3 Easy Steps to Budgeting For The New Year

3 Easy Steps to Budgeting For The New Year

The holiday season is finally over, which means it's time to join the 40 percent of Americans who, according to a Marist College poll, are expected to make New Year's resolutions. If that's you, consider a resolution you won't drop faster than a one-month introductory gym membership—consider creating a budget.

Now, we know you might be dreading the thought of recounting your holiday spending. But the new year is a great time to start or revisit your financial plan because it's traditionally a time for taking stock and making personal changes, sandwiched between the holiday and tax seasons, when you'll have a bit of a break (Carpe diem!).

Consider these three steps when making your ideal budget:

1. Set Realistic Goals

For some, budgeting goals are simply emotional, such as having peace of mind that you're prepared for a rainy day or that your bills can be paid. For others, goals will be tangible, such as taking a summer vacation or buying a new car. Regardless, most people can't have it all.

Think about what you want, when you want it, and how much you'll need to save. Then prioritize which goals make most sense for you.

"There is no point in setting goals that you know you'll never reach," says the non-profit National Endowment for Financial Education. "On the other hand, you want your goals to be challenging enough that you feel a sense of accomplishment when you reach them."

So what's more important to you: The vacation or the car? The new house or summer camp for the kids? The rainy-day fund or the boat? Is this the year for a dream trip to Paris, or due to added expenses like a new baby or home purchase, is it more realistic to focus on boosting savings?

Whatever it is, once you've set your goals, you'll want to set aside some money each month to get there.

2. Manage Expenses

Achieving your budgeting goals could mean cutting back on spending. But that doesn't always have to be painful.

For example, take a look at last month's grocery bill. If you don't shop with a list or look for bargains, doing so could find you an extra $50 a week. That's $200 a month that you could put toward a goal. With that $2,400 a year, how long would it take to reach the goal you set?

On the other hand, some goals feel so daunting that $50 doesn't cut it. Stefanie O'Connell, author of The Broke and Beautiful Life, advises people to “put your focus and energy into reducing your greatest costs, like housing, where a 10 or 20 percent reduction could mean hundreds of dollars in savings — as opposed to trying to scrimp and save on smaller costs, where you might save a couple of bucks here and there." For example, refinancing your mortgage at a lower interest rate can help you save that 10 or 20 percent.

The method you prefer often comes down to personality, personal preference, and extenuating circumstances (not everyone can drop their monthly mortgage payment by 20 percent; others may see that amount as one of their goals for the year). Your local banker can be an invaluable source of assistance in figuring out how you can manage your money more wisely. They can also help you plan for a rainy day or for when you come into money. (Cha ching!)

3. Prepare for Ups and Downs

The Federal Reserve Board estimates that almost half of all Americans couldn't come up with $400 in cash for an emergency. You don't want to be one of them. One car accident or emergency room visit could tank all your hard budgeting work, and send you into debt.

The general rule of thumb is that an emergency fund should sock away nine months' worth of your expenses so if you lose your job or can't work for an extended period of time, you can still eat and pay rent. This amount should be enough to also cover a major medical emergency, assuming you also have health insurance.

Or, you can start small. Aim for a three month emergency fund, and see how long that takes to save. Or incorporate a way to save $1,000 in your initial budget, and treat yourself to a nice dinner once you hit that milestone—then set another goal.

On the flip side, coming into large sums of money, like a large tax return or bonus, is a temptation to spend. Stop and think about how you'll incorporate anticipated income into your budget this year. Will you pay off a high interest credit card debt? Will you apply it towards a savings goal for that new boat? Or should you put it away for a rainy day? Whatever you do, make a plan.

By having a forward-thinking budget that address the needs of the entire year, you position yourself to achieve financial success. Once you've figured out your goals, assessed your spending, and made a plan, in a year, you can look back with satisfaction on how far you've come.