11 Steps For Staying On Track With Your Budget
*Not keeping track of your money is one of the most dangerous financial mistakes you can make.*Some sort of plan for your money can help you keep on track — and help you avoid the pitfalls related to spending more than you earn. So why is everyone not using a budget? However, creating a budget can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s easier than most people think.
1. Know what you have right nowThe first step in creating a budget is understanding where you’re at right now. Look at all of your banking accounts, credit cards, debts, buried jars of money in the backyard, and any sources of income. You should also spend at least one month tracking all of your spending and see where you money is going. You can get a better idea of larger trends, though, if you follow your money for two or three months. You can use a ledger or notebook to record income and expenses, but it might be easier if you use personal finance software, or sign up for a free budget application. Assign each expense to a category. Be sure to track the cash you spend, as well as purchases made with debit and credit cards. If you have a smartphone (and who doesn’t?) tracking your spending has never been easier. Apps like Mint and Personal Capital make budgeting as easy as looking at your phone. The apps will connect with your bank accounts and credit cards and automatically separate your spending into different categories. They will display your spending habits in and easy to read graphs.
2. Review Your Spending and IncomeAfter you have taken the time to track your income and your expenses, it’s time to review how your money is moving through your bank account. Look at the categories where you are spending the most, you might be surprised to see where a lot of your money is going. Recognize that you might be spending more than you earn each month, don’t worry if you are, it’s a common problem. This will identify areas of concern before you make your budget, as well as help you realistically allocate where your money should go each month. If you are spending more than you earn, a review will help you see where you need to cut back as you make a budget and will get you back in the black. Many people are surprised to see how much money they are spending in certain areas.
3. Identify Your Needs and Financial GoalsNext, you need to determine what your needs are. These are items that you can’t live without (a new TV doesn’t fall into the “needs” category). You should make sure that your budget first covers items like food, shelter and clothing, as well as transportation to work. Also, recognize your obligations and bills. Make sure debt payments are made, as well as utility payments and other important obligations. You should also designate some financial goals. If you want to build your emergency fund or save more for retirement, it is important that you incorporate these things into your budget. Each person will have a different set of financial goals depending on their financial situation and their desires. Figure out what you want to do with your money so that you can incorporate these items into your plan. You will be more likely to stick with a budget that helps you reach your financial goals.
4. Start From the TopWhen creating a budget, it becomes obvious that you need to make choices. Before you budget in for wants like entertainment, you need to make sure that needs and financial goals are covered. List all of your needs and wants in order of importance. Your food, clothing, gas money, etc. will all be at the top, and things like buying a pool will be at the bottom. It is also important to be realistic about what “needs” are. Yes, you need food. However, what you need are healthy foods. Junk food is not a need. Getting takeout twice a week is not a need. You can reduce your grocery bill by planning healthy meals and cooking at home. There are a number of other “needs” that are actually wants. Be honest about where your money is going, and be realistic about your adjustments. It is not always fun to do this, but it is necessary. Some financial experts say that you waste as much as 15% of your income each month (did you really need to buy a cup of coffee every morning?). The money is probably there, and a budget can help you put it to better use, providing you with a solid foundation for a better financial future.
5. Make ChangesThe good news is, you’ve created a budget. The bad news is, it’s probably going to be wrong. More than likely you have overestimated in some spending areas and underestimated in other areas, but don’t worry, the longer you stick with the budget, the better you will become and guessing how much you’ll spend in all the categories. After you have created your budget, it’s should not be set in stone. Think of your budget as a fluid, living creature. Every month of your life is not identical; each month will bring different financial needs and wants. Some months you may have to budget for new tires or to replace an appliance. You should continue to review and adapt your budget as your life changes.
6. Go AutomaticIf you have trouble saving money, the best way to ensure that you stick to your saving category on your budget is to make your saving automatic. With just about every bank account you can create an electronic money transfer that will take money from one account to add to a savings account. This is an excellent way to prevent you from spending the money that you should be saving. You can schedule these transfers to happen at any time, but it’s best to do shortly after your regular paycheck will be deposited. The sooner your money is put into savings, the less likely you are to spend it on a non-budgeted item. If you never see the money, you can’t spend it.
