How to Create a Zero-Based Budget

October 24, 2016

It is a well-known fact that a budget is a useful tool to take control of your finances, pay off debt, and save for the future. If you have started a budget and it is working for you, chances are you have money left over by the end of the month to spend freely. You have successfully stuck to your budget, so why not treat yourself with the remainder? You spend what is left and start over next month. However, after a while, you may be scratching your head wondering where all that extra money went. That is where zero-based budgeting comes in.

What if you were told to “spend” all of your income each month? This might sound crazy at first, but many financial experts regard this method as the most effective one out there. The concept of zero-based budgeting is that your monthly income minus your expenses should equal zero. The idea is that each dime you make should have a “job” and fall into a certain category in your budget. For example, if your take-home pay is $5,000, you have exactly $5,000 to spend, save, or invest. Here is how you can create your own zero-based budgeting system:

  • Track Your Expenses

In most cases, you will need to track your expenses for a month or two to see what you typically spend in each category. Figuring out what percentage of your income goes to which expense can help you when writing your budget. If you already have a budget that works, you can move on to the second step.

  • Create Categories of Expenses

Based on your monthly expenses, make a list of the major categories you spend money in. First, think about your fixed expenses — mortgage, utilities, phone bill, student loan payments, car payments, credit card bills — and create a category of recurring expenses. Then, analyze your bank statements to determine other categories such as transportation/gas, groceries, entertainment, and personal care (clothing, haircuts, etc.). Be fairly generous to yourself in these categories — you want to allocate enough to them so you will not be tempted to use your leftovers. Once you have done this, the next step is assigning an amount of money to each category based on previous months.

  • Assign the Leftovers to Categories

Subtract the amount you have allotted for each of these categories from your monthly income to see what is left over. In a regular budgeting system, you might save a percentage of your money and spend what is left over. However, in zero-based budgeting, each dollar must be accounted for. You will want to save or invest the remaining balance. Assign each dollar to one of those categories until you are left with zero.

Maximize Your Wealth-Building Potential

When every penny you earn serves a purpose — whether going toward paying your monthly expenses, investing, or straight to your savings account — you know exactly where your money is going, and you will never have to wonder where that extra $250 went. With the zero-based system, that $250 is probably in savings, and you are well on your way to financial freedom.

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young professional smiling after receiving a raise
How to Use a Pay Raise Responsibly

Getting called into the boss’ office for the first time can feel a little reminiscent of getting called into the principal’s office. You immediately start sweating and wondering what you did wrong. But just like the principal's office, it's not always bad news. In fact, sometimes it's the best news of all: you just got a raise. Congrats! Take yourself out for a celebratory dinner and maybe even splurge on brunch this weekend. But come Monday morning, it's time to get down to business and determine how to use your raise.    You could just enjoy the extra cash coming into your checking account, yes. But, that little financial angel on your shoulder might also nag you about being smarter with that money. Unfortunately, most high school and college classes don’t teach us how to be responsible with our money. We learn all sorts of questionably-practical information like the Pythagorean Theorem but not how to file taxes or how to use a raise responsibly.    To cover that gap in information, we’re here with three actually practical suggestions to use that raise in a way both your principal and your boss would be proud of.   

3 Practical Tips to Use a Raise Responsibly


1. Boost Your Retirement Savings

If your employer has a 401(k) plan, you should already be allocating 3–5% of each paycheck toward a retirement account, especially if your employer offers a 401(k) match. This means they’ll contribute as much to your savings as you do, up to a certain amount. Many employers match contributions up to 6% of your salary, and this is, literally, free money. If you contribute 3% of your $50,000 salary, that's $1,500 a year from you and $1,500 a year from your employer for retirement savings.    When you get a raise, you should adjust your paycheck to dedicate a portion or the full amount of that raise to your 401(k) contributions. This is an easy way to save more without much thought or effort needed. If you do this right away, you don’t get used to the extra money, and you just continue living and paying bills as you did before the raise.    If you’re young, this type of contribution can be especially rewarding because of a concept called
compounding interest. This means the interest on your investment earns interest, not just the principal (or original) balance. If you invest $1,500 with a 10% interest rate, your balance would be $3,890 in 10 years. With a simple interest rate that only builds on the initial investment amount, your 10-year balance would be only $3,000.   

