Coffee heat rising

Managing a Variable Income: A bouquet of bank accounts

Readers have suggested that one reason underlying my occasional fits of panic over money, which usually occur when something interrupts cash flow that I had planned on and depend on to pay bills, is my habit of allocating funds to various categories. Possibly, they imply, the sea would be calmer if all income poured into a single account and I just didn’t worry about whether enough was sitting there to cover taxes, insurance bills, and the inevitable little surprises. After all, I do have a decent emergency fund—$14,500, more than I gross all year from teaching. In theory, that should cushion the various little blows that strike from time to time, and it should cover the hefty annual bills one has to pay.

It is true that I have a bad habit of overmanaging my finances. The result is that I indeed do complicate things, typically by setting up piggy-banks to hold funds designated for this or that purpose. These organizational devices grow over time into weedy Gothic structures with lots of gingerbread on the facade and secret stairways inside the walls.

One facet of this underlying problem is that I’m now living on a highly variable income. From September through May, a steady flow comes in from the community college. But I never know how much that flow will be: there’s no way of knowing how many classes I’ll be teaching until they’re assigned; in September, January, and May, classes meet only a few days, and so pay from that is predictable only in its sketchiness; and I can occasionally earn little stipends by attending training workshops or preparing an online course. Social Security, we’ve seen, has its treacherous shoals. Blog income can be anything from $100 to $300 in a month. And freelance editing is very much a catch-as-catch-can endeavor.

This, for a person who harbors a pathological desire to know that each month enough cash will reside in the bank to cover the utility bills, is nervous-making.

During the time leading up to the layoff, I mapped out a strategy for “smoothing out” income so there would always be enough (I hoped) to put food on the table and run the house. Fundamentally, the idea is to build a “pool” with a reserve deep enough to protect one from unexpected expenses or periods with no income. Out of that pool, money is allocated to pay costs that recur over longer cycles than one month. In my case, these are all annual: property tax, homeowner’s insurance, car insurance, Medigap insurance. I can’t easily pay such large bills out of pocket; the only way to ensure enough cash to cover them is to self-escrow a prorated monthly amount. The income “pool” also disburses a small monthly transfer to a savings account, which accrues enough over time to pay for things like clothing and the occasional surprise car repair or plumbing bill.

As I was figuring this out, I realized the six or eight credit union and bank accounts (not to mention the many investment accounts at Fidelity, TIAA-CREF, and Vanguard) had become unmanageably baroque. I was spending way too much time reconciling accounts and trying to figure out arithmetic and data entry errors. I decided to consolidate as many accounts as I could…that’s how, last December, I unearthed some $28,000 that had been accumulating over the years, like so much dust in the House of Usher.

So I closed all but three bank and credit union accounts, invested $14,000 in mutual funds, and kept $14,500 in the bank to serve as an emergency fund. Actually, since I did not believe I could possibly live on a gross of $29,900 (Social Security plus the $14,160 I would be limited to earning in 2010, by SS rules), I expected I would need that 14.5 grand to live on this year, and so that money became the deep underlayment of the “pool” account. It would sit there as money from various income streams piddle in to the “pool.”

The three surviving credit union accounts, then, comprised a checking account to hold the $14,500 emergency fund and month-to-month spending money, a savings account to hold a monthly set-aside for short-term emergencies and necessities such as clothing, and a money market account to hold the monthly self-escrow to cover annual property tax bills and insurance premiums. I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t put those funds where I can’t reach them casually, they will get spent long before the clothing costs or the annual bills roll in.

My financial advisers and I knew that three sections a semester, the teaching load I could reasonably expect, would put me$340 over the Medicare earned income limit, which would mean confiscation of an entire month’s Social Security check. We did not know how much Funny about Money would earn, and the amount of editorial earnings is utterly unpredictable. But we did know that every dollar earned blogging and freelancing would trigger a 50-cent penalty from Social Security; that amount, no matter how small, would be extracted in a peculiarly abusive way that is  not described in Social Security’s complicated guides. To avoid having freelance and blog income bring on even more punishment for exceeding the earnings limitation, my lawyer suggested an S-corporation, which would hold that money separate from my personal income. It would have to pay me a small salary—last year that came to $500, gross—but it could pay business-related expenses out of pretax dollars, and anything above the salary I drew out would be counted as dividends, not as “earned income.”

