Budget advice from our smarty-pants readers

We asked readers how you deal with personal finance, and it turns out you’re legit budget experts. You also gave some sage and funny advice to your younger selves about finances.
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You guys already know I’m cheap, but this past summer I took it to a whole new level to increase my savings. I have a friend who consistently gives me amazing advice (I swear if she suggested I grow a mohawk I would consider it), so when she told me about this thing called “the budget game,” I was all ears.

Here’s how it works: you allow yourself $50 a week per person in your household to spend on groceries, and $10 a day per person to spend on everything else. This gives you $70 per week to spend on anything other than groceries, including gas, happy hour, manicures — you name it. If you want to blow it all on one thing, rock on. But once you do, no more to-go coffees for you until next week.

She confessed that the budget game was partly to trick her husband into spending less money (lol), but that she also had fun turning saving money into a game. I tried it for about a month with varying degrees of success, and I admit to getting a dorky kick out of planning how to maximize my $70 a week.  

While I wouldn’t call it sustainable (it felt like a spending diet), it’s a really good way to reign in spending quickly — or at least feel horrified by how much money you spend in a day.

We wanted to know how you were managing your budgets, so we asked. We knew you were smart, but it turns out we have some personal finance experts on our hands. One reader even has a savings forecast model (yes, you read that right).

Read on for budgeting tips, as well as money advice to our “what is the future, even?” younger selves.

Sarah Overmyer

(None of the content in this post is sponsored.)

How do you manage your budget?

I work in finance and I stare at Excel spreadsheets all day at work… so it makes sense that I would use an Excel spreadsheet to budget. When my husband and I first got married, we put together a simple table with our expected monthly expenses (rent, utilities, car insurance, food and entertainment, books/ furniture/household items, etc.). Each week or two, I fill in each category with actuals. As the years pass, it’s interesting to look at the trending of where our money goes. Recently, we hired a financial advisor to manage our retirement accounts, but I still manage our checking through the same simple Excel spreadsheet I created 10 years ago.
— Sarah, Austin, TX

I use Mint but I’m not crazy about it — I just like being able to see all my accounts in one place. I find that instead of budgeting a rigid amount each month based on certain categories (groceries, eating out, subscriptions, entertainment, etc.), I track total spending month-over-month and try to keep it consistent or slightly lower than the last month. This gives me more flexibility to prioritize differently throughout the year, and just keeping an eye on my total spending as it relates to my credit usage is sufficient to let me save/invest some and keep my credit score high.
— Jennifer, 29, Austin, TX

I use YNAB (You Need a Budget) for our household. It’s a cloud-based program that allows me to set our spending and savings goals. YNAB has helped me feel in charge of our money. I no longer guess at my remaining balance or avoid looking at the transactions in my account. I now have a greater awareness of our spending habits, am certain about where our money is going and am more vigilant about our savings.
— CN, Kiel, Germany

It’s somewhat managed through a quarterly spreadsheet.
— Holly H, Nashville, TN

Excel! Highly customizable and makes me proud when my husband asks me for help in using our savings forecasting model.
— Business lady, New York, NY

I balance my checking account in a Google doc, keeping all receipts to enter them in. It is a helpful reminder of how much I’m spending and on what. I also then have month by month visibility into whether I’m meeting or missing my savings goal.
— Kate G., 27

I start by budgeting what I want to save and invest every month. Whatever is left over is what I can use to pay bills and cover discretionary expenses. As long as I’m not dipping into my savings and investment budgets, I don’t feel the need to set a budget for my other expenses.
— Higher ed professional, 34, Austin, TX

I have a clothing/shopping “allowance” each month that is absolute. All bonuses and raises go to savings.
— Anonymous, New York, NY

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels

What financial advice would you give your younger self?

Start contributing to your employer-based retirement account immediately! I worked for a nonprofit organization and had no idea what a 403b was, and I didn’t take the initiative to educate myself. As a result, I didn’t start contributing to my retirement until four years into my career. What a waste! Start investing ASAP, even if it’s just a few dollars per paycheck.
— Higher ed professional, 34, Austin, TX

Never date anyone who is bad with money. Prioritize paying off your loans, because you will feel like a rich person once that’s over and done with. Put your money someplace where it can earn interest at the very least, and even better to invest some of it where you can earn greater returns earlier in life.
— Jennifer, 29, Austin, TX

Dear naive 20-year-old self,
Start an IRA—yesterday! Your employer is contributing to your retirement; it probably is a good idea that you do the same. You’re young now but by the time you’re old enough to start caring about your retirement it’ll be too late to start growing it.

— CN, Kiel, Germany

Save early, live within your means, rent early, buy later (I waited until my 30s which I’m glad about), build credit early through a car loan or credit card. 
— Holly H, Nashville, TN

If you know you want to go back to school, go sooner and get started on the next phase of your awesome career.
— Business lady, New York, NY

Try as hard as you can to max out your 401k! Don’t put too much into savings, which is going to generate .001% interest, when you can put that into the market and get a much higher return.
— Sarah, Austin, TX

Adopt frugal habits sooner so you can always live within your means!
— Kate G., 27

Stop spending your money on stuff that doesn’t matter.
— Kacie, 27, job-quitting enthusiast, San Diego, CA

Learn more about investing, you’ll never make money from savings!!
— Anonymous, New York, NY

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)