You can talk about saving money all day, but if you don’t track your spending, you’ll never know how you’re really doing.
To keep track of my money, I use a Google Sheet (which syncs between my phone and computers), and record my expenses by the month and category. I could use an app like YNAB or Mint that would do this for me, but having to record my expenses manually makes me more cognizant of my spending.
It’s taken me a few years to perfect my system but I finally have a budget that works well for me. Below is a breakdown of how I organize my income and spending.
On the first tab of my spreadsheet, I calculate my income for the year, excluding taxes and retirement contributions. I exclude those two items because I have to pay my taxes no matter what shape my budget is in, and I consider my 401 (k) contributions off limits.
Although I factored in my income when originally creating my budget, I don’t let it influence my spending from month to month. If I get a big tax refund, a bonus, or a birthday check from grandma, it goes straight to my savings.
For a lot of people, their two biggest fixed expenses are their home and car payments. My car is already paid off (thanks to my budget!), so I only have to worry about my half of the mortgage. We live in a low-COL area, so our mortgage payment (including insurance and taxes) is only about $1,000.
- Mortgage (my share)- $500.00
- Car payment- Paid off
My other expenses are pretty limited:
- Internet 120Mbps (my half)- $22.50
- 5GB phone plan- $20.00
- Car insurance- $91.17
- NY Times subscription- $15.00
- Hulu subscription- $11.99
- Health insurance- Free
- HSA- $150
Although these are “fixed,” expenses, I don’t completely forget about them. They’re relatively minor amounts, but they add up over the course of a year. I review them every few months to make sure I’m not paying for anything unnecessary and shop around for everything else.
For my internet, I was able to get the price down by showing a competitor’s quote to my internet company. And as a millennial, I really don’t need a landline phone or cable bundled with my internet.
For my cell phone, I have unlimited talk and text, along with 5GB of data for $20.00 through Cricket. I promise I’m not an advertiser for them—I’m just amazed at how cheap they are for a major cell carrier. At work, I’m responsible for reimbursing certain employees for their phone bills (not me, unfortunately!), and I’m always shocked when I see ones that are five times the cost of mine.
For my car insurance, I go through Geico and pay my six month premium up front to save money. I also take an online accident prevention course every few years that lowers my 6-month premium by $40.70. I splurged a little for $18.20/year roadside assistance, but I have an older car and drive a lot so I think it’s worth it.
If I wanted to save even more money, I could get rid of the Hulu and NY Times subscriptions, but these expenses are worthwhile to me. Although I could get the news online for free, I believe it’s important to support good journalism. As for Hulu, I’m a homebody who watches a lot of TV so I use it frequently. Plus, we share our password with the boyfriend’s family, and get Spotify, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, and Netflix in return. It’s a pretty good deal for $11.99.
For my insurance, I’m currently on my dad’s amazing $17 copay plan, but in a few months I’ll age off of it. My employer offers a (very) high-deductible plan that’s free and they contribute $800 per year to my HSA—which I’ll supplement with $150 a month—so I should have any medical care covered (knock on wood).
The hardest part of creating my budget was dividing up the rest of my income after these fixed expenses. Some people sort money into different bank accounts or put cash in envelopes, but I leave mine in my bank account and use my spreadsheet to keep track of my buckets o’ money.
I used to micromanage all of my categories—haircuts, car maintenance, alcohol, gifts, and more— but it drove me crazy. I was constantly moving money around or rolling it over if I had extra leftover in a category. The whole system was too much work and I wasn’t able to stick with it.
I now only use five buckets: Utilities, Groceries, Gas, Needs, and Wants.
- Utilities- $100
- Groceries- $160
- Gas- $120
- Needs- $100
The first three are pretty straightforward. I probably average around $100 a month for my share of utilities, although it varies depending on the mercurial Syracuse climate. We just bought our house last August and are planning to conduct an energy audit to see if we can get this number any lower.
For groceries, I typically come in at around $160 a month (the one upside of living in the Syracusean tundra: a low cost of living), although I sometimes go over if I buy a lot of meat or produce (my recent infatuation with pineapple has been making this budget item difficult). However, I’ll occasionally skip a grocery trip or two if I’m feeling extra frugal that month.
I come in at around $120 per month for fuel. It’s higher than I’d like thanks to my long commute, but I drive a Prius which mitigates some of the cost. I weighed this factor when I took a job farther from home and decided that the increased pay and free insurance was worth it.
I use the Needs category for any essential purchases and cap it at $100 per month. I consider Needs all of those adulting things I don’t want to pay for, like oil changes, toilet paper, dentist appointments, and haircuts. When I occasionally go over the limit, I borrow leftover money from a previous month.
And lastly, the Wants category is my fun money. I try to shoot for $200 with an upper limit of $300. This category includes the usual fun things like dining out, boxed wine, and Amazon impulse buys. However, I also consolidated a lot of other budget categories into the Wants, including gifts, charity, and clothing (I don’t really need any new clothes). This forces me to prioritize and plan ahead. If I have a big expense during the month—like a wedding gift, furniture for the house, or a new winter coat—I have to cut back elsewhere.
Then there are always those big, budget-destroying expenses, like car repairs, vacations, or your brother’s dog’s surgery (yes, that’s a real one I’ve had). I could add a budget category for these and allocate money to them each month, but instead, I keep one page for all big expenses for the year.
Some of last year’s expenditures in this category included $600 snow tires (ugh, Syracuse), and $1,700 on vacations to Puerto Rico and DC (to get away from Syracuse). These expenses can change a lot from year to year—2018 will be all staycations—but I typically stay under a few thousand dollars.
- Annual big expenses- $1,000-$3,000
The Bottom Line
The most important part of my budget is its ease of use. I keep my categories simple and set reasonable limits based on my past spending. This makes it easy for me to keep accurate records of spending and stay within my limits. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that the best budget is one you can actually stick to.
What’s your budgeting system? Do you see anything in here I could cut? Leave your answer in the comments.