If you think of your finances as a house, then your budget is the foundation. A budget is a detailed plan for spending, saving and repaying debt if you have credit cards or loans you’re trying to pay off.
But making a budget and actually living by it are two different things. It’s relatively easy to create a budget plan outlining how much income you have for the month versus what you anticipate spending. The difficult part is adhering to the plan, day in and day out.
Creating a realistic budget means carefully reviewing the numbers, but it’s just as important to consider your financial habits and goals. These tips can help you get in tune with your budget so that it’s working for you, not against you.
1. Start With Your Budgeting Mindset
The first step in living your budget is understanding what it means to you and what you hope to gain from it. Whether you view your budget in a positive or negative light can influence your relationship with it.
For example, do you see your budget as something that allows you to take control of how you spend or something that puts restrictions on how you spend? At its heart, a budget is meant to be a tool for telling your money where to go each month. But if you view it as being restrictive or taking away your ability to do what you like with your money, you may be more tempted to rebel against it. If you’ve ever tried to diet, rather than to change your eating and exercise habits, you may have experience with this.
If you’ve struggled with sticking to your budget, ask yourself these questions:
- How does budgeting make me feel?
- What do I dislike about budgeting?
- What fears do I associate with making a budget?
- Have I subconsciously overlooked the benefits of budgeting?
- How can living on a budget help me achieve my financial goals?
Asking these kinds of questions can give you some perspective on your relationship with your budget and where you may be able to improve it.
2. Examine Your Money Habits
Regardless of how much time you spend making a budget each month, it won’t work if it conflicts with your actual spending or financial habits. If you haven’t taken a close look at how you spend lately, you could be self-sabotaging your budgeting efforts without even realizing it.
This can take different forms and, frequently, it’s smaller things rather than big ones that end up wrecking your budget plans. Things that can work against you include:
- Making small but frequent impulse purchases
- Shopping your feelings (also referred to as retail therapy)
- Paying bills late, which can lead to late fees
- Overlooking recurring charges on your bank or credit card statements
- Failing to plan for expenses that occur quarterly, biannually or annually
Tracking your spending and keeping a spending diary can help you identify the first two bad money habits on the list. Writing down each time you make an unplanned purchase or describing what you felt on a recent shopping binge may be uncomfortable, but it’s important for addressing those bad habits that may be hurting your budget.
3. Exchange Old Money Habits for New Ones
Once you’ve identified the financial habits that keep you from staying on-budget, you can work on adopting new ones. As mentioned above, keeping track of your expenses and recording a spending diary are both steps in the right direction.
You can make budgeting more manageable and less stressful in other ways as well. Setting up automatic bill payment, for instance, means you don’t have to worry about late payments and the added cost of late fees. If you can’t automate bills or prefer not to because you have irregular income, you can schedule bill payment alerts to remind you of when a due date is approaching.
Auditing your bank and credit card statements can help you find automatic charges that are wasting money unnecessarily. These are small expenses that you may overlook when planning your budget, such as:
- Streaming subscriptions you don’t use
- Paid memberships that you were charged after a free trial ended
- Subscriptions to magazines or newspapers you no longer read
Cost creep can also fall under this heading. This happens when you start off paying one price for a service or product, only to see its price increase incrementally over time. Reviewing your statements can help you root out these expenses so you can decide whether to cancel or keep them.
Creating a sinking funds account can help you plan for expenses you don’t pay as often. For example, say you have a $1,200 car insurance bill that’s due every six months. You could set up a separate savings account and budget $200 from your paycheck into it each month. This way, you’ll have the money to pay when the bill comes due rather than feeling overwhelmed or being taken by surprise.
The better your planning suits your personal and spending habits, the more likely you will avoid costly budget mistakes.
4. Choose the Right Budgeting Method
There’s more than one way to make a budget. If you’re having difficulty with living out the budget you’ve set for yourself, it could be because you’ve chosen the wrong method.
Some of the most popular ways to budget include:
The zero-based budget method requires you to assign every dollar of income you have to a specific job each month. With this type of budget, there should be no waste or money left over; every penny you earn should go to expenses, saving or debt repayment.
The cash envelope method can be used alongside the zero-based budgeting method or on its own. With this type of budget, you create envelopes for each budget category you have. A set dollar amount is assigned to each envelope. Once that money is gone, you can’t spend any more money in that category until the next budget period starts.
A 50/20/30 budget keeps things simple. Fifty percent of your income goes toward necessary expenses, 20% is applied to savings or debt repayment and the remaining 30% goes toward “wants.”
If you’re paid weekly or biweekly, budgeting by paycheck could work for you. This method involves assigning money to bills, savings, debt and other expenses each pay period. For example, if you’re paid biweekly, you might use your first paycheck to cover your utilities, food and car payment while your second paycheck goes toward your mortgage and savings.
Perhaps you seek the implied control—and also freedom—that a weekly allowance offers to children. Using this method as an adult, you would give yourself a finite amount of money for discretionary spending each week.
The great thing about having different budgeting methods to choose from is that you can experiment to find one that fits your lifestyle and financial situation. You may prefer the 50/20/30 budget method over zero-based budgeting, for example, if you want to leave some flexibility in how you spend. Or you may prefer the cash envelope method if you want to take a break from spending with your debit or credit cards.
5. Use Tools That Make Living Your Budget Easier
As you work toward bringing your lifestyle and budget in harmony, consider what personal finance tools you can use to smooth the path.
For example, you may want to use a budgeting app to track your spending and income automatically. This saves you the trouble of crunching the numbers, which means you can take your budget with you anywhere you go.
If saving money is one area you’ve struggled with within your budget, you can also use automatic saving and investing apps to commit to setting aside cash regularly. Debt repayment apps can help you stay on track with paying off student loans, credit cards or other debts. And some personal finance apps allow you to manage budgeting, saving, debt and investing all in one place to simplify things even further.
Using banking and personal finance apps can take some of the stress out of managing your money each month. The more you can simplify the thought process that goes into creating a budget, the easier it may be to follow through on the plan.
6. Fine-Tune Your Budget Regularly
Your budget, just like your life, can change and evolve. There may be new expenses to account for if you get married, start a family, buy a home or achieve any other major milestones. And there may be some expenses that go away as you pay off student loans or become more intuitive about cutting out unnecessary costs.
What matters is that you continually revisit and review your budget to ensure that it’s still meeting your needs. Scheduling a monthly budget check-in—perhaps in the form of a budget date night with your spouse—can help you stay in touch with your spending and income. During your check-in, you can review:
- How your income may have increased or decreased over the previous month
- What you anticipate your income looking like for the month ahead
- Areas where you succeeded in spending less than what you planned
- Areas where you may have spent more than you initially planned
- Progress you’ve made toward your short- and long-term financial goals
The more you do this, the more comfortable you may feel with the idea of budgeting. And over time, you’ll begin to see the financial improvements that come from staying true to your budget.