Your budget, one envelope at a time
November 20, 2022 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Need some new budgeting ideas? Enjoy something tactile? Try cash stuffing!

Cash stuffing, based on the relatively older cash envelope system, has seen a recent resurgence on TikTok and YouTube especially amongst younger people documenting their progress online.

The contemporary cash stuffing system often involves specialised binders and wallets, envelopes, prop bills (for larger denominations), coin banks, budget templates, and entire starter kits with so many custom designs. The cash stuffing process usually involves planning how your cash (usually a paycheck or other income) will be split into different categories (often close to the zero-budgeting system where every dollar is allocated into a budget line), withdrawing that amount in cash to stuff into envelopes, placing some cash into sinking funds (longer-term savings goals) or savings challenges (such as the popular 52 weeks savings challenge where each week is allocated an amount between $1 and $52), then closing off each period with a bill swap/condense (swapping out large amounts of smaller demonation bills for bigger bills or prop money) and unstuffing the cash to bring to the bank.

Most cash stuffing videos have commentary, though ASMR-style no/low commentary videos also exist. Unstuffing large amounts of money can be very satisfying to watch especially with large amounts.

Cash stuffing has helped people get out of debt, deal with emergencies, and manage goals from date nights to home ownership. The online cash stuffing community includes people across income levels - low income "struggle stuffers", workers reliant on tips, single parents, students, small business owners, high income earners, people with variable incomes, and even lottery winners.

If you prefer digital methods, various apps exist, though it's not going to be nearly as hands-on or decorated.
posted by creatrixtiara (38 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Dave Ramsey, bad idea.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:40 PM on November 20, 2022 [3 favorites]

The concerns on that article could apply to literally any budget. Oh no the costs you budgeted for are higher than you expect, who would have thought?! The people who bring enveloped wallets don't just bring one envelope at a time, nor do they leave behind credit cards. Pretty often these cash stuffers will either reorganise money into different envelopes during unstuffings/restuffings, pay themselves back if they used a credit card or other not-cash medium, or have buffers (such as the savings challenges or sinking funds) for exactly this situation.
posted by creatrixtiara at 8:50 PM on November 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

I love a good personal finance system. Mine is "track every penny and make lots of charts... just because I like to... even though it doesn't guide any decisions I make," which, yeah, is not something that will help other people. So I'm all for actual systems that work well for lots of people and sharing that widely!

Also, there's a whole defined aesthetic in the videos here. Wow. This is not just a budgeting system. It's a whole lot of people with the same presentation and the same system and the same products -- all at least within a pretty tight range -- making these videos. And despite not being anywhere near the target audience for these, I find them strangely compelling. [/me wanders off thinking about how to apply lessons from this to making computer science education content...]
posted by whatnotever at 9:37 PM on November 20, 2022 [5 favorites]

This is a thorough & detailed post, thank you for putting it together!
posted by CrystalDave at 10:00 PM on November 20, 2022 [5 favorites]

I have no idea how I ended up on the 'cash stuffing' recommendations on youtube, but I find it all strangely compelling. Apparently all it took was someone talking through their budget and moving cash around for me to understand ASMR. Perhaps if I had seen the videos when I read Dave Ramsey's advice I would have followed it???

It's a whole lot of people with the same presentation and the same system and the same products

I vaguely noticed the aesthetic before, but it's really underlined with the linked videos. I guess it makes sense as to why they're all similar: if you're only focusing on money, you may have nice looking hands on camera, need some sort of visual interest in the background and it seems like everyone has the similar budget binder/envelopes. And now I'm like who was the OG YT/TT that started it all?
posted by later, paladudes at 10:13 PM on November 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

whatnotever: yeah the aesthetic similarities are fascinating to watch! I think with the YouTube folk especially (though maybe also the TikTok people) it's because they tend to buy from each other - there seems to be a pretty tight-knit community happening within the comment sections. There's also a large overlap with planner decor, digital planning, study with me etc type media which tends to have some strong aesthetic lines: cozy cutesy anime, WASPy soccer mum, glitter baddie (all terms I have just come up with on the fly so don't take this as Official).
posted by creatrixtiara at 10:17 PM on November 20, 2022

bah I only just noticed that my link for a bill swap/condense got eaten. Try this one!
posted by creatrixtiara at 10:22 PM on November 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Well, there's no journalling involved, unless you're tracking the amount of money you've got in each envelope or how much you spend. There may be some aesthetic crossover when it comes to the YouTube/TikTok versions of both but otherwise it's not at all similar.
posted by creatrixtiara at 11:33 PM on November 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

