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Finding a budgeting method that works for your family can take a lot of trial and error. However, finding a system that is easy to use consistently and integrates well with your lifestyle can help you completely overhaul your finances. I created a budget binder that completely transformed our finances. This budget binder helped us pay off over $100,000 in debt and create an emergency fund in 4 years.
We created our first budget as a married couple back in 2009. It was basically an Excel spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers we pulled out of thin air to fit within our ‘ideal’ budget. We were always in the red, and we never actually tracked anything. It was just a spreadsheet that sat on our computer outlining how we should be managing our money.
In 2011, we tried a few budgeting apps, but we found them frustrating to keep up with and hard to stay on the same page as a couple. Each month we would run out of money in many of the categories before the end of the month just from inconsistency. We also had no concrete plan for how to get out of debt. Our debt was actually growing along with our family and the births of our children, after purchasing cars, and upgrading the size of our housing.
In 2012, I started budgeting more proactively. We were constantly asking each other where all of our money was going and how we ended up going over budget every single month. We felt like we were on a hamster wheel getting absolutely no where.
When Things Started to Change
About two years into our marriage, I took over the responsibility of managing our finances and budget. In 2013, after several years of zero traction, I started to really dive into what we were ACTUALLY spending each month. I had the sticky note app on my computer, and I had a note up on my screen that had the date of each paycheck for the month, what bills fell under each paycheck, and how much we had leftover once those bills were paid. I knew how much we had for things like food, entertainment, clothes, beauty, and so on.
At the end of the month, I would write out every single expense we had over the month and where our money went. It included the good, the bad, and the ugly. I did this for about 3 months before taking it to Jonathan to show him what was happening. We had some consistent issues in our spending that needed to change. This transparency was huge in helping us create a tangible plan for our finances.
I created a basic budget binder that helped us track our spending more proactively, outlined our debt and payments, and helped us close out our month to see if we were making progress. I took my sticky note system and transitioned it to paper. I had a much easier time tracking our budget paycheck to paycheck rather than for an entire month. It was harder to run out of money before the end of a pay period than it was to run out before the end of the month.
Pen and paper tracking and smaller chunks of time to meet goals was the way to success for us.
Over the years, I refined my budget binder to become everything we needed for tracking our finances and staying accountable to our goals. I’m going to show you exactly how we track our personal finances to get out of debt and begin building our savings. The same budget plan that got us out of debt will help us reach those big goals we have for ourselves financially.
The Ultimate Budget Binder
So you might be asking where you even begin when it comes to outlining a budget or financial plan for your family.
The first thing that I recommend doing is printing out your bank statements for a minimum of the past three months and doing a thorough analysis of where your money goes each month and what your spending habits realistically look like. Break it down into categories that make sense for your family but document every cent that you spent. Complete financial transparency is essential to knowing how to move forward.
Even though I prefer to create a budget each paycheck, I believe in capturing a picture of what your budget looks like for an entire month. Write down all of your fixed and predictable expenses for the month to see how much you have leftover for variable items like food, entertainment, clothing, and so on. Knowing what you have to work with helps you set realistic budget numbers for your variable expenses.
Now enter these bill due dates into your monthly budget calendar to see if your bills are evenly spread out throughout the month. We found initially that about 90% of our bills were stacked on one paycheck, and we were able to reach out to various companies to change our bill due dates.
Related: How to Use a Monthly Budget Calendar
How to Determine Your Budget for Variable Expenses
Once you have a clear picture of your non-negotiable expenses, you can determine how much of your income is leftover for variable expenses. Your budget might change each month depending on what things you need to put money towards, so these variable expenses may change from month-to-month.
Variable expenses are items within your budget that you can adjust to ensure that you fall within the limits of your monthly income. For example, you may have $200 to put towards family entertainment one month, but the next month you may only have $75 if other expenses came up or you went over budget in another category. Some examples of variable expenses include:
- Food (Groceries and Dining Out)
- Entertainment (Family, His, and Hers)
- Beauty (Hair, Makeup, Nails)
- Miscellaneous (Random Home Depot purchases, Downloading apps, etc.)
