If the word "budget" is like nails on a chalkboard to you, you've got a friend in me. I know the feeling.

For many years, I had nothing to do with a budget because I couldn't stand the idea of anyone, or anything, telling me how to spend my money. Where did that get me? It got me into one big financial mess because every month, when I ran out of money, I turned to MasterCard and Visa for bailouts. Bad idea.

What I learned from going through that experience and finding my way back to solvency is that a budget is the ticket to financial happiness. It's not the straitjacket I feared it would be. Still, I don't like the word. If it's okay with you, let's drop the b-word and call it a spending plan. There. So much better.

Like a roadmap for a cross-country road trip or the blueprints to build your dream house, a spending plan shows where you are and how to get where you want to be.

A spending plan means that you determine where your paycheck will go before you spend a nickel of it. Think of it as "pre-spending" your paycheck on paper. Then, you track how closely you followed your plan. Once you have this information, you'll do better pre-spending next pay period until, eventually, your planned spending will come gloriously close to actuality.

While this task can be done manually with paper and a pen, there are a few really cool online tools and calculators that will make it a lot easier, and perhaps even fun, too.

Mint. This service sets up your budget online based on your average monthly spending. It then automatically tracks your monetary life. Once each week, you receive an email that lists your current balance(s), suggestions for changes you might want to make and tells you when bills are due. Cost: Free. Mint.com

Wesabe. Part financial software, part social networking community, Wesabe helps users track spending and set financial goals. You can download the Wesabe software to your Mac or PC without giving them access to your accounts. You import the data from your accounts, categorize your transactions with tags, and set spending targets and goals. Cost: Free. Wesabe.com

Clear Checkbook. Another option is Clear Checkbook, an extremely easy-to-use tool that helps you balance your checkbook and manage your money. Think of Clear Checkbook as an online checkbook register with the added bonus of viewing reports, setting budgets, creating reminders and more. Cost: Free for the standard version or $4 per month for Premium. ClearCheckbook.com

Mvelopes Personal. The "Cadillac" of tracking software, this online service links with your bank and uses envelope icons to apportion your paycheck and keep track of spending. Mvelopes gives you a visual cue of how much you've spent and how much money remains in each of your spending envelopes. If you go over in any category, the line item turns red. Cost: 14-day free trial; then $7.90 to $13.30 per month, paid annually or quarterly. Mvelopes.com

Copyright © 2009 Mary Hunt. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint required.

Check out Mary's recently released revised and expanded edition of The Financially Confident Woman (DPL Press, 2008).

Debt-Proof Living was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt. What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt. Today, "Debt-Proof Living" is read by close to 100,000 cheapskates.  Click here to subscribe. Also, you can receive Mary's free daily e-mail "Everyday Cheapskate" by signing up at EverydayCheapskate.com