thank her for it :-)

And here's a couple of pics from John's 40th, also at camp - it was a Medieval-themed party, and we were provided hessian and newspaper to make costumes.  I'm pictured with the 'team' of kids I was responsible for during the day, and John and Rose are with their daughter Anna, now a mum herself :-)

It was too hard for me to travel down and back in one day, so we stayed at one of the DOC campsites up the Valley for two nights.  We stayed in two tents, as there was a small chance one or other of us might have had Covid at the time - and we stayed outside at the party as much as possible for the same reason.

Our setup - with thanks to Allan for the loan of the car and Anna for the loan of the second tent.

The walk to get to the loo was delightful :-)

We went for a wander before we left, and appear to have located DOC's rat trap mother lode!



  1. Russell --> I'll only comment here on a peripheral matter.
    I have spent many happy hours in the Kauaeranga Valley, mostlty somewhat long ago. Val andI would have first met there but neither of us recall it happening. We met again a year later at the very very very top of the Coromandel Peninsula.
    We have camped there and hiked there and slept overnight on a wet and cold rock ledge in the gorge while the storm swollen river roared past a few feet below us and plunged into the pool just downstream of our ledge - circumnavigating the pool wall in the dark was something we all decided not to put a group of yound people through.

    I have ridden motorcycles there as far up the valley as one can go - when that was still an entirely acceptable thing to do. I have climbed over Table Mountain and descended the wonderful fearsome Rangihau Valley, creek and waterfalls on the far side.
    And I've sat on a motorcycle high on the north wall having ascended from the Coroglen side, and looked down into the Kauaerange.

    I may not have ever visited the Christin Camp. Maybe once.

    Russell McMahon

    1. Neat to hear those memories! It's a very special place to me. I've mostly simply stayed at the camp, but have done a number of day walks over the years as well as doing a few overnights in the Pinnacles area.