5 Budget Tips for Beginners

Ah, budgeting. It’s always easier said than done. If you’re like me, you hate doing it, but you know it’s good for you — sort of like choosing carrot sticks over pizza rolls.

It’s not always easy to figure out a place to start though. We all know we should be saving for retirement, but we’re not sure how much to cut down on our spending. Here are a few tips I find helpful in budgeting my money:

1. Portion Your Paycheck

If you find yourself spending more than you ought to before paying your bills, organize it so that your paycheck is divided up before it even hits your checking account. Most payroll teams are happy to do this for you. For example, my husband and I like to have a separate account for charity money so that it’s already set aside before we even see it. Then when we want to give, we already have a pool of money ready for us. This can also ensure that the money you need for bills is portioned out early on so that it’s less tempting to overspend.

2. Sketch it Out

When you’re not sure where to begin, start at the beginning. It took a lot of work, but I created an Excel spreadsheet that categorized where the majority of my paycheck went, starting with numbers that won’t change much: mortgage, gas money, car insurance, utilities, etc. Then, I calculated the average amount left over. After that, I took my box of receipts and started figuring out where all the extra money went per month to figure out the average saved afterwards.

Bonus Tip: It’s easiest to lump this leftover money into larger categories at this stage: I usually do entertainment (movie nights, concerts, etc.), eating out, household items/clothes, and miscellaneous.

This is a great snapshot of how your financial planning looks and how much you’re truly making each month. Seeing it all laid out makes it easier to start cutting things out.

3. Change What You Can

Your rent payment probably won’t change for the better any time soon. That’s something you can count on. Gas money and groceries are similar: you can fluctuate a bit depending on how much you travel and what kind of meals you’re making, but in general, it’s a fairly steady money drain.

However, those cocktail nights with your girlfriends? That you have some power over. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a social life: you just need to rearrange things a bit. Maybe instead of going out for drinks next time, have everyone come over with a bottle of something, and make your own cocktails at home. It’s a cozier setting, and you’ll cut down the cost dramatically.

Bonus Tip: If you’re looking to cut down on your grocery bill and get some cash back at the same time, I would suggest looking at Sam’s Club or Costco. Both of these companies sell bulk items (e.g., we like getting a huge bag of frozen chicken instead of buying fresh cutlets each time) and offer credit cards with cashback. In our case, the cashback from the card far and away pays for the membership fee, and it’s an easy way to get free cash by simply using a credit card.

4. Create Goals

Let’s face it, it’s easier to refrain from splurging on a new swimsuit when you know that the money is needed somewhere else. College debt is higher now than it ever has been before, and most young people are in debt now beginning at age 18. Begin early with chipping away at that debt, no matter how much you want to go backpacking in Europe for two months. Look at your loans with the highest interest and attack them aggressively. My husband and I have gotten into the habit of putting our tax refunds directly into debt payment, and it’s made a big difference.

Bonus Tip: Try to increase your payment every couple months. If you can, instead of meeting the minimum payment, try adding 50 dollars more this month. Then bump it up to 100 dollars, then 200. If you have thousands of dollars in debt, it won’t seem like much at first, but you’d be amazed at how it adds up.

5. Save for Retirement

It should be a no-brainer at this point, but another part of portioning your paycheck should include retirement savings. This is where your HR department can help you. Most firms have financial advisors within the company or other online resources aimed to help their employees decide what type of retirement fund to use and how much to put into it. These services are often pre-paid by your company, so take advantage of them. This is also a good way to utilize Tip #2: have your paycheck put money into your retirement fund before you get it in your checking account. When you’re already saving for retirement, budgeting becomes second nature.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any effective tips for budgeting?