How to create a budgeting spreadsheet

JACQUELINE BELESKY
Sub Editor · 9 March 2021
The dollars and cents of your finances can sometimes be hard to keep track of, and a budget spreadsheet might help. We cover options for setting one up, what you may like to include and how you can get assistance if you need it.

The words ‘budget spreadsheet’ can bring out a range of feelings for different people. Some might gain a sense of comfort at being more in control of their money, while others are bored or frazzled by data, or might wonder why having built-in spreadsheet skills from birth has never been a viable possibility. Thankfully, even if you aren’t a maths whiz, there are tools, technology and techniques available now that can take the guesswork out of budgeting.

In this article:


Why should I set up a budget?

Whether you use a spreadsheet or not, setting up a budget can be valuable for lots of different reasons. For example, it could help you to feel more in control, plan for your future and work towards your life goals. It may also help with having a healthy relationship (or keeping one). Canstar research shows that for nearly one in three singles, money was part, or all of the reason, for a previous break-up. More than half (62%) of all Aussies in a couple say talking about money with their partner makes them feel better about their finances, and a budget is a tool that can be a starter for this very conversation.

couple finances on beach
Could doing a budget bring you closer to your happily-ever-after? Image source: makenamedia/Shutterstock.com

Australia has been steadily rolling out a system of comprehensive credit reporting over the last few years, and whether you’d like to manage your debt, save towards life goals such as buying a home or plan for your retirement, understanding your credit score and credit rating may be a positive step towards having a better understanding of your finances.

What programs can you use for a budget spreadsheet?

The most suitable budget spreadsheet program for you will depend on your personal preferences and circumstances. Microsoft Excel has been a market leader in spreadsheet software for many years, while Google Sheets has become a popular alternative for some users. 

Zapier, a company that focuses on automating processes and connecting online applications, recommends the following spreadsheet applications, explaining why:

  • Microsoft Excel for “powerful data crunching and large data sets”
  • Google Sheets for “spreadsheet collaboration”
  • LibreOffice Calc for “a free, native spreadsheet app”
  • Smartsheet for “project management and other non-spreadsheet tasks”
  • Quip for “integrating spreadsheets into shared documents”
  • Zoho Sheet for “a free, feature-rich solution”
  • EtherCalc for “creating a collaborative spreadsheet without an account”
  • Airtable for “database management”

Bear in mind that while some of these applications are free to use, others may have a subscription or purchase fee associated with them. It could be worth confirming the details of these with any of the providers you are considering, and factoring these costs in as part of your decision on which service to use. 

Budget spreadsheet options

In evaluating your options for budget spreadsheet programs, you might like to consider:

  1. Desktop vs cloud-based. If you buy a program at a one-off cost as a desktop solution, this might be cheaper in the long-term, but involve a higher upfront cost. The program may also become dated, which is worth considering in evaluating your options. Office 2019 (including Microsoft Excel), for example, continues to be available as a one-time purchase for both PCs and Macs, but does not have upgrade options, which means if you plan to upgrade to a later major release, you’ll have to buy it at full price. Separately, Excel is available in the cloud as part of Microsoft 365. More widely, many online, cloud-based spreadsheet programs are now available for free, but might have some limitations.
  2. Features and user-friendliness. Desktop-based programs can sometimes offer more features, while cloud-based solutions might be preferable if you plan to collaborate with others.
  3. Compatibility with other programs and services. If you use software that’s part of a suite of programs, such as Google Sheets (part of Google Workspace, formerly G Suite) you may find it easier to export and use your data in creative ways with visualisation and analytics tools (such as Tableau or Power BI). You might also like to have the data in a transferable format (such as .csv) for greater flexibility, should you want to easily export it to a budgeting app.
  4. Online safety. With Australians losing hundreds of millions of dollars to scams each year, if you do decide to create a budget using a cloud-based spreadsheet program, it may be helpful to carefully review the protections the provider offers with the version you sign up for. In some cases, paid alternatives may offer extra security protections, such as multi-factor authentication.

What templates are available for a budget spreadsheet?

There are many free and paid budgeting templates available online to help you with creating a budgeting spreadsheet. Here are some links and more information about templates for popular spreadsheet programs:

  • Microsoft Excel budget templates. These include templates for personal budgets, family budgets, event budgets and household budgets, to name a few.
  • Google Sheets budget templates. Navigate to the template gallery for Google Sheets, and scroll down to ‘Personal’. You’ll see options for an annual budget and a monthly budget among the choices.
  • Smartsheet budget templates. In the Smartsheet templates gallery, choose the ‘Finance’ category to shortlist options such as the monthly budget tracker and project budget.

