You need to control your money, not let your money control you. Today I am going to tell you what a budget is, why you need one, and most importantly, how to make one.
Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” And it wouldn’t surprise me if he were talking about money and how to budget.
There is a widely held view that if you make enough money, all of your money problems will be solved. But that’s not the case.
Look at the athletes who have squandered fortunes, or the lottery winners who have nothing left to show for it after a few years.
Making a bunch of money won’t teach you a thing about managing that money. If you can’t seem to save and manage your money when you only have a few thousand dollars, then what makes you think you’ll do a better job with $100,000?
Internalize this: Making money is only half the battle.
The other half is making sure you spend wisely and have a monthly budget. That is the secret sauce.
This post will cover how to make a budget! We are going to walk you step-by-step on how we helped one of our readers make their 1st monthly budget.
What Is A Budget?
Simply put, a budget is system or process you use to manage your family’s monthly income and expenses.
Many people view a budget as a financial ball and chain that prevents you from spending. This is not true. Budgeting is not about spending as little money as possible or cutting out all “fun” expenses from your daily life. Even a tight budget can still afford some flexibility!
Budgeting is merely creating a saving and spending plan for your money. This means prioritizing expenses and choosing which ones give you the most satisfaction for every dollar you spend.
The goal of a budgeting method is to stop yourself from having to ask, “Where did all of my money go?” at the end of the month.
Why You Need A Budget
You need a budget because it’s the easiest thing you can do to have more money. If you want to stop wasting money on useless things and learn how to start investing, then a budget will give you that freedom.
If you want to provide a better life with your kids without worrying about whether you’ll be able to afford their school supplies, a budget will make it easier for you.
Does that mean that a budget will solve all of your money problems? No, but it will help you identify them. If you still can’t make ends meet with a tight budget, then it’s a strong signal that you need to find a way to increase your earnings. But a budget isn’t only for low wage-earners.
It doesn’t matter if your paycheck is $400 or $4,000, you need to know how to budget! I don’t care if you’re working the graveyard shift at Dollar Tree or work as a corporate lawyer, you still need a budget.
“Really, even if I am broke and barely make money, I need a budget?” Yes, you still need to know how to budget!
What if I’m rich and make more than I spend? That’s nice, but I don’t care — you still need to know how to budget!
This also applies to business owners or those with a more irregular income. It’s especially important if your financial livelihood requires knowing how to make a business budget!
Budgets Give You Power And Freedom
Budgeting gives you power over your money. You control where it goes and how you spend it. Whether you are paying a debt or saving for the trip of a lifetime, you must be intentional with your money.
Think of your financial life like building a Lego set. The end goal of finishing the Lego is like being able to retire. You don’t just open the Lego set and look at the picture on the front and start building. You need to follow the instructions to make sure you don’t miss a piece.
A budget is your set of instructions that you’ll follow to reach your financial goals.
Importantly, creating a budget will stop you from spending more money than you intended to spend on things that you don’t really care about. Budgeting lets you make progress towards your goals in a measured reliable way.
It will also allow you to live your dream life. Let’s say that you’ve always wanted to travel to visit Yosemite National Park in California, but you never have enough money to go. With your budget, you set aside $150 per month and after a year you’ll have $1,800 dedicated to your road trip to Cali.
I know it seems silly and easy, but you have to realize that the brain is very bad at making informed long-term decisions like that. We can very easily trick ourselves and rationalize expenses that affect us in the short-term. A budget helps to mitigate the human brain’s natural tendency to focus on a more immediate reward.
No one said budgeting was rocket science.
A big part of that is that it will show you exactly where you spend your money. You won’t be able to hide behind your credit card bill anymore. It’ll show you that you may want to save money on your cell phone bill or cut out some infrequently-used streaming services.
Benefits Of Having A Budget
You need to control your money, not let your money control you.
Having a budget is the first step towards successfully managing your money. By mapping out all of your sources of income and where exactly your money is going, you can make more purposeful decisions about your spending habits.
Making a budget and intentionally choosing where you spend your money lets you meet your financial goals more efficiently.
Financial goals can be paying off a student loan and getting out of debt, building an emergency fund, breaking out of the paycheck to paycheck cycle, or saving for retirement.
Regardless of your specific financial goal, making a budget will allow you to not only accomplish it but also feel more motivated throughout the process.
