Quite frankly, you should already have a budget. But since you don’t, allow me to explain why you definitely should have one. And to dispel your doubts about the magic of budgeting, , I’ll tell you how mine took me from rampant impulse spending to tentative financial stability.
When I first started planning how I’d live in Boston, I knew I definitely couldn’t afford to buy prepared food or to eat at restaurants regularly. I also figured I’d incur all kinds of incidental costs of which I’d need to keep track, such as transportation, a few monthly subscriptions like Spotify, Audible, tea-of-the-month club, the odd used book, yarn-of-the-month club, etc.
Finally deciding to get a handle on my admittedly ridiculous and unnecessary impulse spending, I made a color-coded budget. I listed my anticipated income and expenses and planned out where to allocate every dollar I would earn. This, my dear readers, is my first (and arguably most important) piece of practical advice: For the love of all that is holy, MAKE. A. BUDGET. I am aware that this is not a hot take, but it is an important one.
Make it, in whatever form works for you, and STICK. TO. IT. It’s easy to think “Oh, I know roughly how much income I’m earning and what I can spend it on. I’m generally an organized person and I’ve so far survived two plus decades on this planet without an actual budget.” I, too, have fallen prey to this sort of overconfidence in my ability to keep a running tally in my head. Those one-item purchases at the thrift store, that morning flat white and those transportation costs really add up (and I’m not super good at arithmetic).
Maybe the rest of you have a stronger iron will than I do, but when I walk out of the office at 5 p.m. to the smells of pizza and Thai food wafting from Davis Square, then think about the technically edible food waiting in the fridge back at my apartment, the main thought that keeps me from going for the tantalizing deliciousness is that, if I make this purchase, I will have to log it on my budget sheet, and I will go over my discretionary spending limit for the week.
I’m so used to just swiping a VCard and getting sushi or Pad Thai or even chocolates from MyMarket whenever I want, and I’m so tempted to treat my debit card the same way. A budget helps keep me in line, even with my stomach growling.
Budgets come in all shapes and sizes, each with varying degrees of complexity. Mine is based on a template I found by performing a quick “google sheets budget template” Google search. While close readers of my Misc opus will remember that I’m an avid bullet journaler, I’ve tried and failed to use it for budget spreads in the past. I have more than hopeful, multi-colored spread labeled “Frank’s Budget” or “Frank’s Finances” or “Frank, Please, Dear God, Keep Track of your Spending” in my current journal. Each has at most six weekly entries before I gave up. On a Google Sheet dubbed “Summer Budget (it happened so fast),” I’ve had more success, for whatever reason. The takeaway here: there are a whole lot of mediums for budgeting. If one isn’t working for you, try a different one.
Regardless of your platform, any good budget must contain at least three things: a place to track projected income, a place to allocate said income (food, transportation, fun stuff, etc) with concrete dollar amounts assigned, and a place to account for your actual expenses. If you’re fancy, you can also include a section to reflect on whether your budgeted amounts are reasonable, and to note what you might want to change for your next budget. For instance, if you budgeted fifty dollars per week for groceries, but consistently have to spend more than that in order to achieve a balanced diet, you should adjust accordingly by lowering a different budget category’s allotment.
I do my budget on a monthly basis so I can get kind of a big picture view. You can also do a weekly budget, or a budget for the whole summer. Really, the level of planning is up to you. Entering my spending and income (though the latter is much rarer, of course) at the end of each day works for me. Maybe you’d do better to keep a running log throughout the day, or to leave it all until Sunday evening—a time when everything usually sucks anyway, so why not add one more annoying task?
The most important thing, however, is that your budget can actually hold you accountable for your spending. Whatever sort of budget you pick, it has to be capable of lighting the proverbial fire under your not-so-proverbial rear end. Especially living in an urban area (I walk by a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant and three boba shops almost every day), I find the call to overspend quite overwhelming. For me, at least, knowing that I must answer to the budgetary gods (AKA Frank from the past) at the end of each day keeps me from overdoing it.
Once you’ve got your budget down and you know how much you can afford to spend on groceries, you’ll want to check back for our next life lesson: meal planning and grocery shopping.