What do you need to include in a budget spreadsheet?

As a general rule, your budget spreadsheet should include relevant financial information that can help you to work out your cash flow. You’ll want to know your earnings, expenses, budget balance and goals, as described in Canstar’s steps to budget success:

  1. Gathering your financial details
  2. Working out how much you earn
  3. Working out your expenses
  4. Finding your actual budget balance
  5. Evaluating and setting goals
  6. Writing a new budget

In addition to fixed or relatively consistent expenses such as mortgage repayments, rent, utilities and other loans, you’ll want to include variable expenses like entertainment, groceries, clothing, dating and so on. You’ll need to know your gross and take home-pay amounts, as well as your saving goals, and set a timeline that’s achievable and considers one-off and emergency expenses (e.g. hospital bills), as well as any irregularities in income. If you are pinching pennies for your first home, you may also like to ensure you are building up genuine savings over time.

You may also want to consider whether you’d like to create an emergency savings fund, and check and review your credit score

What approaches are available with budgeting?

There are several different budgeting models you might like to consider for your budget, such as the 50/30/20 method (or a variation of it), the bucket strategy, the reverse budget, the big cut strategy, the track your spending approach and zero-based budgeting. 

If you are not sure how much you might be able to save, the Canstar Consumer Pulse Report for 2020 showed a majority of Australians surveyed were able to put aside up to 10% or more of their after-tax income on average each month. This included 16% who said they were saving up to 20%, and 7% who were saving more than 40% of their after-tax income each month. 

Average Australian Savings
On average, Australians save different amounts each month, based on the Canstar Consumer Pulse Report 2020. The figures shown are based on a survey of 2,046 Australian adults and reflect after tax income savings.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to save more of your money, Canstar’s Editor-at-Large, Effie Zahos, has shared some of her tips for saving money in the times we’re living in.

What features may be helpful with a budget spreadsheet?

The features that are helpful to you in a budget spreadsheet will depend on your personal preferences and requirements. Many newer, online options for spreadsheets offer visually appealing designs and layouts. Traditional spreadsheet programs such as Excel, meanwhile, have been tried and tested, with advanced training available online and formulas that can handle complex information.

Here are some examples of features and benefits you may find helpful if you are creating a budget.

  • Visualisation tools. For the traditional market leader, Microsoft Excel, these tools include PivotTables and PivotCharts, both of which are in-built features of the program. Microsoft explains, “You can use a PivotTable to summarise, analyse, explore, and present summary data. PivotCharts complement PivotTables by adding visualisations to the summary data in a PivotTable, and allow you to easily see comparisons, patterns, and trends.” Many other spreadsheet programs offer built-in data visualisation tools, or are compatible with other software that can help you to visualise your budget data. For example, Google Sheets has a variety of chart types and offers themes and slicers to improve your data “look and feel”. 
  • Add-ons, extensions and plug-ins. Add-ons, plug-ins and extensions can help take software further, adding extra functionality that complements your work. For instance, Zapier covers 50 add-ons for Google Sheets it recommends to “supercharge” spreadsheets. You may want to review the terms and conditions of any extensions, particularly in regards to your privacy and what you are comfortable sharing with third parties.
  • Flexibility to view and work on your budget across formats. If you want to see or edit your spreadsheet across different devices, such as your home computer, mobile and tablet, this may be an important factor as you weigh up the pros and cons of different options. 
  • Compatibility with other programs and software. Using a market-leading (or popular) solution to set up a budget spreadsheet could potentially help in minimising the likelihood of the program getting discontinued, or having future compatibility issues over time.
  • Manual vs automated. You may even want to consider avoiding a budget spreadsheet altogether and opting for a process that’s more automated. Many money management apps and bank budgeting apps are now available that are increasingly using machine learning and artificial intelligence to make budgeting faster and more efficient (more on that later).

The comparison table below shows some of the savings accounts on Canstar’s database for a regular saver in NSW. The results shown are based on an investment of $100,000 in a personal savings account and are sorted by Star Rating (highest to lowest), then provider name (alphabetically). For more information and to confirm whether a particular product will be suitable for you, check upfront with your provider and read the Product Disclosure Statement or other terms and conditions before making a decision.

