Back in 2013 my friends and I graduated, got jobs, and strangely, began seeing positive numbers in our bank accounts (student loans notwithstanding).
To protect and organize this novel and exciting resource, the savvy among us downloaded Mint. Others budgeted in Excel, others in Quickbooks, and the rest (including me) spent blindly, dreading our monthly statement like a jury summons.
Point is, seven years ago there were plenty of options for virtually managing your budget. Today, there are perhaps too many. There are hundreds of apps for climbing out of debt, budgeting between spouses, investing a percentage of your savings, even budgeting as a freelancer.
With overwhelming options and data breaches still making headlines, is it time to return to good ol’ budget spreadsheet?
Here’s why I budget using spreadsheets
For six months in 2015, I tried everything I could to start meditating. I knew the practice would be challenging, so I tried to flatten my learning curve with apps, books, and by carefully studying the esoteric ramblings of gurus on YouTube.
Nothing worked. I couldn’t close my eyes for six minutes without snatching up my phone like Bilbo Baggins to resume my consumerist coma. It wasn’t until I visited a Buddhist monastery, and meditated for 45 minutes straight with no apps, music, or guidance, that I finally mastered the practice.
I found budgeting to be the same way. I knew it wouldn’t be fun, so I spent weeks trying dozens of different budgeting apps. They sent me reminders, gold stars, and even performed many essential tasks for me.
I wasn’t learning. I was looking for the path of least resistance.
But critical life skills are sharpened through resistance. Budgeting in a spreadsheet is like meditating without music or lifting free weights instead of using machines. You’ll sweat more, but you’ll grow faster. If sweating isn’t your thing, using apps like Mint to track your finances is a great alternative to budgeting in spreadsheets.
As illustrated in the “Pros..” section below, there are plenty of objective advantages to budgeting in a spreadsheet versus an app. Spreadsheets are extremely reliable, built upon the most simple, stable, and well-supported software in the world. Spreadsheets won’t crash or hamper you with surprise “security updates.” They’re effortless to share, and there’s a free template for virtually every conceivable scenario. Best of all, spreadsheets are infallibly secure. While many apps will store your most compromising information using security that’s failed before, there’s nothing a virtual villain can do with your spreadsheet in plain view.
But it’s the subjective psychological advantages of spreadsheet budgets that I believe give them the edge. The security and stability lower stress. The raw journaling aspect offers moments of deep introspection. Finally, the act of learning a new skill in the most organic way offers rewards and nourishment.
My top three budgeting tips
If you’re reading this article, you’re either looking to start budgeting or considering changing up your current method. In either case, you deserve a high-five because budgeting isn’t easy.
There’s a psychological weight to knowing precisely how much money you do (or don’t) have at all times. But trust me, it’s much less burdensome than the pervasive anxiety of not knowing and making poor financial decisions as a result. Plus, budgeting helps you save more, invest more, and makes you a better partner.
Whether you’re just getting started or looking to refine your process, here are my top three budgeting tips:
Be as honest with your budget as you are with your doctor
What do your doctor, your therapist, and your budget all have in common? They all help you solve big problems, but they can only help if you’re honest with them.
It can be extremely hard to admit to yourself just how much you’re spending on certain things, and in tandem, how much money you’re not really saving. But like a mystery stomach pain, mystery spending only gets worse with time.
So when you begin the budgeting process, be honest with yourself. Record everything. If looking at a certain expense makes you cringe, good! Like a massage therapist finding knots in your back, discovering cringeworthy expenses is pretty much the whole point.
Don’t forget insurance and retirement
Perhaps the most common mistake among budgeters is forgetting to include big, routine expenses that fall outside of a monthly cycle. The two that are most oft-forgotten are retirement and insurance.
Generally speaking, you should consider putting away at least 10% of your monthly income into a retirement account. I highly recommend opening a Roth IRA. Remember to subtract whatever you stash away from your monthly income on your spreadsheet.
