Believe it or not, the secret to financial success isn’t about how much money you make.
Go onto almost any popular news site online and you’re bound to come across a “Where are they now?” list that will let you know which stars of yesteryear are currently broke. You might also run across a list of lottery winners that plunged into financial ruin despite winning millions of dollars.
Financial success is actually a lot more about knowing how to handle the money you have than how much you make. This is why almost any financial advisor will recommend the same first step on your path to financial success—make a budget.
This isn’t an answer most people like to hear. Most people think a budget means boredom and, even worse, sacrifice. This is a big reason why only 32% of all Americans maintain a household budget, according to a Gallup poll.
However, the advantages of a budget easily outweigh all of the disadvantages, and any worries you might have about getting started will be completely blown away by how good you feel after you’ve made a budget and stuck to it.
So what are all these advantages budgeting can give you? Most of them relate to the newly-increased level of control you’re going to have over your finances.
The biggest advantage is that having a budget puts you in control of your money. Think about it: if you don’t know what you’re spending on groceries, gas and electricity each month, you’re not controlling how much you spend. Instead, you’re letting what you spend control where your money goes.
If you spend money on eating out whenever you feel like it, for instance, you might find you don’t have enough money to completely fill your car’s gas tank when you’re running low or get a new dress shirt for that upcoming interview. Worse, you might realize too late that because your landlord raised the rent five months ago, you don’t have enough money in savings to pay for a tow truck when your car breaks down on the freeway, so you’re going to have to put everything on your credit card and pay hundreds more than you would have otherwise.
If you have a budget, on the other hand, you’ll know what you have available to spend each month and what you want to spend it on. You know you’ll have enough money for gas since you budgeted out enough money for one tank a week and you’ll know you have money set aside to deal with emergencies like car repairs, even if you are paying more in rent each month. You’ll be in control of your finances, and the peace of mind that gives you is priceless.
Another advantage of budgets is that they stop you from overspending. Once you realize how much you’re spending in certain categories, you might realize you want to cut back. Having a cup of coffee from your local coffee shop every weekday is nice, but once you see that you’re spending $115 a month on coffee, you might wonder if that money might be put to better use.
This leads into the next advantage of budgeting: it can help you prioritize your spending. Once you see everything you’re spending money on and what you hopefully have left over at the end of the month, you’ll probably start thinking about what you’d really like to use your money for. If you want to buy a new car, for instance, you might look at your budget and realize if you cut back on a few weekly expenses you could substantially increase your new car fund.
Seeing where your money is going every month can also help you plan for the future. You can start to come up with financial goals and figure out how much time you’ll need to achieve them. You can also come up with hypothetical scenarios that show you what happens if you want to increase or decrease spending in an area.
Having a budget also helps you stop worrying about your finances. If you’ve ever fretted about spending too much on a leisure item, you’re not alone. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend hundreds of dollars on something you’ve wanted for a while and not have to worry about whether or not you needed that money for something even more important?
Well, when you budget you can safely spend as much as you’d planned on something you want, even if you’re spending over a thousand dollars. All you have to do is stick to your preplanned amounts, and you can be secure in the knowledge that you have enough money for all your needs.
Of course, even with all the advantages a budget provides, many people still resist making one. There are a lot of reasons for this, but here are the top five excuses people give when asked why they haven’t created a budget.
The most common reason why people don’t budget is that you have to spend a long time doing something excruciatingly boring.
It’s a fair point.
Even after you’ve spent time creating your budget, you still need to stick with it. Tracking your spending and making sure you’re staying under your limits can be tiresome. So can reviewing your budget monthly to see what you need to change.
Like any other skill, learning how to budget takes time, and once you get the hang of budgeting you’ll find it a lot less tedious. However, the right budgeting tools can also help immensely. Smartphones have plenty of options to help you budget, and some, like Mint, even sync up with your bank account so you can keep track of your budgeting automatically.
You have a lot of options for creating and tracking your budget, and a lot of them are free to try. Download a few budget apps and print off some budgeting worksheets and see what works for you. Once you find the right combination, you’ll be more willing to create a budget and stick with it.
