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Create a Budget by Asking Yourself Three Questions

I hate budgeting. It forces me to look at my money, realize that I donít have any, and then limit my spending. (Post-grad life is a blast so far.) But for all of the complaining I do about it off the page, budgeting is one of the most important financial management things I do.

Why should you create a budget?

Running out of money is a lot worse than sitting down and planning out your spending. It lets you figure out how much your lifestyle costs and how much it would cost to change it. Budgets keep you organized and making one doesnít have to be a headache. Itís as easy as asking yourself three questions:

  1. How much money do you make?
  2. How much money do you get to keep?
  3. How much money can you spend on stuff you want?

How much money do you make?

This is a pretty easy question to start out with. You probably get a paycheck or maybe youíre still getting some help from home (I sure am, no judgement here). Itís an important starting point because it sets up the boundaries of your budget. It also determines how much you pay in taxes. Since a chunk of your money will go to paying taxes, you need to know how much money you make after taxes.

Donít make the mistake of thinking you get to spend $50,000 because you made $50,000. Get a rough idea of the percentage of your gross income you will owe the government, start socking it away and don’t touch it. You might even consider opening a special savings account to dump this tax money into. This way, you aren’t caught with your pants down when March rolls around.

Related: How to Save Slowly:† A Beginner’s Guide

Donít make the mistake of thinking you get to spend $50,000 because you made $50,000.

How much money do you get to keep?

Now that youíve paid your taxes, you know what your disposable income is. However, there are other things you have to spend money on too. You probably also want to do things like eat food and live in a house, so youíll have to pay for those, too. Figure out what you absolutely have to pay for after taxes:† rent, utilities, insurance, food, transportation, student loan payments, etc.

Knowing how much money you must spend on essentials will also help you figure out how much it costs to live the way that you want to live. This lets you plan your present and your future all at once. It also gives you an inside view on any expenses that you might be able to lower or cut out altogether.

Related:† 7 Ways to Make your Home a Sustainable Source of Income

Knowing how much money you must spend on essentials will also help you figure out how much it costs to live the way that you want to live.

How much money can you spend on stuff you want?

Now that youíve paid your taxes and bought your food, you can look at what your discretionary income. Discretionary income is money that’s fair game for spending. Whether itís a nice dinner or a trip to Barnes and Noble (my treat to myself), this is the pool of money that will pay for it.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to spend all of it if just because you have it left over. Whatever disposable income you have leftover can be put into an emergency savings fund, used to pay off credit card debt, attack your student loan balance, or invested. This will give you even more wiggle room for future budgeting cycles.†Remember, the goal of budgeting is to make sure you don’t run out of money, today or tomorrow.

Related:† Emergency Savings – Is It For me?

This all seems like a lot to keep track of!

It is. But you donít have to look at your whole year all at once. You can look at one month at a time and go week by week to understand how much you spend. If your spending is consistent, then you can just multiply one month by 12 to see what your full year will look like. For example, if you know you spend $1,600 per month, then you’ll spend around $19,200 during the year.

Breaking everything down by shorter time frames makes everything much more manageable. Once you set up a system that works for you, it just takes a bit of maintenance to keep it going. You’re much better off knowing where you stand each month than flying blind with your wallet in your hand, hoping you make it till next pay day.

Related:† Start Impact Investing for as Little as 50$

You’re much better off knowing where you stand each month than flying blind with your wallet in your hand, hoping you make it till next pay day.

So how do you make the budget?

Now that you can break your money down into three categories, how do you actually create a budget? There are plenty of free apps available on the App Store or Google Play that will automatically track your spending and help you create a budget from there. Do a bit of research and pick the free app that appeals to you. Your bank probably also has some sort of tool that helps with budgeting too. My bank has an online dashboard that shows me how much I spend compared to how much a deposit into my account, so I can keep an eye on it that way.

My personal favorite tool is Microsoft Excel. Using a spreadsheet, I can see where my money comes from, where it goes, and how it can grow over time. If I make $60,000 a year instead of $50,000, my spreadsheet will tell me how much money I will have to spend. There are templates available, but if you know how to use Excel, you can prepare a bunch of different scenarios with your money. This also allows you flexibility as your financial needs change in the future.

Your Budget Can Make a Difference, Too

Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference with your money.†While you’re saving and planning your money, you can also use your money to invest in companies with positive social and environmental impacts. Budgeting doesn’t have to prevent you from creating positive change with your dollars. If you can incorporate sustainable investing into your budgeting practices, you can grow your money while doing good for the planet and people.

Related:† 4 Ways to Make Real Money with Sustainable Investing

However you decide to budget your money, you should strongly consider doing it. It will give you a clear picture of how much your lifestyle costs today, how much your desired lifestyle will cost tomorrow, and set you up for success as you continue managing your finances. Budgeting is tedious, but itís worth it to understand how you can get the most out of your money. And if you are just stating out, like me, don’t worry about feeling like you don’t know what you are doing. We will have to budget the rest of our lives. Might as well get started now.

 

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