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Budgeting for beginners: 6 steps to get started

Learn how to budget and gain control over your finances.

It’s no secret that budgeting your money is the best way to attain financial freedom, but actually sitting down crunching the numbers is a whole other story. Luckily, we’ve laid it all out in an easy-to-follow process. Here’s how to budget in six simple steps.

1. Find your budgeting method

First things first, think about how you want to budget. Do you want to track everything manually in a spreadsheet? Use a budgeting app to help you automate the process? There’s no wrong answer, but choose a method you think you’ll stick with — and dare I say — even enjoy.

If you’re a numbers person who loves a good spreadsheet, an automated software like Tiller Money may fit the bill. If you despise the thought of budgeting and want to automate the process as much as possible, a software like EveryDollar may be a better fit.

2. Tally up your income

Once you have your budgeting method, add your total monthly net income. This could include your salary, interest and dividends, investment income, family allowances, child support, alimony and even income from your side gigs or hobbies.

3. Calculate your expenses

Create budgeting categories for all of your monthly expenses. Look at your receipts and past credit card and bank statements to find the average amount you spend each month on each spend category. Some common expenses include:

  • You may realize you have way more expenses than you thought when you start calculating them, but that’s okay. You can always adjust these categories as you get more in-tune with your spending.

    4. See where you stand

    When you finish your budget you should have a figure that shows money left over at the end of the month. This is your income minus expenses.

    • If your budget shows a positive figure, then you’re spending less than you earn. Congratulations! Take that extra money and put it toward your savings goals and debt.
    • If your budget shows a negative figure, living beyond your means and possibly accruing more debt. Evaluate your expenses to see what you can do without. Maybe you can shave $50 off your dining out budget or cut out the one subscription service you use least. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic, but small changes will add up over time.

    5. Track your progress

    Set aside 15 minutes each week to import expenses into your budget, so you can see how much money you have left in each category. If you’ve overspent in one category (such as car repairs), move money from another category (such as dining out or fun money), to cover the difference. That way you don’t end the month in the red.

    If you use cash a lot, keep receipts so you know what you’ve spent your money on. Otherwise, you can log in to your bank and credit card accounts to see how much you’ve spent.

    6. Be flexible

    No two months are going to be the same, so your budget needs to be adjusted regularly to match your changing finances. The interest rate on your mortgage may go up, straining your budget more than the previous month. Or, you may pay off debts and find you have more money to put toward your savings goals. Whatever it is, stay flexible and be willing to adjust your budget as often as necessary.

    Example: Budgeting spreadsheet

    Here’s what my budgeting categories looked like before I paid off $18k in student loans. I put all of the leftover money toward my debt, then I used it to build a three-month emergency fund once it was paid off.

    Cassidy’s monthly income and expenses

    Dining out-$355
    Car loan-$305
    Miscellaneous expenses-$150
    Cat expenses-$100
    Car insurance-$95
    Cell phone bill-$75
    Car fuel-$55
    Total income and expenses$4,000-$2,500
    Leftover money $1,500

    4 budgeting tips and tricks

    Keep these tips in mind when creating your budget:

    • Think long-term. You’ll most likely budget for the month, but remember that improving your finances is a long term commitment. You may not see results at first but keep at it. The reward will be worth it.
    • Set realistic expectations. The first month your budget is in place is a good barometer of how realistic it is. If you can’t stick to it in the first month then you may need to revise it.
    • Keep it simple. Less is more when it comes to budgeting categories. Instead of having a category for every little expense, create your main categories, then one “Forgot to budget for” category to catch the miscellaneous.
    • Make reviewing your budget part of your routine. Get in the habit of reviewing and adjusting your budget at least once a week. Maybe you can do it with your morning coffee on Sundays as you begin to mentally prepare for the next work week.

    Consider a checking account that helps you budget automatically

    4 types of budgeting methods

    This table showcases the different types of budgeting methods and how they compare. Use it to decide which process may work for you.

    TypeBest forHow it worksPopular accounts
    Zero-based budgetingThose who want to know how they’re spending every single dollar they make
    • Take all income and allocate it toward expenses, debt and savings
    • Make sure income minus expenses equals zero each month
    • Can be automated or manual (manual would be tedious)
    Envelope budgetingThose who need help curbing spending but don’t want to track every purchase
    • Set a spending limit for each category
    • Fill envelopes with money
    • Once envelope runs out, you can’t spend any more money in that particular category
    • Can be automated or manual
    50/30/20 budgetingThose who are new to budgeting or want to budget quickly
    • Allocate 50% of take-home pay to necessities, 30% to wants and 20% to savings and debt
    • Don’t track individual expenses, just make sure you stay within certain range
    • Must be done manually
    • N/A
    Kakeibo budgetingThose who want to take a more mindful approach to budgeting using a Japanese technique
    • Set aside money for savings first
    • Split remaining funds between Survival expenses, Optional expenses, Cultural expenses and Extra expenses
    • Tally up expenses at the end of the month to see how you did
    • Can be automated or manual

    Which budgeting method should I use if I’m short on time?

    A program like Tiller Money is great for budgeters who are short on time. It has two main benefits:

    • It uses Google Sheets or Excel, which means you won’t have to learn a new app or software.
    • It connects to your financial accounts, so transactions automatically get deducted from your budgeting categories as they import.

    Compare budgeting apps

    Use this interactive table to compare budgeting apps by monthly fee, service fee and platforms.

    Name Product Fee Service fee Platforms
    Chime Spending account
    Get rid of fees with this financial app offering consumer-friendly accounts. Chime can also help you save easily and access your paycheck faster.
    Get financial advice, pay off debt, create a budget and automate savings with this budgeting app. But be prepared to pay for extra features.
    You won’t pay a dime if this company can’t lower your monthly bills. But you’ll pay a hefty fee if it does.
    Emma helps you in avoiding overdrafts, finding wasteful subscriptions and giving you control over your finances.
    Digit analyzes your spending and automatically saves an appropriate amount every day so you don't have to think about it.

    Compare up to 4 providers

    Why should I budget?

    When you create a budget, you’re building a plan for your money and your future. A budget guarantees you’ll always have the funds to pay for upcoming expenses as well as any unforeseen bumps that crop up along the way. A budget can also help relieve you of the burden of debt or allow you to grow your savings at a steady rate. It provides a good overview of all your expenses and help you establish financial goals and future savings plans.

    Bottom line

    Far too many individuals don’t have a clear idea of where their money is going. They just know they never have enough leftover at the end of the month. Budgeting puts you in control of your money and makes it much easier to track spending habits, reach savings goals and pay off debt.

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