Chapter 1: What Is a Budget & How to Create One
Creating a budget can offer you peace of mind and give you more confidence in managing your finances. A budget can help make you more aware of how you spend your money, and the places where you may be spending too much, so you can figure out how much to save.
So, what is a budget?
A budget is essentially a summary of how much money you bring in and how much money you spend on a monthly basis. The idea of creating a budget might be intimidating, but it actually doesn’t have to be all that complicated. You just have to calculate the amount of money you make and compare it to your expected expenses. A basic budget is one of the most important things you need to take charge of your money—and help achieve more of your financial dreams.
In this series, we’ll be answering important questions like “What does budget mean?”, “Why is Budgeting important?”, and more. This is the first chapter of our budgeting series, and we will go over the basics of what budgeting is and how to create one. To learn more about budgeting, continue reading, or use the links below to jump to a section of your choice.
- Intro to Budgeting: What is a Budget?
- Who Needs to Use a Budget?
- Why Is Budgeting Important?
- How to Create a Budget: 5 Actionable Steps
- Budgeting Breakdown for Beginners
- 50/30/20 Budget Calculator
- Selecting a Budgeting Tool That Suits Your Lifestyle
- Common Budgeting Obstacles and Mistakes
- How Often Should You Review Your Budget?
- Key Takeaways: Budgeting 101
- Bottom Line: Budgeting Can Help You Take Control of Your Finances
Intro to Budgeting: What is a Budget?
So before we get into any more details about budgeting and how to create one, let’s first answer the question of: What is the meaning of budget?
A budget is a financial outline designed to measure and guide your income and expenditures for a certain period of time, such as one month, a quarter, or a year. With an understanding of the budget basics, you can track the amount you’re making compared to what you’re spending and saving.
Why do I want a budget? Consumer.gov says making a budget can help you determine your spending plan and in turn, show you where you should limit your spending and what you can afford to spend more money on.
There are many ways you can maintain a budget — with a spreadsheet, paper and pen, or through a budgeting app.
Whether you’re new to managing your own finances, never learned how to budget, or are tired of living paycheck to paycheck, this post is for you. In our Budgeting 101 guide, we’ll go over some budgeting basics, show you how to create a budget, teach you how to avoid common budget-related mishaps, and ultimately, give you a budget calculator and some budgeting tips to create a budget that’s efficient and functional for your lifestyle.
Who Needs to Use a Budget?
Any person who wants to take control of their finances and feel more financially secure could benefit from a budget. A budget isn’t just for people who want to cut back their expenses and save money. A budget can be for anyone! Even if you’re comfortable with your income and your expenses, you can still benefit from being aware of how and where you spend your money.
A budget is especially beneficial for people who need to save money for various reasons, like if you need to budget for your wedding or save for a down payment on a house. Having a budget can also be helpful for people whose income is unpredictable or who are going through a career change and need to be more aware of their finances.
To make a financial plan, you need to have a budget. A financial plan is a great way to organize your financial situation and figure out your goals and how you can achieve them. Without a budget, there’s no way to find out how much money you’re saving vs spending, which is imperative in achieving your personal and financial goals.
Everyone’s budget will look different, but generally speaking, a budget will include your various living expenses, like how much you spend on rent, groceries, transportation, healthcare costs, and loans.
You might overlook some things when it comes to your expenses, but having a budget can really help you hone in on how you spend your money. Your living expenses can easily add up, so it might be helpful to do things like calculate your monthly grocery budget so that you can figure out exactly how much you have to spend.
Living expenses will also differ for every person depending on where they live, but you can use a cost of living calculator to help figure out if it’s possible to maintain your current standard of living based on your income.
Why Is Budgeting Important?
There are countless reasons why having a budget is important and how it can positively impact your finances, such as:
It Helps You Control Your Spending
Without a budget, you would have no idea if you were spending beyond your means. A budget will help you control your spending by making you more aware of how much you spend on a daily basis in comparison to how much you’re bringing in. It also might be a good idea to try a more minimalist lifestyle so you can cut back on unnecessary costs.
