Why Budgeting Doesn’t Work For Most People (And How To Make It Work For You!)

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Summary

When most people think about trying to improve the state of their finances, “budgeting” tends to be one of the first words that comes up.

And that’s a shame.  Really.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who actually likes budgeting.  And there are a few good reasons for not liking traditional budgeting:

  1. Most of us think that “budgeting” means at best, being cheap, and at worst, cutting our spending on things that we like to spend money on.
  2. Budgeting isn’t easy. In fact, the way most of us try to make budgets for ourselves, it takes effort to consistently make it work.

What happens when we make something that isn’t fun difficult as well?  We don’t actually do it.

Which is why I like to approach budgeting with a very different mindset.  In this video, I discuss how to approach budgeting in a way that will make you more aware of where your money is going each month. We also discuss ways to align your budget with what’s actually important to you, in a way that’s easy to maintain.

Most people make it easy to spend a lot of money, and hard to save.  In the video below, I’m going to show you how to make it hard not to save money.

To download a FREE copy of the Newlywed Money Checklist that we discuss in this piece, click here to grab it!

(Bill’s Note: This video, and the lightly edited transcription below, was originally recorded as a Facebook Live broadcast on January 29, 2018. If you want to participate in our next Facebook Live session, which are normally held every Monday at 8 PM Eastern, head to our Facebook page, hit “like”, and you’ll get the announcement the next time we go live.  Most of the content comes from questions submitted by my readers and viewers, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, send a message to our Facebook page and we will get back to you as soon as we can!)

Introduction:  How Can I Make My Budget Stick?

Welcome, everyone! Welcome to our weekly Facebook Live chat. We broadcast this at 8:00 PM Eastern time every Monday.  Today, we’re doing a little bit earlier because I’m going to be in a meeting with a client at 8:00 PM.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about budgeting.  And specifically, why I think budgeting tends to not work for people.  And we’ll share some strategies to get around this.

I got a question from someone today who follows the page- let’s call him Eric. (I typically don’t use people’s real names because I know money is a sensitive subject for people. And so, I try to respect everybody’s anonymity for these questions.)

Anyway, I got a question from “Eric”.  It says, “Hi Bill, I’m a big fan of the new video series and have a question that I’d like your opinion on. I recently downloaded your Newlywed Money Checklist and I’m currently working through it with my wife.  We got to the section that discusses creating a budget and we got stuck with it. We’ve tried a few things in the past related to budgeting and they never seem to really work for us. How do we make a budget for our family that actually sticks?”

Amen, Eric! That’s a great question.  One that I get quite a bit actually.  First off, congrats on not only your recent marriage, but taking a step forward and downloading the Newlywed Money Checklist.  And not only just downloading it, but actually working through it. That’s awesome. It’s a big step.  If anyone wants to grab this checklist and follow along as we go, click here to download it.

Most Budgeting Strategies Are Difficult to Maintain

So let’s get to the heart of the question. Budgeting really and truly doesn’t work for a lot of people. And the reason for this is that we make it so difficult for ourselves to actually do it and stick to it.

I’ve seen a lot of different strategies that people have used over the years to try to manage their budget.  Everything from creating spreadsheets- literally typing in all different ways that they spend their money.  Or, using a tracking site like Mint.com, where you sync your credit cards and they pull in your transactions for you.  Sometimes, people try a strategy where they literally only spend cash as a way to really try to prevent yourself from overspending.  And even a derivative of this, which I actually like a lot, called the Dollar Bill Savings Method. I’ll probably talk a little bit about that strategy on another Facebook Live because I do think it’s kind of an interesting strategy for people who are struggling with trying to save.

But ultimately for most people, however you do it, budgeting means keeping track in detail of where your money is going each and every month.

There’s a reason why that doesn’t work and why I don’t like to think about budgeting in this way. It’s really two-fold.

Budgeting Highlights our Weaknesses

First and foremost, I think we tend to overlook it, but most people I talk to have some sort of anxiety, or shame, or even guilt about how they handle their money. It’s not something we’ve ever been taught, and it’s not something we’re inherently good at. We need to practice how to handle our money over time. Most of us are far from perfect in this regard, and we tend to not like to pay close attention to things we’re not perfect at.  As a species, this is something that all of us struggle with.

Here’s the thing- paying close attention to our budget tends to emphasize these weaknesses, or are these things that we’re unhappy with.  And as a result, people just don’t like to pay attention to their budget, which I think is perfectly understandable. But ultimately, it doesn’t help solve the problem

Traditional Budgeting Methods Are Hard

And secondly and probably most importantly, it’s a lot of work. We make it really, really hard for ourselves to actually track our budget.

If we’re using spreadsheets, we need to update them manually.  If you’re using Mint, you actually have to remember to log on to see how you’re doing.  And then once you get there, a bunch of your transactions are categorized incorrectly, so you need to go in and fix those. And finally, they don’t track your cash spending at all on these platforms. So, you have to actually manually input all the different ways you spend your cash.

