Getting the Most Out of My Budget

budgeting tipsI didn’t always have a budget. As a student, I used to start out at the beginning of the month with a fixed lump sum of money, and try my hardest to not burn through all of it within the first week. As hard as I tried, I always seemed to come up short. It didn’t really bother me as a student, money was there to be spent, and I was more interested in soothing my exam induced insomnia than sticking to a budget.

Once I’d graduated, and started the terrifying balancing act of trying to pay rent, car payments, and a student loan payment on an entry level salary in an expensive city, I quickly realized that a budget was no longer in the “not necessary” category. So I went through the process of getting my first budget together.

Eventually, my budget evolved. My fiancé got in on the mix, we started pooling and tracking our shared expenses, and my budget went from the equivalent of cave drawings to a spreadsheet detailing where every last cent was to go.

As any seasoned budgeter will tell you, a budget is never “done”. It’s constantly changing to account for the different needs in one’s life at the time. I’m never “done” budgeting, and I think that’s one of the reasons my budget works so well for me. Here are some other things that help me get the most out of my budget.

Everything in It’s Place

In my budget, I have a category for everything. Here are some examples of the line items in my (and my fiance’s) budget:

Housing

In this section I have the following line items: rent, electricity, internet. All of these expenses are shared with my fiancé.

Car

This includes insurance, car payments, and fuel. This does not include repairs.

Family Expenses

These expenses are shared by my fiancé and I, we pay for them out of a joint chequing account that we both pay into weekly. This category includes entertainment (restaurants, alcohol, movies), groceries, house miscellaneous (for things like cleaning supplies, paint, and Christmas decorations), pets, our trip fund, and the emergency fund.

Personal Expenses

This category is fully funded by myself. All of my expenses including my cell phone, my Christmas savings, shopping, personal care, and (of course!) my debt repayment are included in this category.

By having a line item for basically every little category under the sun, I’m able to see exactly where every dollar of my paycheque goes.

Pruning, Shaving, Squeezing, and Funnelling

So what happens when my expenses change. What if my cell phone bill decreases $5 per month? Or my Christmas fund is fully funded and I no longer need to direct $30 a week into that account? Since I have every single dollar accounted for, it’s easy to funnel that extra few dollars into debt repayment.

This is the method I’ve used to boost my monthly debt repayment. I used to pay an extra $50 per week towards debt repayment. Now, 13 months later, that number is $127.50 per week. By inching my debt repayment dollars up, I’ve literally cut years off my debt free date.

Even better, I’m always on the lookout for ways to decrease my spending even by a few bucks. There are so many ways to decrease spending here and there, whether it’s checking to make sure I’ve got the most competitive car insurance rate, or finding ways to save on groceries, the possibilities for a more efficient budget are endless.

Take Things Slow

I didn’t go from being a terrible budgeter to where I am now overnight. It took a long time and I improved my budgeting practices slowly, over many months. When I first started budgeting, I was spending $700 per month on groceries. Even though I knew this was a crazy high amount for two people, I also knew that I couldn’t simply cut that number down to $450 and expect us to cope with that change easily. So instead, I walked that number back slowly. First $20 per month, then $10, until finally we reached a more manageable level. Using that gradual method, I can honestly say we barely noticed the change, but we’re now saving hundreds per month in that one category.

It Won’t Happen Overnight

Budgeting, for the uninitiated, can be a tough and frustrating process at first. It’s tough to instil these new and productive habits of monitoring and adjusting spending without feeling restricted, trapped, and frustrated.

By taking an incremental approach and easing into it gradually, it’s easier to stay motivated and reach small and manageable goals. This is how I’ve managed to budget successfully for the last few years, and this is how I’ve gone from a willy nilly spend thrift to a frugal penny pincher.

What little tips and tricks do you use to get the most out of your budget? Do you even have a budget? I want to know!

  • http://budgetandthebeach.com/ Budget & the Beach

    I agree a budget is a living, breathing thing-not set in stone. And small changes, if possible, are the best ways to not feel such a strong impact on your day to day life. I’m still learning new things all the time about mine.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      Budgets are definitely not set in stone, and treating one like it is would be a recipe for disaster.

