It’s been a while since I said this so I’ll repeat myself: Sticking to a budget sucks.
There, I said it. I have a budget. I even spent a lot of time developing my budget like the helicopter parent of a small child, or “fur baby” if you’re a Millennial since we like to delay that whole full-time adulting thing. Some months I even stick to my budget. These months are rare. Why? Because sticking to a budget sucks. I don’t have a budget because I’m naturally responsible. I have a budget because I’m naturally irresponsible. If you don’t have a budget or don’t like budgeting, you might like these three tricks I use.
Only Ballers Don’t Budget
Tip #1: Create a budget once, save 20% of your money, and forget about your budget.
I’m not a baller but I play one on TV. In this scenario, “TV” would be my imagination. You can create your budget in as little as 15 minutes. I show you how here. Creating your budget is easy. Sticking to your budget is difficult.
Only 1 in 3 Americans have a budget which means 2 in 3 people think they’re too good to develop a budget, too smart to develop a budget, or the most likely scenario, 2 in 3 people think sticking to a budget sucks, so they don’t want to budget. Generally speaking, people don’t like to do things that suck no matter how good for them that thing may be. Starting and sticking to a budget is no different.
Most “experts” will say you need to create a budget and strictly monitor that budget every day until death do you part. Meh, not really. If your income is fairly static, you need to create your budget at least once so you know how much money you have coming in and going out (most people don’t even know this much). If you’re not naturally inclined to budget, then the stress of monitoring a budget on a daily or monthly basis will only make you miserable. If it makes you miserable, you’ll stop doing it. Unless there are major changes in your income or expenses, you may never need to create another budget for the rest of your natural life. I’ll let you in on a little secret:
Is it good to know where 100% of your money is going? Yes. Is it critical to your life and well-being? Nope. Obviously, if almost 60% of Americans didn’t have a budget in 2016, then maintaining a budget must not be a matter of life and death. If you dedicate 20% of your income towards debt reduction, retirement, and savings, then you do not need to track the remaining 80% of your budget.
Budgeting for 100% of your money is a good practice. It might even be a best practice. But if the idea of maintaining a basic budget is keeping you from creating a detailed budget, then what’s the point? If you already know you’re not going to stick to a monthly budget, then don’t stress yourself out about it. Take 15 minutes out of one day of your life; create a budget once; and the only bare minimum budget you need to know is: save 20% (Added Bonus: your 20% breakdown — 10% for retirement; 5% for emergencies and 5% for debt. If you have emergencies covered and debt paid off? Put a total of 20% towards your retirement fund and you can discount your employer’s match, if applicable).
Compare Your Needs to Your Wants
Tip #2: Start a Needs versus Wants List
In a perfect word, I would happily spend money I don’t have to buy things I don’t need. Sadly, I cannot infinitely spend my money or it will quickly run out. To help prioritize where and when I spend, I create a “needs” versus “wants” list that I update every year. In the needs column I write all the things I think I need for the upcoming year. In the wants column, I write all the things I know I want in the upcoming year.
Pro Tip: I usually take a 24-hour break from the lists because after a good night’s sleep I often realize the next day that I have several wants on the needs side of the list.
Once I have a clear understanding of what I need versus what I want for the year, I use these two lists to guide my spending decisions for the year versus random binge spending. Throughout the year, I first make sure my needs are covered. If I buy a want over a need I have a list to objectively judge and measure my poor decision. I still make excuses but my lists hold me accountable, leaving no one to blame but myself. If I come into extra money during the year or if I need to create a self-reward system for months of positive spending habits, then I use the “Treat yo self…” system by allowing one reasonably priced or higher priority purchase from my wants list.
While simple, my Needs vs Wants list give me an incentive to be responsible, keep me focused, and I often find that if I’ve gone several months without impulsively buying a “want” then do I really even need or want it? On several occasions, the simple act of going a few months without immediately buying a want has made it irrelevant. Other times I realize, “If I’ve gone 3 months without X, then I can probably go 6 more months…” At the end of some years I have completely trashed the wants list.
Stop Waiting until the Due Date
Tip #3: Stop waiting until the due date to pay your bills.
This isn’t groundbreaking news but every time I recommend it to people living paycheck-to-paycheck or irresponsible decision to irresponsible decision they are shocked and appalled by the audacity of the suggestion. The concept is simple:
The longer you have money to spend, the more likely you are to spend it. I’m not a sociologist but that sounds mad-scientific to me. For example, for most of us rent is due between the 1st and 3rd of literally every month, yet when the 1st arrives many of us look into the optic stems of our landlords/mortgage holders like, “AGAIN?!? Didn’t I just pay you last month???”
Why? Because if being responsible was easy, everyone would do it. Rather than wait until your bill’s due date, pay the bill when you have money to cover the bill. If a bill is due on the 15th but you have enough money to pay for it on the 10th, guess what? Pay the bill on the 10th!
Challenging yourself to be fiscally responsible like you’re on some 24 Personal Finance Survivor Island Challenge until each bill is due is: 1) unnecessary; 2) unlikely; 3) un-smart.
Now I know someone will be tempted to write, “What about the interest earned?!” and while I’m giving you the Conceited Meme face right now, you and I both know you might have a checking and a savings account, but neither of them is earning more interest than your average late bill fee. Stop making excuses!
That’s all folks.
Have any budget tricks that help you stick to your budget? Apps? Other? Please share in the comments below! And don’t forget to join our free email list where we share top articles we read throughout the week, work and money tips, and much more. You can sign up by visiting paychecksandbalances.com/email
Marcus Garrett is one-half of the Paychecks and Balances podcast, an auditor, and author of Debt Free or Die Trying: How I Buried Myself in Over $30,000 in Debt and Dug My Way Out By Age 30. You can find him on Twitter @PayBalances and Facebook: PaychecksAndBalances.
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