Making a budget is likely at the bottom of your "to do" list at this time of year, but when is a better time to do it? Now you can look back at all of your spending -- and overspending. And it's the perfect time to plan for the year ahead.
Here are three ways to make that happen.
--The Budget Kit ($20 at Amazon or www.MoneyTracker.com). This is the "old fashioned" way of getting a handle on your finances -- using paper and pencil. (However,this helpful workbook comes with Excel spreadsheets that you can download if that's your style.)
Either way, The Budget Kit is more than just a fill-in-the-blanks series of worksheets. It is a guide that explains the how and why of tracking your expenses and predicting them -- even if you have an uncertain paycheck because you are an entrepreneur or in sales.
There are separate pages to track monthly and yearly expenses and even seasonal expenses such as holiday gifts. Everything has a place in this excellent workbook, and it will help you avoid both surprises and family fights over money.
--Quicken ($39.99 for basic, or $44.99 for deluxe versions, www.Quicken.com). If you think paper and pencil are desperately old fashioned, Quicken is now well into its second decade as the leading financial software. Once you've downloaded the program, it's quick and easy -- even for non-techies -- to link up to your bank accounts, credit card accounts and investment accounts.
Then every time you log on securely to this software on your desktop or laptop, the program updates your latest balances, transactions, and securities or mutual fund prices. All your spending is categorized, either in Quicken's pre-arranged and suggested tabs or in categories that you create.
With another click, you can view all your spending in a bar chart or pie chart, making it easier to stay within your own budget limits. Plus, you never have to search far to see how much you've paid any one person or company; one click shows each payment to the electric company or doctor's office.
If you're self-employed, try the relatively new QuickBooks Self-Employed. This program understands the difficulties in planning for uncertain income. It empowers you to manage your cash flow better, divert some cash for taxes and other predictable events -- and even helps you anticipate the unexpected so you don't bust your budget.
It's easy to get hooked on Quicken because it is so empowering. Just start with the easy stuff, like tracking your spending in the year ahead. The patterns will soon become apparent -- and your spending can become more predictable.
--Mint (free app, www.Mint.com) If you're so millennial that even the concept of a program residing on your laptop seems antique, try taking your budget with you in real time on your smart phone! That's what the free app Mint does for you -- categorizing all of your spending, even the charges made on your credit card. It also tracks the budget it helped you create -- and sends text warnings when you're about to exceed your monthly spending limits in any category.
Plus, the app is free because of its commercial partners that send text messages through Mint, offering you lower rates on credit cards or auto loans or refinancing deals.
What could be more convenient than having your budget right in your hand -- reminding you to stay on track?
What do all three of these budgeting methods have in common? They all require you to make the commitment to getting control of your finances. This is not an argument for "cutting back" -- merely an appreciation of the fact that once you know where all of your money is going, you can make smarter decisions and avoid the anxiety of running short at the end of the month.
Who knows? This intimate look at your spending might lead to a decision to make some automatic contributions to a retirement plan or an emergency fund. When it comes to money, knowledge is power. And that's The Savage Truth.
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