In an old interview with the actors Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, Hackman shares a memory from one visit he made to Hoffman’s tiny apartment in Pasadena well before either of them had made any real money. As Hackman tells it, Hoffman kept mason jars full of cash in his kitchen, with each one labeled for a different part of his budget. “One says ‘rent,’ one says ‘entertainment,’ one says ‘books’ … about five of them,” says Hackman. “They all had money in them except for the one that said ‘food.’ He said, ‘Hey, can I borrow some money?’ I said, ‘You don’t need any money! You’ve got money!’ He said, ‘I can’t take the money out of the other jars.’”
The two laughed, joking that it was probably Hoffman’s mom who taught him the mason jar banking method. And, really, it probably was. For anyone over the age of 40, this tale likely evokes stories you’ve heard in your own family: great aunts with cash strapped to the bottom of the dining-room table, grandparents who cut a small hole in the mattress to store savings, maybe even your mother who kept envelopes of cash in the kitchen drawer to track her monthly spending. The idea behind the method is that when the cash is gone, it’s gone, and you’re done spending. If you’re able to see in real time where your money is going, you’re better able to pay down debt and, ultimately, save.
The concept is age-old, incredibly simple, and outrageously low-tech. And right now it’s having a moment in our TikTok-obsessed, fintech-leaning culture where, one Pew Research Trust study shows, younger generations are less inclined to use cash. Hoffman’s approach has historically been called the envelope method, though today the term being tossed around social media is “cash stuffing.”
Instructional videos explaining this method are popping up on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. They typically show a set of beautifully manicured hands moving cash from a withdrawal envelope or a wallet into a cash-stuffing binder (a series of envelopes or an accordion envelope), with each section labeled for a line item in the budget: rent/mortgage, food, utilities, car, insurance, entertainment, travel, and so on.
There are also lessons on savings challenges for distinct periods of time or specific amounts of money. In the 52-week challenge, the videos teach you how to allocate an increasing number of dollars per week for savings over the course of one year. Other videos provide instruction on building a rainy-day fund or a six-month kitty to cover your expenses should you lose your job. And there’s carefully choreographed swag too. The binders, envelopes, piggy banks, wallets, and other gear are often different colors or feature various themes such as illustrations, emoji, or phrases written in artsy fonts.
One TikTok account, @baddiesandbudgets, has more than 650,000 followers and has spawned a legitimate business aimed at helping others organize their finances and peddling some of the cash stuffing gear she uses in her videos: piggy banks, envelope binders, budgeting templates. Jasmine Taylor, the Amarillo, Texas, woman behind Baddies and Budgets, says the company has four employees including herself and is on track to pull in $1 million by year-end. A quick scroll through Instagram garners tens of thousands of posts with a cash stuffing hashtag, while Taylor has landed on CNBC, USA Today, The New York Post, and Black Enterprise to discuss it.
Our newsfeeds are often awash in old ideas dressed up as modern-day memes. But that an idea so truly unoriginal and simplistic is carrying so much heft in an economic culture that’s become increasingly complicated and reliant on technology is fascinating.
“This is genius,” says Heather Loomis Tighe, a venture capital adviser and partner, and strategic adviser to Family Offices, formerly of BlackRock and JPMorgan. “It reestablishes a connection to money, which we’ve lost with the electronic movement of it.”