A financial expert shares 3 tips to build a realistic budget

One in 10 Americans without a budget say the biggest roadblock is that they don’t know how to create one. Here's how to do it.
Image: Overhead view of a woman using a computer
Make a list of all your expenses, including both the fixed monthly costs, such as rent and utilities, and the more variable spending around food and gas.JGalione / Getty Images
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By Megan Leonhardt, CNBC

About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a monthly budget to help manage their finances, according to a Credit.com survey fielded earlier this year.

One in 10 Americans without a budget say the biggest roadblock is that they don’t know how to create one. But Tiffany Aliche, personal finance expert and founder of The Budgetnista, says it’s not difficult to create a simple and realistic budget.

“I love budgets because I look at a budget as a ‘say yes’ plan,” Aliche says. “Whatever it is that you’re wanting, you can go to your budget and figure out how your budget can give you that thing.”

If you want to go on a vacation, a budget can help you get there by showing you where you can save some money. Maybe it’s possible by cutting off your cable for a few months or giving up trips to the salon. No matter what the solution, a budget can make managing your money easier.

Here are three steps Aliche recommends to build your budget.

1. Make a list of all your monthly expenses

The first step, Aliche says, is to figure out what you’re spending on. That means making a list of all your expenses, including both the fixed monthly costs, such as rent and utilities, and the more variable spending around food and gas. “I like to call that your money list. Quote me on that one,” Aliche says with a chuckle.

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To find all this information, start with your credit card bills and bank statements, Aliche says. You may need to go back a few months to get a handle on what you’re regularly spending. Keep in mind that it may help to organize your spending into categories such as food, shopping and bills.

2. Figure out how much you’re spending

Once you have a comprehensive money list, the next step is to calculate how much you spend on each line item. Again, it may be easy to figure out expenses such as a mortgage or a car payment, but many may require you to do some math and create an average.

Let’s say your water bill is due every three months and it’s 90 bucks. Divide $90 by three to get your monthly spend of $30.

If doing this yourself doesn’t seem feasible, there are several highly rated budgeting apps, including Mint (free), which automatically compile and categorize your expenses.

3. Calculate how much of your pay goes toward expenses

This is what Aliche likes to call the “tears and tissues” step. Here’s why: You need to add up all your average monthly expenses and compare the total to your take-home pay. “That number might cause some tears and you might need some tissues,” Aliche says, especially if it’s more than you’re currently earning. But that’s OK because it’s just the beginning — you’re in the process of figuring out where you stand.

“If you find that the number is negative at the end, that means you’re spending too much,” Aliche says, adding that you’ll need to find some expenses to cut in order to reign in your monthly spending.

But maybe you do the math and there’s $200 left over. Congrats! But make sure you know where that money is going. If you don’t, it may mean that that money is “slipping through your fingers,” Aliche says.

The best way to avoid spending that extra money in the future is to automatically direct funds into a savings or investment account right after pay day so you’re not tempted to spend it.

Disclosure: Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow. is a financial wellness and education initiative from CNBC and Acorns, the micro-investing app. NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.