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If I have take-home pay of, say, $2,000 a month, how can I pay for housing, food, insurance, health care, debt repayment and fun without running out of money? That’s a lot to cover with a limited amount, and this is a zero-sum game.
The answer is to make a budget.
A budget is a plan for every dollar you have. It’s not magic, but it represents more financial freedom and a life with much less stress. Here’s how to set one up.
If you get a regular paycheck, the amount you receive is probably it, but if you have automatic deductions for a 401(k), savings, and health and life insurance, add those back in to give yourself a true picture of your savings and expenditures. If you have other types of income — perhaps you make money from side gigs — subtract anything that reduces it, such as taxes and business expenses.
Any budget must cover all of your needs, some of your wants and — this is key — savings for emergencies and the future. examples include the and the .
Record your spending or use .
Automate as much as possible so the money you’ve allocated for a specific purpose gets there with minimal effort on your part. An accountability partner or online support group can help, so that you're held accountable for choices that blow the budget.
Your income, expenses and priorities will change over time. Adjust your budget accordingly, but always have one.
We recommend the popular 50/30/20 budget to . In it, you spend roughly 50% of your after-tax dollars on necessities, no more than 30% on wants, and at least 20% on savings and debt repayment.
We like the simplicity of this plan. Over the long term, someone who follows these guidelines will have manageable debt, room to indulge occasionally, and savings to pay irregular or unexpected expenses and retire comfortably.
Your needs — about 50% of your after-tax income — should include:
If your absolute essentials overshoot the 50% mark, you may need to dip into the “wants” portion of your budget for a while. It’s not the end of the world, but you'll have to adjust your spending.
Even if your necessities fall under the 50% cap, revisiting these fixed expenses occasionally is smart. You may find a , an opportunity to or . That leaves you more to work with elsewhere.
can be difficult. In general, though, needs are essential for you to live and work. Typical wants include dinners out, gifts, travel and entertainment.
It’s not always easy to decide. Is a gym membership a want or a need? How about organic groceries? Decisions vary from person to person.
If you're eager to get out of debt as fast as you can, you may decide your wants can wait until you have some savings or your debts are under control. But your budget shouldn't be so austere that you can never buy anything just for fun.
Every needs both wiggle room — maybe you forgot about an expense or one was bigger than you anticipated — and some money you're entitled to spend as you wish.
Your budget is a tool to help you, not a straitjacket to keep you from enjoying life, ever. If there's no money for fun, you'll be less likely to stick with your budget — and a good budget is one you’ll stick with.
Use 20% of your after-tax income to put something away for the unexpected, save for the future and pay off debt. Make sure you think of the bigger financial picture; that may mean two-stepping between savings and debt repayment to accomplish your most pressing goals.