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Budgeting is a great way to plan your income and expenses over a period of time to keep spending in check. This can help you tackle debt or save to achieve your financial goals.

Speaking of tackling, think about your favorite football team for a moment when it comes to budgeting. Of course they want the best players on their roster each season, but due to the National Football League’s (NFL) salary cap, they are required to stay within a set dollar amount on player’s salaries to help keep a level playing field for the league. As a result, each team is forced to find ways to spend wisely.

“They know exactly how much they’re allowed to spend and they’re making their decisions based on that,” says Doug Bellfy, certified financial planner at Synergy Financial Planning in Windsor, Connecticut. “So it’s an example of perfect budgeting: they’re trying to maximize their life, their team. But staying within the money that they have.”

Even if you’re not trying to win your own personal “Super Bowl of Savings,” it may be a good time to call a timeout and run some new plays for your money. Budgeting is the first place to start, to help see exactly where your hard-earned cash is going.

How to start a budget

Setting a budget is the best way to become a disciplined saver. To get started, review your bank statements, pay stubs and other financial documents to get an idea of where your money is going and coming from.

One budgeting option is to calculate your fixed expenses and then look at your other needs — food, gas, clothing, entertainment, etc. Determine a number for weekly expenses and challenge yourself to stay within that budget.

Set a specific amount, such as $100 a week, and take that out of the bank in cash at the beginning of the week. Use that money for the week and try not to allow yourself to dip into other funds. Then, try to go down to $90 or $80 per week to better see what you really need and what you can probably do without.

Once you’ve grown accustomed to living on a budget, you’ll free more money for saving toward various goals.

Make a budget that is realistic to help you succeed. Sure, we’d all like to save 50 percent of our income each month, but depending on fixed expenses, that might not be possible. If you’re able, use data from the previous year to help you budget. This might help remind you of expenses that happen every year during the same month.

[READ: 10 low-risk ways to earn higher interest]

Making a budget plan

In order to get a plan going, you’ll start by adding up all your monthly income, after taxes. (Here is how a budget looks using Bankrate’s Home Budget Calculator.)

Income:

  • Monthly net income: $3,500

Next, add up and itemize where your money is spent.

Expenses:

  • Mortgage and debt: $1,000 monthly rent
  • Auto payment: $200 per month
  • Other debt payments: $150 per month for student loan
  • Electricity: $80
  • Cable: $130 (Internet is included in this category.)
  • Food: $420 for food. (This includes $300 for groceries, $100 for dining out and $20 for coffee shops.)
  • Auto, gas and maintenance: $240 for the month. ($120 budgeted for gas and $120 budgeted for oil change and possible repairs.)
  • Auto insurance: $70 per month.
  • Home insurance: $10 per month for renters insurance.
  • Medical expenses: $60 budgeted for unexpected doctor appointments. Note: Health insurance wasn’t considered because it was taken out before taxes.
  • Other monthly expenses: Total of $322. ($172 for entertainment, $100 for clothing and $25 for a haircut and $25 for monthly gym membership.)
  • Total expenses: $2,682

Money left over (income minus expenses):

  • $818 left to save each month

Of course, unexpected expenses may occur. But if there are no unexpected doctor appointments or auto repairs – and fuel expenses are less than anticipated, for example – that will help increase your savings for the month.

When budgeting, it’s easy to forget to add in expenses that don’t occur every month. For instance, if you’re paying your auto insurance semi-annually to save money, you should divide this into a monthly budget item. Budgeting to save for holiday presents on a monthly basis, for instance, is another way to be prepared for these expenses, says Ashley H. Coake, certified financial planner at Cultivate Financial Planning in Radford, Virginia.

“Set that money aside in your savings account or somewhere where you’re not going to spend it,” Coake says. “You know that that money has a purpose and that there’s an expense coming up for it. But don’t wait until the six months [are up] and then try to scramble to find the premium amount.”

A cash-back credit card may be a smart choice for making your purchases. This is because the cash back that you earn can usually be moved into your emergency savings account or applied as a statement credit. Assuming your credit card company allows the cash back to be transferred right to a savings account, this strategy means your money will bypass your checking account and won’t be spent.

Debit cards can be a good method for people who want to spend only what they have and don’t want to use a cash-only method. But losing out on cash back, unless you are a part of a debit card rewards program, is a major downside.

Consider using a budgeting app

A budgeting app can remove some of the hassle of maintaining a budget on paper or a spreadsheet.

Both credit and debit card purchases automatically populate in certain budgeting apps, such as Mint. You go to the website first, sign up and then input your banking login information. After you do this, you can then view your accounts in the app.

Good Budget and Spending Tracker are other budgeting apps that both Android and iPhone users may want to check out. With these apps, you can manually enter your income and spending.

[READ: 5 apps that help you save money]

How to save money while budgeting

Always compare prices before making a purchase. Make a commitment to comparison shop for essentials and look for coupons and sales online or in your local newspaper. Then, buy the items with the best value.

Don’t stop there. Take the difference of the amount you paid and what you would normally spend on the item and put that money into a savings account. Even if it’s just a few dollars per shopping trip, those small sums will add up.

You can’t spend what you don’t see. Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst, recommends people get started by automatically setting money aside each payday.

“Set up a direct deposit from your paycheck into a dedicated savings account and build your budget based on what’s left,” McBride says. “If you’re not currently saving 10 percent of your income, that’s the bogey to aim for when you’re setting up that direct deposit.”

Many employers can split your paycheck deposit into a checking account and a savings account. Or if you’re self-employed, schedule automatic transfers from your main checking account to your purpose-based savings accounts on a recurring basis.

