5 Telltale Signs You Need a Budget
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5 Telltale Signs You Need a Budget

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5 Telltale Signs You Need a Budget

Remember when the stock market crashed in September of 2008? An overheated housing market and risky, subprime mortgage activity were to blame. But those things didn't blow up the economy overnight -- they took years to come to a head.

Your personal finances can work the same way. Bad money habits, left unchecked, quietly weaken your financial security and set the stage for disaster. The solution? Creating a household budget and committing to it. With a budget in place, your bad money habits can't go unnoticed. And if you're not sure this applies to you, read on for five signs you already have money troubles brewing.

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1. Your debt balances are on the rise

When you roll over balances on high-rate credit accounts, your debt can spin out of control pretty fast. Dive into your bank statements to understand what you owe and how much you're spending on interest and fees each month. If the debt balance and interest charges are rising -- even if only by small amounts -- it's time to take action.

That's where a budget comes in. A full list of your expenses compared to your income shows you where you're overspending and how you got into debt. It also reveals what you can afford to pay down monthly on those balances.

At first pass, your expenses may be higher than your income. That's normal. Consider it a challenge to get creative about spending less on the expenses you can control.

2. You can't afford to save

Many Americans feel like they can't afford to save. That feeling is rooted in the belief that small savings deposits won't make a difference. But if time is on your side, you can amass a nice chunk of change by saving just $20 or $30 a week. Your balance will grow over time, particularly if you put the money in your 401(k) or IRA. In these accounts, you can invest in low-cost mutual funds, and your earnings will grow tax-free.

A $50 monthly contribution to a retirement account that earns 7% on average will grow to about $8,705 in 10 years. In 20 years, you'll have about $27,000. You can see how the growth is slower in the first 10 years and then picks up speed. That happens because you start making money on the earnings, which don't even come out of your pocket. And if your income is on the upswing, you can increase your contributions over time and make even more.

So, yes, small savings deposits do make a difference. Pore over your budget to find that extra $50 each month. When you have all your expenses listed out, you might see that you can easily cancel one of your streaming services or slash your coffee budget to free up that $50.

3. You live paycheck to paycheck

When your income barely covers your expenses, you have no leeway for lifestyle changes. You can't easily buy a new car with higher monthly payments or move to a bigger place. You'll also get stressed out by any increases to your non-negotiable expenses like car insurance or property taxes.

With a budget in place, you can hold yourself to lower spending limits across the board. That'll create some separation between your income and expenses. If you have cash left at the end of the pay period, awesome. Drop that into your emergency fund and save it for a rainy day.

4. You have no emergency fund

Speaking of emergency funds, you do have one, right? There's no telling what the future might bring, but sadly, it's wise to plan for the worst. You might lose your job, or get in a car accident while rushing your sick pet to the clinic. Without extra cash on hand, you'll reach for the credit card when the unexpected happens. And that puts you in payback mode for months or even years.

Turn to the budget to determine what you can save in your emergency fund monthly. Target a balance that will cover at least three months of your living expenses. If you reach that balance without issue, you can redirect those savings to your retirement account. If you tap into your cash emergency funds, start making the monthly deposits again to replenish the balance.

5. You don't know what you spend on groceries

If you don't know where your money goes, you can't master your own finances. You're more likely to overspend and not realize it until you're over-extended.

On the other hand, when you're in touch with your spending, you can evaluate buying decisions on the fly. You'll know mid-month, for example, if you can safely splurge on a nice meal out with friends. And when you do splurge, you'll feel good knowing it was a thoughtful, deliberate decision.

Nothing gets you closer to your spending than creating a budget and tracking your progress against it. The budget process, admittedly, can be tedious at first. You have to start with guesswork as you identify workable spending levels. You need to settle into a process for expense tracking. But keep working through that stuff -- it does get easier. And when you do, you'll be financially stronger and better equipped to navigate through any crisis that comes your way.

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The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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