10 steps to a better family budget
Granted, the recession looks bound to stick around far longer than a New Year's hangover. But take heart: 2009 marks an ideal time to take hold of your finances and create a family budget that gives you fiscal peace and a clear list of spending and saving goals for the months ahead.

Whether you're looking to pay down credit cards, fund a vacation or simply get your financial house in order, we're here to help. We consulted experts from four corners of the money world: a financial consultant, a wealth manager, a vice president at a credit-debt counseling non-profit, and Chicago's city treasurer, whose office conducts periodic family budget seminars.

We pooled their advice and created a 10-step plan you can use to build a better family budget—one that sticks. So take a deep breath, sharpen those pencils, and remember: Budgets work much like diets. You can't succeed unless you commit to sensible behavior modification first. That means no half-hearted efforts—or starvation methods.

"If you deny yourself Oreos and you really love them, at some point you will eat the whole pack," says Julie Murphy Casserly, who heads JMC Wealth Management in the West Loop. "I've seen that pattern where people will not spend for nine months, and then go hog wild. So I have people set up a shopping fund, so that they can scratch that itch every once in a while."

Getting started: You'll need a few tools. A pencil and a calculator are key. But to track your spending and planning, our experts shared their most useful worksheets. We've posted them, for you to print out, at chicagotribune.com/budgetforms.


Take stock of your financial health.

• What major financial challenges do you face?

• State your financial positives in terms of income, debt management, savings.

• How do you think you got to this point—and what would you like to see change?

• How well prepared are you for a financial emergency? WRITE IT DOWN NOW: The amount we have tucked in a rainy-day fund is _______.

• How is the topic of money addressed in your family: emotionally or rationally?

• Who makes the financial decisions? Why? How much collaboration is there?

Why it matters: Clarity and commitment. Experts agree that before crunching the numbers, families need to take stock of their financial health—and the best chance of success comes from having both partners on board. "I call this facing your current reality," says Casserly.


Budgets begin with setting goals. List:

• Debts you want to pay off.

• Dreams you want to save for.

• Financial priorities in the short, medium and long term.