How Do YOU Budget? (Free Magazine Giveaway!)

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The comments in my last post went off in a wonderful direction – people sharing how they budget. I’ve haven’t yet improved my own simple but ineffective budgeting system, so clearly I need some new ideas, as I’m sure others do as well. Therefore – How do YOU budget?

Do you use pen and paper? Excel spreadsheet? Which one? Quicken? MS Money? Open-source version? Online software? Spousal nagging?

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  1. I don’t really “budget” per se’. I save first (usually more than what I’ve predetermined savings to be just to keep myself in check) and spend the rest on whatever I want. However, I do use Excel and MS Money just to humor myself with the final numbers.

  2. We use the old pen and paper (with a little help from a calculator). We also count paychecks that month…you all know there are certain months with an extra payday. We then decide who can afford what and write it down. Later in the month if trouble starts (car repairs) we then trade bills to make the budget match. We have learned to live well beneath each of our means so it isn’t much of a hassle. So, going into every month we know what our income will be and we then juggle the responsibility of each bill and WRITE IT DOWN. This eliminates the spousal nagging and the he said/she said problems. We also make careful decisions about those extra paychecks and how they will be spent, usually paying down the mortgage!

  3. Loi Tran says:

    I use an excel spreadsheet for my budget. I have categories for spending each month such as gas, food, rent, specific bills, and misc. I have one column next to those categories that is called expected spending and another one next to that that has my actual spending. Then I just enter in the amount I spent on each of the categories.

    I have my networth on a different spreadsheet that has my goal at the bottom which shows how much I expect it to increase at the end of the month.

    The third spreadsheet has all my stock and mutual fund holdings. I use MSN money add-on. MSN money add-on updates all the stock quotes on the spreadsheet and then I can use this updated information to calculate my networth.

  4. I just use a pencil and paper. I had used Money for a long time, but got tired of coding in transactions. Basically, I only budget a few categories. My wife and I each get $175 per month in ‘fun’ money which includes dining out and clothing. Then we budget $300 per month for groceries and keep track of each grocery purchase. The final category is gifts – we budget for this b/c wedding, birthday and christmas gifts can get out of hand quickly.
    We track all of these in a composition notebook. I also have an excel spreadsheet with additional categories such as mortgage, insurance, retirement, medical, car expenses…etc, but since these categories rarely change, we do not track them on a monthly basis. Oh yeah, forgot to mention – if either of us has money left over from the ‘fun’ money budget we get to keep it and roll it over to the next month.

  5. I’ve been tracking expenses in Quicken for about a year. When I set up my budget, I ran a report for each expense type over the last year and averaged it out over 12 months as a start.

    When looking at setting targets, I decided how much I wanted to pay off out of my debt each month and asked myself if it was realistic to cut out areas of spending.

    I then set these up in Quicken under the budget setup. Quicken also does budget monitoring which I use to check where I’m at each time I enter bills. I hand enter all my receipts and reconcile them against my online banking. I also have all of my monthly bills set up as scheduled transactions auto entering 15 days before they actually occur.

    Over the first 2-3 months I adjusted amounts where necessary. This system works very well for me. I found that just by having the budget, I spend far less each month on all discretionary expenses.

    Quicken, when you really buckle down and get it all set up does a very good job of budgeting.

  6. I use a combination of Quicken and Excel. Quicken gives me a good overall look, and Excel gives me the nitty gritty each month with how to split the expenses with my girlfriend. However, in general, budgeting is more of an estimate rather than something set in stone.

  7. I use Excel.
    Over the years my sheet has gotten quite cumbersome?I have expenses broken up into utility categories, car expenses, miscellaneous, as well as multiple bank accounts. I also have a second basic balance sheet for my side real estate business. I find that excel does a good job and allows users the flexibility to set up a work flow that makes sense, but it makes it hard to track your total net worth on a routine basis and incorporate info from brokerage accounts etc. that are changing on a daily basis.
    At the beginning of this year, I looked into using Money. I purchased a copy for my dad for Christmas and took a look at how it was set up. I was pretty disappointed by the ads that were constantly displayed, as well as how the workflow seemed to go.
    I have decided to stay with excel for at least another year or until I find a piece of software that works better than MS money.

