6 Common Budgeting Methods to Know Where Your Money Goes

If I ask how many of you love the concept of budgeting, then I imagine I will hear crickets chirping. But one reason why budgeting conjures up mixed reviews perhaps is because you haven’t found the budgeting method that works for you.
You may hear different personal finance experts recommend one specific type of budget method, but truthfully, a budget is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Budgeting is personal and is based on your financial goals and dreams. So it stands to reason one particular budgeting technique may work well for one person, and a different one for someone else.
Let’s explore several of the most common budgeting methods and discuss the pros and cons of each.

Why a budgeting method is so important

But before we dig into the details of each method, it’s good to understand why budgeting is an essential component of your personal finance.
If money were no object then living within the means of a budget wouldn’t matter. But for the rest of us, money is a real concern. Over 78% of Americans admit they live paycheck to paycheck, and COVID-19 has made this an issue now more than ever.
important: 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
This means most of us do not have extra money to willingly waste. Yet, without a budget, it’s too easy to allow this to happen.
Budgets are designed to tell your money where to go. While it may not seem like it some days, you are in control of every dollar, and you have to tell each one where to go. Whether this means saving, spending, or repaying someone.
A 2019 Debt.com consumer survey revealed 8 out of 10 respondents were using some sort of budgeting method and the idea of one was gaining more popularity. But if you’ve never budgeted before, or have tried and failed to stick with one, where do you start?

Types of budgets

There are various types of budgeting methods to consider whether this is your first budget or you have found your budgeting process is not quite working. When considering your budgeting system, these different budgeting methods have great track records for helping you control your finances and reaching your savings goals.

Zero-based budget

A zero-based budget method, also known as the zero-sum budget, is pretty straightforward: your goal is to land at $0 each month, once you’ve subtracted your expenses from your income.
Zero-based budgeting works best for those with a predictable income and fairly predictable expenses. To begin, you list your income at the beginning of the month (or whatever period works for your payment schedule). Then, you list each monthly expense you have during the period and subtract it from your income. Whatever excess money you have is then allocated into another spending category until you reach $0, which is how this budgeting method received its name.
While the zero-based budget is a smart way to control expenses on a fixed income, it’s not without challenges. If you’re not careful, one large, unexpected expense can throw your budget completely out of whack. The best way to counteract this is to build up your emergency fund and set it aside in a savings account, even if it’s only $500 or $1,000. You can also keep a cushion in your checking account if you’re disciplined enough not to dip below it.
But overall, the zero-based method allows you to track every expense and are aware of where every dollar is going at all times.
Here’s an example of what a zero-based budget may look like for you:
ExpenseNet Income: $3,500
Debt (Car) Payment-$450
Eating Out-$100
$3,500 income - $3,500 expenses=$0
You can see from this example how one large expense can throw your numbers off. So if you decide one month you want to spend $400 on clothing, instead of the allotted $75, then you have to pull money from another category or savings.
  • Forces you to track each dollar
  • Works if you have a predictable income and steady expenses
  • One (or more) unplanned expense throws off the math
  • Your expenses can’t vary too drastically

The envelope method

Another budgeting method similar to the concept of zero-based is the envelope system. The goal is the same — your income is the starting point and you subtract each of your expenses until every dollar is allocated. The main difference between these two methods is you keep as much of your money in certain categories in cash, and literally inside an envelope.
Although walking around with cash in an envelope sounds cumbersome and somewhat unsafe to most people, proponents of this method find it curbs over-spending. This is especially true in categories such as groceries, fuel, and entertainment where it’s easy to lose track of money.
For example, if you allocate $650 per month towards groceries, you would withdraw $650 in cash and put it in an envelope designated “groceries.” Anytime you need to run to the grocery store, you reach for cash from your designated envelope. When you pay, you can only pay for it by withdrawing money from your grocery envelope. Once you run out of cash for groceries, that’s it — you have to wait to add to your envelope when you receive more income.
If you have money left over in a category, you roll it into the next month or put it towards a goal (like paying off a credit card or building savings). If you have an emergency and need the cash, instead of taking from an envelope like groceries, you use your emergency fund or designated savings.
The idea behind this system is it forces you to be disciplined. But realistically, carrying around envelopes full of cash presents practical challenges.
  • Teaches you to live within your means
  • You track every single dollar
  • Problematic if you prefer not to pay with cash or carry cash
  • Best for categories you physically walk into a store to purchase (groceries, fuel, clothing)

The 50/30/20 budget

Perhaps the detail involved in the envelope system and zero-sum budget has zero appeal to you. But you also know you need some way to track and allocate your money. The 50/30/20 method might be what you’re looking for. This budget is based on the percentage of your income and how much you allocate to necessities, discretionary spending, and savings.
The categories break down like this:
  • 50% necessities (housing, utilities, groceries, vehicle expenses, etc.)
  • 30% discretionary (eating out, entertainment, clothing, etc.)
  • 20% for savings and/or debt repayment
The key to making the 50/30/20 budget work is how you define a need versus a want. As long as you define these types of expenses early on and stay consistent, then this budget can work. Additionally, you still need to track expenses at a high level to make sure you’re not way over your categories.
This budget is more flexible too, you can change the percentage of the categories to better reflect your current financial situation or goal. For instance, if you have a large credit card payment you want to aggressively pay off in 10 months, you could increase the 20% for debt repayment to 30% to meet this goal, while decreasing from another category.
  • Good for focusing on debt-payoff
  • Flexibility to change categories based on your needs
  • You must define wants versus needs and stay consistent
  • Must track the percentage of each category to align with your goals

