A Beginner’s Guide to Budgeting

Starting a budget is going to require some work, but that doesn’t mean it has to be scary! Here are some expert tips to help you break the seal.

If you’ve got a lousy credit score and find yourself relying on high-interest no credit check loans and predatory cash advances to cover emergency expenses, the odds are good that your relationship with money could use a hard reboot.

And what’s the best way to do that? By building your first budget! We know, that sounds like a somewhat daunting proposition. But don’t worry. That’s why we’re here. We reached out to a number of different financial experts to get their best budgeting tips for beginners. Here’s what they had to say!

You already have a budget.

“When it comes to budgeting I tell clients that they already have a budget whether they know it or not,” said Financial Life Coach AJ Borowsky (@AskWhatNext). “The key is discovering the budget and then correcting any problems with it. The way to discover the budget is to begin tracking their spending in detail.”

Building and maintaining a budget is nobody’s idea of a good time. But like so many other tedious tasks in life, it’s vitally important.

“Yes, this takes discipline but it is an eye-opening practice that shows the reality of their spending habits,” said Borowsky. “Once their budget is revealed they (or we if we’re working together) can set priorities and go from a hidden, non-working budget to a well-planned successful budget.”

Start by tracking your expenses.

Sure, you could sit down right now and just conjure a monthly budget out of thin air. But it probably won’t bear any relation to how you actually spend money. Before you can rein in your spending, you have to gain a clear idea of how you’re spending it in the first place.

“My #1 budgeting tip is to track your expenses for a month before creating a budget,” said personal finance blogger Marc Andre of VitalDollar.com (@vital_dollar). “Without knowing how much you’re actually spending right now in the different budget categories, your budget is really just a guess.

“If you track your expenses you can usually identify a few areas where you need to cut back, and your budget will be much more realistic,” he added. “And if your budget is realistic, you’ll be more likely to stick to it.”

For those who want to start tracking their expenses today, Andre suggested using an app like Mint or Dollarbird. (For even more budget tracking apps, you can also check out the OppLoans app directory.) And for people who want to look at their previous spending, he recommended going back through your checking account and credit card statements.

“Put each expense into a budget category,” he said, “and then make sure that your ideal budget is something you can realistically achieve.

Bit by bit, you’ll figure out your cost of living.

When you’re tracking your expenses, what you’re doing is figuring out your cost of living. According to Certified Financial Planner Michael Menninger, most people underestimate their cost of living by over 30 percent, and they do so because they forget to factor in “discretionary spending.”

Menninger has two methods to help one determine their cost of living. He dubs them the “easy way” and the “hard way.” (Don’t worry though, the hard way isn’t that bad.) Here’s how he describes the easy way:

“This may sound overly simplistic, and that’s because it is!  Look at your savings and checking account balances from one year ago, and look at what they are now.  If they went up, you know that you’ve spent less than you’ve made. If they went down … uh-oh.

“You must also look at your debt balances, too.  So if your credit card balances (or lines of credit) went up or down, then they need to be factored in. Don’t forget to identify other ancillary income, whether it be gifts or other income.  Once you do this basic math, you will find your actual cost of living, which serves as the baseline.”

As for the hard way, Menninger recounted how he would create an Excel spreadsheet listing out all his different expense categories, including mortgage, car payments and repairs, gas, food, clothing, insurance, utilities, etc. There was one last column, as well, marked “other.”

“Let me tell you,” he said, “the ‘other’ column was second only to the mortgage, and represented discretionary spending.” Using his receipts, checkbook, and credit card statements, Menninger regularly updated his spreadsheet. “This task may sound extremely tedious,” he said, “but if you understand the use of Excel, this took me about one hour per month.”

After keeping this spreadsheet for a couple months, Menninger said he was “was able to ascertain which categories I could trim, and those that I could not.  Hence, the start of budgeting.”

Be honest.

As a part of her Healthy Money Menu™ budgeting program, CPA Atiya Brown (@LiveFinSavvy) has some great advice that every budget would do well to follow:

“Be honest with your category creations (your Healthy Money Menu should be a helper not hinder). If you eat out you should have a category for that and know how much you are spending.

“Categories should be specific, so food should have groceries, lunch or restaurants depending on your habits. Be honest with what you are spending when you prepare your tracking exercise.”

Staying honest with your budget might be a little more difficult than you anticipate. Luckily, keeping a close watch on your expenses will also serve as a wake-up call: No matter how you think you’re spending money, your budget will let you know the truth of how you’re actually spending it.

Keep your receipts.

Author Sharon Marchisello (@SLMarchisello) recently published a book titled Live Well, Grow Wealth based on “[her] own experience of living frugally, saving and investing, and retiring early.” She had some tips about how best to go about tracking your expenses.

“Make note of anything that’s a one-time expenditure,” she said, adding that you should try to avoid making purchases with cash: “It’s easier to keep track of spending when you pay by credit or debit card and/or check. Cash tends to get frittered away.”

Marchisello recommended that you “hang onto all receipts at least until the expense can be tracked—and longer if it’s an item that might have to be returned.” She also said that you should keep your receipts from credit card transactions until they can be reconciled with your statement.

Start making some tweaks.

When it comes to creating more room in your budget, Marchisello observed that it’s “easier to reduce the ‘going out’ than to augment the ‘coming in’ but certainly look at both.” In other words: It’s easier to spend less money than it is to earn more.