Because budgeting enables you to see where each paycheck is going, you can track your progress towards your goal, be it making debt payments or saving for that vacation. Witnessing this progress in such a concrete, measurable way often helps people stay motivated and on-track.
Remember: the key here is to promote good spending habits. So just as you would with any other habit, it’s essential to keep yourself motivated.
5 Different Types Of Budgets
When it comes to how to build a budget, there are several different strategies and ways to track your progress:
Pay Yourself First
This method is extremely simple and there’s no-nonsense involved. At the beginning of the month, you decide how much money you are going to set aside for savings and investments. When you get your paychecks, you’ll set aside the money and pay yourself first, before the money is spent on anything else.
If you need it, you can use the Earnin App to get your paycheck more quickly.
Now, you’ll spend whatever is left over on whatever needs to be paid. Rent, bills, food, movies, games, trips, etc.
Pretty simple, right? You’ll sacrifice some of the control you’ll have over your expenses, but for someone starting out this might just be simple enough to keep them hooked.
The 50/30/20 Budget
50/30/20 budgeting involves breaking down your expenses into three categories: “needs,” “wants,” and “savings & debt repayment.” You then allocate 50% of your monthly income towards your needs, covering fixed expenses such as rent, groceries, and utilities.
30% goes towards your wants, which are variable expenses that can be anything from dining out to saving up for vacations to going clothes shopping.
The last 20% is for savings and debt repayment, including any investments you may have, increasing your emergency savings, paying off credit cards or student loans, etc.
The upside to this strategy is that each budget category is more flexible and doesn’t necessitate as much planning each month. The 50/30/20 percentages can also be useful benchmarks for those who struggle to decide how much of their income to spend on wants vs. needs vs. savings.
However, one negative of this strategy is that it can be harder for some people to stick to since it doesn’t offer a strict, designated plan for every dollar of income. Also, sometimes 20% isn’t enough to make meaningful progress on getting out of debt.
Budgeting With FIRE
If you already have a lot of debt, you may consider adjusting the specific proportions (50/25/25 or even 50/20/30) to better fit your financial goals. Cutting out a few extra wants in favor of paying off credit card debt to improve your credit score might be better over the long run.
A more extreme version of these proportions is in the saving plan “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” or F.I.R.E. for short. This plan involves saving up to 70% of your income and cutting down your expenses to bare necessities.
For people who choose this budgeting strategy, the goal is usually to retire when they are young so they can stop working for money. It’s important to note that this is an especially aggressive savings plan and may not be for everyone.
If you’re someone who prefers a more precise budgeting plan, zero-based budgeting has you covered. The key idea here is to allocate every single dollar of income to a purpose (either spending or saving).
The categories, rather than grouped by want or need (though you still have to prioritized fixed expenses!), are segmented by type. Housing, utilities, and transportation are all possible examples of different regular expenses.
This strategy can also be useful if you struggle to break your variable expenses into wants vs. needs.
The most obvious drawback to the zero-based budgeting system is the added time and effort it takes to create a plan for every dollar of income.
If you would rather have a less defined budget and care more about creating the right balance between saving and spending than precisely where each dollar goes, consider the 50/30/20 method. If, instead, you feel you would benefit from the added structure offered by zero-based budgeting, consider using one of our templates below.
Cash Envelope Budgeting
Another popular method is using paper envelopes designated for different categories (groceries, utilities, etc.) and set aside a certain amount of cash in each one. Then, throughout the month, you use money set aside for each category as expenses occur.
By using cash, you prevent yourself from overspending, while the envelopes help break each monthly expense into a different category. We talk more about this strategy below.
How To Track A Budget
In terms of how to keep track of your budget, you can choose between a number of free budgeting tools like Mint or EveryDollar, or you can go old-school with pen & paper using our printable budget worksheet and Excel budget calculator.
Regardless of which budgeting tool you use, the most important thing is that you feel confident using it.
Why Family Budgets Are So Important
We Received A Call For Help
We received an email from a reader who was asking for help creating a budget. They had a healthy household income, but were still living paycheck to paycheck and felt stuck. Their motivator for wanting to get their financial life in order was to be in a strong position to start a family.
You can view their email below; huge thanks to the reader for allowing me to share this.