7. Stick with it (and what to do if you’re not)Don’t create your budget and then forget it. Creating a budget is important, but using it is more important. Put your budget in a place that you will see it every day. Print it out and tape it to the fridge or your front door. You don’t have to review it every day, but knowing it’s there is important. It isn’t always going to be easy to stick to your budget, but it can have excellent rewards. If you become frustrated with sticking to your budget or begin to feel deprived of enjoying certain things, remind yourself of the financial goals you’ve set. If you’re saving for a new car, put a picture of the care to encourage you to stick with the budget. If you’re having problems sticking to your spending limits, it’s time to start “cash envelopes” With the cash envelope system, all you’ll need is several large envelopes to put money in. Designate each envelope as a different expense, i.e. a gas envelope, groceries envelope, entertainment envelope, etc. the money that you put in each envelope is the allotted amount you are allowed to spend on that category for the month. Once the money is gone, you have nothing left to spend in that category. Cash envelopes are one the best ways to live within your budget. Moyer states that “any area that you continually overspend should be switched to cash envelopes.”
8. Build an emergency fundOne of the most common problems people face when making a budget is not having an emergency fund built in. Because you can’t see into the future, it’s impossible to budget for all of your expenses every month. You never know when a pipe is going to bust, your car will need repairs or a heater will go out. Having an emergency fund can provide the extra cash needed to cover any unexpected costs that could arise.
Without having money saved for emergencies, any unexpected expenses can completely derail any good budget.
9. Don’t forget annual or semi-annualsBudgeting for reoccurring expenses is easy. Things like power bills, gas money, and water bills are hard to forget, you pay them every month, but don’t forget about those expenses that only come around once or twice every year. These expenses could be car insurance payments, health insurance, any membership fees, or much more. If you have anything like this, build these costs into your budget but divide them into monthly payments on your budget. If you pay your car insurance bi-annually, then divide that number by six and start saving for it every month.
10. Learn the power of NoBeing on a budget means you will have to say no to a lot of things. You may have to say no to your favorite type of junk food at the store, going to the movies, or going out to lunch with your coworkers.
Being disciplined and learning to say no to some of your wants is one of the most important budgeting skills.
11. Allow some fun moneyWho said budgets can’t be any fun? Make sure that you include a few bucks at the end of your budget as “blow money” or “fun money”. This is a just a small portion of your income that you can use for anything you like. Having the extra spending money makes sticking to a budget a little easier. Learn to treat yourself from time to time with this extra money (but don’t spend more money than you’ve budgeted).
Mistakes People Make that Blow Up Their Budget and How to Fix ThemIf you’ve ever started a budget, you’ve most likely started with good intentions. Sometimes your budget gets the job done, but other times, it’s a serious crash and burn that can leave you in worse shape than when you started. Every time I’ve tried to budget in the past, I would always start with a pad and paper. Unfortunately, by the time I got done trying to do my budget the sheet a paper looked more like a hardcore tournament of tic-tac-toe just took place. Why? Because I HATE budgeting and even though I suck at tic-tac-toe it’s a whole lot more fun than budgeting. As much as I hate it, I recognize that it’s a must if you have any hope of taking charge of your financial life. That’s where I got lucky. VERY lucky. My amazing wife is the Queen B. in our household with “B.” standing for “budgeting”. She loves to budget and she does so like a rockstar. Because of her our budget doesn’t suck. There are reasons that your budget sucks, and until you get that worked out, it’ll never help you reach your financial goals. Here are 16 reasons that your budget sucks, and how you can fix it.
