My Journey out of Debt

Featured customers currently enrolled in a CareOne Debt Relief Plan, share journey to become debt-free; hear how they juggle family, finances, and more.

Taking Control....The Whiteboard Budget

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With the work week over, I packed up my laptop late on a Friday afternoon and headed home. Upon arriving, I opened the door and greeted my family, as a much Taking Control....The Whiteboard Budgetneeded weekend began. I hung up my coat, took off my shoes, and plopped down on the couch. My wife and I exchanged the usual "How was your day?" questions and discussed dinner, as well as our weekend plans.

My wife asked me to remind her how much money was in our weekly entertainment budget, and how much we had left for that week. We had already had some fun expenditures during the week, and she felt totally in the dark with respect to how much money we had available, "as usual."

Wait a minute......"as usual?" 

Since enrolling in our debt management plan, we had cut out expensive weekend getaways, drastically cut back on eating out, and put a cap on our groceries. At the start of the year we had switched from a monthly bucket for entertainment to a weekly budgeted amount. 

I was under the distinct impression that we were communicating better, so this declaration of being in the dark, "as usual," caught me completely by surprise. I answered her question with an approximate figure, and put her comment on the back burner for further processing at a later time.

Over the course of the next week, I thought about her "as usual" comment frequently.  We are now able to discuss more easily with each other whether we can afford to buy something, or whether doing a particular activity is a good use of funds.  However, I realized our budgeting and communication about the specifics of our budget still needed a lot of work.

One evening, as I was sitting at my computer desk, I pulled out the piece of notebook paper that I referred to as "The Budget."  It had been folded every which way, was very worn, and one of the corners had been ripped off.  It had an aged look that rivaled the Declaration of Independence. I had two columns labeled "Beginning of the month," and "Middle of the month." It listed my primary twice a month income, subtracted the bills paid from each paycheck, and the amount left over after paying the bills. The leftover amount in each column was divided by two to provide a weekly figure of available funds. That's it. 

There was no mention of :

  • My wife's income
  • My secondary income from freelance writing and secret shopping.

It didn't break down expenditures for

  • Gas
  • Goceries
  • Or even the kids' allowance. 

All of these things had just been assumed to be purchased using the weekly amount available after paying the bills. Thinking back to a recent discussion I had with a coworker of mine that somehow steered itself into the realm of personal finance, I remembered the color coded, airplane cockpit resembling spreadsheet he showed me that he called his budget.

All of a sudden, my wife's comment about being in the dark "as usual" made perfect sense to me. 

She's in the dark, because I'm in the dark. Sure, we would know if we spent way more than our weekly amount, and then say we would just spend less the next weekend - but never really keep track of how much we went over, and if we fully recovered the next weekend. Horrifyingly, I basically would just cross my fingers and hoped that we had enough to make our CareOne payment at the end of the month. I thought about the times this winter when I sent my utility bill payment in late because I needed to make sure there was enough money in the account for that huge debt management payment on the 28th of each month. 

Sitting in the exact same chair where I had come to the realization in June 2009 that our debt problem had reached a point that we needed to do something drastic, another epiphany hit me like a truck. My budgeting skills are horrible, and until that is corrected, we will never make it to the end of our debt management plan. Never.

Sooner or later we'd end up not being able to make our payment, our creditors would kick us out of the plan, causing interest rates and monthly payments to skyrocket.  We'd be in a hole we'd never dig out of.

I needed help figuring out how to create a more detailed budget plan, and didn't know exactly what I wanted other than it needed to be more detailed than what I had. I took out a piece of paper and started writing ideas down. I started and scribbled out my work half a dozen times. As I sat there staring at the ceiling, I remembered the Destroy Your Debt budgeting tips that our friends here at CareOne have been posting on their Facebook page. I took a look back at the tips and started writing on a fresh piece of paper.

Expense Tracking:

With the help of my checkbook register and my previous "budget," I wrote down every expenditure we incur during the month: Bills, gas, groceries, my daughter's dance class tuition, the kids' lunch money payments for school, and everything else I could think of.


I started up my favorite spreadsheet program and made a template page to track a month's worth of income and expenditures.   

  • First, I added a row for each type of income we have
  • Next, I added a row for each monthly expense we have
  • I added a few "dummy rows" to remind me to add anything that may be a one time expense for a given monthTaking Control....The Whiteboard Budget
  • On the bottom of the sheet I included a row where the funds left over for discretionary spending would be calculated

By performing these two steps, I realized that on the last day of the month, we would know what the variable income amounts would be (my wife's income and my freelance writing and secret shopper income) for the next month, as well as the bills that vary month to month, such as utilities. So, I made a mental note that on the last day of the month, I should be able to fill out the next month's budget sheet with accuracy.

