How to Make a Budget in 5 Steps

By Sarah Li Cain · October 18, 2023 · 12 minute read

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How to Make a Budget in 5 Steps

Making a budget can be the foundation of taking control of your money and reaching your financial goals. It can help you get in touch with the cash you have coming in, your spending, and your savings. Put simply, a budget can get your financial life in balance.

The math involved doesn’t have to be complicated, and a good budget can be easily revised to align with changes in your life, whether that’s a rent increase or a raise at work. Read on for the five simple steps to creating a budget that can boost your financial savvy and make your money work harder for you:

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This article is from SoFi’s guide on how to manage your money, where you can learn basic money management tips and strategies.

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5 Steps to Creating a Budget

  1. Determine Your Financial Goals

  2. Calculate Your Income

  3. Review Your Expenses

  4. Choose Your Budgeting Method

  5. Make Adjustments

1. Determine Your Financial Goals

Setting financial goals is a crucial first step to being more intentional with your money management tactics. As in, having a purpose can give you more motivation to stick to your budget and get you on your way to creating smart financial goals that suit your life.

How to set financial goals? Start by taking time to come up with a clear idea of your short-term and longer-term aspirations. What kind of things could you dream about? Anything that’s ultimately important counts.

Examples of financial goals could include:

•  Having $1,000 in the bank

•  Hosting an amazing 30th birthday party for your partner

•  Buying a home

•  Saving enough to cover your kid’s college tuition

•  Getting some new wheels

•  Taking a dream vacation

•  Getting out of credit card debt

•  Starting your own business

•  Planning for retirement

•  Establishing and maintaining an emergency fund.

2. Calculate Your Income

Before allocating money for various spending categories and goals, you need to know how much money you have to work with each month. Calculate your income — you can look at your paystub and/or other earnings from your side businesses or second job. Or maybe you are the lucky holder of an investment account that generates dividends. Perhaps you regularly receive bonuses or tips at work. Add it all up.

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3. Review Your Expenses

To make a solid, workable budget, you also need to know exactly how much money is typically going out. Pull together all your financial statements and look at how much you typically spend per month for different categories.

Budget categories can include:

•  Loans (such as student or car loan payments) and debt (including credit cards)

•  Insurance premiums

•  Housing

•  Utilities

•  Monthly food expenses

•  Childcare, child support, or related family obligations

•  Transportation-related expenses

•  Healthcare

•  Savings/investments (for instance, 401(k) or IRA automatic savings deductions).

In addition, think about some other spending categories that are more about discretionary purchases. This is about identifying wants vs. needs. For instance, in terms of wants, you can also track discretionary spending:

•  Dining out (even those lattes to go)

•  Entertainment, such as movies, books, concert tickets, and streaming services

•  Personal care (manicures, yoga classes, etc.)

•  Travel

•  Gifts or treating friends to birthday drinks or dinners

•  Non-essential clothing, electronics, home furnishings, and any other fun things you might go shopping for.

As you gather this information, you may want to look at a couple of months’ worth of records. For example, your credit card bill may vary considerably, so averaging a few months will give you a more realistic picture than checking a single month.

Once you have an idea of what you spend, it’s time to take a look at where you may be able to make adjustments.

•   Many people look at their spending as “needs” versus “wants.” A need is something required for basic existence, while a want is discretionary spending. Needs also include debt payment, so if you have a student loan or similar monthly expenses, include that in the need category.

balance needs and wants in a budget

•  Also consider looking at each spending category in terms of fixed and variable expenses. For instance, your mortgage is a fixed expense since it typically won’t change from month to month, whereas entertainment would be a variable expense since it can change. Don’t forget to look at occasional expenses — like semi-annual car insurance payments — so you can set aside money in your budget each month to account for this expense.

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4. Choose Your Budgeting Method

monthly budgeting methods

Subtract your monthly expenses from your monthly income. How are you doing? If there’s money left over, it means you may be able to meet your financial goals. Otherwise, you may need to either cut your expenses a bit or earn more money (or try a combination of both).

Whichever direction your money is trending in, you can benefit from a budget to get your cash aligned with your goals and provide guardrails for your spending and saving.

While there are a bunch of budgeting methods, what’s most important is to find an organizing principle that works for your personal and financial style. Some options to consider:

The 50/30/20 Budget Rule

The 50/30/20 budget rule breaks up your budget using the following percentages:

•  50% on essential expenses. This category could include housing costs, utilities, car payments, debt payments (student loans, credit card minimums due, etc.), education costs, food, basic clothing, childcare, and medical expenses.

•  30% on discretionary expenses. Your discretionary expenses could include shopping, entertainment, personal care, travel, and other expenses that may not necessarily be considered essential.

•  20% toward your goals. This amount of money can go into savings and investments as you work toward things like an emergency fund, a new car, retirement, and/or covering your child’s college education expenses.

Recommended: Check out the 50/30/20 rule calculator to see a breakdown of your money.

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The 70/20/10 Budget Rule

The 70/20/10 rule is another type of budgeting method. It’s similar to the 50/30/20 one, but you organize your money differently. In this case, you divide it up as follows:

•  70% toward spending on both needs and wants

•  20% toward saving

•  10% toward debt payoff and/or giving.

This budget can be a good variation for people who want to be sure they are covered for that debt payoff and/or giving category.

Zero-Based Budget

The zero-based budget system gives every single dollar a purpose so that every bit of your income is accounted for. You start with your monthly income then keep subtracting expenses (even savings or a sinking fund counts here) until you get to zero. This system can help you be more mindful since you know how your money is allocated.