1. Your Budget Doesn’t Match Your PersonalityIn order for a budget to work, it has to fit your personality and lifestyle, and not just yours, but also your family’s. Setting up a budget and simply requiring yourself and every member of your household to adhere to it won’t make it happen. For example, if you have a more casual attitude about money, completely denying yourself any cash for free-spending purposes could doom your budget. You may have to accept that at least a small percentage of the budget will have to allow for discretionary spending. This doesn’t mean that you can spend whatever you want. This is a budget, after all, and the goal is to reform your spending habits, not give you a license to mow through every cent you’ve saved. However, if you know that you will be unable to stick to something that is very rigid, build a little bit of financial flexibility into the budget, and set yourself up for success. Without going too far with it, you have to at least partially construct your budget around preferences – yours, your spouse’s, and even your children’s.
2. You’re a Yo-Yo BudgeterPerhaps you’ve heard of the term yo-yo dieter. That’s a person who has a long history of on-again, off-again dieting (I’m the perfect example of this since I go from being strict paleo one week to chowing down six doughnuts the next week.) Though they have a desire to lose weight, they lack the will or the discipline to stick to any diet for any length of time. What makes this even worse is the fact that yo-yo dieting can actually cause the dieter to gain more weight than they lose over the long-term. The same could be true of you when it comes to budgeting your money. You have a strong desire to get control of your finances, but you lack the discipline and/or the commitment to implement a budget and stick with it for more than a few months, or even a few weeks. And, much like a yo-yo dieter, a yo-yo budget can leave you in worse financial shape than when you started.
3. Your Budget Isn’t FlexibleSince expenses tend to rise and fall from one month to the next, your budget will not work if there isn’t a certain amount of flexibility built into it. That will mean that during the months when there is a surplus in your budget, you’ll have to bank it and have it available to shore up the months when your expenses are higher than normal. You can count on there being a certain amount of inconsistency in your budget from one month to the next, which is why you absolutely must have a plan to even out those ups and downs. Some months simply have more expenses than others, and they seem to come out of nowhere. In other months you can actually fall off the wagon – you spend more than you should, and it puts you in a bit of a hole. That’s actually normal, and as long as it doesn’t happen too often, and as long as your budget has enough flexibility to work around it, you’ll be fine. Just make sure you aren’t constantly relying on the flexibility of your budget to continue those bad spending habits.
4. You’re Watching Too Much TVThis one might come as a surprise to you, but it is a major reason why budgets don’t work. If you spend a lot of time watching TV (I’ll allow some exceptions like St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Shark Tank, and The Walking Dead), at least four factors come into play, and all work against you:
- Your TV is convincing you to buy things and do things that you don’t need to, and cannot afford. It’s called advertising.
- You’re zoning out and losing focus – and if there’s one thing that budgeting requires, it’s focus.
- The time you spend in front of your TV limits the amount of time that you have available to create lower-cost spending alternatives. Make no mistake about it, thrift requires more time and effort on your part.
- If you need to earn more money, TV will so cut down on the time you’ll need to make it happen.
5. Your Budget Allocates Too Much Money for Some Expenses and Not Enough For OthersAny budget that you create has to have balance built within it. If you’re spending too much on certain expenses, and not enough on others, the imbalances can eventually cause you to abandon the budget entirely. One common example is where too much money is being allocated to pay off credit card debt. Sure, credit cards are annoying and you want to get rid of them as soon as possible. But it’s usually a long-term process that will require that your budget is firing on all cylinders. If you are allocating too much money to pay off credit card debt, and not putting any money into savings, or spending too little on groceries, you could be sabotaging your budget. If you want to make the payments you are making more effective, take out one of the best credit cards for balance transfers and zap that debt into oblivion with 0% interest for a year or more. Yes, you can get along without balance for a few months, but if it takes a couple of years or more to pay off your credit cards, it’s more than likely that you will abandon your budget long before that happens.
6. You’re Staying Within Your Budget – By Borrowing to Cover ShortfallsThere are certain situations where a budget can become mostly an illusion. The most common example is where you are covering budget shortfalls by tapping credit cards. This is especially problematic if you have a history of over-using credit cards in the first place. You use credit to cover the shortage, telling yourself that you’ll just do it this one last time – at least until next time comes. If you have to use credit to cover your budget, you’re taking two steps forward to only take three steps back. This can only end in failure. I, unfortunately, had to witness this first hand with my father. He struggled each month to pay his bills and the only way he make ends meet was to borrow from one card to make the minimum payment on another. It was a vicious cycle that he was never able to break.
