Budgeting for the rest of us, or How to follow a budget without breaking down in tears

By Sarah Winfrey on 5 March 2007 comments

My budget?

Budgeting can be difficult. For some people (like me!), it brings up things that they may not want to see. For others, it's a necessary but frustrating tool to curtail spending, or a painful reminder of how much they overspent, yet again. But there are a few people who live well on a budget. These few manage to record their spending and yet aren't overwhelmed by that. They see where they spend too much and yet don't give up the budget. Month after month they take the time to collect their receipts, enter them, and evaluate based on the results. They aren't overwhelmed or discouraged, and they don't give up. Instead, they plug away at it until they get their spending under control, and then they often keep at it to have a record of their money goes. Slowly, slowly, I'm becoming one of them, and here is what I've learned along the way.

Give yourself some space

Your budget is not going to work perfectly from the beginning, unless you're a financial genius. It's just not. Gas will cost more than you expected, or your phone will get stolen and the company will charge you for the extra minutes, throwing off your careful planning. Things happen. Life happens. Particularly in the early stages of budgeting, you're working with unsure numbers. You'll get better at estimating as you go along. You'll also get better at knowing what you need. A friend might only need to spend $50 a month on gas, but your visits to Grandma Sue push that up to $100 for you. It's ok. Also, part of what a budget is intended to do is to track money over time. So if your cell bill is high one month, it might be lower the next. Maybe you'll change plans in 6 months and pay a lower monthly fee. Your budget will show you your average spending, which will both cancel out some extra costs you might pay along the way and help you make a better average next time.

Budget for yourself

You have needs and desires that others don't have. I, for instance, really want to take a pottery class next fall. So right now I'm starting to budget for it. It shouldn't be too expensive, but I want to be sure those recreational costs are covered. These are costs that others won't have, but they're important to me and that's ok. Many budget programs come with a list of categories, and it's easy to feel like you need to fit your spending into those. Instead, wipe the memory clean of categories and start from the beginning. Make your budget reflect your life, or it won't help you save. It might help Joe Generic save, or the couple two doors down, but it won't help you.

It's ok to overspend sometimes

Money isn't the highest priority. When something else is more important than keeping to your budget or saving money, and you make the decision, it's ok to overspend. For Valentine's Day, Dave and I went out to dinner. It wasn't anything particularly fancy, but it cost us a little extra in our "eating out" category. For us, that was ok because we decided to overspend. We were intentional about it and evaluated it in light of the other categories in the budget. Since we didn't spend nearly our full amount in other categories, and we really needed a break, we decided to splurge a little. It's hard to see the numbers at the bottom of our column turn red (that means we overspent) and not feel like I'm somehow a bad, irresponsible person, but I do know better.

Your money is only yours

You earned it so it's yours to spend. However you like. Whenever you like. Wherever you like. End of story. You can publish your budget to the internet , but you don't have to. If others are going to be critical, keep them out. You're also the one trying to be responsible with your money here, which means that it's fine to ask for help if you want it. But don't ask from someone who isn't going to approve your categories, your amounts, or anything else about your budget. You make it, you keep it.

Work with a group

If you're trying to learn to budget, find some friends who are in the same boat, or who have been budgeting for a while. Agree to meet and talk about how your budget is going, whether you're keeping it up, etc. If you're worried that they might not approve of your choices or understand your categories, put in that agreement the statement that they can help you keep to what you budget, but can't set your categories or criticize the decisions you've made unless you ask them for that kind of advice.

Give it at least six months before you give up

If you haven't done it before, budgeting is a new habit. It takes a while to feel natural, not cludgy, and not binding. Give it at least six months before you decide to throw in the towel. Stick with your decision to record your spending and you may just find that it fits you after all. It's like switching to shoes when you've worn sandals for years--they feel tight, but they're really the right size.

While budgeting is difficult, it's not impossible, and it does get better with time. Stick with it. Have courage. Face down the evil checkbook. Eventually, you can be triumphant.

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