How to Make A Budget: The Ultimate Guide

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Want to make a budget, but don’t know how to start? Here’s an in-depth guide of how to create a budget to control your spending and reach your goals.

Do you know how to make a budget? Do you believe living on a budget is difficult, so there’s no point in creating a budget? You’re not alone. Discussing budgets is something I do on a regular basis with people who want to learn how to effectively manage their money.

In fact, I had a conversation with a family member recently on how to create a monthly budget. They want to get a handle on their finances and have no idea where to start or even how to begin living on a budget. When I asked the family member how they have kept track of their finances up to this point, they responded: “I just spend and hope I have enough in my bank account at the end of the month.”

I used to be the same way. Actually, I was worse. I spent money without abandon and didn’t know what I had left at the end of the month. It wasn’t until I learned how to create a budget and track my spending that my financial life turned around.

If you want to get your finances back on track and learn how to make a budget, this guide is for you.

Why You Should Make a Budget


What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘budget?’ Here are a few of the common things I hear when I talk to people about budgets:

  • They’re restrictive
  • I can’t have fun if I live on a budget
  • I can’t spend money
  • It’s too difficult to live on a budget

All of those assumptions have one thing in common. They’re wrong.

Creating a budget may feel restrictive or make you feel like you can’t have fun. The opposite is true. A budget creates freedom. It gives you control. It gives you the confidence to make financial decisions that serve you best.

That is why you should consider how to start living on a budget. Living on a budget is like using GPS when going on a trip. It guides you to your destination. A budget, in similar fashion, guides you financially so you can reach your personal goals.

Ultimately, they both empower you with the knowledge that you’re headed in the right direction. So, we know why we should live on a budget, but how do you even begin the process of making a budget?

Step 1 – income


The first step to start a monthly budget is to figure out how much you earn each month. If you’re not certain exactly how much you earn each month, look at your paystubs to determine that amount. If you make extra money on the side, you want to include that money as well.

You may not know the exact amount you make each month (if your income fluctuates, here’s a guide to budgeting with a variable income). Don’t let that hold you back.

Instead, try to determine as close as you can what you bring home each month, after taxes. That’s going to be the base you work from in making your budget.

It goes without saying that you want your income to be more than what you spend each month; you’ll go nowhere quickly if you spend more than you earn.

Want to make a budget, but don’t know how or where to start? Here’s an in-depth guide of how to create a budget to help control your spending and reach your goals.

Step 2 – Expenses


The second key in learning how to budget money is determining your expenses. You want to know how much you spend each month and how it fits within recommended budget percentages.

First, you will have your known expenses. This will include things like:

  • Rent / mortgage
  • Utilities (gas and electric)
  • Internet bill
  • Cell phone bill
  • Cable or other TV-related bill
  • Debt payments
  • Insurance

You will then want to include variable expenses that you have each month but don’t know the specific number to assign to, such as:

  • Grocery spending
  • Gas
  • Charitable giving
  • Entertainment
  • Pets

Your variable expenses may look different, so this is really meant to give you an idea of some things that could classify as variable. It will be a bit more difficult, but you want to back into the number for each variable expense.

Take groceries, for example. You can keep track of what you spend each week over the course of a month. Use that number for your grocery category to help find a reliable number, then do that with each of your monthly variable expenses.

For irregular planned expenses, like caring for your pets, this may be a bit more difficult. In this case, look for inexpensive pet hospitals near you to save money and actively work to keep your furry friend healthy.

Taking a step back, you want to track your spending for at least one month, if not for several months. You want to track everything you spend, regardless of the amount.

Doing so will provide a better idea of what you spend in a month. You will want to know the amount you spend each month for two specific reasons:

  • To know how much, or how little you’ll have leftover at the end of each month
  • To identify areas where you can cut back, which we’ll cover later

If you’ve never tracked your spending, you can go as simple or as advanced as you want. I like to use Excel for our budgeting. You can even use pen and paper. You can also automate the tracking.

