How to Create a Budget

Paper/Pencil, Spreadsheets, Apps ... There Are Lots of Budgeting Tools

Which tools to use to create a budget that works

Have you never created a budget before? Are you wondering how you can start?

Don’t worry. There are plenty of choices to choose from when it comes to creating a budget that works for you.

Here are a few options to get you started so you can create a budget that will help you reach your goals.

Paper-and-Pencil

The most basic thing you can do to budget is use paper and pencil. You can use these budgeting worksheets to help you figure out how to create this type of budget.

The worksheets will take you step-by-step through every expense that’s related to a necessity, such as groceries; every expense that’s related to a luxury, such as dining at restaurants; and every savings goal that you may have.

The best way to begin budgeting is by first making an estimate of how much you would like to spend in each category (gas, utilities, groceries) per month. Then, in an adjacent column, write how much you actually ended up spending that month. You’ll be able to see the difference between the two and adjust accordingly.

If you do this for several consecutive months, you’ll get a sense of how much money you’re spending in each category each month. You'll also get a sense of how much money you’re spending overall. You’ll then be able to minimize the variance between your projected spending and your actual spending.

Spreadsheets

If you’re not interested in using a paper and pencil budget, you can use basic free software like Microsoft Excel to create a spreadsheet.

Many credit and debit card issuers allow you to export your statements directly into Excel so you can automatically transcribe the information that’s on your credit and debit card statements into the spreadsheet.

If you use Google Sheets, you can share your budget spreadsheet with others in your household.

Each person who has access to the spreadsheet is able to update it, and that update takes place in real time. In other words, your household can collectively all access and update the spreadsheet within the "cloud," for free, as long as you have a Gmail/Google account.

The great thing about Excel and Google is that each has free budgeting templates available, so you don't have to start from scratch.

Online Software

If you’re not interested in spreadsheets, you can use online software such as Mint.com. You’ll have to provide the details of your banking and credit card log in information, but don’t worry, Mint.com is secure.

This website automatically draws your information and shows you how much you’re spending each month. It also allows you to create goals, such as saving for retirement or saving for a vacation.

Are you an investor who likes tracking funds? Personal Capital is another free solution that's similar to Mint, but geared toward those with investment accounts.

Mobile Apps

There are also plenty of apps that will help you budget. Mvelopes is re-releasing an app that allows you to create a virtual envelope budgeting strategy. Some people choose to budget by carrying their cash around in envelopes, with each envelope designated for budget categories like “groceries” and “gas.” This app allows you to replicate that digitally.

Online systems like You Need a Budget, Mint, and Personal Capital also have interactive apps that can help you budget.

This is an overview of the different programs that can help you create a budget. There are lots of different opportunities depending on whether you tend to prefer paper and pen, spreadsheets, apps, websites, or other methods. There is no particular best method. Pick the one that works best for you.

Alternately, if you’re not interested in creating a line-item budget, you could always skim your savings off the top and then spend the rest. I refer to this as the 80/20 budget, and it’s a great budgeting alternative for people who don’t like to scrutinize the details.

I've Picked A Tool ... Now What?

Now that you've chosen your budgeting tool, it's time to focus on the most important part of creating a budget: putting aside enough money for savings.

There are two ways you can do this:

  1. You can budget how much money in general you want to save for all of your various goals and move all of that money into a single savings account. For example, you might want to save $200 per month towards your next car purchase, $50 towards a car repair fund, $50 towards a vacation, $100 towards home maintenance, $100 per month towards an unexpected health bill, and $70 per month towards a holiday gift fund. You could combine and comingle all of those different goals by contributing the entire total sum into a savings account.
  2. Alternately, however, you could open up an online savings account that allows you to create different sub-accounts that are earmarked towards each specific goal. Websites like Smartypig.com, for example, allow you to create lots of different sub-accounts labeled for each goal.

Now you're ready to start putting your budget into action.