Financial PlanningBudgetingBudgeting - How to Create a Realistic Monthly Spending Plan That Works

Budgeting – How to Create a Realistic Monthly Spending Plan That Works

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Are you feeling overwhelmed by your finances, unsure how to stretch your income to meet all your needs and still save for the future? Creating a spending plan might just be the solution you’re looking for. This article is dedicated to teaching you how to create a spending plan that aligns with your lifestyle and financial goals.

In today’s fast-paced world, managing money effectively has become more crucial than ever. However, many of us find ourselves lost when it comes to budgeting. Whether it’s unexpected expenses or the daily cost of living, it’s easy to find your bank balance dwindling faster than you’d like.

That’s where a well-crafted spending plan comes into play. It’s not just about tracking every penny – it’s about understanding your spending habits and making informed choices that align with your priorities.

Throughout this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to create a personalized spending plan that works for you. You’ll learn how to categorize your expenses, identify areas where you can cut back without sacrificing your quality of life, and find ways to make your money work harder for you.

Whether you’re saving for a dream vacation, preparing for retirement, or just trying to keep your head above water in a challenging economy, this article will provide you with the tools you need to take control of your finances.

Spending Plan Budget
Creating a Spending Plan

Key Takeaways: A Plan For Making And Spending Money

  1. Foundational Steps: At its core, learning how to create a budget involves tracking your income and expenses, categorizing them, and setting spending limits. This fundamental process helps you gain control over your finances, ensuring you spend within your means while saving for future goals.
  2. Balancing Needs and Wants: A significant aspect of a personal monthly spending plan is differentiating between essential expenses (needs) and discretionary spending (wants). This distinction is crucial for prioritizing financial obligations and making informed decisions that align with your long-term financial health.
  3. Adapting to Changes: A budget is not set in stone. It should be flexible enough to adapt to life changes such as a new job, unexpected expenses, or evolving financial goals. Regularly revisiting and adjusting your budget is key to maintaining its effectiveness.
  4. Tools and Techniques: Various tools and techniques can enhance your budgeting process, from simple spreadsheets to sophisticated budgeting apps. These tools help streamline the budgeting process, making it more efficient and less time-consuming.

Understanding the nuances of budgeting is just the beginning. As you dive deeper into the article, you’ll discover practical tips and strategies that make budgeting an empowering and stress-free experience.

Whether you’re a budgeting novice or looking to refine your existing plan, this article offers valuable insights to help you master the art of budgeting and take control of your financial future. Let’s embark on this journey to financial clarity and freedom together.

Why Budgeting Matters More Than Ever

In today’s economy of high inflation and rising prices, having a household budget is essential. According to a recent survey, 86% of Americans track income and expenses – an all-time high.

With costs increasing for housing, food, transportation, and more, consumers need to carefully watch their cash flow. An unexpected $500 expense could derail many without a spending plan or emergency fund. Prioritizing needs vs wants and planning ahead is key.

What is a spending plan? A household spending plan can be defined as “a method for distributing your income among the mix of things you want and need“, according to the University of California, Berkely.

Budgeting helps you align behaviors with financial goals by visualizing where money comes and goes each month. Understanding your full financial picture is the first step towards getting ahead instead of just getting by.

Read our recent article to learn more about the benefits and why budgeting is so important.

A spending plan can be defined as “a plan to show how a person or an organization… will spend the money that is available”.

Key Benefits of Creating a Spending Plan

Beyond just balancing income and expenses, purposeful budgeting has many advantages:

  • Achieve savings goals faster
  • Eliminate wasteful spending
  • Pay off debt more quickly
  • Prepare for irregular expenses
  • Reduce late fees from missing payments
  • Avoid relying on credit cards
  • Gain sense of financial control
  • Makes reaching goals feel attainable
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Debunking Common Budgeting Myths: It’s Not Restrictive, Boring, or Just for the Poor

Many people avoid creating a budget because they believe it means restrictive penny-pinching or meticulous tracking of every single penny they spend. However, the reality is that the most effective and useful approach to budgeting is flexible, sustainable, and doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Budgeting is complicated and overwhelming.Start simple and refine over time. Consistency matters more than perfection.
Sticking to a budget means sacrificing everything fun.Budget realistically and build in wiggle room for enjoyable activities.
Budgets are for poor people struggling financially.Budgeting benefits everyone, regardless of income, by providing financial clarity.

