Budgeting is one of the most important aspects of personal finance. Whether you’re planning ahead for a big expense, like a wedding or a new home, or simply need to keep track of your monthly finances, a budget is your first step to getting everything in order. However, many people might struggle to make and keep consistent budgets.
In fact, many Americans struggle with personal finances, especially where debt is concerned. The average household (two people) has about $137,000 in debt, including student loans, mortgage payments, credit card debt, and other loans. Budgeting is one of the best strategies that can help you tackle your monthly debt and help ensure that you have a bit of financial breathing room.
With the right approach, you can manage your debt and monthly expenses. Budgeting doesn’t have to come in a complex package with a hundred bells and whistles that you’d need an accounting degree to understand. There are simple tools that you can master in an hour or less, and here are four of the best.
The Envelope System is Tried and True
The envelope budgeting system hails from a bygone era, but it still works today. The system is efficient, and you’ve got a visual aid — your money — in the palm of your hand. It might take some time to adjust to the idea of spending cash instead of swiping a debit card through the machine at cash registers. However, that’s how it was done for generations, and it’s still doable.
Here’s how the envelope system works.
- You’ll label an envelope for each separate expense that you incur on a regular basis, such as food, fuel for your vehicle, and entertainment.
- It may take a month or two to iron out, but estimate how much on average you spend on each area. Into each envelope then goes the cash that you have allotted for each expense.
- The amount in each envelope is all you’re allowed to use in each area. Run out of entertainment funds? That’s that.
The envelope system works because once the budgeted money is spent, it’s gone. You’ll just have to resist the urge to dip into another envelope to pay for something that’s over your budget. If you do run into an emergency, of course, it’s up to your discretion whether you dip into other funds. But the idea is to maintain some consistency in your spending habits from month to month, and to limit it to a reasonable amount.
Note that this method is mainly useful for daily expenses, such as groceries, services like haircuts, and fun, like going to the movies or out with friends. Naturally, there are expenses that you can’t add to the envelope system, such as your mortgage or rent payment, utilities, and other bills that you must pay using a check or debit card. But for everything else, the envelope system keeps your daily spending under control.
Logged Expenses Reveal Trends
This system is more of a tracking tool than an overall budget tool, and can actually be used together with a budget like the envelope system. One thing many people forget when putting together a budget is that variable and unexpected expenses can be big budget busters — think of something like a sudden car repair, or maybe the sudden realization that you forgot your niece’s birthday. Taking control of this single aspect of your finances can yield great results. Logging expenses takes nothing more than a pad and pen or simple spreadsheet software. You’ll also need a calculator if math isn’t your native language.
At the end of a week, you can tally each purchase and determine how much of your budget is devoted to controllable, expectable expenses. At the end of the month, tally again and you might really be in for a shock if your unexpected expenses actually end up costing you near what your expectable expenses do.
- Note: One good budgeting tool you can use to log expenses consistently — and in a way that gives you a bird’s-eye view of your finances — is with a spreadsheet. Using that spreadsheet software we just mentioned, you can make various columns to represent the kinds of expenses you often encounter, and rows to represent each day or week (depending on the budget schedule that works for you). If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Mint’s basic budget spreadsheet templates.
The benefit of logging expenses as a budget planning tool is to show patterns in spending, and shows you what things to include in your budget. Once you know your habits and the real effect they have on your budget, you can make better choices.
The 50/30/20 Budget For Long Term Savings
One personal budgeting tool that we often advocate for is the 50/30/20 budget. It’s popular and highly recommended because it’s simple, effective, realistic, and can be implemented starting today. The 50/30/20 budget works by suggesting you allocate your income based on the three main categories of expense: Needs, Wants, and Savings.
Here’s how it works:
- 50% of your budget is put toward needs. What counts as a need? Things that you would have a very difficult time living without, like groceries, car payments, rent, utilities, insurance, medical expenses, and minimum debt payments.
- 30% of your budget can be spent on whatever you want. Do you love getting nice haircuts? Go for it. Want that killer pair of sneakers? Seize the moment. Trying to impress a date? This part of your budget is here to help.
- 20% of your budget should be spent on savings and extra debt repayment. First, if you don’t have emergency savings, you can use as much of this part of your budget as you feel comfortable with to build that up — usually 3 to 6 months’ worth of expenses is suggested. Once you’ve accomplished your emergency budget savings, you can reallocate more of your income to repaying debt, or just continue saving. Either way, this part of your budget is focused on the long term future.
Knowing that you’re supposed to follow the 50/30/20 budget planning tool is one thing, but keeping on track of your spending and being diligent about categorizing each purchase can be harder.
A Simpler Option: The 80/20 Budget
Sometimes distinguishing wants from needs can be a challenge: you definitely need to own a pair of shoes, but how many pairs do you need to own before the next one becomes purely a want? Or maybe your car technically still runs with a busted up bumper, but part of you thinks it’s smart to get it fixed anyway.
If you don’t want to deal with ambiguity like that, you can instead use the 80/20 budgeting tool. What it lacks in specificity and guidance it makes up for by being simple and freeing. Here’s how it works:
- 80% of your budget is spent on whatever you need. Rent, new shoes, a night at the opera — it’s totally up to you and your wants and needs.
- 20% of your budget must be saved. At the beginning of each month, or whenever you’re paid, simply set aside 20% of your paycheck or other income and put it in savings (or toward debt repayment).
That’s it! This budget works well for those who want to make sure they’re saving enough, but struggle to pay attention to their budget enough to follow a stricter set of rules.
Mint Makes Everything Simpler
Mint’s budget software and mobile app are built to pack the best of these personal budgeting tools into one convenient place. In minutes, you can craft a budget that suits your needs, and is easy enough to use that you’ll have no problem consistently logging purchases and checking your balance.
Mint lets you enter checking and savings accounts, as well as retirement and investment accounts, so it gets a full sense of your financial profile. You’ll also be able to input credit and debit cards, so the app can track your spending and stay up to date with where your budget stands. Utility bills, mortgage or rent, groceries, and any other budget category that you can imagine can then be input, so the app knows how to categorize each of your month’s expenditures.
From your smartphone or tablet, our budgeting tool can offer on-the-go insights into your personal finances, so you never have to wonder if you can afford that spur of the moment lunch invite you got from your friend. The app also lets you enter cash purchases, so even if you don’t pay with a card, you can still track your month’s expenses.
Creating a sound budget and using an effective budget planning tool are parts of your financial wellbeing. Most people understand the weight that a good budget carries; it’s the time investment and confusion that puts many off. Mint gathers the best budgeting features and puts them all in one place. With tons of budgeting strategies and helpful expense tracking tools at your disposal, you can start seriously budgeting and planning for your future today.