As a kid, I yearned to have a checkbook and spend money like an adult. The feeling of getting money every week, putting it in the bank then spending it on the popular toy of the month somehow appealed to me. My father was a NCO (non commissioned officer) in the Air Force and my mother worked a variety of jobs as she studied to get her Accounting degree, so we weren’t blessed with an incredibly large bank account. My parents always taught me to “live within your means” and look for bargains (I still look for the packs of sausage with an extra link…something my Dad showed me in the Commissary when I was 6 or 7). Before I went off to college, my father gave me a lesson in budgeting…the encounter kind of went like this:
As a student affairs professional, one thing I learned is that money is in short supply to do the things we need to support students. There’s always money to re-paint a Department chair’s office or new signs for a renamed office, but you’ll catch grief for buying $100 of pizza for a student event. In grad school, there wasn’t a class that focused on creating budgets and navigating the political minefields that come with it. Whenever we talked about budgets in class, it was always “I never have enough money to do anything!” (which still is a refrain I come across on a daily basis). I learned how to budget and negotiate through my assistantship (my supervisor knew my mathematical mind would love the challenge of finding money and balancing the books), and I did more of that during my first student affairs job out of grad school. I really learned how to advocate for more funds, spend the money more judiciously, and provide reasons the money was best needed for student planning. I quickly learned that someone in a higher position sets up “priorities”, and money always flows towards those “priorities” accordingly. Naturally, I needed to learn how to get my hands on that cash.
Working in K-12 added more budget experience…mostly with cutting budgets. One thing I learned is that when budgets are tight, the populations who really need the money are always cut first. Once the budgets were proposed and we had an idea of what we were working with, the hard questions needed to be answered based upon the school’s priorities. Should we pay for a band teacher or dance teacher? Do we buy pencils or paper towels? Can we charge families to participate in after-school programs or can the school fund them? Do we upgrade our garden or pay for mental health interventions? I learned that in budgeting, there will be winners and losers. My goal was to make sure the kids weren’t in the losing column, but there were many times where politics trumped helping the kids. Those times drove me to advocate more for helping students and not worry about the politics.
I learned a few tricks on budgeting that I figured I’d share with ya’ll:
- Got some money? Cut it by 15% Once I started budgeting in Oakland, I learned that whatever money I had, it was always cut by 15% for “outside services”, like assessment, union overtime charges, custodial, even the electricity. So, when students tell me they have $1000 for a program, I tell them “nope, you have $850”. That extra $150 needs to be held on for another reason or unexpected charge (i.e. price of food increases, OT for facilities/security, other unexpected charges) that may come up. Always assume there is going to be an extra fee or expense that will come up often at the last minute.
- Go cost-effective whenever you can. At one school I taught at, I was blessed to have a $200 budget for my classroom…for the entire school year! That doesn’t give you a lot of flexibility to get the things you need, but I learned that there are ways to save on costs. I became an “extreme coupon” teacher, using coupons and sales to buy pencils, pens, and other supplies. When I really needed things on the cheap, I went to Dollar Tree or Goodwill for items. I was able to get mason jars at a discount grocery store (24 for $5) and wide-ruled paper a Mexican grocery store next to my school. I tried to avoid Walmart and Target for social reasons, so I searched out local stores that either had coupons or would work with you. I wanted to make sure my students, for whom many of their families were struggling, didn’t have to worry about buying extra pencils or rulers. Many of our campuses require that we spend money with certain vendors (catering, bookstore, etc.), so I find ways to save money. It’s nice to have an event in our student union, but food through their catering is a mandatory and substantial cost. However, you can hold an event in a academic building and have an outside vendor bring the food to save money.
- Be bold…but be reasonable. When students wanted to bring a speaker on campus, I always knew they would suggest someone highly popular, like Oprah or Bill Clinton. I always said “It’s possible, but is it reasonable?” A popular name brings spectators, but does the number of participants justify the great expense it will cost? Could the amount of money needed for one speaker be utilized across a wide range of things? I’m willing to assume most of the campuses we work at don’t have Bill Clinton speaking fee money laying around, so we can suggest other speakers that people may or may not know that could be just as effective in getting the message across.
- Show you’re a part of the “priorities” and fight for every penny. Like I said above, once someone sets the “priority” for the division/department/institution, money flows in that direction. So, I learned to be strategic by asking how is what I’m doing fit within the stated priorities? Answer the question with actionable data and relevant development theory then present it to the decision makers. If my program didn’t fit the priorities, then I re-planned and worked with students to make sure it fit the priorities and still served their needs. If the decision maker wanted to short me on the cash, I stood my ground. Hey, you set the priorities, and this program clearly fits with the stated vision. If you still don’t think so, tell me now so we can do more strategic planning so we can get the needed funding and still serve the students.
I’ve learned from colleagues that we all have a love-hate relationship with budgeting, but it’s a necessity in our working lives. I’ve learned how to get the cash, spend it wisely, and report the results, but I still have a lot to learn. So far my experiences have been positive, with a little help with Dad’s budgeting lessons.