If the word budget is like nails on a chalkboard for you, you’ve got a friend in me. I know that feeling.

For many years I wouldn’t have anything to do with a budget because I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone—or anything—telling me how to spend my money. And where did that get me? Into one big financial mess. Every month, when I ran out of money, I would run to MasterCard and Visa for a bailout. Bad idea.

What I learned from going through that experience and finding my way back to solvency is that, as much as we may loathe it, a budget is the ticket to financial happiness, not the straitjacket I feared it would be. Still, I don’t like the word, so if it’s OK with you, let’s drop the b-word and call it a spending plan. So much better.

Like the blueprints to build your dream house, a spending plan shows you where you are and how to get where you want to be. It’s the place where you spend your paycheck on paper even before you cash it. A good spending plan gives every dollar a specific job to do. Once you have it just the way you want it, the plan becomes a handy road map for keeping your finances on track.

So, take a deep breath and let’s walk through the basics.

Step 1: Write down your total take-home (net) monthly income

This is the easy part! Jot down what you earn. Because many expenses are billed monthly, figuring out how much you have to spend each month is easiest for your plan. Use the conversion table (below), to determine your average monthly income.

Step 2: Write down your essential expenses

Start with fixed bills like rent, mortgage, car payment, credit-card payments and insurance, then factor in other monthly costs that are always the same. These are your essential fixed expenses.

Step 3: List your essential variable expenses

You know you’ll have these bills, but the amounts vary. Examples are your phones, utilities, food, household expenses, gasoline, medication, public transportation, shoes and clothing. You can assign an estimated amount to each based on past experience, rounding to the closest $10.

Step 4: List reasonable amounts for nonessential expenses

This includes entertainment, eating out, hobbies and other ways you spend money on a regular basis.

Step 5: Find the extras

Go to your current method of tracking your spending (your checkbook register, bank statements, credit card statements) to see what expenses you’ve left out. For items that do not recur monthly, determine the annual cost, then divide by 12 to see how much you should set aside each month to anticipate that irregular expense.

Step 6: Figure out your totals

Add up your expenses, then subtract that amount from your income. With luck you’ll come out in the black. But if your expenses and random spending exceed your income, you’ll see a negative sum. Don’t panic—this is just the start of an ongoing process.

Step 7: See where you can cut

If you came up short, go back to your projected monthly expenses and see what you can get rid of. Look first to your nonessential expenses. Which items can you remove altogether for a while (eating out seems like a fine target; perhaps hobby expenses too, for a season)? Keep going through the list, making adjustments until your total expenses are less than your income.

Step 8: Follow your spending plan as closely as possible

Track your spending every day by posting it on a sheet of paper. Take notes and research ways you’ll be able to do even better next month. At month’s end, add up your actual spending and compare it with what you planned. Use this information to create the next month’s spending plan.

Congratulations—you’ve just elevated yourself from being clueless to, at the very least, willing to know the true and at the most, financially savvy. You should feel very good about this! As difficult as it might be to see in black and white that your income and expenses are not quite in sync, just knowing where you are is going to make all the difference.

Even if you find yourself in a particularly tight financial position right now, take heart. As you pay off debts and find more ways to cut expenses, you’ll begin to sense a significant loosening of financial pressure. Soon you’ll be ready to add new categories to your spending plan for things like saving for a new car, home improvements or going back to college.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be on your way to reaching financial freedom.


Conversion Table

How to determine your average monthly net income:

If you are paid…

Weekly, multiply this income (one paycheck) by 4.333
Every other week, multiply this income by 2.167
Twice a month (e.g., 15th and 30th), multiply this income by 2
Quarterly, divide this income by 3
Annually, divide this income by 12

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