Myth #1: Budgeting is complicated and overwhelming.

Fact: While it may seem daunting at first, starting simple and refining your budget over time is key. Consistency matters more than perfection. There are many resources available to help you get started, such as budgeting templates, apps, and online guides.

Myth #2: Sticking to a budget means sacrificing everything fun.

Fact: A well-crafted budget should actually allow you to enjoy life more! By building in wiggle room for dining out, entertainment, travel, and other fun activities, you can ensure that your budget is realistic and sustainable in the long term.

Myth #3: Budgets are for poor people struggling financially.

Fact: Budgeting is a valuable tool for anyone, regardless of their income level. It can help you gain clarity on your cash flow, track your spending, and make informed financial decisions. In fact, having a budget can actually help you save more money and reach your financial goals faster.

The Key to Effective Budgeting: Planning To Spend Money

The key to effective budgeting is focusing on your priorities, values, and goals. By understanding what matters most to you in life, you can create a realistic roadmap to align your spending with your goals. This will help you make informed financial decisions and avoid wasting money on things that are not important to you.

Here are some tips for creating a budget that works for you:

  • Setting financial goals that are realistic: Don’t try to change your entire spending habits overnight. Start with small, achievable goals and gradually build from there. Learn more about how to set financial goals.
  • Track your income and expenses: This will help you understand where your money is going and identify areas where you can cut back.
  • Create a budget template: There are many free budgeting templates available online. Choose one that fits your needs and style.
  • Review your budget regularly: As your income and expenses change, you may need to adjust your budget accordingly.
  • Be flexible: Life happens, so don’t be afraid to adjust your budget as needed.

Be sure to take a look at our recent article on the common budgeting mistakes to avoid.

Tips to boost odds of budgeting success:

Start simpleBegin with basic income/expense totals and focus on 2-3 priorities instead of creating overly complex spreadsheets.Reduces overwhelm, promotes clarity, and encourages initial engagement
Automate everything possibleSet up automatic transfers for savings and bill payments to streamline financial processes and eliminate the need for manual intervention.Reduces mental strain, ensures consistent progress, and prevents missed payments
Review frequentlyGlance at your budget at least weekly to refresh your memory, promote mindfulness, and make informed spending decisions.Keeps goals top-of-mind, encourages responsible spending, and allows for proactive adjustments
Incentivize goalsUse small splurges as rewards for achieving defined goals to celebrate successes and reinforce positive behaviors.Creates motivation, boosts morale, and provides tangible benefits for sticking to your budget
Involve othersCommunicate your budget with family members or partners to create shared responsibility, discuss financial trade-offs, and align on priorities.Fosters teamwork, promotes accountability, and facilitates collaborative financial decision-making
Learn from mistakesWhen overages occur, make deliberate choices to reduce other discretionary expenses to compensate instead of succumbing to further financial setbacks.Promotes responsible decision-making, encourages corrective action, and prevents spiraling spending
Revisit quarterlyRegularly re-evaluate your financial situation and goals to ensure budget allocations and targets remain relevant and effective over time.Adapts your budget to changing circumstances, ensures long-term effectiveness, and promotes financial stability


50/30/20 Rule Calculator
Budget Calculator

How to Make a Monthly Household Budget

Follow this step-by-step process to create your own customized monthly spending plan:

Follow this step-by-step process to create your own customized monthly spending plan:

Tally all predictable income streams like:
Employment earnings
Small business revenue
Investment returns
Government benefits
Any other recurring income
Treat irregular income (bonuses, tax refunds, gifts) separately.

2. List Regular Fixed Expenses

These lean expenses remain the same each month, for instance:
– Rent/mortgage
– Car payment(s)
– Insurance premiums
– Debt payments
– Utilities
– Cable/internet/phone
– Subscriptions
Having these set costs already defined will shape the remainder of your customizable budget.

3. Estimate Average Variable Expenses

Next, the flexible costs that change month-to-month, for example:
– Groceries
– Dining out
– Entertainment/hobbies
– Gas/transport
– Personal care
– Pet supplies
– Miscellaneous
– Checking past bank/credit card statements helps determine reasonable monthly averages. Overestimating is better than underspending.