It Helps You Figure Out Your Long-Term Goals
We all have different long-term goals that we want to achieve, and creating a budget can help you achieve them. For instance, if one of your goals is to retire by 50, a budget can help you figure out how much you need to save for retirement each month. There are various tricks to help you save so that you can feel like your long-term goals are actually attainable.
It Can Make You Feel More Financially Secure:
There’s nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed with your finances. Fortunately, having a budget can make you feel more confident and secure in your financial health, so you’re always prepared for any unexpected expenses.
It Can Help You Get Out of Debt
There are a lot of different things that can put you in debt: credit cards, medical bills, college loans, unpaid taxes, the list goes on. Being in debt is terrifying, but one way you can get out of debt is by budgeting. Budgeting can help you save part of your paycheck so you can put that towards paying off your debt.
It Keeps You Organized
It’s easy to get disorganized when it comes to your finances, but having a budget can help you manage and organize your monthly bills, debt payments, and other expenses.
It Helps You Save Money
One of the main benefits of budgeting is that it helps you save money. Rather than living pay-to-paycheck, budgeting helps you stay ahead of the curve so you can save money for the present and future. You can also increase your income streams at home and make even more money to put towards savings.
How to Create a Budget: 5 Actionable Steps
To plan your budget, you’ll need a few key pieces of information. With these basic components, you’ll have a foundation for your budget that you can tweak as the months go by and as your financial circumstances change. To get you a step closer to your financial goals, let’s go over how to create a budget step-by-step.
1. Calculate your monthly income after taxes
An accurate monthly income is the cornerstone of a successful budget. Without figuring out how much money you actually have in your wallet, it’s pretty hard to allocate funds towards saving, spending, and settling outstanding debts. But calculating your monthly income takes a little bit more effort than glazing over your monthly paychecks.
To find out how much you’re actually earning, you’ll need to do a little bit of simple math—don’t worry, we’ll walk you through the entire way.
Calculating your monthly income as a salaried employee
One of the benefits of being a salaried employee is knowing exactly what to expect on your paycheck—month in and month out—and this pay structure will serve as an added perk when you’re building a monthly budget. To calculate your pre-tax monthly income as a salaried employee, all you need to do is divide your annual salary by 12.
Let’s look at an example:
Laura is a salaried employee who makes $60,000 a year. To calculate her pre-tax monthly income, she would divide $60,000 by 12, which equals $5,000 gross monthly pay.
Now that you have your gross monthly income figured out, you’ll need to deduct taxes and other expenses that may dock your pay—such as medical benefits and contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. We’ll show you how to estimate this number in just a moment, but first we’ll go over how hourly employees can calculate monthly income.
Calculating your monthly income as an hourly employee
If you’re an hourly employee, your monthly income isn’t always as consistent as you might like it to be, but with the proper budgeting technique you can definitely nail down a budget that maximizes your monthly income and gets you closer to meeting your greater financial goals. Here’s how to figure your monthly income as an hourly employee:
Let’s take a look at an example:
Keith is an hourly employee who makes $15 an hour working 40 hours per week, making his gross weekly income $600. Keith multiplies this number by 50 to reflect the weeks he plans to work throughout the year (minus his two-week vacation). Then, he divides by 12 and estimates that his gross monthly pay is $2,500.
Remember, this number does not factor in the deductions that may impact his take-home pay, so now he’ll have to subtract these from his gross monthly income to get an accurate picture to build his monthly budget.
Subtract taxes and other deductions from your gross monthly income. If you’re unsure of where to find this information, one place you can look is your employer-provided pay stub. You’ll be able to see how much is deducted by checking the net pay that’s deposited to your checking account.
To get the most accurate picture of your monthly take-home pay, you’ll need to subtract taxes and other deductions from your income.
- Federal Taxes: To find out your federal tax liability each month, refer back to your annual gross income that you calculated before. Then, compare your income to the federal income tax rates to find out what percentage of your income will go toward your federal income taxes. Once you’ve found this number, divide by twelve to estimate your monthly tax liabilities.
- State Taxes: Calculating your state income taxes is essentially the same as finding your federal tax liability, but this time, you’ll need to refer to your state’s income tax rates. Multiply your annual income by your tax rate, then divide by twelve to see how much you’ll owe in taxes each month.