  8. I try to use the Quicken budgeting function. Seems to work pretty good, and you can customize it too. For instance, if you have a single transaction that throws your budget way out of whack, you can delete that one transaction.

    Also, it will notify you if you’ve exceeded your budget for a certain month (it’s nice, but not really useful). By the time you get the notice, you’ve already exceeded your budget…

    I also use an excel spreadsheet to determine exactly how much we have to put away each month for the house payments, tax, insurance, maintenance, etc.

  9. Quicken. It has everything you need really. And it draws all these pretty graphs of your budget, income and expenses, you name it.

  10. I just started my first job out of graduate school. Now with savings goals in mind, I use mVelopes. My parents who have used it over a year recommened it. It is a great way to visualize, categorize, and track spending.

  11. Right now I am using excel, however I am hoping something better is out there. Sure, excel has the ultimate flexibility to do whatever you want, but constantly re-arranging the structure by getting new credit cards and new savings accounts (for those $25 bonuses… etc) has become a little cumbersome. The excel sheet has gotten pretty advanced over the years, including coloring and automatic plots and all that jazz.

    However, the fundamental basis of my budgeting has been using different credit cards for different catagories. This worked great for a while. My gas card, my “fun” card, my groceries card, etc. However, I’ve been getting new cards, and, for example, the 2% Fidelity card is my best bet for most purchases. Therefore, my “budget the catagories by credit card” has suddenly failed. And I REALLY don’t want to manually catagorize my CC statement.

    So, I actually asked this question in the last post because I was hoping to find some opinions on software that does the automatic download and catagorization of your CC statements. This would save me!

    Any advice/comments on those software packages that handle statement downloads, etc?

  12. I use Excel. I have a section at the top with all of my expected expenses such as rent, groceries, and gas. Whatever amount is left is my fun money for that month. I then record below that every purchase I make and keep a running total of how much fun money, grocery money and gas money I have left. At the end of each month I calculate my net worth by adding up my various savings and investment accounts and subtracting my current credit card balances. I am happy with my system because it is easy and free.

    So far I’ve found Quicken to be a pain but I haven’t spent much time trying to figure it out yet.

  13. Darren Marshall says:

    I’ve developed a pretty solid excel spreadsheet that notates expences by the day, week, month, 6 month and 12 month. My bills are outlined with interest calculated, starting balance and current balance – Working on getting a system of rewarding credit cards as advised by MyMoneyBlog and keep track then as well – I’m in College so I need to be wrapped around my money 24/7. On a separate spreadsheet I have my loans calculated with interest, and a repayment schedule set so when I graduate I’ll be ready!! Working on building my net-worth on an additional spreadsheet to fine-tune the rest of my life!

  14. I’m so glad you are doing this. I was going to work on budgeting soon, see ‘after I’ve had a long cold stare at Quicken to see where the fat is’. Any advice would be great. I try to pay with everything by credit card to track everything, but I know it’s the cash withdrawls from the ATM that really throw things off. I, too, hate typing my transactions in every night. It stinks.

  15. I am just starting to follow a budget. Right now I am utilizing Excel. Since I am in the early stages of budgeting, there will likely be some bumps along the way. Still, I hope this method works.

  16. I have a fixed expenses column and a variable expenses (food, entertainment, etc) column. I have all my paychecks deposited to my savings account and give myself an allowance (same thing every month) to my checking account at the beginning of the month. Whatever’s left over in the checking account at the end of the month is still there the next month, so if I spend less one month, I could (if I wanted to) spend more on variable expenses the next month. It’s kind of like Cingular Rollover minutes.

    I’m lazy and I usually don’t write down what I spend – I just spend less than what is in my checking account.

  17. I do what Single Mom posted. I would have to add, when I receive an extra paycheck in some months or receive a bonus, I place that money into a ROTH.

  18. I use excel to keep track of accounts but only at a fairly high level – I’m okay with things being on average correct so I don’t chase down every dime. I just have one column for each month with a row for each account and I tally it once a month so I can compare it to last month, to last year. I try to use credit card for absolutely everything – apart from the rebate, it gives you a break down of all of your spending so it’s fairly easy to group things together and see if your spending a lot more on eating out etc.

