How to Start Budgeting: a Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Budget, Cutting Costs, and Saving Money

Dec 31, 2019 | Blog, Budgeting

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Ugh. Budgeting.

How to Start Budgeting When You're on a Small Income: Plus a Free Beginner's Budgeting Checklist

The last thing you really want to spend time doing or thinking about, right?

We all know we should do it, but it’s usually the last thing we get around to.

It’s like the vitamins of home management.

Here’s the thing though, budgeting can actually be fun!

I feel like you don’t believe me, so let me show you:

Wouldn’t it be fun if you could afford to take that trip you’ve been dreaming about? 

Wouldn’t it be fun if you told your money where to go instead of credit card debt bossing you around? 

And wouldn’t it be fun if at Christmas time, you already had the money saved up for gifts instead of digging yourself into a financial hole?

Budgeting can make all that happen!

Yes, it takes some time, some effort, and some grit to stick with it.

No, it isn’t easy at first.

But when you pay off that first debt, when your savings account starts growing, and when you stop spending money on things that you don’t need, it is all worth it!

Before we get into the HOW of building a budget, let’s take a quick look at WHY you should start a budget, in case you still aren’t convinced.

Or if you’re ready to get started, just skip the next section. 🙂

And if you prefer to watch your content instead of read it, here is the video that goes with this post:

Why You Should Start a Budget

1) You Will Get Your Spending Under Control

If you spend more than you make each month and money seems to magically disappear between your paychecks, starting (and sticking with!) a budget will help! 

When you have your money allocated to where it needs to go, you know exactly how much money you have left over to play with each month.

Basically, it keeps the money from getting confused as to whether it is fun money or serious money

Creating a budget will help you see exactly what you are spending your money on… and see if you need to make any adjustments. 

Having Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime may be nice, but would it be better if you could afford better gifts at Christmas time if you only subscribed to one entertainment hub?

2) You Will Reach Your Goals Faster

Do you have a trip you want to go on? A car you want to purchase or pay off? Are you thinking of purchasing a house and need a down payment?

Start that budget!

By laying out exactly how much money you need to save and dividing it up into nice manageable chunks that you can save each month, you will reach your goals more quickly.

3) You Will Save More Money

Putting your money toward an emergency savings account or retirement can be a challenge when you are budgeting based on your feelings every month. 

Going out to eat will always win over putting that money in an account when you don’t have clearly defined goals.

9 Reasons you should start a budget today! Plus a Free Beginners Budgeting Checklist

But when you write down your goals on paper, and auto-draft directly into your savings account(s), you will start to build a nest egg for when you need it.

4) You Can Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck

Living paycheck to paycheck is frustrating and stressful. 

No one enjoys living that way without any financial cushion.

Knowing exactly where your money should go each month will give you the courage to say, ‘no’ to things that aren’t in the budget so that you can begin to build in some wiggle-room.

5) You Can Be Flexible from Time to Time

Sometimes, the kids will need a whole new wardrobe, and usually they all need it at the same time.

If you have a budget though, it’s not a problem!

Just eat cheaper foods for a month, or cancel some subscriptions, or put a little bit less into the college savings accounts.

If you know how much money goes everywhere each month, you can easily move things around temporarily if need be, without completely throwing things off track.

6) You Can Get Back in the Driver Seat

Sometimes it can feel like your finances are in control of you, especially if you are in debt. 

By creating a budget, you are back in control.

You can allocate where every bit of money is going and know when your debt will be paid off if you stay on track.

7) Having a Budget Keeps You Accountable

Building a budget, is like having a financially savvy friend who will say, “do you really need to buy that cart-full of things at Target? Or have you already spent your shopping budget for the month?”

It may not be what you want to hear, but you know that your friend is right.

Sometimes it’s just what you need to kick your finances into gear.

8) Having a Budget Simplifies Your Finances

Even though it seems more complicated at first, once you get the hang of it, it will make your finances simple.

Especially if you use my simple percentages trick that I talk about in this post, you will be amazed by how easily you can keep track of your money.

You will know where every dollar is going and never wonder why your credit card bill is so high again.