Bookstuffing? My in-laws are voracious readers. If they were flush, they'd buy new books; and if skint, then second hand green penguins, or anything by Georgette Heyer would do . . . even if they'd been read before. The oldest sister has had more of an economic roller-coaster of a life than some of the rest of us. Cocktails at the races would alternate with spuds and scrag-end. She lived for many years, with her teenage daughter, in rambling, dark and damp basement flat in one of Dublin's more tonier suburbs. One grey weekend there was No food except oatmeal and only a handful of that. After a night without supper, they woke inspired to look in every drawer and handbag for change. She then remembered that in the good days, she'd been in the habit of using folding money as book-marks and they riffled systematically through a couple of thousand books and amassed enough to make a trip to the grocer worthwhile. These tiktok envelopes are handier, for sure.
Adjacent: George Orwell successfully prays to "St. Éloise" for a loaf of bread.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:58 PM on November 20, 2022 [9 favorites]

Mod note: As a quick note: This was a huge amount of work to put together to let people know about an interesting thing that is happening! It's fine to engage with the topic in good faith, but we've had a couple instances of dismissive sort of "so this is like X" comments, or similar, that seem to want to trivialize the idea. Nobody wants to work hard on posts just to get automatic snide / lazy remarks, and if you think about it, you shouldn't want to participate in that way, either, or why be here? If the post is actually bad (it's not), flag it; if it isn't (it isn't) respect the OP's effort to bring you some interesting links and ideas to think and talk about. Thank you!
posted by taz (staff) at 1:47 AM on November 21, 2022 [46 favorites]

I find arguments that the envelope system is "bad economics" because "money is money is money" unhelpful, because that's exactly the problem the envelope system is solving - money (you should use on important things, and things like saving) is money (that you could use to buy something frivolous but fun)!
posted by Merus at 1:50 AM on November 21, 2022 [14 favorites]

The (virtual) envelope system, via YNAB, completely changed how I save and spend. It’s helped my partner and I plan for leaving terrible jobs, buy a house, face layoffs with calm, have honest conversations about what we value / where we want to invest our time and money, and has helped my partner (who has ADHD) feel in control of his spending for the first time ever.
I’m not on TikTok much, but I’m on personal finance YouTube a whole bunch and I’m surprised I haven’t come across this trendy reincarnation of the good old envelopes yet, thanks for sharing it!
posted by third word on a random page at 2:14 AM on November 21, 2022 [6 favorites]

We've used the envelope system successfully in the past, and have only dropped off because my partner and I were both raised with different-but-similar strains of never talk about money as a cultural imperative in our houses and still find dealing with it very uncomfortable.

Our current system is logging everything we spend scrupulously in a spreadsheet across about a dozen categories and (failing to) review those at the end of each month to see how we did. We're fortunate in that our failings generally fall into "we didn't save as much toward retirement as we wanted this month" than "we don't eat", so we're privileged to be in that situation.
posted by Shepherd at 2:39 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Let me try re-stating something a bit more closely aligned with the thread itself....

The envelope system, at its core, is a decent idea. My hunch is that it works really well for people who have realized they have a bad habit of impulse spending on "fun stuff" to the point that when the time comes to write the rent check, there isn't enough to cover it; in theory, if you put the money you need for rent aside first, before you have a chance to spend it, then you end up not spending it; and when you need to write the rent check, even if you've blown through the rest of your bank account on Funkopops or whatever, hey look there's the money for rent in the "rent" envelope where you were keeping it safe. There are people who would not find it useful; but that's true of every budgeting and financial organizing system. And, frankly, it's true of every organizing system in general.

The danger I see with the "decorating" and "aesthetic" element is similar to what I've seen happen to the bullet journal - the "how to decorate your envelopes" information might quickly overshadow information about the nuts-and-bolts of the system itself. There are scores of pages and posts and videos about how to decorate your bullet journal spreads, fun things to track in your bullet journals and the various graphic ways to depict them, reviews of various art supplies you can use to boost the aesthetics of your bullet journal...but there's not as much information any more about the basic nuts-and-bolts of the bullet journal system itself, which I note began as just a straightforward to-do list and habit tracker using only a blank notebook and a single pen. There are even people posting videos now about why they gave up their bullet journals - and in most cases, it's because they felt so much pressure to make their planners look "aesthetic" that they spent more time decorating it than they did using it.

