Budgeting Tips

  • How to Use a Zero-Based Budget to Reach Your Goals

    How to Use a Zero-Based Budget to Reach Your Goals

    When I started budgeting, I thought I was doing great.

    I had plenty of money left over in my budget after accounting for all my expenses, and I thought for sure I’d be able to save a lot and pay off my debt quickly.

    But somehow, the end of the month would roll around and I never had any money leftover.

    I just couldn’t figure out where all my money was going. Sure, I’d usually eat out more than I planned or make an impulse purchase here and there to buy new clothes. But surely it wasn’t enough to spend all of it.

    Why couldn’t I save when I knew I had wiggle room in my budget?

    It turned out that the key to changing my financial situation was zero-based budgeting. Rather than spending the extra money in my budget, a zero-based budget forced me to make a plan for each dollar I earned, including putting money toward savings and debt.

    In this article, I’m sharing what a zero-based budget is and how you can use one to reach your financial goals.

    How to Use a Zero-Based Budget to Reach Your Goals

    What is zero-based budgeting?

    Zero-based budgeting is a way of planning your spending where you make a plan for each dollar. When you use a zero-based budget, you budget down to zero every month, meaning your income minus your expenses always equals zero.

    It’s important to note that budgeting every dollar doesn’t mean you spend every dollar. The purpose of zero-based budgeting is to help you pay off debt and save for goals because you include them as a line item in your budget.

    Zero-based budget advantages and disadvantages

    The biggest advantage of zero-based budgeting is that it forces you to be intentional about your spending. Rather than have a large sum of money available to spend each money, you can only spend money that you’ve actually budgeted for that purpose. 

    For anyone paying off debt or trying to reach a big financial goal, a zero-based budget is the best way to ensure you actually make progress each month.

    The biggest downside of zero-based budgeting is that it requires more time than traditional budgeting. You have to make a detailed plan for your money and then track every expense throughout the month to make sure you’re sticking to it.

    How to make a zero-based budget

    1. Write down your monthly income. If you’re a salaried employee, this should be easy. For freelancers and other workers with irregular income, start with your average monthly income.
    2. Write down your monthly expenses. Be sure to include fixed monthly expenses like rent and insurance, as well as variable spending like groceries and entertainment.
    3. Set financial goals. A zero-based budget only works if you decide ahead of time where your money is going. You should have specific financial goals to send extra money to. Your goal can be anything from saving for a big expense to paying off debt.
    4. Give every dollar a job. When you finish your budget, your income minus expenses should equal zero. This doesn’t mean you spend every dollar! It simply means that every dollar is either budgeted for spending OR budgeting for debt payoff or a financial goal.
    5. Work on getting one-month ahead. The zero-based budget is easiest to use when you’re one month ahead on your budget. In other words, you’re using last month’s income to pay this month’s bills. This is important because it ensures you know at the start of the month exactly how much you have to budget with.

    Zero-based budgeting example

    I promise that zero-based budgeting sounds more complicated than it is. I’ll use a real-life example to show you how this type of budget works in practice.

    Let’s say your monthly take-home pay is $3,500. Using a normal budget, it might look something like this:

    Expense CategoryAmount
    Rent$1,200
    Utilities$90
    Insurance$125
    Student loan$250
    Transportation$150
    Cell phone$75
    Cable/internet$80
    Food$400
    Entertainment$125
    Total spending$2,495

    As you can see, this budget leaves a lot of wiggle room. You’d have $1,000 left each month that you could use to build your emergency fund, fund your debt payoff plan, or save for your financial goals.

    Unfortunately, that’s not usually how it works. Often we tell ourselves that we’ll use whatever money we have left at the end of the month to reach our goals.

    But because we weren’t intentional with our spending and didn’t make a plan for that money ahead of time, we simply find other things to spend it on. And then you might be lucky to have $100 left to put toward saving, let alone the full $1,000 you should have left.

    Here’s what a zero-based budget might look like using the same income and expenses:

    Expense CategoryAmount
    Rent$1,200
    Utilities$90
    Insurance$130
    Student loan$250
    Transportation$150
    Cell phone$75
    Cable/internet$80
    Food$400
    Entertainment$125
    Sinking funds$250
    Debt snowball$250
    Savings$500
    Total spending$3,500

    As you can see in the budget above, each budget is accounted for. You can’t impulse-spend a few hundred dollars on Amazon because you’ve already given that money a job.

    Zero-based budgeting with irregular income

    If you have irregular income, you might worry that zero-based budgeting won’t work for your situation. And it’s true that this budgeting style can be more difficult if you don’t know how much money you have available for the month.

    But I actually think this budget is perfect for those with irregular income.

    But here’s the catch.

    It really only works with irregular income if you get one month ahead on your budget. In that case, you can create a customized budget at the start of each month based on the money you earned the previous month.

    The best zero-based budget apps

    When it comes to planning out your zero-based budget, there are two different tools I’d recommend. You can choose the right tool for you based on your budgeting style.

    • You Need a Budget (YNAB): YNAB is hands-down my favorite budgeting app. With this app, you only budget with money you already have and you give every dollar a job. It’s the app I personally use. It completely changes the way you think about budgeting, and really teaches you to be intentional about where your money is going.
    • Spreadsheet: Before I started using YNAB, I spent years using just a simple spreadsheet in Google Drive. It’s definitely more hands-on than an app but perfect for someone really trying to turn their finances around.

    Final Thoughts

    I know how frustrating it can be to put a ton of work into a budget, only to have it fall apart halfway through the month. A zero-based budget is the best way to be intentional about where your money is going and help you reach your financial goals.

    CONTINUE READING

  • Creating a Monthly Budget: A Step by Step Guide

    Creating a Monthly Budget: A Step by Step Guide

    I was in my mid-twenties before I created my first budget.

    I was out of college and had my first full-time job. I made decent money, but I never seemed to have any left at the end of each month. And I couldn’t seem to figure out where all my money was going.

    When I finally sat down to track my recent spending, it was an eye-opening experience.

    I realized I was spending way more than I wanted to on eating out and ordering take-out.

    That’s when I created my first budget. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing since then. But I can tell you that the times of my life I’ve been most diligent about budgeting are the times when I’ve seen the most success!

    When I budget consistently, I reach my financial goals, feel confident in my financial situation, and have money left over at the end of each month.

    Creating and sticking to a budget does not have to be overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be scary. It is 100% doable.

    In this post, I’m walking you through how to create a monthly budget, even if you’re a beginner or hate budgeting.

     

    Creating a Monthly Budget: A Step by Step Guide

     

    Determine Your Income

     

    In order to create your monthly budget, you first need to figure out what your monthly income is.

    For some of you, this will be easy. Maybe you’re a salaried employee without any side income, in which case your income is the same every month.

    But if you’re an hourly employee, a tipped employee (such as a server or bartender), or are self-employed, this will be a little more difficult.

    If you have an irregular income, look at the average amount you bring home each month. This will help you identify which number to build your budget around.

    Read: How to Budget With an Irregular Income

    If you’re married and have joint finances with your spouse, make sure to incorporate their monthly income into your calculation as well.

     

    Make a List of Your Fixed Expenses

     

    Next up, make a list of your fixed monthly expenses. Fixed expenses are those that are the same every month. This would include rent or mortgage, insurance, cable and internet, student loan, car payment, etc.

    It’s important to plan for these expenses first because then you’ll have a better idea of how much money you have to allocate for the rest of your expenses.

     

    Track Your Spending for the Past Three (or Six) Months

     

    Once you’ve figured out your income and fixed expenses, you know how much money is left to put toward variable expenses.

    In order to really figure out how much you want to spend in each budget category, I think it first makes sense to figure out how much you’re currently spending in each category.

    Go through your bank statements for the past three months and track where your money has gone. I would break your spending up into categories and determine how much you’ve spent monthly in each category. Here are some categories you may want have:

    • Utilities
    • Transportation (gas, car maintenance)
    • Groceries
    • Eating Out
    • Shopping
    • Household Items
    • Personal Care
    • Entertainment
    • Hobbies

    These are just some examples of categories you might have in your budget. You can customize them to fit your lifestyle.

    By doing this, you’ll get a good idea of where your money has been going, and which categories you spend the most on.

    I recommend going back at least three months to really get an idea of what an average month looks like.

    If you’re feeling really ambitious, go back even further. The first time I put together a monthly budget, I went back six months and it helped me put together a really good picture of my spending habits.

     

    Determine Your Spending Goals

     

    Now that you know how much you are spending, it’s time to figure out how much you want to be spending.