  19. I use an excel spreadsheet. Have been using it for quite a few years now. I haven’t ventured to using Quicken, Money or any of the other software names as of yet.

    I have one spreadsheet that breaks all of my amounts in the different budget categories (mortgage, utility bills, groceries, savings, etc). I have another spreadsheet that spells out my goals for the year (Ex. Save $50 per month, pay an extra $100/month on student loans, etc.). I link my goals to my budget to make sure I striving toward them. All my spreadsheets are different tabs on the same file so it’s easy for me to locate everything at once.

    I also keep spreadsheets that show my net worth, investments and any other financial-related information. I’ve linked pretty much everything together so that I can get a reasonably good snapshot of my finances.

    It’s taken quite a bit of time to get my ‘spreadsheet to the point where I am comfortable with it but it’s so worth it now. Now all I have to do is just update a few #’s from month-to-month and I know where I stand. I can tell when I overspend or need to adjust my numbers. As my situation changes (making new goals, earning more money or acquiring more bills), I simply update my spreadsheet and determine how my financial situation looks.

  20. I recently ditched MS Money after about 5 years in favor of Yodlee (thanks for the tip) and Excel. Tracking expenses at the transaction level became too tedious and I could never get the automatic updates working very well. Now I let Yodlee bring in the balances it can and then manually enter the other account balances on a monthly basis. My spreadsheet has 4 tabs (Bills, Outstanding Transactions, Net Worth, and Credit Cards). On the Bills sheet I list all my regular bills and include “pay yourself first” bills to savings, investments, etc. The Transactions tab is for keeping track of any large transactions that haven’t yet posted to my checking account so that I don’t forget what the “real” balance is. I use Yodlee as the input for the Net Worth sheet and have a snapshot per month including percent change and a short analysis of that month. On the Credit Cards sheet, I just keep track of how many I have, the credit limit, and the expiration date of any 0% offers I am using.

  21. I’ve been using GnuCash on Linux for about a year an d a half and it’s worked out great. It’s a double-entry system so you can expand it to whatever categories that you might need. I track *everything* that I spend, and even have seperate accounts for quarters because I use them quite a bit. So that I don’t forget anything I carry around a notebook in my back pocket. At the end of each month I generate a report and look at my spending habits. I don’t really budet persay, but I do make sure that I have a large enough cushion between my expenses and my liquid assets.

  22. Excel.

    I plan on trying out Mvelopes as well as Money and Quicken though. I’m also in a transition period where I’m trying to figure out the best possible method.

    I currently have multiple sheets in Excel tracking each individual account. A checking sheet for example tracks my debits/deposits so that I know how much money I have to send to pay off my monthly bills. I don’t budget by category though. Thus my dilemma. I suppose I can go through my credit card sheets and then categorize each individual transaction if I need to but I don’t have the time for that anymore. 🙂

  23. calgirlfinance says:

    I am a big fan of paying myself first and spending the rest. Direct Deposit to 401K, then investment accounts (Roth and house fund), then savings accounts (for emergency money and wedding). I used to do an automatic bank debit for my tithing, now I write out checks (should happen twice a month, but I’m behind). Direct debit all other invoices to credit card or bank account, depending on the type of bill. (*Note, I’m not paying rent until I get married in 6 months, living with mom) Then whatever is left over is my spending money. I charge it all on one credit card, check my balance once or twice a month to make sure I’m not going to exceed the amount in my bank account. To calculate my net worth, I use excel. That is also where I track my financial goals.

  24. I’ve been a Quicken user since 1992. It’s really fun to see where I’ve taken girlfriends to dinner and how cheap gas was back then!

    I revise my budget annually or when major life changes happen. I begin with savings goals.
    Then I export a report from quicken to excel that shows expenses by category for the past 12 months and I calculate monthly averages. I then tweak the expenses and savings goals to balance out with income. Lastly, I plug the budget into the Quicken budget function.

    Every two weeks I run a month-to-date budget comparison to see how well we are doing. It’s not an exact since but it works.

