Should You Budget Like You Diet?


"Spend less" is right up there with "lose weight" and "eat better" as one of the more popular New Year's resolutions of all time. We are almost halfway through 2016 and, whether your resolutions are going well or poorly, there's probably room for improvement.

It's a great time to sit back and evaluate your resolutions. Are you achieving your goals? Do you feel half-hearted, at best, about the things you're pursuing? What can you do to improve over the rest of the year?

If you wanted to budget better and spend less, you can take some hints from the people trying to lose weight. In some ways, these are very similar endeavors, and you can learn from the things we know about losing weight to gain some financial heft.

Think Simple

Michael Pollan is famous for saying that we should only eat food with five or fewer ingredients, all of which we recognize and can pronounce. This helps dieters to eliminate junk from their diets, and a similar simplicity can help you spend less.

Think about paring down your life so that you only buy things you need, or taking certain extravagant categories out of your budget entirely. You might consider selling the five pairs of shoes that you never wear and replacing them with one that actually meets your needs. Or maybe you don't really need to go to happy hour every evening, after all. When you eliminate these things from your financial diet, you will spend less.

Prepare Yourself Ahead of Time

Some people gain weight simply because they never have healthy food around. They can combat this by meal planning and prepping — spending some time, once or twice a week, getting food ready for the next few days. This can include meals, snacks, even desserts. Similarly, if you sit down once a week to plan your spending, you can save money.

Take 30 minutes every week to look ahead at what you'll need to spend money on. Maybe you need to buy lunch for your team at work this week, or you've got to have a new clothes dryer. Work out how you're going to find the money for those things. You can even do some research online, so you know about how much you'll spend. Even just having a ballpark figure in your mind can help you refrain from overspending when making the actual purchase.

For larger items, take the time to research different options, etc. Decide what features you really need, want, and can afford, so you don't end up splurging last minute.

Consistency Is Key

One of the major principles of modern weight loss is consistency. You can't just eat well one or two days a week, but you need to make good food choices every day. Similarly, if you want to spend less money, you need to figure out how to consistently make good financial choices, too.

Figure out what motivates you financially. Are you saving for a trip to the Caribbean? Do you want to buy a new car or a house or know that you can retire at 60? Keeping your goals in the forefront of your mind (and even writing them down where you can see them) will help you remember, every day, that every choice matters.

There Are No Villains Here

Dieters are learning that there's no such thing as a bad food. Sure, some foods have less nutritional value, but when you're craving something, it's better to have a little than to deprive yourself now and binge later. A similar principle can apply financially.

If there's something you really want to buy, and you say no and think about it for a week or a month and you still want it, it's worth looking into ways to get it. If you need to save, start a special savings account. If you can fit it in your budget by taking other, non-essential things out, then make it work. Otherwise, wanting that thing can make you miserable.

Along the same lines, there are no absolute rules for saving. There's nothing that says it's always wrong to spend money, and no saving formula that works for everyone. Instead of villainizing certain items and methods, realize that there is a time and place for everything, even in your budget.

Take Baby Steps

Dieters often find that taking baby steps — making small changes one at a time — is more effective for achieving their goals than overhauling their lives entirely. Budgeting and saving money can be like that, too.

Instead of eliminating whole categories from your budget ("I'm not going to eat out at all this month!"), try making incremental changes ("I'm only going to eat out twice, instead of four times, this week."). These kinds of changes will make you feel less like you are missing out, and you will still end up with more money in the bank than you would have otherwise.

Do It Yourself

People who cook their own food often end up weighing less than those who don't. In a similar vein, people who DIY it as much as possible often save money.

Last week, my washing machine stopped working. I had several people send me names and numbers of repair folks. I'm sure they were well-intentioned, but I decided to try it myself, first. Sure, it took a couple of hours and some YouTube-ing, but I was able to do the necessary repairs on my own. I saved myself at least a couple hundred dollars because I didn't call the repair guy.

There are a lot of things you can learn to do online in order to save yourself some cash. Sure, you have to balance the cost of your time and energy with what you'd spend, but it's often fiscally worthwhile, not to mention satisfying, to do simple repairs and food prep yourself.

Take a Financial Cheat Day Now and Then

Some weight loss experts consider it wise to plan a cheat day (or a cheat meal) into your diet so you don't feel so deprived and end up binging. Planning a financial cheat day can function very much the same way.

Note that a cheat doesn't have to be huge. Buy your coffee instead of making it one day a week, or take your family for authentic Mexican instead of Taco Bell. Plan your cheats around things you really want, things that are satisfying to you, and you'll be able to stick to a stricter budget the rest of the time and, ultimately, you'll spend less than if you tried to restrain yourself all the time.

Do you budget like you eat? What does that look like for you?

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