After a call and a few emails back and forth, we were able to get a complete picture of their financial situation. Here are some of the relevant details:
- They live in an urban high-cost-of-living area and rent an apartment.
- Total Debt = $24,314
- Student Loans = $14,235
- Car Loan = $9,879 (they can’t get rid of the car because one of them relies on it to get to work)
- Credit Card Debt = $200 (usually paid off monthly — AWESOME)
- Total Savings = $398.67
- Checking Account = $398.67
- 401K = Unsure if employers have one or if either participate
- Other Retirement Savings = $0
The first thing that jumped out at us was that even though the reader and his wife have a decent salary, they didn’t let their pride get in the way of getting help with learning how to budget. Kudos to them.
Secondly, only having $400 in savings at 34 years old is not ideal. However, they still have a lot of working years in which they can dig out of the hole and find stable financial footing.
Thankfully, they’ve now learned how to budget to live within their means!
Before You Make A Budget
Before you create your first budget, you should do a few things to make sure you don’t miss anything.
To make sure you don’t miss an expense or account, you’ll want to review your credit report. Your credit report will list any loans, credit cards, or other debt you might have.
Some debt like medical bills won’t show up unless you don’t pay them, and they get reported to the credit bureaus.
You can check your credit report for free at www.annualcreditreport.com.
If you’ve checked your report recently, or use an app like Credit Karma, you’re all set and can move on. It’s a great habit to check your credit report every few months to make sure there isn’t anything you don’t recognize.
You’ll also want to review and access your checking account, paycheck stubs, and credit accounts to get an updated view of everything. This review will help make sure you don’t miss any automatic charges that might be going to an account you usually don’t check.
You’ll need a holistic view of your finances if you want to create an accurate, actionable budget.
Lastly, you want to get everyone who spends money in your household involved in the process. If you create a budget plan and don’t get your husband or wife involved, it will not work. Financial budgeting is a team activity, and everyone needs to be on the same page.
Everyone has to buy into the monthly spending numbers so that they can be held accountable.
How To Budget Step By Step
Budgeting Step 1: Figure out when, where, and how you’re spending money.
The first step in creating a personal budget is to understand where your money is going.
The two key components are your income and your expenses. Our readers sent over their spending from June and July in their email to us. We always recommend creating budgets monthly, so this was great because we got two months of historical data to analyze.
In their case, they said they have their accounts synced with Mint, so they just exported the details and sent them over in Excel. Even if you don’t have Mint, you can export bank statements and credit card statements to get the same information.
If you get paperless statements, you can always copy and paste pdf documents into a spreadsheet, but it’s easiest to export them as a file and not deal with copying and pasting from a pdf file.
The file they sent over had over 130 transactions on it.
Categorize Your Expenses
The first thing we did was categorize the expenses into categories to see how they spent their money quickly.
It doesn’t matter if they eat at Wendy’s or Chipotle (they went to both), what we wanted to know is how much they spent on restaurants in total (over $430 per month!).
To categorize the expenses, we opened a copy of our Budget Template and assigned their transactions to the different categories.
Categorizing their bills into categories took us about an hour of work. But remember that the first time is always the most challenging and time-consuming. We did this in Excel, but you can also use Google Sheets or the old-fashioned way by using pen and paper.
If you prefer to do it with the paper, you’d want to print off the transaction data and then manually write the category next to the line item. We like using Excel because it makes it a breeze to add the categories up.
Once we had added up the transactions by category, we input them into the Finance Twins Budget Template.
The categories make it a breeze to spot patterns and see where you spend money!
Right away, we noticed that their June take-home pay was $4,122.16, and they spent $707.14 on food. That’s 17% of their income! Their rent also accounted for 44% of their income, which is much higher than the recommended 30%!
No wonder they find it so hard to save money—their fixed costs were too high.
They also didn’t have any savings goals or targets they were aiming to hit.
They were crossing their fingers and hoping to spend less than they made, without fully understanding what was happening.
Here’s their June data by spend category!
Looking at July, we see a similar spending pattern with a couple of notable highlights.
In particular, we notice that they spent $201.07 more than they made during the month! Clearly, there’s too much spending happening.
As we mentioned earlier, the big-spending accounts are food and housing, so we will have to tackle those in August.
