Many Americans are caught in the cycle of overspending, using credit cards, and, simply put, living paycheck to paycheck without saving any money to secure their future. Everyone has their reasons for living this way, from the “I want it now” culture that we live in, to not knowing how to make a budget. No matter what your income, creating a realistic budget can help relieve your financial worries. The following are some practical ways you can start a budget and stick to it.
- Track your spending for a month. This means writing down everything that you spend your money on, including your regular bills, mortgage, groceries, coffee, newspapers, etc. Carry a notepad if you need to. Even ATM withdrawals should be included. This step is a necessary, preliminary step which will make it easier to create a realistic budget. Organize the categories and calculate your totals.
- List seasonal, annual, semi-annual, and quarterly expenses you incur, but didn’t pay while you were tracking your spending. This may include taxes, car registrations and maintenance, insurance payments, gifts, and school activities. Estimate and divide the totals by twelve to come up with your monthly expenses for these items.
- Add up your monthly income (take home pay, not gross income). Don’t forget bonus pay, alimony or child support, dividends and interest, or public assistance. If your take home pay isn’t consistent, take an average for the last ten pay periods.
- Make a list of categories for your expenses. You can do this on paper, or on a computer spreadsheet. Be prepared for a long list and use the information you gathered when you tracked your spending. Typical categories include rent/mortgage, gas, electric, water, TV, internet, pool care, trash removal, groceries, eating out, entertainment, club dues, child care, gasoline, hair care, and medical expenses. The list is practically endless. You can find templates on the Internet, but you should customize it for your situation.
- Make columns next to the list of categories—one for “projected expenses” and more for each of the following months.
- Use the numbers you came up with from your monthly tracking and estimated seasonal expenses and fill in the numbers to total your projected monthly expenses at the bottom of the column.
- Calculate the difference between your projected monthly expenses and your monthly income.
- If your expenses are more than your income, you’ll have to cut expenses or increase your income.
- For the monthly columns, continue recording the amounts as you pay your bills. If you come up short, change the projected amount for the category and look for ways to adjust your spending.
Remember, this is a guide to help you control your finances and know what you can afford. If you find that you’re continually coming up short, you may have to look into making more significant changes, such as driving a more economical car to eliminate a car payment. And remember, credit cards aren’t the way to circumvent your budget problems!