Because corporate income must be kept separate from personal income, of course I had to establish a business account for the S-corporation. So much for my bank account simplification program!

Still, even with that corporate account in the mix, I think my system for getting by on an unpredictable and variable income works pretty well and is relatively simple. The four credit union accounts are represented here by blue boxes:

All personal income goes into a checking account, which serves as the “pool” of funds to cover all expenses, self-escrows, and savings. The personal checking account also holds the large emergency fund, which, because it represents enough for me to live on (when combined with Social Security) for a year, I regard as money to cover living expenses during a serious illness or injury that would leave me unable to work at all.

At my age, it’s not a question of if such an event will happen; it’s a question of when. For that reason, I’m extremely reluctant to dip into the “major catastrophe” emergency fund for ordinary living expenses.

That is why I had a hissy fit over the misinformation recently dispensed by Social Security’s telephone CSRs and the subsequent confiscation of next month’s Social Security check. This fiasco will require me to use up to $1,275 of my catastrophic emergency fund. After last spring and summer’s clothing purchases and the Murphy’s Law spate that occurred when too little income was flowing into that account to cover the base expenses of utilities, insurance bills, and food, not enough remains in my personal diddle-it-away savings account to cover $1,275. Drawing dividends from the S-corporation, while it’s doable, would trigger some taxes I don’t want to pay and leave too little in that account to cover the business expenses I project for the next four to six months.

As you can see, living on freelance or nine-month teaching income is a very iffy arrangement.

If you have a large enough contingency fund…
If you earn more than enough to cover monthly bills, more times than not…
If no major catastrophes occur…
If few expensive minor headaches occur…
If no one shafts you…
If you can keep on getting work…
If you have the self-discipline to husband your money so it will last through lean times…
If you don’t have a nervous breakdown when too little comes in to cover your basic bills…

There may be other ways to manage these unknowns. The only one that occurs to me is to build a nice, deep “pool” that will always hold more than you really need to live on, and then to budget out of that enough to cover expenses. Heaven help you if you don’t have an emergency fund!

Anybody else got a better approach?

February Budget: On target

Well, so far, so good: We’re two months into Bumhood, all this month’s bills are paid, and the budget is still running in the black!

That’s in spite of a plumber’s bill!

This month’s regular recurring bills were quite low. One was zero: having prepaid the February COBRA premium in January, I owed nothing this month. The power bill (SRP) also was very low, because the weather has been warm enough that I haven’t had to run the central heating.

What we can see here, though, is that even if I had paid COBRA in February, I still could have afforded to pay a modest repair bill: $252 less the COBRA premium of $185 would have left $67 in this part of the monthly budget. That happened only because the plumber’s bill came in the middle of the winter. In the summertime, power and water bills run about $200 higher than the winter bills, and so those costs would have eaten up most of the budget, leaving too little to cover a household repair.

However, last month $112 remained from the budgeted amount, despite my having paid $313 to COBRA. When the January balance is added to this month’s $252 remainder, some $364 is sitting there, waiting to take up the slack in the summer.

To cover the May, June, July, and August utility bills, I’ll need at least $800 more than I’m having to pay now. The amounts budgeted, as a matter of fact, are based on the summer 2009 utility bills, and so even with the coming rate hikes, there probably will be enough to pay the highest 2010 power and water bills.

Moving on, this month’s “discretionary” spending—the cost of everything other than monthly recurring bills—also stayed under control:

With $73.91 left over at the end of the credit-card billing cycle, I’m doing better than last month, when only $43 remained of the budgeted $800. This is in spite of making a run on the very dangerous Baker’s Nursery and in spite of buying $61.97 worth of cosmetics. Too, gasoline ran significantly higher than the $60 allotment: in February I ended up spending $95 on gas!

But here again: with $74 left from this month and $43 from last month, a small, de facto cushion is slowly piling up in the “discretionary” category, too.

Now that cash is finally flowing in from Social Security and from the community colleges, there seems to be plenty of money to cover budgeted costs. Projecting all income and outflow through the end of March:

February was a little precarious, I will say… But it looks like after this things will be better, at least until the end of August, when (assuming no major emergency expenses come up) the month-end balance will drop dizzyingly: to $22. In September it starts to climb again, and by the end of November it’s back up to around $1,800.

So, in a strange way, “money happens.”