Noah Garrett doesn't know if his parents had a budget when he was growing up. "I wasn't privy to it if they did," the 35-year-old says. "Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't."
Garrett took a personal finance class in 2001 at BYU when he was an undergraduate. He soon found that the budgeting ideas he learned helped eliminate money arguments between him and his wife. "(Budgeting) became a strong point in our marriage," he says.
For many Americans, however, budgeting is not a strong point. A new poll by Gallup says nearly one in three Americans (32 percent) prepare a "detailed written or computerized household budget" every month. The flip side means that more than two-thirds do not make a budget.
Gallup’s annual Economy and Personal Finance survey released Monday surveyed 1,012 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia about their budgeting habits. The differences across several demographic categories were slight. People with a college education were more likely to keep a budget that tracked income and expenditures (38 percent) than those with a high school education or less (26 percent).
Brooke Deitrick, the director of community relations at Cornerstone Financial Education based in Austin, Texas, says she wasn't surprised that two-thirds of Americans do not keep a monthly budget. Cornerstone offers free financial counseling for people regardless of their financial situation. "In our classes we educate families on the importance of budgeting and the free resources available for their use," she says. "Unfortunately, we find that most people are unaware of the free online resources available to them."
One free resource for budgeting information is personalfinance.byu.edu, a website from BYU that features hours of instructional videos, textbooks, templates and other financial advice. Bryan Sudweeks, associate teaching professor of finance at BYU, helped develop many of those resources with his colleagues. He said he is not surprised by the results of the Gallup survey. "Personal finance is really just two things," he says, "education and choice. People who are not making a budget either haven’t learned the things they need to learn or they aren't willing to make the hard decisions. If they don't, they will get to the end of their lives and won't have the resources to do what they need to do."
The Gallup poll also asked if people have prepared a "long-term financial plan that outlines your savings and investment goals in detail."
The poll found most people haven't.
Thirty percent say they do have a plan. People were more likely to have a plan if they had a college degree (38 percent) or if they made more than $75,000 a year (43 percent).
"A long-term plan is not just your budget," Sudweeks says. "It's debt, it's housing, it's retirement planning, it's estate planning."
Deitrick with Cornerstone Financial Education says, "Many families live paycheck to paycheck and feel that they do not make enough to invest in savings or retirement accounts."
Garrett, who just graduated from BYU in April with an MBA, says he and his wife haven't made a long-term financial plan yet. "We are in a transition in our lives," he says, "and it was hard to analyze these things while still in school. ... We do plan on making better long-term planning within the next 12 months."
Gallup asked if Americans used an "accountant or certified financial planner" to assist in their planning. Twenty-four percent say they have.
Sudweeks says most people can do their basic planning on their own. "Why would a financial planner want to help unless they can start managing someone's assets?" he says. "The key is to understand the principles."
Gallup found that many people are using their computers or financial online planners to manage their money (32 percent). This question saw the largest disparities among the demographics. Of those with a high school degree or less, only 17 percent say they use a computer or online financial program. For those who go to college the number jumps to 44 percent.
For those who make $75,000 or more a year, 53 percent use financial programs versus 22 percent for those making less than $30,000 a year. Conservatives kept budgets more than liberals (35 percent versus 29 percent). Independents kept a budget 36 percent of the time, beating out Republicans (34 percent) and Democrats (26 percent).
Deitrick says many people are unaware of the online resources. "Those who are aware of these sites, often times worry about the security of their information," she says.
Garrett doesn't personally use computer programs or online services like mint.com to track his and his wife's finances, although he does use a spreadsheet. He says services like mint.com are great for tracking expenditures — but he has a simpler method for limiting spending.
Garrett hopes to be making more money soon. He is moving to Orlando, Fla., to work in his family's business, Garrett Fastening Systems, a supplier of building materials. For the foreseeable future, he will continue his method of budgeting: Putting in place set dollar amounts in category "envelopes" that he and his wife do not exceed every month.