You can budget for the impulse buy, Grownups. Sure, planned impulsivity is an oxymoron, but it works wonders for financial stress.

My budget used to feel constraining. It was a rigid system that judged me when I spent too much money and never seemed to be satisfied with how much I saved. That’s no longer the case. Today, it only takes me about 30 minutes each month to manage my budget, and it often allows me to spend without a second thought.

Starting my Budget

In early 2011, eight months after graduating from college, I moved to New York City from Northern California. February isn’t the most welcoming month in New York, but I was excited about the move and used my aunt’s home in Yonkers as a jumping-off point. Within a few weeks, I found work as a caterer and a place to live in Brooklyn.

Between working for six catering companies at a time, plus the occasional odd job, my income was anything but stable. However, I had a keen interest in personal finance and a Grownup attitude. I created a budget and painstakingly tracked every cent I spent.

My methods worked for me at the time, but I wouldn’t recommend them. I recorded every purchase with a smartphone budgeting app and at the end of the month I’d upload the spending data to my computer, where I’d plug it into my budget spreadsheet. After adding the month’s income to the spreadsheet, out would pop how much I could spend the next month. I’d plug that back into the app so I could track things on the go, and repeat the process every month.

The spreadsheet was simple, but the system required a lot of upkeep. I had to enter every expense manually, and because times were tight I’d nervously check the app before making a purchase. It was even harder because I wanted to track specific categories, like how much I spent on lunches or drinks. Plus, my variable income made it nearly impossible to plan more than a month ahead.

Evolving my Budget

Several years later, my system still uses the same fundamentals. I record every purchase, but rather than manually enter each one, I use Quicken to automatically collect the data from my credit and debit accounts. My spreadsheet went through several revisions, and now it automatically tracks my savings, helps me prepare for quarterly taxes, and allows me to plan for the future.

Over the years, I realized that focusing on the big picture is more useful than precise tracking. While I could track my expenses based on narrow classifications, I instead use five broad categories: fixed monthly expenses, food, personal, savings, and charity.

At the beginning of the month, every dollar gets allocated into one of these buckets. My fixed expenses, such as rent and health insurance payments, take priority. My savings, split between retirement savings and short-term savings goals such as travel and emergencies, are next. I also try to put 5 percent of my income aside for charity; it feels great to support causes I care about or occasionally give $20 to someone in need when they only asked for a dollar. The rest of the month’s money gets split between food and personal expenses—my discretionary spending.

The most surprising change is one you can’t see. After tracking my income and expenses for several years, I intuitively know approximately how much I’ve spent during the month. Now, I often feel that my budget frees me to spend without worry or constraint. It tracks my finances and is there to keep me accountable from month-to-month, but rarely imposes itself on me during the day-to-day.

Being Flexible and Forgiving

I let myself be flexible when it comes to my discretionary spending. I’ve always rolled over negative or positive balances from one month to the next, and I sometimes play with the numbers. If I spent too much on food but have excess from the personal category, I even things out. Or, I might start the month with an optimistic savings rate, but then lower it slightly to make the rest of the numbers add up at the end of the month.

I’m also not so hard on myself if I fall behind when there’s a good reason. When I moved from New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area, my rent increased, and I had to furnish a new place. There were a few months when I dipped into my savings to cover discretionary expenses, but once I got settled, I made a point of replenishing my savings account.

Should You Use a Budget?

Do you feel inspired to start a budget of your own? Perhaps not, it might be a lot of work after all. But, ask a personal finance expert, or an enthusiast, for advice and they’ll almost surely tell you that tracking your income and spending is a key to financial success. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is my favorite phrase.

It’s hard to plan for the future if you’re unsure of where your money is going throughout the week. Remember, once your system is in place, budgeting doesn’t need to take a lot of work. You too could spend less than an hour each month checking in on it.

Starting Your Budget

You don’t need to be as extreme about budgeting as I was at the start; in fact, I don’t recommend it. I suggest trying to figure out just the essentials: what your mandatory monthly expenses are and approximately how much you spend on a few broad categories (perhaps eating out, groceries, shopping for fun, and bars).

Use technology to aid you. Intuit’s Mint app is a free and popular budgeting software option. It can automatically pull data from your bank or credit accounts, and you can add cash transactions with the smartphone app or via a browser.

You might be surprised to find out how much you spend each month. However, take the big picture approach. As long as you cover your mandatory expenses and set money aside for the future and emergencies, you can buy whatever you want.

Headshot - Louis DeNicola
Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer
who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips.
In addition to being a Grownup, you can find his work on Credit Karma,
MSN Money, Cheapism, Business Insider, and Magnify Money.

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