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Monthly Budget

Ever wondered what the key to financial success is? While it’s hard to pin down one single key, having a budget plays a part. Having a budget is crucial to taking control of your finances. It helps you take stock of where your money is going. Knowing that, you can then improve your habits to increase your savings and boost your net worth. Of course in order to follow a budget, you need to know how to make a budget.

Why Do I Need a Budget?

You might be thinking that you can handle your finances without a budget. While that may be true, a budget can make managing your money and your future a lot easier. It sets concrete limits and goals that you can follow. You can also adjust your budgets as necessary, like when emergencies or life changes come along.

Even if you keep your spending in check, a budget can help you see where you can be saving even more money. Maybe you’re overpaying on your phone bill, but you haven’t noticed yet. Creating a monthly budget can help you move that money over to an area that needs it more, like your retirement savings.

Luckily, you don’t have to start entirely from scratch when making a budget. If you’re still hesitant, there are a ton of budget tools at your disposal. You can easily find budget spreadsheets and printouts online. These can be as simple as requiring you to fill in the boxes according to your finances and the tool will do the rest.

How to Make a Budget: Step 1 – How Much Do You Make?

Your first step is to identify how much money is coming in. You’re going to want to look at your net income. This is what’s left after deductions for health care, Social Security, 401(k) and other possible deductions. After those deductions, determine how much ends up in your bank account at the end of each month.

If you live off of an irregular income, like freelancing income, you can take the average earnings over the past six to 12 months. You could round that amount down, or even just take the lowest amount, to give yourself some more wiggle room.

How to Make a Budget: Step 2 – Track Your Spending

Budget Step: Track Your Spending

Now that you know how much money is coming in, you need to look at where it’s all going. First, take a look at the necessary and fixed costs. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) phone bills, credit and debit card statements, utility bills, mortgage payments, student loans and anything else that requires a monthly payment. It will definitely help to collect all your bills and statements over the previous months to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Take a look at how much you spend each month on those areas. Depending on your preference, or the spreadsheet you’re using, you can get as (un)specific as you want. For example, you can pile certain costs under “Housing,” or you could list out rent, gas bill, electric bill, etc.

Next, take a look at your variable expenses. This includes what you’ve spent at restaurants, bookstores, filling up the tank, grocery shopping, etc. Again, you can be as specific as you want. Just make sure you account for everything.

When you’ve added all these monthly costs together, subtract that amount from your monthly income. If it comes out negative, you’re spending too much! This means you’re going to have to make some changes when you plan out your budget. If it comes out positive, then you’re on the right track. There’s always room for improvement, though, so you may still want to prepare to make some cuts.

How to Make a Budget: Step 3 – How Much Do You Owe?

So we know where your money has been going. Now it’s time to look at areas where you still owe money. This adds up what you owe for things like car loans, a mortgage, student loans, credit card debt and more.

Knowing how much debt you’re in may be scary at first. But putting a number to it will help you pay it off in a more tangible way. Creating a budget in the first place is already a good step toward paying off those debts. When you’re done with your budget, you’ll be able to see the areas where you can cut back on spending. Then you can put that extra savings towards paying off your debts.

How to Make a Budget: Step 4 – Set Your Goals

Time to step away from all the numbers for a second. Before you dive back in, set some financial goals for yourself. Do you want to increase your retirement savings? Do you need to save for your children’s college expenses? Are you aiming to pay off your student loans within five years?

Set both long-term and short-term goals. That way you can work toward those goals and celebrate when you’ve achieved them. Keep in mind that these goals should include saving. Saving for retirement, for an emergency and for future expenses is crucial for financial success. So while saving for your next flat screen TV can seem more exciting, don’t forget the important stuff.

You can set specific amounts to these goals too if that helps you more. For example, instead of saying you want to save money this year, say you want to save $500 by the end of the year. That way, you can more actively track your progress and cut spending when necessary.

How to Make a Budget: Step 5 – Make a Plan

How to Make a Budget

OK, back to your budget. It’s time to make a plan! This means planning out your monthly expenses for the future, rather than spending willy-nilly.

To start, take your necessary expenses. These would be your rent, utility bills, gas costs, etc. This are the things you cannot live without each month. Set those expenses down in your budget.

You should also include a savings aspect as a necessary expense. That way, you already account for savings and can be held to it each month, rather than making it expendable. If you have problems saving, you can easily set up a savings account with recurring monthly deposits. This allows you to set it, forget it and treat it as an ongoing necessity.

Then take a look at your more frivolous expenses. Here’s where you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Do you really need to buy a new pair of shoes every month? Or maybe you and your family are eating out too often. If you can’t quite cut something out completely, try shaving off your spending in a few different areas. Instead of entirely nixing take-out dinners, spend less on that, your daily coffee and treating yourself at the mall. While it might be hard to cut back on certain luxuries, boosting your savings and paying off debts should come first.

How to Make a Budget: Step 6 – Follow Your Budget & Adjust as Necessary

Now that you’ve made your budget, it’s time to stick to it. This can be difficult at first, especially when it comes to curbing your “fun” spending. But creating a budget is useless if you don’t follow it. Stick to your budget closely, especially at first.

It’s important to remember that you will adjust your budget along the way. If you get a raise, you can put more money toward savings and dining out. To the opposite, if you get hit with an illness or job loss, you may have to cut back on your “wants” even more. You may even have to make adjustments if gas prices go up, for example. Whatever you do, don’t just set your budget and forget it.

The Takeaway

Knowing how to make a budget will prove incredibly beneficial for you and your finances. Taking stock of your money will allow you to have more control over it. That way, you can save more money, pay off debts and invest more towards your future.

Tips for Sticking to a Budget

  • Luckily, nowadays you don’t have to make a budget alone or from scratch. There are a ton of online budget tools and guides to help you get started. You can also download a number of smartphone apps to help track your expenses. Apps can also warn you when you get too close to overspending in a specific area.
  • When making your budget, you may also want to take a look at your debit/credit card usage. It’s easy to overspend on those little pieces of plastic when it doesn’t seem like you’re spending money. One solution could be to cut back on your card usage. Take out some cash, leave the cards at home and make that cash stretch over a couple weeks (or more!). Otherwise, you could wreck your budget or end up in some serious credit card debt.
  • Get an expert’s input. A financial advisor can help you come up with a realistic financial plan and then keep you on track. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to three fiduciaries who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/cnythzl, ©iStock.com/tacojim, ©iStock.com/PeopleImages

Lauren Perez, CEPF® Lauren Perez writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SmartAsset, with a special expertise in savings, banking and credit cards. She is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Lauren has a degree in English from the University of Rochester where she focused on Language, Media and Communications. She is originally from Los Angeles. While prone to the occasional shopping spree, Lauren has been aware of the importance of money management and savings since she was young. Lauren loves being able to make credit card and retirement account recommendations to friends and family based on the hours of research she completes at SmartAsset.
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