    I’m guessing there are quite a few areas in your budget where you could be spending a lot less than you are.

    If you don’t normally track your spending, chances are that you’re going to be surprised at your spending in some areas, just like I was at my food spending.

    You might realize just how much those weekly Target trips are adding up and decide that you want to set some limits for yourself.

    You can also look for substitutions you can make, such as switching phone companies or getting rid of cable and sticking with Netflix or Hulu.

     

    Prioritize Savings First

     

    There are a lot of people who wait to see how much money they have in the bank at the end of the month, and then decide if they are able to throw a little in savings.

    The problem here is that there might be a lot of months where you aren’t putting any money in savings at all.

    Instead of just saving what you have left at the end of the month, start budgeting the money you’ll save and making that your first payment after you get paid. I have an automatic transfer from my checking account to my savings account the day after I get paid every single month.

    To make your saving even more effective, set specific goals to save for. You can start by building up your emergency fund. Then you can decide what other financial goals you want to save for.

     

    Decide on a Debt-Payoff Plan

     

    While you’re creating your monthly budget, it’s important to factor in how much money you want to put toward debt.

    It might be tempting to just pay your minimum monthly payments, it will take you a lot longer to pay off that debt, and you’ll be spending a LOT of interest.

    One debt payoff strategy a lot of people use is called the “snowball method”. This means paying your minimum payments on all but your smallest debt, and you put as much money as you can on your smallest debt.

    Once that smallest debt is gone, you take all of that extra money and put it toward the new smallest debt. And then ideally, once you’ve paid off most of the debts, you’ll be able to put really large payments on your largest debt.

    I actually prefer a method called the debt avalanche. Rather than targeting the debt with the lowest balance, you target the one with the highest interest rate.

    The debt snowball is the most cost-effective in the long-run, because you’re saving yourself money in interest.

    Read: Debt Snowball vs. Debt Avalanche: Which Debt Payoff Plan is Right For You?

     

    Track Your Spending

     

    Once you’ve created your monthly budget, it’s important to track your spending to make sure you’re actually staying on track. Otherwise, the budget is useless!

    There are plenty of monthly budgeting apps you can connect to your bank account to track your spending. Many people use an app for this. For many years I just used a spreadsheet and tracked each transaction manually. This is definitely more work, and now I use an app to track my spending.

    You can check out my list of the best budgeting apps to help find the right tool for you.

    As you’re tracking your spending, check in often throughout the month to make sure you’re staying on track with your budget. That way if you get off track with your budget, there’s still time to get back on track.

     

    Reevaluate Your Budget Often

     

    Once you’ve set up your budget once, you’re not done. A lot can change with your finances. You might have new financial goals come up, such as wanted to splurge on a vacation or start saving for a house.

    You also might create a budget and then within a few months, realize there are certain categories that need some tweaking.

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    Creating a monthly budget might seem overwhelming, but I promise it will get easier as you get the hang of it.

    And even more importantly, you will be SO glad you took the time to set up a budget, and you’ll love the financial benefits you start to see.

    Budgeting will go a long way in helping you to start saving money, pay off your debts, and reach your long-term financial goals.

    CONTINUE READING

  • 11 Ways to Stick to Your Budget Every Month

    11 Ways to Stick to Your Budget Every Month

    I used to blow my budget almost every month. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m guessing plenty of other people can relate.

    While I had the best of intentions, I was making a lot of mistakes with my budget. I wasn’t being realistic, I wasn’t planning ahead, and I wasn’t leaving any room in the budget for fun.

    And let’s be honest — budgets like that just don’t work. When you restrict yourself or create a budget that doesn’t fit your life, it’s nearly impossible to stick to it.

    Over the years, I’ve learned plenty of tricks to stick to your budget every month. Picking up just a few of these budgeting habits can seriously transform your finances!

    11 Ways to Stick to Your Budget Every Month

    There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more information, see my full disclosure policy here.

    Be realistic

    One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they set up their budget is that they simply aren’t realistic. They budget based on what they’d like to spend in a perfect world rather than what they’ll really be able to spend.

    People can get a little over-ambitious when it comes to their budget — trust me, I’ve been there! I would set an eating out budget, and then my husband and I would go way over it every month.

    Finally, we sat down and admitted that the amount we were budgeting wasn’t realistic. We love eating out and it’s something that we value. Our budget can and should reflect that.

    If you find that you’re having a hard time sticking to your monthly budget, go through and see if there are any categories where you aren’t being fully honest with yourself.

    Budget differently for every month

    My money coaching clients are almost always surprised to hear that their budgets should look different every month.

    Traditional budgeting apps like Mint give the impression that a budget is a set-it-and-forget-it tool. You create it once, and then you’re supposed to stick to it every month.

    But the fact is, no two months are the same. And as a result, no two monthly budgets should look the same.

    At the start of each month, sit down and look at the month ahead. What’s on your calendar? Look for special events, holidays, birthdays, etc. that might mean you’ll be spending a little extra money in one spending category. Then you can figure out where you can cut back this month to make up for it. 

    Use sinking funds

    You know those pesky expenses that you don’t budget for because they don’t come up every month? But then when they do come up, they totally break your budget? It’s okay, we’ve all been there! I used to go over budget nearly every month because of an unforeseen expense that honestly, I should have foreseen. 

    That’s where sinking funds come in. Sinking funds are a way of saving up for annual expenses all year long. Let’s say you spend $600 every year at Christmas. Instead, of trying to find room for $600 in your December budget, you can set aside $50 per month all year long.

    You can use sinking funds for tons of different expenses, including:

    • Holidays
    • Birthdays
    • Vehicle registration
    • Car repairs
    • Medical expenses
    • Pet expenses
    • Association dues
    • Home repairs
    • Tuition
    • Annual subscriptions

    Budget fun money

    So many people avoid budgeting because they think it’s restrictive and prevents them from spending their money on things they enjoy.

    But that doesn’t have to be the case!

    Rather than looking at my budget as restrictive, I look at it as incredibly freeing. I can spend money on my hobbies without the slightest bit of guilt because I know I’ve budgeted for them.

    If there’s something that brings you joy and you enjoy spending money on, make room for it in the budget!

    You can even budget for spontaneous purchases. If you know you and your partner love a last-minute Sunday brunch, set aside money every month for exactly that.

    Schedule your purchases in advance

    Impulse purchases can kill your budget faster than just about anything else. An easy way around that is to schedule your purchases in advance.

    Let’s say you’re at the store and I see an outfit that you absolutely must have. You can totally buy the outfit, but don’t buy it on the spot. Instead, go home and look at the budget. 

    Do you have room in your clothing spending category for this month? If not, schedule the purchase for next month.

    Even if you know you have the money in the budget, going home and scheduling the purchase for a future date is still a good idea since it prevents you from impulse purchasing. It forces you to really make thoughtful purchases.

    Identify your spending triggers and avoid them

    We all have our unique spending triggers. For some people, it’s sale emails in their inbox. For others, it’s their favorite influencer rocking a new outfit or accessory on Instagram. Chances are, you know what your biggest triggers are.

    Once you know what your triggers are, you can work on avoiding them. Examples might include:

    • Unsubscribing from store emails
    • Unfollowing people on social media who make you want to spend money
    • Removing your credit card information from your favorite store’s website

    Use a zero-based budget

    The premise of a zero-based budget is that you give every dollar a job, and budget down to zero.

    Let’s say you bring home $4,000 per month. You wouldn’t just budget for your monthly bills and then leave the rest as spending money. Instead, you’d decide exactly how much you plan to put toward discretionary spending, saving, and your debt payoff plan.

    Using a zero-based budget can help you stick to your budget because there simply isn’t extra money to work with. You’ve already allocated your excess money to debt or savings, so you can’t afford to impulse spend on food or clothes.

    The budgeting app You Need a Budget is hands-down the best app out there for zero-based budgeting!

    Plan your meals ahead of time

    I used to never meal plan. Instead, I’d head to the grocery store every week and just stock up on foods I liked. But then I’d either end up throwing food away at the end of the week or I wouldn’t have enough for every meal and I’d end up eating out.

    Planning your meals ahead of time ensures that:

    • You only buy what you need
    • You’ve accounted for every meal
    • You can estimate the budget ahead of time

    Pay yourself first

    It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll transfer whatever money you have left at the end of each month to savings. But inevitably the end of the month rolls around, and there’s nothing else.

    That’s where the concept of paying yourself first comes in. When you pay yourself first, you decide how much you want to save each month. Then, you transfer that money to savings as soon as you get paid. And you only have what’s left over to spend the rest of the month.

