Your Guide to How to Budget Money

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If you have take-home pay of, say, $3,000 a month, how can you 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.

What is 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 up and then manage your budget.

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How to budget money

  • Calculate your monthly income, pick a budgeting method and monitor your progress.

  • Try the 50/30/20 rule as a simple budgeting framework.

  • Allow up to 50% of your income for needs, including debt minimums.

  • Leave 30% of your income for wants.

  • Commit 20% of your income to savings and debt repayment beyond minimums.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many details included in the budgeting process. Here are five steps to follow.

Step 1: Figure out your after-tax income: 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.

Step 2: Choose a budgeting system: A budgeting system is a framework for how you budget. Everyone has different habits, personality types and approaches to managing money, and there are systems that can fit your lifestyle. Any budget must cover all of your needs, some of your wants and — this is key — savings for emergencies and the future. Budgeting plan examples include the envelope system and the zero-based budget, and the 50/30/20 budget, which we’ll discuss more below.

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Step 4: Automate your savings: Automate as much as possible so the money you’ve allocated for a specific purpose gets there with minimal effort on your part. If your employer permits, set up automatic payments from your paycheck to your emergency savings, investment and retirement accounts. An accountability partner or online support group can help, so that you’re held accountable for choices that blow the budget.

Step 5: Practice budget management: Your income, expenses and priorities will change over time, so actively manage your budget by revisiting it regularly, perhaps once a quarter. If you’re struggling to stick with your plan, try these budgeting tips.

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Try a simple budgeting plan

We recommend the popular 50/30/20 budget to maximize your money. In it, you spend roughly 50% of your after-tax dollars on necessities, including debt minimum payments. No more than 30% goes to wants, and at least 20% goes to savings and additional debt payments beyond minimums.

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.

Find out how this budgeting approach applies to your money.


Savings and debt repayment

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Allow up to 50% of your income for needs

Your needs — about 50% of your after-tax income — should include:

  • Minimum loan and credit card payments. Anything beyond the minimum goes into the savings and debt repayment category.

  • Child care or other expenses you need so you can work.

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.

Leave 30% of your income for wants

Separating wants from needs 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. Are restorative spa visits (including tips for a massage) 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 budget needs wiggle room — maybe you forgot about an expense or one was bigger than you anticipated — and some money to spend as you wish. If there’s no money for fun, you’ll be less likely to stick with your budget.

Commit 20% of your income to savings and debt paydown

Use 20% of your after-tax income to put something away for the unexpected, save for the future and pay off debt balances (paying more than minimums). 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.

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Determine priorities in your budget

When budgeting, it can be difficult to determine which items are most urgent. Should you prioritize your credit card debt, student loan repayments or retirement savings? Here is a list of potential priorities from most to least urgent.

WATCH TO LEARN MORE ABOUT BUDGETING

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