How to Budget: 5 Essential Rules of Thumb to Follow

 

Identify Goals

Identify important goals you want to achieve that will require money. Set 3-5 financial goals and priorities you hope to achieve, e.g. make a 10% down payment on a home in 5 years.

Record Expenses

Estimate your spending for the coming month, including fixed and variable expenses, and keep in mind infrequent items such as oil changes or getting new glasses.

Record Earnings

Estimate your net income for the month. List each expected source of money you may receive.

Calculate

Subtract your projected expenses from your estimated net income. The equation can be as simple as: income minus expenses = budget.

Fix Weak Spots

Adjust your planned spending or consider additional income as necessary. Set goals on how to bring these weak points under control.

 

You can jump to a specific step by selecting it above. Be sure to have your budget worksheet available before starting.

 

Before You Start: Watch This Short Video on How to Budget

 

Why Do You Need A Budget?

First, let’s take an in-depth look into why maintaining a household budget is so important to the financial success of you and your family. If you want to build wealth and get money fit with your personal finances you must live by a budget. Let’s begin by looking at what a budget is and what it isn’t.

The Myths & Realities of Household Budgeting

There are a number of reasons why many of us do not create or live by a budget. Many of these reasons are based on false assumptions or myths. The following are a few such myths and their corresponding realities that may help us overcome our own resistance to budgeting.

Myth # 1: If I had more money, all of my problems would be solved.
Reality: Actually, spending less than I earn may solve many of my money problems.

Myth # 2: Budgeting is for people who are in debt.
Reality: Budgets are for anyone seeking to stabilize their finances and avoid debt.

Myth # 3: If I balance my checkbook, that’s as good as budgeting.
Reality: The checkbook can’t help me prepare for unexpected expenses like car repairs or doctor visits. Budgets can!

Myth # 4: Following a budget inhibits my freedom of choice.
Reality: Following a budget increases the likelihood that I’ll take care of my financial priorities first, such as housing, food, savings, and transportation.

If you identify with one or more of the above myths, then make a personal decision to implement the “realities” into your thoughts. If you still have difficulties budgeting, remember this: “If You Don’t Control Your Money, It Will Control You”

If You Live Within Your Budget, You Will be Much More Likely to:

  • Avoid excessive debt.

  • Build emergency and long-term savings accounts.

  • Take care of financial priorities such as housing, food, and transportation, rather than disproportionate spending on entertainment and dining out.

  • Establish regular investing habits in preparation for retirement.

  • Feel in control of your finances.

  • Understand your personal spending habits and eliminate wasteful expenditures.

  • Be in a position to take advantage of financial opportunities, whether it’s for something on sale at the store or a chance to greatly improve your investment portfolio.

  • Prevent many of the arguments spouses have with regards to spending and finances.

  • Make more than monthly minimum payments to credit accounts, including credit cards, mortgage, and auto loans.

Household Budget: Essential Rules of Thumb for Planning Your Spending

Budgets, also known as spending plans, serve as tools for the individual or household to build financial stability and to make progress toward identified priorities. Many consumers have negative reactions to the term, “budgeting” because they associate it with restrictions and deprivation. Budgets are tools to help individuals and households get and do what is most important in their lives.

How do you put together a personal or household budget?

To create a budget, first, identify important goals you want to achieve that require money. Next, prioritize your monthly spending, from necessary to trivial. Next, add your net income and subtract expenses. Finally, adjust your planned spending or consider additional income as necessary.

Defining a Personal and Household Budget

Budgets are simply plans for how you would prefer to spend your money. Most budgets align to a monthly plan for simplicity’s sake, but you can create a weekly budget, a twice-a-month budget, a quarterly budget, or an annual budget.

Monthly budgets tend to work best because most recurring household bills come monthly. However, individuals and households with bi-weekly paychecks (paid every two weeks rather than twice a month) know that about twice a year they will have three paychecks in a single month. If you are in such a situation, consider creating a monthly budget and using your first paycheck of the month to pay your bills for the second half of the month and your second paycheck to pay the bills for the first half of the next month. For months with a third paycheck, use it to fund your top priority short-term and long-term goals, such as vacations, retirements, emergency savings, etc.

Monthly budgets can also work well for individuals and households with irregular income, such as small business owners and freelancers. See our guest post on this topic here.

The five budgeting steps below will guide you through the basics of creating a spending plan to help you get what you want out of life.

