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How to Prioritize What’s Important When You Make a Budget

I remember the first time my wife and I really tried to make a budget. So many expenses were coming to our mind it was difficult to prioritize which ones were most important. We messed up many things in that first month’s budget and felt really frustrated at our effort.

It didn’t deter us however from trying again…and again…and again. Interestingly enough, we found that after several months of trial and error, certain expenses always drifted to the surface first. It was apparent that we were drawn to some spending categories more readily than others because they represented fundamental needs for our family each month.

So what expenses go first when you make a budget? Then how do you determine what comes next? Today I’m going to outline our five-step thought process as we make a budget each month. Hopefully it will give you some direction as you try to figure out how your hard earned dollars will be allocated.

A Process to Make a Budget

When you are ready to get your finances in order and make a budget, start with the highest priorities first and then work your way down. For almost everyone, it should look something like this:

Budget Priority #1 – Necessities Above All

Put simply, you have to survive. Nothing else can happen in the budget before your basic needs are taken care of.

This shouldn’t be too big of a revelation but you’d be surprised how many people mismanage this step. They spend money on cable service but are behind on the mortgage. They shell out money for electronics and entertainment but have a difficult time keeping their children clothed.

There is nothing wrong with cable TV, or electronics or going out to the movies. But those are secondary items that do not deserve to be ranked high in the budget. People who make sure items like these are covered first in their budget are placing too high a priority on their importance.

Related Content: Why I’m So Excited to Spend Money Again on Cable TV

Above all these necessities should be covered first when you make a budget. They are in no particular order below because all five are needed for survival:

  1. Food. This includes all monies spent on groceries, eating out, the kid’s lunches at school and your daily trips to Starbucks. Anything you pay for and consume should be accounted for here.
  1. Clothing. You may not spend money here every month (I can go months without buying clothes) but you must at least give it consideration. Except on some beaches and in special colonies, our society believes in covering the human form with fabric and will not look kindly on those who don’t.
  1. Shelter. A roof over your head brings safety, comfort and belonging. Wherever you lay your head at night is called home. So prioritize the mortgage or rent payment check as one of the first that goes out the door.
  1. Utilities. What good is a home if the utilities are shut off? So pay the water, electricity, gas, and phone service (for us that’s just cell service as we have no home phone). Also include the trash bill here (unless you can drive it to the dump).
  1. Transportation. Being immobile would severely hamper our ability to get to work and earn a living. So plan on paying for the car payment, gasoline and vehicle maintenance. Or if you don’t own a car include money for some other form of public transportation.

These are the first five things you should be looking at in your monthly budget. Everything else should be set aside until these are covered.

Priority #1A – Giving

I thought about skipping this. However, I would not be giving a true representation of what my wife and I do with our budget. You may not feel giving to charity should be given this high a priority. I understand that sentiment and would not choose to critique your personal decision. If that’s the case, you can skip to step #2.

For us, giving is ingrained in our minds. It is part of our belief system that we should be giving regularly (monthly) to our local church. We set aside 10% of our income and place that “expenditure” at the top of our budget template. It serves a reminder that we have been given so much and should look for ways to give to those who bless us spiritually (the church) and to those who are less fortunate or have a need.

Related Content: How to Develop a Purposeful Plan for Giving Away Money

Budget Priority #2 – Insurances to the Rescue

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about insurance. As a result of my research, I’ve become convinced more than ever of the value insurance plays in our lives. I believe it’s truly vital. It is not an absolute necessity but is pretty darn close. That’s why it checks in on the second tier of expenses my wife and I look at when making our budget.

Without insurance we leave ourselves open to great risk. We are a bad, at-fault accident or a major health problem away from bankruptcy. That’s not overstating the dangers considering the high cost of healthcare or the litigious nature of our culture. Insurances serve to rescue us from potential financial ruin.

So, after taking care of our necessities, we budget for the following insurances each month:

-Health Insurance (A Beginner’s Guide to the Health Insurance and the Affordable Care Act)

-Car Insurance (on four vehicles – two adults and two kids) (A Comprehensive Look at Auto Insurance and Why You Need It)

-Homeowner’s Insurance (What Do I Need to Know About Homeowner’s Insurance?)

-Life Insurance (for both of us) (The Most Important Things You Need to Know About Life Insurance)

-Disability Insurance (on my wife only) (The Big Reason You Need Disability Insurance)

-Umbrella Insurance (to go above an beyond traditional insurance coverage)

If you are interested, I’ve written a detailed post on these where I look at the specifics of each type of insurance, what to look for and how to save money on each one. Click on the article titles I’ve provided above to be redirected to that article.

Budget Priority #3 – A Debt-Free Existence

The third priority when you make a budget should be to allocate funds to pay off other debts that are unrelated to the mortgage or the car payment. We dealt with each of those in step #1 when we set aside money for shelter and transportation.

