Why You Need a Budget & How to Create And Stick to One That Works

It doesn't have to be that hard.

Budgets get a bad rap. For all of their measurable benefits ⏤ they help people pay bills on time, curb frivolous spending, and meet long-term savings goals ⏤ budgets can be a challenge to set up and annoying to stick to. After all, who wants to keep track of every dollar they spend? Worse yet, who wants to stop ordering takeout in the middle of the month because the budget says they’re out of money. Groan. Even with the advent of budgeting apps, financial software, and easy budgeting worksheets, there’s a reason only 41 percent of Americans report using a family budget. People think they’re a pain.

In reality, though, a budget isn’t hard to create ⏤ or stick to if the numbers are realistic. Sure, they require discipline, but a budget is still nothing more than a breakdown of how much money you earn and where you spend it. And while it may require a little legwork to get started, once you do, you need only tweak it each month to keep it accurate. In the process, though, it can help you avoid debt, prioritize saving, and identify bad spending habits.

But what’s the easiest way to map out your money? Here’s how to set up a simple budget in six easy steps.

1. Calculate Your Total Income

Using recent paystubs or bank statements, record the total after-tax income you (and your spouse) bring home each month. Start with your salary and add-in all side jobs, freelance pay, child support or alimony, disability checks, and investment income that doesn’t get re-invested. If any income sources vary or are irregular, use a monthly average over a 6-to-12-month period. Remember, you can’t divvy your cash up until you know exactly how much you have ⏤ record everything.

2. List Your Fixed Monthly Expenses

Your fixed expenses are those that recur monthly ⏤ mortgage, utilities, cell phone, child care, Netflix, car payments, student loans, etc. They’re almost always the same amount each month but for those that vary slightly, i.e. gas or electric bills, add up one year and average the cost across 12 months. Now record all quarterly or irregular bills like water or sewer, property taxes, annual insurance premiums, etc. Again, these should be bills you cannot avoid paying without a debt collector knocking on your door.

3. Track Your Variable Expenses

Variable expenses are those that fluctuate on a monthly basis and include everything from groceries, clothes, and coffee, to doctors appointments, birthday gifts, and movie tickets. If you aren’t already tracking them, start doing so. It’s important to record where each dollar you make is spent, preferably over the course of several months. Jot expenses down in a notebook, use an app, spreadsheet, or financial software, or rely on your credit card and bank statements, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you generate an accurate picture of how you spend your money. The more data you can bring to the table, the more on-point your initial budget targets will be in each category ⏤ and the less you’ll have to adjust later.

Many of these expenses will recur monthly ⏤ even if the amounts vary each month ⏤ but some will also be irregular throughout the year, like doctors appointments, oil changes, or back-to-school costs. Don’t forget to average them out.

4. Include Savings and Long-Term Expenses

While savings (emergency fund, retirement, college) and long-term expenses like vacations, Christmas gifts, or the down payment for a new car are technically variable expenses, noting them separately highlights their importance ⏤ and savings should always be a top priority. In both cases, use the previous year’s totals (averaged monthly) as your starting point. Or if it’s something new, like a refrigerator or trip to the Poconos, estimate how much you will need to save monthly based on the cost. Depending on how high you prioritize giving to charity, you can include those estimates here, as well.

One thing to remember when calculating savings goals, don’t forget that 401k, IRA, or Flexible Savings Account contributions might be deducted from your paycheck before taxes. So while they not be recorded in this budget, you are saving in those areas and can adjust your savings goals here accordingly.

5. Add Up All Expenses and Subtract From Income

Now the basic math. Add up all of your expenses (and savings) and subtract them from your total income. The goal, obviously, is for the number to be zero or greater. If you’re in the red (your expenses exceed your income), you’ve got some cuts to make. If you’re in the black and your income exceeds expenses, you can either save the extra money, apply it to high-interest credit card debt, or blow it all on a monthly party at the roller rink ⏤ it’s up to you.

6. Make Adjustments & Keep Tabs on Spending

Unlike the federal government, your budget has to balance. If you’re spending more than you’re making then you’ll need to cut back on variable expenses, savings goals, or long-term expenses to ensure the two columns match ⏤ that or get another job. Remember, though, budgeting is like dieting: moderation is key. If you try to go cold turkey and eliminate all movies or all dining out, the odds are high that you’ll get frustrated and won’t stick to the plan. And a budget that’s not followed is worthless.

Instead, trim a little bit from multiple categories until the numbers gybe. Or try gradually cutting from a different category each month until you find the right balance. No matter where or how much you cut, though, it’s important to continue tracking expenses to ensure you’re hitting your targets, and so you can adjust monthly based on realistic spending habits.