  25. A few basics. I’m single, no kids, no car loan and just bought my first house. I think Matt touched on my method by viewing paychecks as what they are used for. I get paid every other week:

    1st paycheck of the month pays:
    Credit Card (which contains most utilities)
    fun stuff
    $330 in savings for next years Roth

    2nd paycheck pays:
    Mortgage + some extra
    student loan

    Right now this is my plan for the beginning of next year. Since I am spending much more money on house stuff this first year, I will have many rare costs. After this year I will have the place refurnished and repainted and won’t have to worry about those types of costs for a while (famous last words).

    There are 2 months in the year that I get 3 paychecks, those will go to cover unforeseen expenses, vacations or onto the mortgage. Also, since almost everything is paid with my credit card, it’s easy to see where the money is going.

  26. I’ve used MS Money for the past 10+ years to keep track of everything. I’ve never really done what you might call a fixed budget. The one we work off is based upon past spending habits in each particular category. Not great I must admit!
    Although what I try and do is limit future spending to about 90% of what it was in the past

  27. I use YouNeedABudget to actually do a budget but I also use MoneyDance to keep track of everything (like how my stocks are doing and such).

    I like YNAB because it tells you exactly how much you’ve spent and actually tells you what to do if you go over or under.

    I like MoneyDance because it’s Java which means I can use it in either Windows or Linux.

  28. We dont budget, we just dont spend on anything but the essentials, only after until the hilt retirement savings and maximum possible mortgage paydowns each month have been done.

  29. An Excel spreadsheet that started out fairly basic, but has developed to the point where it is more or less a standard double-entry accounting program look-alike. I’ve got line-by-line transactions, running balances for all the ‘liquid’ accounts (checking, savings, CCs), and columns for each budget category (about 10). Each transaction amount is entered against the appropriate account and a budget category. There’s a sheet for every month, and account balances automatically update from month to month. A final sheet has automatically generated month and year-to-date summaries, with comparison to the nominal budget. I enter transactions approximately weekly from receipts and online account history; it usually takes a half hour or so. As is, I can’t download and import statements, but it does force me to be more in touch with what’s going on, and that’s enough benefit to make it worthwhile for me.

  30. My wife and I use Excel for out monthly budget. We have gotten so good with the budget we only update it once or twice a year. We were using Quicken but was too much of a hassle. We update our networth twice a year in a different Excel spreadsheet. We use to track our retirement progress and I just started using to update our networth.

  31. Wifey and I use Moleskin Notebooks and essentially write everything down.. Down to the cent.

    All Income (e.g., work, extra income), all re-occuring bills, all unusual expenses, future budgetary items (i.e., real estate taxes; we do not hold them in escrow, we pay them off in full at the end of the year).

    At the end of the month, we know EXACTLY how much money made and EXACTLY how much money we spent and on what.

    We budget weekly and adjust it as necessary. For example, if we have, for example, $500 per week to spend (gas, food, ets.) and we go over by $50, we take $50 off of the following weeks’ budget.

    If we are under-budget by $100, the $100 is not added to the following weeks’ budget; it is saved.

    We also balance the checkbook WEEKLY to the dollar.

  32. Excel,
    I have Excel that i updated every 15 days with CC transactions and there is lookup on the side created that shows the expected cost and actual cost and diff between them. Also have networth tab that collects the networth by looking at monthly expense,bank summary tab,liability tab.
    So far every 15 days spend 20 min and have all the data and graph that I need. I am not planning to go for any software as this is so flexible and over the years now i am quite satisfied with this.

  33. I just live paycheck-to-paycheck, when that runs out, I start running up my credit cards. I figure eventually I’ll just declare bankruptcy and start over.

  34. Right now I am using the Primer version of You Need a Budget. The primer version helps you to save up one months worth of expenses in order to graduate to the full fledged version of YNAB and also tracks expenses. I’m looking forward to graduating because from what I understand YNAB budgets with money you already have on hand, which sounds much better than budgeting paychecks I haven’t received yet like I do now. I try to update the budget at least every 2 weeks so I can see where all the money will go and has gone.

  35. I have a system that may sound complicated, but it really isn’t.

    I use Quicken, but only to keep track of my networth. I have several online bank accounts, so this helps me see the exact networth number in the end, because otherwise I’d just estimate.