I grant that even here, there are people for whom making their planner look beautiful encourages them to use it, or they see the embellishment as an artistic hobby and they genuinely get something out of it. But other people appear to feel like all bullet journals must have doodles and washi tape embellishments and color illustrations, so they're tearing their hair out trying to do that when the initial simple to-do list would probably suit them better; but they don't hear about that anywhere near as much as the "aesthetic" kind.

The envelope system and cash-stuffing system can suit people very well. But an envelope with the word "Rent" scrawled on it with a Bic pen will work just as well as an envelope with "Rent" stenciled on it in watercolor and decorated with washi tape.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:09 AM on November 21, 2022 [16 favorites]

There's a link in one of the links about Kakeibo, the japanese budgeting system and it explains the little budget books I always find in the japanese stationary sections! And now I have an excuse to buy one! I really like the four pillars - needs, wants, culture and unexpected. (Kakeibo in more detail.)

I can't do cash envelopes - I'd forget them or end up taking $10 for something random and just - way too stressful. But YNAB stopped working for me when I had my first credit card last year because I couldn't wrap my head around what went where anymore. I am absolutely fine with large budgets and balance sheets and can follow fairly complicated finances, but once it's my money I want to go back to the absolute basics: am I broke or not. Money in an envelope feels tangible and sensible.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:07 AM on November 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

EmpressCallipygos: for what it's worth, it took me some digging to find videos about how to make the supplies, they weren't as immediately apparent as the regular cash stuffing videos (certainly not nearly as common as the planner decor/bullet journal type videos you're referencing). What I see happen more often are promotions of small businesses making these supplies often by gifting them to other cash stuffers, being commissioned to do customs, or just selling them online either alongside your cash stuffing videos or as its own business. (@ghostparfait, who has the frog-themed stuff, gives away her templates for free via Google Drive.)

You can make an argument about whether it's really budget friendly to spend the money you're trying to envelope out into supposedly "frivolous" items like these, but there seems to be a strong gifting economy/cottage industry thing happening with budget supplies which might mitigate things?
posted by creatrixtiara at 5:32 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

It seems like a way to make something that's vague and handwavey [finances and budgets] into a very specifically physical experience. This money needs to go *here* and so that envelope needs to get *this*. It reminds me a lot about tactics for increasing mindfulness around eating or other things like that.

I'd guess it is extra-helpful if you're putting everything on autopay or on credit card where it's really easy to just let things happen out of sight or nearly out of sight. That way lies the older joke about "How can I be overdrawn, I still have checks!" But now there aren't even any checks for most folks.

I still write out checks and send them via US mail for a lot of my bills because I find it helps me stay more aware of the flow of money in and out of my accounts. And I've been using youneedabudget (YNAB) to track where my money is going, particularly making sure I have liquid money available for larger things like annual payments for insurance or something.

NB: I definitely cannot sit in any sort of judgement on folks who use this because I absolutely SUCK at budgeting and am only saved from financial doom because I am fortunate enough to make enough money that I don't have to budget to the penny or even dollar. I'd just worry about keeping that much cash around if they're not locking it up.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:44 AM on November 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

It is so good to see you back, creatrixtiara! I can't wait to get into the links on this post.

I have seen these videos pop up and they scratch the same itch that the planner videos did for me a few years back. It's also pretty similar to the systems my grandmothers both used to manage the household cash, just nicer.
posted by kimberussell at 6:00 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

These are really interesting videos, thank you for posting. I've known about the envelope system for many, many years in a vague way, but had no idea that it has grown into this sort of aesthetic approach.

Some of the videos showed a lot more cash than I'd feel comfortable keeping around the house, unless I had a decent safe to lock it in. But the underlying idea of prioritizing and protecting money that is needed for critical needs (like rent) and also limiting expenses on more frivolous items makes all the sense in the world and if working with piles of actual cash helps some people, then that is great.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:13 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

for what it's worth, it took me some digging to find videos about how to make the supplies, they weren't as immediately apparent as the regular cash stuffing videos (certainly not nearly as common as the planner decor/bullet journal type videos you're referencing).

Yeah, I'll admit I'm being more of a Cassandra about this angle than I am reporting on something happening right now. And if the aesthetic angle is coming via a gift-economy sharing thing, then that also helps.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 AM on November 21, 2022

Budgeting is a great idea, in general. I suspect that tracking expenses against a budget plan is most likely to be successful. My Depression-era parents taught me; I'm kind of surprised at how many people don't budget and live paycheck to paycheck. Except now, so many people can't do otherwise because rents and other expenses are going up like crazy.
posted by theora55 at 6:46 AM on November 21, 2022

I'm kind of surprised at how many people don't budget and live paycheck to paycheck.

