Everyone wants to have healthy finances. We all want to feel the freedom to spend our money however we please, to not have to worry about bills or making ends meet. And we probably all know a budget is the best way to make that happen.
The simplest way is to just sit down yourself and draw up a budget. You can use plain paper and pen, or fancy Excel spreadsheets. The most important thing is to be realistic and thorough. You need to know exactly how much money you bring in each month, from your job or business and investments, and how much money you spend each month.
Then, you need to make The Gap as large as possible. This means when you subtract your spending from your income, you have a positive number. The more positive the number, the more you can save for big goals like retirement, college, a vacation, or starting a business. You should also budget in some “discretionary spending” each month, so you do not feel deprived and unable to buy yourself small treats. Just make sure you keep it small.
Make sure you have an idea of how much you actually spend in various categories.
Consider the following categories of spending:
- Housing (mortgage, HOA, insurance, taxes, rent)
- Utilities (water, trash, sewer, gas, electricity, phone, internet)
- Food (groceries, dining out, fast food, convenience foods, lunches at work, kids school lunches)
- Health care (premiuims, copays, medicines)
- Travel (gas, car maintenance and repairs, insurance, auto loans, bus passes, air fare, cabs or uber rides)
- Gifts (birthday, Christmas, graduations)
- Clothing (work clothing, uniforms, replacement or updates to you wardrobe)
- Pets (vet bills, food, toys, leashes/collar, tags, shots, spay/neuter)
- and even more categories if you’re a parent (diapers, formula, school expenses, doctors, child care, babysitter, activities, etc.)
The best way to get an idea of what you spend is to keep all your receipts for a month, or better yet a year. But who has the time and patience to collect all the receipts, keep them safe in one place, then add them all up by category?
Mint.com, that’s who!
Mint.com is my personal favorite finance tracking website and app. They have a super secure site, and amazing features. It enables you to link all you financial accounts: loans, direct deposits, credit cards, checking, savings, 401k, IRAs, and more.
Now Mint has three separate products:
- Mint Bills
- Mint Credit Score
I use the classic Mint, because I signed up with the site many years ago. The Bills feature allows you to link all your bills in one place, and set a date each month to pay them off. This automates all your payments, so you are never late on a bill again, avoiding costly late fees and dings to your credit.
The Credit Score feature helps you get your free credit score, and see ways you can make it better. There are many factors which go into calculating your credit score, including total available credit, total credit use, length of credit history, and more.
The most widely used credit scores are FICO® Scores, the credit scores created by Fair Isaac Corporation. 90% of top lenders use FICO® Scores to help them make billions of credit-related decisions every year. FICO® Scores are calculated based solely on information in consumer credit reports maintained at the credit reporting agencies.
You have the right to access your credit score for free, once per year, from three separate companies:
It is recommended that you check one site each 4 months, thus enabling you to keep tabs on your credit throughout the year. Set alarms on your phone calendar or write it in your planner to help you remember when it’s time to check.
Back to Mint. There are several features which I love. First of all, they categorize all your spending. You can set up categories if there is something you spend money on regularly, such as “online video games”, “basketball season tickets”, or “Parks pass”.
You are also able to go in and manually change expenditures and put them into categories. If the program does not know what an expense is, it goes into “uncategorized”, like checks.
As you can see above, all expenses for the past year are laid out in a pie chart. You can click on any piece of the chart to open that category and view each purchase. For example if you click “home” you would see each month a check or charge for the amount you spend on rent or mortgage.
This is a fantastic feature because if you’ve ever looked at a credit card bill and thought “WHAT the heck am I spending all that money on??” This chart can help. You can click through the “uncategorized” and “bills” and “shopping” and see each and every charge add up. It even adds you spending over time and tells you the categories in order of spending. So if you spent 12000 on housing, and 3000 on utilities, and 1200 on food, it will list those in order.
You can also break it down over time. So you can see how much you spent this month, the past 3 or 6 months, the past year, or over all time you have been part of mint. This helps track longer term spending, if you are trying to get a better hold of your budget, you can see your progress or backsliding.
Another feature, in the regular Mint, not even the Mint Bills, is their bill tracking feature. The software learns which bills come through at the same time each month, and can track the anticipated days you will be charged. Then you can see on a calendar all your upcoming bills for the week or the month.
And finally, the budget tracking feature. Super amazing. You can set up as many or few categories as you want, and set your expected spending amounts per category. The program then tracks each expense for you, and shows you how much you have left to spend. This is a nice visual so you can see on the 20th of the month, you have $120 left budgeted for food, so you can keep your spending within budget.
The software can also add up all your expenses and debts, as well as any income and investments, and tell you your net worth. You can track this over time, as it is the greatest indicator of your overall financial health. A steadily increasing net worth is the greatest feeling there is. Link up your car loan, mortgage, student loans, etc. and track your progress paying them down. It is great motivation, and they regularly offer advice and ways to save even more money.
Of course, this only works if you actually check it regularly and stick to it. Luckily, Mint also has an app available for Android and iPhone, so you can track and check yourself on the go.
There are many other tracking softwares and options out there. This is just one, use a few and see what works best for your budgeting style and your life. Ultimately your budget is personal and unique to you, and its up to you how you want to maintain it.
Disclaimer: I am in no way receiving compensation from Mint.com or any other financial entities. This piece is author’s opinion.