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These Budget Basics Can Help You Refresh Your Spending Plan

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After 18 months, Americans are still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and struggling economic recovery.

Job openings and hiring fell in August, all while the number of workers who quit their jobs hit the highest level in more than two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In September, the country added only 194,000 jobs, falling short of expectations and adding to concerns about economic growth.

At the same time, inflation remains an issue as Americans grapple with higher prices on goods and services.

This means that after a summer where many in the U.S. took advantage of loosening Covid-19 restrictions and returned to activities such as travel and dining, it may be time to again revise personal budgets to stay out of hot water in the fall.

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"It's critically important to revisit your budget and how you want to go about spending your money," said Greg Giardino, a certified financial planner and financial advisor at J.M. Franklin & Company in Tarrytown, New York. He added that overspending now could lead to bad habits in the future.

Here's what financial experts recommend Americans keep top of mind as they rethink their budgets.

Determine your new normal

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, Americans have had to continuously deal with shifting risks and restrictions.

The start of a new season is a good opportunity for people to reassess their priorities and make sure that they're spending on the things that are most important to them, or that they missed the most.

This is especially true for people who kept their jobs through the pandemic and were even able to save, meaning they now have some extra cushion in their spending accounts, said CFP Tess Zigo, a financial advisor at Emerge Wealth Strategies in Lisle, Illinois.

"What do you want that new normal to look like for you?" Zigo said. "Did we miss the frivolous shopping? Did we miss the dining out with friends and family? Did we miss the travel? Usually that's a yes, a heck yes."

Zigo recommends that people sit down and think about their top financial values and where they'd like their money to go. Then, look at their spending and see if it aligns with those values.

In addition, expenses and incomes for many people have changed in the last year, making it critically important to reassess a budget.

"Obviously the pandemic shook up everyone's social life and that's affected everything down to their finances," said Christopher Owens, CFP, a senior advisor associate at Wealthspire Advisors in Potomac, Maryland.

Even those who were harder hit by the pandemic can and should do a similar budgeting exercise, said Giardino at J.M. Franklin & Company. He recommends starting with your take-home pay and allocating 50% to living expenses and utilities, 30% to leisure and travel and 20% to savings, if possible.

He also said that people should always budget the way that works best for them, be that using cash, any number of spending tracking apps or simply using a credit card.

Review prices

Keep in mind when putting together a new budget that prices have risen due to inflation, Owens said.

That includes things such as gasoline, food and other products and services, he said. That mean a typical pre-pandemic budget won't work.

For those who are travelling, Owens recommends doing some extra research on costs such as food or entertainment to make sure you've allocated enough money.

"It's important to do that one extra step — how much is it going to be to go out to dinner?" he said.

As inflation continues to force prices up, Owens recommends consumers keep a close watch on spending in categories where costs are increasing for the next few months and years, especially if they're actively traveling.

"It's likely to be more volatile in general," he said. "It would be really good to keep your eye on your spending, probably every quarter, just as general household maintenance."

As the holidays approach, it's also a good idea for people to check back in with their budgets, especially if they're returning to travelling this year. In addition, this year may bring fewer deals on potential gifts and issues with delivery times, both things to consider in a spending plan.

Rebuild savings  

An important part of a budget is to make sure you're allocating enough of your earnings to savings in an emergency fund, according to experts.

"Don't forget about your future self," said Zigo at Emerge Wealth Strategies.

During the pandemic, many people had to dip into their emergency savings funds to stay afloat. Now, even if their earnings are steady, they should first rebuild those emergency savings before spending too much or even solely prioritizing paying down debt, according to Giardino.

The rationale of building an emergency cushion first — or simultaneously to paying down debt, if possible — is that if you experience another setback such as your car breaking down or needing to fix your washing machine, you can take care of it without incurring more debt, Giardino said.

"Once you have that safety net, you've earned the right to invest more or pay down more debt," he said.

He recommends breaking down income and expenses, and then multiplying out how much you'd like to have in an emergency cushion. Experts usually recommend three to six months of living costs.

Then, take that number and break it down into monthly amounts that you're able to save, said Giardino, adding that it will likely take months or years to ultimately reach the goal.

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