    Track your expenses

    I’m embarrassed to say that I was in my mid-twenties before I ever tracked my expenses. My partner at the time and I made a decent amount of money but never seemed to have any left. Finally, I decided to start tracking where our money was going.

    If I’m being honest, I was a little horrified. I couldn’t believe how much we were spending on take-out each month!

    Once I knew where my money was going, I could decide where I wanted my money ot be going instead. And tracking my expenses throughout the month helps me to make sure I’m sticking to my plan.

    I use the budgeting app You Need a Budget to track my expenses throughout the money.

    Figure out your “worth-it” expenses

    One trick I teach my money coaching clients is to keep a spreadsheet of their expenses and then go through later and decide whether each expense was worth it to them. In other words, are they glad they made that purchase, and would they make it again?

    A really good example of this comes into play with eating out. My husband and I love eating out and our date nights are sacred to us. They’re always a worth-it expense.

    But we really don’t eat at chain restaurants or fast food often. So anytime we impulsively grab a quick dinner because we don’t feel like cooking, it just doesn’t feel worth it. I remember that when we’re feeling the urge to spend, and it helps us to save unless it’s a worth-it expense.

    You can use this tool for so many things. Another example for me is makeup. I don’t wear makeup every day, and I’m fine with the drugstore stuff. Therefore, expensive makeup just wouldn’t be worth it for me. But there are plenty of other areas in my budget where I’m happy to splurge for the nicer stuff. For example, I will never pass on seeing my favorite bands in concert no matter the cost of the tickets.

    Final Thoughts

    We’ve all gone over budget — don’t beat yourself up over it! There are plenty of easy tricks that you can start implementing in your budget and your life to help you stick to your budget every month (or at least almost every month).

    CONTINUE READING

  • How to Get One Month Ahead on Your Budget

    How to Get One Month Ahead on Your Budget

    For my first seven years out of college, I got paid on the first day of each month. It made budgeting ridiculously easy. I could pay all of my bills right away, and then I knew how much I had available to spend the rest of the month.

    Then Brandon and I got married and combined our finances, and suddenly budgeting was a little more complicated. Brandon got paid twice a month, meaning we had to time his paychecks to our bills.

    Not too long after that, I quit my job to run my business full-time. And unlike my government job, self-employment doesn’t come with the same consistency, such as a paycheck once a month.

    I knew I had to figure out a different budgeting system before leaving my full-time job.

    Then I learned the concept of getting one month ahead in your budget (aka spending last month’s income). This system has completely changed the way I budget and has eliminated so much of the stress I used to have around my finances!

     

    How to Get One Month Ahead in Your Budget

     

    What does it mean to get one month ahead in your budget?

     

    Most people budget each month with the income they’ll get that month. For example, someone would pay all of their November bills with the income they earn in November.

    Getting one month ahead in your budget means you’re always living off of last month’s income. So instead of paying November’s bills with November’s income, you’d pay November’s bills with October’s income. Then you’d use your November income to pay your December bills, and so on.

     

    The benefits of getting one month ahead in your budget

     

    You don’t have to time your bills with your paycheck

    For people who get paid biweekly or twice per month, budgeting can be a huge hassle. You have to make sure that for each of your bills, you’ll have the money in your paycheck to cover it.

    Let’s say you get paid on the 1st and the 15th of each month. But what if most of your bills are due in the first half of the month? You’ve barely got enough to cover your bills, and then you’re pinching pennies and waiting to buy groceries until your next paycheck comes in.

    When you budget a month ahead, all of the money is in your bank account on the first of the month, so you don’t have to worry about when exactly each of your bills is due.

     

    It serves as a small emergency fund

    I teach my money coaching clients to save up an emergency fund of one month’s worth of expenses before they start aggressively paying off their debt.

    When you’re budgeting one month ahead, you’ve already got that small emergency fund built into your budget. If any emergencies happen, you know you’re covered for the month.

     

    It ensures you’re only spending money you already have

    Many people get into a pattern where they put all of their expenses onto a credit card, and then use their income from the following month to pay off their credit card. 

    The problem with this is that you’re spending money you haven’t even earned yet. Rather than always being one month ahead, you’re always one month behind. And if you lose your job or another emergency pops up, you’re in trouble.

    When you budget one month ahead, you know you’re only spending money you already have.

     

    It reduces financial stress

    I can say from personal experience that my financial stress decreased in a big way when I started using this budgeting system. I didn’t have to monitor my budget quite as closely. 

    It’s also been a life-saver as Brandon and I have been traveling full-time. First, we have to pay for many of our RV park reservations ahead of time. If we weren’t ahead on our budget, we wouldn’t be able to do that.

    It’s also helped us to navigate through the small emergencies that have popped up since we’ve been on the road, such as having to replace all of our RV tires or buy a new car while on the road.

     

    How do you get a month ahead?

     

    Step 1: Create your monthly budget

    The first step to getting one month ahead is to create a monthly budget. For this system to work, you need to know exactly how much you’re spending each month and where your money is going!

    Here’s how to create your budget:

    1. Determine your monthly income
    2. Make a list of your monthly fixed expenses
    3. Track your spending for the past 3-6 months to determine your variable expenses
    4. Decide on spending goals (use how much you’ve been spending to figure out how much you WANT to be spending)
    5. Don’t forget to make room for debt payoff and savings goals!
    6. Make sure your spending is less than your income

     

    Step 2: Roll extra money over to the next month

    Ideally, you won’t be spending exactly as much as you earn each month — there should be some leftover. Then, you can start using that extra each month to build your one-month buffer.

    The idea is that every month, your buffer will get a little bit bigger until you’ve saved enough for the entire month of expenses.

     

    What if you’re living paycheck to paycheck?

    This budgeting system is even more beneficial for people living paycheck to paycheck, for whom any financial emergency would throw them off.

    Unfortunately, living paycheck to paycheck makes it especially hard to get one month ahead. Here are a few ways to can start saving money, even if you’re on a tight budget:

    • Use cashback apps like Fetch, Ibotta, and Rakuten. These tools allow you to earn a little extra money on purchases you’re already making.
    • Negotiate your monthly bills. You can try negotiating bills such as your car insurance and internet to reduce your monthly payments.
    • Pick up a side hustle. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, every little bit helps!
    • Sell stuff on Facebook Marketplace. You’d be surprised how much you can make by selling clothes or household items you aren’t using.

     

    Step 3: Use any cash windfalls to build your buffer

    In addition to using the extra money in your budget to build your one-month buffer, you can use any cash windfalls you have. Common examples include:

    • Tax returns
    • Gifts
    • Extra paychecks (if you get paid every other week then two months of the year you’ll get three paychecks instead of three)
    • Side hustle income

     

    Step 4: Budget using last month’s income

    Once you save the full month of expenses, you’ll start using this to budget for each month’s expenses. Rather than creating your budget using the amount you’ll earn in the current month, you’ll use the amount you earned last month.

    This budgeting system is really great for self-employed people. With irregular income, it can be hard to know how much to budget. But with this system, you’re budgeting with last month’s income.

     

    Bonus tip: Use a budgeting app to help you get one month ahead with your budget

    Tracking your finances when you budget one month ahead can be tricky because you can’t just spend what you have in your bank account. Because of that, I recommend using a budgeting tool to help you stay on track. 

    There are two options I recommend:

    1. When people sign up for my money coaching program, they get access to a budgeting spreadsheet that helps them to budget one month ahead.
    2. The budgeting app You Need a Budget is specifically designed to help you budget this way.

     

    Getting one month ahead while paying off debt

     

    One of the most common questions I get from people is about whether they should prioritize saving or paying off debt. The answer is both…sort of.

    If you don’t have any sort of emergency fund in place, then saving one month’s worth of expenses should be your first priority. Once you’ve got that in place, you can start putting extra money toward debt using either the debt snowball or debt avalanche.

    But don’t forget that while you’re paying off debt, you can still save for other financial goals!

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    I’m not exaggerating when I say that getting one month ahead with my budget has totally changed my finances! Not only does it create a lot of peace of mind, but the financial habits I learned getting there changed everything.

    CONTINUE READING

  • 9 Steps to Help You Get Back on Track With Your Finances

    Despite our best intentions, we all inevitably seem to go through financial setbacks that catch us off-guard and throw off our financial progress.

    Mine came in 2017, when my ex-husband and I decided to end our marriage. Between the discrepancy in our incomes (I made way less than he did), the costs associated with the divorce, and my lack of financial safety net, it was a struggle for a while.

    Once I finally got back on my feet and started to regain some balance in my life, I had to get my finances back on track.