4. Define Savings Goals

Pay yourself first before budgeting the rest on wants. Typical savings goals include:
– Emergency fund
– Retirement
– Down payment
– College
– Large purchase (car, vacation, etc.)
Having specific numeric targets and dates will keep you on track. Automate transfers from checking to interest-earning savings accounts if possible.

5. Assign Extra Funds

With income, fixed costs and averages for variable expenses defined, you can now see any funds left:
– Apply surplus towards debts
-Further build savings
-Budget for fun stuff – dining, travel, shopping
-Handle unexpected overages if you exceed other budgets
– Think through your priorities before allocating this discretionary money each month.

6. Track and Tweak Monthly Spending

Sticking to your defined budgets requires tracking actual spending, at least for the first few months.
Revisit your plan at least quarterly – or whenever your financial situation changes – to tally up what was over or underspent. Then adjust category budgets accordingly.
Apps like Mint, YNAB or Personal Capital can automate expense tracking across accounts when linking them. Otherwise, tally monthly charges from online banking and credit card statements.
The key is identifying waste, rewarding smart decisions, and aligning behaviors with your financial values. Developing awareness of where money leaks out is the first step to plugging those budget holes.

Estimated Cost: -1 USD


  • Financial statements


  • A computer or budgeting app

Materials: Pen and paper

Budgeting Tips and Hacks

Automate everything possibleSet up automatic transfers for savings and bill paymentsReduces stress and ensures consistency
Use cash for flexible spendingWithdraw weekly or monthly “allowances” for groceries, dining out, etc.Provides a visual cap on spending and promotes mindfulness
Give every dollar a purposeIdentify all expenses, recurring and irregular, and allocate funds accordingly.Ensures responsible allocation of income and prevents financial surprises
Build in buffer amountsOverestimate expenses and underestimate income to account for unexpected variationsCreates a safety net for unplanned expenses and avoids overspending
Focus on needs before wantsPrioritize essential costs like rent and groceries before allocating funds to entertainment or hobbies.Promotes financial stability and responsible money management
Reassess quarterlyReview and adjust your budget periodically to reflect changes in income, expenses, or goals.Ensures your budget remains relevant and effective in the long run
Align with prioritiesTailor your budgeting approach to reflect what matters most to you.Promotes satisfaction and commitment to your financial goals
Start simpleBegin with a basic framework and gradually refine your budgeting strategy as needed.Makes budgeting less daunting and easier to adapt to your individual needs

Budgeting Tools and Templates

While manual budgets work fine, technology can save significant time when learning how to create a monthly spending plan. Here are some recommended tools:

  • Spreadsheets – Excel, Google Sheets, or Airtable provide free and customizable household budget templates to populate with your categories and actual figures. Great for understanding cash flow at a glance. Read our recent article about creating and using a budget template and worksheet for free.
  • Empower – Ideal for visualizing the big picture net worth across investment accounts, cash flow, income, spending, etc. The free fintech dashboard syncs external account data automatically. Helpful for tracking overall financial progress.
  • YNAB – “You Need A Budget” embraces both tracking and planning with manually-entered transactions. Encourages proactive decisions on where every dollar goes based on budget allocations. Offers free resources and paid upgrade option.
  • Goodbudget – Uses the envelope budgeting method with digital “envelopes” for allocation. Simple interface where you stash funds then subtract spending amounts. Syncs across devices. (Try the viral cash stuffing envelope trick yourself)
  • EveryDollar – Dave Ramsey’s budgeting app focused on giving all money a purpose. Easy to use with both free and paid upgraded options.
  • Zeta – Standout app for couples/roommates that allows each to confidentially track individual expenses while splitting bills and sharing accountability for group purchases like groceries or rent via intelligent automation.


The right tools remove friction so you actually stick to your defined budgets consistently. Test different platforms to determine which approach best suits your needs and financial style.

What’s Your Money Personality?

Monthly Budgeting Calculator
Monthly Budgeting Calculator

Make your household budget more personalized by better understanding behaviors. Financial psychologist Dr Bradley Klontz identified 4 money archetypes in his research:

  • The Saver – Plays it safe, avoids risk, loves planning for the future
  • The Spender – Seeks fun, enjoyment, pleasure today – budgets feel restrictive
  • The Risk Taker – Comfortable with uncertainty, trusts gut instincts
  • The Avoider – Tries not to think about money, dislikes tracking finances

Knowing your tendencies makes it easier to improve. Savers benefit from setting aside splurge money. Spenders do better automating savings. Risk takers should define limits. Avoiders need to consciously track spending.