A lot of people have anxiety about making a budget. They may feel that a budget will deprive them of spending their money on things they really want, or they may not want to know how much they’re spending on things like entertainment, dining or clothes.
If you find yourself nodding your head in recognition at this excuse, take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one. A LOT of people feel the same way.
Here’s the catch, though—you already have a budget, whether you know it or not. This is so important it bears repeating.
YOU ALREADY HAVE A BUDGET.
When you spend any of the money you bring in, you’re either creating a new budget category or adding to an existing one. At the end of the month you’ve created a budget, whether you’re tracking it or not. When you create a budget by writing down your income and your expenses, all you’re doing is getting a clearer view of where your money goes.
Here’s another catch about budgeting—if you’re okay with where your money is going, you don’t have to change anything. If you’re okay with spending five dollars on coffee every weekday because it makes your morning commute better, by all means keep getting your morning coffee. If you like spending money on clothes, books or basketball games because they make you happy, don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your happiness to pad out your home repair fund if you don’t want to.
If you think you’re overspending on something, though, not confronting it is the worst move you can make. If you keep overspending without realizing what you’re sacrificing from other categories, the best case scenario is that you miss out on doing something really fun because you don’t have the money for it. The worst case scenario is that you have to go into debt because you don’t have the money for something you really need, like rent, auto repairs or a doctor’s bill.
If you’re scared of confronting your bad financial habits, you might want to think about how scared you’re going to be when you try to figure out how to pay off a $1,000 bill before it goes into collections. Enduring a little discomfort now will help avoid a lot of anguish in the future.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that if you have overspent in a category, there’s no need to feel ashamed. Your fear is almost always worse than the reality. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll realize you’re overspending, and you’ll decide to put that money to better use elsewhere and feel really good about your decision.
If you have a good job with a decent paycheck, creating a budget should be less intimidating than if you’re barely getting by. If you’re not making a lot of money, though, it’s a lot more likely that your expenses are more than your earnings.
However, if you’re not making much money you need a budget even more than someone who earns more than you. A budget can help you see whether or not your expenses are greater than your earnings, and it can help you figure out where to cut back in order to make sure you’re not digging yourself into debt. If you are making more than you’re spending, a budget can help you save money and give you some much-needed peace of mind.
This can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Coming up with a budget plan can be very difficult if your significant other doesn’t want to participate.
The first thing you should do, if you haven’t already, is have a serious talk with your partner about money. Talk about your short-term and long-term financial goals, as well as what items you both feel is worth spending a little extra money on. By the time both of you are finished, you should have a better idea about each other’s financial views, including how both of you feel about budgeting.
After you’ve talked finances with your partner, you can then start to set financial goals together. This is also an excellent time to discuss budgeting, since you’ll both want to work together to reach your goals.
Even if you can’t get your partner to make a budget, you can still make one for yourself. Determine what each of you contributes to the household on a monthly basis, first, and then create a personal budget that will cover your portion of the expenses. If nothing else, you’ll still reap the benefits of having more control over your money, and who knows—you might inspire your partner to create a budget after they see what having a budget does for you!
Some people have also tried and failed to budget before. As a result, they think that making a budget is just too hard, or requires some special skill they will never possess.
Not wanting to try something you’ve failed at before is understandable, but you also need to remember that you’re setting a very high standard for yourself if you expect to succeed at something new on the first try. Learning to budget is a lot easier than learning to juggle, but it still takes time to master and you may not succeed the first time you try.
If you have failed at budgeting in the past, try to determine what caused you to stumble. Did you have trouble monitoring what you spent, or did you keep overspending in one category.
Once you have an idea where you failed, you can try again. Read through articles on budgeting (like this page) and come up with a strategy to try the next time. Just remember that budgeting isn’t difficult, and the only thing you really need to do in order to succeed is practice.
No one likes being told what to do, and a lot of people feel like a budget is the ultimate financial straitjacket. Why plan out what you need to spend, when you can just pay the bills as they come?
The problem with this approach is that even if you have enough money to pay the bills as they come, not having a planned budget leaves you susceptible to impulse buying. Indulge in your impulses often enough, you can easily find yourself spending money you needed for bills or to save.