    I’m not going to lie – it was an uphill battle. There was a lot of work that went into figuring out where my finances were, making a plan to get them back on track, and actually following through on it. 

    In 2020, plenty of people are going through financial setbacks of their own. Whether you’ve been laid off from a job or just let your spending get away from you, it’s time to get a plan in place to get back on course. 

    In this post, you’ll learn the 9 steps to follow to get you get back on track with your finances and lessen the blow of future financial setbacks.

    9 Steps to Help You Get Back on Track With Your Finances

    Evaluate your current financial situation

    The first thing you have to do to get your finances back on track is to figure out where you are now. As with any journey, you have to know where you’re starting to map out the route to your final destination. 

    As you’re evaluating your financial situation, determine the following:

    • Your current income and expenses
    • Your net worth
    • How much money you have in savings
    • How much debt you owe
    • Any outstanding bills

    Figure out where you went off course

    Once you figure out where you’re at with your finances, determine how you got there. Really narrow down what caused you to get off-track with your finances.

    In some cases, it wasn’t anything you did. Cases of unemployment, especially during COVID, were unavoidable. It wasn’t a scenario any of us ever expected, and as a result, most of us weren’t financially prepared.

    But in other cases, you might look back and realize your own actions caused you to get off course with your finances. For example, maybe you stopped tracking your spending a few months ago or took on a debt you couldn’t really afford. 

    Identifying the root cause of the problem can help you to avoid getting off-track for the same reason again. 

    Create a new budget from scratch

    I’m constantly tweaking my budget to make sure it’s still working for where I’m currently at in life. But some circumstances call for a full overhaul.

    Anytime I’m going through a major life change or find that I’ve gotten completely off-track with my finances, I like to start fresh with a brand new budget. 

    Think of it like Marie Kondo-ing your budget. Instead of going through your existing budget and deciding what stays, throw everything out and only put back those things that really belong there.

    Starting fresh with a new budget is especially helpful if your income or expenses have changed at all since the last time you put together your budget. 

    Start with any outstanding bills

    Before you dive into any new financial goals, make sure you’re up-to-date on any outstanding bills you have. When you go through a time of unemployment or another financial struggle, you may end up falling behind on one or more of your expenses.

    Once you start getting things back in order, settling up any outstanding bills should be the first thing on your to-do list. 

    Create a long-term plan for debt and financial goals

    One of the most valuable lessons I learned on my own financial journey is the importance of having a plan in place. And when it comes to your finances, there are two plans you absolutely have to have.

    First, make sure you have a plan in place to pay off your debt. Ideally, you’d be able to make extra payments to pay your debt off ahead of schedule. But even if you can only swing the minimum payments right now, knowing when you can expect to be debt-free is critical. 

    The other plan you should have in place is one for your financial goals. How many times have you found yourself dreaming of a future home or a dream vacation, but never actually taking steps to get there?

    When you don’t have a plan in place, you’re far less likely to take action. By creating a written plan, you’re exponentially increasing the odds of actually reaching your goals!

    Track your spending

    I always think tracking your spending is important to financial success. But when you’re working on getting your finances back on track, this becomes even more important.

    Tracking your spending allows you to know exactly where each dollar is going. This ensures you’re being super intentional about your spending. Doing so can also avoid being caught off-guard when an unexpected bill hits or you go over budget without realizing it. 

    There are plenty of budgeting apps that can help you to track your spending. I also recommend a good old-fashioned spreadsheet, as it forces you to personally check in with your finances on a regular basis. 

    Look for ways to increase your income

    In many cases, we realize that our financial troubles stem from the fact that our current income isn’t sufficient to help us pay our monthly bills and reach all of our financial goals. In that case, you might consider looking for ways to increase your income.

    There are a few different ways you can go about making more money:

    1. Negotiate a pay increase: Perhaps the simplest way to increase your income is to negotiate a salary increase at your current job. This strategy allows you to make more money without taking on a second job.
    2. Get a part-time job: If negotiating a raise isn’t in the case, you might consider a part-time job. When Brandon and I were paying off debt and saving for our RV, he worked a few nights per week at a bar in town to bring in some extra money.
    3. Join the gig economy: If working specific hours at a part-time job doesn’t work with your schedule, you can join the gig-economy. Options include rideshare apps such as Uber, grocery delivery apps such as Instacart, or pet-sitting and dog-walking opportunities through a service like Rover. These opportunities allow you to pick up jobs only when you’ve got some time available.
    4. Start a business: If you want more of a long-game solution to increase your income, you might consider starting a business. Know that this option usually won’t result in making money right away. In fact, you’ll probably have to put in a lot of work before you’re profitable. But in the long-run this option can result in the most amount of money. The good news is that technology makes it fairly easy and extremely low-cost for anyone to start a business!

    Put a safety net in place

    Once you start getting your finances back on track, it’s time to put a safety net in place for the next time things don’t go as planned. 

    There are two key strategies to help you avoid or lessen financial struggles in the future:

    • Emergency fund: Your emergency fund is a pool of money that can help you with a one-time financial emergency, such as home or car repairs. Even more importantly, your emergency fund serves as an income replacement in case you lose your jobs. In 2020, COVID caused people to be laid off from work for far longer than anyone would have expected. This taught us all the importance of an emergency fund that can cover your bills for several months. 
    • Sinking funds: While your emergency fund helps you cover any unexpected financial emergencies, sinking funds help you to plan for expected but irregular financial obligations. With sinking funds, you set aside money each month for an expense that comes around less often. For example, let’s say you spend $600 on Christmas each year. Instead of taking $500 out of your December budget, you’d set aside $50 per month all year. Sinking funds can also be used for costs such as:
      • Car insurance
      • Home and vehicle repairs
      • Property taxes
      • Holidays
      • Annual subscriptions
      • Financial goals

    Have regular money dates

    If you share finances with a partner, or even if you share a life with a partner without having joint finances, communication around money is key.

    Regardless of whether you’re just coming back from a financial setback, money dates are critical to making sure you and your partner are on the same page and that you both have a seat at the table. 

    These check-ins become even more important when you’re working on getting back on track after a setback.

    Final Thoughts

    No one expects financial setbacks to come, but they inevitably seem to pop up once in a while. By following these steps, not only can you get your finances back on track, but you can also prevent future setbacks from being quite as painful.

    CONTINUE READING

  • How to Budget With an Irregular Income

    When I first started budgeting, I had a regular full-time job and knew exactly how much would be on each paycheck. I loved the sense of control that came with it. I knew exactly how much I made and how much I spent. 

    But within a few years, things looked very different. I had started freelancing, which brought in an inconsistent income. Then I met and married my current husband, who had an irregular income that relied heavily on tips.

    Not long after that, I quit my job to run my business full-time. Now my income is more irregular than ever, and there are no guarantees like there were in my government job. 

    Over the past few years, I’ve learned how much more challenging it can be to budget when you have an irregular income. 

    If you’re dealing with income that doesn’t look the same from one month to the next, I know these tips will help you too!

    How to Budget With an Irregular Income

    Determine your bare minimum budget

    The first step to budgeting with an irregular income is to figure out your bare minimum budget. In other words, how much money do you actually need to live on each month?

    This number should include necessary expenses such as rent, loan payments, insurance, utilities, groceries, etc. 

    Your bare minimum budget shouldn’t include discretionary spending such as excessive eating out, travel, or entertainment. 

    What good is knowing this number?

    First, it’ll give you an idea as to whether you actually make enough money. If your irregular income doesn’t allow you to pay all of your bills, it’s time to figure out how to make more money. 

    Your bare minimum budget also gives you an idea of how much you should have in savings. In other words, how much do you need to have set aside in case you stop earning income. 

    Finally, your bare minimum budget tells you when (and how much) you can spend on discretionary expenses. If you have $2,000 per month in expenses and make $3,000 per month, you know you can probably afford to spend some money on fun.

    Give yourself regular paychecks

    I like the idea of taking away some of the irregularity of an inconsistent income by giving yourself regular paychecks. 

    So how does that actually work?

    Let’s say you are a freelancer who makes anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000 per month after taxes, depending on the season. That money goes into your business checking account. Your monthly expenses are about $3,000. 

    Rather than transferring all of the money from your business checking to your personal checking each month, give yourself a monthly paycheck of $3,000. 

    By doing this, you are no longer budgeting on an irregular income. You know exactly how much will be hitting your bank account each month. You’re also able to start building a bit of a buffer in the months you make more than $3,000.

    If you have an irregular income but don’t have a business account, open a checking or savings account to deposit your income into that is separate from the one you use to pay your bills. 