  • http://twitter.com/GrlRedBalloon Katie Collins

    I feel a little weird about my budget because I have all the must have expenses every month – rent, Comcast, utilities, groceries, gas – budgeted, but then I have THE DISCRETIONARY BUDGET which is where I put everything else – hospital copays, household items, pet food, etc. It feels weird not to have budgeted categories for all of these expenses, but it stresses me out less to know I have X dollars for all of the non-regular things I may spend on in a month and I don’t have to worry about keeping to a limit with all those small categories.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      For my “personal spending” I don’t have individual line items, I just have an overall budget that I try not to go over in a month, I agree, it’s nearly impossible to account for every little thing in a budget.

  • http://michaelharley.me/ MIchael Harley

    Thanks for sharing this! I love to read about the specific details of how people manage their money.

    I do really well with the fixed expenses because well, they’re fixed. The problem that I struggle with is coming up with a realistic budget for discretionary/leisure spending and sticking to it. I may want to only spend $100 on dining/going out but if we go out together on Friday then we’re invited to an impromptu date with our friends on Saturday, that’s ate up the whole going out budget and we still have two weeks to go until our next payday!

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I usually spend about $200 per month on entertainment. I find that to be enough cash to do a few organized activities while still giving myself enough leeway for impromptu dinner with friends. Sometimes though, when there’s no money left, you just have to say no. It’s sucky, but it’s necessary in order to stay on budget.

      • http://michaelharley.me/ MIchael Harley

        Is that your personal budget amount or the shared budget amount?

        • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

          That’s our shared amount. If I want to go out with a friend (just me, no fiance) then I would take that out of my personal discretionary spending, but that’s pretty rare.

  • K.K. @ Living Debt Free Rocks!

    I wouldn’t have had the debt payoff success if it wasn’t for using a budget. As you said it constantly is in flux depending on what is happening within a given month but having a baseline to work from is necessary.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I agree, having a budget is absolutely necessary in order to achieve timely debt pay off.

  • http://www.momoneymohouses.com/ Mo’ Money Mo’ Houses

    I definitely agree with your point that things don’t happen after night. Budgeting and getting to a place where you are debt free takes a while so you gotta be strict with yourself and patient.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I think that’s where most people give up. They expect to suddenly be able to stick to a budget even when they’ve never had one before. Developing a budget takes time and patience, it’s not a magic bullet solution.

  • Country Girl

    Budgeting is like learning to ride a bike, there’s going to be some falls and failures, but eventually you get the hang of it. I would advise people when they’re starting to budget to explore different methods: cash only, jars, pencil and paper, excel, and see which works best for them.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I agree, I bet people will find their preferences change over time too, maybe starting out with a pen and paper, and migrating to excel.

  • holly

    We definitely have a budget! I just try to overestimate my expenses to leave a little wiggle room in each category. This allows unexpected costs to occur without throwing everything out of whack. Sometimes I still get off track, but most of the time it works great!

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I hate how unexpected expenses can throw everything off track. In those cases I usually just discard that one expense from my budget and use my savings to pay for it.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules

    We definitely have a budget. Over the years I’ve come to love budgeting as I love to make our money work for us as much as possible. We’ve been at it for about 10 years now, so any changes we make are usually very slight.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I’m also find I’m making fewer and few changes lately, but I don’t think I’ll ever actually just let the budget go unchanged without at least looking at it from one month to the next.

  • http://www.uniquegifter.com/ Anne @ Unique Gifter

    Excellent point about making incremental changes. I think too often people try to drop themselves into a super-dramatic lifestyle change and the only result is frustration and abandonment.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      I completely agree! It’s like starting a super restrictive diet – not good for cravings!

  • The Happy Homeowner

    I also track every penny and adjust throughout the month–doing so has helped me change many, many terrible financial habits I once had. Now it’s more a game of how much I can send to savings, which is always a win-win! :)

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      Making a game out of it is a great way to keep motivation up! I do that too with my debt.

  • Rachelle

    What a great post! In the last few months I’ve plunged myself into the black hole that is debt. In response, I need to start budgeting more effectively. Thanks for your tips!!!!

    http://beautybudgetblog.wordpress.com/

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      Anytime! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.e.james Kyle James

    I like the idea of slowly lowering your food bill rather than going from filets to eating top ramen every night. That is smart and I’m sure you really didn’t notice a difference month to month as you lowered it. I’m going to steal that tip if you don’t mind.

    • http://my-alternate-life.com/ Jordann

      No problem! That’s why I’m posting them. I definitely haven’t noticed a big difference in the quality of food we’re eating. If anything, we’re just wasting less and eating less meat, more grains etc. It wasn’t a big change at all!

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