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Budget your way to financial success with these free templates

What we'll cover

  • Budgeting fundamentals

  • Methods and templates for building a monthly budget

  • Smart tools to help you effectively budget

Like diets and to-do lists, you might think budgeting is all about deprivation and discipline. But the process doesn’t have to be painful. With a budget template that works for you and a healthy dose of flexibility, you can stay motivated and keep your spending and saving on track.  

Start strong with a monthly budget template

Think of a budget as a tool you use to accomplish your financial goals. Maybe you want to get out of debt , save for a down payment on a home or go on a dream vacation. When you budget with these objectives in mind, it makes any spending sacrifices required a little easier to bear. Without your “why,” it’s hard to muster up the willpower to put your budget into motion.

These common budgeting methods can be a good place to begin and with our free downloadable templates, you don’t have to start from scratch.

50/30/20 budgeting

The 50/30/20 rule is one of the most popular methods for building a budget — and for good reason. It’s super simple and highly flexible, making it a smart way to budget for beginners all the way to finance experts. With this method, your spending is broken up into three main categories: 50% goes to needs (rent, groceries, gas, etc.), 30% to wants (restaurants, subscriptions, etc.) and 20% to savings and debt repayment (retirement fund, debt repayment, etc.). You can divvy up your dollars how you want in each category, as long as you stay within the overall framework.

Graphic with title, Monthly 50/30/20 budget worksheet. Keep your monthly budget and savings on track and on target with the 50/30/20 approach. Designate 50% of your income to needs (mortgage/rent, utilities, car payments), 30% to wants (travel, concerts, fashion, splurges) and 20% goes directly to your savings account(s) and debts.

Zero-sum budgeting

The  zero-sum budget (also called zero-based) gives a purpose to each and every dollar. You use your last month’s income to budget for the month ahead, with the goal of reaching equilibrium (aka your income = your expenses). So, if you make $2,500 in January, for example, you should aim to budget that amount for February. 

The benefit of having every dollar accounted for is that every dollar has a purpose. This avoids “leftover” funds being rolled over into the next month to be spent indiscriminately. For those that like everything to have a place (and a purpose), this approach can be cathartic. One caveat to zero-sum budgeting is that it requires monthly recalibration. If your income or expenses vary month to month (we’re looking at you, holiday season), you could find that this budget style will require a more active maintenance approach.

Graphic with title, Monthly zero-sum budget worksheet. Give every dollar you earn a purpose by carefully mapping out what you spend each month. The zero-sum (or zero-based) approach aims to not have your expenses exceed what you’re earning each month.

Line item budgeting

If you believe the devil is in the details, you might thrive with a line-item budget . Getting into the nitty-gritty of your personal finances can help clarify your spending and saving habits, which enables you to make adjustments and improvements as you go.

Start by creating a list of your fixed monthly expenses. Then break up your other expenses into categories such as home, hobbies and health, for example. Within each category, designate specific line items and allocate a dollar amount to each. This gives you the ability to analyze the information month to month to better predict future spending. Your savings goals should be included as line items in your budget to ensure that you are saving toward each of your goals.  

Graphic with title, Monthly line item budget worksheet. Keep a close eye on your spending each month to use past spending to guide your future budget. List out your top categories and allocate a certain budget for each. This close tracking will help you spot trends, habits and adjust your saving and spending as needed.

Track your progress with budgeting tools

Smart tools like buckets and boosters (features of Ally Bank Spending and Savings Accounts) and automating wherever feasible can help you streamline the process and minimize those everyday hurdles that can get in the way of budgeting success. 

Don't neglect the unexpected

Along the way, unplanned challenges — medical emergencies, career change or job loss, divorce and death of a spouse or a partner — can throw a wrench into your best-laid plans. As you progress through life, the things that matter to you most will change, so should your approach to budgeting. Reprioritizing goals and finding the right approach is important at every life stage. 

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