    Move excess money into a savings account

    So if you’re making between $3,000 and $6,000 per month and only paying yourself $3,000 per month, you’re going to have some money left over. 

    In the months where you make more than $3,000, set that money aside into a separate savings account. Then, if there’s ever a month where you don’t make $3,000, you can supplement your income to still give yourself that $3,000 paycheck.

    Another nice thing about this savings strategy is that once you have enough set aside that you feel comfortable you’ll be able to cover any low-income months, you can start using that money for other things! You can put it toward debt or use it to save for other financial goals.

    Live on last month’s income

    One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone with an irregular income is to live on last month’s income. Actually, this is great advice for anyone regardless of if you have a regular income or not! 

    So how does this actually work?

    Most people living on the income they earn each month. So the paychecks they get in September are what they use to pay September’s bills. 

    But for someone who doesn’t know exactly how much they’ll earn this month, this type of budgeting is a bit of a gamble. 

    Instead, I like to always budget ahead. So the money that goes into my bank account in September doesn’t get transferred to my personal checking as my “paycheck” until the following month. 

    That way, before October hits, I know exactly how much money I have available. 

    When necessary, dip into your savings account to supplement 

    your income

    One of the downsides of irregular income is that some months your pay is a lot lower than others. In the time I’ve been freelancing, I’ve learned that my income can vary drastically. 

    In a perfect world, I would make at least enough each month to cover my bare minimum budget. But just in case that doesn’t happen, I want to be prepared. During those months where your income is lower than normal, you can dip into your savings account (the one you funded with your excess income) to help pay your bills. 

    Have a large emergency fund

    Separate from your buffer account, you should also have a hefty emergency fund. 3-6 months is a good size savings account, but I think closer to 9-12 months is ideal for someone who is self-employed.

    That buffer account is to help pay the bills during any months where you earn less than normal. But the emergency fund is to help with any crazy expenses (like home repairs that cost thousands of dollars). More importantly, your emergency fund is there to replace your income in the event that you lose your job. 

    Keep ideas on-hand to increase your income

    One thing I’ve learned since becoming self-employed is that I have to be prepared to increase my income at any time. 

    You never know when you might lose a freelance client or when a client might start sending you less work. And if that happens, I have to be prepared to immediately replace that income.

    The same goes for other types of workers with irregular income. In 2020, the foodservice industry is taking a huge hit. Even as restaurants re-open, fewer people are going out to eat. This means fewer tips for those employees. That’s a situation in which you might want to have some ideas in your back pocket for increasing your income when things head south quickly. 

    Use a budgeting app to stay organized

    Keeping track of your budget when you have an irregular income (or even when you don’t) can be a lot to manage. And especially when you’re just getting started, you might want to use a app to help you stay organized.

    I think You Need a Budget (YNAB) is the absolute best budgeting app, especially those who don’t bring in a consistent income. It’s specifically designed to help you get one month ahead on your budget so that you’re using last month’s income to pay your bills. 

    I actually use YNAB for both my business and my personal budget! First, I keep a separate business budget to track my business income and expenses. Taking my own advice, I budget a month or two ahead for my business expenses and set money aside for taxes.

    Then, I pay myself a monthly paycheck, which I use to budget ahead on my bills.

    Using YNAB has gotten me so into budgeting ahead that I actually try to budget ahead two months at a time rather than one. This single habit has made the cost of YNAB more than worth it! 

    Final Thoughts

    Budgeting is stressful enough for most of us. And when you add on the extra layer of an inconsistent income, it can quickly seem like too much to handle. 

    After years of learning the ropes of budgeting with irregular income, I’ve streamlined my process and hope you find it useful for your own budget! 

    CONTINUE READING

  • 9 Reasons Your Budget Isn’t Working

    Like many people, my first attempts at budgeting were a complete failure.

    I would get really motivated to get my finances on track and spend a ton of time putting together a budget. 

    But then one thing would go wrong, and I’d completely abandon the entire thing. It was an endless cycle that repeated itself every few months. 

    When I finally started getting serious about personal finance, I was able to look at my budget through a more holistic lens and figure out why it had failed in the past. 

    In this post, I’m sharing some of the mistakes I made in my own budgets, and some of the reasons your budget might not be working.  

    9 Reasons Your Budget Isn’t Working

    You aren’t being realistic with your expenses

    One of the most common reasons that budgets fail is because people just aren’t realistic when they’re making a plan for their money. 

    Here’s what happens most often. Suppose I start tracking my expenses and realize my husband and I have been spending $750 per month eating out. I panic, and start budgeting $50 per month to eating out. 

    Do you see the problem here? For a couple who spends a lot of money on eating out, cutting out almost all of it at once just isn’t realistic. 

    Another area I see people make an unrealistic budget is when it comes to groceries. People try to drastically cut their grocery spending, but budget too little. And then they end up not being able to stick to it. 

    Instead of planning your budget around what you wish you spent, start by planning it around what you actually spend. Then you can slowly start cutting back in the areas you want to.

    You aren’t budgeting for fun money

    If you aren’t leaving room for fun in your budget, you’re going to have a hard time sticking to it. 

    I know plenty of personal finance experts who push people to cut back in every area possible, especially when you’re paying off debt.

    But time and time again, I talk to clients and potential clients who have tried that kind of budgeting and burned out. 

    Leaving some room for fun money in your budget will help to make sure the process isn’t a miserable one for you and will make budgeting a lot more sustainable in the long-run.

    You aren’t planning for occasional expenses

    Have you ever had a month where you’re totally rocking your budget, and then your annual Amazon Prime membership comes due, or its time to renew your vehicle registration? 

    Because it’s not a regular expense, you totally forgot to budget for it. Not it’s thrown off your budget for the entire month.

    It’s easy to remember to account for the things you spend money on every month, but far too easy to forget those irregular expenses. 

    So what’s the best way to deal with those expenses?

    Sinking funds. Rather than budgeting for your entire Amazon Prime subscription in a single month, divide the entire amount by 12, and set aside money for it every month. Then, by the time it’s time to pay, the money is budgeting. 

    Sinking funds are great for so much more than just annual subscriptions. Here are some expenses you might have sinking funds for:

    • Vehicle registration
    • Car repairs
    • Car insurance
    • Home repairs
    • Christmas
    • Medical bills
    • Pet expenses
    • Vacation
    • Association dues
    • Clothing
    • Car replacement
    • Weddings
    • Tuition
    • Annual subscriptions

    You aren’t tracking your spending

    Making a budget is a great first step. But if you don’t actually track your expenses to make sure you’re sticking to it, then it really doesn’t do a whole lot of good.

    This is the problem with a lot of budgeting apps out there. You spend a ton of time setting up your budget. You get excited about finally getting on track with your finances. 

    But then, if you’re not proactive about tracking your expenses, you have no idea if the budget is actually working. 

    This step is most people’s least favorite part of budgeting. But it’s also a critical step to make sure you are sticking to your budget.

    You spend more than you make

    Budgeting is a great way to take get control of your spending and be intentional about where your money is going. But things can go off the rails if your budget includes spending more money than you actually make. 

    This leads to an endless cycle. You get paid, but then end up spending all of the money and more. Because you don’t have enough money to cover your expenses, you end up putting some of them on a credit card.

    Now in the future, you’ve got to budget for your existing expenses, as well as your credit card bill.

    In reality, there are only two ways to fix this problem: decrease your spending or increase your income.

    There are a number of ways you can reduce your spending when you’re on a tight budget. You also might consider picking up a side hustle to help you make some extra money to cover your extra spending.

    You’re struggling with impulse or emotional spending

    Even the most well-planned and well-intentioned budget will go off the rails if you can’t get your impulse spending in check.

    For some people, impulse spending is simply a result of a lack of dedication to their budget. For others, it’s far more than that. 

    If you’re struggling with emotional spending, a budget alone probably won’t help you to get back on track. Instead, it’s time to get to the root of why you’re spending. 

    During and shortly after my first marriage, I spent a lot of money. Seriously, I could not stop shopping. Every time I felt lonely, anxious, sad, or any other myriad of emotions, I would shop. 

    And while learning more about money helped me make progress in other areas of my finances, it wasn’t until I dealt with the feelings that were causing me to shop that I was able to stick to my budget.

    You and your partner aren’t on the same page

    If you share your finances with a partner, then your budget is dependent on both people being committed. And if you and your partner aren’t on the same page, then it’s easy for things to get off-course.

    When you share finances with a partner, communication is critical. You and your partner have to get on the same page if you’re going to have a successful budget. 

