Building a Line Item Budget

By Krystal Etienne · March 10, 2023 · 15 minute read

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Building a Line Item Budget

A budget can be a terrific tool to help you understand how much money you have flowing in and out every month. It provides the guidelines and guardrails you may need to avoid overspending and hit your savings goals.

No one likes to feel broke or in debt, and setting up a simple line item budget is a time-tested way to take control of your money. If you’re sick of running out of money before the end of the month or watching your credit card debt climb, this guide to line item budgeting can help.

Read on to learn:

•   What is a line item budget?

•   What are the pros and cons of a line item budget?

•   What are examples of a line item budget?

•   How do you set up a line item budget?

What Is a Line Item Budget?

Depending on where you look, you’ll find a variety of budgeting insight and advice. Some tout the benefits of the 50/30/20 rule and others swear by the envelope method. These different budgets can offer flexibility and provide a solid structure for your budget.

However, if you’re looking for specific insights, it could be worth starting with a different approach that offers more granular detail into your expenses and spending habits — a line item budget.

Essentially, line item budgets function by grouping related costs together and creating a clearly organized flow of funds. They also track both income and expenses, giving a more complete and accurate financial picture.

What Is Considered a Line Item?

A line item budget at its core is a list of expected income streams and pre-planned expenses expected over a specific period of time. A line item is simply one of the items on that list.

For example, a line item budget that calculates income from a salaried job and a rental property, plus expenses for a cell phone, car insurance, and a music subscription, would have a total of five line items. A line item budget can have as few or as many line items as needed, and they’re often categorized by type to help keep the budget organized.

It may be helpful to know a bit about how these budgets can work in business, as background for creating your own line item budget. Say a business is creating a new advertising campaign. They might consider:

•   Projected expenses: How much they think the cost of creating and executing their advertising materials will cost in the future.

•   Previous actual expenses: This will show how much in the past their costs actually were for such endeavors.

•   Present-year expenses: This would track the actual expenses being incurred as they create their ads. This could be done week by week or month by month.

In this way, one can track expenses over time and see how spending is trending.

In personal line item budgeting, you will be able to use this technique in a similar way. In addition to focusing on day-to-day spending, saving, and keeping expenses in line, you can also use this sort of household budget to plan for the future and to save.

What Are the Advantages of Using a Line Item Budget?

If you are considering implementing a line item budget, consider these upsides.

Allocating Expenses Is Simple

One of the biggest pros of using this kind of budget is the ease with which they can be created. With just a few clicks on a spreadsheet, you can establish a basic structure and begin to fill in the data that needs to be recorded. And as priorities change, the budget can be changed just as easily to meet those new needs.

Interpreting the Budget Is Easy

Another major advantage of the line item approach: Making a budget this way isn’t only easy to do, it’s also easy to understand. Creating a basic list of categorized income and expenses doesn’t require any specialized accounting degree to decipher. With your phone’s calculator function, you’re good to go.

Planning Your Future Finances

It provides an easy to read, at-a-glance view of what to expect from your expenses in a week’s, month’s or year’s time. And specific amounts are clearly displayed on each individual line. Those looking for budgeting for beginners tips may want to consider a line item budget for these two benefits.

What Are Some Downsides to Line Item Budgets?

Next, it’s worthwhile to recognize the possible drawbacks of line item budgets.

Best for Steady Earners

Line item budgeting usually relies on fixed and steady income and expenses for accuracy. It can work well for managing predictable finances, but if a budget contains line items that fluctuate significantly, it may not balance properly. This can lead to inaccurate calculations.

For instance, a business budget with a line item for income from a candle company may be accurate if the same number of candles is sold each month. However, if the candles are sold during the holiday at a discount, the income would not match the preset number on the line budget, and the final calculations would be incorrect.

Typically Rigid

Another disadvantage of line item budgets is that they are rigid. It’s not uncommon to change spending habits throughout the year to fit changing needs, but those changes aren’t automatically reflected in a line item budget.

Spending adjustments may require extensive budget rewrites in order to accurately capture a new spending plan. With a line budget, any time financial goals change, it requires reviewing and adjusting everything line-by-line in order to stay current.

Requiring Detail

Unlike a budget such as the 50/30/20 rule, in which a person wrangles three big financial buckets (or spending categories), a line item budget does require rigorous accounting of specific expenses. This can be challenging for some people.

Now, in chart form, here are the pros and cons of line item budgets:

Pros of Line Item Budgets

Cons of Line Item Budgets

Simple to manage Requires detailed record-keeping
Easy to create Rigid
Good for future planning Best for steady earners

Budgeting: Is It Worth It?

Budgeting can seem tedious. After a long day (or week) at work, the last thing you may want to do is spend time in front of a screen, plugging in data and recording how much you’ve spent.

