Certain expenses can sneak up on you, especially if you don’t run into them too often. For example, a new passport costs $110, but renewal only comes around once every 10 years. Other recurring bills like property taxes, car registration, and insurance payments can also make an unexpected dent in your wallet when they pop up. Do you really even consider these types of things when configuring your budget?
There are many ways to budget for these kinds of costs and make sure that you’re financially prepared. The central idea is to assess all of your potential expenses that occur less frequently than a month, do some simple math, and put away enough money each month to cover them when they pop up.
When it comes to financial planning, attention to detail is key. And the first step to planning for annual expenses is to have a detailed budget in place.
I prefer to use a spreadsheet for mine, but there are many tools that can help you build a budget. I pair my spreadsheet with Mint to help me automatically track my spending and compare my monthly spending against the budgets I’ve set for myself.
I strongly recommend that you use an automated tool like Mint or the new YNAB if you’re concerned about recurring costs (which you should be!). No amount of planning can fully prepare you for all of the different expenses that come about in a year. It’s especially easy to forget something small or things that come around every 2+ years.
For example, I recently had to renew a few internet domains that I keep as a hobby. While checking out online, I realized I hadn’t budgeted for them at all this year. They just hadn’t come to mind when I was logging things like insurance premiums and membership dues. Once I implemented Mint, though, the app showed me these charges and, in a sense, forced me to rebudget.
My budget spreadsheet has two sections. The upper section has categories like rent, clothing, car payments, and other monthly expenses, along with their associated monthly cost. I’ve then made another column to extrapolate those numbers to show how much I pay annually. This is just to give me a better sense of where my money is going as a whole.
The second section flips this model. Instead of categories, I call out explicit purchases. These include things like new eyeglasses, and I estimate how much I expect to spend on them annually. I then divide that number by 12 to see how much I should be socking away each month to cover their cost. At the bottom of that section, I can simply total the monthly estimates. That way, I know much I need to budget each month to cover all of these costs for a year.
Some expenses don’t happen once a year, so you may need to do some simple math to properly estimate them. For example, your insurance may be charged biannually. Just make sure to do the right math to treat these costs like other annual expenses.
The same goes for purchases that happen every few years, like the passport example mentioned at the start of this article. Saving for a passport renewal at $110 every 10 years costs you a whopping $0.92 per month. Which would you rather prepare for: an unplanned $100+ expense hitting your account, or simply putting less than a dollar away each month?
Once you understand how much you should be saving each month, it’s time to start putting it away. I made a second savings account with my bank, just for this purpose. On the first day of each month, I transfer my magic monthly number from checking into that account. It’s no different than how one might transfer a few hundred dollars into a primary savings account, an IRA, or another taxable account. Instead of a second savings account, you can keep track of this through a spreadsheet or other document you’d prefer. However, I find having a discrete account to be really beneficial.
Of course, one hurdle here will be that when these expenses come up for the first time, you won’t have saved enough yet to cover them. Think carefully about what kinds of expenses those are, and make sure to properly save for them as an aside to this process. I also prefer to inflate my monthly number by a bit (~10%) just in case. It never hurts to be overprepared, and that can really help when something you hadn’t thought of (like that pesky passport renewal) catches up to you.
Once you’ve calculated your annual costs, you might be surprised at how much you need to be saving each month. For some of you, it might be hundreds of dollars that you hadn’t previously budgeted. You need to be disciplined in saving that money each month, or you risk putting yourself into potential debt. Stick to transferring that money on the first of each month! I like to make mine an automatic transfer so I don’t have to remember it. And throughout each month, carefully track which costs hit you that aren’t in your normal monthly budget, so you can recoup that money to pay your bills.
My way of tracking recurring costs is by creating a new unique category in Mint called “Annual Expense,” or something similar. I then tag things like eyeglasses or my Amazon Prime membership with this different category. At the end of each month, Mint easily tells me how much I spent on these kinds of expenses, and then I transfer that amount from the second savings account back into my checking.
This allows me to then have enough to make the credit card payments for those charges. It’s a surprisingly simple system (just like most things when it comes to budgeting), but it takes discipline and organization.
Finally, don’t get complacent. This system only works as well as you maintain it. That means that when an unexpected cost comes up, it’s time to get to work. Appropriately budget for it, change your monthly magic number, and plan ahead for what comes next. Yes, it’s work, but that’s what good financial planning is all about. And let’s be fair here: the “work” is actually quite easy.
The method I’ve outlined here works great for me, but I’m curious what works for you. The fundamental strategy of planning for annual costs is to determine what you need to save each month, and put that money somewhere. These expenses will be different for everyone, but you should certainly know where yours stand.
Please chime in if you have a different system for planning, as we’d all like to hear about what’s been effective for you. It’s often hard to think about these kinds of recurring costs, causing people to disregard or fail to save for them. A system that’s easy to understand can go a long way to protecting your financial future.
For reference, here are all the annual costs for which I currently budget: Amazon Prime, license and passport renewal, internet domains, new eyeglasses, vacations and travel, car registration, property tax, gym membership, Xbox Live, veterinary costs, a new cell phone, car maintenance, holiday and birthday gifts, and a local film festival.
What other/different expenses do you see each year?
Updated November 1, 2016 and originally published October 26, 2016.