2. Pay Off Debts

Another savvy way to use your raise is to allocate a portion or the full amount to your debts. This can be credit card debt, student loan debt, or even repaying a personal loan from mom and dad. But debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Certain debts like student loans carry low interest rates so when you consider how to use your raise, consider that other accounts or investments with higher interest rates might make or save you more in the long run. For example, if your student loan has an interest rate of just 8%, it makes more sense to pay off a credit card with a 24.5% interest rate or invest in a stock with a 10% return rate.    >> Related: Should I Save or Pay Down Student Loan Debt?  

3. Allocate the Rest to An Emergency Fund

We alluded to this before, but you don’t have to put all your extra cash in one place. If you get a 5% raise, you can direct 4% toward your student loans and put even 1% in an emergency fund. You should build the emergency fund until you have at least six months of your salary in the account to help you cover bills and general living expenses in case you find yourself suddenly out of work. If six months seems unattainable, aim for at least one or two months to give you four to eight weeks to find work. This emergency fund can also come in handy if unexpected medical bills or car repairs pop up.    If you haven't been lucky enough to get a raise from your employer, or if you’re looking to boost your savings even more, you can give yourself a raise by refinancing student loans.    If you meet the eligibility requirements, student loan refinancing through companies like ELFI can get you a lower interest rate*, which means you could pay less each month and, subsequently, less over the life of the loan. Use the difference between your previous and current monthly payments as a raise. Then allocate that money to your retirement funds and toward paying off debts. ELFI customers reported saving an average of $309 every month and an average of $20,936 in total savings after refinancing student loans with Education Loan Finance.1 That’s a 7.4% raise, which is far above the predicted average 2020 cost-of-living raise of 1.6%. You can refinance both private and federal student loans.    Deciding how to use a raise responsibility is a big decision. Hopefully, with these tips, you can find ways to use those funds in a way that will give you even more play money in the future. The average raise is 4.6%, and with a little knowledge and discipline, you can turn 4.6% into thousands of dollars if you make the right choices on how to use a raise responsibly.  
  *Subject to credit approval. Terms and conditions apply.  

1Average savings calculations are based on information provided by SouthEast Bank/ Education Loan Finance customers who refinanced their student loans between 8/16/2016 and 10/25/2018. While these amounts represent reported average amounts saved, actual amounts saved will vary depending upon a number of factors.


Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.

Resolutions: How to Erase Your Student Loan Debt by 2025

By Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. Her work has been featured in publications like The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and more. She is focused on helping people pay down their debt and boost their income.

  If you’re like most college graduates, you left school with student loan debt. According to 
The Institute for College Access & Success, graduates have $29,200 in student loans, on average. Depending on your repayment term, you could be in debt for a long time. In fact, you could make payments for anywhere from 10 to 30 years.    Having such a large burden on your shoulders can cause you to put off other goals, like starting a business or buying a home. To free yourself from your student loan debt, think of repayment strategies to pay off your student loans as soon as possible.    If you’re determined to become debt-free, here’s how to pay off your student loans by 2025.   

1. Create a budget

To pay off your student loans early, you need to have a complete picture of your finances, so you know exactly how much money you have to work with. Creating a monthly budget is an essential first step.    You can use programs like Mint or You Need a Budget (YNAB) to craft a budget and track your spending. Hopefully, you make more money than you spend each month. If that’s not the case — or if money is tight— you’ll have to make some changes to your lifestyle.   

2. Cut Corners 

To free up more money for debt repayment, you’ll have to take a hard look at your expenses and make some significant cuts. These life changes are not just for recent college students or those just starting out in their careers. If you’re committed to changing your financial situation in a short amount of time, some drastic life changes may be called for. Some things to consider include: 
  • Getting a roommate: While having a roommate may not be ideal, it can be a worthwhile decision. Considering that the average one-bedroom apartment costs $1,025, getting a roommate can help you save over $500 per month. That savings could make a big dent in your student loan balance. 
  • Taking public transportation: If possible, skip buying a car and rely on buses and trains, instead. You’ll be able to save money on a car payment, insurance, and repairs for a vehicle. 
  • Moving to a cheaper area: While moving to a more affordable area isn’t feasible for everyone, it can be a great way to save money. Moving to a less trendy area or even to another state can help you drastically reduce your living expenses. 
  >> Related: U.S. Cities With the Most Student Loan Debt  
  • Cooking at home: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends $3,469 per year on food consumed away from home, such as restaurants or fast food locations. If you skip eating out and brown-bag your meals, you could save thousands. 
  • Negotiating bills: You’re probably paying more than you need to for your cell phone, cable, and internet. You can use a service like Trim to negotiate your utility bills for you, reducing your monthly expenses.