But tracking your money can be a powerful exercise. Here are some reasons why budgeting can be worthwhile:

•   Tracking your spending can give you direct visibility into your habits and when you understand where your money is going, you can feel empowered to make adjustments.

•   Budgeting can be part of a good money mindset. Instead of thinking of budgeting as a series of spending restrictions, you could think of it as a tool you can use. It’s a technique that can give you the freedom to spend money on what is most important to you.

•   Setting money goals can provide a structure to help you build out your budget and plan for the future. So, whether you’re saving for retirement, planning a wedding, or jetting off on a trip overseas, having and sticking to a well-crafted budget can help you get there.

•   It’s also worth noting that your budget is a living document. It’s okay to make changes. As you adjust your goals or experience or experience changes in your income or lifestyle, you can (and should) make adjustments and changes to fit your new needs. Your life isn’t stagnant, and your budget shouldn’t be either.

Recommended: The 10 Most Common Budgeting Mistakes

Using a Line Item Budget for Personal Finance

Typically, line item budgets are used by small businesses to track their earnings and expenses and compare them from year to year. They lend well to financial analysis, allowing business owners to easily target areas of their business where they may potentially reduce costs — and where there might be room to grow the company.

While businesses typically have different needs than households, creating a line item budget can be helpful in personal finances, too.

Just as they give small businesses insight into opportunities to grow the business or reduce expenses, line item budgets can help manage your personal expenses. Outlining each source of income and expense can reveal personal spending habits and opportunities to reduce one’s cash outflow.

The specific insights you gather from a line item budget, as well as the changes you make, will ultimately depend on your personal goals and overall financial situation.

Deciding What to Include in a Line Item Budget

Deciding to create a line item budget is just the first step. Next, consider which categories are most important for you to include. A personal budget is just that — personal.

Everyone’s financial situation is different, so this list is not the end-all-be-all solution, but here are a few high-level categories you may want to consider.

Bills and Utilities

This category is fairly self explanatory — after all, everyone’s got bills to pay, right? Things worth listing in this category might include water and electricity bills; cable, internet, or phone bills; or any other monthly bill you have on your expense list.


If you have student loan payments, credit card bills, or other recurring debt payments, include them in your budget. That’s an important area to track.


If you are currently attending school or have kids, you’ll likely want to consider including things like tuition and fees, the cost of books and other supplies, and any other expenses directly related to education costs.


This one is a little broader and can be highly customized depending on personal spending habits. Do you have subscriptions to streaming services? Do you buy lots of books?

Tickets to the movies, museums, or a concert could also be included in this category. Depending on your hobbies and interests, you may find you can expand this with additional detail.


Think of all the fees charged to your accounts. Late fee on a delayed credit card payment? ATM fees? Add ՚em here. You could add HOA fees and others to this category as well. If you pay an annual fee to your credit card issuer, that goes here as well.


Depending on your eating habits, you could split this up even further in a line item budget into categories like groceries, snacks, and dining out.


Think of things like your rent or mortgage as well as expenses for maintenance and upkeep of your home.


You’ll probably want to include all sources of income, not just your regular 9 to 5. If you’re budgeting as a couple, you can include income for both partners.

Add income earned from having a side hustle or from passive income opportunities, too.


Add your contributions to all investment accounts including a 401(k), IRA, 529 accounts, or other brokerage accounts.


Expenses for medications, health, dental, or vision insurance, and co-pays can all be included under this category.

Personal Care

Things like toiletries, vitamins, and beauty supplies would fit into this category. Hair cuts, trips to the nail salon, and massages could be included as well. If desired, you could also include the cost of other self-care practices, like a subscription to a meditation app, gym membership, or exercise classes.


Money that you put into an emergency fund, vacation fund, or other form of savings should be accounted for in your line item budget, too.


Do you pay for any regular services? You could include things like dry cleaning services, the cost of having a housekeeper, or the fee you pay your babysitter for a night out.


Heading to the mall? Shopping expenses like clothing, toys, and even gifts for others, could be added here.


If you’re a full-time employee, be sure to note the taxes being taken out of your paycheck. If you are a freelancer or independent contractor, note quarterly taxes in your line item budget.

Transportation and Auto

This is a catch-all category for things like your monthly metro pass, gas, car insurance, auto loan payment, and general maintenance of your vehicle (if you own one).


Add all costs associated with trips you take here. Things like hotels or lodging, air travel, taxis, travel insurance, and tickets and admission for excursions and seeing the sights.

If you’re road-tripping, you could include the cost of gas, tolls, and other car-related expenses for the trip here too. Also worth including is the cost of food while on the road.

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Putting Your Line-Item Budget Together

A list this long can seem overwhelming. Take it one step at a time, and, if needed, break the work up over a few days. For instance:

•   On day one, gather all of the relevant documents (tax returns, paychecks, credit card statements, etc) and create the skeleton of your line item budget.

