Hitting 'refresh' on your budget

The first thing many people think of with budgeting is denial.

Financial educator Ruth Hayden wants to change that.

She says that budgeting boils down to two basic things: knowing the numbers and managing those numbers.

As Hayden told MPR News host Kerri Miller, it's important to have a realistic picture of how much you spend and how that squares with the amount of money you make.

A woman in one of Hayden's classes was worried that when she took a look at her spending on paper it would be worse than she anticipated.

"What I teach my clients is that it's safer to know," Hayden said. When you face the facts, you can start planning for how you're going to make things work.

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It's a matter of setting boundaries, which means considering both practical spending and emotional spending as well.

"Start by asking yourself, 'Am I willing to do that?'" Hayden said.

Lining up your needs next to your wants and expenses helps put in perspective how these factors all work together. As you take money out of one column, give to another. That will force you to think about how you want to prioritize your money.

And if that doesn't work, sometimes it helps to get a reality check from a friend.

Lacey in St. Paul called to say that having a friend sit her down and "slap her in the face with reality" was a game-changer.

"I just felt so hopeless that I didn't bother to budget because I didn't really think that it would ever do anything for me or that I would be able to save," Lacey said.

Hearing her friend say, "You've gotten salary raises. You've changed your lifestyle. You can do this It's about your attitude," sparked her to work on a budget and set goals.

Lacey was feeling good about her plans until some unexpected medical bills hit.

She had to temporarily adjust some of the money she planned to save to cover her medical bills. Hayden said that's okay. It's always wise to make sure you're not "digging your hole any deeper."

An event like that is a good catalyst to start thinking about other expenses that might be coming, even though you're not sure when they will hit or how much they might cost.

It can be daunting to plan for the unknown, Hayden told Miller, but it's a good idea to try to estimate future expenses and start saving for your "something will inevitably happen" fund now.

For example, if you know that your car might soon need a $1,200 repair, start saving. Divide up that cost over the coming months, and start putting away $120 or even $12 per paycheck. Even if the bill hits before you have all $1,200 saved or it ends up being more than you expected, you'll have some money set aside. That savings, even if it is small, will help lessen the impact on other parts of your budget while you make temporary adjustments.

Hayden said that you should think of setting aside this money as "saving to spend." Chipping away at upcoming purchases is one way to ensure that your money is going only to things that you really want or need.

It can be hard, discouraging even, to look at a small savings account and wait for it to grow. But Hayden said she always reminds her students that, "All budgets start with little steps."