Advice | How to make an easy budget — no app required

I’m frequently asked for a budgeting app recommendation.

“What do you use?” people want to know.

This question always takes me back to Big Mama, my mom’s mom. My grandmother could tell you to the penny how much she had coming in and going out. She could teach a college course on budgeting.

So, how did she manage her money?

Big Mama used the back of junk mail envelopes to balance her budget.

When she passed away, tucked in her bedroom closet were stacks of her budgeting envelopes. I still have a few and pull them out every so often.

There are many mobile apps that promise to turn you into a budgeting wizard. The technology can use your banking and credit card activity to track your purchases and net worth. The apps can send alerts when you’ve blown past your self-imposed spending limits.

Some folks were dismayed when Intuit announced it was shutting down its popular Mint budgeting app this year.

The company said it was “reimagining” Mint, folding it into its Credit Karma service, where members’ data would “provide them with a view of their finances so they know where they stand and can confidently take action to improve their financial situation.”

If only it were that easy for the masses.

Yes, many people have become more financially organized using a budgeting app. But they are the same type of folks who join a gym at the beginning of the year, promising to get healthier and actually stick to a regimen that sheds pounds and builds muscle.

I see budgeting apps much like exercise equipment. Is it the treadmill or exercise bike that makes the difference?

Or does the equipment become an expensive clothes rack?

Budgeting can be a low-tech exercise. No app necessary.

After decades of working one-on-one with financially challenged people, here’s what I’ve found: The source of their money troubles isn’t that they don’t have a good budgeting apparatus.

Money management is often about behavioral economics, which adds a psychological component to personal finance.

It took a few years of running a financial ministry at my church before I realized the program needed to be revamped. Initially, I would have participants start with creating a budget. However, midway through the 10-month schedule, most people hadn’t done one.

I started probing. Why couldn’t folks complete a simple budget?

No one said anything about not having the right application. For most, it came down to fear.

“I’m ashamed,” one woman said, losing her battle to fight back tears. “And I’m afraid to see what my budget says.”

I decided to change course. I now focus first on identifying the root cause of budget failures. We talk about people’s childhoods and their memories of money. We address their entitlement issues.

Once the emotional deep dive is done, we talk about goal-setting.

When you prepare to travel to a place you’ve never been, you may turn to GPS to help you find your way. For me, that’s what budgeting is. It will help you get to where you want to go financially.

Finally, after talking things out, we get to the practicalities of creating a budget. And for that, you don’t need anything fancy. Here are four easy steps to budgeting.

List all the income you have coming into your household. Look at the net (what’s left over after taxes and other deductions). That’s your starting figure.

You can write it on the back of an envelope like my grandmother did. I use a small subject notebook to track my income and expenses.

If it’s easier for you to use an online tool, fine. Use whatever works for you once you’ve broken through the mental barrier that has made budgeting difficult.

Now, here’s the hard part. You have to list all your expenses. Every. Single. One.

I know this sounds simple, but many people only have a general idea of their monthly spending. Create categories: housing, utilities, food, transportation, etc.

Go through your bank or credit union household statements. Check your credit card usage. Pull out your ATM receipts and try to remember what you used the money for. You need to capture all your spending.

In your head, you think you don’t eat out much. But is that really true?

3. Set limits on your spending

Start with a goal for your expense categories. In some areas, you have more control. If your mortgage or rent is high, you’ll have to trim other places.

If you are carrying credit card debt, you can’t afford to be eating out every week — or at all.

Forget FOMO. Embrace JOMO to discover the joy of missing out.

Sure, an app can signal overspending, but do you really need that prompt?

You know your budget isn’t balanced when you see your credit card statement or you realize you can’t even withdraw $20 from the ATM.

It’s time to subtract your expenses from your net income.

If you’re spending more than what’s coming in, you have to make some adjustments. If you’re still struggling to balance your budget, get help from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. You can find a nonprofit credit counseling agency at

If an app were all it took to become a great money manager, my work would be so much easier.

But it’s not the technology that makes the difference. It’s your mind-set.

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

My mortgage payoff story: My husband and I paid off the house in the spring of 2023 thanks to making extra payments and taking advantage of a mortgage recast. Even though it lowered my perfect 850 credit score and my column about it sparked some serious debate with readers, it was one of the best financial decisions I’ve made.

Credit card debt: If you’re in the habit of carrying credit card debt, stop. It’s just a myth that it will boost your credit score. For those looking to get out of credit card debt, see if a balance transfer is right for you.

Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of my timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career or planning for retirement.

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