Here was her recommended method for cutting back on expenses:

“Divide expenses into four categories: absolutely necessary, necessary but reducible, discretionary, and totally unnecessary (like late fees and excess interest). Cut the low-hanging fruit first. Then take a look at what you value most in your life, and focus your spending accordingly.”

You don’t have to do everything at once.

CPA Belinda Rosenblum (@OwnYourMoney), President of OwnYourMoney.com, has a great strategy for building a budget that you’ll actually stick to. “The typical ‘budget’ doesn’t work for most people,” she said. “They feel limited and scarce—all the time.” Instead, she recommends you do this:

  1. “Create a goal as an incentive for yourself. Why do you want a budget in the first place? This will be your “north star” and grounding force to keep coming back to.”
  2. “Once you track actuals for a month, go through each line item and reduce the expenses where you don’t feel you are getting an appropriate Return on Investment. Start with items like cable, phone, and insurance, as you can likely lower your bills with little change in your experience of the service.”
  3. “Then set a planned amount to spend for each item.”
  4. “During the month, you don’t have to focus on scrimping on every item. Keep the estimates as general guides. Choose only three to five items where you have the most variability, choice, and usually the least longer term return on your dollars. These are your money leaks. Just like the rule of 80/20, these are the 20 percent (or even 5-10 percent) of the items causing 80+ percent of the issues with your budget each month. Focus on reducing and keeping those items in check.”
  5. “Once you determine what is an actual amount you can save each month, put it into a separate account to support your goal and check it each week and each month. Celebrate the account increasing as you take steps towards your goal!”

Three tips to build your savings.

The point of a budget is to free up extra funds that you can use to build an emergency fund, save for retirement, and pay down debt. Brian Davis, co-founder of SparkRental.com, has two great tips for ways that you can make sure those extra financial gains don’t get spent away.

First, he had some advice for folks who get paid every two weeks. “In any given month, you can only count on receiving paychecks for four weeks’ work,” said Davis. “On months where you receive an extra paycheck, save it!”

Second, he recommended that you refrain relying on your own self-discipline by automating your savings. “Discipline will fail you sooner or later,” he said.

“There are many ways to automate your savings; you can have your direct deposits split between your checking account and your savings account, or set up automatic transfers to take place every payday, or use apps like Acorns or Chime Bank.”

Lastly, Davis had a slightly more advanced tip for those who want to increase their income: finding a renter or subletter to help cover your housing costs!

“It could be by renting out a room in your home to a housemate, bringing in a foreign exchange student, renting out storage space, occasionally renting rooms or your home on Airbnb,” he said.

Just make sure you read out our recent blog post on how to vet potential renters first!

Building a budget isn’t easy—and sticking to one is even harder. But if you want to secure your financial future, it’s something you’re going to need to do. If you want to read more about how you can improve your long-term financial outlook, check out these related posts and articles from OppLoans:

Do you have a specific question about budgets you’d like us to answer? Let us know! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Marc Andre is a personal finance blogger at VitalDollar.com (@vital_dollar), where he writes about saving money, managing money, and ways to make more money. His goal with Vital Dollar is to help individuals and families get the most out of the money they have and to reach their full financial potential. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their two kids (a son and a daughter).
AJ Borowsky (@AskWhatNext) had a successful career in television news as an editor, producer, and technology trainer. Being an entrepreneurial person, AJ wrote What Next: A Proactive Approach to Success and lived the lessons in that book when he opened a business in 2012. Curiosity led him to study financial planning and pass the rigorous CFP™ exam. Now retired, AJ fills his time with lots of outdoor activities and a financial life coaching practice.
Atiya Brown (@LiveFinSavvy), also known as The Savvy Accountant™, is a CPA, CA and Certified Financial Educator Instructor (CFEI®). She has a passion for building generational wealth and wants to help others do the same. She created the Live Financially Savvy podcast to help others lower their debt and build their net worth using techniques from others doing amazing things to Live Financially Savvy!
G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance writer, and co-founder of SparkRental.com, which provides free video courses and rental investing tools for landlords. He spends most of the year overseas, splitting his time between Abu Dhabi, Europe, and his hometown of Baltimore.
Sharon Marchisello (@SLMarchisello) author of Live Well, Grow Wealth, became interested in personal finance at an early age and was a long-time member and officer of the Marathon Investment Club. She earned a Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and has published travel articles, short stories, book reviews, and a murder mystery (Going Home, Sunbury Press 2014). She also writes a personal finance blog,  Countdown to Financial Fitness.
Michael Menninger, CFP is an affiliated representative with Voya Financial Advisors who provides his clients with financial products and services, always with his client’s individual needs foremost in his mind. He uses his experience and wide-ranging business and educational background as a basis for creating financial plans unique to each client’s goals and aspirations. Mike focuses in various areas of financial planning including, but certainly not limited to: investment planning, retirement planning, and estate planning strategies; all with an emphasis on providing tax-efficient strategies and solutions.
Belinda Rosenblum, CPA (@OwnYourMoney) is the President of OwnYourMoney.com, a financial coaching and education company. She hosts her own TV show, radio show, and is a member of the National Speakers Association. Belinda is often called on as the financial guru for Boston’s ABC, NBC, and FOX networks, Yahoo! Finance, WomenEntrepreneur.com, Inc.com, SmartMoney.com, Univision.com, Today’s Financial Woman, RI Monthly, the Boston Business Journal, and even the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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