I have followed a written budget for seven years now, and I can confidently say that it is the number one reason I feel at peace with my finances. I don’t worry about whether or not we’ll have enough money to pay our rent or car loans every month; I know we will. The headspace this surety frees up allows me to focus on my dreams and keeps me on track to reach my lifetime financial goals. There are few things better than that! I know you all are excited to talk budgeting, so let’s get cracking.
So what does it mean, exactly, to build a budget? Dave Ramsey likes to say that budgeting is “telling your money where to go.” I like that image. A budget helps me be purposeful about how I spend and save instead of just closing my eyes and hoping. While there are many ways to track a budget (some of which we’ll be covering in the next few weeks!), building a budget is pretty standard. It’s all about two things — income and expenses — which make up your cash flow.
1. Calculate your monthly net income (your gross income minus taxes). For most of us, this is simply our paycheck.
2. Add up all of your fixed expenses. Fixed expenses are difficult or impossible to change and are the same (or roughly the same) every month: rent, utilities, your electric bill, student loans, car loan(s), auto insurance, health insurance, etc.
3. Calculate your monthly contribution to your financial goals. Like the experts say, pay yourself first. Put money into an emergency fund, reduce debt with extra payments, save for a down payment, save for retirement, and/or feed an investment account. If it’s a priority for you, include charitable giving in this step. Some people choose to do this as a percentage of their income (i.e. 10% for tithing), while others choose a set amount. Whatever you do, do not skip this step! Treat your savings like any other budget line item, not as something optional if there’s money left over.
4. Add up all of your variable expenses. Like the name implies, these are things that are not externally set, so you could, for example, cut back here if you wanted to move faster toward your goals. Examples include groceries, dining out, clothing, entertainment, gifts, travel, gas, personal care, etc.
5. Put it all together. When you subtract your fixed expenses, your contributions to your financial goals, and your variable expenses from your net income, there are three possible outcomes: you’ll either have a surplus, you’ll break even, or you’ll have a deficit. If you come out with a surplus, you can either save more or spend more (assuming you’re already saving the recommended amounts!). If you break even, perfect! If you have a deficit, it’s time to take another look at your figures (most likely your variable expenses), and adjust numbers until you’re in the clear. No more money “accidents,” people! By the time your budget is finished, every dollar will have a destination!
Easy to understand, a bit harder to follow in practice! But we’ll get to that soon enough. Your homework for the week: walk through these steps, and start calculating! If you’ve never made a budget before and are unsure how much to allocate for certain categories, I’d suggest looking back through last month’s expenses (maybe on a credit or debit card statement) and estimating from there. It might take a few months to get the balance across categories just right.
Next week, I’ll show you how John and I track our budget, and the week after that, we’ll have a special guest post on another tracking option!
Happy budgeting! And be sure to leave questions or tips in the comments!!