    If you’re the budgeter in the relationship, talk to your partner to make sure they feel included in the process. If one of you is overspending, work together to come up with some strategies to get back on track. 

    Finding the right budgeting app that the two of you can use together is a great step in getting on the same page and making sure you’re both included!

    You don’t have an emergency fund

    Failing to have an emergency fund is one of the quickest ways for your budget to get off track.

    In a perfect world, emergency expenses wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, they’re something that we all have to deal with from time to time. 

    And if you don’t have an emergency fund, then you’re forced to find room in your budget to cover the expenses in the month they come up. 

    Because most of us don’t have wiggle room in our budget for an emergency, this can throw your budget off not just for one month, but for many.

    If you don’t currently have an emergency fund, make this your first financial priority for the next few months. At the very least, set aside enough money to cover a month of expenses. 

    You aren’t being flexible

    Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is expecting their budgets to look exactly the same every month and then giving up when they overspend in one category. 

    First, know that your budget doesn’t have to be the same every month. One of the biggest problems with many budgeting apps is that you create your budget, and then are expected to use it every month. 

    I don’t know about you, but every month is different for me. In a month where several friends have birthdays, I might spend more money on eating out. But in a month where I’m staying home most nights, by grocery budget might go up. 

    Just know that it’s okay for your budget to adapt to whatever is going on in your life at the time.

    The other problem people have is that when they go over budget in one category, they think their whole budget is shot. That’s not the case at all!

    Listen, we all have a finite amount of money to spend each month. But it’s okay if you don’t end up spending it exactly as you thought you would on the first of the month. 

    Did you go over budget on eating out? No problem. Just find a different spending category that you can cut back on a little bit. 

    As long as you spend within your means, your budget is working. The mark of a successful budget doesn’t have to be that you stuck to your original plan 100%.

    Final Thoughts

    Getting started with budgeting is one of the biggest hurdles you have to jump when it comes to getting your finances on track. Unfortunately, it’s also one that people most often give up on. 

    The good news is that if you can figure out why your budgets have failed in the past, you can avoid making those same mistakes again.

    CONTINUE READING

  • The Best Budgeting Apps for Couples to Manage Money Together

     

    Before Brandon and I got married, we really struggled to find a budgeting solution that really offered everything we needed. 

    We weren’t quite ready to merge our finances yet. But we knew we were getting married, we had shared financial goals, and we wanted to be able to budget collaboratively. Now that we’re married and have shared finances, we have entirely different financial needs. 

    At the different points in our relationship, we need different tools and strategies to help us manage our finances together. Luckily we were able to find the perfect apps to help us do that. 

    In this post, I’m sharing 6 of the best budgeting apps for couples. Some are specifically designed for couples with separate bank accounts, while others are better suited for those who share finances. 

     

    The Best Budgeting Apps for Couples to Manage Money Together

    There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more information, see my full disclosure policy here.

     

    Why couples should budget together

     

    Study after study shows that finances are one of the biggest sticking points in a relationship and that disagreements over money are one of the leading causes of divorce. 

    There are so many different reasons why couples fight about money! Plenty of millennials these days are entering into a marriage where one or both partners has student loan debt. For example, see my article here about how my husband and I are planning to pay off our six-figures of student debt.

    Couples also argue about money when you’ve got one partner who is a saver and another who’s a spender. 

    Even if you’re not married, budgeting together can be a great way to get on the same page with your finances and get in the practice of peacefully resolving money disputes that might pop up.

     

    What to consider when choosing a couples budgeting app

     

    There are many apps out there that can help couples to manage the household budgets, whether they’ve merged their finances or only rock separate banking accounts. 

    Choosing the right app for you can be daunting, especially when many budgeting apps operate as a paid service. What if you pay the fee and hate the app? Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

    • Are you willing to pay for an app, or will you only consider free apps? If you’re okay with a paid app, look for one that offers a free trial.
    • Do you want a service that has both app and desktop functionality? Some companies offer budgeting apps, but not a desktop version. I really enjoy the option a desktop version!
    • Do you want to sync the app do your bank account, or are you okay with manually recording transactions?
    • Are you a more hand-on budgeter, or a more passive one? Some apps really require you to make a plan for each dollar, while others allow you to passively monitor your spending.

     

    What if we don’t share finances?

     

    I know that not all married couples choose to merge their finances. And plenty of couples who haven’t yet merged their finances still want a way to budget collaboratively and set shared financial goals. This was exactly the case for my husband and me before we were married. 

    The good news is that each of these budgeting apps can still be effective if you don’t have shared finances. In fact, some of the apps are specifically suited for couples who don’t share a bank account.

     

    The best budgeting apps for couples

     

    Zeta

    Zeta is a budgeting app for couples with either shared or separate finances who want to budget together. It’s specially designed for those with separate bank accounts. 

    Zeta allows you and your partner to upload your bank accounts and control what the other person can see. You can create a joint budget and track your spending together while keeping some expenses private. Zeta also allows you to set joint financial goals and track your progress.

    A feature that makes Zeta ideal for those with separate finances is that you can keep a running tab on who has paid for certain expenses, and tag your partner when it’s time to settle up.

    Zeta has awesome features like the ability to keep a running financial to-do list and well-designed financial dashboards. 

    I didn’t know about Zeta when Brandon and I were budgeting with separate bank accounts — Otherwise, I probably would have used it! 

    Cost: Free

    Who It’s For: Couples with separate finances who want to budget together.

     

    Honeydue

    Honeydue is a budgeting app that allows couples to add separate bank accounts and track spending together. When you add your account, you can control how much of your information your partner can see. Couples can set a joint budget and share financial goals.

    Another great feature is that you can set up reminders for you or your partner when it’s time to pay a bill. You can also message within the app to keep all of your money conversations in one place.

    One feature of Honeydue that really sold me (and the reason Brandon and I used it when we had separate finances) is that it allows you to track who paid for what and who owes you. If I paid the rent bill, I would enter it and indicate that Brandon owed me for half. Honeydue keeps a running tab based on all transactions, and allows either partner to settle up at any time. 

    This feature really addressed one of the more complicated parts of living with a partner and sharing expenses when you have separate finances.

    Cost: Pay what you want. Honeydue allows you to pay them whatever amount you think is fair, even if that number is $0.

    Who It’s For: Couples with separate finances who want to budget together.

     

    HoneyFi

    HoneyFi is another app that allows couples with separate finances to manage their money in one place, while deciding what the other partner can see. 

    Using HoneyFi, you and your partner can set up a budget together, track your bills, and monitor your spending. You can also create and track financial goals. 

    The big difference I chose to use Honeydue over HoneyFi is the feature in Honeydue that allows you to keep a running tab and settle up shared expenses.

    Cost: $59.99 per year with a 30-day free trial

    Who It’s For: Couples with separate finances who want to budget together.

     

    You Need a Budget

    Let me preface this by saying that You Need a Budget (YNAB) is my favorite budgeting app. It’s the one I personally use and recommend the most. 

    YNAB is a budgeting app that really allows you to make a plan for your money. Unlike more passive money apps that tell you where you spent your money that month, YNAB allows you to proactively decide where you’ll spend your money. 

    I also love YNAB for its tracking and reporting. When you add your debt and investment accounts, you’ll be able to see an accurate report of your net worth.

    YNAB is definitely pricier than some of the other options, but I’ve saved that at least ten-fold by using this budgeting method.

    Cost: $84 per year with a 34-day free trial

    Who It’s For: YNAB is ideal for those who prefer to take a hands-on approach to budgeting. If you’re inclined to track all your expenses in a spreadsheet, YNAB is a simpler solution for you. YNAB works for couples with either joint or separate bank accounts.

     

    Personal Capital

    Personal Capital is a financial planning app that allows you to monitor your budget, while also keeping tabs on your investment and retirement accounts. For couples planning their financial futures together, Personal Capital is a great way to keep an eye on your progress. 

    Personal Capital is a great tool for seeing your entire financial picture in one place. But unlike some of the other apps, it doesn’t really allow you to intentionally create a plan for your money every month. 

    Personal Capital also offers more advanced features such as wealth management services and financial advisor sessions at an extra cost.

    Cost: Free for the budgeting services, with extra fees for wealth management services.

    Who It’s For: Personal Capital is ideal for couples who want to monitor their investment and their progress toward reaching specific financial goals such as saving for a home. This app isn’t ideal for hands-on budgeters.

     

    Mint by Intuit

    Mint is a budgeting app that allows you to sync all of your bank accounts and track your spending throughout the month. 