Social Security and Medicare Taxes: According to the IRS, the federal withholding rates for FICA are:
-6.2% for Social Security
-1.45% for Medicare
- Misc: Depending on your financial situation, you may have other deductions to consider when calculating your monthly take-home pay. Use previous paychecks to help you determine how much money will be withheld to account for 401k contributions, benefits, etc.
2. Identify fixed and variable expenses
Once you have a clear picture of how much money you’re actually working with each month, it’s time to figure out how you’re spending it…or how you should be spending it. There are two main types of expenditures you need to account for as you build your budget: fixed and variable expenses. The difference between the two is that fixed expenses tend to cost you the same amount each month while variable expenses…vary.
You can look for payments toward your living expenses on your monthly bank statements and credit cards.
Your fixed expenses like rent payment, groceries, transportation, and health care costs are likely to absorb a large chunk of your budget, which makes them all the more important to track as the months go by.
To determine how much of your budget is going towards fixed expenses, start by creating a list of your regular expenditures. Here’s a list of common fixed expenses to help you get started:
- Car payments
- Student loans
Once you’ve built a complete list, calculate a monthly estimate for each one, so you know how much of your income should be dedicated to it. If you’re not sure how much something costs, review previous bills and credit card statements to see what you’ve spent in the past.
Whether you belong to a gym, go on a weekly date, or make a purchase on a shopping app, make sure you account for these costs in your budget. As opposed to fixed expenses that stick to relatively the same cost each month, these miscellaneous items may change month over month.
Some examples of variable budget expenses include:
- Dining out
Determining how much you spend on variable living expenses each month can be tricky since it may be rarely consistent, but it’s important to get a close estimate so that you can determine whether you can maintain the same spending habits or if you need to cut back in certain areas. Use your monthly bank statements to help you estimate your variable expenses, and in turn, set limits for each category.
How to factor expenses into your budget
If you’re using one of our free budgeting templates, simply input the values of these fixed expenses into your budgeting spreadsheet to help plan out your financial strategy each month. In the Mint app, you can connect your bank account to easily identify recurring expenses, or enter in your own budget for fixed expenditures.
3. Set savings and debt payoff goals
As you saw in step two, if you have student loans and credit card balances, you’ll want to attribute part of your monthly budget to paying them off. Each month, allocate a certain amount to these monthly payments. The sooner you pay off debts, the less interest you’ll pay overall, and the closer you are to meeting your greater financial goals.
When creating a personal budget, include these types of debts into your planning:
If you’re all caught up on your bills and want to stow away funds for retirement or save up for a new car, it’s helpful to establish concrete goals, then break them down into achievable bite-size chunks. Having trouble coming up with realistic, meaningful financial goals? Take a look at these short-term and long-term examples:
Short-term financial goals
- Save enough money for an upcoming vacation
- Build up your emergency fund
- Make improvements to your home or vehicle
- Save up cash for holiday gift shopping
- Pay off your credit card
- Save up enough to move out on your own
Long-term financial goals
- Establish a retirement budget to build a retirement account
- Pay off your mortgage or student loans
- Start your own business
If you’re using the Mint app, you can set up custom goals for your savings in the budgeting section. Simply add a budget, define a dollar amount, and monitor your progress.
4. Record your spending
You know that feeling when you’re checking out at the grocery store, the cashier announces your total, you swipe your card, and by the time you’re loading your grocery bags into your car, you realize you didn’t even register the total amount you paid. It’s a concerning, out-of-body experience—but we’ve all been there.
This is why tracking your spending is so important. It’s easy to become complacent about the amount of money you’re spending and end up with revolving debt ruling your finances. Depending on the budgeting method you choose—budgeting app, pen and paper, or online budgeting tool—you can pick a way to record your spending that best suits your lifestyle.
Here are a few tips to make expense tracking easier and more efficient:
- Ditch the Cash: Stick to card payments if you have trouble keeping tabs on how much money you spend each month. This way, you can refer to your online bank statements to easily monitor your spending.
- Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: Make it a point to analyze your spending habits on a weekly basis. Collect any receipts or statements you have and check to see if you’re on budget or if you need to reel in your spending for the rest of your budgeting cycle. Budgeting will help monitor your spending so you are able to keep living within your means.
