22 Budgeting Hacks You’ll Wish You’d Known Sooner

Rack up those $$$.

Originally Published: 
Two women prepare breakfast at home. Financial experts share budgeting hacks for millennials.
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If you're the type who always ends up with $5 in your account just before payday with no idea how that happened, it’s possible that your budgeting system — if you have one — hasn’t quite understood the assignment.

For millennials, budgeting isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Experian’s 2020 State of Credit report says that members of the generation carry $87,448 worth of debt, on average — that’s an 11.5% increase over 2019. No amount of avocado toast deferred can make up for the fact that 27% of millennials don’t think they’ll be able to retire comfortably, according to a 2021 YouGov poll. Still, managing day-to-day expenses gets a lot easier when you can use budgeting hacks to understand the money you have coming in and going out.

“Life — and how you handle your money — is all about finding that balance,” financial expert Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at Credit Karma, tells Bustle. “You need to be realistic with your budget and your expenses so you don’t spend money you don’t have,” she says.

Budget-balancing can be tricky because of unexpected expenses, debt repayment, irregular earnings, and just plain losing track of where the money goes. By staying on top of how much of your income is going to things you probably don’t need (hello, potato chip bag resealer that went viral on TikTok), and making informed decisions about how to manage your money, you can make budgeting more of an automatic habit. Here are 22 budgeting hacks to make your financial life easier.


Set Your Financial Goals

What do you actually want from your money in the future? Do you want to own property, travel to a particular place, save for having a baby, be debt-free, or something else? Writing out your financial goals, short and long-term, can be helpful for clarifying what you want your money to actually do for you.


Track Your Spending & Income

Once you know what you actually want your money to go towards, the most important step is counting up what money you have coming in over the course of a month. Set up a spreadsheet, or use an app like Mint or You Need A Budget to hook up with your bank accounts and see the realities of your cash flow.

From there, count up exactly what goes out in a month. According to Nicole Sanchez, the general manager of the Youth and Student Segments at Chase, while getting familiar with the info in your bank’s app is good practice, taking the time to print out documents to hold in your hands is an even more effective way of familiarizing yourself with your cash flow. “Get a copy of your statement — it’s critical to get to know your spending habits before you can start thinking about saving behaviors,” she tells Bustle.


Actually Write A Budget

Once you know what’s coming in and out, allocate a certain amount of money towards your different expenses. The 50-20-30 budget rule (endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, thankyouverymuch) is a good place to start breaking down your major and minor expenses. “By dividing your expenses into three categories — 50% toward needs, 30% toward wants, and 20% toward savings or debts — you’re reducing the amount of time you spend detailing your finances, allowing you to focus more on the big picture instead,” McCreary says. You can always change the percentages to reflect your lifestyle and spending habits, as well as how you’re hitting the financial goals you set for yourself.


Deal With The Fear Of Reading Your Bank Statements

Whether you receive paper bank statements or emails, it's a good idea to check them over and try to track down any unfamiliar expenses. Not only can this prevent fraud on your accounts, it provides a good month-to-month demonstration of your money flow and how small purchases can add up in surprising ways.

If you find you're anxious about looking at the statements, you probably carry some fear over money and spending that's preventing you from managing your income as well as you could. Financial therapists specialize in anxiety around money; a few sessions (which may be covered by insurance) could help you unlearn some of the discomfort you have around reading those bank statements.


Assess Your Subscriptions

Whether it's a monthly beauty box, a gym membership, or streaming services, put a special section on your budget for subscriptions and calculate how much your monthly or annual membership actually costs. “Once a year, take a look at all of your subscriptions and ask yourself if you’re happy with them,” Sanchez says. If not, purge recurring charges that no longer serve you, Kondo-style. “Think of it as a financial refresh to start off the new year,” she says.


Compare Rates From Providers

There are a lot of services you may have signed up for a while back that aren't necessarily the best bang for your buck. (Think your phone company or your gas.) Do a little research to see what other local providers charge, and if you find a better deal, see if your contract allows switching. If you’re up to negotiate with your current provider, they might offer to match or beat the lower price, too.


