NBA all-stars score 20-plus points a game, while showing off their defensive prowess. A baseball all-star might log 25 home runs and 60 RBIs before the All-Star break. But what are the markers for those who excel at the more mundane skill of budgeting?
Whether you're saving for retirement, paying off debt, or building passive streams of income, your long-term success rides on how well you can create and commit to a budget. You already know the basic tenets of budget-making: You add up what you make and compare that number to your expenses. Then, make adjustments with the intention of spending less than you make while moving closer to your financial goals. But you may not know why some people are so much better at budgeting than others. Here are eight things budgeting all-stars do that set them apart from the rest.
1. Save for the short term
Credit card debt is a budget killer, because it's so easy to rack up and so difficult to pay off. When you roll over balances, those interest expenses quietly start eating up your hard-earned income. That puts pressure on your cash flow, and if you don't cut spending in other areas, you'll have to borrow more. It's a terrible cycle.
The most reliable way to avoid credit card debt completely is to have a store of emergency cash set aside. You can't predict when surprise expenses will crop up. But if you have extra cash available, you won't have to reach for the plastic. Budgeting all-stars know this trick and have a few thousand dollars on hand just in case of emergencies. Target a minimum cash savings balance that will cover three months of your living expenses. Once you reach that balance, you can redirect those savings elsewhere until you have to use the emergency fund for something. Then, start saving again to get your balance back up to your target.
2. Set goals
Budgeting pros also set clear financial goals, and then adjust their budget so they can meet those goals. This is vastly different from living paycheck to paycheck, when you're only focused on getting by for the next two weeks.
If you'd like to improve your budgeting skills, the first step is to set goals. Think about where you want to be financially in the next year, five years, 10 years, and beyond. Some common financial goals that you could address in your budget include:
- Saving an emergency fund
- Saving for a new car purchase
- Saving for a home down payment
- Saving in retirement accounts
- Paying off credit card debt or student loans
3. Save for the long term
The ultimate financial endgame is retirement. To live comfortably after you leave the workforce, you need a big pot of money -- $1 million or more. And to accumulate that much wealth, you have to save for decades. The other side of this coin is that the longer you delay saving for retirement, the more difficult it is to reach that seven-figure balance.
Budgeting all-stars understand and accept this trade-off. They're willing to spend less today to ensure financial stability tomorrow.
4. Have a system
Those who excel at budgeting have a workable method for tracking their spending and holding themselves accountable to their self-imposed spending limits. No single system works for everyone, but here are some options you can try:
- Shop with cash. Set your spending limits and stick to them by shopping only with cash. Once the money runs out for the current week, you stop spending until the next week.
- Use envelopes. The envelope system is a more involved cash budgeting method. You divvy up your cash into envelopes that are labeled with your spending categories, such as gas, food, clothes, etc. You have a schedule for refilling the envelopes which coincides with your paycheck. If an envelope runs dry, you stop spending.
- Use an app. There are various budgeting apps that can help you set your spending limits and stick to them. A few to try are YNAB, Money Lover, and Bluecoins. If you are overwhelmed by the idea of budgeting, an app might be a good starting point. YNAB, for example, imports your banking transactions and displays spending reports to help you understand where your money is going. You can then set goals and track your progress against them.
- Track with spreadsheets. If you like to manipulate the numbers on your own, you might prefer downloading transactions from your bank into a spreadsheet. From there, you can highlight expenses that are compliant or non-compliant with your budget.
- Use a paper journal. A notepad and calculator can stand in for a spreadsheet if you like to do things the old-fashioned way.
Choose a method that feels right and do your best to work it into your daily decision-making. If it's not working, try something else.
5. Say no
Budgeting all-stars can confidently say no to opportunities that fall outside the budget. You may have to pass on a weekend away with your friends, a pair of designer shoes that are on sale, or happy hour after work. But you'll decline knowing it's the right thing to do. Every right decision you make now benefits you later.
6. Say yes
A good budget is not so restrictive that you're miserable. Allocate some funds for your own entertainment. And if you find yourself saying no too often, reassess your budget. Maybe you could cook more at home to free up enough cash for one weekend trip with friends every year. Or perhaps you can invite your co-workers to your house for drinks. You can make those trade-offs, as long as you're not de-prioritizing your longer-term goals. You might even enjoy the challenge of finding creative ways to have fun without over-spending.
7. Make lists to shop
Budget pros use a shopping list when they head out to buy groceries, gifts, and clothes. Plan out your meals for the week and write down exactly the ingredients you need. When you leave food-shopping to chance and buy what feels right, you're much more likely to overspend. Last-minute gift shopping is also a surefire way to blow your budget. And buying clothes without a list pretty much guarantees you'll pick up a piece you already have in the closet.
8. Comparison shop
Budgeting all-stars are detailed comparison shoppers. Comparison shopping leads to a lower price today, but it also makes your future shopping more efficient. When you know what things should cost, you're better at ignoring overblown sale messaging and you're quicker to move on actual money-saving opportunities.
Be a budgeting all-star
Sadly, there's no national league or team for America's best budgeters. But when you retire early and can spend your days traveling and having fun, everyone will know you made the cut.