Please, let's not assume that everyone living paycheck to paycheck is not following a budget.
posted by xedrik at 7:04 AM on November 21, 2022 [14 favorites]

It's always fascinating to see which old things are going to become new and trendy again.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:17 AM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Decorative planner Plan With Ilysse has videos on cash envelope stuffing and budgeting.
posted by elphaba at 8:25 AM on November 21, 2022

I find arguments that the envelope system is "bad economics" because "money is money is money" unhelpful, because that's exactly the problem the envelope system is solving - money (you should use on important things, and things like saving) is money (that you could use to buy something frivolous but fun)!

I always find the advice that you shouldn't have savings and credit card debt at the same time a bit iffy. During my marriage, my partner and I would use savings to pay down debt, and then run up the debt again, leaving us with the same debt, and no savings. For people who are not inclined (or forced by circumstances) to overspend their income, it makes sense not to carry debt that charges a higher rate than they can earn on savings. For people like my ex and me when I was with him (still learning what I am like on my own. The answer is, not perfect), sequestering savings is the only way to hold onto them. We have pretty good retirement savings, for instance, despite our other financial failings, because we declared retirement contributions, and the resulting accounts, off-limits.

I do agree that a strict budget doesn't work for some people. It's never worked for me, no matter how many ways I've tried it. I'd think I had the budget worked out, and then realize I'd forgotten some category, large or small. And when I remembered all the categories, like vet bills and unexpected auto repairs and presents at the holidays, there was never enough income to cover them.

In reality, we dealt with certain unexpected bills by cutting back on other things for awhile, or by using non-credit-card, fixed-term loans. As people with a lot of animals, for instance, we've gotten a lot of use out of Scratchpay, which has a variety of pay-over-time options with interest rates from 0% to about 10%. We figured out a long time ago that we could basically not be trusted with open-ended credit lines, but that we were 100% reliable about paying off any fixed-term debt like a car payment or a $300 Scratchpay loan to get the dog's infected ear looked at.

I'm currently living on an inadequate income with one teenager (moved into my own apartment in October, so it's all very new). I am trying to remember to include myself in my financial plans. If I can come up with the money every month for my kid's diving coach, I can come up with a little bit to indulge myself, or buy myself something I need but can do without a bit longer. I spent too long putting myself last.
posted by Well I never at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

The envelope system, plus freezing my credit card into a literal block of ice in my freezer, really helped me get a handle on my money in my twenties. I found it a lot easier to feel the reality of what I was spending when I was touching physical bills. The research backs that up, by the way -- studies have shown that people may be willing to spend up to 100% more with credit cards vs. cash. I wouldn't be surprised if the effect was even stronger with digital payment methods like Venmo and Paypal and Cashapp -- the immateriality of the transaction makes the money feel way too easy to spend.

I don't use cash envelopes anymore, but I'm still grateful they helped me when I was learning about money and getting out of credit card debt. As with all such tactics -- if it works for you, great! If not, no worries!
posted by ourobouros at 12:06 PM on November 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

Fun fact - the largest denomination of the US currency is $100, so the lady in the "large amounts" has a different motivation than showing off her budgeting skills...

So I somewhat get the appeal of getting to arrange money regularly, (and the appeal of watching people arrange money, as whatnotever, noticed), but generally this trend (if it's indeed a trend) shows many, many people keeping an insane amount of cash stashed in their homes! I understand "gas money", but an envelope with more than about $1000 labeled "savings"?! Is the banking system really so bad that people either have no access to banking, or think their mattress provides more security? I understand the interest rate on the savings account "savings" is nil, but the ease of access and security is much higher at the bank surely. This, coupled with the sentiment that cash is dead (discussed on the green recently) makes this post a fascinating read. Many of the videos show pound sterling. Is it different in Britain and people get their paychecks in cash, so something like this is possible before it becomes a line in a checking account?
posted by Dotty at 12:39 PM on November 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

Dotty: the videos being in pound sterling is more a semi coincidence in my part, most of the videos I've seen about this are American.

