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Finance Budgeting 101: Five Steps To Your First Budget

Aug 17, 2007
Budgeting isn't rocket science. But, it does take some preparation, consideration and a healthy dose of reality, combined with a willingness to change some unhealthy spending habits.

There are no hard and fast rules when creating a budget that works for your family. Every family is different; and so is every budget. The key is to create a spending plan that fits your income, and that everyone in your household can live with. Setting stringent spending limits that are impractical or unattainable isn't going to help get you on the right financial track. Being realistic will. A firm commitment to spend less than you make, and save for the more important things in your life is even better. Take the time to begin the budget process right: with good planning. Here's how:

1: Keep A List of Every Household Expense for One Month.
Everyone usually has a clear idea of the big bills: mortgage, car loans, and groceries. It's the little stuff that can kill a budget. Before writing out your first set of budget numbers, it's first important to know exactly where your money has been going. For one month, record every household expense - no matter how small. You may be surprised at how much those little conveniences and splurges really add up to.

2: Make A Complete List of Spending Areas.
Once you see what you've been spending your money on, on a regular basis, it's time to make a thorough list of household and personal expense categories. Most people find their spending areas include such things as: mortgage/rent; car loans; insurance premiums; utilities; groceries; entertainment; school lunches; clothes; business expenses, etc. Include everything! Those school lunches, manicures and even that morning coffee all add up by the end of the month. Don't forget less regular bills such as annual car insurance premiums, birthday gifts/parties, summer vacations, holiday outings, field trips, membership dues, magazine subscriptions, and more.

3: Compare Your Expenses To Your Income.
Now comes the hard part: add up all of your expenses and compare it to your NET income (this is your take-home pay after taxes, insurances, 401K contributions, etc.). Many people make the mistake of thinking that if they make $75,000 a year, they can spend $75,000. Wrong! You usually only receive about $55,000 to $60,000 after normal payroll deductions. If you're like most Americans, your expenses may be much higher than your income. Now what? It's time to start getting serious.

4: Be Realistic.
Let's get real here: no one can continually spend more money than they make without serious repercussions. Eventually you won't be able to juggle the payments anymore, and something won't get paid. You're walking a slippery slope headed toward financial ruin, and it's time to be realistic. Now that you've had a chance to clearly see where your money is going ever month, it's time to start chipping away at all the waste.

Start big or start small: the decision is yours. The goal is to slash as much frivolous waste as possible from your current spending plan. That may mean taking your lunch to work twice a week, and coloring your own hair, or it may mean selling your second car and taking the train to work. The severity of the things you're forced to give up depends on how much overspending leeway you've been allowing your family.

5: Together Come Up With A New Spending Plan.
Once you've cut out all of the things you know you can do without, it's time to prioritize your spending list to see what else can go. List the most important life expenses first: your house or apartment; food; health insurance; car costs; school fees; etc. As you move further down the list, add entertainment; eating out; taking the kids to an amusement park; summer pool fees.

You know, all the things you think you need, but may be able to do without. Now, if you're expenses remain higher than your income, its time to start condensing and cutting from the bottom of this list. Sure, having a pool in the backyard may be great, but if you both work, and the kids are at summer camp all day, is the cost of its upkeep really worth being in debt? Or, would that money be better spent in some other category? How about fast food? If your family is spending more than $100 a month eating out, it may be time to reevaluate why you're not cooking a home.

Are your kids involved in too many extracurricular activities, not leaving you the time to cook and eat in? Or have you just allowed yourselves the luxury of easy dinners so long they now feel like a necessity? Now's the time for you to discuss, as a family, what is really important. If eating out three times a week is more important than going to the movies on Saturdays, or going on that beach vacation, so be it. That's your choice. Just remember, that every expense has an impact on your financial future.

Looking at your finances with open eyes and a new attitude won't be easy. Changing your spending habits will be even harder. But, establishing a solid budget, and learning to live within your means may make the difference between a life filled with financial struggles and stress, and a worry-free existence that allows you to spend money on the important things with little or no angst at all.
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