7. You Haven’t Budgeted for ContingenciesIt’s nice to think that all of our expenses can fit within a neat and consistent amount every month, but that’s also a fantasy. While it’s fairly easy to build a budget around fixed monthly expenses, like your house payment and debt payments, you still have to make an allowance for contingencies. For example, if you are driving two cars and both are over five years old, you should make a monthly allowance for car repairs, even and especially in the months where none are required. The idea is to have the money available when one does happen; that way, you’ll be able to pay it within your budget.
8. You’ve Got an “Off-Budget” Category – Or TwoYou might have an expense category or two that you’re keeping off budget – which is to say that you’re pretending it doesn’t exist. It could be a cigarette habit, a monthly bar bill, or a heavy addiction to In-N-Out Burger. Whatever it is, it’s causing money to leave your home, which in turn causes your budget to come up short every month. In order for a budget to be effective, it must also be comprehensive. If you’re holding certain expense categories outside of your budget – for whatever reason – you effectively have no budget. If it’s truly something you can’t – or don’t want to – live without, just add it to the budget and save accordingly.
9. Not Enough Money Is Going Into Savings
10. You Haven’t Budgeted Enough “Blow Off Steam” MoneyNo matter what the reasons are that are driving your decision to create a budget, you are going to have to allocate at least some money for fun. Life is stressful, and that’s why this is necessary. Sometimes spending a little bit of money on fun activities can keep you from falling off the budget wagon completely. Obviously you don’t want to go crazy here, but you are going to have to allow some extra cash to pay for an occasional movie, a dinner out, or a day at the beach. This might be just enough diversion in your life to keep you from abandoning your budget forever.
11. You Have Too Many Costly Hobbies – Or Too Much Blow Off Steam MoneyMaybe you have the exact opposite problem: you spend too much time and money blowing off steam. Often this comes in the form of hobbies that you don’t exactly think of as expenses. But any activity that causes you to spend money on a regular basis is an expense, no matter how you choose to view it. You might be going out to eat too often, spending too much on computer equipment, spending a little too much time on the golf course, or renting a few too many movies at the Redbox (those late fees add up!). You’re going to have to track of these expenses – no matter how casually they may occur – and understand the full impact of the effect they’re having on your budget. In fact, these categories are easy places to slash your budget, if you don’t get rid of them altogether.
12. You’re Too Easily DistractedLiving without a budget is easy, and that’s why it’s the default option for most people. Once you go on a budget, you seriously need to focus on your spending. That will take a bit of work on your part, and that will require a large helping of focus. You’ll have to adopt a Scrooge-like mindset, at least until saving money becomes second nature to you and you no longer have to think about it.
13. You’re Unconsciously Rebelling Against Your BudgetEven if you are a certified free spirit, life is usually better when it includes at least some amount of structure. But some people have problems with the whole structure thing – if you’re one of them, living within a budget will be especially difficult. People who don’t like structure tend to rebel against any sign of it. A budget is essentially structure for your finances. If you are an anti-structure type, you may consciously or unconsciously do everything that you can to ensure that the budget fails; that way, you can go back to your free-spending ways, telling yourself that you at least tried. Don’t kid yourself. Nearly every endeavor in life involves a heavy dose of psychology. If you don’t quite understand where your head is at, it may be impossible to realize why your plan will never work. You may have to do some serious soul-searching to determine if you’re in fact rebelling against your own budget. \
14. Your Basic Cost of Living is Higher Than Your IncomeIf you’re spending more than you’re making, creating a budget and trying to live within it is a complete waste of time. You have a more fundamental issue that will have to be resolved first. If your expenses are higher than your income, you have three choices:
- Cut your expenses
- Increase your income
- Use a combination of both.
