How to Stick to a Budget

Written by Susan Lahey
Published February 12, 2019
how to stick to your budget how to stick to your budget

People tend to make budgets only when their finances are giving them trouble, and not before. So, they may sit down in a fit of inspiration and knock out a budget that they forget within a week. Alternatively, they may make them in a flurry of self-discipline, determined to "get it together," but they design a budget that's too strict, and they can't follow. There are many reasons people fail at staying with a budget. Here are several strategies for how to stick to a budget.

Build a Realistic Budget

When you make a budget using software like Mint or YNAB, it will show you how you're actually spending money. It's important to drill into those expenses to find out what your habits are because that will give you a warning where you might fall off the budget wagon.

One problem people have is lumping too much into "unexpected expenses." The fact is, you can expect most of these expenses. Rather than planning every dollar on things like rent and groceries, set aside money for things like car repairs, birthday gifts, new clothes, household items, a night out. You know you're going to spend the money, and you don't want to rack up credit card debt. Solve this by building in a reasonable amount to spend while finding a way to finance it without cheating on your budget. Instead of having your budget for truly unexpected expenses just sit in the bank, put it in an interest-bearing investment account that you can always pull money from if you need it.

Build the Budget on Habits

Decision fatigue is when you get to the end of your ability to make any more decisions. Theoretically, we each make 35,000 decisions a day, ranging from which shoes to wear to whether to change jobs. We get tired of making decisions, so we start going for whatever is easiest. That's why you can start a calorie restricted diet in the morning and be eating a plate of burritos while drinking several beers eight hours later.

However, when something is a habit, it removes the decision-making part. So, sticking to your budget is much easier if you have as much of it on autopilot as possible.

Have a set amount automatically deducted each month for savings and retirement accounts.

Have as many of your bills as possible on automatic payment and deducted on or immediately following your payday.

Put as many varying bills as you can on an average payment plan.

Set up a grocery list of foods you regularly buy that's just under your weekly budget, so you have a little wiggle room to buy extra treats, but you stay within budget. The fewer things you must think about the more likely you are to stick to your budget.

Outsmart "Retail Therapy"

Buying the things we want releases dopamine. It activates the reward center of the brain. That's why some people go shopping after a breakup, after a hard week, any time they feel kind of down. It gives them a little jolt of good feelings. So, paying attention to when your brain lights up with an expensive idea is useful. If you don't, you might just buy the thing, go off budget, then feel shame and try to keep yourself even more tightly in check, then feel frustrated, then suddenly you're back to the mall.

Instead, researchers discovered that you could actually increase dopamine by building anticipation of a reward. So, when you feel the urge to spend, put it toward something you're saving for anyway—like a down payment on a house or a vacation. Alternatively, spend it on a gift for someone else that you would have had to buy in the future. Then you get the mental reward and no guilt.

Beware the Pitfalls of Convenience

If you listen to the advertising for food delivery places, they make a great argument about how much time they're saving you, along with saving you the cost of buying groceries, and transportation…. So, when you're tired and don't want to cook, ordering out is a great temptation. Studies show that ordering food from restaurants is five times more expensive than buying groceries and cooking your own food. That means an average American who spends $250 a month on groceries would be spending $1,250 on food. Seen another way, each meal that costs $10 plus $4 delivery plus a $2 tip (that's $16!) would have cost $3 if you'd made it.

So instead of ordering out, make cooking a habit with a rotation of meals you like, that take little effort, and save yourself thousands.

Know Your Triggers

We all have moments when we feel like we simply must pull out more money than we planned. Here's how to tackle some of those situations.

It's the Holidays, and You Don't Have Money for Gifts

The first solution for this is to build gifts into your budget and put the money in an interest-bearing savings account where you can retrieve it when you need it. If you find yourself at gift-giving time without money, instead of blowing your budget on presents that people may or may not remember in a month, take time to think about each person and what they've told you about their lives. Think of something you can give they really need—like an evening of watching their kids or help on a project like cleaning out their garage.

Don't Always Say "Yes" To Your Kids' Wants

Build an allowance for each child into your budget. You may want to tie it to completion of chores, or some other behavior. This will give them early training in financial management that will make life easier for them as they get older and have their own money to manage. Moreover, it will put the decision for a new game or toy versus a night at the movies in their laps.

Friends Are in Town and Going to An Expensive Restaurant

Again, this is the kind of "unexpected expense" we can all expect. If you've planned for "unexpected expenses," and you've already used up that part of the budget for the month, you can go determine before the event where you'll make up the difference, like reducing your grocery budget. Think of it not as depriving yourself, but as being true to yourself. Just be sure you determine before you get there how much you will spend and where you will get the money to fund it.

Many of us think of a budget as a straitjacket that keeps us from having what we want. Instead, we need to realize a budget is a vehicle we create to get where we want to go, to provide financial security, reduce stress, and fund our dreams for the future.