•   On day two you could aim to make it through recording your income and investments, and maybe half of your expenses.

•   On day three you could finish adding data and add any finishing touches or edits.

After creating this line-item budget, you should have a bird’s-eye view of your spending habits. Take a close look at the information, and decide if you are happy with what you see. Now is the time to be honest with yourself and make the changes you feel are necessary. Do you want more money to put towards savings or paying down debt? See how you might alter the numbers as they currently exist for the months ahead.

Want to make cuts to your monthly expenses? Now you know exactly how much money is being spent in each category and where you could stand to hold back. Some ideas to mull over:

•   Can you negotiate a less expensive car insurance fee? Experiment with meal planning to see if you can be intentional about your food spending and potentially cut your grocery bill.

•   Try adjusting the thermostat setting while you’re asleep or away from your home to cut your energy bill.

•   Getting hit with fees on late payments? You might want to add an alert to your calendar or a monthly notification to your phone to remind you when payments are due. Another possible option is to enroll in autopay so you never miss a payment.

Payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score. So making payments on-time consistently could not only eliminate those pesky late fees from your budget but it could also potentially help improve your credit score in the long-term.

Recommended: 15 Causes of Overspending

Line Item Budget Example

A line item budget example can be as simple as using an Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet. You could even make your own basic line item budget template, if you prefer.

At the top rows, income can be added, say, for a given month. Then, moving down the page, you can list out the various expenses you have.

That will allow you to see your income and cash that is flowing out. To the right of that column of numbers, you can have last month’s expenses, if you like. Some people find it helpful to put their projected income and spending vs. actual income and spending in the other vertical columns. Then they can assess if they are in debt or have excess funds.

You can customize the organization to best suit your needs.

Alternatives to a Line Item Budget

Though simple and intuitive in nature, line item budgets aren’t a perfect fit for everyone. However, there are many different budgeting methods to choose from to fit unique lifestyle needs. A few popular methods are:

50/30/20 Budget

Also known as a proportional budget, the 50/30/20 budget rule focuses on splitting income into three buckets — “needs,” “wants,” and savings. Instead of creating lists of expenditures, you instead commit to spending 50% of your income on things you need to spend on (housing, food, debt, and similar “musts”), 30% on things you want (dining out, travel, and so forth), and the remaining 20% is set aside for savings.

Because spending isn’t tracked on a granular level, spend tracking apps and services can be used to help avoid overspending in any one category.

Envelope Budgeting Method

The envelope method focuses on using physical envelopes and labeling each with a spending category such as food, bills, or entertainment. The envelopes are then filled with the maximum amount of money desired to be spent in each category, and spending throughout the month happens directly from those envelopes.

Once an envelope is empty, no more spending can be done in that category, unless taken from another. This method can be adapted to use a debit card vs. cash.

Zero-Based Budget

Similar to the line item budget, this approach takes account of all income and expenses. The difference is that with this budget, the goal is to make sure that every incoming dollar is allocated to either a saving or a spending purpose, and to leave nothing left over. Automating finances with services like automatic bill-pay and pre-scheduled bank transfers can help with managing this style of budgeting.

The Takeaway

Creating a line item budget can be useful when determining your spending habits. It’s a fairly simple, detailed, and well-organized way to track your earnings and spending, but it’s not always flexible. Also, if you don’t have your budget spreadsheet on hand, it could be more difficult to make changes or check-in while you’re busy living.

Enter SoFi’s Checking and Savings, an account that allows you to review your weekly spending in your dashboard within the SoFi app. With it, you can save, spend, and earn all in one convenient place, which can make staying on budget easier. What’s more, this online account pays a competitive annual percentage yield (APY) while charging no account fees, which can help your money grow faster.

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What is an example of a line item budget?

A line item budget is a simple, organized way of listing income and spending in detail so you can keep things in balance and see how you are tracking over time. It can be easily made with a basic spreadsheet template.

What is the difference between a line item budget and a program budget?

Line item budgets and program budgets are frequently used in business. Typically, a line item budget will list out individual budget expenses, item by item. In a program budget, however, the spending tends to be grouped into smaller budgets for specific activities or programs. For instance, in a program budget, all the costs related to advertising a new service could be kept together, to show the expenses required to meet that goal.

How do I create a line item budget in Excel?

One simple way to make a line item budget in Excel is to create vertical columns for each month. Starting at the top of each month, you could list various sources of income. Then below that, you could break out, line by line, all of your expenses, such as food, housing, utilities, entertainment, clothing, dining out, travel, transportation, and so on, going down the page.

This can allow you to tally your earning, spending, and saving. As time passes, each vertical column can represent a month of the year. Some people like to enter and compare projected earning, spending, and saving vs. actual; it’s up to you if that suits your needs.

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