3. Increase Your Income

Exploring ways of increasing your income isn’t just for new college graduates. Even if you’re gaining a firm foundation in your career and just want to attack your student loan debt with voracity, putting in extra work hours could accelerate your financial goals.    With a side gig, you can earn a significant amount of money. According to a BankRate survey, the average side job earns an individual $1,122 per month — which can make a big difference in knocking down your student loan debt. Here are some ideas to help you get started: 
  • Deliver groceries: If you have a car and a smartphone, you can make money delivering groceries for services like Shipt or Instacart. Depending on your location and speed, you could make up to $22 per hour. 
  • Rent out extra space: If you have a spare bedroom, closet, or empty garage, you can earn cash by renting out your extra space to locals who need to store items with Neighbor. 
  • Tutor online: If you have a computer and reliable internet, you can earn money by tutoring online. With services like Tutor.com and Chegg, you can make up to $20 per hour. 
  • Assemble furniture: If you have a knack for assembling Ikea furniture or toys, you have a lucrative side hustle. You can find clients with TaskRabbit or Takl
  • Walk dogs: If you love dogs, you can earn an hourly fee for walking them while their owners are at work. Create an account on Rover or DogVacay to get started. 
  • Work overtime: Public service officials, medical professionals, and educators can make a substantial amount of money on the side by working overtime. 
  • Offer consultation services: If you’re a savvy marketer or have a knack for e-commerce, create a side business of setting up social media accounts for local businesses. 

4. Research Student Loan Repayment Assistance Programs 

Depending on your major and location, you may qualify for student loan repayment assistance.    For example, highly qualified teachers who teach for at least five years at an eligible school can receive up to $17,500 in loan help through Teacher Loan Forgiveness, a federal program.    Healthcare providers in Pennsylvania can receive up to $100,000 in student loan aid through the state’s Primary Care Loan Repayment Program. In exchange, participants must agree to a service term in a high-need area.    In Florida, lawyers who work for a legal aid organization can receive up to $5,000 per year through the Loan Repayment Assistance Program   To find programs you may qualify for, check out the federal government’s list of forgiveness programs, and visit your state’s Department of Education website.   

5. Use Windfalls Strategically

Using windfalls — unexpected influxes of cash — strategically can cut off years from your loan term.   For example, the IRS reported that the average tax refund in 2019 was $2,860. To put that number in perspective, let’s say you had $30,000 in student loans with an interest rate of 5% and ten years left in your repayment term. If you made a lump sum payment of $2,860, you’d pay off your student loans 14 months early. And, you’d save $1,722 over the length of your loan.   

6. Consider Student Loan Refinancing

If you’re determined to pay off your debt as quickly as possible, student loan refinancing can be a smart strategy.    To refinance student loans, you work with a private lender like ELFI* to take out a new loan for the amount of your existing debt. The new loan has different repayment terms than the old ones. You’ll have a new interest rate, loan term, and minimum monthly payment.    If you have good credit and steady income, you could qualify for a lower interest rate and save money.    Let’s say you had $35,000 in student loan debt at 7% interest with a 10-year repayment term. By the end of your repayment term, you’d pay a total of $48,766. Interest charges would cause you to pay back $13,766 more than you originally borrowed.    If you refinanced your student loans and qualified for a 10-year loan at just 5% interest, you’d repay $44,548. Refinancing your debt would help you save $4,218.    ELFI’s Student Loan Refinance Calculator can help you determine how much you could save by refinancing.  

7. Avoid Lifestyle Inflation

As your career advances and you start to pay off some of your loan debt, you might be tempted to splurge on a new car, bigger apartment, or fancier electronics to reward yourself. However, try to avoid the urge. Instead, allocate any extra money you have toward your loan payments. You’ll pay off your student loans faster, so you can become debt-free and enjoy more freedom.   

