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If you’ve always wanted to learn how to budget, but never knew how to get started, now is the perfect time. The beginning of the year is when many people are motivated to start fresh, even when it comes to finances. Don’t let the idea of budgeting or money management cause you stress. Regardless of whether you have fancy budget software to help you or you’ve created your own custom budgeting tools, follow these six steps to keep budgeting simple.
The first step to setting up a budget, regardless of income or life stage, is to know your personal goals. Without goals, it’s challenging to stay motivated and difficult to know why you’re organizing your finances in the first place.
For most people, the ultimate financial goal is independence. Financial independence means different things to different people but for many people, it means the freedom to be able to do most of what you want in life without worrying about money. This type of lifestyle usually includes things like being debt-free, having a significant savings, and making investments. These milestones are much easier to accomplish when you have a budget based on your ultimate goal and a clear path that can get you there.
Once you’ve determined what your goals are and why you’re setting up a budget, you need to know exactly how much income you earn each month. This is simple for those with steady jobs or streams of income. However, it can be difficult to know your exact monthly income when it fluctuates due to a commission-based job or if you’re self-employed.
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If your income fluctuates, you should budget based on an average income from the last 12 months. During months you when earn more than expected, you can put the “extra” away for months when your income is lower than average. Another option for those with commission-based jobs who earn this commission as a “bonus” is to create a budget around your base salary, excluding your commission bonus.
Gather all your monthly bills and spending information from the past few months. This includes things like utility bills, credit card bills, auto insurance, and a record of the transactions you might pay with cash or your debit card, like gas, groceries, etc.
If you haven’t been tracking your expenses, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’ve been spending in some categories. In this case, it’s best to estimate your monthly expenses and adjust your budget in the coming months as necessary. Taking a little time to really understand your spending habits can help you set goals and stay on track. Even little expenses can add up over time.
Everyone has areas of their budget that they struggle with. Usual weak spots tend to include fluctuating categories like groceries, eating out, or entertainment. These are the things we usually want to spend money on, and because they’re fun, it can be hard to cut back on them.
Instead of beating yourself up over these weak spots, try and give yourself a little more wiggle room if your current income will allow it. While you shouldn’t go crazy with spending, you can’t completely deny yourself occasional splurges either. If you try to avoid spending on things like eating out and entertainment, eventually you may feel deprived and that can sometimes result in a spending binge.
If your budget is really tight and you can’t afford any wiggle room, try to find cheaper alternatives to activities you enjoy. Another alternative is to find a way to earn more money.
Now that your basic budget is pretty much set up, you still need to do some maintenance on it from month to month. Spend a little time at the end of each month working on the budget.
Monitor your spending each month and keep track of how you’re spending money. This will help you make sure your budget categories are set up and funded appropriately. Checking in on your spending in the middle of the month can also help you know if you’re on track or need to be a bit more aware of your spending for the last two weeks of the month.
Last but not least, one of the most important steps you can make when setting up a budget is finding some accountability. If you’re setting a budget to help you reach goals in the pursuit of financial independence, accountability is key to achieving those goals. Financial accountability can come from a variety of sources.
Setting up a budget for the year to come is not technically difficult, but it does require some discipline and possibly new habits. If you can master it, you’ll not only feel like you have control of your finances, but you might set yourself up for a lifetime of financial independence.