OK, confession time – I’m happy to say that I haven’t been a single mom since November, 2011. But for years before that, not only was I a single mom, but I was a newly divorced single mom with two small children, less than a third of the income I’d had as a married mom, and over half of the marital debt.
“Overwhelmed” didn’t begin to cover how I felt. But I didn’t want being overwhelmed by my situation to send me running into (or back into) a worse situation.
So I shook off the panic, sat down, and developed a system to take charge of my money. There was a lot of trial and error involved, and it took some time, but after a few months of experiments, I hit on a system that let me get a handle on my budget, my spending, and my future.
And over a decade later, I’m still using it, and I love it so much, that I’m sharing it.
As you continue reading, please remember, I’m not a financial guru. Like you, I’m just a parent (person) that has to make ends meet. These are just the steps I took back then (and still take) to stretch those pennies into dollars.
I also know that in this age of “there’s an app for that,” there are plenty of apps similar to my process. I still like my spreadsheets though. Maybe I’m old fashioned? But they’re like my childhood teddy bear, Pookie. I’ve had them for so long, they’re hard to give up! I leave the choice of tools that you use for the following up to you. The process will remain the same.
So let’s get down to budgeting. I’m going to use my spreadsheet as an example. Feel free to download it so you can follow along.
As you can see, it’s broken down by my paydays. (I get paid every two weeks.) You can adjust to fit your own pay schedule. To get your own budget going, first:
- Gather up all of your bills and outgoing payments for the month, quarter, and half year. I did this because some things, like utilities, are every month, but others, like my car insurance, are every six months.
- Grab a copy of your last paystub or two
- Make another run through your files or checkbook to make sure you’ve got everything. You don’t want to miss any payments.
Now, open up your spreadsheet and start adding all of these things in, playing around and adjusting as needed to make sure every payment is covered every month. I have an “other” row for the money I need to set aside for upcoming payments, like doctor’s visits or that every six month car payment.
A couple of things to remember:
- PAY YOURSELF FIRST! Even if you can only set aside $10 per month, do it. Get into the habit of saving. A saving’s account can save the day.
- If you have credit cards, pay at least the minimum on all of them until you can add more to each payment. Spread the payment out over the month if you have to (just make sure the minimum balance is paid before the due date every month, or you get penalized). I also like Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball Plan and have used it myself with great success.
- It may take a couple of tries to get it working for you and your needs, but keep at it. A good budget can change your life.
After a couple of months of budgeting, I knew where some of my money was going, but I couldn’t figure out why I still had so much month left at the end of my money.
Which brings me to my second spreadsheet – the Spending Tracker.
Track EVERYTHING You Spend
There’s not too much to say about this step. It’s pretty self-explanatory. You can’t change your “bad” habits if you don’t know what they are.
That’s where my monthly “Spending Tracker” comes in. There’s a tab for every month of the year, with a yearly roll-up, and each tab has categories for spending (bills, groceries, leisure, etc.) and method of payment (cash, credit card, debit, etc.).
Every time you spend money, no matter what it’s for, you open up the spreadsheet and log it. It tallies how much money you spent in each category, as well as over all, and how many times you used each method of payment.
By using this spreadsheet, at one point, I reduced my credit card usage from over 100 times in a year to just 3 times. That was awesome. I also cut down on the amount of money I spent eating out and increased the amount I contributed to savings.
OK, so once you get a handle on your budget and spending, how do you handle the bigger things, like investing, saving for a home, etc.? That’s where a financial planner comes in.
Get Yourself a Good Financial Planner
I adore my financial planner, Bryan. He’s awesome. He’s been helping me for nearly a decade now. Before I talked to him, I had this misconception that I needed to be wealthy, well off, or at least have a lot of money in the bank to have a Financial Planner.
A good planner is there to help you make the most of what you have, financially, as well as help you navigate the questions of retirement, life insurance, saving for your kids’ education, investing – everything money related that you may not know or think about.
And the best part is, Bryan at least, is free to talk to. I don’t know if this is true of all financial planners though, so I can’t make that claim. (But if you’re interested, I’ll happily pass along Bryan’s info. Tell him Karen sent you.)
There you have it. My three steps to getting your finances under control.
- Budget your expenses and stick to it
- Track your spending so you can change the habits you don’t like
- Get a financial planner to help you with the harder stuff like retirement
And don’t hesitate to download and check out the spreadsheets I created to help myself through this process. They’re free to use and modify to suit your own needs.
And as always, feel free to share your thoughts and tips on budgeting in the comments below or on the Writer’s Fitness Plan Facebook page!
What method did, or do, you use to bring your finances under your control?