If Budgeting Isn't Fun, You're Doing It Wrong

Photo: Philip Brewer

Make a list of your favorite things to do. Start with your most favorite thing to do, then your next most favorite, and keep going until you get to budgeting. Go ahead; I'll wait.

If you haven't gotten down to budgeting yet, that's okay. There's a reason that most people don't enjoy budgeting, which I'll get to in a minute. But first, I want to talk about how you're doing it wrong.

The wrong way to budget

What do you want? In particular, what do you most want to have and what do you most want to do?

You probably had a bunch of ideas pop into your head. If you've got a minute, go ahead and note them down on the same piece of paper where you were making your list of favorite things to do.

Now spend just a few seconds thinking about a budget.

You probably had a short list of "budget categories" pop into your head: Housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, etc.

So, what's the overlap between those two lists: the things you most want and those classic budget categories? Pretty small, I bet.

See what I mean? You're doing it wrong.

Those classic budget categories almost certainly belong on the list of things you really, really want. (Very few people want to be homeless and starving.) You just don't think to put them on the list because you're used having them.

Budgeting the fun way

Think again about what you really, really want — and this time don't forget to include the stuff that you're used to having, like food to eat and a place to sleep. Make a list. Put it into priority order, with water, food, and shelter at the top. Include electricity (very handy) and maybe your phone bill (if you want keep in touch with friends and family).

But don't stop there. Go ahead and add to the list all those other things you want — the new car, the new computer, the vacation in Fiji, the smart phone, the complete works of L.L. Zamenhof. Rank them in with everything else. If you want those awesome new shoes more than you want clean laundry, go ahead and put the shoes above laundry on your list.

Am I that weird for finding it fun to fantasize about all the cool stuff I want to have and do? Does putting the stuff in a big list make it any less fun? Granted, it would be even more fun to actually have and do them. Happily, that's the next step! Go ahead and treat yourself to the items that are at the top of your list!

Yes, at first, that may just mean "Pay your rent and utility bills," but that's not the end of things. The real reason that budgeting is fun is that it's the best way to get further down your list — to get past the things you need and start getting yourself the things you just want.

Still hate it?

As I said at the top, there's a reason that most people hate budgeting. It's because their finances are out of control. If your finances are out of control, making a list like this feels doesn't feel like a step toward satisfying your wants: It feels like putting your nose up against the window of a shop with everything you want but can't afford.

The solution to that is straightforward, if not exactly simple: Take control of your finances.

The tool for doing so is right there in front of you. Take the list of items that you really, really want and put numbers on it — the cost of each item.

All it takes to be in control of your finances is:

  1. Know what you want
  2. Know how much those things cost
  3. Buy things in order, starting with the most wanted
  4. Quit buying stuff before you spend all your money

Once you're managing those steps routinely — and banking the surplus cash that comes from not spending all your money — you can start planning ways to get those items that fall below the cutoff.

You're probably not going to get the list exactly right on your first try. If all your friends are heading off to see the new 3D movie, joining them is going to seem like a huge want — maybe higher on the list than, let's say, eating lunch out. But after you've bought the ticket and watched the movie — when you're trying to choose between leftovers and a peanut butter sandwich for your brown-bag lunch — maybe you'd rank the movie a bit further down on the list. That's okay. Nobody gets their budget right on the first try. Take your time. Shuffle things up and down on the list. Pretty soon they'll settle down.

That's when it starts getting fun.

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Guest's picture

My wife and I never made a budget. Instead, many years ago, after reading the book "Your Money or Your Life," we started tracking expenses to see where all our money went. And I mean every single penny—categorized so it was easy to see how much we spent on morning coffee, dining out, magazines, clothes, etc. After a few years of that, it was easy to see what we "really" wanted, what we could live without, and what little luxuries we wouldn't want to live without unless times got really hard. Miraculously, everything fell into place shortly thereafter. We no longer even have to keep itemized expenses because we have such a good feel for it now. This has allowed us to pay off all our debt (including mortgage) and save money for the hard times (which are now here for everybody, us included). 

The thing is, we don't feel poorer at all by "denying" ourselves stuff because just by watching our spending without judgement (much a like a zen meditator watches his breath) all is revealed and you come into harmony with your money. It's a sort of homeostasis. Should our financial situation change drastically, we'd have to reach a whole new homeostasis. I don't know if it makes any sense. A bit touchy-feely I suppose.

Philip Brewer's picture

It makes perfect sense.

The goal is to focus your spending on what you really want. A budget is just a tool for reaching that goal. Tracking your spending is another.

Some people manage to reach the goal without needing any tools at all, simply by paying attention. (Pay attention to what you really want and pay attention to what you spend to get it.)

Go with whatever works for you.