The two things that would most likely fall into this category would be school loans and credit card debt. But you could also be dealing with a home equity or other type of loan that needs to be paid back. Any debt that falls outside the car or mortgage payment should be funded here.

I labeled #3 as “Debt-Free Existence” because that is what we are striving for. We can’t let debts languish month after month or year after year by only paying the minimums when the bill comes. Our goal should be to get rid of debt as quickly as possible using a debt payoff method.

Related Content: Is the Debt Snowball the Best Method to Pay Off Debt?

The good news is once the debt is gone you can skip this step entirely. Speaking from my own experience of becoming entirely debt free, it’s a pleasure to not deal with this each and every month.

Budget Priority #4 – Hitting the Hassle Expenses

The fourth area to prioritize is what I call “hassle expenses.” I refer to them this way because they are not necessities but life would be more challenging in some ways if we didn’t account for them.

Some monthly expenses we budget for in this step include our cable television service, Internet access, and our home security system.

As you can see we don’t NEED all of those things. A home security system is clearly an optional expense. You could find Internet access in a plethora of Wi-fi hotspots around town (restaurants, libraries, etc). In fact, we went without cable TV service for about 3 years while we were paying off our mortgage early.

But a) we can afford them, b) they make life more manageable and c) they add to our life enjoyment.

In this category, I would also include budgeting for any home maintenance expenditures that are not compromising the integrity of the home. (Some home maintenance might be considered a necessity – like a leaking roof or faucet – and would need to be dealt with in Step #1 – Shelter.) We want to deal with home maintenance issues eventually because they nag at us and give us the sense our home is falling apart (even though it’s not). They may also lead to bigger repair issues if not taken care of in a timely fashion.

Two other big hassle expenses we prioritize in step four are handling savings and retirement. I consider these hassle expenses for this reason: What would life be like if you had no savings? Or if you had nothing invested for retirement.

With no savings you’d continually be going into debt to handle life’s emergencies. Without money for retirement you could end up working until your 80 and then relying on the little you’ll receive from Social Security. Both of those scenarios need to be prevented by funding them in your monthly budget.

Related Content: Emergency Fund Basics: The Step on Which All Other Success is Built

You need to fund savings until you have 3-6 months of cash saved in a bank account that you can access immediately. Once you have that amount saved you can skip funding it in the budget unless it drops below your comfort threshold.

Investing for retirement should never end, at least not during your working life. Budget for that each month so your investments grow over time and you’ll have money to live out your later years with dignity.

Budget Priority #5 – The Continuum of Value

The final items we look at as we make a budget are all optional expenses. Some we encounter every month while others are more sporadic and we don’t know if/when they are coming. Even if they occur periodically though we still account for them as if we might have to deal with them.

Step #5 has been termed “The Continuum of Value” because what items you put here will be different than ours based on what optional expenses you value. Some will be more important than others. The expenses you see as less of a priority are often the ones that get dropped out of the monthly budget first when you find yourself with less discretionary income for one reason or another.

Once we have all other expenses accounted for in steps 1-4 these are the optional expenses we fund in order of importance for us:

  1. Child related expenses
  2. Personal care (think hygiene/sanitary/cleaning items)
  3. Pet care
  4. Gifts (for birthdays, special occasions, etc.)
  5. Entertainment (movies, Netflix, MLB subscription, etc.)
  6. Books/magazines/music
  7. Landscaping
  8. Home Décor/Furnishings
  9. Recreation
  10. Electronics

Items 1-6 on the list we fund money for and spend in almost each and every month. Items 7-10 happen less frequently and are the ones we would bump out of the budget first if we ran short on money in any given month.

You can see how these are based on what we value most, as we put kid expenses at the very top. With four children in the house “Child Related Expenses” easily becomes our third most expensive budget category behind food and health insurance.

But that may not be what’s important for you. That’s why everything in step #5 is based on what you value at that time of your life. Your priorities will change over time.

Final Thoughts On How to Make a Budget

How to make a budget can be an overwhelming challenge for a beginner. It was confusing for us initially to know where to start. It took us a few months of practice to get our priorities in place but we eventually settled into knowing how and where to allocate our dollars. Now, after doing it successfully for so many years, our budget planning takes about 10 minutes each month (because everything essentially stays about the same).

If you need a budgeting template to get started you can find the one we use on my “Resources” page. If you have any questions about it you can contact me here.

When you make a budget always remember to fund the necessities first and then protect yourself from financial risk by keeping your insurances current. After that prioritizing the budget expenditures becomes an issue of the financial stage of life you are in and what you value.

Leave a Comment or Answer a Question Below: What priorities do you put first when you make a budget? Have you ever let a necessity slide in order to fund/pay for something else? What other “hassle expenses” would you consider important? What optional expenses do you value the most right now?

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  1. Amazing post! Well thought out article and lots to think about here.