9) Money Will No Longer Get “Lost”

Have you ever put money in your bank account and had it “disappear” less than a month later? You aren’t even quite sure what you spent the $100 you got for your birthday on, but it must have been something, right?

Having a budget and sticking with it will keep you from spending your birthday money at the Taco Bell drive-through and enable you to use it for something fantastic. (That’s never happened to me by the way…)

How to Create a Budget:

Now that we all understand why creating a budget is so important, let’s go through the simple steps for creating a budget!

1) Grab Your Gear

We are kind of spreadsheet junkies. We have a spreadsheet for everything… from every board game that we own, to our Christmas card address list.

So for us, it’s a no-brainer to grab our laptops if we are looking at our budget. We like to use Microsoft Excel for all of our spreadsheets, and I built a Money Mastery Google Spreadsheet to get you started on the right foot if you’ve never used spreadsheets before.

The advantage of using a spreadsheet for your budget is that you can easily change the numbers if anything changes without having to completely re-do the math. 

If you use the formulas, the spreadsheet does the math for you!

But if paper and pen is more your style, it is also a great way to build a budget. You can grab my Money Mastery Printable Workbook if you would like an easy plug-and-play template.

2) Determine Your Reliable Monthly Income

Take your income after taxes, your spouse’s income after taxes, and any other consistent incomes that you have (after taxes!) and add them all together.

The sum of the net incomes is the amount of money you have at your disposal every month.

Notice that we aren’t looking at every bit of money that you *might* make in a month.

What you want to know is what will absolutely be at your disposal.

Be very sure that you are not looking at your Gross Income. That number is quite different than the cash flow you will have available after all of your deductions are taken out.

How to Start Saving More Money By Starting a Budget

3) Write Down All of Your Monthly Expenses

Grab your Workbook or Spreadsheet and write down every bit of money that you spend in a month. 

Jot down anything you can think of from how much you spend on eating out, to your mortgage or rent payments, to your Netflix subscription.

If you get stumped, your credit card or bank statements might offer some inspiration.

Be specific. 

Then add everything in each category together and write it down. (You’ll find a list of categories in the Workbook and Spreadsheet.)

How to Budget for Food

The food category can be tricky for some people because their eating habits vary greatly from week to week, or because they typically eat out and they want to start eating at home more to save money.

If you fall into either of those categories, you have three options:

1. You can track how much you spend on food for a month before setting your food budget in stone.

2. You can make your best guess and adjust after the first couple of months if you need to.

3. You can commit to eating more meals at home and begin meal planning. (Check out my post on How to Begin Meal Planning When You Don’t Know Where to Start if this is new for you!)

UPDATED in 2021 after the coronavirus:

I used to make a specific recommendation for how much money you should spend on your budget ($100 per person/per month).

BUT in this video I talk about how food costs have gone up since COVID. I now think that you should try to set your food budget as low as you can while still making tasty, healthy meals for your family.

Adjust the number according to your geographic location (I know some places like Hawaii are much more expensive to buy groceries), and your eating preferences (or dietary restrictions). But don’t be afraid to challenge yourself with spending less money!

When you are all done writing down everything you spend in a month, add up all your expenses. Are your expenses 70% or less of your net income?

(If you aren’t sure what 70% of your net income would be, simply multiply .7 by the total net income that you came up with in Step 2. Then compare your answer with the total expenses.) 

If you are spending more than 70% of your net income, you are probably going to need to cut some costs in order to be able to save money or pay off debt depending on your goals for creating this budget. We’ll, take a closer look at this later.

(For more information about why I suggest spending only 70% or less of your net income on expenses, check out my post The Secret to Sticking With Your Budget from the Start.)

4) Divide Necessary from Unnecessary Costs

Why divide your expenses into two categories? I thought you’d never ask!

After doing all the math. you may find that you don’t have the money to put into savings that you would like to. Or you may be looking to pay off your debt quickly but aren’t sure how you will do that. Or you may want to save for a trip. Or you may find that you are spending more than you make and are getting deeper into debt…

If that is the case for you, then you will probably be looking at cutting some expenses (after you track your spending for a month in Step 8). Dividing your monthly expenses into these two categories will make it easier to see what you can live without.

