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Everybody manages its budget in its way. There is no one single way of doing it. For me, the essential part of a budget is to track your expenses. It is essential. There are many reasons why it is crucial.
You need to know how much you are spending. Then you need to know how much you still have at the end of the month. Seeing your entire monthly budget will help you manage your spending.
In this article, I go over why you need a budget. I also talk about how I manage my budget. It is only one of the ways to do it, but if it works for me, it may work for you!
What is a budget
For many of you, this is obvious. But let’s start with the obvious anyway. What is a budget? I am talking about a personal budget, from a single person to a family. I am not talking about corporate budgets.
A budget is an estimate of your income and your expenses. You can use a monthly or yearly budget. Or even a weekly one if you feel like it. You use it to keep track of your expenses and see how much you can still spend. At its simplest, a budget is simply the amount of money you can spend each month.
A lot of people are using categories in their budget. For instance, they give 300$ to the Food category each month. Whether you use categories or not is not essential. The most important thing is the amount of your budget.
Ideally, it should be lower than your income. For instance, with a current income of 6000$, you budget for 5000$. The rest is what you save by default. Of course, there will be months when you will be over your limit. The idea, in that case, is that you will compensate during other months by spending less.
Some people also include savings in their budgets. With that, you can account for each dollar you get each month. If your balance is always zero at the end of the month, you got a zero-based budget.
There is no such thing as the best budget strategy. As you can see, there are many variations, and you should use the one that suits your needs the best. On the other hand, there is probably the best strategy for each person.
Do you need a budget?
There is no best budget. But everybody serious about its finance needs one. There are many advantages. At the bare minimum, tracking your expenses over each month is very helpful. For some people, this will be enough. But if you struggle with your money, you will need more than that.
When I started taking care of my finances, I started with a strict budget. But over time, I started caring more about tracking my expenses than about my budget. If you are disciplined enough, tracking your expenses is enough. If you are not that disciplined, you can do a real budget.
But allocating money to spending categories will be even more helpful for many people. An analogy I like is this one:
You would not build a house without blueprints
and you should not spend money without a budget
Just as blueprints are a plan for your house, your budget is a plan for your money.
The most obvious reason to get a budget is not to spend more than you make. If the sum of your expenses is higher than your income, you are in trouble. By having a budget, you always know how much money you got left during the month. And you should use this to understand how much you can spend. It does not have to amount to your entire income. You should budget for less than your income. It will allow you to save money easily.
Another reason is to avoid bad spending habits. Once you have a budget, you will see all your expenses together. It can make you realize that some small costs are accumulating very quickly. If you get a coffee at 4$ every workday, that is 20$ a week, 80$ a month, and 960$ a year. I am sure you can cut that coffee price to 1$. A lunch at 10$ each day accounts for 2400$ a year. You can take it from home.
Seeing all my expenses accumulated together showed me I was spending way too much on some things. For instance, in 2015, I spent almost 3400 CHF on home computers. I was having fun. But I could have fun with less than half of this.
Before I saw the actual amount, I did not realize it was that much. Recurring monthly expenses can also be an issue. I was always saying that 100 CHF a month is not much. But once you put it for a year, it is 1200 CHF. And if you have several of these expenses, it can make a massive sum in the end.
It leads us to the following: having a budget will help you save money. Once you realize how much you are spending on everything, it is time to reduce these expenses. Maybe your budget is fine. But most likely, there are areas where you can save more.
It is a continuous effort to improve your financial situation. You do not have to restrain yourself. But you can always spend it more smartly. Find out these significant recurring expenses and optimize them! For instance, I saved a lot on my car insurance and mobile plan. Find out these small expenses that sum up quickly and optimize them! Every little bit helps!
Finally, once you have a budget, you will be in control of your finances. It helps you worry less about your finances. Once you get a budget and respect it, you will not worry about it. Once you get used to it, it becomes automatic.
To learn more about budgeting, you can read about the different ways to keep a budget.
How I budget
Now that you know you need a budget let’s see how I do my own. I work with a monthly amount. I defined several categories of spending. Each category has a monthly amount. What I do differently than most people is that the sum of the categories is always equal to my income.
For instance, when I started budgeting, my salary was 5950 CHF per month, and my categories were:
- Apartment (1400 CHF): Rent, power bills, …
- Communications (250 CHF): Internet, phone bills, and various internet services
- Insurances (350 CHF): Health insurance and legal insurance
- Food(600 CHF): Groceries and going out meals
- State (650 CHF): Taxes
- Transportation (400 CHF): Gas, car insurance, car maintenance
- Personal (2300 CHF): The rest (Books, gifts, going out, …)
The total is 5950 CHF. It works very well for me because I also keep track of the current savings rate. My goal is not to fill the Personal categories. But to have a reasonable savings rate. I do not recommend this to everyone. But it worked well for me.
With this strategy, some people may spend too much on the Personal category. You can set the total to your income minus your savings goal. For instance, you can set the total to 4500 CHF. It would give you a Personal category of 850 CHF.
Over time, I have stopped setting an amount for each category. I keep track of my income separately. However, I keep track of every single expense.
Even if I spend 1 CHF, I try to keep track of it. I think it is vital. Of course, I may miss a few of the smallest ones, but it is rare. The only time where I am not that precise is on vacation. I try to. But, often on vacation, I am lazier and simply over-estimate a bit. For instance, here is my budget for March 2018:
One thing I do not do is pay myself first. It can work for a lot of people. But I do not like this strategy. I believe paying yourself first is a strategy for lazy people. If you are smart enough with your budget, you do not need it. If you have issues saving, you may give it a try.
That’s it! There is nothing fancy going on here. I do not do anything special, but it works. You do not need anything very complicated for your budget. Just account for your expenses your income, and keep your costs low. And you should be set!
By now, you should now believe you need a budget. You also find out how I manage my budget. It is only one way to manage it. There are many ways to do it and no best way. The most important thing is that you track your expenses!
As for whether you need an actual budget with an amount you can spend per category, that is up to you. When I started, I needed one, but now I only care about the tracking part. I still like having categories because it helps me visualize my expenses. But I do not set an amount for each category anymore.
You may have noticed that I did not mention budgeting tools in this article. I am using a tool called budgetwarrior. I do not want to go into details now. I will present it in detail in another article. But it is a geek tool. I doubt it would be beneficial to my readers.
Again, there is no best budgeting tool. Many tools do it just fine. You will have to find the one that works best for you. Spreadsheets are fine! I advise you to have it online (Google Sheets, for instance) to ensure you do not lose it. But paper is fine as well. You do not need to pay for a budget tool.
A lot of Americans are using Personal Capital (free for budgeting). There is also You Need A Budget (YNAB). But YNAB is not free. I do not recommend spending money to manage your budget. I do not think you need anything else than a single spreadsheet to manage your budget. There are tons of software to do this. You can look around to find the one that suits you the best. Do not hesitate to test several of them.
That’s it! If I did not already convince you, I hope I convinced you to have a budget, or at the very least to track your expenses.
If you are interested in my budget, you may be interested in my budgeting mistakes as well.
How do you manage a budget? Do you do something different? What tool do you use?