Guest's picture

I completely agree with the sentiment of this post, but it assumes that you have a reasonably comfortable income and that your financial "house" is already pretty much in order. I started a budget almost 4 mos. ago and while it does provide me with a much-needed sense of security to know that my non-negotiable bills are paid and absolute necessities are provided for, I'd never say that having it is fun. When I tally up utilities, rent, food (a meager $20/week) and other debts, there really isn't much left for anything fun. I struggle to get even $25/mo in savings. I was hoping there would be some big secret in here to make it more fun for now, but I'm definitely going to aspire to put this into practice once my debt-repayment extravaganza is finished and there's more left after all the non-negotiable bills. Since my issue is income-based, I have considered getting a second job, but my time is worth more to me than selling even more of my life to some company.

Someday I'd LOVE to start taking art classes at the local art co-op, take classes at the YMCA instead of exercising at home, go back to school for the heck of it, cook more gourmet food at home and go on exciting road trips (for geocaching and camping!). Right now it's all still very much out of reach. But a girl can dream!

Philip Brewer's picture

Yeah, that's a really good example of how debt works against happiness. You've already got whatever you borrowed the money for, so the connection between spending and satisfying a want becomes disjoint. Without that connection, the budget's power as a tool is reduced.

I don't know if this is any help or not, but since you mention debt-repayment: Remember that debt repayment is not an expense. Debt repayment is an internal transfer, just like putting money in your savings account. That doesn't make much difference (I mean, it doesn't mean that you don't have to make the payments), but when I was paying off debt I found that it helped me deal with the frustration of forking over the cash and getting nothing in return.

Guest's picture

That does help. Watching the principle go down is what gets me through the slog period.


Guest's picture

MNK--it is frustrating to feel like you can't have what you want. That tends to magnify desires. Just a thought: my son likes to cook and his friends like to eat. They buy the ingredients and he cooks a gourmet meal. Another idea: the Y usually has free or lower-cost classes for those w/ financial need. Fianally, the book "How to Get Out of Debt, Stay out of Debt and Live Prosperously" recommends budgeting for pleasure even while getting out of massive debt.


As for the whole post--once more, I feel like these are my thoughts! Only I didn't figure it all out. I enjoy making lists of what I will get/do each year. Little things like "new pillows for living room." Bigger things like "trip to Montreal."

Guest's picture

Nice job. Budgeting will never be fun. But anything can be more fun than it might otherwise be.

Guest's picture

Phil, I totally agree with you! Having out of control finances can cause people to avoid budgeting. I know people who are so anxious about finances because they simply let the bills pile up to the point where it gets too overwhelming. Getting a prioritized list of expenses is a great way to get things under your control! Thanks for the tip!


A fellow bugeting lover :)

Guest's picture

Thanks for encouraging dreams. As you rattle them around your brain a bit you might be able to fufill them with little or no money. Our boys wanted a tree fort. Between freecycle, curbside gleaning, etc, we have a pretty nifty one out back. A friend in Italy offered accomodations the "next time" we visit. Saving for plane fare is a dream goal. We're starting with spare change, and oddball windfalls. You're right, without dreams, budgeting is no fun. But with dreams, even the tightest budget has possiblities.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, that's it exactly. Dreams make life fun: Especially possible dreams—and a budget makes dreams seem more possible.

Guest's picture

I certainly wasn't expecting the reference to Zamenhof in this article.  Are you an esperantisto?

Philip Brewer's picture

Kompreneble! Ĉu ankaŭ vi estas?

Besides places like this one, where I slip in a reference to the complete works of Zamenhof as something that belongs on a list of wants, I refer to Esperanto a little more directly these two articles:

Guest's picture

This is a better perspective on the budgeting. I'm gonna re-focus on placing what i want to save for in hierarchical order.

Guest's picture

I enjoy budgeting because I feel more in control.  I regularly check to see where I can cut costs.  Like shopping insurance and phone/cable plans.  When I have something I want, I think about what the need/desire is, then try to find a way to fill it by the least expensive means I can.  Examples: Use the library, rent movies/video games, go out with a friend in her canoe, have friends/family over for potluck, take the kids out for a picnic at the local playground. I avoid heavily advertised products. I've stayed out of credit debt and I don't like to accumulate stuff so every purchase is carefully considered.  I love efficiency and a good deal so budgeting is fun to me.

Guest's picture

wow! Great post. I have been tracking my finances for about three years now and it has been wonderful to know how much money more I can save or put towards things that are actually fulfilling. Thank you for the added insights.

I like the idea of making a list of the things that are most import to the leaste important. I can think of three things that would be on that list:

1. House

2. Baby

3. Surfboards (buying these now prolongs the getting of the other two)

Visit Free Online Expense Report

Guest's picture


I enjoyed reading your post on making budgeting more fun. I'm actually launching Zindagi, a social enterprise that takes this concept to the next level. We combine aspects of social gaming with real money in order to teach kids how to manage their money responsibly.

I'd really like to tell you more, if your' interested

Guest's picture

food was the first thing on both lists... yes, I'm hungry right now.