The road to a successful budget is fraught with speed bumps—and Joanna and Johnny have encountered them all. Here’s how to navigate the financial and psychological barriers that might prevent you from sticking to a budget.
When my husband, Johnny, and I started our very first budget, we determined failure was not an option. We set up thorough, itemized categories to keep track of our spending throughout the month, deliberated for hours about why a budget was so important, and made a plan that would make us debt free in less than two years. We thought setting up the budget was the hard part and that sticking to it would be a walk in the park. Ha!
Well, after the first month (and second and third and fourth months), we quickly learned that sticking to a budget was a beast. Our first month ended with us eating rationed ramen packs for dinner in order to stay within our grocery allotment. Our second month was a total bust in multiple spending categories. We regrouped the third month. And then we promptly went off track again the fourth month. It seemed that despite trying our best each month, something always threw a monkey wrench in our plans.
So what gives? Why couldn’t we stick to this stupid, seemingly basic plan? With each passing month of failure, it became much easier to justify throwing in the towel. Six months, a dozen regrouping sessions, and a few expletives later, we figured out where we were messing up and how we were going to make it work. And now, here we are, years later, still budgeting and alive to tell about it.
Here are some of the barriers we encountered — and what we did to bulldoze through them — for a more prosperous, less frustrating budget.
When Johnny and I first started budgeting, we had a category for everything — and I mean everything. Cleaning supplies, hair products, makeup, paper products, home decor, dry cleaning, toys that start with “L” and end in “EGO”, candy, etc. Okay, candy might not have had its own category, but it should have. The problem we found with so many categories is that it made budgeting very tedious and it was wildly inconsistent from month to month.
Fed up with the silliness, we stumbled on a solution that we now call our “Everything Else” category. We bundled up all of our variable spending categories, projected costs across all of those subcategories for a single month, put them in one category, and voila. Our rule was that as long as we stayed within the total budgeted amount for that Everything Else category, it didn’t matter how much we spent in the individual subcategories. This provided more freedom, flexibility, and (most importantly) sanity to our budgeting than any other strategy.
Like many people, we aren’t the type to set a goal and think, “I’m cool with a mediocre, slightly better-than-average outcome.” With our first budget, we expected perfection. But that all changed when, surprise surprise, we realized we weren’t perfect at budgeting. And so we’d regroup at the beginning of each month and try to be perfect… yet again. By expecting perfection, we were actually setting ourselves up for defeat every single time our budget veered off track.
But a funny thing started to happen. Even though we were feeling frustrated and our budget wasn’t perfect most months, we were still making headway on our financial goals. It wasn’t until that moment that we realized it wasn’t perfection that was most important — it was consistency. If we consistently made budgeting a focus, tracked our spending, and tried to stick to our spending goals every month, we’d be successful. That was the key.
Using the wrong tracking method
When it comes to tracking a budget, the options are endless: spreadsheets, websites, apps, pen and paper, etc. We started ours with the envelope system, which is essentially a cash-only system of budgeting. Logistically, it was hard to actually carry and spend cash on everything we purchased, so after only two months of giving it a go, we were done. So we went from old school to new school and gave some fancy online budgeting tools a try, only to realize that tracking our expenses automatically removed us too much from our budget. We weren’t feeling the sting of every expense.
We were feeling frustrated, but we were invested enough in our goal to realize something important: Our budget wasn’t failing us — we just needed to find the right way to track it. Finally, we settled on an iPhone app that lets us manually enter our expenses on the go and sync with each other’s phones. It has been a game changer in tracking and sticking to our budget. Our ideal tracking method won’t be everyone else’s ideal necessarily. The important thing was finding the method that worked for us.
Taking all the fun out of budgeting
In the beginning, my husband and I made our budget so tight that we left no room for fun. We were living a completely splurge-free life, and it was making us miserable. We were Uncle Joeys living a Danny Tanner lifestyle.
To remedy this, we created a personal spending category for each of us. We gave ourselves $20 every month to spend however irresponsibly we pleased. It wasn’t much money, and it wasn’t going to affect our budget in the long run. But it was just enough to add some fun back in our lives. And if we didn’t spend the money, it rolled over into next month’s budget to save for a bigger splurge. It once again reinforced that idea that, yes, we were sticking to a strict budget, but we also needed to be able to enjoy our lives.
The road to a successful budget is fraught with speed bumps, potholes, and large wooly beasts — we’ve encountered and conquered most of them. And sometimes they resurface and we have to conquer them again. But what’s important is that no matter the budgeting barrier, it can be overcome.
Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind Our Freaking Budget,
a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains,
and realities of living on a budget. From the basics
of saving and getting out of debt, to venturing into
the wild world of basic investing, they document their
journey through young adulthood while exploring their
love-hate relationship with their “freaking budget.”