Creating a family budget takes teamwork, time and regular tweaking, but you’ve got this. We’ll walk you through it, but let’s first define "budget" so you know what to expect.
What is a family budget?
A family budget is a plan for your household’s incoming and outgoing money over a certain period of time, such as a month or year. For example, you may aim for certain dollar amounts or percentages of your combined monthly income to go toward various expenses, like groceries, as well as saving, investing and paying off debt.
“Your budget is basically a tool for empowering yourself,” says Orlando-based certified financial planner Angela Moore.
Many people simply spend their income without being intentional about it, she says, but you get to decide how to allocate that money so that it works for you.
“We all have an incredible opportunity to create wealth for ourselves and to create financial freedom, but we have to have a strategy around that,” says Moore, who's also the founder of Modern Money Advisor, a financial planning and education firm. “We can’t just wing it.”
So let’s make a plan for your plan.
Start your family budget with estimates
Set aside time on the calendar when you and the other adults in your household can start your budget, Moore says. (This could be you and your partner, grown kids or parents who live with you.) Scheduling holds you accountable and helps ensure everyone is feeling level-headed and up to the task.
“The first step is creating transparency about where you are now,” Moore says. She recommends starting with an audit of everyone’s finances.
Begin with estimates. Jot down what you think you have in savings. Then move on to debts: What’s the balance for each of your loans, as well as the monthly payments and the interest? Do the same exercise for monthly recurring expenses, like your water bill.
» MORE: How much is internet per month?
Finally, estimate the rest of your spending. Try breaking down these monthly expenses into how much you pay for groceries, gas, clothes and so on. Moore says you could list these expenses individually or as a group.
Remember: At this point, you’re making educated guesses. “You just want an overview of everything,” Moore says, adding that this exercise should take about 15 minutes.
Then get a baseline of your expenses
Take a short break to avoid getting overwhelmed. Then sign in to each of your financial accounts and list the actual amounts that you had estimated.
Moore has walked many clients through this process. She says identifying the real numbers is usually “an awakening experience,” because many people drastically underestimate their expenses.
From this point, you and your family can probably identify a couple of ways to tweak your finances. Maybe you didn’t realize just how much interest you were paying on a certain loan, so you decide to schedule a time to call and negotiate. Or perhaps you see that you’re still paying for a subscription you ought to cancel, or that you’re spending twice as much as you thought on takeout.
“Figure out where you can reduce or eliminate certain expenses and how you can relocate those funds to be more in line with your goals,” Moore says.
» MORE: How to set financial goals
At the very least, now you better understand where your family’s money is going. You also have a baseline of your savings, debts and expenses so you can see how those amounts change as you start budgeting.
Now move on to the budgeting
In addition to knowing where your money is going, get clear on how much money is coming in. Note everyone’s monthly take-home pay. Then take a first whack at a budget.
We like the 50/30/20 budget as a place to start. It splits your income three ways:
50% toward needs, such as groceries, housing, basic utilities, transportation, insurance, child care and minimum loan payments.
30% toward wants, such as travel, gifts and meals out.
20% toward saving, for an emergency fund or for retirement, and debt repayment.
Use the calculator below for a gut check on how your family’s income would be divided into these categories.
The 50/30/20 budget
Find out how this budgeting approach applies to your money.
Your 50/30/20 numbers:
Savings and debt repayment
See your money in one place
NerdWallet tallies up your expenses and shows you how much you’re spending on things like food, bills, travel and more. Plus we’ll show you ways to save big.
If you want to learn how to budget, consider the 50/30/20 method. But that’s just one way to plan for your money. You can also choose from several budget systems, which vary in their rigidity (do you want to track every dollar?) and goals (are you more focused on eliminating debt or building savings?).
Try a worksheet or app
You may also benefit from a tool. For example, this free budget worksheet prompts you to enter every household expense, then shows how your spending aligns with the 50/30/20 breakdown. Microsoft Office, Google Drive and other websites also offer free budget spreadsheets that you can share within your household.
Or maybe you’d rather go mobile. These budget apps for couples let you and your partner reference each other's spending and saving information. Other budget apps, such as Goodbudget and You Need a Budget, can also work for families.
If you use a tool, make sure it’s one you’re very comfortable with and that you’ll actually use, says Atlanta-based certified financial planner Serina Shyu. Use “whatever works best for the skill level or motivation level you have,” she says.
So if you’re not spreadsheet-savvy, go another route. Or if you’re not going to input your expenses every day, use a tool that tracks your spending for you.
Keep budgeting and communicating
This budget doesn’t have to be perfect, says Shyu, who also serves on the board of directors for the Financial Planning Association of Georgia. In fact, you’ll wind up tweaking it often, particularly if you have kids or dependents whose expenses change over time.
What’s more important than getting the budget “right” is continually checking on it with your household. Like your initial audit, schedule regular budget reviews.
When you check in, note how your spending has changed (or not), discuss what you might do differently going forward and plan for upcoming expenses. (For example, if a family vacation is coming up, maybe you decide to cut back on certain expenses and put more toward a travel fund.)
It’s important to communicate, Shyu says, not just about the money itself but how you’re feeling about it. Express if you’re nervous about budgeting, for example, or ashamed of debt. That way, she says, “you’ll be coming from a place of understanding.”
» MORE: Practical budgeting tips
One more thing to communicate: your individual and family goals. That information will help you plan for your money and keep at it.
As Shyu puts it: “Once you figure out that ‘why,’ you’ll be more motivated.”