You’ve added up income, categorized expenses, and created a rough outline for a budget. Now, you’re ready to set up a simple budget spreadsheet. You can find budget templates online, use an app, make one yourself, or try out The Balance’s Simple 50/30/20 Budget spreadsheet.
No matter what platform you use to do it, here’s a breakdown of how to create (and maintain) a budget using a simple spreadsheet.
Create Your Budget
Now that you have all of the details of your incoming and outgoing funds, lay out your budget in a spreadsheet. When doing so, consider both the broad categories of spending (such as housing, food, transportation) and your needs, wants, and savings.
Founder of Her First $100K and internationally-recognized money and career expert Tori Dunlap recommends prioritizing necessities until you have a good understanding of your budget, especially if you're living paycheck to paycheck.
“As much as I'm an advocate for making space in your budget for your wants, there's always going to be times in your life where needs might win out—such as an emergency or job loss,” Dunlap told The Balance via email.
“It's always easier to find places to put extra money than to find extra money,” Dunlap said.
Track Your Expenses
As you spend money, it’s important to know where those funds are going. Throughout the day or at the end of each week, write down all expenses in a notebook, keep track in an app, or on your smartphone. Bottom line: Just keep track of it somewhere.
“Tracking expenses isn't a time to judge good or bad or to even take action,” said Jenifer Sapel, president of Kirkland, Washington-based Utor Wealth, by email to The Balance. “Think of it as like reading a book or meditating: It’s a time just to take note of the data.”
You may notice annual subscriptions or streaming services you’ve forgotten about or didn’t catch when collecting expense data. While automating bills can help avoid missed payment deadlines, it’s important to review for errors or surprises. An extremely high water bill could indicate an expensive leak, for example.
Then, enter your expenses into the spreadsheet at the end of the day or week. But if you’re intimidated by spreadsheets, that’s okay—the tool isn’t as important as the process of taking inventory.
Look for spending expenses that surprise you, seem unnecessary, or are based on your habits or behaviors. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, asking yourself the following questions when reviewing your expenses can be helpful too:
- Does your weekday versus weekend spending differ, and if so, why?
- Are you paying late fees or service fees that you could avoid?
- When are you most likely to give in to temptation or take part in emotional spending, and is there a way to avoid triggers?
Adjust Your Habits
By tracking your expenses, you’ll be able to notice poor financial habits, if applicable, and make changes accordingly.
You may consider viewing your finances line by line midmonth or at the end of the month. So long as you are making it a point to check in on your spending and see what has changed from month to month, you should have a strong handle on your spending habits.
If you need to reduce some of your “fun” spending, first decide what’s particularly enjoyable about that expense, Sapel suggests. Then, brainstorm more affordable ways to earn that enjoyment.
“For example, in a pre-Covid world, I got pedicures regularly,” Sapel said. “That expense for me isn't about my nails, though. It’s about having an hour of quiet me-time. I can accomplish the same with a solo walk or visit to the library.”
Dunlap points out that if you spend less on your wants category one month, you can either add it into another category like savings or roll the extra into the next month’s budget, providing a slightly larger budget for the month ahead.
Consider New Opportunities
After living for a while with your budget, you may find consistent shortfalls. Over time if you are not achieving the goals you expected to reach, consider cutting back on a few of your wants. Or, consider getting a peer or partner involved so you can budget together and hold one another accountable.
If you’ve already trimmed any unnecessary expenses but still wind up in debt or without savings, consider new short-term and long-term opportunities to boost income. Those may include:
- Enrolling in a local workforce development program or college program for the skills necessary for a high-demand, higher-wage job
- Claiming government benefits and credits such as food benefits, health insurance tax credits, or child tax credits
- Ask for a raise, look for a better-paying job, or take on part-time or gig work
- Selling items online or at a garage sale as a side hustle
Not every person will be able to boost their income by doing the aforementioned things, just as not every person will be able to allocate 20% of income to savings as part of the 50/20/20 rule. Everyone’s budget will look different depending on things like income, financial health, time, and other circumstances, and that is okay. Depending on your own financial situation, find a budgeting strategy that works best for you.
The Bottom Line
A spreadsheet can be a great tool for tracking your spending, allocating funds in areas that are important to you, and building good financial habits that last. By having all of the financial data you need right in front of you, it can become easier to achieve your goals.