The Twenty-Something Series: I actually tried to budget for a month and here's how it went

I actually tried to budget for a month - so here's how it went, and how I did it!

Something a little different in today's blog post: last month, I tried tracking my spending and budgeting, and here's how it went!

As of April 1st, I decided to be a lot more stringent with budgeting my money. I had an idea of how much I spend each month on bills - like rent, internet, and so on - but thought it was about time I actually made an effort to track anything and everything I spend money on.

Past failings at budgeting

Now I've tried to budget before. I've tried to go through once a week and add up everything I bought on paper and on Excel, but it was hard. I'd lose receipts or forget what exactly it was I bought, and if I spent cash, I'd lose track easily. 

Tracking all of this from my computer seemed like an obvious choice, but I'd forget by the time I got home that day, or I'd let it slide one week... and the next... and then realise I'd have to start all over again.

Using a notebook to budget seemed like a smarter idea - I could come back to my desk after lunch, pop it in my notebook, and voila. (But how to lay it out? And how many pages would I need? I'd have to carry around a whole new notebook for it.) And I might make mistakes adding up on a calculator, so would need to do it more than once to be sure... and that in itself was pretty time consuming.

I also couldn't just track it through my online backing - that got too complicated too quickly. Just trust me when I say this wasn't going to work for me.

Working out what I needed from a budget

So a notebook and my laptop were both out, because they were tried, tested, and failed methods. What i needed was something quick and easy, something that would add it up automatically, something I could carry around with me and update on-the-go, and something that would let me categorise my spending...

The obvious answer, I know, is an app. 

So I Googled, did some research for good money tracking or budgeting apps. The reviews were mixed, even on paid ones - and God knows I am loath to pay for apps and have never bought an app that wasn't free in my life. Ideally, I wanted something I could access from another device, too.

Then it hit me - the next-most obvious option: I could use the Numbers app on my phone. (Numbers being Apple's answer to Excel.) It would sync automatically between my phone, iPad and computer. I could add to it on the go. It would automate all the adding up.

Setting up my budget

I did a little more Googling and found this guide - following the instructions and the pre-set template in Numbers, I have now set up my budget with the categories I want. I've opted for things like 'socialising', 'entertainment' (aka any cinema trips, my Netflix and Spotify subscriptions), 'personal' (to cover groceries and clothes and general stuff), as a few examples.

To start out, I put some pretty arbitrary numbers in. I know how much I'll spend on rent or utilities bills, but socialising? Petrol for the car? Clothes? Not so clear on that. 

I figured that to start out, I'd pick some numbers that at least sounded reasonable, and I'd see how it went. If it turned out my petrol was only £20 for the month, then great - let's lower that budget. But if it looks like I actually spend more on groceries than I think I do - well, let's rethink that one.

I thought I'd be on the generous side to start out, and make an effort to not be frivolous with my spending, and then I'd be able to re-think my budget to be somewhere in the middle of the two.

So how did I do?

Overall, I came in several hundred pounds under budget. Though, like I said, the budget was based on guesstimates, so I've now lowered several of the sub-budgets for May to see how it goes.

The only one I came in over budget on (by about £2.40) was 'Entertainment' - but hey, I needed a large popcorn to get me through seeing Endgame, and I needed my Now TV pass to watch Game of Thrones!

I'm pretty pleased with how it went. 

I made sure to track everything, trying to do it as soon as I spent it or else as soon as I got home/back to my desk - and not only did the method for budgeting work, but I managed to stick to the budget itself!

(Honestly, I was terrified I'd find out that I actually spent something like £300 a month on groceries without even knowing it. Thankfully, that was very much not the case.)

I know it'll take a couple of months to get a good idea of how much I spend regularly, but this has been a good start - and if I managed to keep it up for the whole of April, it's already the most sustainable method I've found to budget.

How having a budget changed my spending habits

Right from day 1, it made a difference. Telling myself 'I'm on a budget' made me really consider any money I was spending... 

For instance, on April 1st, I bought a stack of 'Sorry you're leaving/Good luck in the new job' cards (there's a lot of people leaving work right now). I'd considered buying them from Paperchase, but instantly told myself I'd be spending four times as much there, and that I'd probably end up finding a new notebook as an impulse purchase, so I went somewhere else for them. That's only one instance, I know, but apply that kind of logic to all the purchases I made, and it makes a difference.

It did stop me buying things 'just because'. I almost had to justify each purchase somehow. And honestly, I felt better for it.

The idea of having a budget isn't to stop me doing things - and it didn't

By setting a budget on 'socialising', for instance, I didn't stop myself going out with my friends or not enjoying myself when I do go out - it's just to make me think about how much I'm spending, and things I could cut down on to accommodate for that. (For instance - that DVD. Do I really want it? Or shall I wait till it comes on Sky and spend the money on a few drinks when I see my friends instead?)

On the example of socialising - I went out with friends a few times this month. I took myself to see Endgame and bought popcorn at the cinema. I bought birthday and leaving gifts for people. I treated myself to a new jumpsuit and a couple of new tops. I bought nail varnishes I definitely didn't need but were so pretty I just had to have them.

It didn't stop me doing things. But it did make me justify them, like I said. Those new nail varnishes? No, I didn't need them, but I did really want them. The extortionately overpriced cinema popcorn? I was gonna need some snacks for a three hour movie, and this was a treat. 

And I guess now, we see how it goes again next month!

Have you tried budgeting? What are some of your tips and tricks for sticking to a budget? Are there any tools you use for it? Let me know in the comments, or over on Twitter where you can find me @Reekles!

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