Especially during tough economic times, it's more important than ever to make sure you don't spend beyond your means. A budget planner is the best tool you can find to help you track your income and expenses so that you know where every hard-earned dollar you have is going -- and to make sure that more of those dollars stay in your pocket.

What a budget planner does
Many people make do without having any sort of formal budget planner. You can use methods for your personal budgeting as old-fashioned as sticking cash in a series of envelopes earmarked for different types of expenses, or as complex as custom-tailoring a spreadsheet that you use to track every penny you earn and spend. If a system works well for you and helps you stick with your budget, then don't mess with success -- keep doing things the way you have been.

But if you're just starting out with a budget, or if you've tried budgeting before and haven't had much luck with it, then you may want to give a budget planner a try. Although you can find planners with varying levels of complexity, you should expect most of them to include the following:

  • A tracker for your income, including deductions from your paycheck for taxes and your share of employee benefits.
  • Places to track pre-tax deductions, such as health insurance and flexible spending accounts.
  • Tracking for monthly bills, such as utilities, rent or mortgage payments, phones, car expenses, insurance, and other regular expenses.
  • Categories for more flexible spending, such as food, gas, and discretionary purchases.

Of course, a planner can get a lot more complicated than this. By tracking increasingly precise subcategories, you can really drill down on areas where you spend more than you should and find opportunities to boost your savings.

Yet the real key to any planner is in how it tracks your daily spending. In many cases, budget planners can communicate with your financial institutions to import data on checking account and credit card activity, even in some cases assigning those expenses to certain categories automatically. But if you pay cash on a regular basis, then you'll have to do at least some data entry, so make sure whatever system you use makes manual tracking fairly easy to accomplish.

Why do it?
The goal of budget planning is to help you save more money. Often, just knowing how much you spend is enough to motivate you to save. For instance, one reasonĀ AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) are able to pay such lucrative dividends to their shareholders is because smartphone customers often pay hundreds of dollars each month for their voice and data plans, money that's almost pure profit for those companies after having spent the upfront money building their networks. Once you realize that that $199 smartphone costs you thousands of dollars over the course of a two-year commitment, you may seek out less costly alternatives.

But budgeting isn't just about scrimping and saving. The right planner can also help you redirect money toward better uses, freeing up valuable cash that you can use to have a more enjoyable life. That by itself is worth the up-front investment of time setting up an appropriate budget and getting yourself up to speed on how your budget planner works.

Where to learn more
Believe it or not, many of the banks that owe much of their profits to people not sticking to their budget have great resources to help you maintain your budget better. For instance, Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) has instructional videos to help you save more using a budget planner.

In addition, mobile apps can help you use your smartphone as a budgeting tool. For instance, Capital One (NYSE:COF) has a highly rated mobile banking app that can help you coordinate bank accounts, credit cards, and more, giving you access to everything you need to budget better.

Start saving today
Whether you struggle to make ends meet or just want to know where all your money's going, consider using a budget planner. It could be the perfect answer to your financial difficulties.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend AT&T. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.