The Envelope Budget System

With this technique, you write the name and cash amount you have for each spending category for a month. For example, you allocate $2,000 for housing for one envelope, and $600 for food in another. You can only spend the allocated amount in each category.

If there is no more cash in the envelope but the month isn’t over yet, you will need to wait until the next month to replenish it or borrow from another category and spend less there. For instance, if you need cash for an insurance premium that went up, you could save on streaming services by dropping a platform or two while you adjust your budget.

This method can be adapted to use debit card payments. You don’t have to literally only use cash.

5. Make Adjustments

A budget is a dynamic, living entity. Some months may be more expensive than others. For instance, you might have an emergency one month (your laptop dies) and wind up spending more (or even going into debt) to make ends meet. Life happens: use these situations to learn and readjust.

You can also look for trends in your money. If you find you are living paycheck to paycheck, you might find ways to economize (such as getting a roommate) or to earn more money.

After using your new budget plan, you should review and update it regularly. You may need to do it more often at the beginning of your budgeting journey when you’re getting used to looking at your finances in a new light. Still, it is typically useful to review your spending at the end of each month to see if your budget is still working for you. If not, then take the time to see what may be happening and tweak your spending as necessary.

Another reason you may want to make adjustments is if your life situation changes, such as you have a baby or get a divorce. Or your income may have gone up, so you will need to think strategically about how best to allocate those dollars to help you reach your financial goals.

Why Is Creating a Budget Important?

Creating a budget is important because it allows you to see where your finances stand: You see how much money is coming and how much is going out, plus what it is being spent on.

It can provide you with a snapshot of your financial life, and it can illuminate any issues you need to address. Think about it: If you don’t know where your money is going, you can easily spend more than your means, leading to more debt than you can handle. Not budgeting can also prevent you from reaching your goals, such as having enough in retirement savings or being able to afford that kitchen renovation you’re pining for.

Although some people think a budget will cramp their style, the truth is that a budget doesn’t have to hold you back, restrict you from fun, or sour your lifestyle. It can eventually set you free from the financial burdens that are keeping you from setting and reaching your ultimate life goals.

Monthly Budget Example

Here is an example of a family’s monthly budget:

Total monthly income: $4,650

Monthly breakdown of expenses:

Monthly income

Monthly expenses

Rent $2,000
Groceries $400
Student loan payments $337.50
Car payment $150
Credit card payment $300
Discretionary spending $232.50
Utilities $330
Auto & renters insurance $150
Career enrichment class $60
Savings $400
TOTAL: $4,360 ($290 surplus)

How to Handle Unexpected Expenses in Your Budget

You know how it goes: Life can be filled with unexpected expenses, such as a car repair or larger than expected medical bills. Instead of letting these derail you, work unexpected expenses into your budget.

There are several ways you can go about it, one of which is to have a bit of a buffer in your account. Meaning, you can allocate some extra cash each month just in case — any money that isn’t spent, you can roll it over onto the next month. It can act as a cash cushion in your checking account.

You can also consider building up an emergency fund, a separate set of savings in case you have unexpected expenses. The amount will vary, but a good rule of thumb for how much to have in an emergency fund is to save three to six months’ worth of basic living expenses.

💡 Quick Tip: An emergency fund or rainy day fund is an important financial safety net. Aim to have at least three to six months’ worth of basic living expenses saved in case you get a major unexpected bill or lose income.

How to Work With Your Family or Partner to Create a Budget

Creating a budget with others means being open to a conversation about what each one needs and how you can keep each other accountable. It can start by having a meeting about family spending. You can discuss and agree to budget goals and reasonable expenses and use a budget planner to help you solidify things.

Once a preliminary budget is created, find a way to ensure that everyone sticks to it. Some tactics include having one joint account to ensure everyone can track spending or having an app where your partner or family can see an overview of the finances. Whatever you choose, it’s important to meet regularly to review your budget to see whether adjustments need to be made.

The Takeaway

Creating a budget to set and reach your financial goals doesn’t have to be hard, and it can be a great way to guide your spending and saving. While there are many approaches and techniques to try, what matters most is finding one that is a good fit for you personally and helps you feel in control of your cash. By learning how to manage your money well, you can be on track to crush your personal and financial goals, whether short- or long-term.

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Why is creating a monthly budget important?

Creating a budget is important because it allows you to see where your finances stand: You see how much money is coming and how much is going out, plus what it is being spent on. It can also help illuminate any issues you need to address.

What are some common budgeting mistakes to avoid?

Common budgeting mistakes include not tracking your spending, not saving enough (say, for an emergency fund or retirement), and forgetting to plan for occasional expenses, such as membership renewals, car maintenance, and holiday gift giving.

How often should I review and update my budget?

It’s wise to review and update your budget regularly. Some people may want to do so monthly; others, quarterly. You can find the right frequency to suit your needs. It’s also a good idea to tweak your budget after big life events, such as moving, getting married, or having a child.

How can I involve my family or partner in creating and sticking to a budget?

To involve others in creating and sticking to a budget, you might first meet and develop the plan together. Then, you could share accounts and both (or all) use an app so that all involved are watching where the money is going. This can help everyone stay on track.

How can I handle unexpected expenses in my budget?

You can allocate a bit of money in your budget to be “just in case” funds. This cash cushion or buffer can help if there’s an unexpected expense. If you have a major unplanned expense, you might have to dip into emergency savings; that’s why it’s crucial to have this kind of safety net.

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