One of the hardest “lessons of adulting” to learn is budgeting. Budgeting can feel like a drag, but it’s key to knowing where your money is, what it’s doing, and saving towards big audacious goals. On the flip side, a lack of budget is a huge cause of credit card debt. When you don’t know what your monthly income and expenditures are it’s easier to live in denial and pay for it later on your credit card bill. I’ve been there.
Digital money is totally intangible until it isn’t! Spending money on a credit card feels like nothing, having a balance on a credit card feels like nothing, not being able to go on a trip or purchase a home because of your debt? That feels like something. It would be helpful to set up positive reinforcement for the correct management of budget and debt to incentivize positive money interactions. That way it’s not becoming real when it’s almost too late.
I’ve struggled to live on a budget, as I’m sure is true of anyone who does. Besides my grocery budget, my biggest “issue” category is shopping. Like so many Americans and modern middle-class folks, the desire to buy things and treat yourself to all the comforts in life is a big draw. Everywhere there are advertisements and articles about the things we need in our lives. Every problem we find in our home or car can be fixed, but only if we buy something.
The truth is shopping is an activity -like sugar, coffee, nicotine- that gives us a dopamine boost. When you are feeling bad and go to target to buy something that will comfort you and make you feel better, it’s helpful to understand what’s happening in your own brain chemistry. That helps to explain your actions and reaction better than the joy or shame at buying another fluffy pillow or kitchen gadget. Marketing teams and stores know this, and they exploit our natural tendencies to sell their products.
All this to say there are many elements at play when we sit down to make a budget, or practice sticking to our budget. There are forces within ourselves and applied externally as consumers. So, if you’re starting to budget for the first time, or you’ve always struggled here is my advice:
- Take it slow
- Be kind to yourself
- Speak about your struggle and your shame
- Ask for help
For the longest time I budgeted and budgeted, but no spreadsheet changed my spending behavior. I’m a type-A personality, with perfectionistic tendencies, and a bit of a control freak, so it was devastating to me that I could not align my behavior to my budget and “be good at money.” I built up a wall of shame around my money, my budget, and my spending. I used avoidance to ignore the diving numbers in my account and spent to get that dose of dopamine anyway. I hated talking about money, to anyone, especially to my loved ones. It wasn’t until I opened up and started working consciously to improve my mental relationship with money that I found any real success in budgeting.
It takes courage and self-confidence to be bad at something and ask for help. It takes strength of will to admit to your friend group that you cannot afford that trip or that restaurant instead of just playing along and paying the price later. These changes take time, patience, and emotional support. It would be great if it was as simple as watching numbers and typing in data—but humans are not simple, and with something as foundational as money we can create all sorts of crazy mental webs and wormholes. So above all, be kind to yourself as you move through this process. However, that does not mean let yourself off the hook and buy something out of budget. I can attest that this does not help. I’ve been there so you don’t have to 😛
Here are my go-to strategies for budgeting:
- Tracking and Monitoring
- Goal amount before entering a store
- Make a list online to be sure you are under budget
- Create reasonable budget numbers to hit and slowly whittle them down
- Give yourself a budgeted amount of spending money/fun money
I track and monitor with multiple methods. I started with a small notebook and writing down any money that went out or came in. This was the first budget breakthrough I had. Now I do the same thing but on my phone. I keep the budget amount for each category in a note and as I spend, I tally up so I know exactly how much is left in the budget each month before I make a purchase. I keep a spreadsheet to track my spending categories from month to month. And finally, I use the free app Mint to see all my transactions in one place and quickly check my net worth.
Setting a goal amount to spend before entering a store seems all well and good as you walk up, but once you’re inside it’s the wild west. This strategy hinges on keeping track of the items in your cart as you shop. Nothing fancy, just round up and don’t forget tax! For grocery shopping I’ve been using the strategy of adding items to a cart online to determine the total and adjusting from there, then I only buy what’s on my list. That way I don’t have to check prices or add up while in-store.
When you are building a budget from scratch and don’t know how much to budget for shopping, look at your past months. Categorize your transactions and add up your totals. You will probably be shocked. A few “harmless” purchases add up right quick. If you spent $800 last month on shopping, it won’t help you to budget only $20 for next month. You will blow right past it and the point of making the budget will be moot. Try for $600, or $500, or $750. Create reasonable goals for yourself, big change takes time. If you use the strategies above you will be able to come in under whatever number you choose. The big win feeling of coming in under budget or at budget is the prize here.
The final strategy is my most recent breakthrough. My husband has been very patient and calm with me as I work through my money anxiety and shame. One day I was sharing some fear and shame about my budget and he asked a simple question: “How much do you have budgeted to spend on yourself, on fun?” And my answer was $0. I was hemorrhaging money in categories like “personal” and “miscellaneous” which were meant for shampoo and oil changes but were being used for clothes or home goods. Once I realized I had no space in my budget for fun shopping or treats, it changed everything. I was more realistic with my categories and what fits into them, and I created an actual budget number for personal spending. Then I could go to Target and not be “bad” as long as I stayed within my budget. That did limit what I could buy, maybe a new t-shirt but not a new bedding set. But I didn’t feel like anything I spent for fun was “wrong” and “bad.” When I had no budget for treats that meant any treat was a budget “indiscretion,” and I was more likely to overspend because in my mind it was already more than I could afford so what did it matter? Now, with a treats budget, I can lavish myself with the shopping experience without shame or guilt and stay on budget!
Now I ask you, dear readers, will you share with me about your experiences budgeting? What strategies do you use? What were your breakthrough moments? What positive reinforcement do you employ to help yourself make budgeting fun?
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