If you feel like a budget is restricting how you spend, you can always adjust the budget. In fact, one budgeting model simply has you divide your money between your needs, your wants and your savings. Within that framework, you’re free to spend your money on wants as you please.
If you have money left over at the beginning of the month, you may wonder why you need a budget. After all, if budgets are to help people manage their money better and you have money left over at the end of the month, aren’t you by default managing your money pretty well already?
Yes and no. If you do have money left over at the end of the month, then you are doing a good job at keeping your expenses lower than your earnings, which is always good.
What are you doing with that extra money, though? If you don’t know, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to get ahead financially.
You can use that leftover money to pad out your savings account, or you could use it to give your retirement account a bit of a boost. You could even use it to save towards a big purchase you’ve always wanted, or put it in a vacation fund.
So you know what a budget is, and you know why the benefits a budget provides blows away any reasons you might have to avoid creating a budget. The only thing you need to do now is actually sit down and create the budget.
Making a budget sounds complicated, but it’s really not. It consists of three straightforward steps:
If you want to make the budgeting process even more pain-free, a budgeting calculator, like the one First Alliance Credit Union offers, can help keep the process organized and make budget planning much easier.
The easiest of the three steps is to create a list of your monthly income. For most of us, this consists of looking at last month’s paycheck stubs. If you prefer a more 21st century approach, go online and take a look at all the deposits in the last month that came from your employer.
If you receive regular income from other sources, such as investments, make sure to include those too. The goal here is to list only those sources of income you know will be coming in on a monthly basis.
Once you’ve listed all your income, you’re ready to get to start with something a bit more difficult—listing your expenses.
Start by listing what you spend on your fixed expenses. This includes:
Expenses like these are easy to track because you pay the same amount each month.
Once you’re done with that, calculate what you’ll want to spend on your variable necessary expenses, such as:
If you’re not sure how much you usually spend on these categories, come up with an estimate. The easiest way to do this is to trust your intuition. You probably have some idea what you’re spending, so write down an amount that feels right. You can go back and change it after you’ve started tracking where your money goes.
For many of these expenses, though, you can look at your last two or three bills to come up with a ballpark figure of how much you’re spending. If your bills only vary by a few dollars each month, budget for the largest bill you have so you don’t exceed your budget.
Once you’re done with your necessary expenses, it’s time to move on to discretionary expenses. This is the money you spend on items like:
If you’re having trouble coming up with all your discretionary expenses, you can make the process easier by accessing your bank account online and looking at your spending for the past two or three months. At this stage, you might be tempted not to list some items—or at least put down an idealized version of what you’d like to spend in your budget.
As much as you may want to, avoid this temptation. The important thing at this point is to be honest with yourself about what you’ve spent in the past. You can always cut back in the future if you want.
Also, you are forbidden from feeling bad if you’ve spent too much money in one category or another. Unless you’re seriously in debt, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over what you’ve bought in the past, especially if you’ve enjoyed it. Instead, try to look at it in a more positive light—you’re reducing the amount of money you spend on things that only give you a fleeting sense of enjoyment and spending more money on things that will really make you feel good about yourself.
Once you have your income and expenses for each month listed, subtract your expenses from your income and see what you have left over.
If your expenses are greater than your income, don’t panic. Look over your expenses and look for ways to reduce your spending, whether that means adjusting your day-to-day spending habits or renegotiating your monthly bills. Your main goal at this point is to make sure you don’t need to borrow money to make ends meet, especially if you’re bridging the gap with a credit card or worse, a Payday loan.
If you do have money left over, great! Even if you don’t have a lot of money left, you’re still on solid financial footing. You can’t rest just yet, though. In order to really get the most out of your money, you need to figure out what to do with that remainder.
This is called “Zero-Based Budgeting,” and what it means is that at the end of each month, your income minus your expenses equals zero. In other words, every dollar you bring in should have a purpose.
One of the best ways you can use the extra money in your budget is by dedicating it to your savings account. If you don’t already have anything in your budget dedicated to savings, the leftover money you have is a great place to start. Even if you do have some money budgeted toward savings, you can use the leftover money to achieve your savings goals even faster and then start investing for your financial goals.