    Mint is especially adept at automatically categorizing your transactions based on where you’re spending money. So for those who prefer to be more passive when it comes to your budgeting, Mint is a great option for you. Mint also has features that allow you to set and track financial goals. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance 

    Cost: Free

    Who It’s For: Mint is the perfect app for couples who want a low-maintenance budgeting solution. You can use this app for shared bank accounts, or separately add your individual accounts. 

     

    So what’s the verdict?

     

    If you read through this entire post, you might still be stumped as to which budgeting app is right for you. I’ve chosen my winners based on whether you and your couple have shared or separate finances.

    The best budgeting app for couples with separate finances: Zeta

    The best budgeting app for couples with shared finances: You Need a Budget

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    Dealing with finances in your relationship can be challenging, there’s no doubt about it. I truly believe that having an effective tool can help to ease some of the frustration. 

    I’ve used more than my fair share of budgeting apps, and some of them have been better suited for couples than others. Whether you share a bank account with your partner or not, there’s definitely an app on this list to meet your needs.

     

     

    CONTINUE READING

  • Sinking Funds: What They Are and Why You Need Them in Your Budget

     

    Have you ever had one of those months where you’re right on track with your budget and feeling really proud of yourself, and then your car breaks down?

    You’ve got a $500+ expense that you hadn’t planned for, meaning you have to put it on your credit card. Now, instead of spending the next few months saving up for that weekend getaway you’ve been dreaming up, you’re going to spend it paying off those car repairs. 

    Luckily, there’s an incredibly simple solution to prevent this problem from happening again: Sinking funds. 

    In this post, I’m going to share what sinking funds are, why you need them in your budget, and how to get started using them today.

     

    Sinking Funds: What They Are and Why You Need Them in Your Budget

    There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. For more information, see my full disclosure policy here.

     

    What is a sinking fund?

     

    A sinking fund is a savings strategy you can use to save monthly for planned expenses that come up throughout the year.

    The entire concept of sinking funds is that you save a bit of money each month for big expenses you know you’ll only have to pay once in a while.

    Let’s say you spend $600 each year on Christmas. Rather than waiting until the end of the year and having that oh shit moment when you realize how much you’re spending (end ultimately putting it on a credit card), you can save throughout the year. Set aside $50 per month for Christmas, and when December rolls around, you’ll have your entire $600. 

    Sinking funds are effective for three different types of purchases. The first type of purchase is expected costs that you know how much will cost. Examples of this include vehicle registration, insurance, and annual subscriptions.

    Sinking funds are also ideal for expenses that you know are coming, but that you don’t know quite how much they’ll cost. These expenses include car repairs, medical bills, and pet expenses. 

    The final type of expense you can use sinking funds for is saving for financial goals. If you’re saving up for a vacation or the downpayment on a home, you can use sinking funds by setting aside a specific amount of money each month. 

    The important thing you have to remember is to treat your sinking funds just like any other bill — Nonnegotiable.

     

    Why are sinking funds important?

     

    There are so many expenses that pop up throughout the course of the year that we know are coming, but that somehow always seem to catch us by surprise. And they always end up screwing your budget.

    Sinking funds allow you to spread those expenses out across each month, instead of paying them in a lump sum when they pop up. That way, you can ensure you’re never going over budget. 

    You’ll never have to feel guilty about going on that vacation or spending money on the holidays, because you’ve been planning and saving for those expenses. 

    You Might Also Like: 17 Foolproof Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget

     

    Common sinking fund categories

     

    Everyone’s sinking fund categories are going to look a bit different based on what you’ve got going on in your life, but here are some common sinking fund categories:

     

    • Vehicle registration
    • Car repairs
    • Car insurance
    • Home repairs
    • Christmas
    • Medical bills
    • Pet expenses
    • Vacation
    • House downpayment
    • Association dues
    • Clothing
    • Car replacement
    • Weddings
    • Kid-related expenses
    • Tuition
    • Annual subscriptions
    • New appliances

     

    How much should I put in a sinking fund?

     

    Each sinking fund is going to have a different amount in it based on how much you expect to spend in each category. 

    For fixed expenses, this will be easy. Let’s say you’re creating a sinking fund for your vehicle registration, which costs $120 per year. Save $10 per month, and you’ll have the full amount after one year to pay for your vehicle registration. 

    For variable expenses, you’ll have to estimate how much is appropriate for you. One way to do this is to look at how much you’ve spent in the past. 

    Let’s say you’re setting up your Christmas sinking fund. Look back in your budget to see how much you spent on Christmas last year, and you’ll have a good idea of how much to save.

     

    Where should you keep your sinking funds?

     

    When it comes to storing and keeping track of the money for your sinking funds, you have a few different options. 

    I’ll start with my favorite: You Need a Budget (YNAB). YNAB is a budgeting app that allows you to not only plan your monthly budget, but to plan your finances further into the future, and track the money you’ve set aside for specific purposes. 

    At any given time I can see exactly how much money I have in my pet expense sinking fund, for example. Then, when I spend money on our dog, it gets categorized as a pet expense in YNAB. The money that I’ve set aside for each category just sits in my savings account until I need it.

    YNAB is hands-down my favorite budgeting app and has totally transformed our budget. It has an annual fee, but you can grab a free trial here. 

    If you’re not using a budgeting app like YBAB to track your money, I recommend using a savings account with budgets (or just multiple savings accounts) to separate your sinking funds.

    In addition to the savings account I have at my credit union, I also have a savings account at Ally Bank. Ally Bank allows you to use buckets in your account to separate the money you’re saving for different purposes. 

     

    What is the difference between a sinking fund and an emergency fund?

     

    You might be reading this post and wondering what the difference is between a sinking fund and an emergency fund. After all, aren’t they both just a way to save for emergencies?

    Sort of.

    An emergency fund is a way to save for unexpected emergencies. The most important job of your emergency fund is to temporarily cover your monthly expenses in case you lose your job. That’s why it’s wise to have 3-6 months of living expenses in your emergency fund.

    Learn more here about how to build an emergency fund and how much you should save.

    A sinking fund, on the other hand, is for specific expected costs. In some cases, it will be a cost such as your vehicle registration or your Amazon Prime membership where you know exactly how much it costs.

    Others, such as car repairs, you don’t know exactly how much they’ll cost, but you know they’ll come up eventually. If the amount you need exceeds the amount you’ve saved, then you can dip into your emergency fund to fill the gap. 

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    I can totally relate to that frustration of getting hit with an unexpected expense, or an expense that you knew was coming, but totally forgot about. 

    I can honestly say that sinking funds have completely changed my finances around. Rather than getting hit by expenses that I have to throw on a credit card, I’m able to plan ahead with my budget and instead put my money toward things I’m really excited about (rather than those pesky car repairs).

     

     

    CONTINUE READING

  • How to Create a Minimalist Budget to Manage Your Money

    How to Create a Minimalist Budget For Your Money

     

    For years I avoided budgeting because of how restrictive it felt. I didn’t want to feel guilty every time I spent my own money!

    Then I discovered the concept of a minimalist budget, and it was a total game-changer. Rather than spending money on things you don’t really care about, you can spend more money on the things you care most about. 

    You’re probably familiar with the concept of minimalism, but minimalist budgeting might be a mystery to you. It’s the same concept — You’re eliminating the non-essentials to make room for the things you truly value. 

    In this post, I’m explaining what a minimalist budget is and how you can create one to help you manage your money without the guilt and restriction that often comes with budgeting.

     

    How to Create a Minimalist Budget to Manage Your Money

     

    What is a minimalist budget?

     

    Minimalism is the practice of eliminating the non-essentials from your life to make more room for the things you truly value. Most people use the term minimalism in reference to physical belongings, but you can apply the concept of minimalist to any part of your life. 

    I particularly like to use it as it applies to budgeting. A minimalist budget is one where you eliminate the non-essentials and the clutter from your budget to leave more money for what you value most. 

    A minimalist budget can help you to reduce your monthly expenses, simplify your financial life, and get out of debt. 

    It’s important to note that budget minimalism isn’t the same thing as frugality. A minimalist budget isn’t about spending less money — It’s about spending money on fewer things so you’re only spending money on what you truly value.

     

    How do you create a minimalist budget?

     

    Now that we’ve covered what a minimalist budget actually is, let’s talk about how you can create one to help you manage your money. 

     

    Identify your financial values and priorities

    One of the key benefits of a minimalist budget is that it allows you the freedom to spend money on the things that are truly important to you. To do that, you first have to identify what your values are. 

    Identifying your values and priorities is an important piece of the puzzle. Consider how often you allow yourself to spend money on something because it’s a “necessity”. Maybe it’s hitting the bar with your friends or that new outfit you’ve been eyeing online. 

