The Non-Scary Way To Build A Better Budget

For many people, creating a budget can be a boring, stressful, or confusing enterprise. Even if you know you need a better handle on your finances, figuring out where to start — for the first time, or after years of missteps — is often intimidating.

Instead thinking of a budget as a system of setting up horrible restrictions, reframe the point of doing them in the first place: Everyone needs money to live, and in the best possible cases, it also helps you to thrive and enjoy life — but that can require planning. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all budget based on other people's priorities, think about what your priorities are, and how you can work toward them with what you have.

"The first question you should really ask yourself is: What do you want out of your financial future?" says Ariel Anderson Fortunato, a certified financial planner at the Society of Grownups. "Having that mentality can be more motivating than a goal that’s as lofty as, I just want to save more money, and with that in mind, you can start to think about what you're budgeting for."

Here are her tips for budgeting with intention and purpose — in a way that works for you.

Audit Yourself

If your budget issue has to do with accidental overspending, you need to get a clearer picture of what is coming into your account each month, and what is going out.

"It can be eye opening to see where your dollars are really going," Fortunato says. "Many of us maybe feel like we’re making good money, but we’re surprised there’s not enough left over at the end of the month."

Use a financial service like Mint, a savings or tracking app, or print out and go through your card statements to see what you truly do with your money. You can only spend in a fugue state for so long before going broke.

Once you pick a system that works for you, Fortunato advises tracking your spending for at least three months to get an idea of your habits, on average.

"Maybe it’s the summer and if you track for one month, you’ve got a friend’s wedding," she explains. "Your rent and your car payment will be the same, but you really want to hone in on those discretionary expenses — even things like groceries. That’s a need, but it might change based on whether you’re away or have a bunch of dinners out planned."

Make Your Goals Your Mission

Once you have a consistent average of spending, look at what wiggle room you have — or not.

"If you’re in the negative or there’s not enough to save toward the things you’ve identified as being important, check in with yourself and think about if there things you can change or that you're willing to cut back on in order to make room for these other goals that are important to you."

Are there bills you can renegotiate? Subscriptions you can cancel? Memberships you can find less-expensive alternates for? Determining what you want to keep and what you want to pass on will help as you craft your budget.

Create Guidelines

The 50/30/20 Rule

Just like it sounds, the 50/30/20 rule is a percentage-based framework that determines how much of your take-home pay goes into three main categories: needs, wants, and goals. Roughly 50% of your post-tax income should go toward essentials — the money you need to keep a roof over your head, food on table, and keep the lights on, Fortunato says, clarifying that sometimes needs vary by person.

"I've met people who absolutely consider their gym membership to be a need because it's their outlet, their sanity," she explains. "That's totally up to you, but you have to consider the expenses that you're always, absolutely going to pay."

Next, 30% of your take-home income should be allocated toward wants — your "fun money."

"Make sure you leave room in your budget for going out to dinners, having social engagements, going to a sporting event, whatever it is that speaks to you," Fortunato adds. "If you're super [restrictive] and don't make room for these fun things, what are you working so hard for? You're not even enjoying your money." Not to mention, you may end up rebelling against yourself and spending money you don't have on impulse.

Finally, goals and priorities make up the final 20%. Go back to the short- and long-term goals you identified before getting into the nitty-gritty numbers, and start to consider how you can strategically start to save to make them happen.

If you have an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) or a 403(b), you might not want to count that as part of your 20% savings. Again, the 50/30/20 rule is about divvying up the money that actually hits your bank account — not gross pay before taxes and deductions.

"If you’re a freelancer or you don’t have access to employer plans and you need to start thinking strategically about retirement, you can absolutely think about factoring that into your [20]% — maybe an IRA contribution or setting up an employer plan for yourself, like a solo 401k," Fortunato suggests. "But for the most part, in the most common situation where you're contributing pre-tax to a 401(k) or a 403(b), think of it as separate."

Pay Yourself First

Some people love spreadsheets, systems, rules, and regulations, while others prefer an organized version of winging it. If the 50/30/20 is more effort than it's worth for you, take the parts you find most useful and get some savings out of it. Fortunato says that can involve making sure you get paid first.

Most people she knows or works with save in reverse — getting paid, paying off bills, spending on wants, and then saving any remainders last. She challenges people to do the opposite.

"You get paid, you run through all of the bills that are due this month, you select a certain amount of money that goes directly into a savings account, and then you spend what's left over."

Although it might feel bewildering at first, people whose main priority is to build up their savings might find this method is a good way of putting their money where their goal is. If you have $100 left after essentials and savings, you can do what you like with that remainder — save it further, pay down a bill, spend it on fun, without worrying if it's eating into another piece of the percentage pie.

Keep The Momentum Going

Sticking to a budget may not happen overnight. Stacy Francis, the president and CEO of Francis Financial, has a few tactics for ensuring that you don't give up at the first slip up:

1. "Make a shopping list and only purchase what’s on the list," she advises, "even if [something else you want] is on sale!"

2. "Check out books out from the library," she adds. "Some libraries even have new release movies and CDs."

3. "Buy a reusable, dishwasher-safe water bottle and refill it throughout the day with tap water," she says. "It’s less expensive than buying bottles of water and better for the environment." If you do not like the water in your area or it is unsafe to drink, go in with any roommates you might have, or save up for an inexpensive water filter.

4. "Leave your credit and debit cards at home," she suggests — and if you're overly friendly with things like ApplePay, try turning that off and sticking to cash.

5. "HALT!" Francis advises. "Never shop when you’re: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Sleep on [splurge items] and think about it overnight. You might realize that you do not really need it."

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