14 Ways to Put Your Family on a Budget for the New Year

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Mother and Child with Piggy Bank

Trim Expenses in the New Year

New year, new opportunities to get the family finances under control. Creating and instituting a budget plan reduces financial and emotional stress and gives each family member a chance to identify goals and priorities. Start the year off right by following these steps to setting a budget that works for your family — and sticking to it.

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Get Organized
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Calculate Income and Expenses

The first task is identifying how much money comes in and how much goes out. Record all earnings on a monthly basis. Then list expenses — housing, utilities, food, medical, personal — and divide them into categories: fixed (necessary and the same every month), variable (necessary but different every month), and discretionary (dispensable extras). If you don't know exact figures, start with estimates (lowball predicted income and round up predicted expenses). Keep track of actual spending, adjust the estimates, and soon a steady monthly budget will emerge.

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Cutting Credit Card

'Simplify, Simplify'

Henry David Thoreau's famous exhortation from "Walden" about life's complications applies to budget planning. Some advisers suggest forgoing spreadsheets in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper. Others recommend basic budgeting software, available free from sites such as Mint. The tool is not important; the point is to use whatever mechanism best enables your family to address household finances directly and clearly on a regular basis. Cutting up extra credit cards is another way to simplify. Doing so eliminates the danger of running up debt (and paying exorbitant interest fees) and means fewer accounts to manage.

Related: 24 Money-Saving Tools That'll Keep Your Budget on Track

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Pay Off Debts — Maybe

Build up savings or pay off debt first? The dilemma plagues many people and engenders debate among financial advisers. There are plenty of reasons to wipe out debt as soon as possible, including stress relief, a better credit score, and improved financial security. And because interest rates paid on debt are higher than those earned on savings, it pays to eliminate debt first. The primary counterargument: An emergency fund with three to six months' expenses should be the top priority, at least in the near term. Then, too, additional income might be coming your way — an inheritance, say, or a raise. There's no right answer here. Assess the overall situation realistically and strive for balance.

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Consider the '60% Solution'

Richard Jenkins, former editor-in-chief of MSN Money, developed the "60% solution," which splits a budget into five categories: 60% for fixed expenses, 10% for retirement savings, 10% for long-term savings (emergency fund and/or debt repayment), 10% for short-term expenses (regular purchases), and 10% for fun money. The idea is to reduce stress and excessive deliberation by allocating the same percentage every month to these broad categories. Sticking to a rigid breakdown may help mitigate the possibility of a future financial meltdown.

Related: How to Protect Yourself From Financial Ruin in Retirement

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Factor in a Buffer

Every budget needs a buffer that's separate and distinct from an emergency fund. An emergency fund is just that — untouched until a major emergency arises. A buffer, by contrast, allows for minor but unforeseen expenses, such as broken eyeglasses, a night out to celebrate a sibling's surprise promotion, or a sudden veterinary bill. Set aside a small amount in the budget every month for the unexpected, and track these incidents. If a pattern emerges, move the expense into a regular budget category. At the end of the month, put unused buffer money into the emergency fund.

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Be Aware of Your Bank Account

Automate Savings

It's all too easy to forget to feed a savings account. Set up an automatic transfer between your checking and savings accounts at certain intervals, or even funnel part of your direct deposits into a savings account from the get-go. That way, your all-important emergency fund keeps growing, and you barely have to lift a finger.

Related: 30 Money Mistakes You're Probably Making and How to Avoid Them

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Identify 'SMART' Goals

What do you want out of your money? A financial literacy program at Duke University identifies different types of goals: long term (more than five years), midterm (one to three years), and short term (within the year). The mnemonic "SMART" indicates that each goal should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time framed. Say you want to take the family to Disneyland in two years, at an estimated cost of $4,000. This goal is specific and measurable. It's achievable if you can save $174 a month for the next 23 months. The goal is relevant if your kids will be the right age to enjoy the experience two years hence, the set time frame. The same principles can be applied to other big-ticket buys.

34. Cash Is King

Pay Cash

Contactless payment may be favored these days, but common sense and research suggest that paying cash makes you more conscious of every dollar spent, which in turn leads to less spending. Some thrifty consumers use envelopes of cash allocated to particular categories of discretionary spending. Once an envelope is empty, no more purchases of that type until the following month. 

Related: 24 Money-Saving Tools That'll Keep Your Budget on Track

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Discuss the Budget Regularly

All adult members of your household should meet regularly — biweekly or once a month — to assess the state of the budget. Review expenses, both planned and actual, and check bank and credit account transactions for fraud and excessive spending. Make sure all bills are paid before their due dates; paying all at one time (if possible) minimizes the chance that something will be overlooked. If billing cycles are helter-skelter, ask providers about changing the schedule so that monthly bills come due at once.

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Involve the Kids

Give older children and teens a head start on money management by involving them in budget meetings. They will see adults modeling smart financial behavior and quickly understand the "time equals money" equation. Point out, for instance, that earning $10 an hour babysitting means 12 hours of work to earn a $120 bicycle. They'll also see that earnings must cover necessities, obligations, and savings before "wants" can be satisfied.

Related: 12 Ways Grandparents Waste Money on Their Grandchildren

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Save for a Dream

Having a specific long-term goal in mind, be it a vacation or major purchase, can help motivate planning and budgeting. Big dreams also put small purchases into perspective. Even a few dollars a day adds up quickly and keeps moving you farther from that dream of buying a car or house. Get into the habit of asking yourself something like, "Do I want a new shirt today or a trip to Spain next summer?" This can help you identify priorities and budget accordingly.

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"I Won't Know What to Do When I Get There"

Winnow Recurring Charges

These days, it's easier than ever to forget about subscription-based services that drain your accounts each month — perhaps you signed up for a gym you never use, a magazine you never read, or access to a music service you rarely listen to. An app called Trim can cancel subscriptions you no longer need, doing the time-consuming dirty work for you.

Finance Coach

Consider a Finance Coach

If you and your spouse just can't come to a mutual agreement over money without things getting heated, it may be time to call in a financial coach. A small payment for extra help may save you thousands of dollars down the road and, critically, keep the peace.

Related: How to Salvage Your Finances During Economic Uncertainty

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Live Within Your Means

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, live within your family's means. That requires more money coming in than going out; the budgeting exercise is all about finding and maintaining a stable financial balance. Ignore the Joneses and cut back on luxuries, eschew debt, and forgo useless stuff — a resolution for the family to live by in the new year.

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