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Budgeting for beginners: 6 steps to get started
Use these steps to create a budget and remain in control of your money.
You know you need a budget, but sitting down and actually creating one is a whole other story. Luckily, we laid it all out in an easy-to-follow process. Here’s how to create — and stick to — a budget in five 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Kakebo app
- 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.
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.
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
|Cell phone bill||-$75|
|Total income and expenses||$4,000||-$2,500|
Tips and tricks before you budget
Keep these tips in mind when creating your budget:
How to choose a budgeting method that works for you
This table showcases the different types of budgeting methods and how they compare. Use it to decide which process may work for you.
|Type||Best for||How it works||Popular accounts|
|Zero-based budgeting||Those who want to know how they’re spending every single dollar they make|
|Envelope budgeting||Those who need help curbing spending but don’t want to track every purchase|
|50/30/20 budgeting||Those who are new to budgeting or want to budget quickly|
|Kakeibo budgeting||Those who want to take a more mindful approach to budgeting using a Japanese technique|
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:
Compare budgeting apps
Use this interactive table to compare budgeting apps by monthly fee, service fee and platforms.
We update our data regularly, but information can change between updates. Confirm details with the provider you're interested in before making a decision.
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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