Make A Calendar For Direct Deposits

Paying bills by direct deposit is a great idea so you don’t forget. But if you pay them on varying days, or don't keep track of which payments go where, you can end up caught out when multiple ones go out at once and you suddenly dip into overdraft. Make clear notes on a calendar or something else you use regularly, like an alarm on your phone, about how much money is going out in automatic payments — for rent, your phone, internet and anything else — and when. Use post-it notes on your wall if it helps.


Track Your Receipts In An App

A receipt-scanning app can put all your purchases in one place so that you can easily store your receipts — whether it’s for taxes or to be reimbursed by your employer. Expensify and Zoho Expense are both popular options. See what you can learn about your spending and how much more organized you feel after logging receipts for a week.


Make A List Of What You Need Before Shopping

Before you scroll down that Shein sale, take the time to think about what you actually need, so you’re not just shopping for sport. “Make a list now and sleep on it. Then, once you’ve had time to think it over, you’ll know exactly what items you need versus items you just want,” McCreary says. “Do your best to avoid buying something on a whim, especially if it’s not on your list and doesn’t fit within your budget,” she adds. This way, when you see a sale that catches your eye, you can satisfy your shoppies with that blazer that’s been on your list for a month, rather than filling your cart up with stuff you never meant to get in the first place.


Use Cash For Your “Problem Areas”

While you’re budgeting, you notice that you always seem to go over your spending goals in one particular area: buying books, for example, or eating out. To help stick to a budget, stop electronic purchases in this area and use cash instead.

McCreary says that you can ensure that you stick to your budget by only bringing cash with you when you leave the house. “Whether you’re at the mall or a grocery store, determine how much you can spend before you shop. Then, bring only that amount of cash with you so you don’t overspend,” she says. “Once the money is gone, you know it’s time to stop spending.”


Actually Cash In Your Rewards

If you’re going to buy an oat-milk latte anyway, at least fish out that punch card from your coffeeshop to get a discount on it. “They are you hard earned points. That’s what gift cards and savings are there for, and can help offset some cash payments,” McCreary says. If you use a credit card that offers reward points, make sure you know if or when they expire or if there are specific purchases you get more points on. You may be tempted to hold onto credit card points for a big ticket item like airfare, but if you don’t actually have a trip planned, you’re better off cashing those points off to pay down the card itself.


Don’t Use Your Savings For Anything But Emergencies

You know how it goes: you're running a bit low this month, so you dip into your healthy savings account to cover a spa day that ended up being more than you budgeted for. Resist making this a habit; before too long, that savings account won’t be so healthy-looking anymore. It may be painful, but eating the overdraft fee once might help you remember to not go over what’s in your checking account.

If this is a common issue for you, look into a restricted access savings account: they make it difficult to access your savings and give you higher interest rates in return. They can be certificates of deposit or money market accounts, and your bank probably has other savings accounts for long-term financial goals that are meant to sit and accumulate interest without you touching them.


Make Savings Automatic

And speaking of savings... Set up a savings account and then forget it exists? The answer to that, says Sanchez, is automatic saving. While a physical piggy bank might give you visual motivation to save, building saving into your financial hygiene practices is a more effective way to accumulate money. “You can adjust this over time, so even if right now you can only contribute a dollar a day, set up automatic saving and watch your savings grow,” she says.


Build A Personal Emergency Buffer

If something goes wrong, you might drain your savings and go back to zero. Which is why a personal emergency stash in a separate account you can't touch unless something's gone really wrong — a burst pipe, an exploding car, a big medical bill — is a good idea. Make that a priority if you've just started saving and build up a buffer so that emergencies don't rack up more debt.


Invest Your Spare Change

If you have some spare money every month and already use a savings account, it's possibly also worth building some investment into your budgeting to help provide more resources in the future. You pay a small fee for the apps like Acorns to invest your spare change and see a small return on the investments, helping you build up a little reserve of cash.

Sanchez notes that if you’re visually driven, putting money in envelopes — labeled for special spends like vacation, new car, or new boots — you might be more likely to fulfill your savings goals. That said, longterm, automating your savings will probably yield more funds as you can set it and forget it.


