As longtime readers know, I generally don’t publish guest posts on Super Mom Hacks. The one exception is when I ask a longtime blogging colleague to help hold down the fort while I’m away. Hence I’m thrilled to bring back my blogging friend Sarah Brumley, who blogs over at Lemon Blessings and is the queen of family finance hacks. As a follow up to her previous guest post, which focused on practical tips for teaching kids basic finance lessons, Sarah is back with a quick-start budget guide for busy parents everywhere. I hope you enjoy Sarah’s down-to-earth tips as much as I always do!
Quick Start Budget Guide for Busy Families
So, you’ve decided your finances need a bit of an overhaul. Perhaps you have some debt you’d like to pay off, a savings account that’s still empty despite your best efforts, or a large purchase you need to make. Whatever your goal might be, any good (or great) financial situation always starts off with a simple budget.
As Colin Powell once said, “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” No matter what your dream is for your family finances, there are a few easy steps you can take to get that budget off the ground and working for you and those you love.
Step 1: Know Your Income
It seems like a no-brainer, but really, if you don’t know your ACTUAL income, you cannot move forward with a budget. There are a couple ways you can go about finding what I refer to as your “base income” or the amount that you are guaranteed to receive each and every month.
a) Stable Income
If you receive a salary and get the same amount each and every month, then go ahead and write that amount down on a sheet of paper (or you can use my printable found here). Once finished, move on to Step 2.
b) Irregular Income
If your income is irregular or an inconsistent amount, but you’ve been with your current employer for several months, I recommend going back through your bank statements for six months to a year and writing down your income for each month. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see any patterns that creep up. If not, go ahead and look for the lowest amount that you’ve been paid over that time period.
Use that low amount as the starting income for your budget going forward. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to incorporate any additional amount over that base into your financial plan later on, but you’ll be happy to know that, no matter what, you’ve got enough to cover the rest of the expenses in your budget.
You can find more on this subject here.
Step 2: Know Your Expenses
Once you know how much income you have, the next step is to determine exactly which expenses you pay each and every month. This is tricky, because, while you might think you know exactly what bills you pay, you may be paying for things you don’t even think about.
My recommendation: take three months’ worth of bank statements and highlight all of the expenses you have.
Cue eye roll.
I know, I know. That sounds like a huge undertaking, but I promise that, if you want to have a successful budget, you’ll only be able to do so if you know where your money is going each and every month.
Personally, I grab my large collection of highlighters and separate things into categories. Don’t have highlighters? Borrow your child’s crayons or colored pencils for the same effect.
a) Subscription Services
When Justin and I started with our budget, we were always overdrafting our account. We couldn’t figure out how we could plan ahead with our money, and then still not have enough. After working through this process, we realized we were paying for a LOT of subscription services. And most of them we didn’t even use!
Check your statements carefully for any and all subscription services. If you want to keep something, that’s great. But if not, take this time to eliminate it altogether. Think of the savings you are providing yourself!
b) Food Costs
Most families don’t track their grocery costs. Yet aside from housing expenses, it’s often the biggest chunk of money we spend each month.
To determine how much you need for food each month, do the following:
- Add up how much money you spent last month on food and grocery-related expenses.
- Add up how much money you spent the month before last.
- Add up how much money you spent three months ago.
- Add those three “totals” together and then divide by three to get your average.
By following this simple process, you’ll know the average amount your family spends on groceries and be able to use that as a starting point for your new budget.
Are you spending a lot more than you were aware of? You aren’t alone in that revelation. We found that we were spending, even when we were being extremely careful, over $600 for our family of four. Once we figured that out, we were able to make some changes and spend even less!
One of the harder things to calculate within your budget can be irregular expenses. I find that a lot of these come in the form of fluctuating utility expenses. While your electricity or gas payments might go up due to heating in the winter, your water bill might be higher during the summer when your kids are spending their days in the sprinkler.