If you take both June and July together, they only saved $17.34 from the $8,200 they made.
Technically speaking, spending less than they made is good, but unless they make BIG changes, they’ll have no retirement savings.
At this point, we’ve completed the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to making a budget.
Budgeting – Step 2: Identify Which Expenses Are ‘Must-Haves’ Vs. ‘Nice-To-Haves’
Now we know precisely where, when, and how they spent their money. Now, let’s focus on budgeting for the next month (in this case, August).
To know what to budget for the next month, we need to look at what we’ve previously spent money on and identify which things HAVE to repeat next month. Restaurant meals aren’t expenses that MUST happen.
Eating at restaurants falls into ‘Nice-To-Have’ territory.
Going on a vacation is incredible, but you aren’t going to die without one; otherwise, we would’ve died before graduating from high school.
We want to first focus on each recurring expense that is mission-critical to your family and that you can’t go without (like transportation to get to work or childcare). Just because you love ice cream doesn’t mean it falls into this category. We are talking about rent, medicine, basic food, and sustenance, etc.
Upon reviewing their 2 months of historical expenses, we identified the following must-have or critical expenses:
- Monthly rent = $1,800
- Electric & Gas = $55 (paid every 2 months)
- Cell Phone = $197.44
- Groceries = $250
- Car Loan = $200.14 (gas paid for by job)
- Medications = $10
- Total = $2,512.58
Here are important non-critical expenses which will be prioritized if we still have money left after allocating money to be saved/invested:
- Toiletries = $12
- Internet = $34.24
- Gym Membership = $45
- Public Transportation Pass = $80
- Student Loan Payments = $140
- Total non critical recurring expenses = $311.24
Nice-to-have expenses will be prioritized last:
- Rideshare / Taxi
- Charitable Donations
- Discretionary Expenses
- Toys / Games
Budgeting – Step 3: Begin to input numbers into a new budget.
Now that we know the must-have and nice-to-have expenses, we can start to fill out a blank budget template. At the bottom of the budget template, we see how much of the take-home income we have allocated.
This allocation figure takes the difference between the take-home pay and all of the savings and expenses allocated. We need to assign 100% of our income to the different expense categories to complete the budget. Every single penny we earn needs to have a job.
The goal here is to try to minimize the spend buckets and maximize the savings buckets (emergency fund, retirement savings, children’s college fund, and other taxable investments).
The savings rate % at the bottom of the template is calculated by taking the Savings category total and dividing it by the Total Income.
The first thing we did was input the income at the top of the sheet. If you have a fixed salary, your monthly cash flow won’t change. If you have an irregular income month to month or expect a bonus soon, this will need to be regularly adjusted.
Once you have input take-home pay, the next step is to decide how much you’ll be able to save. For this couple, we set an emergency fund savings target of $915.33. They felt comfortable saving this amount by cutting back on their expenses.
A savings rate of 15% is excellent, and this is 22%, which is even better. This lovely couple wanted to save more than 15% since they are getting a later start on their retirement savings.
Next, we filled in the must-have critical expenses and then saw that we still had $694.25 to allocate to the other costs.
To do this, we went account-by-account and assigned values that seemed reasonable. An example of this is the $40 we allocated to discretionary spending for each individual.
We find this category to be crucial because, without guilt-free spending, people often get desperate for something and spend more than they meant, or they feel too restricted by their budget, and they give up. You need to make this project sustainable, or you’ll give up after a few weeks or months.
It’s not about sticking to your budget for six months. It’s about sticking to it for six years. So don’t pinch pennies like crazy if you’ll be miserable and catch yourself falling into bad habits.
Here’s what their new budget looks like:
Let’s go through the accounts so you can understand how we arrived at the final budget.
- Emergency Fund = $915.33 – we set a savings goal of 22.2% for them.
- The savings goals should be determined first. We recommend a savings target of at least 15%.
- Once you know what your paycheck will be, decide how much you want to save and allocate this first.
- You’ll then allocate the remaining amount amongst the other categories. If you don’t have an emergency fund, start there.
- Rent = $1,800 – they are stuck with this rent payment for another five months until their lease ends. It was unclear if this also included renter’s insurance, but if not, they’ll need to look into that ASAP when they move.
