Confession: HerMoney CEO Jean Chatzky hacks her budget. Always has, always will. The method that has always worked for her is to approach it backwards. She sets savings goals first, funds them with auto-transfers, then lives on what’s left in order to stick to her budget. “It’s actually pretty freeing,” she says. In the early days, she laid off the plastic so that she couldn’t spend more than she had. But once she got used to following the flow of funds by signing onto her bank online every day, she was able to earn rewards points and still know there would be enough left to pay the bills at the end of the month.
That’s the thing about budgeting — it’s flex-i-ble. It doesn’t have to mean creating a three-page spreadsheet and itemizing every single expense down to the last pack of gum. But it does mean having a realistic picture of how much money is coming in and going out on a monthly basis, and knowing where it’s going.
“Financial well-being is really unique. It’s almost like a thumbprint,” says Jacqui Kearns, who heads up financial education initiatives at Affinity Federal Credit Union. “If you’re thriving and managing the money, you don’t need a fancy program. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, are a gig worker or have a life event, budgeting can come into play.”
FINDING THE BUDGET THAT WORKS FOR YOU
The advice to “know thyself” is perhaps never more applicable than when it comes to sticking to your budget. If you consider yourself to be “winging it,” yet you’re still earning more than you spend, have little in the way of debt, are saving plenty of money, and you aren’t losing sleep over the bills, then your approach is working. But if you’re one emergency away from financial disaster, don’t have consistent income or keep getting hit with overdraft fees, it’s probably time to consider a different methodology.
“If you are trying to restore your credit or pay down your debt, managing to the penny might be critical for you,” says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, the credit scoring company. “My wife and I don’t have a formal budget, but when we are planning a vacation we’ll put together a budget for that.”
People’s budgeting strategies run the gambit from jotting things down on the back of an envelope to creating a detailed spreadsheet on a computer. Others prefer mobile apps and budgeting software to manage their finances. Budgets can cover everyday expenses, or be geared towards meeting a specific goal such as a wedding or a family vacation. “Everyone has their own individual way of tracking expenses that works best for them,” says April Schneider, head of consumer and small business products at Bank of America. ”There are options out there to experiment with to find what works for you – whether it’s more hands-on or hands-off.”
READ MORE: Best Budgeting Apps
The Charlotte-based bank recently surveyed customers who use the spending and budgeting tools in its mobile app and found that one in three were able to grow their checking balance by 20% or more as a result of sticking to their budgets. One in four increased their savings by the same rate, while one in seven were able to cut their credit card balance by 20%. In other words, keeping track of your finances can help you improve your overall financial picture, which is what budgeting is really all about.
READ MORE: Why You Need A Budget
One thing to avoid? Getting so focused on creating the perfect system to budget your money you never even get started. You spend so much time obsessing over what should be included in your budget that you find yourself paralyzed by the next big step. “Even the simplest of budgets is better than no budget at all,” says Schneider.
THREE BUDGETS TO TRY
The Backwards Budget
So, essentially, a Backwards Budget has three steps. First, save for your goals in a dedicated savings account or investment account (or accounts). Second, pay for your needs: Rent, groceries, internet, cell phone bill, student loans, etc. And third, enjoy anything in the “wants” category with whatever you have left over — dinners out, vacations, new clothing, the sky’s the limit because you chose to take care of your top two life priorities first.
The Zero-Sum Budget
If you like equations that work out just right, zero-sum budgeting might be right for you. With this budget, you essentially subtract every dollar you spend or save from your starting amount of take-home pay. That means you’re in charge of finding a specific purpose for every single dollar you earn, (whether it’s rent, a savings account, your investment portfolio or dinner out) and at the end of each month, you’ll total everything up and find that every single cent has a home. So if you started with $2,000 at the beginning of the month, you’d be left with $0.00 unaccounted for by the time the 31st rolls around, hence the name.
The 50/30/20 budget
This budget is similar to the others we’ve discussed in that you’re thinking about how the three most important categories of your budget — needs, savings, and wants — will be covered. But this budget assigns an exact percentage of your earnings to each category, which is how it gets its name like this: Needs (50%), Wants (30%), Savings (20%). It’s okay if you’re off by a few dollars every month — the goal here is that you’re thinking about each category of your budget, and as long as you stay in line with your bigger goals, then you’re doing great!
STICKING TO THE BUDGET YOU SET
Whichever budget you chose, sticking to it is no easy task — but it is an enormously satisfying one. Telling your money where to go each month gives you feelings of control, power and independence. All the good stuff. Start by tracking your spending for a month or two… And then? We’ve got five suggestions to help you nail it here!
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