Your First Personal Finance Step: Building a Checking Account Buffer

graphic building a checking account buffer

When you begin your personal finance journey you want a prioritized money action list. A checking account buffer goes at the top of your money and budgeting action list.

The checking account buffer keeps you out of credit card debt. It allows you to donate to political campaigns when feeling the fire. It has your back when an unexpected expense pops up.

Also, that one person in your life that requires you to write them a check but then takes 27 days to cash it? Yeah, you need a buffer to deal with that ish.

What is a Checking Account Buffer?

It’s an amount of money that always stays in your checking account. You never intend to spend it in a given week. But it’s there if you need it.

Whenever it drops below the intended amount, you replenish it the next time you budget.

Your buffer is a self-created overdraft. And it saves you both embarrassment (merci!) and bank fees.

What’s the Difference between a Checking Account Buffer and an Emergency Fund?

Your emergency fund is crucial for financial stability. Building up a reserve of 9-12 months of monthly expenses is a major financial goal for creative solopreneurs.

But building your checking account buffer comes before starting your emergency fund. The checking account buffer smoothes out everyday money ups and downs. It helps you build your savings skills. And it provides a beginner foundation from which to build emergency savings and pay off debt.

Why using a buffer is so important

You can never perfectly plan your budget and life, and surprises happen. And a checking account buffer gives you confidence and reduces anxiety.

  • A checking account buffer will help you stay out of credit card debt when you have variable income.
  • It allows you to use a zero-based budget without anxiety about a very low bank balance
  • It eliminates concern about debit card decline embarrassment.
  • It prevents overdraft fees when that check finally clears after 27 days.
  • It enables anxiety-free online spending when you use a debit card.

How to Use and Maintain a Checking Account Buffer

Start by choosing a buffer amount based on what allows you to feel confidence and comfort in your life.

For many people it’s one to two weeks of expenses. I always keep at least $300 in my business checking account, and $500 in my personal checking account.

Once you decide on the amount, using a checking account buffer will take care of itself.

Maintaining your buffer is a conscious part of your money work, though.
And you do that by creating an expense line for it in your zero-based budget.

That expense line can go anywhere in the first three sections of your budget. I put mine in section C, Sinking Funds

Each week when I budget, I calculate my remaining buffer amount. I budget weekly and only for money that hits the account the previous week, so I wanted to lay out an example for you to understand the process.

So, this is how my cushion replenishing process looks, using a sample budget.

Income calculation in a zero based budget

A – The Sunday checking account balance is $1922.98 { listed as “Total Funds to Spend” }
B – After taxes, the total of all deposits that hit the checking account this week is $1132.98 { listed as “Income to Spend” }
C – The remaining checking account buffer is B minus A = $790

Since this example person keeps a $800 buffer in their checking account, $10 of this budget will be spent on replenishing the buffer.

But! – and here’s the tricky bit. The line item in the budget – shown in variable expenses here – won’t be for $10, it will be for the full $800.

variable expenses in your zerio based budget

So, there you have it! The buffer is replenished and you have $800 again waiting in the bank in case it’s needed.

Building up your Buffer

There are several ways to find the money for your checking account buffer. Use any and all that are helpful.

If you’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, it could take some time. Be patient with yourself. Here are some ideas to start:

  • Take a chunk out of an existing savings account
  • Use some of a lump payment or windfall
  • Dedicate a small amount to building the buffer up each time you budget, even just $10 or $20.
  • Review your expenses and choose 1 or 2 discretionary items to stop purchasing for the next 2, 6, or 10 months. Any time you would have bought one of those items, choose to leave the money in your account instead. And track it for yourself in a notebook each time that happens to see your progress.

Once you have your checking account cushion built up, you’re going to feel a little more confident. And a little more prepared. You’ll have built some savings muscles, and be more ready to free yourself from using credit cards.

I can’t wait to see what you do with this increased confidence and agency <3

For more ideas and support, comment below! Tell us what your biggest challenge is when it comes to building up your own checking account cushion.