Following a monthly budget can help you stay on track to meet your financial goals.
To make a budget, you’ll take your total monthly take-home pay then subtract fixed expenses and savings to determine your discretionary spending.
Regularly reviewing your spending and adjusting your budget can help ensure your financial plan stays on track.
When your paycheck hits, there’s that little burst of happiness that comes from having a well-padded bank account.
But then the end of the month rolls around—and you may go from flush to flustered.
That’s where creating a monthly budget comes in. It enables you to keep track of the money that’s going in and out of your bank account. Plus, a budget will help ensure you’re able to cover your day-to-day expenses while still saving for future goals like retirement or your kids’ college.
If you’ve never created a budget before—or simply need a fresh start on one you’ve already got—we’re here to help.
How to create a monthly budget in 6 steps
Budgeting step 1: Total your monthly take-home pay
First things first: How much money do you have to work with? Add up what you earn each month after taxes and payroll deductions, because you want to work from money that’s actually being deposited into your bank account. Include not only income from a regular paycheck, but also the take-home pay you earn from a side gig or part-time job. If your side jobs don’t deduct taxes from your paychecks, then only include what you keep after you’ve set aside an amount to pay taxes.
Budgeting step 2: Add up what you spend on fixed expenses
These are the bills and expenses that you plan for—the things you need on a regular basis. They include essential costs that don’t already come out of your paycheck, like your mortgage or rent, car payment, utilities, cell phone bill or day care. This can also include things like what you spend to feed your family each month. These are basically the non-negotiable expenses that keep your life running.
Budgeting step 3: Add up what you spend on non-monthly costs
It’s not uncommon to forget about irregular, non-monthly payments. Because these types of costs can fall off your radar until right before they’re due, it’s important to account for them in your budget.
So how do you do that? Add up what you spend every year on things like quarterly taxes, auto registration fees, annual insurance premiums, school tuition and travel. What you spend on gifts for holidays, weddings, birthdays, etc., can also fit in this category.
Then take that total and divide by 12: This is how much you should put away each month in a separate savings account so that when those bills roll around, you know you’ve got the cash to pay for them.
Budgeting step 4: Add up contributions to financial goals
This category includes what you’re currently putting toward savings goals, paying down debt or any other longer-term financial goal. Each month, the payments that you make to these goals will get you closer to financial security by helping you pay down any debts you owe and save so that you’ll be able to do the things that are important to you like help fund your child’s education, take that dream vacation and retire comfortably someday.
Budgeting step 5: Add up your discretionary spending
Discretionary spending is money that you can spend on whatever you like that isn’t already a fixed or necessary expense. It’s basically extra money that you can use for things like going out for a nice dinner with friends or taking a last-minute vacation over a long weekend.
If you’re not sure what this figure should be, look at how much you’ve spent over the past three months and use that to get a clearer picture. Or pick a month that you’d consider a typical month as far as your discretionary spending goes, and use that figure.
Budgeting step 6: Do some simple math
Take your total monthly take-home pay and subtract your fixed expenses (including non-monthly costs) and your goal funding.
What’s left is how much you have available for discretionary spending. Is this number higher than what you added up as your actual discretionary spending? Then congratulations—you’re living within your means!
But if your actual discretionary spending is higher than what the math says it should be, it means you’ve got some work to do. You’ll have to figure out which of your expenses are eating up too much of your budget, and where you may want to cut back to make sure you aren’t going into debt to afford your lifestyle.
Even if you aren’t overspending, it’s still worth looking at your expense categories to figure out if you’re happy with where your money is going compared with the goals you have for you or your family. For instance, maybe you’ve been wanting to up your IRA contributions. Would you be willing to cut a subscription service that you don’t use very often in order to divert that money to retirement? Do you find your fixed costs take up such a large chunk of your budget pie that you don’t have any “fun money” left?
Budgeting step 7: Develop a monthly tracking system
Creating your budget is an important step, but arguably the most important step comes once your budget is in place. Tracking your spending and making sure you’re staying within your budget is what will make your budget an effective one.
To do this, you’ll need to come up with some type of tracking process to look over your historical monthly spending and compare how it matches up to what you budgeted. There are helpful apps and websites that can help categorize expenses for you (some financial institutions even do this for you) or if you’re spreadsheet-savvy, you can track it manually.
Budgeting step 8: Continuously update your budget
Crafting the right budget for you means finding a balance between being able to afford your lifestyle now while saving for your future later — without feeling like you’re depriving yourself. So don’t be afraid to adjust your figures as your goals shift. After all, your life will change over time, and so should your budget.
Taking a look at your budget once a year is a good habit to get into. You’ll also want to revisit your budget when you experience life and career changes—like adding a child or getting a new job—to adjust for added expenses or additional income to work with.
Other budgeting tips
Making a budget is a personal exercise—there's no one-size-fits-all budget that you should feel you need to follow. To make sure your budget is tailored to your needs, you also may want to think about:
Use a budgeting strategy
There are many guides out there for how you should use your monthly income. You may have seen the 50/30/20 rule, which suggests you use 50 percent of your money toward needs, 30 percent toward wants and 20 percent toward saving or the 70/20/10 rule, which suggests you use 70 percent toward expenses, 20 percent toward savings and investments and 10 percent toward debt (or donations).
We think the most realistic balance for most people is following 60/20/20 rule: 60 percent goes toward your fixed expenses, 20 percent goes toward savings goals and 20 percent is spent on discretionary items. When budgeting, targeting these general proportions can be a great way to get started, but it’s also important to keep in mind that your situation is unique to you. It’s okay if the percentages don’t match exactly.
Align what’s important to you with your financial priorities
Saving for retirement, paying down debt, saving for a new car—there are lots of things you may want to do with your money, and you’ll need to rely on your values to prioritize your savings goals. You'll have to decide how much savings you want to put toward college vs. retirement or whether to pay down your mortgage vs. save more for retirement, and the best way to make those decisions is to let what’s important to you lead the way.
Get help from a financial advisor
A financial advisor can be a really helpful resource as you put together a monthly budget and financial plan. A Northwestern Mutual financial advisor can help you define what’s important to you and build a plan that helps you get what you want. It all starts with a good financial plan. Your monthly budget can then help keep your financial plan on track.