Setting up a simple budget spreadsheet
While many folks today use sophisticated programs (software or online) to track their budget, the spreadsheet is still the simplest and most popular method. Here is how to set up a spreadsheet to track your budget each month.
If you don't have Microsoft Excel already installed (or even if you do) check out these free spreadsheet-based budgeting tools:
- Apache Open Office (Free Excel-type software if you want to create your own spreadsheet.)
- Google Docs spreadsheet templates (The first template is my favorite.)
- Bank of America has a great downloadable budget spreadsheet (scroll to the bottom).
- For freelancers (with a variable income)—download the free budget spreadsheet under Step 6 on this page.
Using a spreadsheet is just like having a built-in handy calculator. If you can work a calculator, I promise you can work a spreadsheet!
Spreadsheet calculation helps:
- The "+" sign equals addition.
- The "-" sign equals subtraction.
- The "*" equals multiplication.
- The "/" equals division.
- The "=" sign equals "sum."
- All spreadsheet calculations start with the "=" sign (rather than end with it).
- Each column is given a letter for its name. (Example: "A," "B," "C," etc.)
- Each row is given a number for its name. (Example: 1, 2, 3, etc.)
- So a number entered into the first column and first row is called "A1." A number entered into the first column, second row is called "A2."
- Example: Say you want to add up the numbers in Column A and Column B and display the total in Column C. So position your cursor in Column C. Then, in Column C, type in =A1+B1 and click on "enter" to see the total displayed.
A Visual Example:
Here, you are combining your monthly budget (your best-guess estimate of what you will spend before you spend it) with your actual monthly spending. The "variance" is the difference between your estimated and actual spending. The "balance" is what you have left to save, spend, invest or repay debt. So in this example, you have $915 (the blue number at the bottom) left over at month end!
4 Quick tips to track your dollars
1. First, choose your tracking device
For me, this is an Excel spreadsheet. Familiarity with the tracking method was my main criteria.
Here are some other options for tracking your dollars:
- A pencil and paper: Nothing wrong with going old school!
- Budgeting software: One example is Quicken.
- Online/app budgeting tools: One example (of both) is Mint.com.
2. Next, get set up to do some tracking!
Here, think of each dollar as if it were a teenager. You want to know everywhere it goes, everything it does, who it interacts with—everything.
Here is what you need to know:
- Monthly gross income: Look at your pay stubs to get this number.
- Monthly paycheck deductions: Look for federal and employer-based withholdings.
- Monthly fixed expenses: Typical items include rent and car note.
- Monthly variable expenses: These include everything from gas to eating out.
3. Now, memorize the "50-50 rule"
Essentially, you will likely find that approximately 50% of your income goes towards two major expenses: housing (~20%) and transportation (~28%). How you spend the other 50% of your income is where you can find creative ways to save more of what you earn!
4. Finally, put it all together and start tracking!
You have all the fundamentals you need, so all that is left is to start tracking and make changes where you can to save more!