What is the best way to start a budget?
The first thing that anyone who wants to make a budget must do is to compare their income versus their expenses.
The good news is that it is quite easy to do.
To get started you can download this free Excel budgeting spreadsheet (or you can look through 10 other budgeting spreadsheets) which will help you calculate how much you spend each month and compare it to your current income.
It’s too bad most of us never learned this in school and had to figure it out on our own – so here is the lesson that we should have learned in 5th grade:
Expenses > Income = Bad
& Expenses < Income = Good
And honestly, as simple as it sounds, that is the key to wealth. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who IS wealthy (I emphasize IS because I am not talking about people who appear to be wealthy, but who are actually in debt up to their eyeballs) spends LESS money than they earn. AKA – their expenses are less than their income.
The great news about this is that anyone can do this – no matter what their income level. If you can do it on a small income, then you can do it on a large income. If you can’t do it on a small income, then you won’t be able to do it on a large one either. Trust me!
If you don’t believe me, just ask all of the lottery winners who went bankrupt within years of winning millions of dollars.
Back to making our budget…
Regardless of how your expenses and income compare right now – get excited, because you can easily change it!! If it is bad you can make it so much better!! If it is good, you can still make it even better!! I will show you how later, but for now…
Let’s make a budget!
Did you calculate what your monthly expenses and income were? Were your expenses less than your income? If so, you are a rare breed who is in great shape, so just sit tight for a minute.
For everyone else, whose expenses exceeded your income – you are not alone. You actually have a lot of company. The problem is that it isn’t good company! Most of our debt-ridden society is in the same boat, but you are one of the bold ones who is jumping out of the debt boat!!
So, if your income is $1000 and your expenses are $1200, that means you spend an extra $200 each month that YOU DON’T HAVE!! What your job is now is to find out what you can get rid of or quit buying each month to save that $200. If you have no idea where to start you can check out these money saving tips or browse other money saving ideas.
I know, I know – this is the part that hurts. Just like pruning a bush – cutting back hurts, but ultimately you are going to yield so MUCH more fruit because of it!!
The goal here is to get your expenses and income to AT LEAST be equal. Once that is accomplished we can work on eliminating wasteful spending or cut other costs to bring the expenses below the income.
Now that you have calculated what your monthly income and expenses are we can start designing our budget. We will first discuss the less effective, but easier method for budgeting…
The world’s easiest budget
There are 2 simple rules to do a simple budget:
- You can’t spend more than you earn – carrying a balance on a credit card is not allowed.
- Money must go to the budget categories as soon you get paid.
The way it works:
Rather than having 10-20 different budgeting categories of items to be budgeted for you only focus on the 1-3 most important ones and let the rest of the chips fall where they will.
So, to do this you take your paycheck of say $1000 and right off the top you put the money to your main priorities. For many people this is tithing to their church, retirement savings, college savings for children, etc…
A sample of this would be:
– $100 (tithe)
– $100 (retirement savings)
= $800 (for the rest of the bills and everything else)
It is absolutely critical that the money gets taken out FIRST for these few budgeted items. If not, I can almost guarantee that the full amount will not make it as intended.
I highly recommend making this process automatic by using direct deposit or some other form of automatic withdrawal. There is just something about human nature that has a hard time staying consistent with things like this.
Why do you think the U.S. government takes our taxes directly out of our paycheck, rather than coming to collect the full sum at the end of the year? It is the same principle – use it to your advantage.
Easy budget, but not very efficient
I think this budget is perfect for people who don’t want to budget. It is simple, doesn’t take up much time, and will help you reach some savings goals. That said, it is still inefficient and leaves the door wide open for inefficient and foolish spending.
I think it should be considered the “lazy man’s budget” – and you are not LAZY and you are willing to work to get your finances in order!! I know this because you are still reading. So, since you are NOT lazy and are hungry for more of a challenge, let’s look at how the pros budget.
The money saving budgeting method
Yes, this method takes a little bit more time and energy, but it also will provide you will long-term financial benefits if followed.
To do this we are just going to expand on the lazy man’s budget mentioned above. Rather than having just 1-3 categories of items budgeted for, we are going to create as many as we need to put a limit on our spending in all areas.
You can use the budget spreadsheet (mentioned at the top of the article) as a guide for tracking your progress. Try to account for every possible expense that you could run into. You will never be able to budget for every possible scenario, but the goal is to minimize surprise expenses. Inevitably, there will still be surprises from time to time – so I suggest creating a category for these surprises (or you can just use your emergency fund).
How to stick with your budget
The almost sure-fire way to make a budget that fails is to NOT budget for any fun stuff. I wrote about how budgeting should be fun and it is a necessary ingredient for success. You need to budget for clothing, entertainment, going out to dinner, or whatever else it is you love to do! The key is to do it in moderation and to set limits and abide by them.
The amazing thing is that by budgeting for fun stuff, it actually liberates you to spend money on these items. When you have money budgeted each month to buy clothes, the money is now sitting there waiting to be used for that assigned purpose. Suddenly you can go clothes shopping without feeling guilty!!
This is how budgeting truly becomes fun. When you have money sitting in the bank waiting to be spent. Or, even better: if you start budgeting for vacation and after a little while you have hundreds of dollars begging to be spent on a vacation!! You go on your trip and come back home and don’t owe any money to a credit card company – now that is how a budget becomes fun and what helps you stick with it!!
Other budget options
There are many ways to make a budget work. The key is to finding a system that works for you and sticking with it. This article has gone over a basic method of budgeting, but if you need a little more hand-holding, and are willing to pay a little for it, I suggest YNAB budgeting software.
It is what I use and I would argue that it is the best budgeting software out there (although Mvelopes isn’t a bad budgeting tool) and makes the whole budgeting process as simple as it can be. But be warned, it isn’t a magic tool that is going to eliminate all the work – it will just make it easier to manage the budgeting process.
As far as paying for budget software I think it depends on the user. It is not a necessity by any means, but investing a few bucks could save you some time and make the process a little easier. It just depends on personal preference really.
Either way, I suggest making sure that you are committed to this whole budgeting thing before buying the software - no one likes to waste their money! But if you do decide to go with it, make sure you try it out first with their 34-day free trial.
1. Create your budget!
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I would love to hear what budgeting method has worked for you and what hasn’t. Let us know in the comments below…