5 Steps to Creating a Realistic Budget

ImageBudgets: we all agree that they’re good to have. However, despite our best intentions, they never seem to match up with our real-world spending behaviors. If that sounds like you, keep reading. The key to creating a realistic budget is to work with your habits, not against them. Follow these five steps to understand yourself and your money, so you can create a budgeting plan that really works.

1. Get to know your cash flow

Before you create a budget, you need to know how much money you have coming in each month. You probably have a general idea, but have you taken everything into account? Do you receive a regular paycheck? Are you getting any benefits from the government, or money from your parents? Do you have a deposit account that pays dividends, like a savings account or CD account? Every little bit helps. Don’t include money you might have in the future, like a scholarship you applied for or a promotion you expect to receive. Budget as if these things won’t happen, and if they do, you’ll have a wonderful dilemma: extra money!

2. Determine your priorities

It doesn’t matter how much money you have; when you’re budgeting, life necessities come first. Focus on setting aside money for things like food, housing, transportation and paying down debt before you worry about anything else. Determining your basic cost of living is 100% non-negotiable.

3. Know thyself

What we really mean is “know your spending habits”. You can’t create new habits unless you’re aware of the ones you already have. Pull out all your account statements and start looking for patterns. Are you buying coffee every morning, for example? Are you shopping online more than once a month? Add everything up. If the total amount of money you’re spending is more than the amount of money you have coming in, it’s definitely time to cut back. That being said, it’s also a good idea to leave some wiggle room in your budget for unforeseen purchases. You can’t possibly account for everything. If you leave room in your budget for surprise expenses like car repairs, you can roll with the punches and come out with your budget unscathed.

4. Make it social

Spending is social. When you’re shopping, you’re often buying things for people, or with people. Why, then, wouldn’t you make your budget social, too? Don’t leave it in a dusty notebook on your desk. Talk about it, and ask your friends and family for tips. Or, better yet, ask your spouse or a trusted friend to be your “accountability buddy”. Make a pact to remind each other of your budgeting priorities while you’re shopping together. It’s easy to make an impulse buy when you’re alone, but it’s harder when someone you trust is there to say, “Do you really need that?”

When someone else is helping you make financial decisions, it may be tempting to just accept their advice without thinking about it, especially if they know way more about money that you do. When you’re applying for a loan or a credit card, your credit union representative can make recommendations, but you always have the final say. If you don’t feel comfortable with a particular arrangement, or don’t think it will fit with your budget, say something! Your lender will approve your loan based on your debts and income, not your living expenses. Only you know your living expenses, and these can be a much better indicator of how much you can realistically afford to borrow.

Laura Edgar is a senior writer for NerdWallet.com, a personal finance website dedicated to helping you make smart money decisions.

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