It’s one thing to come up with a budget, but a whole other story to actually stick with it. How many times have you made New Year resolutions that are never fulfilled? And despite what personal finance “gurus” tell you, sticking to a budget takes more than just “willpower.” Willpower, as psychologists know, is a limited resource. If you spend your willpower sticking to your budget, other parts of your life – perhaps your health – may suffer. Willpower can be improved, but it’s a long and painful process – and even then, it’s still limited.
For example, if you resist buying that dress you love, you may let yourself go with that cookie. So what can you do? That’s the good news: all it takes is a little understanding of motivation.
Your Immediate Needs
We all know that if you reward someone for a particular behavior, that someone will probably do more of that behavior. If you punish that person for a particular behavior, on the other hand, you discourage him/her from repeating that behavior. The theory is simple, but its application is a bit more complex.
For example, someone could cut out everything discretionary and lead a hermit life in an effort to save as much money as possible. Say the goal is to purchase a property in 10 years. Is it possible? Absolutely! Is it likely they will succeed? Not really. Why? It’s not because his math isn’t right. It’s because they’ll give up half way through the process – probably sooner.
The mistake is in not balancing long term goals and immediate needs. By cutting what they love to do out of the budget, they are, in effect, punishing themselves for saving money. Now imagine being punished hundreds of times for a reward that’s 10 years in the future. Every time you want to watch a movie, you think about not being able to afford it and, if you do cave in, you’ll feel guilty about it later.
This is why when you plan your monthly budget, be very sure you include discretionary expenses in it. If you like to watch a movie every weekend, reserve $20 a week for it – and go watch a movie guilt-free. Sure it’ll be a little slower to achieve your goals, but you’ll also have multiplied your chances of sticking to it.
Make It Easy
The next tip is straightforward yet often under-appreciated: make it easy to stick to your budget. This means two things:
- You need to be very realistic when you set the numbers. Psychological surveys find that people consistently overestimate how well they will do in the future – and that applies to budgeting too. You may think cutting your grocery spend by 50% is no problem when your stomach is full, but when you’re hungry and all you have is a bowl of salad… it’s inevitable you’ll break your budget.
- Keep your budget simple if you’re new. A good recipe for quitting is to adopt a full-on accounting audit and make it so complex, you need to take a course to understand it. The first thing you need to do is to find out exactly how much you make, after tax, down to the dollar. You’ll be surprised how many people don’t even know this. Then find out how much you spend on a monthly basis.
Start with this simple formula: Income minus expenses – This will immediately tell you if you’re living beyond your means. See how easy is it? Deeper analysis – like seeing exactly where you overspend – will be easy once you did all the work for the first step.
See how this approach is different from taking on an accounting audit? This approach doesn’t involve swallowing a cow whole. First get to the T-Bone, then the Porterhouse, and so on until only the bones are left.
For some helpful budgeting tools and worksheets, visit ACCC’s Financial Fitness Center.
Ally is part of the team that manages Budgeting Spreadsheet and How to Save Money, which are both personal finance blogs based in Sydney, Australia. Before joining BS & HSTM, she was a Media Planner in McCann Worldgroup Philippines, Inc., with award-winning executions, including the Levi’s 501 “Live Unbuttoned” global campaign.
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