Preparing for a happy and healthy 2009 will include more than just getting on a diet and exercise program -- for many, it will mean finally putting yourself on a budget and sticking to it. If the word 'budget' scares you -- or you find yourself getting hives when you think about it, take a deep breath and follow some simple steps to help you get started.
1. Track your spending. For the month of January, save all your receipts. That includes everything from ATM withdrawals to credit and debit card charges to things for which you pay cash, no matter how big or small. Get a cancelled check file from an office supply store and label each of the folders with the major categories you find yourself spending on, for example: supermarket, gas, drugstore, clothes, shoes, gifts, restaurants, ATM. On a weekly basis, empty your wallet and file your receipts accordingly. At the end of the month, calculate totals for each category. This will help you see exactly where your money goes and where you might be able to trim your spending for the next month.
2. Study an optimal budget. Tracking your spending will help you manage your day-to-day expenses, but for the bigger picture check out Carmen's Budget Calculator to see what your optimal budget should look like. Simply enter how much you take home after taxes each month and find out how much you should be spending on housing, transportation, debt, food, household expenses, savings and everything else. Once your optimal budget appears, print it out and next to each item write what you're actually spending - ask yourself if you're in-line, over or under and try to make adjustments accordingly.
3. Use online software to help you. There are a variety of free online programs designed to help you track all your accounts, manage your expenses and highlight ways to save. I recently found out that my bank provides an excellent, secure service for free -- all I had to do was click on the budgeting tab when I logged in online. If your bank doesn't offer it, check out sites like Wesabe.com or Mint.com, open an account and personalize your information to get organized and set budgeting goals for the new year.
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Jackie DeAngelis is a writer and producer at CNBC. Previously she worked as a financial analyst at Oaktree Capital Mgmt. Jackie earned her J.D. from Rutgers Law School in 2008 and her B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University in 2002