    I use Excel for my budgeting. For every month, I have two spread sheets: Fixed Spending and Flexible Spending. Fixed Spending has categories such as Medical, Car Maintenance, Vet Bills, Utilities, Rent, etc. Flexible Spending has the small, and arguably unnecessary stuff that can blow up in my face, such as Clothing, Hair Care, etc. Each month I have a set amount of money that goes into my ING accounts for each category and at the end of the month, anything I’ve spent from the category is then transfered to my checking account to pay the credit card (which is paid in full every month, except for the 0% BT).

    It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. This also gives me some flexibility since if I overspend one month, I have next month to make that category right.

  36. Jonathan, how about a pie chart on who uses what program for budgeting? =)

  37. I use MS-Money to track my spending I’ve used it since 1995 and still love it! I must admit that the categories can get rather tedious, but I love to forecast my transactions and see how much is leftover.

    I don’t use the budget function in MS-Money much, though. Instead, I deposit my paycheck, enter all the transactions that I know are coming up (bills, $150/month for fun/dinners out, etc.) and then everything else goes to investments. That way, I pay myself first.

  38. Funny you brought it up. I mentioned it in my post last week. I use MoneyClip 2.0 on my Sidekick 2 to budget and manage my accounts. Very convienent especially the sidekick 2 is with me all the time. I update my budget with every purchase/deposit.

  39. I use an Excel spreadsheet with columns for estimated expenditures and actual expenditures. I’ve custom built it to track every expenditure great or small. I even set up different “envelope” accounts to save up for gift giving, apparel purchases, annual expenses, and health care.

  40. Jared Iverson says:

    In my blog post yesterday, I talked about the two methods of budgeting I’m most familiar with.

    One way is to pre-determine a set amount for each category and work at not going over the budget for each category. The other way I talk about is just watching your total cash flows for each month and making sure your income is greater than all your combined expenses.

  41. good old excel spreadsheet. nothing to complicated and detailed, just all the bills (thanks to billpay by BoA!) and expenses.

    The set back is that I have to lump all credit card expenses under each credit cards’ columns and thus cannot keep track of individual groceries/items shopping. However since my wife (the financial minister) is pretty trifty, no worries there.

    Amazing how budgeting techniques have improved over the years. I remember my grandpa using ink filled pen, my mom using ball pens and booklets, and me now using pc. Can’t imagine what will the next generation use!

  42. I use Excel. I basically have a line for each bill I pay. Then I have a line for “checks”, ATM, credit card, and donations. We pay for everthing that we can with credit cards so I don’t have to track individual items. I had trouble distinguishing what I bought at Walmart since a single receipt can cover several budget categories. Of course, I have only made budget once or twice on the credit card line since I started my spreadsheet a few years ago.

  43. I use excel to divide up the money I know I hav ecoming in into categories. Make sure the categories cover known bills and averages.

    Then I automate every bill I can in my chase banking account with online bill pay. For the variable bills I use paytrust — you can create rules and maximumns and such.

    Then, for walking-aroudn-spending, I use debit cards. We have about 7 checking accounts — each representing a spending category. We have: groceries, Dining/entertainment, my lunch/allowance, kids, household, etc.

    These checking accounts are filled up with scheduled repeating transfers from my bank — the amount determined by the excel spread sheet.


  44. hkplayer says:

    Well, I do not have anything original to add to this besides saying that this is a first response to anything you have posted. This is mainly due to the fact that I just read your feature story in BusinessWeek 5 minutes ago.

    Anyway, I too use Excel. I have been using my self-designed template for over 5 years (since sophomore year) and have also shared its functions with siblings. Essentially, its a bunch of cells linking to each other but in segregated categories based on the standard accounting practice of revenues and expenses.

    Each excel “sheet” manages a quarter of a year’s time. Three sections exist on each sheet (quarter): active accounts and investments vs projected revenues (incomes earned), projected expenses vs actual spent, next quarter’s expenses vs revenues. I would be happy to email you or anyone a template.

    I know its all blah blah blah but that is what I have and use, hope it helps.

  45. Miller – good idea =)

    I wish I had iWork for Mac, it makes such pretty graphs…

  46. I use Excel. The way it’s set up allows me to track all expenses and the automatic deductions to my credit card and checking account. I have a “personal balance sheet” that I update frequently (similar to yours, Jonathan).

