Keeping Track of your Spending: Budget 101

Why budget? Budgeting is about understanding finances and becoming a smarter and more mindful spender and saver. No matter what your income range is, having a budget will only make things better. If nothing else, you will become more mindful of what you’re spending your money on. Smart financial management is about making choices and committing to them.

It doesn’t have to be scary. Budgeting is something that should make your life easier, not harder. It can be overwhelming and daunting at first, but once you work at it for a bit and figure out a process that works for you, it will make your life easier. The hardest part of a budget is creating one.

Set goals. What do you want to get out of this? Do you want to have money in a savings account? Do you want to make sure you have enough money for groceries throughout the entire month? To just generally be more financially aware? To be more prepared when tax season comes around? To pay off debt? Sit down and think about what you’d like to improve, be aware of, or save up for. This will help you personalize your budget.

Use an app or create a spreadsheet. There are more and more apps out there that are made to help you keep track of your finances and help you set up a budget that works for you. I’ve included a list of some options that may be of interest, but feel free to do your own research to find an app that works best for you.

If you prefer a more manual process, you can use Google Spreadsheets to track your monthly expenses and income. This way you have access to the information from anywhere, have a more personalized system that works for you, and even share it with your partner or family if you want to.

Underestimate your income. If you have a regular job where you have a similar paycheck month to month, this step will be a bit easier for you. Your monthly paycheck is going to be your big number that you subtract your expenses from. If your paycheck isn’t quite the same every month, pick the number that is lower and work from that. It’s so much better to underestimate your income than it is to do the opposite. Plus it’s a nice surprise when you find out you have more than expected after you pay your bills.

If you’re in a situation where you don’t have a ‘regular’ monthly paycheck you can pull your numbers from, you will either have to do some calculations based on the hours you work and your pay rate or you’ll need to reassess your income each month (or possibly more often). The best way to do this is to estimate what your income will be based on the projects you’re working on or the hours you think you will be hired for. Again, always underestimate your income.

Overestimate your expenses. Try to come up with a list of things that you’ll be spending money on during the month and an estimated amount of what you’ll spend in those areas. If you’re not sure, round up. Then take a look at these expenses versus the income that you came up with just a moment ago. How’s it look? Do you need to make some adjustments?

Needs vs. Wants. Having a budget doesn’t mean you can’t still do fun things, eat out at restaurants, or treat yourself to some fun purchases. What it does mean, is that you’ll be more conscientious about these purchases, and spend your money as wisely as you can.

Tips to cut costs:
  • Make your own tea/coffee/etc. and bring it with you instead of stoping by a cafe every day.
  • Avoid impulse purchases – if you see something you really want while you’re out and about one day, take some time to think about it and your budget. Make sure you’re making a smart decision for your situation.
  • Try to limit restaurant purchases – they add up!
  • Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry
  • Buy staple items in bulk
  • Always have a water bottle with you
  • Always carry snacks
  • Pay your bills on time – if you have troubles keeping track, get an app or make calendar notifications!
  • Seek out student discounts everywhere you go – the worst that will happen is they’ll say no.
  • Shop at thrift stores first
  • Consider a cheaper phone plan
  • Get rid of unnecessary monthly subscription costs
  • Seek out and save coupons for grocery shopping
  • Buy or rent used textbooks

Pay your bills first. Choose a day every month to sit down and go through your bills and pay them. Usually the best day for this is the first of the month as that’s usually when the majority of them are due. If you have a few that aren’t due until the middle of the month, it’s best to go ahead and pay them off while you’re taking care of the other ones so you don’t risk forgetting or accidently spending too much money before they’re due and not being able to pay the full amount.  

Stay organized and updated. Pick a day every week, two weeks, or month, where you’ll sit down and look at and update your budget. It’s important to check in every once in awhile to see if you’re staying on track or if you’re spending too much money. If you can, do this more often than just once a month – the more you check in, the more organized and up to date you’ll be.

Use your savings account and/or set up an emergency fund. Every paycheck, try to put money into your savings account that you won’t touch unless it’s absolutely necessary. Whether this is $5 or $100, it will add up over time and be there for you when you need it for an emergency or special purchase.

If you have a credit card, be mindful! It’s super easy to put big and little purchases on your credit card and to tell yourself that you’ll deal with it at the end of the month. But if you don’t keep an eye on it, those purchases can add up quickly and the higher it gets the harder and longer it will take to pay it off. Make sure you have enough credit left that can cover an emergency if one came up.

Learn from your mistakes and move forward. If you get to the end of the month and realize that you didn’t meet all of your goals, that’s okay. Take count of what happened and what you can do in the future to improve the situation that occurred. It’s a learning process, and as long as you can make it through the month that’s what matters most.

Further reading and resources: