Nov 21, 2008

How the Envelope System can Help Save you Money

The envelope system is a well known and much practiced system in personal finance to help stick to your budget. It's a simple system and is especially suited to those people who wish to primarily deal with cash (rather than plastic debit or credit cards).

I feel that it is falling out of favour since many transactions are now electronic but I'll present a modified version in a future article which I shall be trying out in December. This will hopefully help for people like me who hardly ever take out or spend cash.

Funnily enough, even in some high tech countries, cash is still king for normal everyday purchases so it's interesting to note that this is a very common technique in Japan, even to the extent that almost everybody does it (and not just those who are careful budgeters).

The Envelope System

perfect gift
Photo: ashevillein

The first thing you need is a budget. Without it, the system won't work. Then once you have that, you need to figure out which items on your list (whether they are broad or narrow) are those ones for which you can going to use cash. This wouldn't include things like automatic rent deductions or paying your utility bills online.

As an example, let's say you have 4 categories (a very much simplified month) for which you are going to budget cash for this particular month:

  • food - groceries and tops-ups like milk and bread
  • household requirements - detergent, soap, shampoo, bin-bags
  • clothes - socks, shoes, jeans, skirts, dresses and tops
  • entertainment - cinema, CDs, eating out with friends, hobbies
  • gifts and charity - presents and donations

Take yourself 4 envelopes and on the front of each, write that particular categories' name. When I tried this system, I also wrote on the front how much I had allocated to it too. e.g:

Entertainment - $75

At the start of every month (or the start of every pay-month), you take out your total alloted money for all these categories from the hole-in-the-wall and divide it into your envelopes as specified. Each and every time you want to spend money on a particular category, you should take that envelope (or a part of it) out with you when shopping. You can do this since you've planned your purchases - right?

If you didn't plan your purchase or you had to buy something then you should re-arrange the envelopes at the earliest opportunity. If you had $20 in your wallet from the Food envelope but you had to buy a pairs of socks, then shift the correct amount of money over from the Clothing envelope to the one that was compensating it.

Easy Peasy

The great thing with this system is that it is very simple to do and fantastically easy to see exactly how much you have spent and more importantly, exactly how much you have left in each of those categories at a single glance.

There would be no need to log on to your internet banking and no reason to wonder whether you're within budget for the month since you have all the information you need right there.

It is also simple because once that particular budget is gone, it's gone and there's nothing left in there to spend. If you really desired that new top you saw in the shop today but later found out that there is nothing left in the Clothing envelope for that month, then you're completely out of luck.


If you find yourself in this situation, try not to siphon some cash out from any of your other envelopes since then you'd just be cheating. In the case whereby your clothing budget is dry for the rest of the month, I'd say live with it.

However, if you are consistently running dry out of your food budget then you may wish to re-budget what you think you need for that category. This might involve spending less, changing your eating habits or it would be quite normal to increase the budget you had previously considered ok (you may well have under-budgeted by accident). So don't be ashamed if you have to increase your Food budget and of course, be more weary if you want to increase your Clothing or Entertainment budgets. Remember the differences between wants and needs.

Snowflake what's Left

Another great advantage of using the envelope system is that when you arrive at the end of the month, or the time you need to replenish your envelopes, you can use it to save a little extra money. Since you have budgeted to spend a particular amount, yet you didn't spend it all, then pretend it did all disappear and snowflake off what's left into your Emergency Fund, Freedom Fund, savings or retirement scheme.

By doing this, you wipe the slate clean every month and this helps you not accumulate extra money in your envelopes which you'll probably eventually spend anyway. If that's the case, then you're doing a disservice to the time you spent putting your budget together.

The non-Cash Based System

I have briefly played with the envelope system but I almost knew before I started that it wouldn't be for me - though please note that this is a personal preference. This system is being happily used by many people to keep their spending in check.

Firstly, I am not really a cash person though I guess I could be if I wanted to be. Secondly, I wasn't that great rebalancing the envelopes if I had spent money from one envelope on something from another. I found this strange, since I'm very particular about entering every single transaction into my double entry accounting software.

In December however, I shall be experimenting with a new system I have brewing in my head. It doesn't use cash and it amounts to much the same as the envelope system. I shall write a further post detailing this system in the near future.

I have chosen December as the start date for this trial since by that time I will have my budget in place. As I described on my budget post, I have been keeping a record of all of my expenses and by that time it will have been three months. I have noticed that my knowledge of where my money goes is increasing and therefore I'll have a greater idea of what I need to budget for and how much.

It's going to be interesting whatever happens and I'm looking forward to it already.

Do you use the envelope system? Leave me a comment noting any tips and tricks you use.


the green ninja said...

I love this system and use it myself. I am a massage therapist by day and I get paid in cash. This helps to keep me on top of things.

Lindsay said...

Good luck with your system. I wouldn't stick to the envelope thing either.

I think if I were trying to save money, I'd probably de-link my savings and checking accounts, so they were held at separate banks. Then what I had in checking would be *all* I could spend for the month (without the time delay and hassle of transferring between two different banks). It's easy to dump a bunch in savings at the beginning of the month but then just transfer it over as needed.

Trendy Indy said...

I am not big with the envelope system either. Its too much time consuming and the biggest disadvantage is that you cannot track it like you can with the online systems.

retire-at-40 said...

@the green ninja:

Yeah, that sounds like it would work really well.


That's a good idea. I have my Freedom Fund at the same bank as my current account and my Emergency Fund elsewhere.