- Electric & Gas = $55 – they work a lot so they aren’t home often and their bill comes out to roughly $55 every two months.
- Cell Phone = $197.44 – they need to switch to Cricket or Mint to lower their bill.
- Internet = $34.25
- Groceries = $250 – they need to begin to cook more meals at home and eat out less often. They live in an expensive city, but $250 per month is enough to cover meals for two people.
- In June, they spent $300 on groceries, but that included $150 for a party. In July, they only spent $72 on groceries because they were eating at restaurants so often.
- Restaurants = $120 – they need to stop relying on restaurants for everyday meals and lunches. You can save a TON of money by packing work lunches and preparing simple meals at home (like a chicken stir fry with veggies and rice).
- This budget is still enough for them to go to restaurants here and there, but if they want to go out more often, it’ll have to come out of their guilt-free / discretionary expenses category.
- This budget is enough for a weekly date-night, which is super important for them.
- Bus / Train Pass = $80 – they need to use public transit regularly instead of relying on Lyft to get around. Planning will help a lot here.
- Rideshare / Taxi = $50 – we wanted to cut this out entirely but left a smaller budget so that they’d have it for rainy days or times when they leave work too late to get home on the subway.
- Gym Membership = $45 – this is a good deal for both of them. Exercise is vital for their mental health, so we wanted to leave this in the budget.
- Medications = $10 – our reader’s wife takes daily medication, so this is non-negotiable.
- Auto = $0 (for now) – Already paid for 6 months
- Life Insurance = $0 (for now) – The couple currently has no life insurance, but once they have an emergency fund, they need to look into term life insurance ASAP in case something happens to one of them.
- Health Insurance = $0 – Paid by employers
Family & Home
- Charitable Donations = $15 – our readers feel very strongly about making regular donations to their local animal shelter, so we left $15 for that.
- Books / School Supplies = $10 – they usually buy notebooks, pens, staples, etc. for work, and they said this is extremely important, so we left it in.
- Clothes = $50 – the husband goes through clothes quickly because his job requires a lot of constant movement.
- $50 is less than they usually spend, but they are confident they can find more affordable things at Walmart and Amazon. They’ll adjust this over time.
- Toiletries/Soap/Detergent/Cosmetics = $25 – this includes toilet paper, paper towels, soap, shampoo, and make-up for the couple. They think this budget is too tight, but they are willing to cut back here.
- Gifts = $45 – One of their siblings has a birthday in August, so they are budgeting for it. In September, the budget will drop to $0 but then increase in October for a friend’s wedding and another birthday.
- Car Loan = $200.14 – they still have a few years left of this loan, but they are glad they decided to buy used instead of new. They pay for auto insurance every six months, so they are going to start budgeting for it next month, so they have enough saved up when the bill arrives.
- Student Loans = $140 – this is their regular monthly payment. They plan to accelerate the pay-down here once they have six months of living expenses saved for an emergency. (a 401K match should be a priority)
- Discretionary Unrestricted Spend = $40 each – he plans to buy new insoles for his work boots, and she wants to buy a wall mount for their TV.
Budgeting – Step 4: Track Expenses Throughout The Month
In Step 3, we created and finalized our budget for the next month. But now comes the most critical part: sticking to the budget.
You have a few options here. Let’s start by discussing the most’ extreme’ form: the cash envelope system.
Some people will move to a cash-only budget system and hide their credit and debit cards when they create a budget. They will then go to the bank and take out exactly the amount of money they’ll need for the month according to their budget. Once the money runs out, their spending for the month is over.
This method is called a ‘cash envelope’ budgeting system. The couple will have separate envelopes for different expenses, and any remaining cash goes straight to their savings account (check out CIT Bank’s savings accounts!).
Other people will use a budgeting app like GoodBudget, which is essentially a digital version of the cash envelope. Using this system, you’ll input a transaction into the category of spend as soon as you make a purchase. This will help you keep a running tally so that you don’t go over.
Some people will keep a journal that they carry with them and update it on the fly using pen and paper.
Tracking Your Spend Is Critical, And There’s Many Ways To Do It
There should be no surprises. If you are budgeting with a spouse or partner, you have to make sure you both stay synced so that nothing is being forgotten or double-counted.
One thing that most people will notice is that once they start using a budget, their volume of transactions will begin to drop because they’ll be making more meals at home or buying things on a set schedule instead of taking short random impulsive trips to the store.
