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Investing 101: Start budgeting, reap savings

July 22, 2013 at 10:46 AM ET

Video: Without a household budget, chances are slim you’ll have enough money left over to invest. TODAY financial editor Jean Chatzky give advice on budgeting so you can get started investing and saving for retirement.

Americans, it's time to start budgeting.

According to a Gallup survey released in June, two-thirds of Americans don't prepare a detailed household budget. That’s why TODAY is kicking off a five-part series, Investing 101, beginning with budgeting. In the coming week, we’ll also look at mortgages, 401(k)s, stocks and bonds and retirement savings.

But first, budgeting. If you aren’t budgeting wisely, chances are that you have more debt than you’d like, and you’re not saving, or not saving enough.

I recommend thinking about your budget as a pie, with the first 10 percent automatically going to savings via transfers. This is the one category that should not be negotiable but one that goes unfulfilled by 50 percent of American families.

Thirty-five percent of your budget should be carved away for housing – not just your rent or mortgage, but repairs, taxes, utilities, decorating and furnishing and insurance. Sticking to this guideline will prevent you from overborrowing, which got many in trouble during the housing crisis.

A quarter of that pie is for living expenses, a tricky category because it's the one where we most often spend too much money. That includes groceries, clothing, entertainment, gifts, childcare and health care.

About 15 percent will go toward transportation, which could include car payment, maintenance, gas, tolls and insurance. If you can reduce this amount by driving an old car rather than buying a new one, you can put that money toward saving or repaying credit card debts – and make a bigger dent.

The final 15 percent goes toward other debt repayment. Here we’re talking about credit card debt and student loans. Student loan debt average close to $5,000 per U.S. adult.

Tips to meet that budget:

Track your expenses
Budgeting takes discipline. The first step is to keep track of what you spend. Keep a small notebook in your bag or back pocket, or download a smartphone app like Mint or Expensify (both free). Or collect receipts in your wallet and categorize them when you get home.  

Cash over credit
You’ve heard it before, but it’s not a cliché: Use cash whenever possible. Studies show that people are more likely to focus on the cost of a product when they use cash, and therefore may be less likely to spend it than if they are using a debit or credit card.

Set up automatic savings
Have a wedding to attend next summer? A big trip or college? Set up a separate savings account linked to your bank account and schedule money to be regularly transferred. A small amount every paycheck goes a long way over a year, or even six months.

Invest a little at a time
You can start investing with very little. TDAmeritrade and ETrade will let you invest in an IRA with no minimum requirement -- you'll want to add to it every time you get paid or every month to see the money build. You can start an AIP -- automatic investment plan -- at Ariel Funds for $50 a month and at Charles Schwab for $100 a month.

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