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How to Create a Budget That Prioritizes Experiences Over Things

Maryalene LaPonsie

The days of dreaming about McMansions and luxury cars seem to be dwindling. Nowadays people are more likely to want a tiny house and a lift on Uber.

"We're moving into the experience age," says Cary George, CEO of TripGift, a U.K.-based company that sells travel gift cards and offers booking services for travel and lifestyle experiences. The shift may be thanks, in part, to the minimalism movement, which eschews the pursuit of material goods. "You can only buy so many [things] and fill up the drawer," George says.

People are looking for more satisfaction than what is provided by the latest iPhone or a garage full of outdoor gear. This is particularly true of young adults. "Millennials want to live a life of less regret," says Kyle Winkfield, managing partner of financial firm OWRS in Rockville, Maryland. They want to take the trip, have the fancy dinner and make the memories that will last a lifetime.

If that sounds appealing, you may need to tweak your finances. Here's how experts say you can create a budget that lets you pay for those memories without going into debt.

[Read: How to Make a Budget -- and Stick to It.]

Decide your ideal lifestyle. While embracing experiences instead of things seems to be popular, everyone has a different idea of what that means. For some, it may be going out to dinner with friends every weekend. Others may take a more radical approach and live full-time in an RV as they explore the country.

Before you can begin the budgeting process, you need to understand your personal goals. If those involve a nontraditional lifestyle such as full-time RV-ing or sailing around the world for a year, you'll want to do some additional research to make sure your budget is realistic.

"I strongly encourage people to talk to others who have gone through similar experiences," says Steve Frazier, investment manager with Frazier Investment Management in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Frazier, who has clients traveling full time, says a lot of unknowns, from emergency situations to surprise expenses, come with that lifestyle. Fortunately, the prevalence of internet forums, blogs and Facebook groups can make it relatively simple to find and learn from others who live similarly.

Evaluate current spending. Like budgeting for a car or a house, the process of planning for experiences requires you to take stock of your current situation. The easiest way to do that is with budgeting software or an app. For example, Mint is a popular and free option to track expenses and report spending by category.

Once you know how much you're spending, consider whether your expenses align with your priorities. For instance, you may value friendships but discover your spending reveals you pay for more internet purchases than evenings out. In that case, a change will be needed.

"Take a step back and see what are you spending that's discretionary," says David Geibel, managing director and senior vice president at Univest Wealth Management in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

Then consider how to reallocate that discretionary money. For instance, if you spend a significant amount on dining but would rather travel, commit to eating at home and earmark the savings for a trip.

[See: 8 Big Budgeting Blunders -- and How to Fix Them.]

Get ready to make sacrifices. It's unlikely you'll be able to buy or experience everything you want on the income you have available.

Fraizer says that may lead some people to sacrifice future financial security for immediate gratification. "They have made a choice to put retirement a little bit on the backburner," he says of some people who travel heavily. However, that strategy could backfire if someone ends up retiring without sufficient savings.

Skipping homeownership is another sacrifice that experience-seekers may make, but this one doesn't come with the same long-term risk. Plus, it could make it easier to pursue passions, Geibel says. Not only may a renter have lower monthly payments than a homeowner, but they forego additional costs such as maintenance and property taxes, which can free up extra money for dining, vacations and other activities.

Boost savings. A budget that prioritizes experiences will need to prioritize savings. While some experiences can be planned in advance, others arise when a good travel deal becomes available or an impromptu invitation is extended.

"For many, what appears to be spontaneity is a good savings habit," Winkfield says. In order to be able to take advantage of these opportunities, people need to have a healthy savings account from which to pull money for tickets, food or transportation. Winkfield says the millennials he knows aren't saving for a specific item -- such as a house or a car -- but are putting money aside each paycheck to cover the cost of whatever unexpected adventure presents itself next.

While everyone needs an emergency fund, those who want to feel free to dine out weekly or travel on a whim need to have extra set aside in a designated account. The actual amount to set aside depends on individual goals. Someone who wants to be able to meet up with friends for drinks after work won't need as much in savings as those who'd like to take multiple trips during the year.

[See: 12 Ways to Be a More Mindful Spender.]

Use rewards credit cards wisely. Using a travel credit card can free up money for other things. For instance, when Winkfield was invited to several destination weddings, he didn't have to pay for plane tickets since he could use points accumulated on his American Express card.

Some cards allow users to earn points that can be redeemed for gift cards, travel or unique experiences such as VIP tickets to sporting competitions or access to limited-seating dining events offered by a variety of partner businesses. Other cards earn reward points that can only be redeemed at a specific chain -- in this case, for rooms at Marriott and SPG hotels. Many travel credit cards offer additional perks such as room upgrades, free checked luggage and travel insurance.

Before using a rewards credit card, make sure the benefits are worth any annual fee that may be charged. What's more, be sure to pay off the balance each month. "Logic and responsibility come into play," Frazier says. Paying interest on purchases could negate the value of rewards.

Maximize your money. When you are ready to spend money on an experience, shop for the best prices on airfare and lodging, and don't be afraid to negotiate. Often, better deals can be found when traveling with a group. "Call a few friends and get everyone together," George says.

At a time in which people are looking for more fulfillment in their lives, crafting a budget that allows you to make memories makes sense. While it isn't difficult to do, it will require some planning and a few sacrifices along the way.

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