    Definitely agree with #3, paying off debts is a massive weight off of anybody’s shoulder.

  2. Great approach here. This is also great for people who don’t have enough money and need to draw a line. You have laid out 5 great lines where people can tighten up their budget to. Obviously, necessities are required, but after that, they can add things down the list as their budget allows.

    • Thanks Jacob! The way I look at it the flow makes sense…your money only goes so far. Like you said, at some point you have to draw a line, say “I can’t do anymore” and be OK with that.

  3. The next time we make a budget, I’d like to follow the guideline you shared here Brian for us to know which should be prioritized, which is one reason I and my wife sometimes have a deep discussion. Now, I think we just found a solution to the issue. Thanks Brian.

  4. Absolutely brilliant guide, Brian! I have learned to prioritize my budget since my childhood years. Yes, that’s right, the money my parents had given me for school/going out were always well spent because I had created a priority list that was something like this: 1.Food, 2.Coffee/sweets, 3.Entertainment and so on.

    As I grew up I was already used to this model and used it to prioritize my needs – home,survival, personal etc. I use the model until this very day and I have rarely gone out of money. It’s a reserved way of lifestyle but at least it is safe.

  5. One of the most detailed articles out there on the matter ! Unfortunately, many people tend to prioritize entertainment compared to basic necessities for example, it’s a shame…

  6. I’d never let a required expense slide for something else….it’s not even an option. That’s why they get the label “required.” 🙂

    • “…never let a required expense slide…” I know Brock, me neither. But I know this happens for many people and the logic behind their decision just doesn’t make sense.

  7. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says

    Brian, this is a good way to determine which is a priority and which is not. I am not that good at budget planning as my wife does it. I realize that I at least contribute something so that I know how budgeting works. Priority numbers 1 and 2 are really important. But, I notice we kinda mix up priority no. 5 with no. 1 as personal care is in our priority no. 1.

  8. I agree completely with your hierarchy of priorities, Brian. The only thing we do differently than you is to set up our budget annually rather than monthly. We use a 13-column spreadsheet (old-school, I know, but it works) with all categories of expense listed for the entire year, with annual and quarterly expenses listed by amount in the column for the appropriate month. This prevents us from overlooking a significant expense (such as ad valorem tax on our properties) and failing to be ready to pay the bill when it arrives in the mail.

  9. LOVE this one! It’s exactly how I live, even though it’s hard. It’s exactly why my friends and family don’t really get why I live on such a tight budget when I could go on an extended student loan repayment plan. I am prioritizing repaying my student loan debt above leisure, like travel. It really stinks missing out on girls trips and putting large lump sums of money on my student loans. But you know what? I started at $206k and I’m down to $124k. I just had ice cream with a fellow young professional and she is on an income repayment plan, working 3 days a week as an optometrist instead of full time because she has a baby (her husband is a nurse). Her plan is to have her federal loans forgiven after 25 years. Since she started repaying her loans they’ve gone up! This is because her payments don’t even cover the interest. Right now her debt is at $242k and rising. I cannot imagine living like this and the reason is exactly what you’ve laid out in this post — priorities. I want to be debt free. I want to build wealth. I want freedom.

    • You are doing great Natalie. And the best part is you are taking responsibility for your debt mess instead of ignoring it and hoping it will go away. Your financial life is going to be incredible on the other side of this debt. All the sacrifices you are making now will be worth it!

  10. Dividing costs into necessary and discretionary categories is a great first step if you’ve never budgeted before or are making a new budget in a new living situation, but now that I’m more experienced I prefer to prioritize by what’s most important to me (my values). Therefore, giving and saving come first alongside taxes. I know the necessities will get paid for, so I focus more on how to fit the fun stuff like entertainment and travel into our spending. Watching out for irregular expenses, like many you mentioned, has also been a point of focus for us, because we don’t have sufficient cash flow to weather those in a single month, usually.

    • Giving and saving our big priorities for us as well. Giving really happens as part of our step 1 as I’ve put it at the top of our budget forms (so it’s the first thing I see even before the necessities).

  11. The places I prioritize first each month are saving, retirement, and future business investments. After I knock out those areas I focus on the expenses where I need them to live safely, and finally the areas of flexibility. After I am making sure I am paying myself first, I knock out the rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance. So now that I have paid myself first and made sure i have a safe place to sleep. Finally I work through the food budget, gas budget, gym membership, Netflix, donations and gifts. This flexible area is where if I overspend in one of the two major categories I can cut back in these other areas by; buying less groceries, not eating out, riding my bike to the gym or events instead of driving, canceling Netflix or other subscription services, and potentially not buying as nice as gift as I wanted for someone.

    • “…paying myself first…” I can understand why you make that a priority. It’s a great practice to get in the habit of saving money. And often times if people wait until the end of the month to set aside some savings, they have no money left over to save.

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