Tiller is a service that connects to your bank account and puts all your transactions in a Google Sheet so you can look at all your expenses. Tiller is free for the first 30 days and $7 per month thereafter.

The final expense category to keep in mind is comprised of those things that happen, but not every month. Car insurance is a good example of this.

If you pay your auto insurance bill once every quarter, semi-annually or annually to get a discount, you want to plan for that expense, so you’re not surprised when the bill comes due.

Other similar planned, but not monthly expenses are:

  • Gift/holiday spending
  • Home repair
  • Car repair
  • Travel

Again, these are only example categories. You may have more or less, but this should give you a good place to start. So, how do you fit in such irregular expenses into your budget? It’s not as difficult as it might seem.

Take gift/holiday spending, for example. You will want to look at what you’ve spent in the previous 12 months on gifts for friends and family. Let’s say you spent $600 on gifts in the previous year.

When you spread that amount over the course of the year, it comes out to $50 per month.

That’s the number you want to include when you make your budget. You’ll want to do that for each major, irregular expense. I’ll cover how to save for these irregular expenses more in-depth in a later section.

Step 3 – What’s Left


You’ve figured out how much you earn each month and how much you spend each month. I know it might be a little embarrassing. It may be a little shocking. It will be an emotional experience.

However, now is the time to let the light shine on the situation. You want to see how you stack up and what your financial life looks like.

Remember the confidence I mentioned earlier? This is the beginning of growing that confidence. You want to look at what you have coming in each month and what’s left at the end of the month.

Let’s take a look at an sample budget to get a better idea of this:

Total Income: $3,500 per month


Rent / mortgage: $1,200

Utilities: $200

Internet: $50

Cell phone: $100

Cable: $75

Student Loan #1: $200

Student Loan #2: $150

Car Payment: $300

Grocery spending: $400

Gas: $200

Entertainment: $200

Car Insurance: $100

Gifts: $50

Total Expenses: $3,225

As you can see in this sample budget, the person has $275 in wiggle room each month. Regardless of their situation, that’s very little to play with each month.

Keep in mind they’re only sample numbers, based on averages; your situation will likely be different.

It won’t take much to throw a situation like this into a budgetary mess, and cause you to end up living paycheck-to-paycheck. That is not what you want.

Ideally, you want to get a month ahead of your expenses so you can handle most things that come your way. In fact, you should aim to have at least one month’s worth of income sitting in your bank account to provide a cushion.

You never know what will happen in life. You may miss a paycheck or have an unexpected bill. Having a cushion will help you make it through those times. What we will cover next will help you get there and beyond.

Step 4 – Cut Spending


Now that you’ve created a personal budget, it’s time to identify opportunities to cut spending. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You don’t want to waste money if you don’t have to
  • You want to save more of your money so you can put it to work for you and grow your net worth

When looking for areas to cut, start with non-essential needs. Beyond shelter, food, utilities, and clothing, few things are ‘core’ needs; most other things classify as ‘wants.’

According to Pew, 75 percent of the average family’s expenses fall into ‘core’ needs, so you are more likely to find good candidates for cost savings in non-essential categories.

Not that you can’t find savings in essential categories, but we want to focus on non-essential items for the moment.

The first areas you want to look at are candidates for obvious savings. Let’s take your cell phone plan for example. A contract with a major carrier averages close to $150 per month.

There is no need to pay that much for cell service. There are numerous options, such as Ting Mobile, that operate on the same networks as the major carriers and offers unlimited talk and text for just $10 per month. If you need data, it’s just $5 per GB.

All Frugal Rules readers receive a $50 credit, so that effectively gives you several months of service for free.

Read our review of Ting here to learn more about the provider. You can move to a cheaper plan and instantly save $100 per month that you can put towards a different area of your budget.