    Sure, those things might seem like necessities. But what about when you compare the importance of a new outfit to being able to afford to fly home for the holidays? The outfit doesn’t seem like such a necessity when you identify your real priorities, one of which is that annual trip home for Christmas. 

     

    Make a list of all of your expenses

    One of the first things I think everyone needs to do when it comes to setting up a new budget is to take stock of where they’re currently spending their money. To do this, you need to make a list of all of your expenses. 

    The easiest way to do this is to literally go back through your last three to six months of bank and credit card statements and document every single expense.

    Yes, it sounds exhausting. But I promise you’ll get so much clarity from this one exercise!

    I remember the first time I set up a budget for myself. I really had no idea how much I was spending on anything each month. I set up a budget and was honestly shocked to see how much I’d spent on take-out every month. It was a LOT.

    Not only is this step important to figure out where you’re spending too much, but it also helps you to identify how much you should expect to spend. For example, it’s not realistic to start budgeting $200 per month for groceries when you’ve been spending $600. 

     

    Eliminate unnecessary expenses

    Alright, you knew this part was coming! Once you make a list of all of your expenses, it’s time to start cutting. Go through that list and figure out what you didn’t need to spend money on, or what you could have spent less on.

    Some of these will be easy, as with my example of eating out. As soon as I saw how much I was spending, I knew I had to cut back. Others will be more difficult because lots of things seem like necessities. 

    If you’re struggling to make cuts, refer back to step 1 where you identified your values and priorities. If something doesn’t fit within your values, cut it! 

    For example, suppose you’re spending way too much on food, partially as a result of regularly grabbing lunch and dinner out. If friendship is one of your top priorities, then you probably don’t want to cut that weekly dinner with your best friend. 

    But you could reduce your food spending by bringing lunch to work instead of ordering out. You’ve managed to cut your food budget without sacrificing one of your most important values. 

     

    Use a 50/30/20 budget

    One of the toughest parts about setting up a new budget is knowing how much you should be spending on everything. After all, there’s no handbook that you get when you become an adult that tells you how much to spend on groceries. You just have to figure it out as you go. 

    One of the best ways I’ve found to break up the budget is to do so by percentages. More specifically, I recommend the 50/30/20 budget

    The 50/30/20 budget is a framework that says you should break down your take-home pay like this:

    • 50% for needs, such as housing, transportation, and groceries
    • 30% for wants, such as eating out, entertainment, and hobbies
    • 20% for savings and debt

    Remember, this framework is just a guide, and it’s not going to be right for everyone. For example, Brandon and I have $150,000 of debt that we’re currently paying off, so we spend more than 20% of our budget on savings and debt. 

     

    Simplify your accounts

    Listen, I know it’s popular advice in the personal finance community to have separate bank accounts for your different savings goals. At some point, though, it all becomes more work than it’s really worth. And if you have a good system in place, you don’t need a bunch of different bank accounts. 

    First, popular online banks such as Ally and Capital One allow you to set up “buckets” within a single savings account where you designate different cash for different purposes. 

    Additionally, budgeting apps such as You Need a Budget (YNAB) allow you to budget money for certain purposes. My banking app might say I have $10,000 in my savings account, but I can look at YNAB and see that I have $5,000 budgeting for my emergency fund and $5,000 budget for RV renovations. 

    Another popular piece of financial advice is to shop around for the savings account with the highest interest rate. But then what happens is you’re constantly obsessing over whether your current bank still has the highest rate, and constantly moving your money as banks change their rates. 

    Here some honestly for you — The difference between a 2% interest rate and a 1.75% interest rate on a savings account can literally come down to a few dollars, depending on how much money you have in the account. Just pick a bank with a high-yield savings account and let it go. 

    Finally, credit card hacking. Far too many people take out loads of credit cards with different types of rewards, and then only use their favorite. Credit card hacking might be effective if you do it right, but for most of us, it just adds extra unnecessary credit cards to our wallet. 

     

    Automate your payments

    I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of monthly bills. Every month I’m paying bills such as rent, renters insurance, utilities, phone bill, etc. We also pay off our credit card each month so we never carry a balance. 

    If I had to manually log onto my various accounts throughout the month to pay my bills, that would be a huge pain. In fact, I would probably forget once in a while, and that would cause a whole different set of problems. 

    These days, you can automate just about everything having to do with your finances. And I recommend that you do just that. Automate your bills, automate transfers to your savings account, and anything else you can. 

     

    Get out of the monthly payment mindset

    One of my biggest pet peeves about life these days is that everything is based on a monthly payment. For some things it makes sense — I’ll happily pay my Netflix bill every month. 

    But now there are apps that allow you to take out mini loans for large purchases. That way, instead of paying the total amount upfront, you’re paying it off over six months or so. 

    But here’s the thing. Those services encourage you to buy things you can’t afford. If you can’t swing the cost of the shoes in a single payment, you can’t afford the shoes. 

    These services also cost you more money. Nothing comes for free. If someone is lending you money, they’re getting something in return. Usually, it’s an astronomical amount of interest. And even if that’s not the case, they’re normalizing debt, which is not okay. 

    One important component of getting out of the monthly payment mindset is getting out of debt. It’s easy to think about your debt only in terms of what it costs you each month. 

    Your $5,000 credit card debt might only have a minimum payment of $85 per month. Or your $25,000 student loan might only have a minimum monthly payment of $150. And while those numbers don’t seem all that high, they’re costing you so much more than that. 

    Let’s do some painful math real quick. Suppose you have $5,000 of credit card debt with a minimum monthly payment of $85. If you only pay the monthly payment, you’ll pay over $7,900 in interest before you pay the card off. 

    $7,900!! 

    You’ll pay more in interest than you had in credit card in the first place. All because $85 per month seemed like a perfectly reasonable amount to pay to have credit card debt. 

    Here are some rules to live by when getting out of the monthly payment mindset:

    • Prioritize paying off existing debt
    • Don’t take on any additional debt
    • If you use a credit card, only spend what you have in your bank account and pay it off each month
    • If given the choice between a monthly subscription fee and an annual one, pay the annual fee. It’s almost always cheaper. 

     

    Question every purchase

    When you’ve been spending money on the same things for years, it’s easy to see those things as necessities. One of the adjustments you have to make for a minimalist budget is to start questioning every purchase. 

    Minimalist budgeting is about spending money on fewer things, even if it means spending more on those items. It’s about focusing on quality over quantity. 

    Maybe you have a go-to pair of shoes that you buy, but the heels wear out in just a few months. This was me for a long time! I would always buy the same $25 pair of high heels for work. When the heels wore out a few months later, I’d replace them. I didn’t think anything of it, because they were only $25. 

    It turned out that once I started spending more money per pair of shoes, I started spending less money overall. Instead of buying a budget pair that only lasted a few months, I could buy a more expensive pair that lasted infinitely longer. 

    Think about what expenses in your current budget you could replace for a higher-quality item. Instead of buying coffee out every day, what if you invested in a nice coffee or espresso machine. Instead of buying bottled water at the grocery store, what about buying a nice water filter? 

    The goal is to spend money on quality items that last longer. 

    You Might Also Like: How to Reduce Impulse Buying Once and For All

     

    Spend less than you make

    I know I said that budget minimalism isn’t necessarily about spending less money, and it’s not. But just like any budget, the most important rule is that you have to spend less than you make. 

    It’s easy to rely on credit cards and monthly payments that trick us into thinking we can afford more than we really can. But if the amount you’re swiping on your credit card each month is less than the amount on your paychecks, it’s time to change direction. 

     

    Schedule regular budget meetings

    I think we can all relate to a situation where we set up a brand new budget that we swear is going to change our lives, and then we forget about it in less time than it took us to make it. 

    I’ve gotten out of this habit by scheduling regular budget meetings for myself and my husband. We do one budget meeting around the first as I’m planning out the budget for the month, and a quick check-in on Fridays, since that’s the day he gets paid. 

    Even if you’re the only person sticking to your budget, these check-ins are still important! Putting time on your calendar will ensure that you’re actually checking in with your budget and noting whether you’re still on track. 

    You Might Also Like: How to Create a Monthly Budget

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    Whether or not you practice minimalism with your physical belongings, a minimalist budget can be a great choice for anyone! Minimalist budgeting is all about eliminating the non-essentials from your budget to make room for the things that you value most. 

    While budgets often feel restrictive, the minimalist budget is all about freedom — Freedom to spend on the things you truly value without letting the less important expenses get in the way.

     

     

    CONTINUE READING