To be fair, the idea of having all the money in your checking account allocated can make some people uncomfortable. What if you exceed your budget in one area and have to spend an extra $10 or $20?
The best way to alleviate these concerns is by first padding out your checking account with around $100. This should help make sure that if you do go over your budget in one area, you won’t have to dip into your savings. You will, however, have to make sure to resist the temptation of spending that money instead of letting it rest in your checking account.
While the previous section should have provided you with all the information you need to create a budget most of the time, some special situations deserve their own sections.
Most people have the benefit of getting a regular paycheck. However, a growing number of people are earning a living in the “gig economy,” where they are paid by the project instead of by the hour or having a salary. This means that, while they may be making a good living, they probably won’t know exactly what they’re going to make that month.
If you fall into this category, you need a budget even more than other people do. You need to know that what you bring in each month will cover your necessary expenses, and if you have a particularly good month, you need to be able to set aside money to cover your expenses during the lean months.
The first thing you need to do is go through your expenses and make sure you know which ones are truly necessary. Make sure you know what your most basic needs are, versus those bills that might be a bit more forgiving if you don’t have a lot of money left at the end of the month. This way, you know that, while you might not be able to make a credit card payment, you at least know that you’ll be able to pay your mortgage and grocery bills.
Now that you know what you absolutely need, take a look at your income and find out the least amount of money you’ve received in one month. This is going to be your starting point. That amount has to cover all your monthly expenses, and if it doesn’t you’ll need to start cutting costs until it does.
This approach will require you to sacrifice in order to make everything fit. However, the financial security will be worth it. This also puts you in the best position to take advantage of those times when you have a surplus of future income.
If you really want to manage your money effectively with an irregular income, here’s a good option: Make a separate checking account. Designate one account your direct deposit account, and the other account your personal expenses.
When money comes in to your direct deposit account, transfer enough of it to your expense account to cover your expenses for the month. Once you’ve taken care of your monthly expenses, divide the rest between your savings account and your personal expense account. Once you’ve had some experience with this system, you might even want to open up a third checking account for personal use.
Once again, a separate savings account will be your friend. Figure out your spending goals for the event, and then divide that amount by 12. Put that amount on your monthly budget as a new expense, and you can save up for these big expenses.
It’s worth pointing out that club accounts are an ideal savings account for these types of expenses. Each club account has a specific date when the balance and dividends are transferred into your checking or savings to help with certain events. They also have higher interest rates than standard savings accounts.
Lots of people these days live with a roommate, or have a partner with whom they share expenses. If you’re one of these people, you might wonder how to budget out the expenses you share. While this may seem difficult at first glance, the standard budget planning strategy will actually serve you just fine, with some minor tweaks.
First, split your fixed expenses and write them down the same way you would if you paid the full amount. After you’ve done that, move on to your variable expenses next. You can look back through your expenses for the last two or three months to get an idea of what you’ve been paying, and make sure to write down the largest amount so you don’t go over budget.
If you’ve ever been in debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you’re in debt and have leftover money at the end of each month, put it all towards paying your debt. The best way to do this is with the “debt snowball” method.
The debt snowball method of debt repayment is a simple concept—put all your extra cash toward paying off your smallest debt first. Once you’re done with that, work towards the second smallest debt you have. Eventually, you’ll work your way up to the largest debt you have, and you can also take any money you’ve saved from slowly paying down the other debts to pay off your debts even faster.
As you go over your expenses, you may start to wonder if you’re overspending on each category. Did you need to spend so much on groceries? Are you spending too much money on clothes or entertainment?
The answer is that the “right” amount to spend on a category depends on several factors, including your salary, your location, your age, the size of your family and your financial goals. However, financial experts have come up with a few budgeting methods you can use to gauge your expenses.
One website, Well-Kept Wallet, offers this suggested breakdown of how much you should spend:
However, the article still points out this breakdown should be tailored to fit your family’s lifestyle.
Another budget plan that has become popular in the world of personal finance is the 50/30/20 budget. Senator Elizabeth Warren developed this budget in her book “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Money Plan,” and it can scale to almost any salary, from someone with their first entry-level job to someone planning on putting on a down payment for a second home.