Budgeting sucks. Plain and simple. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. And if you make it hard on yourself to do something that’s not fun, guess what?  It’s not going to happen. Like most New Year’s resolutions, you start budgeting, you’re excited about it at the beginning, it lasts a couple of weeks, but as soon as things get busy, it’s the first thing that we tend to drop because it’s something that we don’t enjoy and it’s hard.

Introducing… Two New Ways to Think About Budgeting

Which is why I like to think about budgeting in a completely different state of mind. To me, budgeting isn’t about only spending $20 at Starbucks this month. (And if you spend $21, that’s BAD, and Mint’s going to send you a nasty email calling you out on it!  Give me a break.) That’s not healthy. I don’t think that’s the way we should be doing budgeting.

Instead, budgeting is about two “A” words. Awareness of where your money is going (and awareness is never a bad thing, right?)  And aligning your money with what’s actually important to you.

So let’s walk through these one by one, starting with awareness.

Budgeting = Awareness

If you want to start budgeting, this is what I recommend, particularly for people who want to be saving more and find that they’re having a hard time doing it. I want you to do this:  before you start breaking out the spreadsheets or syncing all of your accounts to Mint, walk through this exercise.

This is something that, full disclosure, is not something that I’ve developed myself. For those of you who have followed the page for a while, you’ll know that I consider myself to be a “disciple” of Carl Richards. Carl is a two-time New York Times bestselling author of books about how to manage money.  (If you are serious about making improvements to the way you handle your finances, they are must-reads.  You can find them here and here.) He also writes a weekly column in the New York Times about money that I highly recommend. This is an exercise that he does and I think it’s really instructive here.

If you’re having a hard time budgeting and want to get started, do this for me over the next two weeks. Whenever you go to spend money, no matter what it is, no matter where it is, no matter what you’re spending it on, whether it’s necessary or whether it’s just for fun, do the following.  Whenever you spend money from today until two weeks from now, stop for a minute. And just think about it.

Actively try to think about how you’re spending money. Say to yourself, “Hmmm. I just went to the store and bought $125 worth of clothes. Isn’t that interesting?”

“I just spent $45 a bar… Isn’t that interesting?”  Just stop to think about it for a minute. Literally think about it. There’s no judgment, but whenever you spend money, just stop and be mindful about it for a second before you start rushing to the next thing.

You might be surprised, if you actually stop for a couple of seconds to pay attention, about the trends that you start to notice with where your money goes. You know, I frequently hear from people who do this who didn’t realize how much they were spending in particular categories of expenses that they didn’t actually really care about.

They spend money on whatever it is, they just do it, and it’s habitual. But when they actually stopped to think about it, they started to catch on to some of these trends.  So before you start putting yourself through a ton of work to track your transactions manually, stop and reflect on what you spend money on.  And see what you notice.

If it doesn’t work for you, then move on to the second piece that we’re to talk about, but give it a shot.

Budgeting is about bringing alignment between what your say is important to you financially and where your money actually goes.
Aligning Your Money With What’s Actually Important To You

The second strategy, the other way I want you to try to think about budgeting has to do with aligning where your money goes with what’s actually important to you.  Putting your money toward the things that are important to you, FIRST. This is my preferred method because I think it probably is the easiest one and it’s the fastest way to get results when it comes to your budget. There are a few steps involved.

First and foremost, I want you to figure out how much money is coming in every month, and I’m not talking about your annual salary divided by twelve. I’m talking about how much money actually gets deposited into your bank account every month.  After taxes are taken out, after your 401(k) contributions- how much money is coming in every month?

How Much Do You Actually Need To Save?

The second piece is a little bit harder. And it involves figuring out how much money you actually need to be saving to make sure you’re able to do the things that are important to you.

Never mind what you should be saving. What do you actually need to save?

Look, this is a complicated step.  It’s not easy to calculate how much you need to be saving to retire when you want to 30 or 40 years from now. It’s not easy to figure out how much you need to be saving to pay for a child’s college several years in the future. But you need to actually sit down and do this, first and foremost.

If you need help with that, reach out. I’ll help you figure out what those numbers are for you- but however you do it, you need to figure them out.

To recap this budgeting method so far: step one, how much money is coming in? Step two is how much do you actually need to save?

Automate, Automate, Automate

And then once you have that, I want you to login to your bank and schedule an automatic transfer coming out of your checking account every month to either a savings or an investment account for that dollar amount.

If you go through step two and find that you need to save $2,000 every month, I want you, tonight, to go ahead and set up a $2,000 transfer from your checking to your savings account every month.

And that really is the key here. We make it hard on ourselves to save.  For most people, when money comes into the checking account, we spend it and then whatever’s left over, we save it… if we actually remember to log in and transfer it to your savings account.

