How Running One Week Sprints Helped Me Finally Start a Family Budget

Maybe you’ve been there: you’re living the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. You constantly have to check your bank account to see if that unexpected bill can be paid on time.

Or maybe you haven’t felt that pinch but never seem to be able to chip away at your larger goals of savings, investing, and travel.

I’ve tried to create a budget in several different ways, but I have never stuck with it. I think some of the problem is that it feels too big and unmanageable. Or perhaps it’s that some uninformed or undisciplined decisions have led to feeling backed into a financial corner too many times to make digging out feel worthwhile.

But, and perhaps it was out of desperation, I decided to take another look at a system I had tried to use once, maybe even twice before. And it reflects our sprint process.

Strive to reflect reality.

The core principle is to budget based on your actual, current cash on hand and to allocate every last dollar. So this way, instead of fretting or melting down when the car breaks down, or you’ve spent an extra $100 dollars on groceries, you adjust.

Just like we do with our week-to-week sprint commitments.

See, with one week sprints, we have a LOT of flexibility to decide to shift a few stories up or down the Icebox when we learn something during the week. We don’t have to be locked in to two weeks’ worth of work and then freak out when something happens on Thursday of Week 1 or Monday of Week 2 that sends everything into a tailspin.

Use empathy to focus on optimization.

When we kick off a sprint, we make a plan and we allocate all of our resources to that plan. But we understand that priorities may shift. If we don’t use empathy to remain flexible, we are going to lose sight of what’s really important.

Embracing this attitude of prioritizing, analyzing, seeing results, and re-prioritizing on a tight, one-week iteration flow suddenly made all the sense in the world when I applied it to budgeting.

Here’s a real-world example: Our family had been discussing getting a dining room table (finally, after four years in our current apartment!) during the run-up to Christmas. But we hadn’t started allocating any funds toward the item. Suddenly, a great deal popped up for a new-to-us dining room table and bench in a neighborhood buy-sell-trade group. The set matches some of our existing pieces and the cost was a steal.

What a great opportunity! But, we paused because we hadn’t yet budgeted for it. If we were following the rules of some strict budget application, we might have had to say no.

Using empathy to focus on optimization means that you re-examine your priorities to make the best decision.  We decided to shift funds from one category to our new Home Improvement line. The kids are thrilled we’ll have a permanent table to eat at (and game together on), and so are we.

Stay agile, my friends.

This happens at work, too. Recently, one of my projects saw a resourcing change happen on Tuesday – less than 24 hours after we set our Sprint Commitment – and I had one less developer than the plan called for.

Instead of burying our heads and hoping for the best, we discussed the change and its impact. And then we agreed to move some of our “funds” (in this case, our story points) back to the Icebox where the affected story could be picked up if we found we really had the excess capacity.

And you know what? It was the right call. We needed to move that single story back. It allowed us to stay focused on the Sprint and to revel in our success at shipping the commitment at the end of the week.

Revel in the wins and create new opportunities

Of course, we’re always quick to identify what to do when the unexpected expense comes up. But don’t get me wrong – the same principles work in reverse, too! You may experience some sort of windfall, and you’ll want to apply your budgeting mindset to that, too.

Grandma has sent an unexpected – and very generous – birthday check! So, where do we allocate those dollars? Have a look at the planning board. What have we identified as priorities? What nice-to-haves are sitting in the wish pile? In our family’s case, we’re going to put this money toward the matching chairs for our table.

Landed that last term sheet and closed your round, three weeks early? Alright – it’s time to put those dollars to work and keep the ball rolling on your current sprints without a pause. When you’ve listed your project priorities, and scored them according to rank, you always know which tasks can be shifted to reflect the reality of your resources.

The kanban of life

At the end of the day, whether it’s your bottom line or your kanban board, you want your tools to reflect reality. Sometimes that’s painful; sometimes it is unexpectedly joy-filled. But either way, you have better vision when your trail is as clear and accurate as possible.

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