Sticking to a plan for how you'll manage your money is key to spending less than you make and reaching your financial goals. But when budgeting becomes overwhelming, it's easy to put it off. You may tell yourself you'll buckle down and start budgeting soon—then find yourself dreading the hours you imagine you'll have to spend copying money spent on cups of coffee or quick trips to the store into a spreadsheet.
That's why the best budget is the one you can stick with. Read on for five tips on how to make budgeting less effort.
1. Start by Looking Back
Before you implement tools to make budgeting less work, block off some time to look back at your bank and credit card transaction history. Add up your actual monthly expenses, both fixed expenses such as rent and variable expenses such as gasoline, plus how much you tend to spend on discretionary purchases each month.
It may seem counterintuitive to make budgeting less work by investing time and energy reviewing old transactions. But to set yourself up for success and learn to budget on autopilot, you'll need to start with a firm grasp on your actual expenses and typical spending habits. Once you have some data on your past spending, you can put new, low-effort systems in place and change your spending to fit your goals.
2. Use a Flexible Budgeting System
For a set-it-and-forget-it approach to money management, pick a budget plan that's flexible and designed to require only minimal upkeep once you get the ball rolling. One strong choice is the 50/30/20 budget. With this budget plan, you direct half your income toward necessary expenses, 30% toward discretionary spending and 20% into savings, investments and debt repayment.
Your ratios may look a little different. For example, if your housing payment and utility bills eat up a lot of your income, you might need to reduce your discretionary spending to afford those necessary expenses.
However you choose to divide it up, this method works for those who don't want to plan where every dollar goes. It paints your budget picture in broader strokes than other methods, such as zero-based budgeting or envelope budgeting.
3. Set Up Automatic Savings
Few budget moves can get you further and require less effort than automating your savings. Once you settle on how much of your take-home pay you want to direct toward savings, pull that money automatically from each paycheck and put it directly in your savings account.
The easiest ways to make this happen are to either split up your direct deposit into savings and checking (if your employer allows it) or set up automatic transfers to savings on each payday. Whichever way you go, saving consistently can help you grow a supportive emergency fund, save for a down payment on a house or reach other goals—all without lifting a finger.
4. Use a Budgeting App to Track Spending
Starting a budget takes some initial legwork, but the point where many fall off the budget wagon is the daily grind of tracking spending. A coffee run, a sandwich on the go, a trip to the gas station, a quick stop at the store on the way home—at the end of the day, your motivation to open up your banking app and track, categorize and tally up many small purchases may be running slim.
Fortunately, a budgeting app can do the work for you. Look for a budgeting app that links to your bank account or credit card to review your spending. To avoid having to manually categorize each expense, opt for an app with high reviews for auto-sorting into categories. For example, the Mint budgeting app automatically imports your transactions and sorts them for you, saving you time.
5. Put Your Bills on Autopay
Paying bills is a fact of life, but it's also something you can delegate to the apps on your phone. "Set and forget" your bill payments by setting up autopay.
How to go about signing up for autopay depends on the bill payee. For example, for your credit cards, you can generally sign up for automatic payments directly through the app. You may be able to sign up for bill pay services through your bank to automatically send your utility payments each month. Or, you can reach out to individual companies to ask for automatic withdrawals. If you pay rent through a payment portal, for example, you should be able to sign up for automatic payments before the due date each month.
Not only does streamlining payments mean less work, but it also helps you avoid forgetting to pay a bill on time. In turn, that can help you avoid fees and even get credit for your on-time payments.
The Bottom Line
While some meticulous money managers or super-savvy spreadsheet users look forward to tracking transactions to the cent and balancing their books, you don't have to become proficient in accounting to start budgeting. The best budget for you is the one that feels easy to manage and stick with. Coming up with a simple plan, setting up automatic transfers and letting an app track your spending for you are all ways to make budgeting less work.
And while you're automating your budget, you can also automate your approach to managing credit. Start monitoring your credit for free through Experian to get automatic updates to changes to your credit report and score. You'll also have access to personalized insights on credit moves that could make a big difference, such as transferring debt to a balance transfer card or increasing your credit limit.