On Having Buffers
Always carry a little extra cash was my first lesson in having buffers, and idea that can make a lot of life simpler and less stressful.
My daughter recently asked me a question about budgeting. I was a little hesitant to offer advice. Someone with as many vinyl albums or guitar effects pedals as I have probably shouldn’t pontificate about saving money anyway.
But as I gathered my thoughts and started to explain the difference between essential and discretionary spending, I recalled an old piece of advice. It suggested that your budget should be split 50:30:20.
Fifty percent goes to your core needs, like rent, bills, and food; 30% goes to your wants, like entertainment and shopping; and 20% goes to savings. When your income is low, it’s hard to save, so that 20% becomes more of a buffer, a little extra in case of unexpected expenses and emergencies.
I was a teenager when I first encountered the idea of a financial buffer. Before leaving to go to the movies, my father took my wallet and a 20 dollar bill. He folded the bill into a tiny rectangle, then tucked it into a corner of the wallet.
“Just in case,” he said. You want to carry a little extra cash, he explained, in case you lose your train ticket or have some other kind of emergency.
A few years later, I had just such an emergency. My wallet was stolen while I was playing pool. I found it soon after, in a bin, outside the pool hall. But it was empty – even the neatly folded $20 bill was gone – so I had to scrounge some change from friends to get a train ticket home.
Sometimes your buffer needs a buffer! After that, I always carried an extra bill in my jeans pocket, or tucked inside a jacket. That tiny little pocket in jeans is perfect for this.
Buffers As A Way Of Life
This idea of buffers can apply to more areas of life than managing your finances. Consider the way we approach time and planning our schedules.
The default for many people is to schedule their time in blocks that sit tightly against each other. A hour meeting at 9am followed by another that starts at 10 is an exhausting way to work. There’s no margin for things to run overtime. Or for delays in getting from one event to another. Having some sort of buffer between commitments takes a lot of stress out of the day. It gives you a chance to regroup and focus after every new commitment, to arrive on time and be ready.
In a way, a kitchen pantry is like a buffer. Yes, you store ingredients. But also, in an emergency, you can cook with pantry staples, without needing to rush out to a supermarket or order a meal delivery.
Perhaps the most important buffers are emotional ones. Knowing how much space to give yourself and others after an emotionally challenging situation. Or when to switch focus to something less taxing on your nervous system. We can’t expend all our emotional energy all the time.
Buffers Emerge From Boundaries
You only get buffers as a result of having rules. They don’t happen by accident. Buffers are spaces we choose to create.
Buffers do not come easily or naturally. To have money and not spend it, hold time and not give it away, keep food in reserve, or prioritise your emotional well-being all takes effort and discipline.
But a life with buffers is gentler. It pays to create the buffers and safeguard them.
Sometimes I put on a jacket or a pair of trousers I haven’t worn in a while and discover some cash I’d forgotten about. Occasionally, it’s even in a different currency – some pounds or US dollars from a previous trip.
That’s the thing about buffers. You never know when they will pay off. But they always do.