We were newly engaged, excitedly chatting about our upcoming wedding and tropical honeymoon that would follow, when my fiancé pulled me close and said, “I think we should start a budget.”
Ladies, this was not the romantic sentiment I expected to hear. Rolling my eyes, I laughed and told him no thanks. Surely we were far too hip, cool, and young to have a budget!
As a woman in my early 30s, I don’t have many regrets in life. But truthfully, this is one of them.
I wish I could go back in time, jump into my husband’s arms and shout, “Yes, let’s start a budget!”
If you’re laughing at me at this point, it’s okay — I completely understand. But I urge you to hear me out.
You see, I was under the misconception that having a financial budget meant one of two things: 1) we’re broke and have no money, or 2) we’re losers and have no fun.
Let me be clear — neither of those things are true.
The Budget Life
My husband is loyal, hardworking, and intelligent. He started that budget without me on board and I am extremely grateful. It took me almost two years to come around, and another two years to fully embrace the “budget life.” And I know those years cost us financially.
Before my husband and I had kids, my brother-in-law jokingly referred to us as “DINKs” (Double Income, No Kids). Fast forward a few years and we went from “DINKs” to a single income household when I left my professional career to become a stay-at-home mom. We had to learn to live on one income, while still working to achieve our financial goals. During this transition, a budget was not only helpful, it was essential.
Whether we like it or not, money is one of the most important resources we have. Yet so many people aren’t clear where their money goes each month.
Not having a budget is comparable to owning a car, but having no clue how to service it, what type of fuel it needs, or even where you want to drive it.
First, you are in control of your finances.
A budget simply shows you how much money you make, how much money you spend, and what to do with the extra or deficit.
And a budget helps you meet your financial goals. It doesn’t mean you can’t spend money; it means you know exactly where and how you spend your money.
If I’ve convinced you enough to go for it, you might be wondering, “How do I even start a budget?”
Creating a Budget: How to Start
1. Decide what platform you’ll use.
Your budget can be housed on an app (I personally like Mint), an Excel spreadsheet, or a good old-fashioned notebook. Any will work — just pick one you’re most likely to stick with.
2. Determine your monthly take-home income.
And put that at the top. This is the total amount of money your household brings in each month (after taxes, deductions, withholdings, etc.).
3. Figure out your monthly expenses.
Go through the last 3-4 months and categorize every dollar you spent. The most common expense categories are Mortgage/Rent, Bills and Utilities, Child-Related Costs, Food and Dining, Entertainment, Health and Fitness, and Home Furnishings and Supplies. However, yours might look a bit different.
Don’t cut corners on this step. It takes time but is well worth it.
4. Create a zero balance between the two.
After you’ve paid your expenses, give any leftover money a purpose and allocate it somewhere. Have a plan for every dollar. Place it into savings, use it to pay off a certain debt, or save it up for a special event (like a vacation or party).
*Note: If your monthly expenses are greater than your take-home income, it’s even more important to start your budget now and get back on track.
For the first month or two, simply start tracking your income and expenses. Get in the habit of being mindful of how much money you’re bringing in, and where you’re spending it.
And once you have the swing of budgeting, you can modify your spending based on how aggressively you want to achieve your goals.
Tips for Starting Out and Staying Strong
Find your “why.”
Find your motivation for budgeting. Without this, you will lack passion, execution, or both. Seriously. If you look at your budget as a pain in the butt, it will be and any real progress will be difficult.
Think of it this way: if money didn’t limit you, what would you dream of accomplishing? Perhaps it’s retiring with a million dollars, funding your child’s college education, paying off credit card debt, or taking a kid-free vacation. When you determine your “why,” your motivation will skyrocket.
If you’re married, make sure your spouse is on board. Trust me, two heads are better than one. And if you share money, this is a non-negotiable.
Make it fun and make it consistent. Set aside an hour each month to check in with each other. Make some popcorn, grab a bottle of wine, and chat about your budget, financial goals, and progress.
Learn more. There are so many resources around this topic. The library is chockfull of helpful books and there are podcasts, Facebook groups for budgeting support and ideas, and online publications for information. There are also financial classes (virtual and in-person) that can help you. Knowledge is powerful. Use it to leverage your success.
Use a Financial Expert or Paid Professional
Once you start your budget, inevitably you’ll encounter scenarios that stir up questions. How much should I be spending on each expense category? Should I tackle my credit card debt or student loans first? What’s more important: socking money into my 401k or saving up for a down payment on our next home? There are tons of experts out there to answer these questions. Find a financial expert that you like and let them be your guide.
Or, consider working with a paid professional. They can educate you on the best practices to build wealth, assist in any tricky situations, and overall help you achieve success faster than working alone.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Advice
Seek out the wisdom of others. Maybe you know a couple who is financially successful. Or have a friend who is also starting a budget. Invite them over for dinner and pick their brains for their best advice and tips, share ideas, and brainstorm solutions to help each other out.
It’s incredible how a few dollars here and there can really add up over time. Additionally, these types of adjustments modify your behavior, bringing you closer to your long-term goals.
Think small and frequent. For some of your expense categories, it’s more manageable to think in terms of weeks instead of the whole month (like your food budget). So if you budget $600/month for groceries, break it down and plan for $150 each week instead.
And small short-term sacrifices can pay off big time in the long run. Maybe right now you need to be hyper-concentrated as you tackle student loan debt. You might have to say no to splurging on a new dress for an upcoming event and instead borrow one from a friend. Then down the road when you get that paid off, you can relax and go into a less aggressive mode. It’s okay to adjust your intensity based on where you’re at.
Use visuals to assist you. Set a reminder on your phone, make a bulletin board to track progress, place sticky notes on your mirror for motivation— whatever works for you and helps you focus on your budget to impact your mindset and behavior!
Celebrate Your Success
Acknowledge your victories. Did you stay below your restaurant expenses last month or finally cancel that unused music streaming service? Don’t forget to celebrate those accomplishments!
Don’t Give Up!
Even if it’s messy and hard in the beginning, I can promise you, it will pay off in the end. Isn’t this true for everything in life? Your money is no exception.
Everyone’s journey is unique. Focus on yours. Circulate back to your “why” as often as you need to keep going and stay strong.
If you already have a rock-solid budget, that’s great! Think of all the progress and positive changes you’ve made, and consider sharing that wisdom by helping someone else.
Or, take your financial success to the next level by setting a new goal, getting more laser-focused in one of your areas, or relax and enjoy some of your progress by taking a family vacation or gifting something special to a loved one.
I hope I’ve convinced you to start your budget. I truly believe your future self will thank you for taking these steps!
For more on money matters, see How Moms Can Save Time, Money, and the Planet by Shopping Smarter.