A budget can help you spend more wisely

Tape measure around dollar bills

Stop scratching your head at the end of every month, wondering where all your money went.

You need a plan that ensures your hard-earned dollars are being spent on what you value most and that you're saving at least a little toward future goals, whether it's a trip to Cancun or a house in the 'burbs.

A budget empowers you to take control of your financial life, and creating one is easier and more enjoyable than you might think — especially if you follow our advice and let your computer do most of the work.

The first thing you'll see is how much of your income:

* Gets gobbled up by unavoidable expenses like rent, utilities and student loans.

* Goes to discretionary spending. Food isn't optional, but Starbucks venti caramel lattes are.

* Remains to be saved.

At first, this number may be depressingly low or even zero. But now you know enough about where your money's going to make some smart choices.

You can choose to pay $100 a month for the pleasure of fancy coffee. Or you can brew your own and save that $100 toward another, more meaningful goal.

Either way, you'll know where your paycheck is going and that you're getting the most from every cent.

Use our budget calculator to get started.

It allows you to break down monthly expenses into 25 different categories and see if your income keeps up with your spending. If you're like most of us, you'll have little or nothing to save. Indeed, you may be spending more than you make and paying for the difference with your credit cards.

The calculator makes it easy to go back and adjust any of the categories to see what you've got to do to live within your means. It even provides suggestions for what you should be budgeting for groceries, entertainment and the other spending categories.

Just enter how much you make and how much you spend in each of the 10 categories. We'll use information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to compare your expenses to the national average for your income bracket.

Any category with a big red check mark means you're spending more than the national average and it's a good place to look for savings.

Just assigning targets usually isn't enough to change your habits. You have to keep track of your spending, at least for a while, to see how you're doing and where you need to really pay attention.

Collect receipts for every cent you spend, whether you write a check, whip out your plastic or hand over cash. Every few days, organize those receipts and tally up the amounts.

We suspect most of you will find it quicker and easier to turn to your computer again.

With a program like Quicken (which costs $40 to $60, depending on where it's purchased), you can record checks you write, credit card charges and cash transactions.

Quicken totals what you spend in various categories. It can even figure out categories for you; if you write a check to the supermarket, the program fills in a category for groceries. You can set up your budget in Quicken, too. Its reports compare your actual income and expenses to your budgeted amounts.

Keep in mind, your actual spending will never exactly match your budget. You may pay insurance premiums once or twice a year, heating bills are higher in the winter and entertainment expenses often increase around the holidays. But after three to six months, you'll have a good idea how well you're following your plan.

Suppose you find that you're blowing your entertainment budget month after month.

Bundling all of your fun expenses into one vague bucket doesn't say whether your problem is dining out, movies or refilling your scuba tank. Break up the categories that give you grief. If you use a program like Quicken, it's easy to recategorize past spending, so you can see the problem almost immediately.

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