Let’s be honest. Budgeting is a drag. It involves a slew of not very fun activities. You’ve got to figure out your bills vs. your income, track your expenses, and figure out exactly how much you have to live on. Then you’ve got to do the emotional ninjitsu required to conjure up the self-discipline to live within your means. That can really suck.
Unfortunately, for all but the top 2% of us, budgeting isn’t really optional. We have to do it. The key is finding ways to make it suck a little less. To get there, I’ve decided to share a few tips that make the whole thing less stressful.
There’s no real way to make this first part fun. Instead, you just have to remember that ‘the only way out is through’. This is the part where you have to determine exactly what you need to survive.
Think in terms of rent/mortgage, utilities, internet, phone, clothing, and food. To be very clear, with the last two, that means essentials. Then, add up your income and find the difference between the two numbers.
This will involve gathering together bills and crunching numbers. You should also give yourself a bit of a cushion. How much depends on your comfort level. Some people add an additional ten percent. Once this step is finished, you know the bare minimum amount of money you need to survive, and what the difference is between that and your income.
Basically, what you get as a result is a neat personal finance balance sheet, so that you know where you stand right now and can set more realistic financial goals for the future.
If you look up any advice on budgeting, you’ll find the obligatory phrase: “Pay yourself first”. Well, this part is all about that. Paying yourself is saving money, and everybody needs to do that.
What you need to determine is how much to pay yourself. That’s because that depends on your needs, monthly expenses, and income. Sure, it’s nice to save ten percent of your income. It would be amazing to have double your income saved by the time you’re 35 (lol). But, the truth is, when it comes to savings none is bad, a lot is amazing, and anything is good.
Start small if you need to. If you’ve got a 401K, put just a little bit of your money into it. You can increase it annually, and you may not even miss the pre-tax income you contribute. Here are some more easy saving tips:
- Start Investing with Acorns: This app will round every purchase up to the nearest dollar and invest the extra money for you.
- Give yourself a cash allowance for each week, and do not use your debit card, except for planned purchases/recurring payments.
- Take part in the $20 Savings Challenge. Or make up your own challenge and ask some friends to join in.
- Match “wants” with “saves”. Whenever you splurge on some random item e.g. a $35 T-shirt, put the same amount of money ($35) towards your savings or debt.
Almost every budget needs a strong focus on spending. Start by figuring out where you are overspending and why. Make a list. Chances are, you’ll have things you can think of right away. Maybe you’re eating out instead of cooking, or you’ve got a Starbucks habit.
Keep digging, chances are there are other things you might not be considering for example:
- Are you paying for any membership you don’t actually use?
- What about digital or print subscriptions you don’t care about?
- Are you paying your bills a week or two late and getting dinged with fees
- What about your bank account? Are you paying a monthly fee just to have a checking account?
- Worse, are you using check cashing places or one of those debit cards that charge you a few bucks for every transaction?
If you sign up for anything, such as a free trial, make sure you will receive a reminder to cancel it.
Once you know your expenses, it’s time to get ruthless. Well, you can start slowly at first. Get rid of every expense that you can drop without any trouble, and that you won’t miss. After that, it’s time to go Marie Kondo. If it doesn’t bring you joy, out it goes.
When it’s done, you will be left with the things you truly need, truly enjoy, or are somehow contractually obligated to pay for. Once you have things pared down, you can start working on reduces your expenses further still. For example, if watching television truly brings you joy, maybe you can get as much joy with a streaming subscription over a full priced, digital cable bundle.
Have you ever left the house in the morning with fifty dollars, then ended the broke? The worst feeling is when you realize that you can’t really recall what you spent it on. That’s the problem with money that doesn’t have any real purpose. It often gets wasted, or spent on ‘extras’, then you find yourself short, waiting for your next paycheck.
Think of this concept as spending with a purpose, or giving every dollar a job. That means that every dollar you make goes to pay a bill, into savings, or to get you something that you want. Keep in mind that ‘what you want’ isn’t impulse buys. Think planned expenditures that are within your budget. This way, every bit of money you spend is contributing to making your life just a little bit better.
This is also a very good motivator. Tempted to call in sick to work or give a shift to a coworker? Do the math in your head. The 100 bucks you might lose for taking off work could have gone to work towards a video game or this months internet bill.
This is a method that doesn’t work for everyone, but the people who use it successfully really love it. The envelope method involves cashing your paycheck (yes cash), and placing your money into different envelopes for different purposes. For example, rent, electric bill, credit card, etc. In addition to your envelopes for bills, you should also have one for savings and one for enjoyment.
Why does this work? It’s easy to feel disconnected from your money when you use your debit card, or electronic payments all of the time. When you can physically hold your money in your hand, spending it feels that much more real. For some people, it helps them to be more aware of their spending, and more self-disciplined with their cash.
After you cut expenses and start saving money, you may feel as if you are suddenly very, financially constrained. This is especially true if you’re missing out on nights out, or unable to treat yourself like you used to. If so, you can take some of the sting out by adding back just a bit of income.
No, you don’t need take on an extra job. Well, you could, but there are other options as well. You can:
- Sell clothes you never wear online or at consignment shops.
- Take surveys for cash or gift cards, churn free trial offers for cash, test websites, even download apps to earn money online.
- Learn to repair and replace cracked phone screens.
- Sell your used games and electronics.
- Download a merchandising or secret shopper app.
- Sell your creations on Etsy.
- Sell virtual items from video games.
Now, none of these things will make you rich. What they can do is provide you with some extra income for hobbies, and a couple of nights out each month.
Budgets aren’t much fun, but everybody needs one. Without one, you’ll struggle to track your finances, waste your money on non-essentials, and never build a solid savings account. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be that much of a struggle. Just give the tips above a try, and watch your financial situation improve over time.