Not many people enjoy making a budget, but doing so really can improve your quality of life. While you might shy away from the idea, thinking of budgeting as just another name for living a joyless, austere lifestyle, it can actually be very freeing. When you know exactly how much money you have to spend, you can set things up so that you don’t have to think about your finances much at all. The steps below are not effortless, but they are not as difficult as you might imagine, and you can automate many elements once you have done the initial work.
Track Your Spending
There are basically two ways to track your spending: do it yourself, or have an app do it for you. The rest is just detail. If you do it on your own, you might save receipts, write down every purchase you make or try to exclusively use a debit or credit card so you have a record of your spending each month. Some people prefer this hands-on approach, but an app can do most of the work for you as well. Whatever method you choose, try to do it across three or four months so you can get a consistent sense of your monthly spending.
Look at the Data
If you hate budgeting, this will probably be the most painful part. You need to sit down and see where your spending is going and if you need to cut back anywhere in order to continue living within your means. If you’re looking to save more money, do a deep dive. Could you move to a cheaper place? Drive a cheaper vehicle? If you are paying back student loans, you might want to look into refinancing them with a private lender. Lower interest rates or a different payment plan can mean lower monthly payments. Once you have looked at ways to spend less, you might need to think of ways to bring in more income as well.
Set Your Goals
This could be paying off debt, saving for a down payment on a home, taking a vacation or anything else. If you don’t have any financial goals, here are two to get you started: start putting away money so that you have three to six months of savings in an emergency fund, and maximize contributions to your retirement account.
Make a Plan
As was the case with tracking your spending, you can make this as hands-on or as hands-off as you like. Whether you use a spreadsheet, envelopes full of different amounts of cash or an app, you need to decide how much you will spend in each category and stick to that limit. Some apps will warn you when you are getting close to your limit in certain categories. Whatever approach you choose, this is the set it and forget it part. Once you know exactly what you have to spend weekly or monthly on entertainment, for example, you don’t have to worry about whether you can afford this meal, that round of drinks or this full-price movie ticket. You can feel confident you are using your money exactly as you intend.
Gerald Dewes is the editor of the ‘Finance’ section of Frankreport.com