Another area you can look at is cable TV. The average cable bill is over $100 per month. There is no need to spend that much for television content, especially as so much is available online these days, not to mention streaming options.

You can get many of the same channels with Hulu with Live TV for $54.99, for 60+ channels and save at least $60 per month.

We canceled DirecTV four years ago and now save $90 per month and don’t miss anything we were watching previously.

Finally, you can look at memberships or subscriptions you may not use. A great example of this is a gym membership. Gym memberships are great…IF you use them regularly. Unfortunately many of us don’t and that leads to wasting an average of $40 per month.

We just identified a little over $200 per month in savings and there are many other ways to save money every month out there. Just remember to personalize it to your situation to find the saving areas that impact your lifestyle the most.

*Related: Want to save on internet service? Check out our guide on how to get free wireless internet at home to save big bucks!*

If you’d rather not deal with the hassle of cutting or negotiating bills, you can use Trim to do the work for you. Trim is a free to use app that analyzes your spending and looks for subscriptions you don’t use and cuts them.

They also help you find ways to save money on bills by working on your behalf to reduce the cost of services you use in your home.

Want to make a budget, but don’t know how or where to start? Here’s an in-depth guide of how to create a budget to help control your spending and reach your goals.

Step 5 – Reallocating Savings


Now that you’ve identified some money-saving opportunities, you want to put that money to work for you. Just cutting it from one area so you can spend in another will get you nowhere.

Depending on your situation, you will want to do one of the following three things with this newly found cash:

If you don’t have one, an emergency fund is the first thing you should start. This is what will help you when something unplanned occurs. Which, let’s face it, can happen at any time.

Interestingly, a recent Bankrate report shows that 66 million Americans do not have an emergency fund. Putting an unexpected car repair on a credit card without knowing how you’ll pay that debt off is just one example of a negative financial consequence that can be avoided with an emergency fund.

If you don’t have an emergency fund, now is the time to start one. You can open an account with CIT Bank with just $100, and a monthly commitment of $100, and earn .45 percent on your cash.

Take some of the savings you identified and put it in a savings account. Grow that to $500 and then to $1,000 and so forth. This will give you a good foundation to handle most things that might come your way.

Paying off debt is self-explanatory. After you start building your emergency fund, you want to throw any extra money you have at your debt. This can include anything from student loans to credit cards and car payments.

Ideally, you want to find the debt with the highest interest rate and throw your money at that. If you have high-interest rate credit cards, you may want to look at consolidating that debt so you can pay it off quicker.

You can either consolidate the debt through Fiona by Even Financial to slash your rates by at least half or transfer to a 0% APR credit card.

Either will allow more of your money to work to kill the debt for good.

If you have student loans you want to pay off faster, you can accomplish a similar rate reduction with Credible. In fact, the average Credible user saves almost $19,000 on student loan payments.

Lastly, assuming you’ve started to build an emergency fund and have begun to deal with any debt, you want to start saving for retirement.

That is somewhat beyond the scope of this guide, but the easiest place to start is by investing in your employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, assuming they offer one, and save enough to get the full match.

Step 6 – Irregular, Known Expenses


Remember when I discussed managing irregular, but known, expenses in step two? When I first started living on a budget, there were several occasions on which an expense would pop up and throw me for a loop.

Why? I knew the expense was coming, but I did nothing to save for it.

I just assumed I’d have the cash whenever the bill came due. It was a game of budget chicken with my expenses, hoping I would come out the victor.

It only took a few times of ending up on the losing end to teach me the importance of planning for those expenses as well. We now use what I like to call the “savings bucket” method.

This is how the method works. We have an account for expenses like car insurance. Every month we put money into that devoted savings account for bills – we use a high-yield savings account so we can earn a little something on the cash.

When a bill comes due, we transfer the cash we need over to our checking account and pay the bill (Well, we put the bill on our credit card to earn rewards points, but we still pay the bill in full).