I think the reason there's a lot of cash being accumulated is because of the savings challenges - a lot of people do multiple savings challenges at once, where you sock away some regular amount every month/fortnight/week/etc, and wait until the challenge is complete (which can take many months or even a year) to take that cash and bank it. Over time that money adds up!
posted by creatrixtiara at 12:59 PM on November 21, 2022

Also the $500/$1000+ bills are almost always placeholders for money that's been banked. The cash does get banked eventually, that's what the unstuffings are for!
posted by creatrixtiara at 1:20 PM on November 21, 2022

I think a lot of the criticism that various financial management things take is because they aren't prefect optimized based on the assumption that money is just a tool that you use and that everyone can and should use it in exactly the 'right' way to optimize utility. But money isn't a hammer and life isn't a nail and people have these messy, emotional relationships with money. The tactility of dealing in cash may make it easier for some people to really feel and understand their budget, even if using a debit card is safer or keeping budgets seperate is non-optimal for responding to price changes. The confidence built by a debt snowball is, for some people, more important than the cost savings of paying down the highest interest loans first.

I have tried, and failed, to operate some of these systems in my own life. They didn't work for me, personally. But I can see the value in them, even if they aren't fully optimized for maximizing savings / spending / whatever. That sense of having control over something you haven't had control over must be pretty powerful.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:27 PM on November 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

It's always fascinating to see which old things are going to become new and trendy again

Like scooters and ukuleles, envelopes are back!
posted by jgirl at 6:34 PM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

And Columbo! The kids love Columbo!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:11 PM on November 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Everybody loves Columbo. Except the criminals.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:32 AM on November 22, 2022 [2 favorites]

EmpressCallypigos: you're not wrong in that there could be too much of a focus on looks vs function, especially if/when this takes off beyond the content creator sphere. Time will tell!
posted by creatrixtiara at 3:57 PM on November 22, 2022

When you are 'budgeting' there are several important notes. The most simple thing is - money in, money out - if the net is equal or LESS then 'good'. Most people are useless at budgeting as they (conveniently) forget that a bag of coffee ($11) will give you x+y travel mugs while $5 will give you an endorphin and sugar surge. Equally, food prep. We 'budget' and plan our eating, plan our cooking, pack lunches, take coffee to go with us etc Work colleagues scratch their heads and go 'but it is so much work' (it is not). They regularly bitch they have no money, We do and also do 'Lincoln Logs' - five dollar bills which we do not miss and then we splurge on 'treats' or (as this year) a trip to Europe. And we did not miss the $5...
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 8:35 PM on November 22, 2022 [1 favorite]

I tried the envelope system with actual cash like, once, and then put it away somewhere really safe and obvious and lost two weeks' worth of pay for nearly five years until I opened a folder and went 'ahhhhhh that's where that money went'.

Now I use a kind of virtual envelope system, but because I'm also bad at having discipline to update a spreadsheet every day or week, so I have a bank account the money comes into and that I don't otherwise touch. It autopays my rent to the landlord, it autopays the maximum expected power, internet, and phone bills into their respective accounts which then autopay the utility providers, it autopays into a 'bills that come up annually' account (insurance, AA membership), it autopays 10% to the charitable giving account, it autopays 30% to my investment broker, and it autopays the expected amount left over to the account that's actually attached to my debit card. I don't have a banking app on my phone, so it takes considerable forethought to get at money that isn't coming to my checking account anyway. Every year I go through, review and reset all the autopays, and any excess goes to the investment account.

It works so far, I guess?
posted by ngaiotonga at 12:14 AM on November 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

Ngaiotonga, that's similar to what I do. I just took things a step further back when I was temping and set up WEEKLY auto transfers to my accounts, because i got paid weekly. This was ultimately genius - 40 dollars a month somehow feels like more than 10 dollars a week, and sometimes I would bump that weekly transfer up a dollar or two as a result. So I ended up paying MORE towards some loans than I needed to and that wiped them out a little faster.

I also have 4 savings accounts that also get their dedicated weekly auto transfer, with two being set aside for liquid assets (account A is fun money, account B is for occasional but low level serious things like "crud, my toaster broke and I need a new one"). Regular bills are all autopaid by the credit cards I had so I can keep them active and keep my credit score up, and I pay them off via the weekly payments there too.

Granted, what REALLY helped was finally getting a well paying job at age 50. But the habits I adopted for sheer survival ended up being VERY useful now that things are better.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on November 23, 2022

If you want a little variety in your money-counting videos: 70 people demonstrate how they count money in their countries.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:26 AM on November 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

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