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5 Simple Budgeting Methods to Help You Live Your Best Life

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Only 47% of Americans use budgeting methods to keep close track of their spending, according to a 2020 survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. But as the most fundamental tool in the financial planning process, a budget can make it easier to achieve your financial goals.

Not only does a budget help you keep track of where your money is going, but it also gives you more control over that process. Without a clear plan for your cash flow, you could be spending against your own best interests without even knowing it.

Read on to learn…

How a proper budget can power your financial independence

Budgeting isn’t always fun, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to improve your financial health. Here are a few ways that living on a budget can make a difference.

  • It aligns your spending with your goals. By creating and following a budget, you can decide how you’re going to spend your money each month based on what’s most important to you.
  • It can improve your debt repayment strategy. If you’re working to pay off student loans, credit cards or some other type of debt, having a budget can help you set aside more cash to become debt-free.
  • It can help you achieve your savings goals. Whether you want to save more for retirement, build your emergency fund or set aside cash for your next vacation, a budget can help you plan out how much you’re going to save toward your goal at the beginning of the month.

5 budgeting methods to consider

Before picking a new or different budgeting method, you might want to figure out where your money is going so that you know what areas need your attention.

“An easy way to get things started is to collect all of your receipts for a month or two for every penny you spend,” said Megan Luke, a chief operating officer at PNC Bank. “At the end of the month, sort the receipts into piles for food, gas, entertainment and so on. This will give you a good picture of your current spending and provide opportunities to find ways to adjust and perhaps save.”

You can also use your online checking or credit card account to view your transactions and do the same.

Once you have an idea of your spending habits and where you can make changes, five different budgeting methods can help you make it happen. No single budgeting method is best for everyone, so it’s important to compare each and determine what works best for you.

Budgeting methodGood for...
1. Zero-based budgetTracking consistent income and expenses
2. Pay-yourself-first budgetPrioritizing savings and debt repayment
3. Envelope system budgetMaking your spending more disciplined
4. 50/30/20 budgetCategorizing “needs” over “wants”
5. The ‘no' budgetLowering and avoiding debt

1. Zero-based budget

The concept of a zero-based budgeting method is simple: Income minus expenses equals zero.

This budgeting method is best for people who have a set income each month or at least can reasonably estimate their monthly income. After calculating your monthly income, add up your monthly spending and savings to equal that income amount.

Sample Zero-Based Budget
Job income$3,500
Side business$250
Debt payments$500
Eating out$200

It’s important to plan out all your expenses as accurately as possible. If you go over on one spending category, you’ll need to take cash from another category to make up for it. And if you forget a large expense, it could throw your budget off.

“[Zero-based budgeting] is the most time-consuming method because you have to dig into the details behind each line item,” Luke said.

Since there’s less room for error with a zero-based budget, it might be a better option for someone who has already been budgeting for a while. Even then, it’s a good idea to keep extra cash in your checking account as a buffer. Also, have at least a small emergency fund in case you incur a large unexpected expense.

2. Pay-yourself-first budget

The pay-yourself-first budget is another simple budgeting method that focuses primarily on savings and debt repayment.

Simply put, you set aside a specific amount every time you get paid for savings and debt payments, then spend the rest of your money however you see fit. By doing this, you can prioritize your savings and debt repayment goals and make do with whatever is left over.

For example, you may want to focus on paying off high-interest debt first while slowly building up an emergency fund. But as you get rid of your high-interest debt, you could focus on other savings goals.

Of course, it’s important to prioritize your necessary expenses and bills. But you don’t have to watch where you spend your discretionary income because you’ve already taken care of what’s most important to you.

This budget is best for someone who struggles with saving each month or doesn’t want to focus too much on budgeting each expense.

3. Envelope system budget

This budgeting method is similar to the zero-based budget but with one big difference: You do it all with cash. In an envelope budgeting system, you plan out how you’re going to spend your money each month and use an envelope for each spending category. Then you withdraw as much cash as you need to fill each envelope based on your budget.

As you go grocery shopping, for instance, take your grocery envelope and pay for your items with cash. If you run out, that’s all you can spend in that category for the month unless you want to take cash from other envelopes. Avoid raiding other envelopes too often, though, because it can cause a snowball effect and you can run out of cash before the end of the month.

Financial expert Dave Ramsey is the biggest proponent of the envelope system, so it’s a great option for people who espouse his beliefs about money, which focus heavily on paying down debt quickly and using cash, not credit cards.

But it’s not a good budgeting method for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable having that much cash on hand or prefers using credit cards or debit cards.

4. 50/30/20 budget

The 50/30/20 budgeting method is straightforward and requires less work than the zero-based and envelope budgets. The idea is to break down your expenses into three categories:

  1. Necessary expenses (50%)
  2. Discretionary expenses (30%)
  3. Savings and debt payments (20%)

This budgeting method is a great option for newbie budgeters because it doesn’t require meticulous tracking of all your expenses. You can succeed with this budget as long as you know what counts as a want versus a need and put enough money toward savings and debt.

The main drawback is that the 50/30/20 rule might be unrealistic for people who have a lot of debt or have big savings goals because 20% isn’t a lot.

But the good news is that you can customize it to fit your needs. For example, you may want to consider increasing the savings and debt repayments category and decreasing the discretionary or necessary expenses categories.

In other words, don’t get stuck on the 50/30/20 proportions. Tailor the concept to your needs.

5. The ‘no’ budget

As the name suggests, this different budgeting method consists entirely of not spending money that you don’t have. Rather than create a budget:

  • Keep an eye on your checking account balance. Use a budgeting app or your bank’s online banking or mobile app to help you track this.
  • Know when recurring bills hit your account. One way you can do this is to keep a list handy in a spreadsheet, Microsoft Word document, or on a piece of paper.
  • Set aside cash for savings and extra debt payments. When you can, use automatic transfers from checking to savings and increase your automatic monthly debt payments.
  • Spend what’s left over without overdrawing your account. Again, by keeping an eye on your account balance, you’re better able to know how much money is available after core expenses.

While the “no” budget sounds easier than the other methods we’ve listed, it’s not always easy to tell yourself “no.” This budgeting method is best if you’ve demonstrated spending discipline in the past and are confident that you can continue that streak.

Also, it’s best if you use only a debit card with this budget because it’s tied directly to your checking account and automatically updates your balance.

Why you shouldn’t give up on your budgeting method

Even if you pick the right budgeting method, it can still take a few months to get used to the system, especially if you’ve never budgeted before. But like any habit, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Think about why you want to take more control over your money management. Consider your goals and why you want to achieve them. Doing this can help you regain your motivation to keep working to improve your budgeting skills.

Also, don’t be afraid to make changes to your budgeting strategy to make it more effective. For example, try a different budgeting method if one isn’t working for you, or make adjustments to one to tailor it to your needs. And consider using a budgeting app to help make the process easier.

Whatever you do, the important thing is that you develop the habit of managing your money in a way that helps you improve your financial health and achieve your goals.


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