Pay Yourself First or 80/20 budget

If your number one financial goal is to build your savings, then the Pay Yourself First (also referred to as the 80/20 budget) is worth reviewing. The premise of this budget is whenever you receive income, you pay yourself first by putting a designated amount towards your savings or retirement accounts.
But this isn’t only for those who have savings as a goal. You can also apply this same method if your goal is debt repayment.
The name of this budget is based on 20% going towards your savings (or debt) goal and the remaining 80% covers all other items.
With your remaining money, you pay for your necessities and your discretionary items, but you don’t have to track every dollar. Since you’ve already paid your most important category first - your savings - you don’t have to track the remaining amount. This is a great option for those who want to aggressively contribute to their savings funds or retirement, or pay off debt. It’s even better for those who don’t like to track every single expense day in and day out.
  • Helps you aggressively work towards a savings or debt payoff goal
  • You don’t have to track expenses
  • Overspending is easy since you’re not tracking
  • Adjust your lifestyle to live on 20% less

Reverse budgeting

If you like the idea of the Pay Yourself First idea of budgeting but need even more flexibility, then reverse budgeting is another version. The difference with reverse budgeting is you focus on one major money goal each month and typically update your goal each month. You still use the 80/20 rule, but the 20% you designate goes toward a different goal every month.
Your goal for 20% could be paying off a credit card, saving for a vacation, padding your retirement, or saving for your child’s education.
Examples of your goals might look like one of these:
  • Add $500 to your child’s 529 Plan
  • Pay off a $400 store credit card balance
  • Add $500 to a Roth IRA
Once you put the designated amount towards your goal, your remaining income covers the rest of the expenses. Like the 80/20 budget, once you’ve paid yourself the 20%, you don’t have to track expenses daily.
This is an ideal option for those who don’t want to mess with tracking every expense but still have firm, aggressive goals in place you need to tackle.
  • Easy to use
  • Work towards big, numerous goals
  • Easy to overspend because you’re not tracking
  • Must learn to live on 20% less

Digital budgeting

While you don’t need anything fancy or complicated to run your budget each month — a pen and paper will work — there are several digital budgeting tools out there to help you keep track of expenses. This is often what budget-haters despise the most: the time-consuming effort it takes to track.
One method for digital budgeting is simply using a basic spreadsheet. This is an upgraded version of the napkin some people write their budgets on each month. But it’s simple, straightforward, and if it works for you then keep using it!
But if you are looking for something you can keep at your fingertips, then apps such as YNAB (You Need a Budget) are a great option for digital budgeting. Not only can you easily track your expenses daily, but you input your financial goals too, and you’ll see the progress towards each one. YNAB syncs with your bank account for easy tracking too.
Mint.com is another popular app choice and is highly-rated like the YNAB app. Some people prefer this app because it’s free to use and the bill tracker is super helpful too. Plus you receive tons of budgeting advice personalized to your financial goals.
If you like the concept of the envelope system, but don’t like the idea of carrying cash, then mvelopes is designed for this concept. Although there is a monthly fee, you assign your expenses to categories, or envelopes, the same way you would if you had cash.
No matter which tool you prefer, the important point is you are taking extra steps to monitor your monthly expenses and hit your goals with digital budgeting.
  • Multiple choices for apps
  • Perfect for a busy, on-the-go lifestyle
  • Possible monthly fees

How to determine the right budgeting method

Perhaps you know you need a budget but you’re not sure which one to choose. The best place to start is to be realistic about your spending and habits. You know what your strengths and weaknesses are.
For instance, if you’re the type of person who loses their wallet and keys weekly, then an envelope system is not practical for you. If you are self-employed and your money fluctuates week to week, then the zero-sum method doesn’t provide the flexibility you need, and you might be better off with the Pay Yourself First method.
Another question to ask yourself is what are your money goals? Do you have student loans staring at you each month that you know you need to tackle? Are you debt-free but have no substantial savings? Whatever your goals are can also factor into choosing a budgeting technique.
If you find a method isn’t working for you, then it’s okay to switch gears. Eventually, you will figure out the right one and you’ll know it’s right when you start achieving your personal finance goals.

The bottom line

Choosing a budgeting method is a personal choice. There is no right or wrong answer. The positive impact on your finances once you do have a manageable budget in place is worth the effort it takes.
Popular methods such as the zero-sum budget, the envelope system, or paying yourself first, have one goal in mind: get your money allocated correctly and used as a tool to achieve your financial goals.

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