[READ: 21 savings tips you can use to reach your financial goals]

Use the 50-30-20 budget

The 50-30-20 budget is the Balanced Money Formula from Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi’s book “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.”

Here’s a breakdown of how this budgeting style works:

  • 50 percent for must-haves. These are also referred to as the “hard-core commitments.”
  • 30 percent go for wants. You deserve to enjoy some of your money.
  • 20 percent left for savings. It’s not the least important. It’s at the end because it’s the money you have left over. Some of this can also go toward paying past debts.

The premise is that there should be enough for each of the three categories and they are balanced against one another in a 50-30-20 split. In the book, the formula is compared to getting your cholesterol checked.

Finding out your cholesterol is high means you need to correct the problem. But if you don’t test yourself, you’ll never know.

How does our sample budget (mentioned above) match up to the 50-30-20 test? In our example:

  • Must-haves are at $2,110, or 60.28 percent  (over the target percentage).
  • Wants are at $572, or 16.34 percent (under the target percentage).
  • Savings is at $818, or 23.37 percent (over the target percentage).

So what can the person in our sample budget do? Fixed expenses were the biggest area of opportunity in this sample budget to potentially reallocate to wants or savings instead.

8 tips to help you save in line with the 50-30-20 budget

Here are eight smart shopping tips that could help you better align your income and spending with the 50-30-20 budget.

1. Look for a more affordable living space

Perhaps a place that is a little farther from work, if that would have more affordable rent, might be a good solution to look into.

If applicable, getting a roommate could cut your top expense in half. If you are able to sacrifice comfort and privacy, this might make a significant difference in your monthly budget.

You could also consider getting a roommate, says Bellfy,

2. Consider a side hustle

If one of the members of your household isn’t working, even a part-time job would help add to your earnings. This might be a good way to help your balance sheet each month. A recent Bankrate survey found that side hustlers earn an average of $1,122 per month from their side hustle.

Evaluate how you spend your time and see if there is an employment opportunity or gig that can help you earn some extra money each month.

3. Shop around for auto insurance

If you don’t shop around, you’ll never know whether you are overpaying.

“It’s very competitive,” McBride says. “… Or just increase your deductible. As you accumulate more savings, you’re in a position to take on a bigger deductible and reduce your premiums that way.”

Keep in mind that some insurance carriers have loyalty and safe driver discounts. So, switching often isn’t always the best solution. Consider having your auto insurance and renters insurance with the same company to potentially save money, if you don’t already.

Bellfy says he hasn’t found loyalty discounts to be better than the savings he’s found by switching insurance companies.

“In most cases, insurance companies are raising the rates pretty hard in the early years and then hoping that you’re not going to notice or stay with them,” Bellfy says. “That’s been my experience on most companies and most of my clients end up saving several hundred, sometimes over $1,000 a year by shopping around and moving to another, equally reputable company and doing that about every three to four years.”

4. Save on groceries

Using coupons, making meals that have a greater opportunity for leftovers and joining a warehouse club could be ways to help lower the grocery bill.

Only necessary groceries are considered in the must-have category. Dining out and coffee shops count in the wants section.

5. Cut down on wants

You may have to make sacrifices with your wants in order to reach your savings targets.

Consider going to a baseball game or movie theater – but not doing both. Or perhaps you can go to the game and save money on tickets by getting seats not as close to the field. Or maybe you can have dinner at home before the game or watch a movie from your living room instead of the theater.

6. Evaluate costs

Is there a way to cut your electricity costs? Does the air conditioning need to be on at night? Are items like a television or a fan left on while not in use?

Instead of going to a pricey hair salon or barbershop, it might be worth checking out a local beauty school. They might offer low- or no-cost haircuts to give their students experience.

7. Pay smarter

Perhaps you can save money by paying your auto insurance every six months. Some insurance companies might charge around $4 a month for the ability to pay your insurance on a monthly payment plan.

Also, when shopping online, you might want to consider a site such as Rakuten, previously known as Ebates, which gives you extra cash back. Rakuten usually mails your cash-back checks quarterly. Deposit this right into your emergency fund.

8. Audit your recurring payments

Look at your credit card bill or bank statement and locate monthly payments. You may find subscription services that you don’t use. This could include a gym membership, a streaming service or another type of subscription. If you don’t use this service at all, it might make sense to unsubscribe. If you do use this company, weigh how important this subscription or membership is to you.

Got the budgeting playbook down? Here’s what to do next

If you get to the point where you’re succeeding with your budget, you’re going to start seeing your savings account grow and your debt disappear.

Here are some tips to take your savings to the next level:

1. Build your emergency savings fund first

If you don’t have an emergency savings account, open one that has no minimum balance or a low minimum balance. Set the goal of getting at least $500 into this account. Once you accumulate a comfortable amount in your emergency savings, start paying off debt (if you have any) with the highest APR first.

Even though there are some very attractive high-yield savings accounts out there, your credit card balances – and probably your loans – are going to be at a higher APR than the annual percentage yield (APY) that you’re going to earn on the savings account.

2. Save those extra paychecks

If you’re paid every other week, two months of the year are going to be three-paycheck months. This is a great savings opportunity, since you’re already budgeted to live off of two paychecks per month.

“So that’s an opportunity to just slide that third paycheck directly into savings,” McBride says.

3. Plan for large expenses down the road

When you have established an emergency savings account, paid off debts and have additional savings as well, what’s next? Well, it depends on your goals. Now you can look ahead to large expenses, such as college tuition, a new car, buying a home and more.

If buying a home is your future goal, see what your total borrowing picture looks like. What’s your credit score? What does your debt-to-income ratio (the amount of all of your monthly debts to your gross monthly income) look like? (It should be lower than 36 percent.)

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