Necessary Expenses

Everything you put in this category is a non-negotiable expense for your family. You won’t be able to minimize or cut out these expenses without moving or drastically changing your eating habits.

Common things that you may have in this category are Rent/Mortgage, Utilities, Debt Payment, Cell Phone Plan, Groceries, Car Payments, Car Insurance, Home Insurance, Health Insurance, Life Insurance, and Gas.

Unnecessary Expenses

Now jot down everything that is a typical monthly expense that you can either spend less on or cut out completely if you need to.

This is the list that you can work from if you realize that you need to make some adjustments.

It’s hard to minimize necessary expenses (although not impossible if you are willing to put in some work), but unnecessary costs can easily be shrunk, skipped for a month or two, or completely eliminated if you are in a less than ideal financial situation.

Things that could possibly go in this category: Clothes Shopping (most of us don’t need as much as we think we do), Miscellaneous Shopping, Entertainment, Going out to eat, Television/Cable/Dish, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Subscriptions (even though Amazon wants us to feel like Prime is a necessity).

You’ll be surprised how easily you can live without so many of these things!

The Ultimate Step by Step Guide for Building a Budget. How to Start a Budget from Square One: Plus a Free Beginner's Budgeting Checklist

5) Allocate Your Savings/Debt Payments

Why is this section about Savings and Debt Payment together? Because if you have debt (other than a mortgage), pay it off before you start putting money into savings.

Once the debt is paid off, you use the money that you had been putting toward your payments and start putting it into your savings accounts.

If you try to save while you are paying off debt, you won’t make progress with either of them very quickly and will probably get discouraged before you are done. 

But if you pay off your debt first, you are able to put more money toward your debt and pay it off faster. Then your savings will grow more quickly when you can put all of that money toward savings.

For this step, you should decide what percentage of your income you would like to save or put toward paying off your debt.

If you aren’t sure, read How to Use Percentages to Build Your Budget for all the details.

In our budget, this category accounts for 20% of our net income. When we had/have debt, we use this chunk of money to pay it off. When we don’t have debt, we save 20% of our income.

What To Do With Savings:

Instead of dumping your savings into one giant catch-all savings account, I suggest dividing it up among several different accounts.

The main reason for this is that it is much easier to track the money we have saved for different items or experiences without dipping into our emergency fund.

If you decide to have several accounts for your savings, I recommend using a separate tab in your spreadsheet to keep everything straight.

Here are some savings accounts that we have and I would recommend to anyone that they apply to:

Emergency Savings Accounts: This account is for emergencies such as a job loss or a medical need.  Don’t touch it unless you are in a crisis. It is best if you can pretend this account doesn’t even exist. 

Set up auto-drafting for this account on the day that you know you get paid.

It is a good idea to have 6-12 months of living expenses stored in this account. If you are just starting out and don’t have a savings account yet, put the entire 20% of your income into this account until you could live off of this account for at least 6 months if you needed to.

Big Goal Account: If you know that you plan on purchasing a house, boat, car, going on a trip, or paying for a wedding; it is a great idea to save money ahead of time.

Putting all your savings into one account can make saving for a goal messy. By having a separate account, you know exactly how far you are from your goal.

If you have more than one goal that you are saving for at a time, open two accounts! Opening accounts won’t hurt your credit or cost you anything as long as you maintain the required minimum balance.

Investments: It is a good idea to put money into investment accounts for retirement needs. Often long-term accounts will have higher interest rates than your run-of-the-mill savings accounts.

We use Edward Jones to keep track of putting our money in the highest yielding investments so that we don’t have to watch the market so closely.

Sinking Funds: These accounts are what we use to save for expected hits to our bank account. For us, this is mainly our cars and insurance.

We use Progressive Insurance and with them, we can save money by paying yearly for our insurances instead of every month. 

To avoid a financial surprise once a year, we divide the total amount we need to pay into 12 smaller payments. Each month, we put 1/12 of the money into an account. When our premium is due, we have the cash available.

