With a little time, typing and easy-to-use software, you can quickly see your financial picture much more thoroughly and better plan for the future.

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It’s January and you’ve gone and done it: You’ve resolved to keep better track of your personal finances. But deep down, you’re not sure where to start. Sure, you can buy accounting software, sign up for a service or poke around your bank’s online offerings for money management. But don’t overlook what is probably the best option of all: a simple and free spreadsheet you make yourself.

Never used spreadsheet software before and not quite sure what it does? Relax, using it to make a budget is easy, because someone has already done most of the work. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Pick your program

First, select an application that can create and edit spreadsheet files. Microsoft Excel has long been a core component of the Microsoft Office suite for Mac and Windows ($70 a year). If you don’t have it already, you can also find versions for Android and iOS or the free basic version that runs in a web browser.

Other free or preinstalled spreadsheet programs may already be on your device. Google Sheets (for Android, iOS and web) and Apple’s Numbers software for iOS, macOS and web are two examples.

Google Sheets is another  free spreadsheet app that includes ready-made budget worksheets and on-screen instructions for how to use them. (The New York Times)
Google Sheets is another free spreadsheet app that includes ready-made budget worksheets and on-screen instructions for how to use them. (The New York Times)

If you don’t care for the offerings from Microsoft, Google or Apple, there are alternatives. Apache OpenOffice has a Calc spreadsheet program, as does LibreOffice, and both are free open-source suites that run on Windows, Mac and Linux systems. And there are plenty of other options in the app stores if you want to shop around.

Step 2: Select a template

Spreadsheet programs for home computers have been around for 40 years, giving developers plenty of time to make them more intuitive. Most have a version of the “personal budget” template — with the spending categories, design and formulas already formatted. Take advantage of them. Just type over the sample numbers with your own information and the software does the math.

Open your program of choice and look for the “Template” or “Project” gallery. Select the template that best matches your needs, like “Monthly Home Budget,” to create a new spreadsheet.

Apple’s Numbers software is a free spreadsheet app that includes ready-made budget worksheets. After you decide on a spreadsheet program, visit its template library to select the type of starter document you want to use. (The New York Times)
Apple’s Numbers software is a free spreadsheet app that includes ready-made budget worksheets. After you decide on a spreadsheet program, visit its template library to select the type of starter document you want to use. (The New York Times)

Don’t see a template that suits you? With a quick search, you can find plenty more to download online, like the selection at BudgetsAreSexy.com, which has specialized templates for those aiming for early retirement, or recent college graduates. The Measure of a Plan personal-finance site also has a detailed budget-tracking template that works in Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. Online video tutorials and software guides can also help you build your own spreadsheets.

Step 3: Enter your own numbers

Once you open a template, you’ll see the boxes (called “cells” in spreadsheet lingo) to fill in your own numbers. Gather up pay stubs, bills, statements and any other forms that show what you made or spent that month.

Once in your chosen budget template, just click into boxes (cells) and replace the sample numbers with your own. Apple’s Numbers and  many other programs also allow you to adjust the look of your spreadsheet. (The New York Times)
Once in your chosen budget template, just click into boxes (cells) and replace the sample numbers with your own. Apple’s Numbers and many other programs also allow you to adjust the look of your spreadsheet. (The New York Times)

Enter the information into the designated place. Along with your salary, your pay stub should show the money taken out for things like taxes, retirement savings and health insurance. Add in monthly expenses, like phone, credit card and power bills; car loans; gas, insurance, rent and mortgage costs; gym fees; restaurant meals; and shopping sprees.

Step 4: Check your results

Once you have all your numbers punched into the spreadsheet, you can see two things. First, you have a line-by-line accounting of your finances for the month.

As you fill in all your own numbers, the spreadsheet updates the math to display the current state of your finances. (The New York Times)
As you fill in all your own numbers, the spreadsheet updates the math to display the current state of your finances. (The New York Times)

Second, most spreadsheet templates give you added totals in your columns for income and expenses, so you can see your cash flow in action. Some templates even include charts to help you better visualize your situation.

Step 5: Keep going or move up to a specialized app

If using a simple spreadsheet to record your monthly budget inspires you to keep tracking it over the year — or take even more control — you can move up to a dedicated tool that shows spending trends, provides financial coaching and offers tips.

YNAB (You Need a Budget) charges an annual fee to use, but is one of the many available services for people who want guidance for managing their money. (The New York Times)
YNAB (You Need a Budget) charges an annual fee to use, but is one of the many available services for people who want guidance for managing their money. (The New York Times)

Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, has a roundup of budgeting apps and tools to recommend, like the YNAB (You Need a Budget) service ($84 a year, but with a free trial period available); Mint.com and others are also reviewed.

No doubt, being diligent and updating your chosen budgeting tool takes time and effort, but it pays off. Just think of it as a map to follow the money.

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