What Is a Balanced Budget?

Balanced Budgets Explained

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Definition
A balanced budget is a spending plan in which your expenses are less than or equal to your income. In other words, a balanced budget will show whether you’re living within your means.

A balanced budget is a spending plan in which your expenses are less than or equal to your income. In other words, a balanced budget will show whether you’re living within your means.

Individuals, companies, and even government agencies can benefit from balanced budgets because they can help prevent taking on more debt. Here’s a closer look at how they work.

Definition and Examples of a Balanced Budget

A balanced budget is a type of financial plan wherein your expected revenue for the year equals your expected spending, thus leaving $0 left in your budget.

  • Alternate definition: A balanced budget can also refer to any point in time in which a budget is not experiencing a deficit. In other words, as long as your budget is breaking even or has income leftover, it’s balanced.

For example, if Michael and Jessica bring home $75,000 a year but only spend $70,000, then they have a balanced budget because their expenses are equal to or less than their income. In this case, they can use the extra $5,000 in their budget to pay down debt or reach their savings goals.

On the contrary, if they spent $80,000 a year, they’d have an unbalanced budget because they’d be spending more than they make. And in this case, they’d likely be going into debt to sustain their lifestyle.

How a Balanced Budget Works

A balanced budget is an essential part of being financially secure because it helps you stay out of debt and reach your savings goals.

If you spend more than you earn, you have a budget deficit. You then have to borrow money from somewhere else—through a credit card or loan, for example—to make up the difference. This increases your debt. And if your debt becomes too large, it can wreak havoc on your financial security.

When you still have money left over after paying all your expenses, you have what’s called a budget surplus. This is a good thing because it means you’re living within their means and aren’t taking on debt to fund your lifestyle.

Here are three budgeting examples so you can see these concepts in action.

Balanced Budget That Breaks Even

Starting Income $3,000
Living expenses $1,750
Debt repayments $500
Wants (shopping, dining out, travel, etc.) $750
Remaining balance $0

In this scenario, your income minus all your expenses equal $0. This is great news because it means your budget is balanced and you’re not spending more than you earn.

But do you spot the problem in the budget? You don’t have any leftover money to fund your savings goals. You’re not taking on more debt—but you also don’t have any extra money to save, which is bad if it becomes permanent.

Balanced Budget With a Surplus

Starting Income $3,000
Living expenses $1,500
Debt repayments $550
Wants (shopping, dining out, travel, etc.) $500
Remaining balance $450

In this scenario, you have an ideal balanced budget—your expenses are lower than your income and there’s extra money for savings goals.

You can take that extra $450 and use it to build an emergency fund, save for your child’s education, boost your retirement savings, or save for a down payment on a house.

Unbalanced Budget

Starting Income $3,000
Living expenses $2,000
Debt repayments $600
Wants (shopping, dining out, travel, etc.) $600
Remaining balance -$200

In this scenario, you’re spending more money than you earn. You’re taking on a bit more debt each month and feel pretty stressed about your finances. 

The good news is that by comparing your income to your expenses, you now have a clearer view of where you can cut back. Consider reducing your “wants” spending or adding a part-time job to make ends meet.

Benefits of a Balanced Budget

The main benefit of a balanced budget is that it prevents you from taking on debt. It can help put a stop to overspending and show you where you can cut down expenses, increase your income, and save more money.

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck or are struggling to get this budgeting thing just right, taking time to balance your budget can help you pinpoint areas of potential improvement. As a result, you’ll feel more in control of your finances and be in a better position to tackle your financial goals.

Note

As helpful as a balanced budget can be, it may not be feasible for families that are consistently spending more than they earn because of low wages and other factors. In this case, meeting with a free financial counselor can help give you the tools you need to strengthen your finances.

How To Create a Balanced Budget

Balancing your budget is simply the act of comparing your income to your expenses to make sure the two are in alignment. Here’s how to do it.

1. Add Up Your Income

First, review your monthly income to see how much money you have coming in. This could be money from work, a side hustle, financial aid, Social Security, alimony, or any other revenue.

If your income fluctuates, look at how much money you made last year and divide it by 12 to get a monthly estimate.

2. Estimate Your Expenses

Now it’s time to estimate your monthly expenses. Review your bank and credit card statements to identify each one—housing expenses, car costs, food, insurance, etc. Some of these costs will stay the same each month (“fixed”), while others will change each month (“variable”). Do your best to estimate how much you spend in each category every month.

Note

As you add up your purchases, don’t forget to include less common expenses like homeowners insurance paid twice a year, oil changes, birthday gifts, and other irregular purchases.

3. See Where You Stand

For this step, all you have to do is subtract your expenses from your income to see if you get a positive or negative number.

If your balance is positive, you’re spending less than you earn. You can take this extra money and use it to build an emergency fund, pay off debt, invest for your future, put cash toward your next vacation, or any other goals on your list.

If your balance is negative, you’re spending more than you earn each month and operating at a deficit. To get back on track and balance your budget, look for ways to trim expenses and/or increase your income.

Note

Gone are the days of having to manually maintain a balanced budget all by yourself. Thanks to technology, you can use a budget app or budget spreadsheet to speed up the process, saving you time and energy along the way. Many banks also offer built-in budgeting tools to help you save money and keep your spending in check.

The U.S. Government and Balanced Budgets

In the U.S., a governmental balanced budget happens when the money the country spends (on health care, Social Security, infrastructure, federal debt interest, etc.) is equal to the money it collects (through taxation and other avenues) for the fiscal year.

A balanced budget is important because it helps maintain a healthy economy. But in reality, it’s difficult for countries to have a perfectly balanced budget—they’re usually operating in either a surplus or a deficit.

The U.S. has had 12 balanced budgets since 1947. The most recent year the U.S had a balanced budget was 2001.

Key Takeaways

  • A balanced budget occurs when your income is equal to or greater than your expenses.
  • Balanced budgets are important because they help you minimize debt and live within your means.
  • Many countries also use a balanced budget to help maintain a healthy economy and prevent their debt from growing too large.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Federal Surplus or Deficit," Click "Download" to see year-by-year data in a spreadsheet. Accessed Jan. 11, 2021.

  2. Department of the Treasury. "Final Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government," Page 5. Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

  3. USASpending.gov. "Federal Deficit Trends Over Time." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

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