The Bottom Line

While your debt may be stressful, you can conquer it by coming up with detailed student loan repayment strategies. With some sacrifice and hard work now, you can eliminate your debt years ahead of schedule.   If you decide to refinance your student loans, use ELFI’s “Find My Rate” tool to get a rate quote, without impacting your credit score.  

*Subject to credit approval. Terms and conditions apply.


Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.

young woman budgeting by tacking spending in coffee shop
Financial Goals 2020: Tracking Your Spending

This blog has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute tax or financial advice. Please consult your tax advisor for guidance on your personal tax situation.


Whether it’s losing weight, going back to school, trying a new sport, or getting your finances in order, there’s no better month than January to refocus your body and mind. Right now, it’s a new year and a new decade so you’re not just resetting for the next 12 months, you’re kicking off the next 10 years, and the resolutions are more important than ever. If tracking your spending is at the top of your goal-setting list—especially after an indulgent holiday season—check out our budgeting tips below.


Budgeting Platforms

When it comes to budgeting, the tedious spreadsheets of yesterday are long gone. There are apps and online programs to make tracking your spending in 2020 a breeze. Mint is a simple (and free) budgeting planner and finance tracker that connects with your bank accounts and credit cards to help you see all account activity in one place. You can access Mint with your computer or phone to:

  • See spending across categories (like shopping, gas, eating out, etc.)
  • Create realistic budgets based on past spending habits
  • Set reminders for bills
  • Check your credit score
  • And more

While Mint is more of a look back at your past spending, you can also try more forward-thinking but paid-for budget tools like YNAB (You Need A Budget). Like Mint, this platform seamlessly connects to your accounts to help you see spending trends and automate budgeting, but it’s also more educational. To help you track your spending, YNAB focuses on four rules of budgeting:

  • Give Every Dollar A Job – don’t buy on a whim, be sure every dollar is assigned a task, whether it’s for eating out or paying student loans.
  • Embrace Your True Expenses – each month, set aside money for those big, inevitable expenses like car repairs and the holidays. Then you aren’t in a bind when they hit.
  • Roll With The Punches – if you splurge, avoid being riddled with guilt by simply reallocating funds from another category. Do it, and move on.
  • Age Your Money – Never spend money that’s less than 30 days old (i.e., you should be paying this month’s bills with last month’s paycheck)

What Refinancing Student Loans Does For Your Budget

Regardless of which platform you chose, it’s important to see spending in categories to help you understand where the majority of your paycheck goes. If you’re a recent college graduate or parent of a graduate, student loans can be one of the biggest categories in your budget. Refinancing student loans can give you a lower monthly payment, freeing up money for other categories. This helps you uphold the “Roll With The Punches” rule of reallocating money from one category to the other when “Whoops!” moments happen with your spending.


ELFI customers have reported saving an average of $309 every month and an average of $20,936 in total savings after refinancing student loans with Education Loan Finance.1 That’s a big chunk of change that can be added to one spending category or divided up among several, all while still making payments on your student loan debt.


On the other hand, if you finalize your 2020 budget and realize you have extra money in other categories, you can choose to pay down your student loan debt by making additional or larger monthly payments. This concept of overpaying can cut your loan repayment time in half.


>> Related: Should I Save or Pay Down Student Loan Debt


If you’re thinking about refinancing student loans to help with your 2020 budgeting, check out our Student Loan Refinance Calculator to see just how much you could save by working with ELFI. You can also review the benefits of student loan refinancing on to see how ELFI can work for you.*


*Subject to credit approval. Terms and conditions apply.


1 Average savings calculations are based on information provided by SouthEast Bank/Education Loan Finance customers who refinanced their student loans between 8/16/2016 and 10/25/2018. While these amounts represent reported average amounts saved, actual amounts saved will vary depending upon several factors.


Notice About Third Party Websites: Education Loan Finance by SouthEast Bank is not responsible for and has no control over the subject matter, content, information, or graphics of the websites that have links here. The portal and news features are being provided by an outside source – the bank is not responsible for the content. Please contact us with any concerns or comments.