No archetype is inherently better – the key is balancing these extremes based on your life stage and goals. Early on it pays to save aggressively and limit risks. Later you can enjoy spending more while minimizing taxes.

Understanding behavioral biases we all share can help create budgets that play to your strengths while improving on weaknesses. The Thompson Financial Test provides further insights on your personal money values.

Key Budget Ratios to Guide Your Spending Plan

Financial experts recommend budgeting:

  • At least 20% towards financial priorities like debt payments, retirement contributions, building emergency savings funds and other goals.
  • No more than 30% on flexible lifestyle expenses like dining out, entertainment, clothes or hobbies.
  • Ideally keeping fixed costs like housing under 30%, as well.

Without clear goals defined, the 80/20 rule suggests simply saving at least 20% of take home income as a starting point. Inside that:

  • 10% goes to long-term investments
  • 5% builds liquid emergency savings
  • 5% extra towards debt repayment

These principles help guide initial budget amounts for vague goals. As your priorities crystallize, redistribute funds towards maximizing what matters most – whether passion projects, world travel, early retirement, leaving a legacy, or anything in between.

The key is to balance enjoying life now while responsibly preparing for the future based on your personal values. If anxious about spending too much or too little, start with broad 50/30/20 budget ratios, then customize further.


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When to Review and Reassess Your Budget

Consistency matters more than perfection when learning how to budget money. But that doesn’t mean setting it then forgetting it. Plan to review your defined budgets at least every quarter.

Revisiting spending plans periodically ensures allocations still make sense based on:

  • Changing life priorities
  • Evolving income streams
  • Improving (or worsening) debt loads
  • Reaching initial funding goals
  • Unexpected expenses throwing things off track

Beyond scheduled check-ins every 3 months, reassess your budget whenever financial changes occur – both good and bad.

Are You Aware of Common Budget-impacting Events to Include:

  • Salary changes at work
  • Fluctuating small business revenue
  • Job loss or seeking new opportunities
  • Windfalls like bonuses or tax refunds
  • High medical/dental expenses
  • Buying a home or car
  • Returning to school
  • Getting married or divorced
  • Adding or losing family members
  • Planning a sabbatical or early retirement

Ideally, your budgeting strategy should handle irregular expenses smoothly. But be prepared to flex as needed when life happens.

The right mindset recognizes budgets evolve as situations change – what worked before may need rethinking today. Staying aware of your full financial picture monthly keeps those pivots manageable vs reactive.

Do You Forget To Budget for Irregular Expenses?

In an ideal world, budgeting would simply mean balancing predictable monthly income and expenses. But reality throws curveballs like:

  • Annual insurance premiums
  • Irregular car maintenance
  • Quarterly taxes
  • Holiday spending
  • Vacations
  • Known big ticket expenses

Failing to plan for these can wreck budgets temporarily. The key is smoothing out cash flow spikes and dips by planning Capital Expenses ahead.

Annual Income Calculator
Annual Income Calculator

Common ways to budget for known large irregular expenses include:

  • A Looking Ahead – If aware of an upcoming cost like a vacation or insurance bill, start setting aside money monthly in advance rather than scrambling last minute.
  • Savings Accounts as “Envelopes” – Create specific accounts for different goals like “Holiday 2023”. Automate monthly transfers into these from checking. Makes limiting spending easy when that time comes.
  • Annual Averages – For relative consistency year to year, determine the typical total then budget 1/12th monthly. Ex: $2400/year insurance premium = $200 monthly.
  • Income Windfalls – Occasional influxes like bonuses and tax refunds make great opportunities to get ahead on savings for near term big ticket budget items instead of inflating lifestyle.
  • Cushion/Misc Categories – Have some flex spending capacity for surprises, or allow overspending in one category to take from another.

With the right saving strategies, you can smooth out cash flow by effectively planning for both predictable and unexpected expenses as part of your overall budget.

