by Jen Smith (Staff Writer)
Updated November 13, 2020
A monthly budget is like Google Maps for your finances: You follow it because you don’t know where you’re going without it.
If you’re new to budgeting, don’t be discouraged by a few — or many — wrong turns and closed roads along the way. The longer you stick with it, the better you get.
And with a few simple budgeting tips, you can be well on your way before you know it.
13 Budgeting Tips Anyone Can Follow
Whether you’re trying to pay off credit card debt or just boost your savings, here are some budgeting tips that will help you make (and stick to) your budget.
1. Set Your Goals Before You Make Your Budget
Without a goal, a budget is just a spreadsheet that tells you to have less fun.
Think about what you want in the next five to 10 years, and figure out what financial situation you need to get there. Whatever your goals are, know that any sound financial foundation starts with an emergency fund.
You might then want to pay off debt, save for a down payment on a home, or increase your savings.
Decide where you want to be financially next year and the year after. Knowing what you want to do with your money will guide you as you figure out how to budget, and it will greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.
2. There’s No One Size-Fits-All Budget. Find a Plan That Works for You
There are so many budgeting methods out there, and every guru says theirs is the best. But ultimately you have to choose the one that works for you.
If you’ve got an ambitious goal, we recommend trying a zero-based budget first.
To make a zero-based budget, start by prioritizing your expenses from essential to nonessential. Then, assign every dollar in your paycheck a “job” on the list until you run out.
The most important things — housing, food, minimum debt payments — get taken care of first, and you can disburse the remaining money for your goals and fun in their order of importance to you.
Zero-based budgeting is great for Type A planners. If you prefer to be a little more loosey-goosey, a 50/20/30 budget is a great option. With this approach, you don’t have to think too much about your expenses. You just allocate 50% of your income to your needs, 20% to savings and 30% to wants.
3. Use a Budgeting App or the Envelope System to Track Your Spending on the Go
It’s hard to lug around your laptop or binder to keep up with each budget category, so a budgeting app is a great tool for updating your budget on the go. There are many out there, whether you like to enter each transaction manually or see everything updated automatically.
If your goal is to take an intense look at your spending, manually tracking your transactions is going to work best. Once you’ve been budgeting for a while and you’ve got a grasp on your spending, syncing transactions automatically works fine.
If you still can’t stick to your budget, the envelope system can help you succeed without so much emphasis on constant tracking.
After you decide how much money goes toward each of your expenses, put the money you’ll spend for each expense in a given week into separate envelopes and carry them with you. Once an envelope is empty, you’re done spending in that category. You can keep receipts in the envelope and examine your purchases later.
Envelopes are best for categories you’re prone to overspending on. You probably don’t need envelopes for things like gas and utilities, because you’re not likely to go on a gas-buying spree.
Popular categories for envelopes are restaurants, groceries, clothes and entertainment.
4. Use the Past to Predict Your Future Income and Expenses
Whether you choose a zero-based budget, 50/20/30 budget or some other method, you’re going to have to calculate your income and the amount of money you want to put toward every category or individual expense.
Salaried employees will get off easy when they calculate their incomes. If you have a variable income or side hustles, you’ll need to do some digging.
Look back at your income from the past six months, or as far back as you can if you’ve been at your current job for less time. Then find your average monthly income and the average amount of each paycheck.
Expenses like utilities can also be unpredictable. Check your online statements to see which months were higher versus which were lower so you can make future budgets. You may not be able to take that impromptu weekend getaway the month your electric bill will be $300, but it might be totally feasible during a month it’s going to be $75.