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New Year, new you: Begin with a nurse-friendly budget

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Numerous healthy living hacks coincidentally benefit a nurse's budget, from drinking more water (and fewer pricey lattes) to walking to work and carrying inexpensive healthy snacks to combat fatigue. But to maximize earnings and cut expenditures significantly, an intentional budget is the way to go. And while there's no better time than a fresh new year to improve on the ways you handle money, such a budget can help you any time.

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Here's how to begin a budget and then keep up the good work, all from the perspective of people who understand how the nurse career path affects both earning and spending:

Remind yourself how powerful a budget can be. "Not keeping tabs on your expenses can put you at risk for not being able to pay your bills," registered nurse Thomas Uzuegbunem explained on the Nursemoneytalk blog. "Plus make it likely that you'll run into a situation where you're living paycheck to paycheck. When you're spending money without keeping tabs, you might not have enough in reserve for emergency situations. Living paycheck to paycheck increases the risk of going into debt."

Start where you are. Sure, it helps a little to adopt a couple of money-saving tips like buying sharpies in bulk or waiting until June to turn on the air conditioner. But lasting change requires a good hard look at what you're earning and spending now. Patricia Dewer, an Atlanta-based cardiac nurse who does podcasts and blogs as The Honest Nurse, recommended the "all in" zero-based budget approach. She particularly focuses on nurses new to the field or still pursuing their education, but the strategy is the same at any stage. "List all your money coming in and money going out," she urged. "You should start with the obvious, like food and housing, but don't overlook variable expenses." Be extra certain to note the type of expenses only nurses tend to incur, like purchasing really good shoes.

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Label everything. The second part of a "zero-based budget" is making sure to account for every dollar, Dewar added. Even though hourly nurses sometimes can't predict their earnings precisely, you should label any potential money left over at the end of a pay period as part of the budget, too. You may decide it should go into savings, or perhaps go towards an upcoming expense. Just make sure all your hard-earned dollars have an anticipated destination on your personal budget so you don't see extra and spend it on non-goal items.

"A budget probably will limit your impulse purchases," Uzuegbunem added. "If your impulse purchases are putting you at risk for not paying your bills, living paycheck to paycheck, or going in debt, then your impulse purchases should be checked."

Tap the apps? Registered nurse Daniel J. Smith knows the value of keeping to a budget while he takes on charge nurse duties at the all-volunteer Clarkston Community Health Center and simultaneously pursues a doctorate at Emory. He recommended a simple spreadsheet for capturing money coming in and expenditures. Dewar said she also liked the Excel sheet from Dave Ramsey's Monthly Cash-Flow Plan.

As for apps, Dewar warned to avoid the ones that have so many ads you lose focus or that link all your accounts and then automatically fill in the figures. She favors the apps like the free version of EveryDollar, where you manually enter your own figures before it compiles them, so you're more aware of any changes or trends. A self-described "practical learner," Dewar also resorts to pencil and paper records, using a notebook, one column for expenses and another for income, with the notes matched to the timing of her paychecks. When she estimates her upcoming pay, she said she always tries to underestimate her overtime pay so she's not relying on money that may not come through.

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Prioritize your expenses. If your spreadsheet shows your income isn't at least even with your expenses, it's time for some of those expenses to go. "Going back through your expense column is going to be one of the most difficult parts of making a budget. Getting rid of things that you don't need that are costing you," Uzuegbunem said. He recommended prioritizing your expenses beginning with food and housing and then starting at the bottom of the list to look for potential cuts. "What can you live without?" he asked. "Is it cable? Are you eating out a lot? Do you have a gym membership you're paying for but haven't used in months? We all have expenses that we could cut to free up our monthly cash flow."

Remember you're a nurse. You may not be able to save money in the same places as people who work other jobs. For example, a popular frugal tip is aimed at cutting back on coffee. But as Smith noted, "Us nurses need to be caffeinated!" Instead of reducing caffeinated beverages, he recommended making coffee from home and carrying it in a reusable cup instead of relying on Starbucks, and also tracking the expense on a spreadsheet for a few months so you can see how much you're saving. At the same time, there are certain savings that are more accessible to nurses who work 12-hour shifts and can shop, exercise or do recreation during the day. Smith recommended a Costco or Sam's Club membership, for example, and nurses don't have to fight a crowd to shop there on weekday mornings. There are also budget-minded activities like free library events and lower-cost lunch dates for nurses who have their leisure time during the day.

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Analyze, tweak goals, repeat. The ongoing part of sticking to a budget is where you need willpower. It can be boring to continue to track all your expenses and income and note which savings attempts are working and which need replacing. It usually takes a few months to get the hang of budgeting, Uzuegbunem explained. But when it helps you meet big goals like saving for a down payment or smaller goals like giving up some overtime hours, the whole process is definitely worth it.

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