The largest category in the 50/30/20 budget is for needs, which should take 50% of your income. Your needs entail things like rent or mortgage payments, auto loan payments, health insurance, utilities and groceries.
The next category is for wants. You should spend about 30% of your budget here. Remember that “wants” in this case means “personal preferences,” such as your cell phone plan, Internet bill, eating out, books and a gym membership.
The final category is savings, where you would put 20% of your income. This includes your emergency fund and investments like an IRA or 401(k).
While the only thing you really need to create a budget is a pen, paper and access to the last two to three months of your bank statements, you can also find a lot of budgeting aids online that will make creating a budget easier.
First Alliance Credit Union, for instance, has a budgeting calculator that helps you figure out how much you’re spending in each category. It also lets you know how much you have left over at the end of the month.
You can also select from several apps designed to help you create a budget and track your spending.
Once you have a budget set up, take a second to congratulate yourself. You’ve just taken a big step toward financial success.
Now comes the hard part.
After you’ve put together a budget, you have to stick with the budget. This can be easy when you’re dealing with a fixed expense, like rent or loan payments. In the case of other categories, like clothing and gasoline, it can be harder.
One of the best ways to help stay on budget is to divide your money before you start spending it. Financial budgeting experts recommend a strategy called “the envelope method” to do this.
Here’s how the envelope method works:
Granted, this system isn’t perfect. Getting your paycheck in cash isn’t as efficient as depositing it in your bank account and a lot of people aren’t comfortable carrying that much cash on them. Still, this might be the only foolproof way to ensure you’ll stick with your budget.
If you like the idea of the envelope method but want a more practical approach, you can open several checking accounts and use them as digital “envelopes”. If you’re banking with First Alliance Credit Union, creating and renaming checking accounts is easy, so you can create as many of them as you need. When you get your paycheck deposited into your main account, you can access your account online and divide your money among the digital envelopes as needed.
To use these digital envelopes, all you have to do is transfer money from one digital envelope to your main checking account each time you want to buy something. It’s still going to be more inefficient than simply going to the store and buying something, but that’s the point. When using this system, you’re going to see just how much you’re going to spend on those new shoes or that lunch and what you have left to get you through the month.
Planning ahead can also help you stick with your budget. When going to the supermarket, for instance, make a list of what you’re going to buy, and do not buy anything that isn’t on the list. If you see something you’d like to buy, make a note of it and put it on the list to get next time.
You’ll also want to make sure to plan ahead for events. Make sure you know what birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and holidays are coming up so you can plan to spend appropriately for them.
Another way to stick to your budget is to review it on a daily basis. Every day, take a look back at what you’ve spent. If you’re not following the envelope system, then make sure you can track where your money has gone and what is left for the month.
You might also want to make sure to keep track of your financial goals. This is the main reason you have a budget, so keep an eye on your savings goals.
Finally, if you can’t stick to your budget, do not beat yourself up over it. Instead, go back through your budget and figure out where you overspent. Then adjust your budget accordingly.
How do you adjust your budget? Good question!
One of the biggest pitfalls people make when creating a budget is that they try to budget for an ordinary month. The only problem is that an “ordinary month” doesn’t exist. Every month has some irregular event in it, whether it’s a vacation, a holiday or an event like a wedding or a graduation.
Even more importantly, your expenses and can shift over time. Big events like buying a new car, lowering your mortgage payments, switching jobs or remodeling your house could have a significant impact on your budget. So can smaller things like inflation or agreeing to host the weekly gaming session.
What this means is that your budget is eventually going to be inadequate or outdated. This can frustrate a lot of people, mostly because a lot of people have this idea that a budget, once created, is set in stone.
Budgets are not set in stone, though. Remember, the whole reason you have a budget is to make sure you’re using your money effectively, so why wouldn’t you adjust your budget if it isn’t working for you?
Ideally, you’ll want to review your budget every month. If you’ve been following budgeting strategies like the envelope method you should have been able to stick to your budget. If you haven’t though, it’s time to examine what went wrong.
Take a look at where you overspent and see if you can figure out why you overspent. Did you have to go to a sudden business lunch or have an unexpected invitation to a birthday party? Did you just need an extra cup of coffee to get through a stressful work day?
