Having a monthly budget is a hallmark of adulthood.
However, sticking to a monthly budget is easier in theory than in practice.
But as with any other skill, staying on budget gets easier with regular, consistent practice.
Here are 15 tips for staying on track with your monthly budget.
1. Pay your savings “bill” first.
Treat saving as an obligation, and if you have direct deposit, have a set amount funneled directly to savings from each paycheck.
2. Know your income.
Know how much the earners in your household make in a week, month, and year.
This may not be easy for seasonal workers or self-employed people.
If this is you, underestimate your income by a small percentage to give yourself a margin of safety.
Knowing what you make is the first step for creating a budget, as it will help you determine how much you have to funnel into different expenditures, especially if using a budgeting formula like the 50/30/20 rule. The 50/30/20 budgeting rule divides after-tax income into three different categories:
- Essentials (50%)
- Wants (30%)
- Savings (20%)
Use our calculator to see how this rule helps categorize your monthly income, then use that as a baseline:
3. Give yourself a weekly allowance.
Just as you may give kids an allowance on the stipulation that once it’s gone, it’s gone, you and your partner should do the same.
Spend your last dollar on Wednesday’s lunch out at work?
Brown bag it till next week.
4. Keep receipts and review them weekly.
Knowing what you spend is the flip side of knowing what you make.
Collect receipts from your pocket or purse every night and save them. Then, review spending weekly.
You may be surprised at what you learn about your spending habits.
5. Balance your checkbook.
While you’re at it, see if you qualify for overdraft protection from your bank or credit union. If so, sign up.
Even if a small monthly fee is involved, it’s nothing compared to the $35 or so you’ll be assessed if you bounce a check.
6. Plan meals and shop ahead.
Eating out is a huge expense. Avoid running out of food by planning every meal and shopping weekly.
Warehouse stores like Costco can be a double-edged sword. You can really save on things you use frequently, but there are plenty of temptations for impulse buys, too.
Know your propensity for giving into temptation and plan your shopping destinations accordingly.
7. Give yourself permission for the occasional treat.
Life shouldn’t be all frugality.
If you never allow yourself a little splurge, resentment builds up, and you could end up in a frustration-fueled spending spree that will leave you feeling even worse.
It’s okay to treat yourself occasionally.
8. If you’re ambitious, make a spreadsheet for your regular purchases.
In this spreadsheet, list items you buy most often, along with the cheapest price you’ve found.
Look at sales circulars online to help you learn where you’ll get this week’s items at the best price.
If you have time to go to multiple stores, you can tailor your list accordingly.
9. Set goals.
Financial goals may be anything from paying off a credit card to buying a house, but you’re more likely to reach them if you define them.
Everyone wants to be financially better off, but you won’t get there unless you know exactly what “better off” means to you personally.
10. Get your tax withholding right.
If your withholding is too small, you’ll owe taxes in April.
If it’s too large, you’re essentially giving the government an interest-free loan all year.
Go over your tax withholding forms whenever you have a life change like a partner’s new job, a marriage, divorce, or the addition of a new family member.
11. Build an emergency fund.
Shoot for enough to keep your family going for six months in the event of a financial catastrophe.
Even if you don’t reach this goal, you’ll be glad you set aside money when the car overheats or your child breaks his arm.
Remember that any emergency fund is better than none.
12. Eliminate or reduce expensive vices.
Go to smokefree.gov and calculate how much you can save in a year by quitting smoking.
Most people save at least a couple thousand dollars a year by kicking the habit.
Alcohol is expensive, too. Those mixed drinks every Friday after work can really add up.
13. Identify necessary expenses and overestimate them.
Food, electricity, water, transportation, and insurance are the main necessities.
When budgeting, overestimate by 10 percent to give yourself a safety margin.
14. Involve the whole family.
Children can help you create shopping lists and clip coupons, and your teenager may be open to the idea of a part-time job to help pay for clothing, movies, and all those other teen expenses.
A budget works best when everyone is on board with it.
15. Use software and / or apps to help you.
Mint.com has a free personal finance app for iOS and Android that was a Google Play “Best Apps of 2012” recipient, and that PC Magazine lauded as the “easiest way to track all your accounts on the fly.”
Apps eliminate most or all of the paperwork involved with keeping up with expenses and are always up to date.
Having a monthly budget helps you both short and long term. Learning to manage money is a skill you build through knowledge and consistent practice.
The benefits are substantial: Less worry about bills, reduced expenses, and the ability to afford more things you really need and want.
Mary Hiers is a personal finance writer who helps people earn more and spend less.