Unlike a budget, which looks backward, a conscious spending plan allows you to look forward”

Best-Selling Author Ramit Sethi

Budgeting for Financial Independence (FIRE)

The FIRE movement prioritizes aggressive saving today to retire extremely early. Fanatics aim retire before 40 (Lean FIRE), more moderate followers by 50 (Regular FIRE).

Because FIRE relies on maximizing investing early on to reap compound growth for decades, strict budgeting is essential. The principles, tips and tools shared all support this goal – but taking saving and frugality to the extreme.

Some key FIRE budgeting tactics include:

  • Cut expenses to the bone by finding the cheapest rentals, never dining out, buying used, avoiding all luxuries until financially independent
  • Maintain side hustles long after leaving main jobs to keep growing investments
  • Utilize geoarbitrage by relocating to countries or areas with absurdly cheap costs of living
  • House hack via rental properties to live in one unit rent-free

Budgeting 50-80% of income towards investments in index funds allows compounding to work its magic. Once your nest egg hits 25-30X your annual spending needs, you can live off 4% annual withdrawals forever.

For those focused singularly on achieving financial freedom, fanatical saving through ultra lean FIRE budgeting helps supercharge that timeline to decades earlier than conventional.

Tips for Sticking to Your Defined Budget

Creating a household budget is simple – adhering to it consistently is the hard part. Life gets busy and it’s easy to overlook financial plans.

Here are some useful tips to actually live by your thoughtfully defined budgets:

Automate everything possibleSet up automatic transfers for savings and bill payments on payday.Reduces stress, ensures consistency, and eliminates temptation to overspend
Review budget at start of monthBriefly review your budget categories and goals at the beginning of each month.Refreshes your memory, promotes mindfulness, and helps you stay on track
Use budgeting appsUtilize budgeting apps instead of manual spreadsheets for tracking expenses.Simplifies expense tracking, automates some tasks, and provides data visualization
Set text alerts on thresholdsEnable bank notifications for low account balances to alert you when spending needs awareness.Encourages responsible spending and prevents overspending
Stash cash in envelopesAllocate cash in labeled envelopes for specific categories (groceries, dining out, etc.) to create tangible spending limits.Provides a visual limit, promotes mindfulness, and encourages responsible cash usage
Freeze credit cards in iceFreeze credit cards temporarily to prevent impulsive purchases and unnecessary swiping.Drastic but effective method to curb impulsive spending and promote financial discipline
Involve familyCommunicate budget goals and strategies with family members to encourage shared responsibility and alignment.Promotes accountability, fosters teamwork, and helps family members understand financial trade-offs
Reward goalsEstablish small, achievable milestones for reaching savings goals and limit adherence. Celebrate achievements with well-deserved rewards.Creates motivation, encourages consistency, and reinforces positive behaviors
React quickly to overagesImmediately transfer funds from another category to cover any budget overages and prevent further spending slippage.Prevents spiraling spending, encourages responsible financial management, and promotes accountability

Building new money habits requires concerted effort until behaving differently feels natural. Leverage whatever tricks keep your defined budget top of mind during months – you’ll reap rewards for years to come.

Maximizing Cash Flow Through Budgeting

Cash Flow Options with Positive Net Income

Destroying High-Interest DebtAllocate surplus funds to prioritize paying off high-interest debt to save on interest charges and improve overall financial health.Pay off credit card debt with an 18% interest rate first.
Increasing Retirement ContributionsContribute additional funds to retirement accounts to benefit from compounding interest and secure financial future.Increase 401(k) contribution from 5% to 10% of income.
Building Emergency SavingsBuild a robust emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses and avoid financial hardship.Aim to save 3-6 months of living expenses in a liquid savings account.
Funding Passion ProjectsAllocate surplus funds to pursue personal interests and hobbies.Invest in equipment or courses to further develop a creative skill.

Expense Reduction Strategies with Negative Net Income

Renegotiate Recurring BillsContact service providers to negotiate lower rates for cable, phone, and insurance plans.Renegotiate cable bill from $100/month to $75/month.
Reduce Interest RatesCall creditors and negotiate lower interest rates for existing debts.Secure a lower interest rate on a personal loan.
Consolidate High-Interest DebtsCombine multiple high-interest debts into a single loan with a lower interest rate.Consolidate credit card debt with a 15% interest rate into a personal loan with a 10% interest rate.
Meal PrepCook meals in advance to reduce dining out expenses.Prepare healthy meals for the week to avoid the temptation of eating out.
Downsize Housing or VehiclesConsider moving to a smaller home or selling a car to free up monthly cash flow.Downsize from a three-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment.
Pause Retirement FundingIf necessary, temporarily reduce or pause retirement contributions to free up cash for essential expenses.Decrease 401(k) contribution from 10% to 5% while experiencing financial hardship.