1. Identifying Goals as the Foundation for Your Budget

Budgets work best when you tie them to personally important financial goals (e.g. a vacation, a new purchase, etc.). Without correlating your spending plan to a goal that requires you to prepare financially, your budget will likely fail. Goals give purpose to budgets. Without goals, budgets simply become math exercises in frustration: you add, you subtract, you fail, why continue?

Everyone who has tried to budget has found that their hoped-for expenses add up to more than their income. The resulting frustration requires time, effort, and sacrifice in order to resolve. Without associated budgeting goals, this frustration will lead to desperation or to the abandonment of the budget altogether.

Goals give budgets meaning, and meaningless budgets waste your time and energy.

Your goal(s) should identify what you want to do that requires you to budget and save, when you want to make the purchase or spend the money (include date and year), and how much money you will need (both total amount and how much that breaks down to on a monthly basis).

To exponentially increase your likelihood of achieving the written goal, share your goal and plans with someone else and then report your progress on a regular basis. A study from the Dominican University in northern California reports that such actions can lead to a 71% greater likelihood of reaching your goal.

Prioritizing Expenses

Once you have identified your reason for budgeting your money (your goal) you’ll need to prioritize your expected expenses to complete the goal-setting process.

Just because a bill arrives in your Inbox on the first of the month does not mean you should pay it before your other bills arrive later.

That seems like a simple statement, but many consumers justify going to a local food bank at the end of the month because – although they don’t connect it – they spent their fourth week of the grocery money on their $500 car payment earlier in the month. Literally, such households have prioritized their new car over putting food on the table, even if they have not made the connection in their minds.

When working on your budget, list out your recurring monthly bills (rent, insurance, utilities, etc.) while also adding contributions to common periodic expenses (vacation, gift-giving, debt payments, etc.). Many budgeting forms like this one from Money Fit already have possible expenses listed out, making it simple to prioritize them.

To prioritize your expenses, categorize them into the spending groups as outlined below.

Survival Needs

Your top priority expenses – those you make sure to pay before affording any others – include just three or four. First, ensure you have covered your need for shelter and security. This typically involves paying your rent or mortgage and your electricity, water, sewer, and trash bills. Including housing as a survival need does not, however, justify purchasing a home or leasing an apartment that exceeds your reasonable ability to pay for it.

Next, you need to afford food, whether fresh groceries or canned goods. This does not include dining out, which comes under your lifestyle choices.

You will need a minimal amount of clothing as well for survival. Survival clothing includes protective items like coats, basic coverings, and footwear. Purchasing multiple outfits and pairs of shoes or buying for fashion will also come under lifestyle choices.

You should also include contributions to an emergency savings fund under your survival needs. You may not need these funds now, but you will likely need them in the future to pay for your future survival needs, such as during times of unemployment or extended illness.

Finally, many individuals will require medical procedures or certain medications for survival. These medications might treat heart troubles, mental illness or depression, or the consequences of organ transplants, for example.

Critical Wants

Many critical wants can often feel like survival needs in our society. While many individuals and even households choose to live without these critical wants, most would find life extremely difficult and inconvenient without them. They do not qualify as survival expenses. If one human, let alone many, can live without it, it must involve choice rather than need.

These critical wants include our choices in access to information (e.g. cell phones and Internet service), childcare, debt payments (often for previously purchased survival needs or critical wants), and transportation (e.g. car payment, fuel, insurance, and maintenance). Surely a reader will contend that transportation qualifies as a need rather than a choice in cases where he or she lives far from work, making it impossible to walk or ride a bike.  Such reasoning dismisses the choices involved in the place of residence and in the place of employment. Granted, to live closer to work, you might have to accept a smaller home or apartment, but that still involves choice.

When budgeting your income and expenses, make sure to prioritize your critical wants below your survival needs but above your lifestyle choices. Like the case of housing under survival needs, calling a vehicle a critical want does not justify getting into a loan you can hardly afford or which exceeds your ability to pay.

Lifestyle Choices

Priorities under the Lifestyle Choices category often engender the greatest amount of anxiety among consumers when budgeting. Oddly enough, even though they often make up a majority of the household’s monthly spending, needs and critical wants add little to the feeling of well-being, Instead, consumers consider them basic necessities rather than contributions to living better.

Lifestyle choices become obvious in the daily activities you get to choose, including dining out, stopping at the gourmet coffee shop, paying for a movie, sports, or other media streaming service, purchasing fashion and lifestyle clothing, and subscribing to music or delivery services.

Doing without lifestyle expenses means you feel a distinct difference in your daily activities. Cutting out these expenses from your budget will have a noticeable effect on your daily routine, which explains why so many consumers push back when it comes to cutting back on such spending.

