Making a Budget You Can Live With
It is regrettable fact that most of us cannot buy whatever we want, go on extravagant shopping sprees with cavalier glee, or pay all our bills with plenty left over each month. Most of us have a limited amount of money to manage, and a seemingly ever-growing number of bills and creditors who do not like to be kept waiting. Everyone, and especially those seeking an alternative career, needs to get a handle on their financial life. A good place to start is to make a budget and stick with it.
Don't Put It Off Any Longer
Making a budget is something people tend to avoid, and sticking with one is something even fewer people manage to do. Like all things, if you do not control your money, your money will control you. When it comes time to actually sit down in with pen and a yellow legal pad and a stack of monthly bills, or in front of your computer with a spreadsheet document open, we often suddenly find something else more important to do. Perhaps it is a beautiful day, and you feel you should get out in the sun. Sitting and hammering out a budget is far too sedentary a task. Or maybe you suddenly feel the need to clean your closets or the attic if you have one. You have been putting that off too long. It is very easy to get distracted when confronted with examining your financial life in the harsh light of day.
Despite your facility for procrastination and delaying tactics, it must be done. The longer you put it off, the longer you are preventing yourself from the sense of freedom that comes from taking charge of your financial life. The freedom from financial insecurity is a liberating state of being that, in addition to reducing debt, reduces stress and opens all sorts of doors that you had no idea were available to you. Be brave, sit down, take a deep breath, and just do it.
A Basic Budget
When making a budget, the obvious goal is to reconcile your monthly income and your monthly expenses. Of course, your monthly expenses should not exceed your monthly income. Ideally you should even have a little extra to save, but that is not always possible these days. The best many of us can do is to avoid descending into the deep dark void of desperate debt.
A budget is a fluid document, as are the ebbs and flows of the currents in your life. It will change as your circumstances change. Some expenses will be higher in a given month, while others may vanish through successful financial management and sound decisions. But before you can do anything you have to take the first step. You must, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “begin at the beginning.”
Collect all your financial paperwork—bills, bank statements, your checkbook, receipts, and so on. Create the following categories on your paper or your spreadsheet:
Savings: This includes the money you put away, or try to, for the proverbial rainy day or your inevitable old age, plus any investment activity you may be paying into.
Food: Include everything from the your grocery bills to restaurant receipts to the Big Gulp at the 7-Eleven. Try to get in the habit of saving your receipts even for the little things in life. If you forget, make your best guess.
Housing: Rent, mortgage payments, and any property taxes or insurance associated with your home.
Utilities: Water, electricity, heat, both landlines and cell phones, and online expenses.
Clothing: Besides new purchases, don't forget to factor in laundry expenses and dry cleaning bills.
Medical: Doctor's visits, dental and vision bills, and so on.
Entertainment: You should include everything from a Blockbuster rental, to the cable bill, to a romantic weekend getaway, to a motel with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi.
Transportation: All automobile expenses, as well as taxi, bus, train, and any other modes of transportation.
Other monthly expenses: Credit card bills, life insurance, and all other monthly bills.
Personal Budgeting and Money Saving Tips (
Hopefully you have saved bills or receipts for the last several months. If your bills and income are fairly stable, it would be good to make a budget for an entire year. With three to six months of receipts and bills, you can create an average monthly amount to work with.
Once you have a monthly average, you should determine your average monthly income. When you compare your monthly income with your average monthly expenses, it may be a deeply disturbing experience for you. Do not let it get you down. You can deal with it.
If your expenses exceed your income, create an “ideal budget” on another piece of paper, and try to tame the beast to conform to the confines of your monthly income. The objective is to reduce your expenses in order to be able to save more each month. When you are working in an alternative career, the work is sometimes seasonal and sporadic, so you need to have as much of a cushion as possible. You will probably be eligible to collect unemployment insurance during some down times (check with your state's department of labor), but that might not be enough to cover the lifestyle to which you have grown accustomed.
If your income is less than your expenses, a good first step is to do an across-the-board 5-percent cut of all categories. This will (hopefully) be a relatively painless method to save a few bucks. The less draconian your cost-cutting measures are, the more likely you will be to stick with the program.
The Financial Planning Association (
This can be a terribly unpleasant task, and it is more than a little overwhelming. We are often intimidated by the big picture. In such cases it is a good idea to compartmentalize. Look at each component of the whole enchilada while avoiding direct eye contact with its formidable totality.
There are many ways to reduce expenses without reducing your quality of life. Rent movies instead of buying them, or peruse the previously viewed bins of your local Blockbuster. Do your own laundry instead of lazily dropping it off at the “wash-dry-fold” service, and do not wear (or purchase) clothes that require dry cleaning very often. Avoid “fine dining,” and eat at home more. Little things like this can go a long way to reducing your expenses and enabling you to save more.
If this procedure is simply too difficult for you for whatever reason, you can hire the services of a budget advisor. There are plenty of them out there. Just make sure you factor their fee into your budget. You will need to bring all the above-mentioned documentation to the person's office if they do not make house calls. They are experienced at this business and are likely to offer suggestions and recommendations that you might not occur to you.
The Quicken Financial Network (
There are also software programs, like Quicken or Microsoft Money, that will make the process easier for you. Microsoft Money often comes preloaded on a new computer that has the Windows operating system. It might be on your computer without your being aware of it. There are also plenty of Web sites that will help you, some for free, others for a fee.