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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to Create a Working Budget

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A budget is a great way to take control of your finances and save for some goal or maybe just get out of debt.


  1. Calculate how much money you earn in a month after taxes. For this budget plan, use your net pay or take home pay. Include tips, supplementary income, side-jobs, investments etc. This is your income.
  2. Figure out your expenses. The best way to do this is to save receipts for a month or even a couple weeks. Knowing how much per month you spend on groceries or gas makes the next part much easier. If you want to start writing your budget today, and don't have receipts, that's OK, it's just a bit more difficult.
  3. Set your goal. Why are you going on a budget? Maybe you want to start saving for college, or maybe you want to get out of debt. Whatever your reason, define your goal clearly so you can determine if you are meeting it or not.
  4. Break your budget up into some basic categories. Some categories you could use are: Housing, Food, Auto, Entertainment, Savings, Clothing, Medical, and Miscellaneous. You might want to organize your expenses into needs - such as your loan and electricity - and wants - such as clothing and entertainment.
  5. List all your spending under each of these categories. Let's take Auto as an example: $300/month car payment, $100/month insurance, $250/month on gas, $50/month on maintenance, 10$/month on fees such as registration. So, your total Auto budget for the month would be $710/month. If you don't know the exact amounts you spend, try to make good estimates. The more accurate you are, the better chance your budget has of working.
  6. Once you have broken down all your spending into your basic categories, add it all up. This should show your total monthly spending. Compare it to how much you make each month after taxes.
  7. Obtain some kind of record-keeping method to keep track of your budget. Some people like to use computer programs like Quicken or Microsoft Money. If you prefer you could just use a good old-fashioned ledger book. You can find one at a general shopping center for about $5.
  8. Set up your ledger. Skip the first 5 or so pages for later, we'll come back to it. Divide the rest of the ledger into as many sections as you have main categories. Put each main category on the first page of each section. This will give you room for lots of entries in each category. Some categories, like food, are going to need lots of pages.
  9. Decide what period of time you want your budget set up for. I found monthly to be the most useful for me, since most bills are monthly. However, I decided to make the deposits to my budget categories twice a month. In other words, if my Auto budget for the month is $710, I showed "deposits" of $355 in the Auto section on the 1st and 15th of each month.
  10. Show a deposit in each category at the start of each period, then show all the expenditures from that category throughout the period. So, for Auto, you would start off with $710 for the month, then show several expenditures for gas, one expenditure for car payment, maybe one expenditure for insurance(depending on whether you pay insurance monthly or not).
  11. Use that first section of the ledger book to record income and then show the budget being subtracted from it each period. For instance, I get paid every other Friday, so there are corresponding entries in the income section showing income deposits every other Friday. My budget is ~$2800/month, and gets subtracted on the 1st and 15th. So on each 1st and 15th, the income sections shows a budget subtraction of $1400.



  • The very first month you set up a budget, it's probably not going to work for you, because if you've never kept track of this stuff before, you're not going to magically know how much to put in each category. DON'T BE DISCOURAGED. The second month might be a little better, but most people don't have a good, working budget until the third or fourth month. You didn't ride a bike without training wheels the first time you tried, and you weren't Michael Schumacher the first time you got in a car, either. Practice makes perfect!
  • There are occasionally pay-periods where may make some extra money, and when that happens there is a surplus! It's up to you on how to use that surplus. You could put it directly toward your goal, or you could let it sit in your bank account as an emergency fund.
  • As time goes by, you will find that your original budget has some flaws. Some areas you underestimated, some areas you overestimated. Some things come up that you didn't account for at all. That's OK! Just make revisions as you get a clearer picture of your spending. Remember to keep your overall spending less than your earning so you can meet your goal.
  • The first time I tried this, my spending was more than my earning, and that was without putting anything into savings! If that happens to you, do what I did: start making cuts in your spending plan. For instance, my first budget had $150/month for clothing. After making changes, I reduced my spending to $80/month for clothing. You might have to make many changes like that to be able to accomplish whatever goals you have set for your budget.
  • If you keep your emergency fund in your checking (or savings!) account, it could be very difficult to avoid the temptation to spend it when you see that shiny new must-have item you've been wanting. Find a money-market account with a decent rate of return (4-5%) and check-writing privileges and you'll be ahead of the game.
  • A common problem people have when making budgets is that they'll come up with an excellent plan, but then the car breaks down and the plan goes out the window. This is why you have the above-mentioned emergency fund. If you use the emergency fund money for an emergency, don't forget to budget for putting that money back next month!
  • Another common problem is people see the shiny new must-have item at (insert store here) and they buy it, even though it's not on their budget. Maybe it was on sale and they couldn't pass it up! This is why it's good to have a budget category called "Blow" (or whatever you want.) No, it's not for cocaine, it's the category for impulse purchases! I highly recommend including this category.
  • Don't try and begin a budget for the first month after an event in your life where money was significantly spent or saved, such as a vacation or a move, or coming into an inheritance or winning the lottery. Wait until your finances have been "in order" or at a steady pace, usually from three to six months afterwards, before starting fresh.



  • At times a budget can seem very restrictive. Just remember, it can be liberating too! When vacation time comes, you'll already have money set aside for it thanks to your budget and you won't have to scrape to be able to afford it.


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