- Go Old-School: If you’d rather skip the technology and take a more tactile approach to budgeting, a pen and a checking book will do just fine. Just be sure to make a habit of recording your expenses as soon as you’ve swiped your card.
- Try the New-School Way: If you can’t be bothered to whip out a pen and paper each time you check out at the register, automated expense tracking might be a better alternative. Using the Mint app, you can connect your bank account to effortlessly record your spending and monitor transaction trends.
5. Track your budgeting progress, review, and revise
Creating a basic budget is a huge financial victory. It helps you ensure you can cover your expenses and reach for exciting milestones, like buying a house or paying off your student loans. As you continue to budget, make adjustments as you see fit. Your income, expenses or lifestyle might change, and it’s important to ensure your budget keeps working for you and your future.
Set up a budget schedule and make it a point to review your budget on a regular basis—each week, every month, or at least every quarter to see if any major changes, or milestones have taken place. Not only will this help you recognize and celebrate your successes, but it will also encourage you to reevaluate and tailor your strategy as needed.
Budgeting Breakdown for Beginners
Now that you know how to make a budget, it’s time to discuss best practices and budgeting basics to ensure your budget works for your money and your lifestyle.
How to Choose the Budgeting Style That Works for You
Here’s the thing about budgeting. There’s not really a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every individual. Depending on your spending habits, financial goals, lifestyle, and your relationship with money in general, one budgeting tactic might make more sense for you than another. Let’s take a look at a few budgeting methods you can try.
Starting simple with your bank statements
One easy way to start budgeting is to take your previous month’s bank statements and create a budget using the deposits as your monthly income and categorize all the withdrawals on the bank statement for:
- Living expenses
- Other expenses
Then you can see what last month’s budget looks like to be able to make adjustments to this month’s spending. This allows you to better accomplish your life goals and ensure you’re placing money where it needs to be in order to make progress.
Keep tabs on transactions with the envelope method
The envelope system is a simple budgeting approach that involves spending with cash instead of plastic.
If you budget $100 for eating at restaurants, put that amount into an envelope. When the money’s gone, you have to wait until next month to eat out again.
If you budget $200 for groceries, put $200 in a “grocery” envelope. If you’re at the checkout line and the total comes to $203, you’ll need to put something back.
The envelope method helps you be more strict with your budget. The pockets of cash are a visual and tangible reminder of how much money you’re dedicating to each area of your life.
Follow the 50/30/20 rule
Financial experts recommend the 50/30/20 guideline as a basic financial strategy, especially for young professionals. You can also use the new 50/30/20 budget calculator to help create your new budget.
The rule says that you should allocate a 50%, 30%, and 20% of your income to the following categories:
Personal Expenses: 30%
-Shopping for non-essential items
–Rainy day fund
Consider a zero-based budget
With the zero-based budgeting technique, each month begins and ends with zero dollars. When you build out your zero-based budget, every dollar has a purpose. Let’s take a look at a sample budget using the zero-based method. If you make $3,500 every month, attribute each dollar to an expense. You might put $1,750 toward living expenses, $700 toward paying off debt, and $1,050 toward personal expenses like going to the movies or saving for vacation. At the end of the month, your balance is zero, because every dollar is accounted for.
Keep in mind, the zero-base doesn’t mean you’re spending every dollar that you earn, but rather, that each one is allocated to a different category—savings account included!
Selecting a Budgeting Tool That Suits Your Lifestyle
As we mentioned before, the one-size-fits-all methodology is a no-go when it comes to personal budgeting. Your financial situation is completely unique to you whether we’re talking about your income, expenses, or your financial goals, so it only makes sense to tailor your budgeting strategy to your individual preferences.
Here are a few tips to help you find a budgeting tool that makes sense for you:
- Read reviews, or ask around: Although money can be considered a taboo topic, that doesn’t mean you need to tip-toe around budgeting techniques in your relationship or with your friends. You probably trust their opinions more than anyone else, after all. See which tools they use and ask what they like and don’t like about their current budgeting method.
- Test it out: Before buying into any paid budgeting subscriptions, give the free trial a go. This way, you’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the features and decide if it’s a tool you’d continue using.
