Summer is a great time to begin planning your budget for the next school year. This summer join me in the Summer Budget Challenge. Together we will discover our spending habits, align our spending with our values, and create a budget that we can maintain, all before the school year begins this fall. Follow frugal-community on Twitter and Facebook to hear more about what I have discovered and join the conversation.
We begin by discovering our spending habits. Over the next month, you have one task: track your income and your expenses. You may think your know where your money is going, be prepared to be surprised. Over the next few weeks track every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. This includes everything from bills to paychecks to babysitting money to the dollar you used to get a diet coke from the vending machine. Every penny counts. There are a variety of ways that you can do this:
- Journal Method: Carry around a small notebook or journal and track every purchase you make whether with cash, credit or check. On another page track your income.
- Excel Method: Instead of using a journal, track all of your income and expenses in an excel spreadsheet. This works best if you set aside some time each week to put in each transaction, if you do it with any less frequency you might forget some of the smaller purchases. Microsoft provides a variety of personal budgeting templates.
- Software Method: If Excel isn’t your thing, but you still want to track your spending on the computer there are a variety of different programs out there, one of the most popular is Quicken. This software will also be helpful later when we create a budget.
- Online Method: There are a variety of sites that can help you track your income and expenses as well as create a budget. I use Mint.com because it syncs with my bank account, categorizes my transactions and tracks my budgets all in one place. Again, it is important that you set aside time each week to track your expenses on the site to make sure everything is categorized correctly and all of your cash purchases are included as well.
This is the first in a two part series on creating and maintaining a budget.
1. Evaluate Your Cash Flow:
- Track Your Income: The first step in creating a budget is tracking all of your different forms of income including: scholarships/fellowships, loans and work payment.
- Track Your Expenses/Spending: The second step is tracking your expenses, make sure to include your priority expenses (housing payments, bills, groceries, etc.) as well as your discretionary spending. You can do this in a variety of ways:
- Worksheet Method: Some people still enjoy putting pen to paper, if that is you check out this worksheet.
- Excel Spreadsheet: Microsoft provides a variety of personal budgeting templates.
- Budgeting Software: There are a variety of different programs out there, one of the most popular is Quicken.
- Online Site: Again, there are a variety of sites. I use Mint.com because it syncs with my bank account, categorizes my transactions and tracks my budgets all in one place.
- The Bottom Line: Subtract your expenses from your income to see how you are doing. Is the number positive or negative? If your number is negative, you are spending more than you are earning. The goal of budgeting is to create a plan to spend less than you earn. If your number is positive that’s good but it’s not the end of the conversation. It’s important to make sure that you are maximizing your assets and planning for the future.
- Aligning Your Spending with Your Priorities: Evaluate your spending and make sure that your spending reflects your personal values and priorities. Is your money going to the places and people that matter most to you? Are you taking care of your needs before you are taking care of your wants? What are some doable trade-offs that you can make?
2. Create Your Budget: Use your tracked expenses to create your budget categories, be as specific as you like. Make sure that you account for both your priority expenses and your discretionary spending. Be realistic with your expectations and make sure that you don’t forget to:
- Prepare for the Unexpected: Do you have an emergency fund to draw on if you lose your job or incur unexpected expenses (car repairs, medical bills, etc.)?
- Plan for the Future: Do you have a savings account that you regularly contribute to? Even a small amount (such as $25) every month can add up. Are you investing in your retirement? Are you saving up for a large purchase (computer, car, house, etc.)? If you have student loans, could you pay off the interest now?
- Save for Occasional Expenses: Do you have a way to pay for occasional expenses? Make sure that you take into account how you will pay for Christmas and Birthday gifts, travel for the holidays and other occasional expenses so that these expenses don’t break the bank.
- Problem Areas: As you tracked your spending did you find any problem areas? If so, gently challenge yourself to be more frugal in those areas. Remember to start out slow, it takes a long time to change a bad habit.
- Have Fun: Where is your discretionary spending? Many people when they are first budgeting forget to give themselves some room to have fun. While it is important to be frugal and align your spending with your values, it is important to have some space in your budget for the fun stuff.
- Be Flexible: It can be difficult to precisely predict your spending, especially if this is your first budget, so be flexible. If you have to switch some things around to better fit you, that’s fine!
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