5 budgeting hacks we actually use in our real lives

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5 budgeting hacks we actually use in our real lives
Rachel Mendelson/Insider

Welcome to Personal Finance Insider, a biweekly newsletter that connects you with the stories, strategies, and tips you need to be better with money.

Here's what: How Insider's personal finance team budgets to live well

Allow me to make a confession that may horrify you: I love budgeting. It's not that I'm a masochist or even a numbers nerd. I just love the power I feel when I look at my spreadsheet and see how I can make important purchases fit into my family's budget, or see the number rise in our savings account until it finally hits its target. To put it simply, I love being able to exercise control over my income instead of allowing it to control me.

If you're the kind of person who'd rather do 4,000 hours of housework than deal with your finances, I hear you. I have been you. But I'm here to say it doesn't have to be this way - and budgeting is your best chance at slaying the beast that is your financial fear.

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It won't surprise you to learn that Insider's personal finance team is made up of a bunch of people like me - people who love talking and thinking about money. And our brain trust is full of smart ways to manage your money to save thousands and live well. I'd like to use today's newsletter to share some of our best advice.

My best budgeting tip is a simple one: Use a spreadsheet to track your spending. Knowing where your money is going now is the first step to spending it with purpose.

I have a Google spreadsheet where I track every penny I spend. When I grocery shop on Saturdays, for instance, I get back in my car, whip out my phone, and add my Trader Joe's total to my "grocery" line item for the month. Each tab in my spreadsheet represents a new month, and I list out all of my monthly bills and have categories for variable spending with limits for each (like $200 a month for "personal care and household items"). I built my spreadsheet and set my category limits by looking back at a few previous months of credit card and bank statements, and figuring out where and how I was spending.

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When I need more money in a certain category, or need a new category all together, I make adjustments. My budget is a living document that evolves right alongside me.

Personal Finance Insider's executive editor, Libby Kane, says being honest with yourself about your spending is critical to building a living, breathing budget that supports you (instead of suffocating you). "Fudging spending categories or amounts to be 'good' or 'better' will only work against you in the long term," she says, so set up your budget however it makes sense for you. "I used to have a spending category entirely for buying chocolate!"

Jasmin Baron, our associate credit cards editor, shares a good hack for spending less at your favorite shops: Always join (and use) the loyalty/rewards program of the stores and restaurants you frequent. "It's amazing how much free or discounted stuff these programs offer - from free fries and other goodies at McDonald's (we may take advantage of that a lot around here) to digital coupons at grocery stores and drug stores," she says. "No coupon clipping required."

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Trying to save and invest your way to long-term wealth? Take a cue from Ellen Hoffman, editor-in-chief of Insider's Service Journalism team: "I have a few direct deposits set up that split up every paycheck I earn between my high-yield savings account, investing account, and checking account," she tells me. "This has been a game-changer - it helps me save and invest with minimal effort. My hope is to be able to increase the amount I'm able to save and invest every year."

Sophia Acevedo, a fellow on the personal finance team, says keeping her savings separate from her spending money ensures she meets her goals every time. "When it comes to saving money for a long-term goal or emergency fund, I need it be out of sight and out of mind," she says. "I initially had one savings account and always felt guilty when I took money out. I decided to move my money to a CD and that significantly improved my attitude on savings. If people are struggling to save, they should look into why it's a struggle and see if there's an account or tool that better addresses this problem."

Cheers to budgeting and saving your way to a life you love.

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- Stephanie Hallett, senior editor of Personal Finance Insider

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