    For the expenses I use a single worksheet on which I enter all expenses, the date, the month (to run summaries), and the cost classification (from a drop-down menu with about 15 different types of costs). I then use pivot tables to create my monthly summary. For example, I format the pivot to give me all February expenses, sorted by driver. After “month-close” I then insert that information in my monthly budget tab, which includes space for actuals versus my budgeted amounts. Since I also include all net income at the top, the tab lists the profit/loss at the bottom. I put that leftover amount into the savings account every month

  47. A few years ago, I converted my budget from pencil and paper to a Microsoft Access database I wrote. It’s worked slick.

    I track everything to the penny. I have categories for all the major monthly expenses, as well as for items such as gifts and entertainment. I calculate my yearly expense and divide that by 26 (# of paychecks I get in a year). Each payday, the app adds the designated amount to each category. That was better for me than worrying about those months with a third paycheck.

    I have reports created within the database that can show me various breakouts for a month or the year to date. The year reports list the average monthly expense for each category.

    I have a form to update all the categories with a specific amount at payday and I enter all my transactions into a simple form. Basically, the category, date, how much and a description. Amounts left over each month roll into the next month’s balance. If a balance is too large I may transfer some to savings.

    I review how much I budget to each category every January or as major changes come around.

    With a young son and my wife staying home with him, it’s a necessity.

    I’ve never used Quicken or those other products, I figured writing a customized app for myself would work better. I thought Excel would be too difficult to manage and update.

  48. I use a “No Budget Pay YOurself First” way to budget. I figure out how much I need to save/invest first, set up auto withdraws with fund company, online savings bank, Roth account and 401K and then treat the left overs as my real salary and live with it. It has been working wonders in the past a few years and I didn’t necessarily feel that I am living with constrains. I still do what I love to do such as rock climbing and snowboarding. With the mind set on a fix amount of money each month, I really forget my real salary and automatially live under my means.

  49. hkplayer:

    Could you please email and attached copy of your financial budget spreadsheet? I sent you an email, but with spam and all I don’t know if you will get it or not. Thanks again,

  50. Contest has ended, I’ll figure out the winner and contact them tonight.

  51. I love this post. It encouraged me to make a spreadsheet out of excel to track my spending as well as sick/vacation days. My employer allows me to carry over two weeks per year but we have to put the paperwork in 1 month before the end of the year. I used your tracking idea and chagned it to meet my need of tracking vacation hours as well.

    If you’d like to post it let me know!


  52. I use multiple Excel spreadsheets, one for each kind of investment (e.g. Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, Rollover IRA, 529, etc …). I have a price spreadsheet that is linked to Yahoo with an easy button that gets the latest prices for all of my investments (all are mutual funds and/or ETF’s). I have a master spreadsheet that holds my checking/savings account information and has a tab for a budget. On an annual basis, I link the actual spending back to other tabs and/or spreadsheets & then have a column for yearly and monthly (average of the 12 months) costs. I keep 1 month of emergency funds in local savings accounts, and 5+ months in a Money Market Fund. I have other spreadsheets for FSA’s, work hours/vacations, etc … When it comes time to do taxes, all the informatition needed (including the QDI calculations are all provided on one tab of one spreadsheet). I didn’t start out with this system, but sort of grew into it over the years. I no longer use Quicken (as it is absolutely unnecessary and I save money there). I store the information in several places (via regular backups) and keep the daily items in a secure vault on a flash drive, but I can recreate the information from a backup in minutes. I can even open up the spreadsheets using Star Office (a freebie for U3 enabled flash drives) so even Excel is not necessary.

  53. I meant to add the following as well. In each of my investment spreadsheets, there is a tab at the beginning that is called Summary that does just that. The remaining tabs are for each fund in that investment (i.e., Roth spreadsheet has a summary tab and two other tabs for VMMXX – money market fund, and VISVX – Small Cap Value fund). There is also an ROR tab that includes annual contribs and a calculated ROR (using the XIRR function). Each fund tab has tracks my basis for the purchase of that fund and what my annual basis for buying/selling. When it comes time to invest into additional funds, I favor those funds whose current price is furtherst away from my basis (if the current price is less than the basis), or whose current price is closest to my basis (if the current price is higher than my basis). That way I am always buying below my basis.

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