- Consider compatibility: If you’d like to automate your expense tracking, make sure that the budgeting tool you want to use can be integrated with your bank and credit card issuers.
- Use a template or tool tailored to your needs: Depending on your financial circumstances, you may need a simple budget, or one that’s specific to your income and expenses. Or perhaps you’ll need additional functionality like investment capability or the ability to make peer-to-peer transactions. According to a recent survey, 85% of people use either banking apps or online banking platforms.
As you select a budgeting tool, consider how you’ll use it and how the tool fits into your lifestyle and financial goals. Our budget templates include the following categories:
Common Budgeting Obstacles and Mistakes
Before you set sail on your journey towards better budgeting, it’s time to talk about some of the obstacles you may encounter on your way. Like most things in life (or the sea in this case), budgeting isn’t always clear-cut—there can be aspects that are difficult or ambiguous. Factoring in random, one-time expenses or calculating a part-time gig can complicate your budget, but trust us, your voyage can (and must) continue! Here are a few tips to ensure you have the most accurate budget—no matter the circumstance.
1. Estimating irregular income
If you’re a freelancer or work a side hustle, you likely have an irregular income that can be hard to predict. In these cases, it’s best to estimate a conservative (low) amount, so you don’t overspend. Review the past 3-6 months of income and watch for any patterns. Can you find an approximate hourly rate or weekly rate for what you bring in? If you’re new to a job, like being a waitress, ask a coworker how much they typically make in tips to help you forecast your monthly tip outs. Above all, do your best to create an income estimate—knowing you can tweak it along the way.
2. Paying for emergency expenses
Unfortunately, accidents and unexpected bills happen to everyone. From car troubles to job loss and medical expenses, emergencies can be expensive and having a backup emergency budget can help cut down expenses. An unexpected bill can throw off our budget, and set you back. If an incident does occur, try to factor the expense into your budget while paying your other bills. For instance, you may want to cut back on dining out for the month, or pick up an extra shift to help you cover a bill. If you can, build an emergency fund into your budget to safeguard your finances against future unexpected situations.
3. Forgetting one-time expenses
Items like annual memberships, vacations, and gifts for family and friends are often forgotten when creating budgets. If you can, set aside a small amount of cash every month for these extra expenses. You can estimate the expected cost for the year and account for them in your monthly budget. For example, if you typically spend $300 on Christmas gifts, set aside an extra $25 every month to account for these added expenditures. By the time December comes, you’ll have the cash available to spend on gifts.
How Often Should You Review Your Budget?
So now that you’ve learned how to actually create a budget, you’re probably wondering: How often should I review my budget?
It’s ultimately up to you, but you should aim to review your budget at least once every few months. Some people even prefer to do it each week or new month, so that they can ensure they’re always on top of their expenses.
You may want to consider checking in quarterly and doing annual budget reviews so you can see if you’re on track for your long-term financial goals. Budgeting isn’t just something you do one month and then never again. Budgeting is a long-term process, so it’s crucial to regularly review your budget to make sure you’re living within your means and not overspending.
A budget tracking template is a good way to keep your finances organized so you can create a reviewing system that works for you.
Key Takeaways: Budgeting 101
- Creating a budget is really as simple as following these five steps:
- Calculating your take-home pay
- Estimating your expenses
- Setting savings and debt payoff goals
- Recording your spending
- Tracking your progress
- To find the right budgeting method and tools for you, consider compatibility, ask around, and try out different options
- Avoid budgeting pitfalls by preparing for unexpected circumstances and tailoring your budgeting strategy as needed
Bottom Line: Budgeting Can Help You Take Control of Your Finances
So, now that you have a better idea of what a budget is and how to create one, you can answer the question: What is your budget?
Every person’s budget will look different, and creating a budget that works for you may take some time. So for help with your budgeting journey, you should continue reading this series which will cover budgeting tools, tips for managing your budget, and more. And once you have a good understanding of what a budget is, you can move on to the next chapter in the series, which covers what to include in a budget.
Sign up for Mint to help you stick to your budget and goals Let the Mint app do the heavy lifting for you. It can calculate your income, total your spending by category, and help you conquer your savings goals. Tracking expenses with the app is simple and accessible—no matter where you are.