Monday, July 29, 2013

Budgeting--Are you doing it right?

Why Budget: According to studies, the most powerful predictor of successful weight loss is TRACKING what you eat. So it shouldn’t be a shock to realize the best way to ensure healthy spending is to TRACK WHAT YOU SPEND. Take frequent and honest looks at your spending habits. For anyone who’s ever kept a food diary, you may be surprised by what and how much you are eating (FIVE bowls of Frosted Flakes! Really?!). Spending money is the same way—we’ve all developed some nasty habits. The first step to making those corrections is to track your spending so you can identify where you can “trim the fat.”

How to budget in three easy steps: 

Step 1: Create a budget

Don’t worry—you can always adjust it later, just get something down.

  • Many banks and credit cards offer free budget tools that can be created in minutes.
  • is a free (and awesome) way to automate budgeting for people with multiple bank accounts and credit cards. Just create an account, add all your various accounts and cards, then set up your budget. (FYI: We're not getting paid to recommend Mint--they're just the best).
  • If technology overwhelms you, if nothing else, write it down (see example budget here:).

--SPECIAL NOTE--Include a “mad money” account in your budget (More details here). It’s good to be disciplined, but just like a hungry dieter, if you feel deprived you are less likely to stick to it. Each spouse should have their own little mad money that they can spend on whatever they want. The trick is to set a specific amount so you can buy some fun things guilt-free. It’s okay—it’s part of the budget!

Step 2: REVIEW!

The most important aspect of budgeting is to review your spending regularly (at least monthly). My husband and I find it’s easier to remember if we review on a weekly basis, on the same day of the week. We have what we call our “audit” every Sunday (sounds serious, I know--let it be known these audits are often conducted in our pajamas). Basically, we make sure all our transactions got downloaded, then we:
  1. Look at our overall budget and how we're doing
  2. Focus in on any "problem" categories
  3. Brainstorm on what we need to do to improve and make any changes necessary

Step 3: Make Adjustments

If your expenses are exceeding your income or you're not putting away enough towards savings, retirement, etc., then you have two options: (1) Increase income or (2) Cut expenses. Here are some ideas for both:
  1. Extra sources for income
    • If your job is hourly, can you take on extra hours? Can you get a second or third job? (During the last year of our Master's programs, to ensure we could be debt-free soon after graduation, my husband had three part-time jobs and I had two.)
    • Turn unused items into cash (cars, old cell phones and other electronics). Sell online or have an old-fashioned garage sale.
    • In the long term, consider getting additional education that would qualify you for a better paying job.
  2. Ways to Cut Spending
    • If you are renting, shop around for a more modest place to live that better meets your budget.
    • Eliminate recurring expenses such as cable (use internet tv) or other memberships. Changes should be sustainable. Dropping our cable seemed like a tough decision at first until we realized almost all the shows we watched were available online for free.
    • Cut back on eating out (limit to once a week, once a month, or whatever is needed)
    • Cut your grocery bill by cooking more (in season produce = cheap), buy fewer prepared foods
    • Consolidate insurance (auto, home, life) for discounts, make sure you're getting all the discounts you deserve, or if needed shop around for a cheaper company
    • Get a cheaper cell phone plan that still meets your needs
    • Cut credit card interest expense by paying off balances (see our debt page)
    • Old fashioned saving: borrowing books/movies from the library instead of buying, thrifting instead of buying new
    • So many more ideas! Get creative.
Budgeting may seem restrictive, but it’s just the opposite. Once you’ve tracked for a while and settled on a realistic and comfortable budget, you can spend money—including on fun things—without ANY guilt. Even if you’re on a limited budget due to education, unemployment, or other life issues, as long as you’re living on a budget, you won’t have to sweat over every purchase because you already know you can afford it! That’s the power of a budget.

Livin' On A Budget - What crazy things have you done to ensure you always live within your means? Dropped cable? Gone to an all-cash system?

How do you budget? Mint? Excel? Quicken? Envelope system? ;)


  1. I like having a budget, but I hate the actual process of updating it- I do it manually on an excel sheet we created. I used to use mint, but I felt like some expenses were getting lost and not put in the correct categories. But, I'm thinking maybe my lazy self should go back to mint so there's less work for me and I'll actually use it. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. I agree 100 percent! I do a combination- I use yodlee (similar to mint) to sum up expenses, and then input the monthly totals into my excel budget because I like to have control over the format of our budget. If there are new categories, I usually capture them in uncatecorized in yodels and then put it down more specifically in our excel document, then I only update the categories online every year because I am lazy. May not be the most efficient approach, but it's what we do.

  2. Yeah, I haven't use Mint in a while since we switched to Quicken in college. But I do remember it takes a while to get everything going into the categories you want. And I'm guessing the expenses that get lost are the ones that are categorized as something that isn't actually part of your budget at all. I'd recommend glancing through your transactions (account by account) to make sure they were all categorized right (and in categories that are part of your budget), then looking at your budget to see how you're doing. Excel works, too! But you're right, it's definitely more time consuming if you have a lot of accounts and transactions.


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