A list of things people universally dislike includes stop-and-go traffic, getting hit with bird poo, and budgeting. And, while budgeting isn't as messy as a bird incident, it might raise your blood pressure like a bad traffic jam would. Why? Budgets force us to look at our income and the choices we make, and that can be unpleasant.
A 2019 Debt.com survey of 1,042 adults captures this attitude. One-third of respondents said they didn't follow a budget at all, citing insufficient income, lack of time, and previous failed attempts at budgeting. Those complaints are understandable, but also solvable.
And it pays to rise above those negative attitudes. Every personal finance expert you meet will tell you the same thing: budgeting, done right, helps you reach financial goals and build wealth. If you like the sound of that, read on for four solutions to get past the most annoying aspects of the budgeting process.
1. Budgeting is restrictive
Creating a budget initially might feel like you're trying to make 14 sandwiches with one teaspoon of peanut butter. Hard as you try, you can't spread it thin enough. And as you pore over the numbers, you imagine yourself never shopping again, missing out on fun, and forever eating plain peanut butter sandwiches.
Know that this is part of the process. If your income simply won't cover your expenses, accept that big lifestyle changes are in order because how you are managing money today isn't sustainable. The solution is to reset your living expenses to make room for discretionary spending.
Be open to moving, selling assets, canceling subscriptions and services, and generally downsizing your life. A good goal is to get your required, non-negotiable expenses down to 50% of your take-home pay. If you can do that, you'll have enough left to pay down debt, save in your retirement accounts, and have a little fun.
2. Budgeting is tedious
Budgeting is not a one-time effort. Once you establish your spending limits, you have to track your progress against them. This can be tedious if you rely on spreadsheets or paper to add up your five monthly grocery store runs and seven trips to the gas station.
Try automating your spend tracking instead. Apps like Mint and Clarity Money pull in transactions from your bank accounts, so you can easily categorize those purchases. Set up your spending limits, and the app will notify you when you're over budget. Put in the time to get the app set up, and it'll only take a few minutes daily to track your spending.
3. Budgeting is confusing
You sit down to figure out where all your money went last month, and your eyes immediately glaze over. There are too many transactions. You can't remember what you bought. And you're not sure how much to send to your credit card or what the right contribution rate is for your 401(k).
When the budget creation process leads you down a rabbit hole of questions and self-doubt, it's time to learn a system. The 50/20/30 budget, for example, provides recommended spending limits for your required expenses (50%), debt repayment and savings (20%), and discretionary spending (30%).
You could combine the 50/20/30 system with envelope budgeting to streamline your banking transactions and keep your spending on track. Envelope budgeting is a cash system. Once you set limits for your spending categories, you withdraw those amounts in cash and put them in labeled envelopes. Say you set your two-week grocery budget at $300. On payday, you withdraw $300 from the bank in cash and use that to buy your groceries. When the envelope is empty, you stop spending.
4. Sticking to a budget is hard
Finally, you might hate budgeting because it's hard to keep your spending in line. If your motivation wanes, you lose interest and give up. Or, you stray once, feel guilty, and decide budgeting isn't for you.
That's when it's time to get back in touch with your longer-term financial goals. Where do you see yourself in five years? Debt-free, with money in the bank? Working your way toward early retirement? Visualize your future self for a few minutes and remember that budgeting is a critical part of realizing that future. Get excited about the direction you're heading in.
Stay the course
One splurge-y purchase won't ruin your financial future, but giving up on your budget entirely might.
Stay the course, even when it's hard. The challenges that come along with budgeting are a bit like traffic jams. They seem terrible in the moment, but are quickly forgotten. And despite them, you will still get to your destination.