Making (and Living on) a Budget
Written by Lindsay Ropella
A few weeks back, I mentioned that Eric and I are attempting to pay off all our debt in 2015. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, is no small task. In order to meet this goal, we’ve had to become extremely cautious about how much money is coming in, where it’s going, and how much is being saved. I will admit it’s not a ton of fun, but watching those student loans roll back closer and closer to $0 each month has been totally worth it.
I know a couple of you fabulous ladies mentioned that you’d be curious to know how we’ve been doing this, so that’s what I want to share with you today. Obviously a budget is a very personal and very complex machine, but I will try and share with you a few of the general basics that have been working for Eric and me. If you have any questions or anything I can further explain to you as far as what we’ve been doing, please feel free to ask in the comment section at the end of this post! I read and respond to them all!
1. Determine how you want to track your expenses.
The first step in starting a budget for your family is to decide what way will work best for you and your spouse to keep tabs on your spending. This is probably the most important step in budgeting…if you aren’t accurately keeping track of what is being spent on what, everything you do in the following steps will be for nothing. How you decide to track your expenses will make all the difference in how well your are able to execute living off a budget. That being said however, you can definitely try a few different methods over the first few months of budgeting until you find something that works best for you. Just because you pick a certain tracking system month one doesn’t mean you have to stick with that forever if it isn’t working well for your family.
There are so many different ways to track your budget from excel spreadsheets to computer software to good, old-fashioned envelope systems. Make sure you and your partner explore many different options together before deciding on one. After much research, the way Eric and I decided to track our budget was through a program called Mint. I honestly cannot say enough good things about it. We love that this program can be used on multiple devices including computers, ipads, and iphones (I believe there is an android version as well). We decided on this program because once it is set up, it requires essentially no work on our part. All we had to do was link our bank accounts so the app can track all credit and debit transactions, and set up our initial budgets. As transactions come in, Mint makes educated guesses as to which budget category each one goes into, but if it guesses wrong you just take 10 seconds to correct it. It can tell which transactions are gas vs. groceries vs. restaurants, but it will probably need help with things like entertainment, shopping, etc.
Best thing about this program? Totally Free.
I will show a few more pictures of the app throughout the rest of this post, but if you are interested in learning more you can visit their website.
Here is the “overview” page of Mint. I took this screenshot on the first day of the month, but typically it would show how much you’ve earned vs how much you’ve spent so far this month as well as your budget in graph form.
2. Create a budget…
Once you decide on a plan of action for tracking your budget, it’s time to actually create one! Unfortunately I can’t be of much help in this area as every couple’s budget is so different and has different priorities, but I will share with you just a bit on how Eric and I decided to set up our own budget.
First we decided on a goal. Your goal can be anything from “to not spend more than we make” to “to be able to put money away for a vacation.” I think you will be surprised at how quickly you can decide on a common goal for your budget.
Next, we put in our “non-negotiables” when it came to monthly spending. For you, this will probably include things like rent/mortgage, water/utilities, phone bills, car payments, student loans, etc. After that, we looked at how much money we had left over for the month. We then started playing around with our more variable expenses. My tip would be that when you are doing this, make sure to have your goal in mind the entire time. Since our goal was to pay off our debt as quickly as possible, we made sure we were honoring that goal as we planned out the rest of our budget. We tried different scenarios to show ourselves that if we put x amount into eating out, personal spending, etc, it would take us 2 years to pay off our debt, but if we made ourselves a stricter budget it would only take us 1 year. I honestly don’t believe one way is better than another, it’s just important that you decide together as a couple what is best for your family and your current situation.
Two categories I would recommend you making sure to include would be misc. expenses and gifts. The first few months of budgeting we didn’t have those categories and it made it very difficult for us to stick to our budget. Things would come up like a sibling’s birthday or one of us would get sick and need medication or a doctors visit and we wouldn’t really know what to do with it. Then we would start having to “fudge the budget” and things would quickly snowball. We choose to put $100 in our gift budget and $125 in our misc. expenses budget. We don’t typically use all of it and it is nice to see the unused portions go into our savings many months, but at least we know it’s there for the times we do need it and it very much helps us stay on track.
3. …and then stick to it!
Once you create your budget make sure it becomes law in your household for however long it is in place! Take your time putting it together and make sure it is something your and your spouse both agree on and feel comfortable with, because once you start “taking from this category” or “pulling a bit from next month’s budget” the train will totally derail and you will lose track of your budget and your spending.
4. Make sure both you and your spouse understand and can track the budget on a weekly basis.
Whatever method you use, make sure that all involved parties have easy access to check in on the budget. Eric and I have found that it’s crucial to our success that both of us know where we are financially on any given day. Although Eric is the one who typically pays the bills and keeps track of our general finances (he’s a numbers guy, and my eyes start to roll back in my head if I hear any math-related words), it’s important for me as the one who does the majority of the shopping to know what’s going on as well. One of the reasons I love Mint is that in any given store I can jump on my phone and check out how each individual budget category is doing that month. I can check our food budget to see if I will be picking up Chinese on my way home or if we really should just make something at home that evening. I can see that we still have a lot left in the “household” category that month so it would probably be a good time to stock up on laundry detergent and household cleaners. I can check my personal budget to see if I can purchase all the beauty products that seem to make their way into my Target cart or if a few of them need to go back on the shelf (can I get an amen?).
One other reason why I think it’s important for both you and your spouse to know what’s happening budget-wise is so that one of you is not having to rein in the other one’s spending. I don’t know about you, but I would hate it if Eric was constantly telling me how much I had left to spend on certain things. Even though he would only be doing it to help me, it would make me want to sock him in the gut.
And make sure that you are both checking your budget on a fairly regular basis. It’s important to know how things are going throughout the month so you can be proactive and not be stuck with a nasty surprise right at the end.
5. Determine an end-date and reward!
Remember that goal you set at the very beginning? If it doesn’t have a natural end-date, make sure to give it one! For us, our end-date will be when all of our debt is paid off, but it other situations an end-date will not be so obvious. If you are saving for a vacation or a large home remodel project, make sure to set a goal of when you’d like to see that actually happen. Maybe say that you want to be able to book your trip in January, or to set up an appointment with a contractor 6 months from now. This certainly doesn’t mean that you have to stop living on a budget at that point (heck, Eric and I plan to do it for decades!), but it will be a good time for you to reevaluate your budget, check how things are going, and determine if you want to either change your budget or create a new goal for yourselves.
And last but not least, don’t forget to reward yourselves for a job well done! For our reward, Eric and I are planning on taking our next vacation as soon as our debt is paid off. If your goal is to build your savings account, maybe plan to take a portion of that to purchase something you’ve been wanting for your home or a relaxing day at the spa. We work so hard at being responsible all the time, it’s important to remember to have some fun once in a while!
So there is a very basic overview of how we’ve been budgeting. I didn’t want to share a ton of actual numbers in this post as it really differs so much from person to person, and honestly I’m not sure it’s a great idea to share that much personal information on the World Wide Interweb. However if you’d like to ask me more specific questions about our personal budget please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or send me a message through the Facebook Page and I’d be happy to chat with you more one-on-one. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to any of this, but I’d love to help in any way I can!
So tell me — what’s one way your and your partner keep track of your spending habits? Do you have a budget or are you toying with the idea of creating one? Let me know in the comments below!