It's almost a truism that budgeting is a critical step for anyone looking to get serious about money management. After all, you have to know where your money is going in order to make plans for the future. But if you haven’t ever tracked your spending, how do you get started?
Here are three tips that will help you set up a budget and start managing your money.
1. Determine Wants Versus Needs
The first step towards creating a budget is determining which expenses are wants and which are needs. Housing, utilities, groceries, transportation, clothing and childcare are generally considered necessities; entertainment, travel and dining out are thought of as “wants,” or what are known as discretionary expenses. That being said, there often is some gray area between a want and a need: You may need a car to get to work if carpooling or public transit is not an option, for example, but a flashy sports car may be a want. Everyone must buy clothes, but designer clothes are not requirements. If you can afford or have already purchased a luxury version of your necessary expenses, remember that downgrading is always an option if you decide that type of expense no longer fits with your lifestyle.
2. Figure Out Fixed and Variable Expenses
Fixed expenses – which, as their name implies, remain the same every month – are the backbone of every budget and should be the easiest to plan for. Examples of these might be your rent, car payment and student loans, which are likely to be the same, month in and month out. Variable expenses, no surprise, are the ones that change every month. Your grocery bills, consumption-based utilities (like oil/gas, electricity, phone service), clothing expenses, travel and car maintenance expenses are all variable expenses.
Budgeting for variable expenses, of course, is one of the harder parts of creating a spending plan. Here are a couple of tips to help make it easier:
- Track your spending for three to six months, figure out the average over that period and, in the future, aim for the average every month.
- Instead of tracking variable expenses monthly, try setting a six-month or annual budget goal. This is especially useful for expenses like car maintenance or travel, which might not crop up every month but still need to be considered in a budget as they can be big-ticket items.
3. Decide What Type of Money Manager You Want to Be
It’s important to determine whether you are a big-picture or a detail-oriented money manager. Some people like to know generally where their money is going but don’t want to have to track every coffee they buy; others like to know exactly how much they spend on their latte habit. Determining if you prefer a detailed or broad view of your money will help you decide what type of budget system will work for you. The one caveat: If money is tight, you may have to use a system that tracks every penny. Once your finances are more flush, you may be able to switch to a less detailed tracking system. Here is a closer look at each type of budgeting.
• Detail-oriented budgeting. This system helps you control the outflow of your funds and sometimes alerts you to wasteful spending that you weren’t aware of. You know the popular “you spend enough on coffee each year to buy a used car” scolding? This system will help you figure out exactly how much you spend on things like your java habit, and where you actually want your money to go – including into savings and retirement accounts.
While you can create a detail-oriented budget manually with receipts and spreadsheets, many people choose to use automated tracking tools such as those found at Mint or Personal Capital. These programs will track and categorize all of your spending, which makes it easy to see if you are overspending in different categories. An additional benefit: If you have expenses for your work that should be reimbursable (travel expenses, office supplies), an automatic tracker can help you keep them organized and make sure you get the full reimbursements you are due. 6 Best Personal Finance Apps will update you on good tools to try.
• Big-picture budgeting. If you have more financial wiggle room and less tolerance for tracking details, you may want to develop a big-picture budget. Create a list of all of the regular expenses that you consider “needs,” and include categories for savings, retirement, emergency funds, charitable giving and travel (if you travel often). If you choose to use a big-picture budgeting system, be sure to give yourself a sizable cushion for savings and an emergency fund. (For more on this, see Building an Emergency Fund and Why You Absolutely Need an Emergency Fund.)
Once you have determined your monthly necessary expenses, plus the additional categories included above, you can then spend the remainder of your monthly income however you choose. The only thing to track is the total spent from this “miscellaneous” fund, but you don’t have to track how much you spend on clothes or coffee. To make tracking easier, it can be helpful to have one bank account or one credit card that you use for your “miscellaneous” expense fund so that you can easily keep an eye on your total expenditures.
The Bottom Line
Budgets are a critical tool to help with money management, but ultimately they are just a general set of guidelines. If your current budget isn’t working for you, try another approach. The most important thing to do is to make a plan that works for you, and once it's in place, to stick with it.
For more help on setting up a budget, see our tutorial: Budgeting Basics.