How to Build a Budget

In this write-in column, I answer your financial questions. Today I'll be talking about tracking your spending.

Hi Debbie,

I am just starting to get in the habit of building a budget. What methods/tools would you recommend? And how can I track myself? Especially since I am using multiple cards/banks and some cash...

Dear Anonymous,

This is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions, and one of the most important to handle on your journey towards financial freedom. In building a budget, it’s critical that you first establish a baseline of your current spending (which you actually alluded to in your question). Having an understanding of your current spending patterns will allow you to see areas that perhaps need some improvement, or how much money to allocate towards specific areas. While some people go through all of their accounts and manually tabulate their spending over the last month, I would suggest automating the process by downloading a tracking spender such as Mint, Clarity Money, or Status Money. You may need to recategorize some expenses as their categorizations are not always totally accurate, but it will give you a head start in tracking your spending historically and going forward. These apps will allow you to hook up all of your accounts pretty easily and see cash inflows and outflows. If you’re using cash, you will unfortunately need to track it manually (either through a spreadsheet or journaling), though that may be something you want if you are intentionally using cash.

Mint app below:

Once you have tracking set up, you can start to see your spending patterns - perhaps you may be spending too much on restaurants vs. groceries, or doing a little too much shopping, and not putting enough towards savings. Rent and food should obviously be the largest percentage of your expenses (though medical may also unfortunately sometimes slip in there). It’s fine to buy yourself something nice once in a while, but a good rule of thumb to follow if you want to stop overspending is the 50/30/20 rule. In essence, 50% of your income should go to necessary expenses (food, rent, utilities, cleaning/toiletries), 30% should go to things you want (shopping, entertainment), and 20% should go to savings. If you really want to be frugal, you can flip the 30 and the 20 (30% to savings, 20% to wants), or figure out clever ways to save on groceries and rent (such as airbnbing your place when you’re out or meal prepping). Your bank should actually have automatic transfer options, or you can use apps like Astra Finance, that allow you to automatically transfer a certain amount to savings when you receive your check or direct deposit.

For your benefit, I’ve set up a budgeting spreadsheet you can use to track your expenses and plan out your cash over the coming months. The goal is to eventually not need this spreadsheet, but to use it as an initial guide towards more intentional spending. Link here:

This is just an introduction, but I hope it was helpful in setting you up for success.

Your finance friend,