The Zero-Based Budget

By Dave Ramsey
Dave Ramsey
Dave Ramsey
Dave Ramsey is CEO of Ramsey Solutions, host of The Dave Ramsey Show, and a best-selling author, including “The Total Money Makeover.” Follow Dave at DaveRamsey.com and on Twitter @DaveRamsey.
September 26, 2021 Updated: September 30, 2021

Dear Dave,

I have a good job and make pretty good money, but I’m tired of always worrying about my finances and being strapped for cash at the end of the month. I’ve heard you talk about getting out of debt and living on a zero-based budget, but what exactly is a zero-based budget?

Edward

Dear Edward,

The concept of a zero-based budget is simple: income minus outgo equals zero. If you bring home $4,000 a month, you want everything you spend, save, give, and invest to equal $4,000. That way, you know where every one of your dollars is going. Not knowing where the money’s going is what kills lots of people’s financial dreams. They think they know how much they’re spending and where it’s going, but they really don’t.

Here’s how you do it. List all your income sources for the month. Your income should include paychecks, small-business income, side jobs, residual income, child support, and so on. If it’s money that comes into your household’s bank account, write it down and add it up.

Next, list every single expense you have each month—rent, food, cable, phones, and everything in between. Your expenses vary from one month to the next, and this is why you make a new budget each month. Your giving budget might be high in December when Christmas rolls around. The car budget will spike during months when you pay insurance or renew your tags. Focus on one month at a time.

Now, subtract your expenses from your income. Ideally, this number will be zero. It might take a few months of practice, so don’t worry if it doesn’t balance out immediately. If it doesn’t, it just means you need to do something to bring one of the numbers up, the other one down—or both. If you’re spending more than you make, you need to make some cuts in your spending. If you need to generate more money, get a part-time job or sell a bunch of stuff.

The deal with a zero-based budget is this: Every dollar must have a name. That means every dollar has a designated job to do. If you fill out every item in your budget and come out $100 ahead—meaning you have nothing for that $100 to do—you haven’t finished your budget. You have to find a job for that $100. It’s your decision what it does, but if you don’t give it a name and purpose, you’ll end up blowing it and wondering where it went.

Good luck, Edward!

Dave Ramsey
Dave Ramsey is CEO of Ramsey Solutions, host of The Dave Ramsey Show, and a best-selling author, including “The Total Money Makeover.” Follow Dave at DaveRamsey.com and on Twitter @DaveRamsey.