Save For Something Specific

If you really want to muster some motivation to grow your savings, Sanchez suggests naming the kinds of things your savings would cover to help make them feel a little bit more realistic, rather than some vague fund you may or may not need to access. Once you know what you might need to save for — vet bills, three months of unemployment, car repair — you can set little goals for yourself. “Think in baby steps. If your goal is to save enough money to pay for your expenses for three months, set up auto save, even if it’s just a dollar a day, and start orienting yourself towards that goal.” And if you find that you have extra funds to save, up your goal to six months, or a year. Sanchez says that if you start small, you’re more likely to achieve your goals.


Yep, Start Thinking About Retirement Now

Of course you won’t be retiring for a long while, but retirement plans should start as early as possible. “Contributing something to a retirement account, even if it seems small, like $25 per month, because it can still go a long way as it earns interest over time,” McCreary says. “Once you have a short term plan for how to start contributing, look toward the future and set a goal for yourself to increase your retirement contributions by 1% to 2% per year. This way, you’re starting off with something you know you can afford, while slowly increasing that number over time,” she adds. And if you’re eligible to contribute to a 401(k), “sign up and start contributing the maximum amount.” If you’re not eligible to set up a 401(k) through your employer, you can set up an autosave with your bank, which will roll a designated amount of your paychecks into a savings account you can use for retirement.


Set Debt Payoff Goals

McCreary says to make a game plan to take down your debts by a certain time — next summer, your 30th birthday, five years. You can use a resource like Credit Karma’s Debt Repayment Calculator, which will show you how long it will actually take to pay off your credit card debt based on how things are going. You can also make an appointment with your bank and chat through some game plans with a real person. Once you have a plan to get out of debt, you can adjust your spending, with an end goal in sight.


Check Your Credit Score

Say it louder for the people in the back: You absolutely do not need to pay to check your credit score. Apps like Mint and Credit Karma allow you to check your score for free and make decisions about your financial health based on what you find. Sanchez adds that it’s a “myth” that checking your credit score impacts it. What’s more, almost all banking apps allow you to regularly see your credit score, or give you the opportunity to enroll for automatic updates, a habit she calls “very healthy.”

Being regularly aware of your score and how it changes is important, Sanchez says, but it helps have a goal to steer yourself toward. “What are your financial plans? Do you want to buy a house soon? To put yourself in a good position, think of a number and be proactive about monitoring your score.”


Pay Off High-Interest Debt First

Juggling debt? Experts note that the high-interest loans and debts are the ones that will feel crushing long-term, and suggest prioritizing those first. “I recommend paying more than the minimum when you can, that makes you more proactive about managing your debt,” Sanchez tells Bustle.

“High interest will cost you. But how you choose to pay off your debts is unique to your personal financial situation,” McCreary says. Having a comprehensive understanding of your debt, how much you owe, what the fine print is — like due dates, minimum monthly payments, and interest rates — is critical to coming up with a payment plan. Once you’ve taken the time to organize and assess all of your debts, you can start contributing funds to the highest interest debts without ignoring your other debts.


Or, Try Snowballing

A technique called snowballing can help you rack up debt payoffs systematically: in essence, you choose one loan to may much more than the minimum on, while paying the minimum on the rest of your debt. That helps you pay off that first debt faster, giving you more confidence to tackle the rest of them. “Celebrate small wins,” Sanchez says.


Talk About Budgeting With Your Partner & Friends

If you spend money with a partner — whether you share a bank account, split rent, or go out to dinner a lot — you’ll want to share your budgeting goals with them. That goes for friends who influence your spending decisions, too: if you can't afford that trip to Tulum, be upfront about it. Chances are, you’re not the only one in the group chat putting your weekly drinks on your credit card.

“If money is a source of stress among friends and family, you may be afraid to have a conversation about it. However, being as straightforward as you can will help set expectations right away on how you’ll be spending your money and may alleviate any uncomfortable conversations about money down the road,” McCreary tells Bustle. “By framing the money conversation around your goals and future plans, you can talk about your income, saving strategies and any hurdles like debt without focusing only on numbers. Your goals can then help guide your actions,” she says. So instead of making up excuses for why you can’t go to Tulum, tell your friends what you’re saving for, or what debts you’re paying off, so they can support you and not try to pressure you to do things you can’t afford.

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