OVERCOMING THE "B" WORD
It’s the dreaded “B” word of personal finance: budgeting.
I remember once teaching at a personal finance workshop in my community. The host introduced me as the first presenter. When she announced that my topic was bud***ing, I saw many in the audience go stiff like a strait jacket just got pulled over them.
I know that for many people, budgeting can feel constricting. Failed attempts at sticking to a budget can create negative feelings about trying to manage your cash-flow.
Working with a couple hundred people on their budget teaches you some things. Mainly, I witnessed first-hand that budgeting is really about behavior, not strategy. How can we "hack" our own behavioral tendencies to be loose with our money, and not end up quitting every time we try to follow a budget?
Here are five hacks to making your budget meaningful and motivational to you, even if you carry a lotta “budget baggage.”
1. CLEAR GOALS
When I ask people what their financial goals are, one of the most common responses I get is: “My first goal is to finally establish a good budget.”
Woah there bessie! Sit still, and listen close: budgeting is NOT a goal. If you think “learning to budget” is a goal, then you need to clarify something for yourself:
Why do you want to budget your money? What are you budgeting for?
Is it because you want to establish an emergency fund, or pay off debt faster? Is it because you’d like to save enough to buy your next car in cash instead of getting a loan? Is it because you’d like to retire early?
THOSE are examples of goals. Your goals are the reasons behind why you've come to think a budget is necessary in the first place. Your budget is merely the method you use to control cash flow (increasing income or decreasing spending) so that you'll reach your goals.
I know it seems like I’m just piddling with semantics, but this difference in thinking is actually quite critical. Once you have goals clearly established - and yes, S.M.A.R.T. goals really are important here - only THEN can you actually design a budget you’ll want to follow.
Sometimes we’re real ...*ahem* “donkeys” when it comes to our spending decisions, aren't we? We know we can be wiser and save more. And well, if we're donkeys, then clear goals on a budget are like the carrot on a stick that keep us disciplined and moving forward.
So no matter how you keep a budget - whether it’s a notebook, spreadsheet, or software program - it’s not complete unless you have some clear goals written down first!
With clear, meaningful goals, you’ll actually have the motivation to make trade-offs in your spending patterns (or increase your income) so you can fund those goals.
Even after creating an extremely detailed spending plan and trying to anticipate every single expense that might come up, I’ve seen too many people get discouraged with budgeting and give up. You know why? Because they still end up being blindsided with a "surprise" expense that “ruins their budget.”
This kind of experience is rooted deep within our human nature - we have a strong desire to be in control, and predict outcomes. We long for a sense of certainty. Interestingly, the research tells us that even more important than actually being in control is merely having a sense of control - feeling that we have influence over outcomes in our lives. When we take all the means possible to control a result - like spending within the limits of planned budget categories - and unanticipated events still happen that cause us to spend more than what we planned, we can dangerously become averse to even trying to budget any longer!
The field of psychology calls this concept “locus of control.” With money, we should want to have an internal locus of control where we believe we can influence events and outcomes. But if we’ve moved to an external locus of control, we blame outside forces for everything. We believe that we no longer have any influence on the financial outcomes of our lives so we stop trying to reach goals. I see too many people reach this point with their money.
So what’s the solution you can implement in your budget, so you don’t get frustrated and give up? FLEXIBILITY.
It’s as easy as this: after thinking of every monthly and revolving expense that you possibly can, add one more category to your budget: “Miscellaneous.” I often recommend to my clients that they make it 5% of their net income, if possible. When an unexpected expense comes up that isn’t really an emergency but also doesn’t fit into any of the monthly or revolving budget categories you planned, you can put it here.
Your Miscellaneous category becomes a “catch all” to keep you from losing that feeling of having a sense of control, even when an unplanned expense comes up.
You've probably heard before that your money choices are a reflection of who you are. Oftentimes, though, they may reflect the parts of yourself you don’t like: your weaknesses. If I asked you how you identify yourself, you might express like what you do for a living, your family, your favorite hobbies, or your religion. You probably wouldn’t say “I’m a heavy gas station snacker” or “I’m a cable TV enthusiast”, though we often direct a lot more of our money towards things like that than we’d like to admit.
