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How to Make a Zero Based Budget in 3 Easy Steps

One task that may not be apparent to first time budgeters is to create a zero based budget. My wife and I had tried to make a monthly budget before but for one reason or another, our budgets never seemed to work. Putting this step in place helped us lesson those failures and move us towards a place of continual success with our budgets.

zero based budget

The process of putting a zero based budget together is not hard to understand. Like any other budget it does require some planning and attention throughout the month because you might have to tweak some numbers here and there as life happens. In my opinion it’s the best type of budget to put together as it leaves no room for money to go unaccounted for.

What Is a Zero Based Budget?

There are a few simple steps to take in order to make a zero based budget.

First, determine all the sources of income that will be coming in during the month. Of course, this includes your monthly salary from your full-time job or side hustle income. However, make sure to include other sources of income you might be receiving such as investment dividends or child support. Add these together to determine your total monthly income.

The second step is to calculate all your set expenses. This would include all the bills you regularly pay each month. Items such as the mortgage, utilities (electricity, gas, water, phone, Internet, cell phone, etc.) insurances and consumer debts are what you want to include here. Total all those amounts and subtract them from the income.

By now you should have a figure to proceed to step three – figuring out your adjustable expenses. Adjustable expenses are those where you exercise a little more control over the amount you spend. Expense categories you might plug in here include food, clothing, entertainment, transportation, home maintenance, hobbies, saving and giving. Once you have the adjustable expenses set subtract them from the number you calculated in step two.

So your equation should look something like this:

Income total (Step 1) minus Set Expenses (Step 2) minus Adjustable Expenses (Step 3) = 0 (zero)

So as you can see the goal of a zero-based budget after these three steps is to have the final amount equal zero. We don’t want any amount of money left over on the bottom line of our budget calculation.

Why Is a Zero Based Budget Important?

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is the concept that money is active. It will find a place to go if I’m not paying attention.

If there is money left over on the bottom line of your budget where is that going to go? The answer is “Who knows?” It could end up in the savings account if your disciplined enough. Yet again it could go to a movie date with your spouse, a grande vanilla chai tea each morning at Starbucks or a new baseball glove for your son.

The point is you don’t know where it’s going because it’s not been allocated to a category. In a zero based budget every dollar must be assigned a category.

You have to tell your money what to go do with itself or it will exercise it’s own will on your life. It sounds ridiculous that pieces of printed paper could have this much control over us. But you know as well as I that it does when we let it.

Clearing Up Some Questions and Misconceptions

When putting together a zero based budget remember the following:

  1. Put the budget together before the month begins. Have a budget planning meeting where you forecast what the next month will look like. Have the budget ready to go on the 1st.
  1. You will have to play with the numbers in the planning meeting to get it to balance to zero. Use the adjustable expenses category to do this. Your income and the set expenses won’t typically have much leeway to change.
  1. Just because you allocate “X” amount to a budget category doesn’t mean you have to spend it during the month. A budget is simply a spending plan. The actually execution of that plan will vary and you may not spend the money from that category after all.
  1. You can change the budget during the month. However, if you add or subtract money from one spending category you have to add or subtract it from another. The budget must always equal zero no matter what changes are made.
  1. Make sure to include a savings line item in the budget. Treat it like an expense. Too often people just save what’s left over at the end of the month. So in essence they save nothing because they spend all their money each month. Put the savings money away at the beginning of the month so you are not tempted to spend it.

(I’d also consider following this strategy when developing your giving plan each month. Consider how much you might want to give to charity or your local church and give it at the beginning of the month so it doesn’t find another “priority” to go towards.)

Download a Budget Template

I’ve found a zero based budget invaluable in helping us have victory with our monthly finances. It keeps my wife and I from overspending and has helped our savings rate increase. I’d highly recommend it as the best budget method in terms of telling your money where to go.

If you’d like a budget template to get started with this process you can get one by clicking here. You can download a copy in either Word, Excel or .pdf format. I prefer the Excel spreadsheet as it has all the formulas plugged in to do the calculations. So you can easily play with the numbers as you figure out how much to put in each category. If you have any questions about putting a budget together you can contact me here.

Questions: Do you think a zero based budget would work for you? If not, what budget strategy would work for you? Do you find yourself ever wondering where all your money goes during the month? What frustrates you about putting a budget together?

Image courtesy of Steve Rotman at Flickr Creative Commons

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Comments

  1. Dani Sheffield says:

    Hi Brian,
    We are already doing a zero based budget and it works great!! Budgeting just excites me as crazy as it may sound.
    I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about savings rate, do you have an article that explains what it is and how to get started.