I use a cashless envelope system to track our spending and ensure that we don’t go over budget within a given category. I try to keep my categories as simplified as possible so I don’t have an overwhelming number of envelopes to track. You can utilize the envelope strategy with cash as well if that works better for you and your budget.
Once you have decided on your variable expense categories, set budget limits for each. You’ve already looked at your monthly budget and should know how much you have to allocate to these categories. Look at the spending analysis you did to determine a reasonable number based on your past spending habits. If you’ve been spending $1600 per month on groceries, it’s going to be really difficult to cut it down to $600 overnight. Set realistic numbers and make cuts where it is easiest first.
Take an Honest Look at Your Debt Situation
Next up is getting the full picture of your current debt situation. Take a deep breath and start logging in to all of your accounts so you can gather all of the necessary information. Create one sheet for each of the creditors that you owe and document balances, interest rates, minimum payments, and due dates for everything you owe.
Knowing all of this information will help you develop a plan that helps you make the greatest impact as fast as possible so you can begin snowballing that debt.
How to Start Saving Even If You Have Debt
Have you ever heard of paying yourself first? This basically means that you pick an amount that you can save each month, and you automatically roll that amount into savings before paying for anything else. Even if it’s only a few dollars, you can begin building a savings. This savings plan will begin to set the foundation for an emergency fund and long-term success.
Label what you are saving towards, your goal amount, and then track any money you add or withdraw from that account.
One way that we’ve saved over the years is with sinking funds. Sinking funds are where you set money aside for an upcoming expense that you can anticipate but does not fall within your normal budget. Some examples of this would be:
- Christmas Presents
- School Supplies
- School Clothes
- New Car Purchase
- Home Maintenance
You save a specific amount of money out of each paycheck towards these upcoming large expenses in order to prevent going into debt in order to cover these expenses when you do have to make the purchase.
Using the Bill Tracker for Each Pay Period
Now that you have a clear picture of all of your expenses, debts, and saving goals, you’re ready to put together your budget plan. I create a budget for every paycheck and create a zero-based budget. This means that I give a ‘job’ to every single dollar each pay period. If we have “extra” money leftover, I can choose to allocate that towards additional debt payments, towards savings, or add it to one of my variable expense categories where I’d like a bit more wiggle room.
As I mentioned earlier, we use a cashless envelope system to manage our variable expense budget. It’s essentially the same as a cash envelope system but without cash. You can read more about that over at THIS POST. You can grab a copy of the envelope balance tracker in my free paycheck budget sheets.
Track Your Spending to Stay on Track
Now the real work begins. Many of us start a budget with the best of intentions, but it ends up as a spreadsheet on our computer that we never look at or compare our actual numbers with. I get it, because that’s exactly how we were when we first got married. I keep a running tab of every dollar we spend each month with an expense tracker. I break it into color coded categories so I can easily group expenses as the end of the month.
Think of this like a check ledger that our parents used to use back before debit cards (if you’re around my age!).
Review Your Month-Where Did Your Money Actually Go?
Not every month is going to be picture perfect, and that’s ok. It’s important to close out your budget for the month and take an accurate inventory of how you did in meeting your budget goals. I use a Monthly Overview sheet to breakdown how our actual numbers compared to our budgeted numbers.
I am also a huge advocate of weekly month meetings so that there are no surprises at the end of the month. For you, monthly reviews may be sufficient. If things are really tight financially, tracking your progress more frequently is really important, though. You can catch a small problem before it blows up into a bigger one.
If you follow these simple steps using the Ultimate Budget Planner, you can get on the same page with your partner and start setting reasonable financial goals. You have all of the necessary tools to track your progress and take charge of your finances!
CLICK THE BUTTON BELOW TO GRAB YOUR FREE 25-PAGE ULTIMATE BUDGET BINDER AND GET STARTED TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR FINANCES!