Additional Notes:

  • Ideally, aim to increase income through raises, bonuses, promotions, or side hustles to avoid reducing your standard of living.
  • When facing negative cash flow, prioritize attacking expenses to prevent relying on costly debt.
  • Remember, the best strategy will vary depending on your individual circumstances and financial goals.

Further Reading on Budgeting and Money Management

Now that you understand the fundamentals of household budgeting, below are recommended resources for deepening skills:

Hopefully these budgeting fundamentals provide a helpful starting point designing a realistic monthly spending plan tailored to your personal financial style and priorities! Let me know if any questions in applying these money management tips.

FAQs About Creating a Monthly Budget & Spending Plan

How detailed should my budget categories be?

Finding the right level of detail comes down to personal preference and needs. Those new to budgeting benefit from starting broad, then splitting categories further as necessary when spending consistently exceeds goals.
For instance, rather than individual envelopes for groceries, gas, clothing, etc. initially roll up into a single Flex Spending category. This allows painlessly re-appropriating overages between those line items month to month until you better understand typical costs in each area.

How often should you review and adjust your budget?

Revisiting your defined budgets quarterly ensures allocations still align with your financial situation and evolving priorities. Beyond scheduled check-ins, also reassess whenever life changes occur impacting income, fixed costs or financial goals.
The key is balancing consistency with flexibility to address new realities. Budgeting works best when engineered to smoothly handle irregular expenses and income shifts so you save more without feeling deprived.

What tools are best for household budgeting?

Start with whatever approach fits your style – whether an old-fashioned paper budget, using spreadsheets, cash stuffing envelopes, or purpose-built money management apps. Test different methods until one resonates.
Popular picks like Empower, YNAB, EveryDollar, GoodBudget and others have free trial periods. Take advantage to experiment with what makes managing budgets enjoyable enough to stick with long term.

How do you budget as a couple or family?

Coordinating budgets across households with shared finances but also some individual discretionary spending can be tricky. Apps like Zeta make this simpler by handling bill splits, shared costs and adjustments over time.
Beyond technology, success comes down to frequent and open communication about money decisions, goals and trade offs. Getting aligned on priorities, regardless of approach, prevents budget conflicts.

Next Steps For Creating a Budget

In wrapping up, the key takeaways from our journey through effective personal finance management are clear. We’ve navigated the essentials of creating a spending plan, underscored the importance of budgeting, and highlighted strategies for saving and investment. These pillars form the foundation of not just managing but also thriving in your financial life. The goal is not just about spending less, but spending smart – aligning your expenses with your values and goals.

On a personal note, like many of you, I’ve experienced the challenges and triumphs of managing finances. Whether it’s saving for a rainy day or planning a major purchase, the principles are universal. It’s about making informed decisions, staying disciplined, and being adaptable to life’s inevitable changes. Remember, managing your finances effectively is a skill that can be learned and mastered over time.

I encourage you to join the conversation and share your own experiences or questions. What strategies have worked for you? Are there areas in your financial planning that you find particularly challenging? Your insights and queries not only enrich our community but also help shape future content, tailored to your needs.

Looking ahead, we’ll delve into topics like advanced investment strategies and long-term financial planning. For more insights and personalized advice, consider signing up for our newsletter or scheduling a consultation. Let’s continue to grow and navigate the path to financial success together.

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Note: The content provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as financial or legal advice. Consult with a professional advisor or accountant for personalized guidance.

Michael Ryan
Michael Ryan
Who Am I? I'm Michael Ryan, a retired financial planner turned personal financial coach. And author and found of blog. My advice is backed by decades of hands-on experience in finance and recognition in esteemed publications like US News & World Report, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. 'here'. Find answers to your financial questions, from budgeting to investing and retirement planning, on my blog My mission is to democratize financial literacy for all.