A personal budget is a finance plan that allocates future personal income towards expenses, savings and debt repayment. Past spending and personal debt are considered when creating a personal budget. There are several methods and tools available for creating, using and adjusting a personal budget.
A budget should have a purpose or defined goal that is achieved within a certain time period. Knowing the source and amount of income and the amounts allocated to expense events are as important as when those cash flow events occur.
The more complicated the budgeting process is, the less likely a person is to keep up with it. The purpose of a personal budget is to identify where income and expenditure is present in the common household; it is not to identify each individual purchase ahead of time. How simplicity is defined with regards to the use of budgeting categories varies from family to family, but many small purchases can generally be lumped into one category (Car, Household items, etc.).
The budgeting process is designed to be flexible; the consumer should have an expectation that a budget will change from month to month, and will require monthly review. Cost overruns in one category of a budget should in the next month be accounted for or prevented. For example, if a family spends $40 more than they planned on food in spite of their best efforts, next month’s budget should reflect an approximate $40 increase and corresponding decrease in other parts of the budget.
“Busting the budget” is a common pitfall in personal budgeting; frequently busting the budget can allow consumers to fall into pre-budgeting spending habits. Anticipating budget-busting events (and underspending in other categories), and modifying the budget accordingly, allows consumers a level of flexibility with their incomes and expenses.
Budgeting for irregular income
Special precautions need to be taken for families operating on an irregular income. Households with an irregular income should keep two common major pitfalls in mind when planning their finances: spending more than their average income, and running out of money even when income is on average.
Clearly, a household’s need to estimate their average (yearly) income is paramount; spending, which will be relatively constant, needs to be maintained below that amount. A budget being an approximate estimation, room for error should always be allowed so keeping expenses 5% or 10% below the estimated income is a prudent approach. When done correctly, households should end any given year with about 5% of their income left over. Of course, the better the estimates, the better the results will be.
To avoid running out of money because expenses occur before the money actually arrives (known as a cash flow problem in business jargon) a “safety cushion” of excess cash (to cover those months when actual income is below estimations) should be established. There is no easy way to develop a safety cushion, so families frequently have to spend less than they earn until they have accumulated a cushion. This can be a challenging task particularly when starting during a low spot in the earning cycle, although this is how most budgets begin. In general, households that start out with expenses that are 5% or 10% below their average income should slowly develop a cushion of savings that can be accessed when earnings are below average. Whether this rate of building a cushion is fast enough for a given financial situation depends on how variable income is, and whether the budgeting process starts at a high or low point during the earnings cycle.
One approach is to live on last month’s income. This way when budgeting for the month a person will know exactly how much they have available. However, in order to do this, a family would have to do everything within their power to avoid spending any of their income for one entire month. Another option would be to use some money that has already been saved.