OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re like two-thirds of Americans, you’re not keeping a household budget. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans put together a budget each month to track income and expenditures, and just 30 percent have a long-term financial plan laying out savings and investment goals.

My husband and I are one of the other third of Americans—we do keep a budget. We’re big believers in understanding where our money is going and use MINT.com to help us. It’s free, easy to set up, and links your accounts (savings, checking, investments, auto and mortgage). It streamlines your information in a simple way and automatically pulls all of your financial information into one place so you can get the entire picture of where you put and spend your money. There’s even a free mobile app. Perhaps best of all, it’s trusted, safe, and secure with its bank-level security and 24/7 protection.

I think anyone can take the reins on their financial life, whether you use MINT or not. Here are some of my tips to starting a budget:

    • Spend a month keeping a money diary, writing down even the tiniest of expenses. Once you see your expenses down on paper (or online using MINT), you’ll be able to see where your money is going, and what changes you can make in your spending habits.
    • Try to keep your record-keeping as specific as possible.
    • After your money diary, make a list of potential cutbacks. Mark the areas where you can survive on spending less.
    • Make adjustments each month as you discover what works and what doesn’t.
    • After you’ve made up your budget, make a “Wish List” of things you’d like or need, but don’t think you can afford right now. You’ll find that many of them will come within reach once you stick to a budget. Make it your goal to be able to purchase at least one of your “Wish List” items!
    • Use a budget worksheet or online tracker (like MINT) to keep your money diary and your new budget.

Of course, all the budgeting in the world won’t help if you don’t stick to it. I’ve got some suggestions for making it easier to stay on budget:

    • Pay off your credit cards each month (you’ll save a ton of money in interest charges too).
    • Resist the urge to buy on impulse. Yes, it’s hard, but in the long run it’ll pay off—literally!
    • Beware the dangers of shopping with a friend who spends more than you do. You’ve got to stick within your budget, not your friend’s.
    • Take your lunch to school or work at least a few days a week.
    • Avoid vending machines and convenience stores.
    • Visit your ATM only once a week, and plan ahead to figure out how much cash you’ll need.
    • Entertain at home!
    • Bundle your telephone, Internet and phone services with TDS Bundles.

How do you stay on budget? If you have any hints and tips to add to the list, feel free to share in the comments.

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