What Is a Budget? A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re anything like me, you like the idea of a budget, but not the actual practice. Spend less? Yes! Know more about where your dollars are going? Sure!

But I, like many of us out there, felt overwhelmed each time I started to budget. Some categories were clear-cut and fixed, like our mortgage and monthly insurance premiums. Others weren’t so easy to figure out. I wasn’t sure what numbers were realistic for our groceries, entertainment, or utilities because they were never the same.

As a perfectionist, I would get frustrated at myself if we went over budget in any of our categories. I would see that negative number and feel like I failed or that I “just wasn’t good at this.” I would scrap the whole budget thing and walk away. After all, we always had enough in our checking account, we paid off the credit card bill each month, and we didn’t have much debt. We were ok, right?

What is a Budget?

At its simplest, a budget definition is knowing the money you have coming in, what you’re spending it on, and making sure you prioritize your spending goals.

What a Budget Is Not

It’s also a more specific idea of where your money will go each month to ensure your essentials are covered and help you save, invest, and keep out of debt.

A budget is many things, but it is not a punishment or because you can’t afford certain luxuries. It also is not:

  1. Fixed and permanent
  2. Only for the poor
  3. Something meant only for saving up for big expenses
  4. For people who are good at math
  5. Restrictive and guilt-inducing.

What a Budget Should Be

While it’s a common misconception, a budget is only a tool. And you get to decide what you want to do with your hard-earned money.

Instead, think of a budget as something that:

  1. Can help you identify areas of overspending and address them.
  2. Allows you to find more money to save towards future goals, such as retirement, vacations, or a down payment.
  3. Gives you peace of mind that you’re not blindly overspending.
  4. Is flexible and adaptable to different seasons of life.
  5. Can give you a leg up toward getting and staying out of debt.

Our Budget Story

The idea of a budget was (and continues to be) a source of tension between my husband and me. As in, I want one and he doesn’t. I find this ironic for two reasons: first, he works in the financial industry. Are those guys supposed to be all about budgets and fiscal statements or something? Second, he is the most frugal person I know. He buys running shoes at the thrift store, for goodness sake! (I wish I was kidding about that.)

Yet every time I bring up the idea of a budget, he declares that he doesn’t want one. My guess is that in his mind we’ll start pinching pennies and getting into arguments about him spending too much at the vending machine at his office.

I’m definitely more the spender in our relationship, so about six months ago I started tracking our expenses more carefully. When I started to pay attention to our cash flow, I was able to begin making conscious decisions about how much we were spending on variable categories like utilities, groceries, and Amazon purchases.

The first couple of months I started out were merely tracking expenses. The tool I found the most helpful for this was actually Personal Capital. I took a bit of time to enter all our account data, including banking, retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, mortgage, and credit cards.

The site automatically calculated our net worth, which I was gratified to see was higher than I expected. From there, I was able to see our cash flow, income, and expenses. I could change categories for a certain expense when Personal Capital didn’t categorize it correctly or I wanted to put it under a different category. At the end of the month, I could see how much we had spent on housing, entertainment, food, gas, tithe, etc.

Once I had collected this data, I felt better equipped to actually start a budget. Unfortunately, Personal Capital doesn’t have the option to set limits to see if you’re over or underspending in a certain area. To do this, I downloaded Every Dollar from Dave Ramsey.

Tracking our spending with Every Dollar does require the extra step of logging all our income and expenses manually. I believe you can pay for an upgraded version that allows you to import all your financial accounts so this happens automatically, but I would rather save those few dollars and do it myself.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Tracking our income and expenses this way has made me much more cognizant of areas where we could cut back to save some money, as well as help to make investing in our retirement a priority. I finally (after 4 years) put our thermostat on a schedule, which cut down our utility bill by at least $50 a month. I’m also a lot more mindful of what I buy each week for groceries and how it impacts our food budget each month.

Budgets: Not so scary after All

If you’ve found yourself asking, “what is a budget?” I hope this guide gives you a better idea. I also hope you have the confidence to take the first step toward tracking your finances.

If you’re still not sure where to begin, make sure you check out our post on Personal Finance for Beginners: 5 Steps to Get Started.

Do you budget? Why or why not? If so, what are some tips and strategies you find helpful? Let me know in the comments below!

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