This was a good start, but it just wasn't complete.

  1. First, the new spreadsheet was a monthly budget, and didn't break down entertainment expenditures on a week by week basis.
  2. Second, my wife would rather stab herself repeatedly with a fork than stare at a spreadsheet, so I wondered how I could use this to really draw her head and shoulders into the budgeting process. 

I smiled as the answer came to me: calendar whiteboard.

My wife has a calendar whiteboard on the refrigerator that she uses to keep track of events for a given month, such as sports' practices, school events, days off, etc. At the beginning of each month, she pulls it down onto the counter, wipes it clean, and starts over for the next month. I wanted to do something similar, only with our budget. It's something she is familiar with, and can identify with.

The next day I told her what I had been thinking about, what I had came up with, and asked her to help fill in the blanks. We decided that at the end of each month, when we knew the income and the bill amounts for the next month, I would fill out the spreadsheet on the computer to provide historical month to month tracking of our budget.  Then, the next day, we would fill out the whiteboard budget calendar together. We'd mark the days on the calendar in green for when we'd receive income. In red, we'd write known expenses on the day they were due.

Other "one time" expenses (things like bridesmaid's dress alteration, summer baseball registration, etc) would go on the corresponding day in black. After all income and expenses were on the calendar and in the spreadsheet, we'd look at what we had left for discretionary spending, and decide how much to allocate to each week.  Weeks that have special activities (such as a family wedding) would probably require a bigger percentage of the funds.

Basically, it was like putting the checkbook register for the next month in calendar form. 

We would place a small basket on the desk for receipts to keep track of discretionary spending. We agreed to sit down each Sunday evening to go over the week's spending, and adjust the rest of the month's spending as necessary on the whiteboard calendar. 

I walked away from our discussion feeling really good about this new budget process.  For years, while I was hiding our debt problem from my wife, I had to do all the financial work myself.  When we joined the debt management plan, we improved our communication with respect to individual expenditures, but in order to be completely successful in our financial makeover, we have both realized that our financial life has to be a complete team effort. 

As we transition to this new process, there will undoubtedly be tweaks that need to be made. I really believe that my wife and I are overcoming a huge obstacle in the handling of our finances. I hope that we will not only develop a budget system that will help us live within our means, but also continue to improve our communication skills to talk freely about our finances, and finally, truly work together on our journey to becoming debt free!

Related Links:


A Straight Talk on Debt; Weekly Reading - Organizing Your Finances

A Change in Financial Seasons

Travis PizelTravis Pizel

Travis is a contributing writer for the My Journey out of Debt blog and is a very active member of the CareOne community forums. Travis is currently enrolled in a CareOne Debt Management Plan (DMP). Travis very candidly shares his personal journey to pay off his debt and the tips he's learned along the way. As a father and husband he provides a unique perspective on balancing debt, finances, and family.

Follow Travis on Twitter 

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  • Great ideas! I noticed you mentioned that have a job as a secret shopper. How could I go about getting a legitimate job as a secret shopper? Thank you.

  • I'm not sure how I missed your comment, Norbert....and it's been quite awhile since you posted but I want to respond anyway.  Giving your account  passwords to anyone doesn't seem like a good idea at all....I'm glad you got out!

  • It's been awhile since you posted as well, cbrophy - but in my book, any tool that could make budgeting or managing our money is worth checking out in my book.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Hi Raquel, there are many legitimate mystery shopping companies out there.  You need to be a little careful though.......steer clear of any mystery shopping outfit that requires you to pay a fee to sign up.  I've never seen a legit company do that.  Here are some of the companies that I've registered with and do mystery shopping jobs for as well as a link to a post I wrote about mystery shopping here in the Community:

    Good luck!

  • I was on my way to India for a two-week business trip. Prior to leaving, we had done our budget and spending plan for the duration of my trip. Still recovering from July's overspending, we were on a strict budget.

  • I'm coming to this article (and site) way after you posted this originally, but wholly cow, is that a great idea!

    I tried to do this with Google calendar, but it never truly worked for me, as it was easy to hide away.  I'm going to find a whiteboard calendar to work with and post it where I can see it!  And if I have guests, well, then they'll learn a little more about me :)

  • How do I cancel online?

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