A Budget Template for New Grads
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When you’re a new college grad, mistakes can make or break your financial success right off the bat. Setting up a budget (or a spending plan!) will get you on the right track. You don’t want to start off spending more than you earn only to end up living paycheck-to-paycheck, or worse, in debt.
However, it can be difficult to anticipate what expenses you should budget for if you’ve never lived on your own before, or if you had less expenses to worry about in college.
For example, even though I was tracking my expenses and income when I graduated, moving in with my then-boyfriend and figuring out a budget entailed a lot more than I thought it would. I don’t think I’m alone in my experience.
It’s easy to make financial mistakes in your 20s, but learning to manage your money wisely can make a difference. To help you out, here are some categories you should consider putting in your budget as a new grad, and how you can keep your expenses down.
1. Rent & Utilities
Rent is a big expense, regardless of whether you choose to move out of your parents’ house or live with roommates. You want to focus on keeping this expense as low as possible while still living comfortably. Think of it this way – if 40 percent of your income is going toward rent and utilities, that doesn’t leave much room for anything else in your budget.
When I first moved out, I looked for places with utilities included in the rent. That made my life a lot easier when it came to budgeting, as I didn’t have to worry about what heating or cooling was going to cost me each month.
Groceries are likely going to be your second largest variable expense. You have to eat, right? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton on food. You don’t want to go overboard at the store only to throw out items because they’ve gone bad.
Everyone’s appetite is different, but my fiance and I tend to hover around $300 per month for groceries. If I were budgeting just for myself, I’d probably spend $75-$100 per month, only because my appetite is very small.
Quick tips to keep your grocery spending down: shop sales and stick to a list. Use a meal plan, buy whole foods instead of processed foods, buy in bulk if you have the space (we buy all our paper goods in bulk), and aim to make a trip once a week or less to limit the opportunity to spend.
If you’re able to land a job before you move out, I recommend moving as close to work as possible to cut down on transportation costs. Rent may be higher depending on where you work, but if you can get by without a car (and minimal transportation), the savings could make up for the increase in rent. Besides that, sitting in traffic isn’t fun!
Can’t get anywhere without a car? Estimate how much you’ll spend in gas on your commute to work by using a trip cost calculator (Gasbuddy has one). Try and factor in any other errands you may run over the week, as well as any trips you want to take.
Only spending on public transportation? Figure out how much monthly passes are and add it into your budget.
Contrary to what some might think, it is possible to enjoy life while living on a budget; you can even treat yourself when you look for ways to save money on entertainment. This is a very broad category that encompasses a lot of “fun” expenses. Maybe only one of these appeals to you as you’re a homebody, or maybe all of them apply! Depending on how detailed you want your budget to be, you can break entertainment down into these sub-categories:
- Gym membership
- Sports games
- Video games
- Party supplies
You should have a general idea of what to include here from the suggestions above. It’s a good idea to leave this category for last when figuring out how much money you can allocate to it, as most of these expenses aren’t needs.
This might be a “boring” category, but it’s a must to include if you have a renter’s insurance or car insurance payment due every month. Additionally, if you’re not covered by your parents’ health insurance, or you have any co-payments or exams you need to pay for out-of-pocket, it’s a good idea to budget for them.
6. Phone Bill
I prefer to keep this separate from utilities since your phone isn’t exactly a “living expense” – you don’t just encounter it when you’re at home. It’s also probably one of the first bills you were responsible for paying yourself. As such, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to spend $80+ per month for your service.
You don’t. Cheap cell phone plans do exist. MVNO’s like Cricket, Republic Wireless, Straight Talk and others mean paying as little as $5-$10 per month if you’re on a WiFi network constantly. Otherwise, 3G plans are around $25-$35 per month.
7. Student Loan Payments/Debt
This one is a given, but that doesn’t mean you should exclude it from your budget. You never want to be late on a payment, so it’s important to have the funds ready to cover your monthly debt payments. If at all possible, I recommend making extra payments on any loans you have to reduce how much you’ll pay in interest.
You should budget in your savings, otherwise you might not actually save money! You probably think you’ll save whatever you have leftover at the end of the month, but you’re more likely to spend it. When you allocate all your money and give it a purpose, it’s harder for things to fall through the cracks. Opening a savings account with an online bank, like Discover Bank, allows you to earn a little interest on your savings and set up automatic transfers from your paycheck so that you don’t miss (or misuse) your money.
Think about establishing an emergency fund where you can keep around three months of living expenses in case something happens. Create other financial goals for yourself, like paying off debt, or saving for a vacation, so your money continues to have a purpose.
9. Pet Expenses
If you’re a proud owner of a furry family member, you should absolutely budget for any pet-related expenses, such as food, litter, toys, behavioral classes, or medicine.
Remember how we were talking about savings? You need to take future veterinary expenses into account, too. None of us like to think about anything bad happening to our pets, but it’s better to be prepared for the expense with a dedicated pet savings fund.
10. One-Time Expenses
These are oddball expenses that tend to get forgotten, such as birthdays, car registration and inspection, speeding tickets, taxes, or annual memberships. Some of these can be planned for (holidays, special events), and for others, you might need to adjust your spending elsewhere to make room.
Optional: Occasional Splurges
This is useful for those on an extremely tight budget who think they might encounter saving or debt fatigue. There’s only so much we can cut back, and you never want to feel like you’re not allowed to have any fun in life.
For that reason, having an “occasional splurge” category is a good idea. If you have any money leftover after budgeting for everything else, even $10, consider letting yourself use it for a fun splurge. $10 can get you a few coffee trips, a new top, an ebook, or a used video game. It’ll give you a purchase to look forward to – just make sure it’s a good one!
Budgeting Doesn’t Have to Be Restrictive, Just Spend Wisely
I want to make sure we’re clear here – budgeting, and being frugal, aren’t meant to be restrictive. Both actually give you more freedom. Budgets can be changed and adapted. If you want to have more entertainment money one month, you can “borrow” from your grocery budget. Staying aware of your expenses is the biggest key to experiencing financial success.
How did you approach budgeting when you were a new grad? Do you have any advice on how to manage money right out of college? What’s one fun category you like to include in your budget?
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