    Thanks

  2. Hi can i get a sample of a zero based budget pls… i need to submit a zero based budget fp my assignment and i dnont have a clue

  3. I think having a zero based budget is one of the best steps you can make to paying off debt and becoming better with your expenses. I sit down each month and update my spreadsheet.
    Even Steven recently posted…Strike it Rich The Financial Independence Gold RushMy Profile

  4. I do a 0 based budget for the income from my FT job. That budget includes all of my necessary expenses (set expenses and adjustable expenses like food, gas, etc). Then my side hustle and PT job income is used for additional savings and debt paydown, and some fun too.
    Kayla recently posted…How I was Dubbed a “Debt Rockstar”My Profile

  5. LOVE the zero-based budget. It has the power to absolutely change one’s money situation.
    Laurie recently posted…Two Steps to Get Out of DebtMy Profile

  6. Our goal is to save/invest 50% each month so that comes off the top immediately, then we deal with the monthly expenses. Any extra gets directed to one of our savings goals. We’ve tried several methods and this was the one that really clicked with us.
    Kassandra recently posted…I’m A Hustler, Baby!My Profile

  7. Great article, Brian. I like the method. We have the savings part of the budget taken out of our account automatically each months. That way is it a fixed “expense” that we can’t touch.
    Veronica Paz recently posted…Why the Best Things in Life are FreeMy Profile

    • “…taken out of our account automatically each months.” That’s a great approach Veronica, one I’d highly recommend. Automation can be our friend and make things simpler when it comes to saving money.

  8. “One thing I’ve learned the hard way is the concept that money is active. It will find a place to go if I’m not paying attention.” This is an absolute truth, Brian. People spend what money they have available, which is why it’s so important to have some sort of budget you follow. I like zero-sum budgets, particularly for people new to budgeting. It offers flexibility and isn’t overwhelming. Some people make budgeting overly complicated which really decreases the likelihood they will stick with it long-term.
    Shannon recently posted…Raising Money Smart Kids in a Not-So-Frugal FamilyMy Profile

    • “Some people make budgeting overly complicated…” We had that problem in the past which is one reason ours didn’t work and we didn’t stick to it.

  9. This is very timely for me as I just started helping to facilitate FPU and next week is the cash flow lesson. 🙂 We don’t do a zero-based budget so it’s good to have the reminder so that I can explain it well to the people at my table. Thanks for pointing to your resources page as well!
    Emily recently posted…Revamping Our Money Management SystemMy Profile

    • So cool you are helping with FPU! I’ve led that before and it was a great experience. Feel free to use that info on the resources page if anyone in your group needs it.

  10. I love the zero-based budget. Give every single cent a purpose. The first thing that I did after writing down my income was deciding how much I was going to save. Once I had that number then I started writing down expenses and I could then see which expenses I needed to cut so I wouldn’t go into the negative.

    I really recommend that you pay yourself first and then figure the rest of it out.
    Aldo recently posted…Good Debt Vs. Bad DebtMy Profile

  11. “You have to tell your money what to go do with itself or it will exercise it’s own will on your life” <– YES. This is why I use the zero-sum budget, as well. Great tips here!
    Natalie recently posted…How Much I Save By Buying Generic At WalmartMy Profile

  12. We had a problem budgeting before and have switched to a goals based budget, which is sort of similar. We start with our main goal and then make everything else work around it. We have been more motivated focusing on achieving a goal rather than just managing expenses. I think the important thing to note is that there are a number of ways to budget, but as long as you embrace one and follow it, you will be fine financially. It’s the people who don’t budget who tend to have more financial troubles.
    Shannon recently posted…Run Your Own RaceMy Profile

    • I agree there is more than one way to budget and those who don’t are setting themselves up for trouble. I simply like knowing that every dollar is allocated to something. I’m interested in your goals based approach. Have you written about that? Sounds interesting.

  13. We already have more than enough set aside in to savings so all the extra goes in to investments each month. We make sure all our money is actively accounted for and working for us and not sitting gathering dust at a credit union. Since all our expenses are only 50% of our income we make sure to still account for it because that money is providing other income for us. It isn’t an official budget, but we know what amount needs to be pulled and invested.
    Lance recently posted…New is So Much Better than Old!My Profile

    • I like your plan Lance. You are in a sweet spot clearing that much each month. Our savings is set as well…the only time we deposit money in that is to rebuild our emergency fund after an expense or if we are saving for something special (like a vacation or a big home purchase).

  14. Putting savings away at the beginning of the month was a biggie for us! Once we started doing that, we found ourselves saving a LOT more!!
    Dee recently posted…8 Smart Ways to Start Saving for RetirementMy Profile

  15. I like this method! This is my favorite take-away: “Just because you allocate “X” amount to a budget category doesn’t mean you have to spend it during the month.” We do something of a variation on zero-based budgeting with our lack of a budget and no-spend approach.
    Mrs. Frugalwoods recently posted…The Water Bill IncidentMy Profile

    • That was big eyeopener for me. I can plan to spend “X” but don’t have to. There were some months I’d try to spend as little as possible just to see how far below my budgeted number I could go.

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