Trivial Wants

Spending on trivial wants has to do with expenses that would have little effect on your day-to-day living if you did without. For example, while you might find great joy in going to the movie theater, chances are you don’t go daily but more likely just once or twice a month. For most households, dining out also belongs to the trivial wants category, unless you dine out daily. Doing without dining out will generally have no impact on most of your days.

Purchasing fashionable clothing or accessories, paying for a tattoo, upgrading your tech gadgets, and paying for gifts to give to others all qualify as trivial wants. This does not mean they have no value but that they will have little impact on your life during a typical day.

Long-term Wishes

Long-term wishes have even less relation to your day-to-day life choices than do trivial wants. This category of expenses includes any purchase or spending that will occur many months or even years in the future. Saving up to start a business, investing for a child’s college education, and putting money aside for a big family vacation will all fit well within the long-term wishes section of your budget.

Cutting such spending from your spending plan will have virtually no impact on your day-to-day lifestyle, although it might have an effect on your emotional health. After all, many long-term wishes make up a focal point for hopes that provide strength and even a mental boost during difficult times.

Value of Prioritizing Expenses

By prioritizing your spending, especially before you have added your income, you have essentially told yourself which purchases and expenses are more important and which are expendable. Consequently, should the need arise, you have built a rational structure that will allow you to eliminate household expenses without the complications arising from emotionally driven choices.

Even with the best of budgets, you will frequently experience months where your expenses amount to more than your income. In such cases, particularly early on before you have built a savings fund, you may need to eliminate some of your spending. Start by getting rid of the spending on your long-term wishes, if only temporarily. If that still does not cover your cash shortfall, begin eliminating your trivial wants. Some months, you may have to downsize some or even many of your lifestyle choices.

If you find you regularly eliminate your lifestyle choices or even a few critical wants in order to balance your budget, you have likely obligated yourself to a housing choice too great for your income, to an unaffordable vehicle payment, and/or to cell phone devices and services that exceed your ability to pay. If such is the case, you may need to consider downsizing activities or revisiting contracts. For example, while you may not have the ability to leave an apartment lease or sell a home, you might have to consider subleasing a bedroom or taking on a roommate.

2. Record Expenses

While most budget forms list your income first, followed by your expenses, you should hold off on adding your income. By working on your income first, you turn your budget into an activity of trying to spend as much as possible without exceeding your financial resources.

By calculating your expenses before estimating your income, you will consider your expenses with a more rational and less emotional approach, leading to better outcomes in the end. Additionally, your budget no longer takes the form of a math exercise with you trying to subtract to $0. Instead, it becomes a tool to prioritize and calculate your regular spending. This will not guarantee a balanced budget, but it will give you a realistic starting point.

For regular bills such as rent or mortgage, cell phones, insurance premiums, debt payments, utilities on level pay programs, and media subscription services, add the expected payment required. For variable expenses such as gasoline, utilities not on level pay programs, gift-giving, and groceries, do your best to estimate your monthly spending in the category. Take into account seasonal factors such as rising gasoline prices in the spring (and falling gas prices after Labor Day), birthdays and gift-giving holidays, or large family gatherings and meals.

If you remain unsure of how much to estimate for each category, review your bank statements and any receipts you may have kept from the past month or two. If neither are available, your first budget step may actually include tracking every expense and purchase for the next 30 days or so in order to get a realistic estimate of your spending. Write down and add up every purchase. This will require time and effort, but you will have a much better idea of your spending by category than you could have otherwise.

3. Record Your Earnings

Once you have prioritized and calculated your regular and expected expenses, you will next determine your expected monthly income. Before you easily calculate the income your employer says you earn each month, keep in mind that you absolutely need to use your net income and not your gross income.

Gross income is the amount of money your employer says you make. In your personal finances, gross income is a fantasy. It includes lots of money you never get to spend, like social security and Medicare taxes, not to mention income taxes and potentially health insurance premiums.

Net income is the amount of your paycheck. Net income includes the amount of money you have available to spend and use to pay bills. Always base your household budget on your net income.

Most budget forms will include a field for you to enter your income at the top. If you work freelance or own a small business, you may have inconsistent and unpredictable income. In such cases, estimate your income on the low end. It would be better to experience the pleasant surprise of having more income than expected versus having less.

4. Compare and Calculate

Now that you have reasonable estimates of your upcoming expenditures and your expected income, simply subtract your planned spending from your projected income.

  • A resulting figure above $0 means you expect to live BENEATH your means.

  • A resulting figure near $0 means you expect to live WITHIN your means.

