Budget like a Rock Star

So you are convinced that it is a good idea to make a budget, right? Right!

But how do you start?

Let’s start with the easy part- income. Most people have a fairly steady income and should know how much money is coming in. If you have a variable income, you need to treat it like you treat your spending- use your best guess based on history/upcoming income that you know about, and be conservative. Update it as you learn more.

After you know how much money hits your bank each month, start by getting an idea of where your money is going now. A baseline, if you will. It will probably take a few months for you to get a full picture of your expenses, but don’t let perfection get in the way of planning. Estimate now and then you can adjust as you go. When I got my first job out of grad school, for the first four months my clothes spending was triple what it is now because I needed a full professional wardrobe. Now that I have the staples, I’ve adjusted my budget to reflect my lowered spending and my lowered need for clothes (did I really just say that?! There is no such thing as a lowered need for clothes!)

There are a few ways to go about tracking your spending. While working on this part of your finances, I would recommend relying on debit or credit cards (but don’t use this as an excuse to overspend!) just so that you don’t make yourself crazy trying to figure out where your cash went (or, if you are a diehard cash user….save those receipts!) When it comes to actually following a budget once the amounts have been set there are ways to use cash only and still stay on track- I’ll cover that later.

Method 1: The Worksheet Method

Make your own spreadsheet and fill in your expenses. Pros: You can adjust it to fit your lifestyle. This is good if you have complicated finances or if you mainly use cash, because you will have to manually enter your expenses anyway. Also, you can keep it supersecure by saving it only to your computer. Cons: Pain in the butt. High maintenance, and you really have to be committed. If you suspect this will be too much work for you, don’t do it. Make it easy on yourself to stick to a budget!

Method 2: The Automated Method

Use a personal finance tracking software. I use Mint.com, which is very secure (and pretty awesome), but there are other options out there. Mint works by linking all of your accounts into one website so you can look at your spending, your budgets, your savings goals and your investments all in one place. NICE. Mint automatically uploads your spending and files each purchase into your budget tracker, so you can see how you are doing for each category. Mint also tracks long term trends in spending. It’s pretty great. And there’s an app.

Worried about security? Mint is just as secure as online banking. But more awesome because everything you need is in one place.

Ok, now you know where your money is going. Next, set your budget!

First you need to make a list of the main expenses that come up regularly in your life. Here are examples from my own budget:

  • Rent
  • Utilities
  • Cable/Internet
  • Phone
  • Public Transportation
  • Taxis
  • Emergency fund
  • Restaurants
  • Savings
  • Gym/Fitness
  • Alcohol/Bars
  • Retirement investments
  • Groceries
  • Clothes
  • Charities
  • Haircuts
  • Travel

Next, set target amounts of what you want to spend in each category based on how much you normally spend. Be realistic-  don’t worry about “trimming the fat” just yet. If you usually spend $250 on groceries, don’t suddenly expect your spending to drop to $100 just because you wrote it in the budget. Some items won’t come up every month- I don’t travel every month, but I plan to fly every three to four months, and that is in my budget.

Now, add it up. Is your budget less than your income? Awesome! Book your flight to Vegas, baby! (Or, keep reading this blog so you can learn about some good long term plans for that spare ca$h).

Is your budget more than your income? Still awesome, because now you know where your money is going, and you can make a plan to tweak your spending so that you are living within your means. You are becoming empowered to take charge of your financial life, and that is something to be proud of.



  1. When one budgets for “charities” is this based on a regular and set monthly allocation to a favorite charity (i.e. the 10% tithe model), a cushion for when times come up that you want to give money to somebody in need, or the $3 cupcake fund for when you’re having a bad day?

    Seriously, I’m really interested in how people in their twenties should be weighing tradeoffs like spending money on others in dire circumstances verse competing demands like paying off loans, saving for retirement, and even leisure.


    1. I can (and am planning on) doing a more in-depth post about this. For now, I would say- all of the above. I personally put aside a certain amount each month that I have earmarked for charity. I have a few charities that I already like to give to, and my total amount for the year has enough to fulfill the donations I plan to make for the charities I like, plus a little extra that I can give as a need arises (if, say, there is a terrible typhoon in the Pacific and I want to help). I have about 75% designated to specific charities and 25% not.
      I don’t think giving yourself a $3 cupcake counts as charity. That can be a different fund called the cupcake fund and it should go in your monthly budget 🙂

      As for paying off loans vs making charitable contributions:
      Financially, it makes more sense to pay off your loans first so that you will pay less interest long term and then will have more money to give to charity (but this means you actually have to give more money to charity when you have more money in order to make it a valid argument!). However, I spent so many years with no disposable income that as soon as I had a little wiggle room one of the things I was most excited about was being able to give back. It’s a judgement call, but the other thing to keep in mind is that there are other ways to give back that are not financial (volunteering your time may be a better use of your resources, or taking a job for a nonprofit that you believe in for a lower salary than you would earn working in the private sector, or you could write an awesome personal finance blog to help other people!)
      Stay tuned for more thoughts on tradeoffs coming up!


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