Similarly, be sure to factor your insurance premiums into each month’s budget. Even if you pay in full, whatever you pay in total annually for home/renters, medical, and auto should be divided by 12 and included in your monthly expenses.
Think of budgeting as “money journaling”
The process of journaling is excellent for your mental health because it “helps you prioritize problems, fears, and concerns” and “provides an opportunity for positive self-talk,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Because “budgeting” can have loaded connotations, I think of budgeting as “money journaling.” If I’m nervous about my income-to-spending ratio, I record everything to remove the fear of the unknown. Then, I either discover that I’m well within my spending limit, or that I’ve exceeded it and should go lean until the end of the month.
In either case, I feel much better.
Pros of budgeting in a spreadsheet
Versatile and easy to share
Perhaps you’re worried that budgeting in a spreadsheet will involve the complex drudgery of designing something from scratch. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth.
I like Google Sheets because it’s free, cloud-based, and doesn’t require surprise lengthy updates. Plus, the platform has hundreds of professional and user-sourced budget templates for every possible scenario. When you find a template you like, you can click FILE > MAKE A COPY, and ta-da, it’s yours forever.
Plus, Google Sheets makes it easier than most apps to share your spreadsheet with friends, family members, or your financial advisor. And when things get private, you can dynamically update the view, comment, or edit access (or revoke it entirely!).
Download Money Under 30’s official “Simple Budgeting Spreadsheet” for Excel here.
Here to stay
Apps come and go, regardless of popularity. Thousands of full-time Viners didn’t think they’d lose their primary source of income overnight until they did.
While budgeting apps are probably less volatile than social media platforms, it’s safe to say that Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel will be around much longer than many of the medium-sized budgeting apps competing on the Apple or Play Store.
By “investing” in a spreadsheet over an app, you can rest assured that your preferred budgeting tool will always be available (and offline, no less).
A lot of money management apps prompted me for my bank account information. Although they listed good reasons for the invasion of privacy (real-time budgeting data, auto-deposits into retirement, etc.), it still made me feel uneasy.
If the Equifax breach has taught us anything, it’s that a miserly approach to sharing personal information is probably a good idea. Keeping your budget spreadsheet and your accounts separated may be less convenient, but it’s indisputably safer.
There’s very little a hacker can do with a copy of your budget spreadsheet other than mock you for spending $41 on Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy.
Now that I’ve covered the advantages of budgeting with a spreadsheet, I should acknowledge some shortcomings.
Cons of budgeting in a spreadsheet
Can lack user-friendliness
Rather than overwhelm you with a sea of empty cells, apps like Mint or YNAB (You Need a Budget) will ease you into the process by asking a few questions at a time to calculate your income, expenses, and goals.
If you feel especially psychologically intimidated by the budgeting process, or you need extra help cataloging your expenses, the Q&A format of many user-friendly apps may ease some of your troubles.
Short on features
Even the best-designed spreadsheet templates are still static in nature and require your input to work effectively. Apps, by contrast, can be more dynamic, automatically adjusting your data based upon the access you give it to your accounts, bills, etc.
While you can write those off as mere conveniences, it’s hard to ignore how some apps will even go so far as to drive behavior. A spreadsheet admittedly can’t send reminders to your phone to stop spending, nor can it automatically invest for you.
I’d hesitate to call Sheets or Excel “mobile-friendly” – a more apt descriptor would be “mobile-tolerable.” Before a medium-sized purchase, I can always take a quick glance at my budget on Sheets mobile, but I lack the dexterity or patience to make any actual changes until I find a laptop.
By contrast, virtually all budgeting apps are designed to be mobile-friendly. If you’re someone whose laptop stays sheathed most of the day as you do most admin tasks on your phone, an app may better fit your lifestyle.
My budgeting spreadsheet is like a Toyota SUV – it may be short on fancy features or connectivity, but it’ll always be there and it will never break down.
Even still, while I strongly prefer to budget using a spreadsheet, there’s really no right answer for everyone. What’s most important is that you’re budgeting somehow, somewhere.