Eight steps and twenty minutes a month for budget mastery

Saving money isn't easy, but treat yourself to a little help by adopting this quick and easy trick for budget mastery. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Sara da Silva works on two computer screens at once at Mass Bay Community College in a computer science course that is designed in conjunction with online learning from MIT, on March 12, 2013 in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. Budgeting doesn't have to feel this hard.

The word "budget" strikes fear and panic in many. No one likes to think about them, let alone talk about them. The truth of the matter is that most budgets fail, and they fail badly, because most budgets lie. Yes, that's right — they lie. A budget can represent whatever numbers you put in it. If you forget to add a bunch of expenses in each month, then it makes sense that you would be over budget month after month after month

In order to break this silly cycle of money mayhem, here is an easy eight-step system you can use to master your budget in only 20 minutes a month. Open up a spreadsheet and let's get started!

1. Create a Second Column

Not to be redundant, but we've got to first start with the budget. Why most budgets fail is because they only have one column, the budgeted column. We've already gone over why this doesn't work. Instead, upgrade your budget to a two-column layout for success. Your first column is the "What I Think I Will Spend" column, and the second column is the "What I Actually Spent" column. Basically, you create two mirror columns to accurately display what is going on in your budget for a given month.

2. Fill in "What I Think"

The "What I Think" column should be the easiest column to complete and shouldn't take you more than a couple of minutes at most. This column represents all of your budgeted items. It's an approximation of what you think you will spend during the month. Most of the numbers should be easy to access from your normal monthly expenses. Don't labor over this column too much, but make sure that you attempt to accurately itemize each income and expense item.

3. End of Month

The end of the month is where things start to get a bit more analytical (but don't let that scare you). At the end of each month, print off your most recent bank or credit card statements in which you've incurred your expenses for the month. This is the easiest step in the eight-step process, but it's critical to analyzing what went on during the month.

4. Add It Up

Once you're armed and ready with your statements (and receipts, for cash spending), get out a handy calculator and some highlighters. Color-code your statements for budget expense items like groceries, eating out, gas, clothing, utilities, phone, and so on. Then go through the list and highlight each item in each category. This makes it easy to add it all up when you are finished. There's nothing yet to analyze in this step, you are simply categorizing for step six. This will take you the longest out of all the steps, so allow 10 minutes to conquer your statements. Once you do this process for a month or two, it should be very easy to go through your statements in five minutes or less. Practice makes perfect.

5. "What I Spent"

Now it's time to fill in the second column, "What I Spent." Simply take the numbers from your statements and input them into the budget template. If you notice that you've left off a category on your budget, add it and put it in bold so it can jog your memory next month. Each month has its own twists and turns, so it's common that you might leave out a category by accident.

6. Compare the Columns

You've done the heavy lifting now, and are almost through your 20 minutes this month. Take a look at your budget and compare the two columns. Are there any areas that surprise you? Did you come in under or over budget, and why? What about those missing categories, are they essential to include going forward? You see the power is in comparing these two columns. It gives you a chance to evaluate your budget from estimation in the beginning of the month, to an absolute at the end of the month.

7. The Envelope Trick

If you have a category that is always your Achilles' heel, and month after month you are overspending, then it might be time to kick it old school. For instance, let's say eating out is always an area you overspend in. If you've budgeted $200 for the month in your first column, then at the beginning of the month you can withdrawal that $200 in cash, and stick it in an envelope. For the entire month, every time you eat out, you must dip into this envelope. Once the money is gone, your eating-out budget is gone. While this might seem harsh, it's an old school way to force you to stay within budget. At the end of the day though, none of these steps will work unless you put effort in and are committed to mastering your budget.

8. Reward Yourself

We all love a good reward, and you should pat yourself on the back if you've completed these steps for the month. No matter the outcome, you've taken small moves that will lead to big changes in your cash flow. Pick a dollar amount that you are comfortable with at the beginning of the month, and set a goal for yourself. Maybe you want to treat yourself to an extra cupcake at the end of the month, or go to that concert that you are dying to see. Whatever it is, give yourself a pat on the back, but not for too long — next month is coming quickly and it will be time to restart the 20-minute system.

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

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