Try to determine whether this overspending might happen in the future, or whether it was a one-time event. You might not get many unexpected birthday invitations, but wanting an extra coffee during a stressful work day is probably going to happen again, so you might want to increase your monthly coffee allowance.
If you catch yourself overspending in the middle of the month, you can also avoid blowing out your budget by taking money from a category in your budget in which you haven’t spent much. If you haven’t done much with your clothing budget for the month, maybe you can use $20 from that category to shore up your eating out category to cover that sudden business lunch.
Sometimes, however, you won’t want to wait until the end of the month to review your budget. This usually happens if something financially significant happens, such as getting laid off, getting a bonus or having to visit the hospital.
Financial events don’t always have to be bad, though. If you get a raise, you’ll want to revisit your budget as soon as it appears in your paycheck to figure out where you can put the extra money. You should also do this if you get a bonus or any other kind of windfall, like an inheritance.
Where should you put extra money in your budget? Padding out your savings and investment accounts are always good choices, but if you have debts you should use the extra money to pay them off first. You may also want to look at your financial goals and see if the extra money will help you achieve them.
We’ve previously talked about the fact that an “ordinary month” doesn’t exist. Every month has some expense associated with it that sets it apart from the others. So when you do your monthly review of your budget, why not rewrite it for the month ahead?
Creating a new budget for every month seems hard, but you did most of the work already when you created your first budget. Your necessary expenses won’t change, but you may want to change how you allocate money to discretionary expenses.
If there’s a wedding coming up in April, for instance, you may want to put more money in your gas and entertainment budgets. If you’re planning for February, you may want to put more money in your restaurant budget, as well as your entertainment budget for a gift.
When you create a budget for every month, you’re avoiding the trap of budgeting for a “normal month.” Even better, you’re making sure you can spend money on these events without having to worry about which budget categories you’re taking that money out of.
Once you’ve made your budget, stuck to it and know how to adjust it for future expenses, you’ll start reaping some immediate benefits. You won’t have to worry about what you’re spending, since now you know where each dollar goes. You’ll also know that you’re not spending more than you’re bringing in.
What do you do now?
If you haven’t looked at your savings yet, now is definitely the time. Saving money can increase your financial security, lets you take advantage of opportunities when they arise and can help you achieve your financial goals, among several other benefits.
At the very least, you should have $500 in your savings account, but if you want to be truly ready for an emergency you should have between three to six months’ salary set aside. Once you have that much saved up, you can start using your savings to plan for larger financial goals, such as a new car, a house or your retirement fund.
If you’ve never thought about your financial goals before, think about what your life goals are and how you could achieve them. You might be thinking about buying a nice house, a sports car, or a pontoon boat. You might also think about the future, such as your retirement fund, your children’s college tuition, or even a significant event, like a fancy wedding or going on a European tour.
Once you have some goals, you’ll want to think about how long they’ll take to achieve. Some goals, like saving up for a new car, are short-term goals that you should be able to achieve in the next five years or so. Medium-term goals like buying a home will take longer to achieve, about 10 years. Any goals that will take longer than that, such as saving for retirement, are long-term goals.
After you’ve settled on some financial goals, you’ll want to start putting money aside each paycheck in order to reach them. This is where budgeting comes in.
You’ll also want to figure out where to store the money you’re saving so you can take advantage of the interest it generates. The First Alliance Credit Union Beginner’s Guide to Savings has a lot more information on this topic, including what type of accounts you should use based on whether your financial goals are short-, medium- or long-term.
When you start budgeting, you’ve all but ensured your financial success. You’re taking control of your money, prioritizing your spending and taking concrete steps to achieve your financial goals, all at the same time.
Budgeting can seem difficult and boring at first, but once you’ve made a budget and stuck with it, you’ll discover just how good it can feel to spend money on what you want without worrying if you need that money for something else. You’ll also find out the joy of saving for your financial goals, especially if they’ve seemed out of your reach before.
Creating a budget is one of the best money moves you can possibly make. If you need help budgeting, you can always contact one of our money navigators to get expert, judgement-free advice.
Good luck on your road to financial success!
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