Setting up a personal finance budget is one thing. The hardest part comes next: Actually sticking to your budget.
If you’ve created a budget before and didn’t keep to it, you’re not alone. The majority of Americans—60 percent—don’t have a budget, according to the 2017 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey from The National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Besides, sticking to a budget is really hard. Budgets are constraining and boring. Humans have emotions. Life is unexpected.
"The tough part of budgeting is that you just never know what will come up," said Bianca Lee, owner of White Rose Marketing Solutions in New York City, to U.S. News & World Report. "And something always comes up. The girlfriend's trip to Mexico, a speeding ticket, vet bills for the cats…It's impossible to plan for everything, and if it were possible, it would make for a super boring existence."
All that said, if you can stick to a budget, you’ll be in a better position to hold onto your money. As the famous quote goes: “It’s not how much money you make, but how much money you keep.”
Here are 5 tips for sticking to your budget.
1. Be positive
Forget about what you did or didn’t do in the past that kept you from following a budget. Don’t focus on what went ‘wrong.’ Start fresh. Start over. Just start—that’s what matters.
2. Visualize, then organize
Think about how you get in your own way when it comes to money and spending. Then organize around that.
For example, in our credit card/mobile payment world, it’s easy to become detached from cash. You don’t actually see the dollars you spend. That makes it too easy to spend money without thinking about the consequences.
If that resonates with you, here’s a different approach to try. Every Monday, withdraw a week’s worth of money for stuff like eating out or going to the movies. As the week progresses, you can check the ‘balance’ any time during the week just by looking in your wallet. When that money’s gone, your spending for the week is up. And if you go to the ATM again before Monday, at least you’ll know you’ve fallen off the budget wagon.
Again, the point isn’t to be hard on yourself. The point is to promise yourself that next week, you’ll work harder to avoid the extra ATM trip.
3. Keep it simple
It happens all the time: Over-engineering can ruin a good plan. So, if you’ve had trouble following a budget before, maybe it was too complicated or ambitious. If so, stay focused on your most important goal, whether it’s building savings or reducing debt.
Don’t get bogged down tracking every penny, 24/7. That’s a sure-fire way to lose interest. But do keep an eye on where your money is going. At a minimum, log into your checking account once a week. Or get your bank to send you a text message whenever you use a credit or debit card. Not only will that help you identify a possible fraudulent use of your card, it gives you a visual reminder of where your money is going. Keep the text messages and review all of them, say, every Monday, for an easy overview of how your money was spent the week before.
4. Plan for big-ticket items
Will your car need new tires in the next few months? Are you planning a big trip this summer? Make a list of all large expenses you know are on the horizon. Next, figure out a way to set money aside each week to pay for them. If you account for these expected but irregular expenses into your budget, you’ll be better prepared when they come due.
5. Share your budget goals with supportive friends and your spouse
Just as friends help each other get more Fitbit steps, your support network can help you stay on budget.
Discussing money with friends can be awkward. But you don’t have to share specific details. Just tell your spouse and close friends your top budget goals. Ask for their support.
For example, let’s say you love eating out. But you’ve been spending too much on restaurants. And it’s hard to say no when friends ask you out for a meal. If so, let your friends know upfront you need to reduce your restaurant spending. Then, when a pal you’ve not seen lately texts you to get together, she might preemptively suggest taking a long walk vs. meeting at a restaurant.
Still don’t like the idea of telling friends you’re on a budget? Make a list of no- or low-cost activities you enjoy, whether it’s playing sports, reading, or card games. Invite friends to do these activities with you. If you love to read, start a book club or, even better, a book-and-movie club. One month, everyone reads the same book and gets together to discuss it. The next month, you gather at someone’s home to watch the movie version.
Don’t let your budget constrain you
Ultimately, for a budget to work, it shouldn’t make you feel too restricted. There will be some adjustments to make, for sure. But with a little thought and creativity, you can come up with less expensive ways to have fun. And if you’re not having fun, your budget won’t last long.