Reviewing and improving your budget spreadsheet

Keeping an eye on your finances and your budget is always a good idea if you have the time, as there can be opportunities to review and improve your tracking system, which could save you money in the long run. At times, your incomings and outgoings might change. Wider factors, such as the economic climate, can also change, and you may like to review and update your budget from time to time based on your priorities and goals. New tools, including budgeting apps and programs, are being created and improved all of the time. It may be worthwhile to also chat to an expert, such as a financial adviser, for any suggestions they may have. 

How can I create a budget without a spreadsheet?

You may decide you don’t want to create a traditional spreadsheet, but still need to have a budget. Budgeting apps and banking apps may be options you can consider:

What are money management or budgeting apps?

Money management tools such as Pocketbook, MoneyBrilliant and WiseList are helping transform how consumers view budgeting, giving insights and visibility into financial choices and decision-making. Canstar has also launched its own budgeting app, which makes it easy to see all of your accounts in one place.

Money management apps can typically bring in data for you from different sources, such as directly from various bank accounts, as well as from your super fund and investments at regular times. Your expenses and income, fees and charges and products you use can all be analysed, and often, you’ll be offered personalised insights. Keep in mind that while some of these apps are free or have a free version, some features can come at an additional cost. 

Choosing a money management app might help take some of the guesswork out of budgeting, as well as save time. For example, rather than having to manually categorise your spending (e.g. groceries, lifestyle, utilities) many of these apps do this automatically using machine learning, and can even predict and categorise your future spending. The result is that you can usually visualise where your money has gone quickly, and apply corrections that are then used to improve the app (and its predictions for your finances) in future.

You may want to speak to your bank, however, before downloading any third-party apps that use your personal banking information, particularly your log-in details. If money is taken from your account due to a security issue or privacy breach related to a third-party app of this kind, your bank may hold you responsible for issues such as fraud. Financial protections and safeguards you may have otherwise received as a customer may also be impacted, based on the terms and conditions of agreements with relevant providers.

What are bank budget planners?

Canstar’s Online and Mobile Banking Awards evaluate many providers, with the results showing which banks are currently offering this feature for customers. In 2020, Canstar awarded CommBank as the Bank of the Year – Online & Mobile Banking, while Beyond Bank received the Customer Owned Bank of the Year – Online & Mobile Banking Award. Both providers offer a budget planner. Some banks also offer transaction accounts designed to complement your preferred savings approach, such as Suncorp Bank’s Everyday Options Account, which can include up to nine different sub-accounts for organising your budget with ‘bucketing’. Some banks also have other initiatives that could help support you with financial planning, such as ANZ’s Financial Wellbeing Challenge.

What support is available to help with budgeting?

A financial counsellor or financial adviser may be able to assist you if you need further advice about setting up a budget. You can call the National Debt Helpline (NDH) on 1800 007 007 if you would like to speak to a financial counsellor. In addition to running the helpline, the NDH can help connect you to a counsellor near to you. You may also be interested in either reading more about free financial advice, or getting in touch with an independent financial adviser.

If you are seeking technical advice to help you better use a spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, you can try navigating to the ‘Help’ section that’s often part of these programs. If it doesn’t answer your question, you may find there is a ‘Contact us’ section on the company’s website. There are also often online tutorials and courses that can help you to upskill (e.g. LinkedIn Learning, YouTube), as well as forums where users discuss common issues and solutions if they are available.

Image source: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

This article was reviewed by our Sub Editor Tom Letts before it was published, as part of our fact-checking process.

About the author:

Jacqueline-Belesky

Jacqueline Belesky is a Sub Editor at Canstar. She brings over 15 years of experience in corporate communications, media and publishing and holds a Bachelor of Journalism (Distinction) from Queensland University of Technology and postgraduate qualifications in Writing, Editing and Publishing from the University of Queensland. Jacqui was previously a Global Content and Media Manager for ABB in the UK and in Oslo, Norway, and has worked in Australia as a journalist for News Corp and editor for the Queensland Government, John Wiley & Sons and the University of Queensland. Jacqui’s articles have been published in The Courier-Mail, The Gold Coast Bulletin and on www.news.com.au. She also brings experience managing the editorial production of annual reports, financial statements, research papers and supplements on topics such as business sustainability and the global financial crisis. You can follow Jacqui on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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