Whatever the case may be, after you’ve determined exactly which expenses you pay on a monthly, bimonthly, or yearly basis, go ahead and average them out for the year, to the best of your ability. I personally create funds (you can find more on that here), but you may just want to create a category that all of your utility expenses are drawn from monthly.
Step 3: Know Your Total Debt
Chances are, if you are struggling in your finances, you’ve resorted to debt at one point or another. You aren’t alone in this. In fact, when Justin and I started our budgeting push several years ago, we had over $150,000 in debt. And that’s not including our $265,000 mortgage. By implementing some simple strategies, we’ve been wildly successful in paying down that amount!
None of that matters, though, if you don’t know how much debt you actually have. Spend the time to go through all of the bills you have, write down the lender, the total amount owed, interest rate, and minimum payment.
a) Minimum Payments
When you begin with your new budget, my recommendation is to start by simply making sure you are making each and every minimum payment. Not only does it allow you to get in the habit of paying the debt (you got yourself into this, right?), but you won’t end up with additional fees for lack of payment.
b) Total Amount Owed
I highly recommend adding up all of the debt you have and posting it somewhere, not to make you feel bad about how much you’ve accumulated, but instead to keep you thinking about the day-to-day choices you make and how they will affect you long term.
Will you use your credit card to pay for that bag of Oreos? Or will you recognize that you’ve already spent your grocery allowance for the week, so you’ll have to wait?
Having a successful budget is a matter of retraining yourself and seeing that number on a regular basis can be especially effective.
Step 4: Plan Ahead
I can almost guarantee that if I go into a situation without a fully formed plan, I’m not going to be successful. It’s no different when it comes to my budget. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
a) Meal Planning
One of the easiest ways to fail in budgeting is not to meal plan. Eating out is expensive, so it will quickly use up all of the money you’ve budgeted for food. And you are more likely to do it when you haven’t planned ahead.
We grocery shop on a weekly basis, and do so with a clear meal plan for each of the seven days of that week. Based on that carefully-constructed meal plan, we inventory our cupboards and make an exact list of the items we will need during our once-weekly trip to the store.
b) Debt Payoff Plan
If your goal is to pay off debt, it’s critical that you have a plan in place to do so. Unless you have extremely low balances, paying the minimum payments is only going to mean that you spend a lot more money in interest over time. (I’m not saying don’t pay the minimum payments, but instead, look for ways you can pay more!)
You can use any method you choose, but I like to suggest the debt snowball method, as it’s been very successful for us. Tweak it to make it work for you (we sure did!), and then begin pursuing a debt-free life.
Having a savings account, especially one for emergencies, is a big focus of many beginning budgeters. Of course, you need to know exactly how much you are planning to save and how you will get that done. Put together a plan ahead of time, so you know exactly how that will play out in your budget.
The problem with not having a plan for savings? You’ll end up using the money for something it’s not meant for. Write your number down, much as you did with the debt above. Then remind yourself and your family frequently what you are working toward with the budget you’ve created.
Step 5: Write It all Down
I cannot stress how important it is to write everything down. Not only will it allow you to keep track of payments made and how much money you have left over, but it will allow you to see the progress you’ve made over time and make adjustments as necessary.
My favorite tracking tool is the Blessed Budget Planner (seriously, it walks you through all of these steps in detail!).But you can choose to track yours on a regular sheet of paper, an Excel Workbook, or by utilizing one of the many apps available.
A budget is so much more than just the paying of bills from month to month, rather it’s the way that you ensure long-term financial success for you and your family. Take it seriously, and you’ll thank yourself later!
Have an awesome day!
P.S. What’s your biggest budgeting success (or struggle) to-date? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sarah Brumley is a writer and educator with a desire to provide everyday families with practical tools and strategies for simplifying their family lives. Her website, Lemon Blessings, is a family-oriented blog with a focus on budgeting, goal setting, saving, debt management, household, and family life. When she’s not writing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, pre-teen daughters, and three cats. Sarah can always be found on Twitter or you can track her down on her blog at lemonblessings.com.