How to Create a Budget in 6 Simple Steps

UPDATED: February 2, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 20, 2023
Attractive couple learning how to create a budget together

The word “budget” can bring up images of spreadsheets and formulas that make you want to pull your hair out. But creating a budget is just a way to ensure your money is working for you instead of the other way around.

Whether you’re trying to improve your finances by paying off debt, building an emergency fund or even just increasing your savings, here’s our best advice on how to create a budget that anyone can follow.

How to create a budget

Meeting every dollar with a need of yours—whether buying groceries, paying down credit card debt or saving for your next vacation—can help you feel empowered and create momentum toward meeting your financial goals and ensuring your future looks bright. 

1. Calculate your income

Start creating your budget by adding all the income sources you consistently have every month. Add up your take-home pay from each paycheck and include any additional income you may reliably receive from things like a side gig, freelance work, Social Security, alimony or investment income. 

Your paycheck is probably consistent if you’re salaried and have a traditional W2 job, making budgeting much more straightforward. If you’re hourly or self-employed, you’ll likely need to take an average of your monthly income to help you budget with an irregular income. Make sure to err on the low side to help with any lean months. 

If you have a side hustle, do freelance work or if taxes aren’t normally withheld from your paycheck, be sure to deduct federal and state taxes and other business expenses before using that income in your budget.

2. Track your spending

Once you know how much is coming in, the next step in creating a budget is seeing where you’re at. Start by tracking everything you spend for an entire month, whether you pay with cash or a debit or credit card, and include any monthly subscriptions or automatic withdrawals in your totals. 

You may need to track your spending for longer than a month if you have significant differences in your monthly expenses or know that you’ll have some months with more expenses later in the year.

Add up all your fixed costs like rent or mortgage, utilities, cellphone, prescriptions, insurance, car or student loan payments, taxes, basic groceries and child care. This amount gives you an idea of the minimum you need each month without anything fancy. 

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Then, add up your more variable expenses, like credit card payments, gas, entertainment, eating out, subscription services or extras at the grocery store. 

There are a variety of ways to keep track of what you spend. Use a notes app on your phone or an old-fashioned pen and paper or review your bank and credit card statements each month and put the charges into a spreadsheet for easy math. 

Some people may decide that budgeting software or an app like Mint or You Need A Budget (YNAB) will work better for their situation and help them keep track. 

Plenty of free or low-cost budgeting tools are available to track your spending. Experiment until you find the best method for you and your family. The most important thing when learning how to create a budget is to consistently track your expenses to have an accurate and honest view of your finances. 

3. Develop a plan

Once you have a solid view of your monthly expenses, use a budgeting framework to help you make sure you’re making the most of your money. 

The 50/30/20 plan is popular and simple to use. The idea is to spend 50% of your after-tax income on necessities, 30% on your wants and 20% on debt repayment and savings. With this method, every dollar has a job, and there isn’t anything left over.

The budget you create may look like this:

Needs: 50% of your after-tax income 

  • Rent or mortgage payment
  • Car payment
  • Child care
  • Utilities
  • Groceries
  • Cellphone
  • Insurance

Wants: 30% of your after-tax income 

  • Entertainment
  • Eating out
  • Vacations or travel (including any savings for travel)

Savings and debt: 20% of your after-tax income

  • Credit card payments 
  • Emergency fund
  • Saving for your child’s education

4. Determine your priorities when creating a budget

It would be nice if our spending aligned with our budget, and we had room for everything we wanted to accomplish. However, that is rarely the case, and you may have to adjust based on your priorities. 

For example, perhaps you want to pay off debt and start an emergency fund simultaneously. Instead of doing one or the other, consider scaling back the amount you put into each goal until both fit into your budget. You’ll pay back your debt more slowly using this method, but you’ll also have built some savings to help cover emergencies and hopefully avoid adding to your debt balance.

You may be tempted to cut out your wants entirely and put any extra money toward debt payoff or savings. While that may work for a month or two, everyone needs a little room for fun in their lives.

You get to decide what’s essential in your life. You may decide that paying extra for organic food or a monthly massage is worth it, and you’re willing to reduce your spending elsewhere to accommodate it.

5. Review and adjust

After you’ve categorized your expenses, see if anything needs to change. If you’re using the 50/30/20 framework and the numbers aren’t lining up, adjust your spending to help them fit. 

If you can’t get the numbers to work and need to reduce your costs, the “wants” section is likely the easiest place to start. Reviewing your subscription services, gym memberships or concerts you want to attend can help you find room in your budget for necessities or help you better focus on priorities. 

If further cuts are needed, look at your “needs” section. See if you can create space in your budget by negotiating a better rate with a utility or insurance company. Or see if something you consider a need is actually a want and can be reduced. 

Don’t be afraid to keep adjusting until you find a strategy that works for you. Creating a budget takes trial and error.

6. Stay consistent

Block out time in your calendar and develop a routine of budget check-ins. It’ll help you stay on track and make needed changes. Remember that establishing your budget is only part of the battle. The real work is consistently reviewing and adjusting your system and recommitting to your goals, even when life gets in the way. 

Bottom line of creating a budget

Learning how to create a budget can sound like a huge, intimidating project. It doesn’t have to be. Creating a budget can give you a better idea of where your money is going and how it can best serve your goals and future.

This article was updated February 2024. Photo by – Yuri A/