Budgeting is a real pain in the ass – not only do you have to face the inevitable fact that you spend WAY too much money, but you have to actually and physically write down every cent you earn and spend.
It’s tedious, time-consuming, and usually does not make you feel very good at the end of the day.
But think about it this way: Whether or not you track your money, you are still going to overspend. The only way to change that is to buckle down and create a budget.
Thankfully, I’m going to share with you a simple and effective budgeting method that doesn’t take a lot of time to do and doesn’t feel like a huge commitment.
Why? Because we are going to break down the budgeting process into two phases.
We’re going to see where your money is going and how you can make changes to live more at ease with the money you earn.
Why I Started Budgeting
A little over a year ago, I took a chance and quit my job of 7.5 years to pursue a position that was significantly less stressful. The pay was great, the job was fun and I was thoroughly enjoying the change of pace.
I was contracted into the position for nine months with the understanding that I would be laid off only for the summer and rehired in the fall. Luck be had, the particulars of the contract changed and I was no longer qualified for the job.
Since I was planning on taking unemployment for the summer anyway, I didn’t worry about finding a new job right away and rode my E.I. all the way into December.
By that time I started a part-time position (paying barely above minimum wage) and focused on making money through blogging. I am not making anywhere near what I did but I am making enough and – most importantly – I am happy with what I’m doing.
Using a Budget to Control a Low Income
I knew that with my lower income, I was going to have to be extremely careful with my money to make sure the bills got paid. In January I started tracking my purchases, curious as to where exactly my money was going and concerned that perhaps I was living a bit beyond my means.
And I was. I was smoking, eating out a lot, and spending more on groceries than was probably necessary. Seeing that on paper really put things into perspective for me and I knew I had to take control of my money in order to survive financially.
For 3 months I tracked my purchases and income and was able to get a clear idea of what I had to cut back on, what I could cut back on and how much I could comfortably spend on things like groceries and eating out during the month.
From there my budgeting method blossomed into an easy-to-use system that I rely on month-to-month in order to control my lower income.
Budget Plan Phase One: The Situation
Before you can begin to understand where changes need to be made in your spending, you need to see what your spending looks like first. It’s important to know how what you make compares to what you spend.
There are 3 steps to completing phase one:
1. Look At Your Income
The very first thing you want to do is figure out how much money you have coming in. There are two different kinds of income: Regular and Irregular.
Regular income is money you can rely on each month, such as your pay, benefits, and child support. Even if the totals fluctuate a little bit due to changes in hours or missed time, you can closely estimate how much you will be receiving.
Irregular income is money that does not come in every month such as gift money, a side hustle job and child support (hey, if you’re in my situation, it’s very irregular). This is money coming in that you can’t count on every month.
Write both down for the month.
2. Write Down Your Spending
Every time you make a purchase or pay a bill, you are spending money. There are three kinds of spending: Fixed, Variable, and Extra.
Fixed spending includes things you have to pay for during the month that do not vary in amount. This includes your rent/housing, utilities, cell phone, internet, child care, extracurricular activities/sports, insurance, and credit card payments. While some of these things in and of themselves may not seem necessary (like a credit card), you are obligated to pay toward them each month and the amount stays the same.
Variable purchases are those that change month to month, like groceries, gas, and kid-related necessities (diapers, formula, lunch money, etc.). These purchases are necessary but the amount you spend is not consistent every month.
Lastly, extra purchases are those that you absolutely do not need (but enjoy) such as eating out, entertainment, dollar store trips, travel, and clothes.
When you track these things, don’t worry about writing down individual items. If you spent $50 on groceries, just write it down as “groceries”. You don’t need to list everything you bought in your grocery order and how much it cost.
3. Compare and Examine Your Money In and Your Money Out
How does it look at the end of the month? Are you spending more than you’re earning? Are you starting to get an idea of where you’re spending your money?
Repeat this process for 3 months to get a strong sense of your spending habits before moving on to Phase Two.
Budget Plan Phase Two: The Budget Diet
I imagine you’re reading this guide all at once, so all these phases and steps are going to seem like a lot of work. Trust me, once you spread Phase One over three months, you’ll feel like you’re barely doing anything, and adding in Phase Two will not seem that overwhelming.
In Phase Two of the budget plan, we’re going to look at setting limits in different areas of spending. While you may be able to reduce the cost of some of your fixed expenditures, we’re going to start by playing around with the variable and extra ones.
There are 4 steps to completing Phase Two:
1. Take Your Total Income and Subtract Your Fixed Expenses
This is going to show us exactly how much money you have to play with by creating spending limits for your variable and extra expenses.
2. Figure Out the Averages of All Your Spending Areas
Take all your variable and extra spending areas, adding them up in their respective categories, and divide by 3. This will give you the average you spent per month over a three-month period.
For example, here is what my grocery spending looked like over a three month period:
In 3 months I spent $954 on groceries. Divide that by 3 and I have an average amount of $318.
3. Use the Average to Set Spending Limits
Starting with your necessary variable purchases, set some limits on the money you spend on each. With my groceries, I decided that a spending limit of $300 a month was doable. It was close to what I already spent and it would save me an average of $18 a month if I stuck to it.
Compare the total amount of your variables’ spending limits to your income. Is there balance here? Do you need to reduce some of your limits? Are you seeing a surplus of income over expenses?
If you do, move on to your extras. Try to tighten these areas up as much as you can, since they are not necessary purchases. Keep in mind that you should set aside some money to enjoy, but your main focus is on your necessities.
If you don’t, look at those fixed expenses and determine if there’s any you can reduce (like a lower rate plan for your phone) or eliminate (is cable really necessary?). Once you can lower some of these expenses, repeat step 3.
4. Use Your Spending Limits for an Entire Month
Write down your spending limits for each area and subtract what you spend as you spend it. For groceries, I write down $300 and every time I get groceries I take away the total from that amount. That way I can see how much I have left until the end of the month.
Be honest with yourself if you go over your limits. This will help you determine where your spending struggles lie and in what areas you need to be more strict.
At the end of the month, take a look at your spending areas. Did you come under budget in any of them? Could you possibly move some funds from one area to another for the next month? Were there any limits that were unrealistically low?
Budget Plan Phase Three: The Big Picture
How did you do throughout the month? Maintaining a good budget takes practice and the first month will likely be a disaster.
Keep repeating phase two until you start to see a difference in your spending. The point of this whole budgeting exercise is to see the big picture. Perhaps $2 per day on coffee doesn’t seem like that much, but $60 a month is a chunk of change that can be better spent.
If This Budget Plan Doesn’t Work for You, Remember…
This budget plan may not be sufficient in bettering more severe financial situations. If you are still struggling to make ends meet and to balance between your income and expenses, you may need to consider making some major lifestyle changes like seeking new (and higher-paying) or additional employment.
If you are struggling against debt, speak to a financial adviser to explore ways to reduce your debts and interest rates.