By doing this we know where the money is coming from, we pay the bill, and we move on with no surprises or impact to our financial well-being.

*Related: New to writing checks? Check out our guide on how to write a check for step-by-step directions.*

You can also achieve the same result by using the cash envelope method. Regardless of which approach you take, find a way to plan for those irregular, but known expenses so your budget doesn’t take a hit each time those bills come due.


Step 7 – Picking a Budget Method


If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. Hopefully you have some answers to the question, ‘how do I make a budget?’ The final step is to determine how exactly you’re going to make your budget.

As you will learn, living on a monthly budget means you need to track your inflows and your outflows. Thus you need something to administer that throughout the month.

*Related: Want to save more money? Check out our guide on bill negotiation strategies to follow to garner more savings.*

There are many options available to create a budget. My first budget was simple and on a piece of paper. You may not want to start that simple, but it is a good first option to start writing down in concrete what you have coming in and going out each month.

You can also accomplish the same thing by using Excel. I used Excel for our budget for years and still do to a certain extent. If you want something web-based, you can use free budget apps like Mint or Personal Capital.

Both platforms are free and provide a great way to track your spending, check up on your budget and get a snapshot of where you stand financially.

We use Personal Capital as it has some investing components I like, monitors our net worth, and is free to use. I’ve included a screenshot below of how Personal Capital lays out your expenses to get an idea of what it looks like.

make a budget

You really can’t go wrong with any of the available options. The point is to make a budget and track your spending, so you know where your money is going each month. Find something that works for you and run with it.



Living on a budget requires one thing – it must be in line with your goals. They are what must guide your decisions, how you allocate your money and how you spend it.

That’s why you hear people say that living on a budget creates freedom and confidence.

You have freedom because your monthly budget is aligned with your specific goals. Sure, you can spend your money like crazy but what would be the point?

Personally speaking, knowing that we’re working towards a specific goal drives me to make the spending and saving decisions we want because I know it’s going towards something greater than a temporary high from buying something we really don’t want.

As you make your budget, determine what your goals are and how you can be successful. If it’s to pay off debt, then that should guide your budget. If you want to retire early then, you’ll want to throw as much as you can towards investing.

Whatever it is, it must be personal to you, and no one can tell you what that will look like – only you can do that. Take the time to determine your goals and let them form the foundation of your budget.

The rest will fall into place from there, but you must allow your goals to guide the entire process. These goals will change over time, so review them regularly to ensure you’re being effective with your budget.


Do you live on a budget? What tools do you use to track your spending? How often do you check in on your finances? Do you feel a budget is restrictive or freeing?

Want to make a budget, but don’t know how to start? Here’s an in-depth guide of how to create a budget to control your spending and reach your goals.


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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

Latest posts by John Schmoll (see all)


  • Holly Johnson says:

    Great guide! We use a monthly zero-sum budget. It’s not hard, but it does take a few hours of work every month. It helps us stay on track and keep track of our spending over all.

  • Amanda @ centsiblyrich says:

    Having that reason, or goal is so important. And you’re right, the goal must have meaning to you personally. No two people will have the same reason for paying off debt.

    I spend about an hour a week on our tracking expenses. I don’t have a strict budget, but automatically save as much as I can and live on the rest – similar to the zero-sum budget.

    • John Schmoll says:

      ” No two people will have the same reason for paying off debt.” – could not agree more Amanda. You’ve got to find what works for you and run with it.

  • Fehmeen says:

    I think budgets are a great idea but I haven’t found the resolve to make one for myself. I do think I’m pretty good at limiting my expenses as it it so I’m not particularly worried, but I know that’s not an excuse. One thing I would add to a budgeting exercise is to add the ‘savings’ header right after the ‘income’ header. This would force me to spend money only after I have met the mandatory savings target for the month.

    Great walk-through, by the way!