Budgeting can be an opportunity to take those dollars that are going toward things that frankly aren’t really that important to you, and redirect them toward things that make you … YOU.
Do you have a hobby or interest you’d like to do more but have slowly stopped doing? Do you have a monthly expense for something that you don’t use that often? Design a budget that has your money going to things that reflect your true identity and personality.
One other tip: create a personal allowance. Yes, that’s right - set a reasonable limit, but have some money set aside as completely guilt-free "you" spending (in other words, it's okay to Treat Yo Self a little). It will help provide a sense of freedom to your budget that you need to maintain. I especially find this crucial when I am coaching couples on their cash flow, so they can give each other some leeway and personal space with money decisions.
All the research points to a few unfortunate things about our brains: 1) we are not hard-wired to categorize numbers very well in our heads (“mental accounting”), 2) we are indeed hard-wired to seek immediate gratification over delayed results, and 3) we’re really good at resisting change until it becomes too painful not to change (status quo bias).
Can you see how these things can all combine to potentially create a real difficulty to saving money? In fact, if you’ve had the habit of saving explicitly taught to you and ingrained into you when you were young, or if you’re among the small minority of people with a natural propensity to save, you’re very lucky.
For the rest of us, saving money may be a forced and learned behavior, because we’re having to overcome the three weaknesses I stated about our brains: we have to 1) pay attention to our money and track it, 2) save for later instead of spend for now, and 3) try to do it before financial problems grow so big that we’re forced to change.
That’s why I can’t say enough about the next thing your budget needs: Automation. It’s time to leverage the technology we’ve got in today’s world, folks. It’s time to set automatic deposits and withdrawals for all your bills and savings. Take out your own ability to mess things up.
Direct deposit your paycheck so you don’t go get cash back when you take your paycheck to the bank. Even better, set up your direct deposit so part of your paycheck goes automatically to your savings account and the rest to your checking.
In the personal finance world, this is commonly known as the “Pay Yourself First” rule. The very first thing that should happen with every paycheck is to save some for yourself before you pay the rest for food, bills, and utilities.
In a literal sense, a budget is a group of numbers and figures assigned to certain categories. But in a practical sense, a budget is a planned, conscious set of trade-offs.
You have a limited amount of money, but an unlimited amount of things you could spend it on. If you haven’t defined some clear financial goals for yourself, then your money has probably been going toward a lot of short-term whims instead of long-term dreams that would actually mean a lot to you.
If you’re going to turn that around, there’s no getting around the fact that some things will have to be given up - sacrifices will have to be made in your spending behavior.
Caution: if you’re trying really hard to live on a budget for the first time, it’s easy to hear that last sentence as “deprivations will have to be made in your lifestyle.” Yikes. That's soul-sucking.
If deprivation is the feeling you get as you are creating your budget, then I would contend that you haven’t implemented characteristic #1. You haven’t solidified with clear goals what your motivation is behind wanting to budget in the first place.
When your goals are clear, you won’t feel deprivation, which is defined as “the lack or denial of something wanted or needed”; you’ll feel sacrifice, which is “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”
I know it's hard. I've helped hundreds of people with budget coaching. But you can hardly go anywhere financially without deciding you're going to forgo something now for something better later.
So whether that’s the sacrifice to reduce expenses, or the sacrifice to work harder for a promotion or work more hours to increase income, you can feel energized by knowing that you’re budgeting to reach the goals that really matter to you.
WRAPPING IT UP
Clear goals, flexibility, identity, automation, sacrifice. Without these characteristics, I’ve seen many budgeting attempts crash and burn. When properly incorporated, I’ve witnessed people change their thinking about money, start making smarter financial planning decisions, and begin living in “Wealth Mode.” And they have a budget that's too legit to quit. They actually follow through with it.
Which hack is your budget missing that might help you follow through with it?