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The Benefits of a Monthly Budget Club and How to Start Your Own

From weight loss to addiction recovery, scientific research has found that community makes the hard things in life a little easier. Feeling alone in your healthy eating journey? Try Weight Watchers. Can’t shake your drinking habit? The social support of Alcoholics Anonymous has a hugely successful following.

But if I can think of one thing I’ve dreaded more than dry weddings or steamed broccoli, it’s doing my taxes. As a freelance writer, I’ve spent hours on my couch, invisible under its coating of receipts and tax forms, crying in frustration and feeling totally alone.

After a couple years of this quarterly struggle as a self-employed writer, I started to wonder: If a CrossFit community can make exercise palatable, and if a study group and a few beers can make test prep a little less onerous—why couldn’t personal finance benefit from a little camaraderie?

I mulled over the thought for a few weeks. But I couldn’t come up with a solution that was (A) free and (B) didn’t involve sharing my deepest, darkest spending secrets with strangers from Meetup.com.

Making My Own Support Group

Then, I was eating dinner at my friend Leslie’s house when she told me that her credit card debt was crushing her. Between that and her student loans, she said, she had no idea how many years she’d be in debt.

“I’m just throwing money at my credit card every month, and it feels like I’m throwing it into a black hole.”

I stared at her, confused.

“Well, what does your budget spreadsheet say?” I asked.  

It was Leslie’s turn to stare at me. “I don’t have a budget spreadsheet,” she said.

No budget spreadsheet? This was extraordinary news. As the daughter of accountant parents, I’d been keeping meticulous, color-coded spreadsheets to track my spending and savings since high school. Even before that, at age eight, I remember counting the checks I’d gotten for my First Communion (one of the coming-of-age ceremonies in the Catholic Church), and calculating how many sacraments it would take me to save up for a car by the time I turned sixteen.

I realized that I could help Leslie. And, maybe, she could help me with my own problem.

“Spreadsheets are power,” I said urgently. I told her we could get her credit card debt under control with nothing more than the power of Microsoft Excel and some soul-searching about her chai latte habit. She looked scared.

A week later we sat down and looked at all her numbers. The interest on her credit card and student loan debts. Her monthly car payment and rent. We cut out things like unnecessary subscription services and the expensive yoga studio membership (when classes were free at her office). By the end of the night, Leslie had a budget.

A month later, we met up again. This time, I worked on my tax forms while she reconciled her spreadsheet with her bank and credit card statements. As I worked, I found myself thinking out loud. For the first time, I had a nonjudgmental listening ear beside me during tax season, and I  was able to stay calm and focused as I solved my tax problems.

It didn’t matter that Leslie was working on something different than I was. Having her there helped me feel less alone. And having a predetermined, designated time set aside to do the work helped me file my taxes on time.

The Evolution of The Monthly Budget Meetup

Soon, word spread. When I told friends I couldn’t go out to dinner because I had to go to a budget meetup, I didn’t get the eye-rolls I was expecting. Instead, ears perked up: “Can I come?”

spreadsheets and snacks
Photo Credit: Michael Ciaglo

After a few months, our meetups had grown. Three or four friends would attend. I’d bring brie and crackers and a bottle of cheap red wine, and we’d all sit and work. We’d vent and mutter and debate about whether to file the daily croissant expense in the “eating out” or “morning coffee” section of the monthly budget. It was the most fun I’d ever had doing anything remotely financial. And I was learning a lot, too.

The monthly meetup, dubbed “Snacks and Spreadsheets,” is entering its second year. Leslie has paid off all her credit card debt. I’ve started to overcome my crippling fear of taxes.

Meetings range in size from two to eight attendees. I’d like to say that everyone shows up on time, bright-eyed and eager, Microsoft Excel up and running. But like any good book club, Snacks and Spreadsheets has its fair share who skimp on the required reading.

Usually about half arrive with pre-build Excel tables and financial questions. Others come just to eat cheese and listen. And that’s okay. Snacks and Spreadsheets exists to provide camaraderie and a place to talk about finances in a laid-back, non-judgmental atmosphere. It exists to make us feel a little less alone. And that’s what has made all the difference.  

How to Start your own Snacks & Spreadsheets Club

Interested in setting up your own group? Here are a few steps to help guide your way:

Think about what you need

If you need some accountability to keep you from procrastinating, or a sounding board to help you do things like figure out investing or your personal savings goals, a group of like-minded friends is an awesome solution. If you need advice on big financial decisions, or complicated tax situations, you might want to go to a professional first.

Bring it up on the group text

You know what you need to do and you’re mostly just struggling to make yourself do it. It’s time to call in the friends. Tell your friend group you’ve decided to take control of your finances more regularly, and ask if anyone would be interested in joining in solidarity. Offering to host, or to provide the chips and guac, can be a good incentive. 

Figure out a timeline

Determine how often you can reasonably meet up. Every two weeks? Every month? Every quarter? Commit to a schedule at the start of the process. It makes it easier to hold each other accountable. Choose a structure

What do you want your meetups to look like? I like to keep Snacks and Spreadsheets as easy to attend as possible, which means very little structure. However, adding a little reading homework or another theme to the meeting can be good for staying focused. This month, for example, we invited a friend who’s particularly knowledgeable about investing, as a sort of guest speaker and fielder of questions.

Keep the atmosphere light

Money matters are very personal, and it’s easy to get on your high horse about how much you’re saving, or to feel guilty about how much you’re spending. Look at your goals and habits honestly and objectively, and don’t compare your situation to anyone else’s. Share what’s worked for you, but don’t force your organizational system on anyone else. At the end of the day, budget meetups are about helping each other find individual solutions to individual problems.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.