    • John Schmoll says:

      As long as you’re on track for what you should be doing is the key in my opinion. Some don’t like living on a budget and that’s more than ok, but if you’re financially stable you very well may not need one.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I love how this post came from a family member asking you a finance question. I LOVE listening to friends and family members because oftentimes I walk away with a post idea. This is quite the monster post, John, and I think a lot of people will find it really useful.

  • Early Retirement in 2019 (Already Retired) says:

    Great post! I know that many of people don’t have their own budget and then cannot manage their finance. Everyone knows about how money comes in and goes out every month. If one tracks his/her budget and expenses, it will be much easier to track their spending habits. I just started posting my monthly expenses on my blog and have already found a few items to cut or reduce.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks! Completely agreed, so much information is to be had when you start tracking your expenses and that’s half the battle of making a budget.

  • Dan says:

    Remember to include such items as cigarettes. Don’t leave them off by telling your self that you will quit and not include them on your budget, not only will it show how much is absoulty wasted buy seeing $200.00 we waste it is a great incentive to stop smoking. Include it on the budget until you have quit for you know you are sure you put the habit down for good.

  • Teri says:

    Wish I would have learned this years ago.

    Love your post. For me, a budget was mandatory. Problem was I could not find a process that worked for me. I tried several, Mint comes to mind right now and there were many others.

    I was broke and digging a hole I didn’t have any idea how to stop digging. I was desperate. I tried everything I could find and nothing helped me. Then I found YNAB. It was a simple purchase when I found it but now it’s $5 per month. Guess I am a little dense as I could not do it with paper and pencil, or even a spreadsheet. YNAB was the “missing piece” for me.

    Have been budgeting for almost two years now. Went from not knowing how I was going to pay my bills to saving a few thousand a month. Biggest change was not more income, to my surprise. It was simply making informed choices when making purchases. Things like: Do I really want this new pair of shoes (insert want) more than I want to go on a nice vacations (insert your own goal) this year? Those choices made all the difference.

    Like you suggested, it is hard to share this wonderful tool. Budgeting is a hard subject to discuss. It has made such a difference in my life I want to shout it from the rooftops, but no one wants to hear it. Guess I will just sit here with my savings/investments growing nicely. Content and secure. What a wonderful feeling, for the first time in my life.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Glad to hear things are on the right path for you Teri! Informed choices are huge when it comes to managing your finances.

  • Amanda says:

    I feel like these steps should be taught to everyone from a young age. I wish they taught this to me when I was in high school! I try to track my expenses weekly and my savings too. I love seeing how much I actually saved in a month. Gives me a bit more motivation.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Completely agreed Amanda. I wish much, if not all, of them would be mandatory – would help a lot students get a basic foundation.

  • Jason Cabler says:

    Man, what a great comprehensive post! I believe doing a budget is the #1 thing you can do if you want to get your finances under control. Unfortunately, most people don’t do one. I like that you focused on setting and accomplishing goals with your budget. That helps make a huge difference when it comes to whether or not you actually stick with it.

    • John Schmoll says:

      Thanks Jason! Completely agreed, it comes down to goals. Once you have those in mind the rest of it can work itself out relatively simply.

  • Alexander Xochihua says:

    I’m pleased to see you post this topic, however, most people have heard of creating a budget- and we know the financial status of most people today.

    People are overcome with credit card balances, auto loans that are far beyond what is practical for their income, student loans and other debts (medical, furniture loans).

    I want to throw in a little hint at how to further improve things for people who cannot seem to find a way to save aggressively. Cut out these expenses until you prove to yourself that you can save according to your life & retirement goals:

    Cut/Eliminate: Cable Bill, Entertainment, Charitable Giving, Gift/Holiday spending and Travel!!!

    You are not honest with yourself if you have these expenses and are unable to save.


    • John Schmoll says:

      Those are all fair points Alexander (and completely agreed), however I do believe they’re covered here is this guide – not to mention ad nauseam on the site.

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