Spreadsheets: A Budget Nerd’s Dream

Via Flickr by user joebeone. Used under Creative Commons license.

Hello, my name is Brian… and I’m a nerd. A budget nerd, that is.

When I began using a budget to plan my financial life a few years back, I loved the sense of empowerment and control that it gave me. I was enthralled with the fact that by doing some basic math and some strategic pencil-and-paper planning, I could put together a road map for my money that would steer me clear of debt and out-of control spending. I loved it so much, in fact, that I began building more and more complicated budgets… and I brought in technology to help me do it.

If you’re just beginning to budget, or if you’re financial life is really simple, then a pencil and paper may be all the tools you need to effectively map out your money plan. But if you’re like me, and you love the control and detail you can achieve with exact numbers and precision planning, you’ll really benefit from using a spreadsheet to budget your money.

In principle, a spreadsheet budget works the same as a paper budget: You start with your income at the top, then list out your expenses down the page. In a second column, you list the dollar amount you spend on each of those items. The third column shows a running tally, subtracting each expense from your monthly income, and showing how much money is left after every purchase you make.

The beauty of the spreadsheet, though, is that it does the same work in a way that is much faster than doing a budget by hand. If you’ve used Excel or similar spreadsheet programs before, you know that one of their most powerful features is the ability to program formulas that automatically calculate mathematical results based on the data you give them. So with a spreadsheet, you can create simple formulas that do all of the addition and subtraction as you go, leaving you free to focus on strategic planning instead of fumbling with a calculator and double-checking your math. (True, it may take longer to set up a budget spreadsheet the first time you do it. But the work only happens once; after that, you can come back to your document and review, tweak and update it much more quickly than you can with a paper budget.)

Here’s a sample of the budget spreadsheet that Laura and I use (with all the values zeroed out): Budget Template HANDOUT.

You’ll notice several great features about this budget spreadsheet:

  • It is flexible — Each expense can be entered as weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or yearly amounts. You can then tweak the calculations to prorate whatever time increment you select into a monthly expense. This works really well in cases where one spouse is paid twice monthly, and the other paid every two weeks. It also allows you to leave things like rent as monthly expenses, but fine-tune things like groceries and dining out on a weekly basis.
  • It is automatic — As you go along popping in your expense values, the spreadsheet calculates your monthly balance, and clearly demonstrates at the top whether you’re over or under your monthly spending capabilities. This gives you the freedom to plug in budget values, and then tweak different amounts and quickly see how that affects your overall budget. That’s a great method for figuring out what areas you need to trim or increase to accomplish your financial goals.
  • It is evergreen — You can use this same spreadsheet month after month or year after year. Your budget will undoubtedly change as you progress in life, but you don’t have to start over every time you flip the calendar page. You can just update the existing spreadsheet, or save a copy and work in the new one. Having all of the values and calculations in place keeps you from doing excessive work.
  • It is portable — one of the great benefits of the information age is that we can have digital documents with us wherever we go. You could upload your budget to a service like Dropbox that allows you to view it from any computer you normally use. Laura and I actually use a version of this spreadsheet in Google Docs, which means that we can access it from our computers or phones, wherever we are.

There are a lot more great benefits to using a budget spreadsheet, including some really cool advanced features. We’ll discuss those in an upcoming post. For now, I encourage you to take a look at our budget template — you can peruse it for some ideas, or begin plugging your own values right into the document. You can even remix it into a format that fits your life and tastes better.

One word of caution though: Make sure you double- and triple-check that all of the formulas here are working correctly, and that all of the math is coming out right. I have been known to make spreadsheet errors before… and while I’m willing to risk my own budget on my ability to build a spreadsheet correctly, I’m not willing to risk yours.

Happy computing, my fellow nerds!