We also use our sinking fund for car repairs and oil changes. Ross averages out what we need for these each year and puts the money away to take care of the vehicles… plus a little extra since car repairs can come at a premium and usually happen when you least expect them!

College Savings Accounts: Each month we put a little money into two college savings accounts. One for each of our girls. Any time Ross gets a bonus from work, we also put in a little extra.

Most likely the accounts won’t completely pay for their college educations, but it will give them a nice start when the time comes. 

Considering the time value of money, it is best to start these accounts as early as possible when you have children.

The accounts that we use for our girls are for education only. The upside of that is that they have a higher interest rate than a regular savings account. The downside is that they can only be used for trade schools or college. 

So if neither of our girls decides to go to college, we will have to transfer the money to someone else who wants to use it for education. This is worth it to us because we figure that worst-case scenario we could give it to a niece or nephew.

If you want more ideas for setting up different savings accounts, check out this post!

6) Determine Your Giving

You can obviously skip this piece of the puzzle if charitable giving doesn’t align with your personal values. 

But if you’ve never done it before, I encourage you to give it a try!

It’s ok to start small here, even donating $25 a month to a cause can go a long way. Just eat at home once or twice more per month instead of eating out and it will cover the cost.

Even if you aren’t part of a church, it never hurts to give back to your community. Find a cause or a charity that you are passionate about. 

I’ve never heard of anyone who regretted paying it forward!

If you really can’t afford it, volunteer once a month at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in your area! 

There are a million ways to give back if you get creative. 

Plus volunteering will teach your children the importance of helping those less fortunate than yourself and treating everyone with respect.

In our house, we tithe 10% of our income to our church. (See this post for more information on recommended budgeting percentages.) 

Additionally, we like to donate to ADRA which supports people who live in less fortunate areas of the world or who are in difficult situations. 

We like to get the kids involved in choosing how we donate and they often like to pitch in by asking for donations for Christmas and birthdays. This year we bought a goat for a family who needed food and a way to make money.

The Easy Way to Start a Budget and Take Control of Your Money: Get Started With the Ultimate Beginner's Budgeting Checklist

7) Create a Calendar for Your Budget

Sit down with your calendar (I love this Amy Knapp Big Grid Calendar) and write in your paydays. Now, choose which payday you will have your expenses auto-drafted.

For example, We have our mortgage payment taken out on the first of the month with the first paycheck. Because of that, we have most of our other expenses drafted after the other paycheck hits our account. 

That way we have plenty left over for groceries and gas in between paycheck one and paycheck two.

After you have your expenses divided up, decide when you want your savings or debt payments auto-drafted. You may want to do this all at once, or a little bit from each paycheck. 

Having this money taken out automatically tricks your mind into forgetting about it!

The other thing you should write down on your calendar is your weekly grocery budget. 

Divide your monthly grocery budget by 4 and write it down. It is much easier to stay under budget when you know how much money you have to spend each week at the grocery store, instead of trying to remember the monthly amount.

8) Track Your Spending

Alright, now that you know where you want your money to go each month, it’s time to find out where it is actually going each month.

You can use the spending tracker in my Money Mastery Workbook or Spreadsheet, or you can do it electronically by using Mint.com. Mint.com is a free spending tracker that we love using. 

It pulls information directly from your accounts so there is no guesswork.

The only issue that we have is occasionally a purchase will get categorized incorrectly, but you can easily go back and adjust it.

And, using Mint.com, you can create as many categories as you need to!

9) Evaluate and Cut Costs

How did you do with tracking your spending? Did you stay within your budget?

If the answer is yes, you’re done! Stick with your budget and you’ll be on your way to hitting your financial goals.

If not, then you should look at cutting costs. Grab the worksheet with your Unnecessary Expenses on it, and start cutting costs wherever you can.

If you cut something out of your budget, it doesn’t mean you can never add it back in. But for now, it will help your budget a lot.

Maybe you just need to limit yourself to only eating out on the weekends, or choosing between Netflix or HULU or Amazon Prime instead of all three.

I have a feeling you’ll be surprised how little you miss some of the things that you thought you couldn’t live without!