I want you to set this transfer up automatically. Make it hard for yourself not to save.

Remember, this isn’t permanent. If there are some months where you have higher expenses – if a car breaks down, if you just want to spend a little bit more money that month – that’s OK. You can always go to your savings account and transfer money back to your checking account.

But make that the hard step.  Pay yourself first, and then, if you actually need a little bit more money, you can pull a little bit out of savings. I’m giving you permission to do that.

But don’t make it easy for yourself to just spend that money. Actually put it away and make it so you actively have to think about taking it out. And if you do that, you’re going to be much, much more likely to actually make your budget work for you.

Spend the Rest, Guilt-Free!

And once you do that, once you set up the transfer for how much you need to save every month, spend the rest however you want. I don’t care.

If you’re able to save as much as you need to in order to accomplish the things that are important to you, I really don’t care where the rest of your money goes. And frankly, neither should you.

As long as you’re actively putting money toward the things that are most important to you, do whatever you want with the rest. Don’t worry about it, and don’t feel guilty about it. You’re saving as much as you need to. It’s really that easy.

It’s Not Always That Simple

Now, there’s one caveat. If you tend to actually spend more than you have left after putting money into savings, that’s when this strategy can get a little bit more difficult. And then, and only then, is when I want you to just start thinking through budgeting in the “traditional” sense. At this point, you’ll need to look to cut spending from particular places.

If we’re able to save as much as we need to save and you have a little bit of money left over, you don’t need to worry about it. But if you find that you’re having a hard time saving what you want to be saving, this is when we’re going to start trying to find ways to cut back.

And from there, here’s what I would do, in order, if you’re looking to solve this problem.

There Are Two Components to Budgeting.  Start with the One that Nobody Ever Talks About

First and foremost, when we talk about budgeting, there’s two components to it. There’s the income side and the spending side.

Most people tend to only focus on the expenses, but if you really are having a hard time saving as much as you need to every month, I want you to actually start by looking at the income side. Are there ways you could grow your income? From putting your money into investments that actually pay you income that could help potentially close that gap, to negotiating a higher salary at work if you think you’re underpaid and can back that up, to even starting some sort of side hustle. You might not actually need to cut your spending at all.

When we think about budgeting traditionally, we tend to only focus on the spending piece. But we really should be taking a look at the income side as well. So first and foremost, let’s start there.

Find the Easiest and Most Impactful Ways to Trim Spending

If that’s not enough, or if growing your income isn’t an option for you for whatever reason, the next step is not to start nickel and diming on your coffee every month.  That’s the hardest way to actually do this.  Instead, what are your top three or four categories of expenses every month? Where does most of your money actually go?

Now, for most people, this is some sort of combination of your rent or mortgage payments, student loan payments, transportation costs, food or even clothing. Pull all that stuff together in those big categories and ask yourself, what’s the easiest and least impactful cut that you can make to your biggest areas of expense?

In other words, if the goal is to cut your spending by a certain dollar amount every month, what’s the easiest way to actually do that? For most people, that’s not going to be coffee, right? Start with the biggest areas of expenses.

So maybe it means that it might make sense for you to move to a cheaper apartment the next time your lease is up. Or taking the bus or subway a little bit more rather than taking Ubers. Or if you have student loans, trying to switch your student loan repayment plan might be a good idea (if you have federal loans).  If you have private student loans, maybe trying to refinance them is a good idea. Or trying to cook a little bit more at home might be a good idea if you spend a lot on food.

The point is, there’s a lot of different ways to do this.  And each one is different, depending on what you actually need to be doing.

Make That Your Goal.  Not Just Budgeting

But only if you need to, write and make that your New Year’s Resolution. Don’t just make budgeting your resolution, but actually find the easiest and most impactful areas to cut if you need to. And when you do that, you’re going to find your budget tends to just come in order.

Make it as easy as you can on yourself. Make it hard not to save for yourself and from there, only if you need to cut spending, cut the pieces that are the easiest and most impactful for you to cut.

But ultimately, if you take anything away from this video here today, recognize that if you’re struggling with traditional budgeting and you feel like it doesn’t work for you, you are not alone.

Make Budgeting As Easy As It Can Be

The best thing you can do to make your budget work is to figure out how much you need to save every month and set it up to save that amount automatically. Move it from your checking to your savings account without thinking about it, without actually going in and doing it every month, and make the rest of your spending revolve around that. If you need to pull some of that money out of savings for whatever reason, you always can do that, but make that the hard part.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to do this. But you should be making it easy for yourself to save rather than the other way around.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful. Thanks so much to “Eric” for sending in this great question and working through our Newlywed Money Guide.  You can download that guide here if you’d like to learn more.

And again, if you have any questions about figuring out how much exactly you need to be saving every month, reach out and I’d be glad to help you out however I can. Thanks so much for joining us, and I hope you have a great day.