A traditional line-item budget is just what it sounds like: You list out income and expenses over a set period of time. It’s easy and intuitive for those just starting out and provides a detailed snapshot of spending accompanied by a healthy dose of perspective.
Creating this type of budget begins with a thorough assessment of everything you earn and all your expenditures. This is probably the most intimidating part of line-item budgeting, but it’s essential if you want accurate insights into your spending habits.
How much did you earn?
First you’ll want to calculate your average monthly income from the past year. That may be as simple as looking at a W-2 statement. Although, earnings might also come from a side gig or small business, investment income, alimony, or child support. Keep in mind that this should be after-tax income. If you’re self-employed, this can take a few extra steps to calculate, so be sure you’re setting aside enough money to account for any income taxes you may owe at the end of the year.
If you regularly receive a tax refund, consider including that as well. Alternatively, treating these as budget-enhancing bonuses may prove more useful (and satisfying) when it comes time to balance the books.
How much did you spend?
Next, add up everything you’ve spent over at least the previous three months (longer, if you have the stamina). Each item can be listed individually, or you can make things easier by grouping them into categories. Consider using a spreadsheet or some kind of accounting program. Budgeting apps are particularly helpful in making the process friendlier and more organized. They also allow easy tracking and analysis going forward and can access data directly from your bank accounts.
When itemizing your past expenditures, you want to include not only fixed expenses such as rent, mortgage, loan payments, utilities and insurance, but also irregular or annual costs like holidays, vacations, subscriptions, membership fees, property taxes and credit card payments.
If you’re in the habit of regularly hitting up the ATM for cash, be sure to make a note of where that money goes as well. Saving receipts after a purchase can be a good habit to get into.
Be careful. Those little purchases — cash or otherwise — can add up. The classic example is your daily cup of joe. At $3-5 per day, that amounts to at least $100 a month in coffee drinks. So if you find yourself needing ways to save, consider brewing java at home — or ordering a less extravagant caffeinated concoction.
Cutting the right corners
As you complete your accounting and are able to take a hard look at what you spend versus what you earn each month, you’ll begin to see other ways of cutting costs or adjusting how and where you spend.
Grocery bills too high? Consider buying certain favorite items only when they’re on sale and buying alternatives when they’re not. Generic brands often have identical ingredients to the more costly name-brand equivalents.
Cable bill too high? Try cutting it down to the basic package. You could also switch to a mix of streaming services, which cost less and offer more flexible, a la carte viewing.
And is that dining out entry really so high? Try eating at home more often or eating off the happy hour menu when you do dine out.
Line-item budgets are easy for beginners, but they can also be time consuming and may not be for everyone. Since their main purpose is to track monthly expenditures, they aren’t ideal for prioritizing savings. You’ll need to add your own line item for that. (We recommend saving at least 10% of your monthly earnings if possible).
But if your money seems to just disappear every month, this detailed, straightforward budgeting approach provides the transparency to identify where you might be going wrong and the ability to fine-tune along the way.