If you need additional inspiration, check out my post 10 Ways to Save Money When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck.

10) Track Again

If you needed to cut some costs, track your spending for another month. Then see if the initial things that you cut out of your budget were enough for you to meet your goals.

If you are still spending too much, keep repeating steps 8 and 9 until you get where you want to be!

If you find yourself struggling to stick to your budget, you may want to use a cash system until you have your spending under control. 

But I don’t recommend using a cash system in the long run because you can build credit and make money by using credit cards… if you use them wisely.

Using a cash system is a great way to reset your spending if you need it, though!

11) Stay On Top of It

Once you have honed in on your perfect budget, don’t just forget about it. Check your budget regularly against your bank accounts to make sure you aren’t overlooking any spending.

We love using Mint.com to stay on top of our money. It saves lots of time, and it’s free!

I recommend checking at least once a week, but it doesn’t hurt to check daily while you are getting into the habit. Or you can be super-cool like Ross and check multiple times a day from now until forever.

I always play a game with myself whenever I buy anything other than groceries to see how long it will be before I get a text from him confirming that I did indeed purchase whatever it was from wherever it was.

It used to annoy me until I realized that’s one of the reasons we have been able to live debt free for so long… and it was a helpful habit to have when someone stole our credit cards…but that’s a whole other story!

The important thing to remember is to check frequently, whatever frequently means to you!

The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Budget for Beginners Living Paycheck to Paycheck: Plus a Free Beginner's Budgeting Checklist

Here’s a quick re-cap of How to Set Up a Budget:

  1. Grab Your Gear: Use a spreadsheet, notebook or use my Money Mastery Workbook and Worksheet.
  2. Determine Your Monthly Net Income: Add all reliable monthly net incomes together.
  3. Write Down All Monthly Expenses: Write down everything you spend money on in a month from your debt payment to buying toothpaste.
  4. Divide Necessary From Unnecessary Costs: In one column write down everything you can’t live without, in the other, write everything that you might be able to adjust if you need to.
  5. Allocate Your Savings/Debt Payments:  Put 20% of your Net Income toward paying off your debt first. After your debt is paid off, build up your savings accounts. 
  6. Determine Your Giving: Decide where and what amount you will give to charity.
  7. Create a Calendar for Your Budget: Write down when you get your paychecks. Then determine when your expenses/savings/debt payments/charitable giving will auto-draft.
  8. Track Your Spending: Write down everything you spend for a month.
  9. Evaluate and Cut Costs: How did you do with sticking to your budget?
  10. Track Again: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
  11. Stick With It: You can do this!

Good luck!

You May Also Enjoy…

How We Paid Off $20,000 in debt in 18 Months!

How to Organize Your Finances With 7 Bank Accounts.

37 Ways to Save Money on Groceries if you aren’t sure how to get your grocery budget under control.

10 Ways to Save Money When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck if you need some ideas for how to cut costs.

If you want to be sure that you can stick with this budget from the start, check out The Biggest Secret to Sticking With Your Budget.

Does worrying about what other people will think of you if you start living more frugally keep tripping you up? Check out 7 Powerful Mindsets for Low-Income Families.

Teach your children how to budget with The {Simplest} Budgeting Method for Kids.

You can read about our journey learning to live on one income here: How We Became a Single Income Family.

Want 7 Extra Hours Every Week? Grab the Streamline Your Home Quick-Start Guide!

Ready to Stop Feeling Stressed About Finances?

Then check out Master Your Money!

In Master Your Money, you will learn how to 

  • Calculate Your Net Income
  • Track Your Spending
  • Calculate Your Monthly Expenses
  • Determine Your Fixed & Flexible Expenses
  • Set Up a Budget
  • Pay Off Debt
  • Create Savings Accounts
  • And More!

Master Your Money walks you through exactly how to take charge of your finances so you can afford to live the life of your dreams!

Plus you will receive the Money Mastery Workbook and Spreadsheet and email support from me anytime you have questions.

I hope to see you inside the course!

(Or if you are more of a do-it-yourself kind of gal, you can check out my DIY Master Your Money Resources!)

See you on the next one! Kassy
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