4 Tips For First-time Budgeting

Here are expert tips for beginners that will make you budget-savvy in no time.

There's a first time for everything, and it's never too late to get started on a budget. Creating a budget that you will stick to will help you get to know your money better and help ease financial anxiety—which is often caused by avoiding money decisions. Invest some time in getting to know your finances, whether that's with a financial coach, a partner, or just you and a trusty spreadsheet.

Setting time aside for your money doesn't have to be boring or scary. Light some candles, grab a snack, take some deep breaths, and think of it as self-care; changing your approach to budgeting is important to make the whole thing more routine. Here are some expert tips that will have you budgeting like a pro in no time.

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Keep It Simple

When you're creating a budget for the first time, try to keep it as simple as possible. This way, it's not overwhelming and will be easier for you to maintain.

"A lot of people think that you have to have these complicated budgets, these complicated spreadsheets—and you grow to that," says Tonya Rapley, millennial money expert and founder of the financial education and lifestyle blog My Fab Finance. Rapley recommends simply writing down your expenses: purchases in the last month (plus annual or quarterly charges) and subtracting your income from your expenses. This will give you a good picture of how much you're saving versus spending, and allow you to identify areas where you can possibly cut back.

A simple structure like the 50-30-20 budget can help you track your spending without having to maintain a bunch of categories, recommends Colleen McCreary, chief people officer and financial advocate at Credit Karma.

Split your expenses into three categories—50% for needs, 30% for wants, and 20% for savings or paying down debt. "You can always change the percentages based on your lifestyle. Your budget has to work for you," says McCreary. You can also download a budget app for an even easier way to keep track of your budget and spending.

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Base Your Budget on Your Income

Along with the overall structure of your budget, consider the type of budget that will be best for you. Rapley recommends basing your budget on your income. So if you get paid every week, create a weekly budget; a monthly salary would get a monthly budget.

Feel free to try out different formats and ways of organizing your budget until you find one that best fits your lifestyle and money goals.

Also, observe how frequently you're spending money. "If you're pulling out your credit card on a daily basis, you may want to set a weekly budget," says McCreary. "A weekly budget may help you keep a closer eye on your day-to-day spending."

McCreary recommends opening a separate checking account specifically to keep track of your spending and keep it in check. Put some money on a debit card weekly or monthly based on your budget, and see how much of it you spend—or, ideally, save.

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Avoid Situations Where You're Likely to Spend

Now that you have made your budget, it's time to stick to it. Try not to put yourself in situations where you know you'll spend money, like going out for dinner or pedicures. "One of the best ways to stick to a budget is to not pay people for things you can do yourself—until you get to a point where you can afford to pay people to do those things," says Rapley.

Another tip is to set aside one day a week or a few days month where you don't spend any money—cook meals at home or find free activities instead. "You may be surprised how many seemingly small purchases add up over the course of a month, and how much you end up saving if you find certain days to avoid spending," says McCreary.

Check in on your spending every few weeks (or whatever deadline makes sense for you) to see how you're doing and if you need to adjust anything in your budget. Set realistic spending goals for yourself; being too rigid can have the opposite effect and can lead to impulse buying.

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Set Financial Goals

Set some goals for your money, and use your budget to work towards them. Whether it's paying off student loans, buying a home, or saving for retirement, creating the right budget will help you get there. "A budget can be a north star for those who want to hold themselves accountable as they work toward a specific financial goal," says McCreary.

To stay on track with your budgeting goals, Rapley recommends using a flexible payment tool like Affirm, which allows you to spread out the cost of purchases at retailers like Target and Walmart without any late fees.

Budgeting will help you identify your spending habits—good and bad—so you can figure out any expenses you can do without and have a true picture of your cash flow in and out. Knowing your finances in this way will prepare you for unexpected expenses or financial setbacks.

Don't be afraid to try different types of budgets until you find the right one (or a combination of methods). Your budget doesn't have to be perfect—it just has to be right for you.

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