As you’ll see, once you start budgeting, it’s normal for unexpected expenses to arise. If these unexpected costs are emergencies, you’ll have your emergency fund ready.
If they are just things like an unexpected friend coming into town and it means a celebratory dinner you didn’t anticipate, you have to be flexible with your budget and pull money from one bucket to another.
How To Budget – Step 5: Adjust and Repeat
As the month is coming to a close, it’s essential to adjust the budget for the next month and repeat the budgeting process. Over time, budgeting like this will become 2nd nature, and you’ll look forward to the process, especially when you realize the impact it is making (see your wealth grow or debt balance drop). If you have a disappointing month, stick with it, and make up for it the next month!
Be proactive. If you know the next month you have a trip coming up, a few birthdays, or a holiday, you’ll need to take that into account when you create the budget.
You might think you’re done once you create your first budget, and that you’ll be able to use the same budget month after month. That is not the case. Sure, you can copy over the majority of the categories, but there will always be small adjustments.
A budget is an essential component to achieving financial independence. After all, it can help you track the most critical personal finance metrics, like your savings rate and your financial progress.
Other Budgeting Tips and Considerations
Use a calendar. One excellent tip that we learned from a friend, who we taught how to budget, is to look at the coming month’s schedule when you create your monthly budget.
This quick check will help you see if you have any upcoming events like birthdays or holidays that you’ll need to plan around.
Find better deals. Your budget will also be a great way to see if you are paying too much for something. Evaluate if your subscriptions/contracts make sense. Can you cut the cord and stop paying for cable?
Know your benefits. This couple needs to confirm quickly whether their employer offers a 401K matching contribution.
Learning how to budget doesn’t make sense if you continuously leave money on the table. If you have 401K plans available at work, this needs to move to the top of your priority list.
For a full sequential guide to personal finance, make sure you read our guide here: https://thefinancetwins.com/personalfinance101/
Make big decisions with your budget in mind. This couple is spending too much money on housing. When their current lease ends, they need to look at moving to a less expensive home or finding roommates.
Alternatively, they can increase their income. Ideally, they’ll do both. They need to transition from consumers to savers, and housing will go a long way to help them. Now that they know how to budget, they’ll be able to tackle the most expensive line items.
What Else Should I Know About Budgeting?
Everyone is at a different stage in their financial journey, but whether you are just starting or are already well on your way to financial freedom, it all comes down to having a budget and sticking to it. The first few months of budgeting aren’t easy, so don’t give up.
The first budget is the worst. Just know that it gets better. It took us 3-4 months for it to become routine and second nature. After this starting period, you will start to see fewer surprise expenses creeping into your spending.
It’s also important to realize that budgeting isn’t about cutting costs. It’s about proactively managing your money. Increasing your income is a part of this.
The most important thing when it comes to budgeting is flexibility. Being too rigid will make it impossible to stick to your budget. It’s like going to the gym for the first time in years and trying to run 5 miles on the treadmill. That’s just a recipe for disaster. Budgeting is similar in that you have to ease into it.
One way to make the transition easier when learning how to budget is to give yourself a monthly allowance to spend on whatever you want. Spend this money on anything, no questions asked. Love comic books? No problem.
It gives you the freedom to live your life (within reason) while keeping the big picture (future goals) in mind! We think $10 per week ($40 per month) is a good starting point for a single person. You can increase as you begin to build wealth or increase your income.
Click here to download our excel budget template spreadsheet if you are learning how to budget! We love it because it automatically adds up each category and also calculates your yearly totals for each category, including savings rate! We also have a PDF version for those that like to print things out and work on them.
What If I Need Help From A Professional?
While budgeting isn’t rocket science, it can be confusing, daunting, and time consuming when you first start. For that reason, it can make sense to seek help from a financial planner or advisor to make sure you are focused on the right things.
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Camilo is a personal finance expert and the Co-Founder and CEO of The Finance Twins. I was raised in poverty by a single mother and had to learn everything about personal finance on my own. I have been featured on Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC, and US News. Earlier in my career, I worked as an investment banking analyst on Wall Street at JPMorgan Chase & Co., and I have an M.B.A. from Harvard University and a B.S.E. in finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.