Budgeting

Everything You Need to Know About Budgeting

Whether you're just starting out or already in retirement, keeping close tabs of your money will help you prosper. Here's how.

Pop quiz: How much money did you spend last month and on what? Sure, most of us have a rough idea how much we paid for the basics, such as utilities, groceries, rent or mortgage. But do you know how much you spent -- down to the penny -- on little things, such as coffee, dining out, movies or drinks after work? Have you ever taken the time to keep a running tally of everything you shelled out cash for or charged to a credit card in a week, month or even a year?

"It's eye opening the first time you do it to see how much you're spending," says Jim Blankenship, a Certified Financial Planner in New Berlin, Ill. But it's also a first step toward greater wealth. If you're just starting out, it's imperative that you create a formal budget to track your expenses. Once you're older and know where your money is going, it might not be as important to have something on paper, Blankenship says. But you still should track your spending so you can revise your budget if necessary, especially if you have debt.

"Budgeting is the foundation of all your financial activities," he says. "If you don't have the foundation in place, you're building something that's structurally unsound." In other words, if you don't know where your money is going, you won't be able to meet your goals -- whether it's paying off student loans, buying a house or saving for retirement.

With that in mind, the stories below will guide you through every stage of life. They will help you create a budget if you don't already have one, give your existing budget a check-up, find extra money each month to pay off debt or save, and tailor a budget to ensure you won't outlive your savings in retirement. Take a look:

BUDGET BASICS

Build Your BudgetThink of your budget as a means of setting and reaching your goals. Here's help to get you started.

Look at CashflowTake the time to find out where your money is going on a day-to-day basis.

Keep More CashDwindling savings and more debt are warning signs of a leaky budget. Find out how to keep spending under control and keep costs down.

Plug the Holes in Your BudgetIf you start picking up distress signals, run your budget through these checks.

WHEN YOU'RE STARTING OUT

Budget Basics for College GradsHere are some suggested spending guidelines and tips on tracking where your money goes each month.

Cost of Living Reality CheckHeading out into the real world? Don't walk blindly. We show you how much life's expenses typically cost to help you anticipate your finances and build a budget.

BUDGETING TO SAVE

20 Small Ways to Save BigA big reason to budget is to figure out how much money you can set aside -- for emergenices, college or retirement. Here are ways to find extra money in your budget to sock away.

Save or Pay Down DebtYour bills are covered and you've got cash left over. What to do? Pay off that high-interest debt first.

THE FAMILY BUDGET

Explaing the Budget to Your KidsWith so much taken care of for them, it's not surprising that children can't appreciate what it costs to keep a household running.

BUDGETING IN RETIREMENT

Make Your Money Last ForeverWe outline the six vital steps, including how to set a budget, you should take to guarantee you'll never outlive your savings in retirement.

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