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Budgeting basics: 4 tips to gain control of your money

Illustration of coin, credit card, and phone displaying financial charts

Are you one of the 60% of Americans without a budget? Are you a little nervous about even starting one?

It can be scary to look at your bottom line but creating a budget can actually be an empowering exercise—one that can help you understand where you are and, just as important, help get you where you want to be. Follow these four simple budget tips for help getting started.

Budget tip No. 1: Start with your goals

Let’s begin with a definition: A budget is just a summary of your income and estimated expenses, usually for set period of time, such as a month. But before you get out the spreadsheets, it can help to think about why you want one in the first place.

So, ask yourself: Do you dream of being debt free? Of not feeling dread when you open the mail? Maybe you want to buy a house or renovate the one you’re living in. Perhaps it’s a destination wedding you’re planning, or a vacation with friends. This article explores more of the specific questions to ask yourself.

Keep your goals in mind as you build out your budget. It’ll be easier to stick to the process and celebrate your progress if you have a desired outcome in mind.

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Budget tip No. 2: Get your money information together

A rewarding aspect of budgeting is that it when you’re done, you’ll have all your financial information in one place. More good news? By working with your numbers and expectations, you’re on the path to accomplishing your goals. It’s worth it.

Gather your bills and paperwork

Here are some of the pieces of information you’ll need to gather. You don’t have to read them yet, just get it all in one place.

  • Bank statements
  • Credit card statements
  • Recurring bills
  • Receipts for charitable donations
  • Cash app transaction history
  • Childcare costs and activity fees
  • Car payment and insurance documents
  • Medical, dental and pharmacy bills

Figure out your spendable income

For this exercise, income is your monthly take-home pay—the amount on your paycheck(s) after any withholdings, such as state and federal taxes, Social Security taxes, or employer-sponsored retirement accounts, like your 401(k), are taken out. While these are part of your income, they aren’t available to spend, so they don’t affect your budget.

Determine your cash flow

Now, it’s time to look at where your money is going. Just plug your numbers from the paperwork you collected into our Personal Cash Flow Worksheet, and it does the math for you. Or search for a budgeting app that works for you.

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Budget tip No. 3: Review the numbers

The third step in budgeting boils down to creating an equation unique to your financial situation. Start with your income, set aside money for savings, and then subtract your planned expenses, such as bills, loan payments, and subscriptions. Everything that comes after the equals sign is what you have left to spend on incidentals, dining out, entertainment, clothing and more.

Income – Savings – Expenses = Spendable

Study your categories

Does the result of your income-minus-savings-minus-expenses equation surprise you? Are there categories where you’re spending more than you want?

Now that you can see all of your expenses, can you find ways to manage them? Study every category. Look for places where it’s possible to spend less of course (we’re looking at you, streaming services and/or apps we never use!), but there may be a few categories where you want to budget a bit more upfront, like:

Budgeting for savings

Most people only save when they have money left over at the end of the month, unintentionally making savings their lowest priority. As a result, they feel caught off guard when unplanned expenses arise, such as car repairs or medical bills.

Building savings into your budget won’t prevent life from happening, but it sets you up with an emergency fund to cushion you when it does.

Budgeting for debt payments

If you have credit card debt, student loans, or other forms of debt, you’ll want to consider your payment plans as part of your monthly expenses.

Budgeting for giving

If charitable giving is important to you, having a category, even a small one, for giving back might be something to include in your expenses.

Budgeting for fun

Your budget will help you plan for annual expenses that might sneak up on you, such as holiday travel or back-to-school shopping. You’ll have more fun at a concert or sporting event if you aren’t concerned about paying for the tickets. Include a cushion for special occasions and birthday celebrations.

You can use budgeting tools, like Thrivent Credit Union’s Balance Works, that help you to divide your monthly income into categories you establish.

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Budget tip No. 4: Review and repeat

You don’t check ‘budget’ off your to-do list once you jot down your bills and tally your income. There are pay raises and unplanned layoffs. You might get married or adopt a child. Life is fluid, and as it changes, so too will your budget. Review and update your budget regularly, and:

Watch for missed expenses

Since your expenses aren’t the same every month, you might discover bills you didn’t include in the original plan—things like quarterly bills for auto insurance premiums, semi-annual utilities, the kids’ activity fees and other random expenses. Add them to the list and adjust as needed.

Check your progress each month

Remember those goals you made in the beginning? Reviewing them on a regular basis will go a long way toward budgeting success. How has what you’ve learned while budgeting inspired you to earn more with a new job or side gig? Where can you tighten and save so you’re prepared for times of increased spending, like Christmas?

There may be glitches along the way and you might make mistakes. Rather than being discouraged, encourage yourself to keep going. Be patient and give yourself some grace as you pursue a balanced budget.

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Get professional guidance

A budget serves as the foundation on which you build an overall financial strategy. Consider meeting with your financial advisor about ways to maximize your savings goals, or sign up for Money Canvas from Thrivent, a free coaching program that helps you budget with ease, trim bills and tame spending.