  • A resulting figure below $0 means you expect to live ABOVE or BEYOND your means.

Many consumers remember their parents or teachers telling them when they were younger, “live within your means.” Perhaps as a tribute to the power of parental and educator influence, 60% to 80% of American households have consistently lived “within” their means since the late 20th century. Unfortunately, Mom, Dad, and the teacher got it wrong. “Living WITHIN your means” is perhaps better described as “living paycheck to paycheck.” It means you have nothing left over after paying your bills. It means you save nothing and invest nothing. It means a single financial bump in the road of life can send you into a financial tailspin that can takes years to recover from, if ever.

Instead, commit to living below your means by building your savings and investment accounts.

If, after subtracting your expenses from your income, you find the resulting figure near $0 or below, you should consider your options for increasing your income, decreasing your expenses, or doing a bit of both. Without make any of these adjustments, you will most likely run out of money before the end of the month and will need to make some difficult decisions about which bills to pay and which to let go into default (unpaid) status.

5. Identify Weak Spots & Plan Accordingly

Too many households jump immediately to cutting their expenses when faced with a negative projected balance in their budget. While an effective way to balance the household budget, adjusting your spending should not be the only consideration. You should also consider ways to increase your income.

Increase Earnings

The most common options for increasing income include the following:

Seeking a better-paying job: While potentially the best option over the long-term, this typically requires months of work to find and secure new employment, let alone the three weeks it will usually take to work before you receive your first paycheck. Additional education and training both offer great potential to increase your regular income. Obviously, though, they both take months or years to complete. Besides the time factor, the greatest potential downside to the option of seeking higher pay at another employer involves human nature. Unless disciplined and redirected, the more money you earn, the more money you will spend. Earning more money does not guarantee a fix to your household budget.

Seek a raise from your current employer: Although this process typically requires less time than looking for a new job, it can feel much more intimidating. It is a rule of business that employers cannot pay you what you are worth (the revenue you directly or indirectly generate for the business) and certainly not more than you are worth to the business. If your boss paid you more than what you directly or indirectly contribute to the company, the company would soon join the ranks of out-of-business businesses. Still, with a little research, you might find your paycheck in the lower range of expected incomes for workers with your job title. Armed with such information and a list of how you contribute to the success of your company, you will feel empowered to ask for a pay raise.

Second job: When the budget looks tight for the next month, you might consider moonlighting at a second job. Many people work evenings, weekends, or seasonal jobs to make ends meet during difficult financial times. Do not allow this to become the norm, though. If you start using the additional income to cover regular bills and obligations, you will quickly begin to feel trapped in an unfulfilling lifestyle.

Side hustles: The side gig economy offers scores if not hundreds of ways to earn additional income outside of your normal employment hours. While most side hustles take many months if not years to build and begin contributing sufficient income to make much of a difference in your budget, others can generate enough within a week or two to help you meet some shortfalls in your spending plan. An Internet search will result in lists after lists of side hustles that you might consider. Find one that sounds both promising in terms of short-term income and interesting to you personally.

Adjusting Spending

Households who put together a spending plan will often skip steps 1-3 above and start with step 4. Then, when they find they are projecting a $0 balance or worse at the end of the month, they begin to cut expenses based on emotional reactions. Emotion-based financial decisions tend to oppose those that will, in the end, serve your long-term interests best. Nature seems to have hard-wired us to react emotionally in order to make choices that satisfy ourselves immediately rather than taking long-term consequences into account.

Fortunately, you started with step 1 and, most critically for adjusting your spending, also completed step 2. Now, instead of relying on emotions to adjust your anticipated spending for the month, you simply start by eliminating expenses related to your long-term wishes. If that is insufficient to balance your projected budget, begin eliminating your trivial wants. In many cases, you may even need to eliminate some or many of your lifestyle expenses.

If you regularly struggle to pay for any lifestyle expenses, you should revisit and reconsider your financial obligations for your home, transportation, and communication needs, and critical wants. A large percentage of households over-commit themselves in these three categories, living in homes or apartments beyond their means, making massive monthly car or truck payments that overwhelm their income, or placing multiple state-of-the-art cell phone devices on monthly payment plans that eat up their discretionary income.

Now that you’ve successfully created and set up your household budget, let’s take a look at why you’ll want to create the often overlooked backup budget.


The Importance of Creating a Backup Budget

With layoffs on the increase and the national job market on unsteady feet, our financial futures can sometimes seem uncertain. When employees get laid off, too often it takes a week or two to get a psychological handle on the situation, which means that, financially, it may be too late to adapt.

