The No. 1 Budgeting Step You Have to Stop Avoiding

Mid section of a senior man calculating financial budget
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Budgeting isn't easy. Many people feel overwhelmed and give up before they even get going.

But even among those people who don't quit, many miss the most critical step when creating the family budget: tracking all of your expenses. And I mean down to the penny.

According to Gallup's annual economy and personal finance survey, only 32 percent of American households prepare a written budget or use software for a spending plan.

There are only two sides to a budget: income and expenses. Most American workers receive a pay stub that lays out exactly how much they earn. Of course, for those on commission, small-business owners and others, income fluctuates from month to month. But the majority of us have steady wages. There may not be enough money coming in, but that's a separate issue.

Do You Lose Track of Cash?

It's the spending side of the equation we struggle with. And that's why you have to be vigilant.

It's easy to lose track of cash, for example. That's one reason that my wife and I use a credit card to budget with each month and track spending. Cash has a way of leaking out of your pocket. You don't remember where it went, and it's easy to toss or misplace receipts.

"Tracking every penny of expenditures with receipts and income is the first step to gaining control of your finances," says Eric Wentworth, author "A Plan for Life: The 21st Century Guide to Success in Wealth." "Money leaks are nearly invisible, but can ruin any attempt to get control of your finances."

Dave Ramsey is famous for saying that every dollar of income must have a name. Families must assign every dollar in the budget a purpose at the beginning of the month. At first, families often find it burdensome to track spending that closely. But start by committing to do it for just one week.

Keep a notebook with you and write it down every time you spend cash, along with the place, and item category. Save your receipts. Odds are, after you get the hang of it, you'll find it's not too hard keep at it for another week, or two or three. Tracking your spending will soon start to become second nature.

Track Expenses Like You Track Calories

"If you want a successful budget, you have to be honest with yourself and figure out where all of your money is going," says Glen Craig, author of the popular personal finance blog "Too often we list out most items, but we don't take it serious enough to find everything. And then the budget never has a chance to work."

You will have no idea how much your family is spending every month until you keep track. Like counting calories, we focus on what we count. It has our attention. When we write the money spent or calories eaten in a journal, it helps us to visualize, monitor and change behavior.

How do you categorize your spending in your budget? Do you use the envelope system? Many financial experts recommend putting a set amount of cash in categorized envelopes at the beginning of each month. Then you spend the money from the envelopes.

An empty envelope forces you to stop spending in a category. You can prioritize and visualize how much you are spending on separate expenses of your family's life with this system.

"Understanding what you spend and where you spend it is the most important step to setting up a family budget," says Matthew Moore, founder of the Clear Retirement Group. "Most people don't track where their money goes. By categorizing your spending or allocating to envelopes, you put a system in place that holds the family accountable to their long-term goal."

Customize Your Categories

Andrea Woroch, consumer and money saving expert with Kinoli, Inc., recommends categorizing spending to follow the standard expenses like food, restaurants, gas, utilities, mortgage or rent, clothing, entertainment, savings, medical, travel and others. Add, subtract or change categories to fit your needs.

After you have a few weeks of live spending data, you need to go back into the past to understand how much and where you spend your money. Are you being honest with yourself about how much you're spending? Did you estimate too little?

"Take a glance at your six most recent bank statements," says Shani Curry-St.Vil, author of "10 Things Every Woman Should Keep in Their a Purse." "People seem to have amnesia when it comes to their spending habits. They often believe that they only eat out twice a month, when in fact they eat out twice a week."

Analyzing several months of bank statement will show you where your money is going. Review you bank statements to assign categories to your spending and to base your budget on your real spending patterns, instead of guesses.

Make a Spending Plan You Can Really Stick To

If you want to succeed at budgeting, you have to make a plan that you can stick to. Many families are not realistic as to what they spend and how their lifestyle busts their monthly budget.

It starts with understanding where you spend your money each month. And that's why you need to know your spending down to the penny. Then you can rein in your spending to match your income.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%"If the money won't stretch, the next step is to make some changes, such as cutting back on simple things, such as not eating out in the evening and carrying a brown bag for lunch," says David C. Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

Once you figure out your spending pattern down to the penny, you can establish a more realistic budget that reflects your family's specific spending, goals, lifestyle and needs.

Woroch recommends following the 50/20/30 rule: 50 percent of take-home pay should go to necessary living expenses; 20 percent should be allocated to financial goals like paying down debt or retirement; and 30 percent goes to your lifestyle and wants.

You can't know what your budget can handle if you don't know where you're spending your money. The most important aspect to setting up a budget is knowing where you're spending your money, down to the very last penny.

Do you think it's helpful to track spending down to the very last penny? What's the most important step to set up a budget for you and your family?

Hank Coleman is the publisher of the popular personal finance blog Money Q&A, where he answers readers' tough money questions. Follow him on Twitter @MoneyQandA.

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