Image: Savings © RubberBall, SuperStock

How many of you have tried budgeting and think it's a waste of time? Come on, let's see those hands.

OK, that's just about everybody.

I've kept a budget of one kind or another, first on paper and then with the help of various software programs, for many years -- despite a strong suspicion that I was wasting my time. The illusion of control, I argued to myself, was better than none at all.

My approach to budgeting was to carefully track my spending during the month and to adjust my budget targets up and down in each category, so that my total expenses never exceeded my income.

Useful? Sometimes. Anal-retentive? Probably.

After two decades of this, though, I started to wonder if there isn't an easier, more effective way to budget. I realized that the hardest part about keeping a budget is getting useful information from it. There's too much detail and not enough bottom line. My answer is the 60% Solution, a faster and easier way to structure your budget without having to account for every penny.

What you're trying to do with a budget is to prevent overspending, which ultimately leads to piling up debt. Contrary to the way most people budget, however, it rarely matters what you're overspending on -- dining out, entertainment, clothes. Who cares? It's still debt, right?

Looking at my own spending history, I realized that it wasn't the little luxuries here and there that got me in trouble. It was the large, irregular expenses -- like vacations, major repairs and the holidays -- that did all the damage. To avoid overspending, I had to do a better job of planning for those.

And then there were the really big expenses: buying a car, putting a down payment on a new home or putting a new roof on an old home, all of which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. They also can often be postponed, sometimes for years, which theoretically should give me a chance to save for them.

Understand your committed expenses

As I looked back over the past 20 years of budgeting, I saw that there were a few years when my wife and I believed we were fairly on top of things, even with a much lower income. How did we manage?

The key was a drop in our fixed monthly expenses. It was a period when declining interest rates had lowered our adjustable-rate-mortgage payment to about 15% of our household income. That left us with some extra money each month to set aside in a savings account for those irregular expenses.

We later moved to a bigger house with a much bigger mortgage payment, higher maintenance costs and utility bills, and obscene property taxes. The monthly mortgage payment was only 20% of our gross income, far lower than the 33% that most lenders will allow, but, suddenly, we were struggling again.