Once you have a spending plan (budget) in place for your current situation, it’s time to create a “Backup Budget,” a plan you could put in place should you ever lose your income or have your income reduced. Your Backup Budget helps you prepare to pay for your basic needs and high priority wants with any severance package or savings plan you might have.

Here’s how to create your backup budget:

1. Consider what sort of “Survival Resources” you’ll possibly have in order to fund your budget. It could include:

  • Savings: Ideally, we should have 3-6 months of survivable expenses available to us in savings accounts, certificates of deposit, money market accounts, and other easily accessible funds.

  • Unemployment: Usually just 50% of your recent income for up to six months. Remember, though, that you probably will not qualify if you initiate the termination yourself (i.e. you quit rather than you are let go).

  • Severance: Sometimes 2 or 3 months of salary, though there is certainly no guarantee of receiving anything.

  • Disability: Approximately 60% of your salary for about six months, if you qualify.

2. Decide which expenses you could live without in a pinch

  • Generally, these will include cable/satellite TV, streaming or other monthly services, entertainment, dining out, debt payments beyond the minimum requirements, children’s activities, tobacco, alcohol, lattés, gift-giving, charity, etc.

  • If you have children and are paying for daycare, look at reducing or eliminating this expense until you are employed full-time again.

  • For pet expenses, eliminate the gourmet pet food and “play toys” and reduce veterinary visits. Take advantage of being at home to spend more time with your pet(s).

3. Add up your survival expenses, which include:

  • Mortgage: Contact a HUD-Certified housing counselor if you lose your job. They can help you find repayment programs and options while you’re without income.

  • Utilities: Get on a level pay plan with your utilities to make your budget more predictable.

  • Groceries: Aim for $200 or less per person, per month. This does not include dining out.

  • Insurance: Consider raising your deductible to lower your premium.

  • Clothing: While between employment, check out thrift stores for necessary clothing.

  • Prescription Drugs: Consult with your doctor to see if there are alternatives or generic versions that may cost less.

  • Transportation: Consider downsizing if necessary

4. Compare your new “Survival Expenses” with your “Survival Resources”

This will help you to determine how long you can afford to continue in such a survival mode. If your resources are too thin, endeavor to put more away into a savings plan now while you have income.

5. Finally, avoid the temptation to raid your retirement funds.

IRA’s 401(k)s and other accounts can often be accessed, but these actions carry stiff penalty fees.

The single biggest financial mistake people make when they are laid off or otherwise lose their current income is this: Failure to Adapt Quickly to Their New Reality.

Creating a backup budget will help you be ready in case of income reduction or elimination. Taking an hour or two to prepare one might save your financial life.

With these two budgets in place, you can feel rest assured that not only are you better fueling your life goals, but that come what may tomorrow, you’ll be ready!

Creating a Budget for Specific Life Events

Now that you’ve learned about building a household budget, let’s look at some of the items you can specifically budget for:

  • Getting Married

  • Shopping for Groceries

  • Purchasing a Home

  • Going on a Vacation

  • Home Remodels

  • Having a Baby

  • Going to College

  • Buying a Car

  • Moving Out

Those are just some of the areas you can build a budget for. You can save money by creating and sticking to a budget for various life events or expensive purchases.

Be Sure to Build a Budget That Works For You

Budgeting has many benefits, which we’ll get to later. First, assuming you’re not living by a budget, let’s discuss how you can build a budget you can live with and most importantly, a budget that works for you.

Budgets can falter for various reasons. Some are difficult to prevent such as a change in income, or a loss of a job or cut in hours, unexpected expenses like vehicle repairs, medicals bills, and many others can create an immediate need to review and adapt your budget if necessary.

We believe that allowing yourself a regular cushion of funds can help augment certain unexpected expenses and make your budget easier to live within.

One popular method for creating a budget is to follow what is known as the 50/30/20 rule. Essentially, this budget recommends that you use 50% of your take-home income for necessities, 30% for wants, and 20% for savings and paying the debt off.

Use the 50/30/20 budget calculator below to give yourself an idea of how your money would be allocated. You may find this approach is indeed doable and that you could save enough to mitigate any short-term unexpected expenses, thus making the budget one that works for you.

Use These Free Budget Calculators To Enhance Your Experience

These budget calculators are a perfect beginning point to help you understand and track where your money is going. It will help determine how much money you should apply to various categories and how much you can save. If you have any questions, would like to discuss your financial challenges, or are just looking for advice, please contact us at your convenience. (800) 432-0310