I really enjoyed reading this, I never understood what a budget was, how to create it and what from. Appreciate your time taken to write this up to help people like myself. It has broken down the walls of uncertainty for me, I now know a budget can be created and is quite easy just as you have stated I will begin to try this out and I hope it will work for me, I am not a person who gives up on anything easily so if my budget needs adjusting I’ll adjust it.
Loved the article. So practical! I just had a budgeting class at my church. This article points out boldly our rebellion and consequences as well as ways we can make it. Loved it. Thanks!!!
Wonderful post on the budgeting world! Another great tip to help people is to know that your budget plan is not going to be the same as everyone, as everyone has different wants and needs.
I would love to budget, but tell me, how do you get a spouse on board? I don’t want to misrepresent, and she is very good about spending, but she does not want to be restricted or watch and track every penny that goes out – thoughts? Thanks!
It might help if you can create mutual savings goals. In that case, it won’t be as much about restricting spending as it will about reaching the goal. It’s a more positive way to reach the same outcome. Good luck!
Wonderful post! The emergency fund is what really stuck out to me. You can’t stick to your regular budget without an emergency fund, but people tend to not see the value in taking time to build it, when they could put that money towards other things. An emergency fund has saved me so many times and it has kept me from ever having credit card debt.
Hi Rachel – The other thing an emergency fund does is keep you from panicking! That can happen when you’re budget is tight or when you get hit with an unexpected expense. Keeping control of your emotions is a big part of managing a successful budget, and an emergency fund helps you to do that.
A lot of great points about budgets in this post. We have actually found that “budgeting” doesn’t really work for us in the traditional sense. Instead, we creating spending plans each month where we pre-plan our expenses and adjust where necessary. The majority of our monthly expenses are fixed and anticipated. We also consistently allocate money to an emergency fund and our ROTHs/401ks.
Our method isn’t for everyone, but going this route has allowed us to go from saving very little to stashing away 20% of our income (not including retirement) each month for the past 3 years.
Ahh…the dreaded “B” word that everyone hates but NEEDS in their life.
It’s kinda like exercising – most people hate to do it, but they know that it will keep them healthy and live a longer life. 🙂
I think that if people looked at budgets differently, then they would work better. Meaning – look at a budget as something that tells you HOW you get to SPEND your money, not something that is restricting you telling you how you CAN’T spend your money.
This will help to remove some of the frustration people have with budgets.
I also think that you should always have a plan for your money. Always. Irregardless of what is going on in your life. Life is not perfect. There will be some moments in your life where you’re going through all hell, and during those moments it’s good to know that you’re money already has a plan.
Keeping a budget during those times will help to ease off the financial stress and will help you to sleep better at night. Also – when you get through that storm, you’ll be better off in the end because you didn’t go spending money you didn’t have all willy nilly to make you feel better
I would add that the couple needs to start thinking about debt repayment if they have any debt as well (perhaps student loans?). I also recommend people build up a separate savings fun for upcoming future purchases (such as a new car, vacation, etc.).
Jeff Rose provides a great deal of insight into why it is important to start saving money early in the relationship. I definitely agree, but I’d have to add that automatic saving through companies like SavedPlus of through your bank is even more beneficial because it is simple and convenient if set up correctly.
Do you think a joint emergency fund is a good idea early on in a relationship? I.e. before the couple is living together, for example.
Creating a budget is an ideal way to save and keep track of your money. When it comes to sharing expenses with my friends and roommates, shared budgets can get a little confusing which is why I use PayDivvy (www.paydivvy.com) to keep track of all my group bills. It’s a smarter way for me to manage all my bills online and it’s also the only social Bill Pay solution out there!
I’ve found that many budgets that are put together focus on “monthly” expenses instead of everything that is needed throughout the year.
Derrik Hubbard, CFP
Sound advice here. It is important to continually monitor your spending each month. If you are finding waste, its time to adjust.
Careful planning before you spend money can save your budget (like your example of eating in)- creating a budget for the month, then action plans for each category will keep you in line.
Thanks for the post.