You’ve probably been told you need a budget. Maybe more than once. It’s not bad advice—in fact, I think it’s really good advice. But for a lot of people, statements like this just aren’t helpful.
They’ve tried budgeting in the past and couldn’t make it work, so they’ve concluded budgets aren’t for them.
I know because I was one of those people.
For years, I would print out my monthly “budget” and hang it on my refrigerator and track my spending. Sort of. Not really. What I was really doing was tracking my monthly bills and make sure I paid everything on time. And I was great at it.
I can’t remember the last time I paid a bill late (if ever). But the last time I spent more than I budgeted for that month? That’s easy. It was the December before I decided I was going to pay off all my debt other than my mortgage.
What changed for me? I stopped letting roadblocks like the ones listed below keep my from achieving my goals.
Reason #1: Your Budget is Too Complicated
There are lots of different ways to set up your budget—pen and paper, the envelope system, an Excel spreadsheet, an app like Mint, or even just always using the same credit or debit card and letting the bank alert you when you’ve gone over in a particular category (or, heaven forbid, overdrawn your account).
The only wrong way is the way the doesn’t work for you.
Take Mint, for example. I have used it for years to track my net worth and I really like it for that. But I hate its budget function.
First, it would assign transactions to the wrong category even after I’d gone in several times and corrected it. And second, it only allowed me to track my budget on a monthly basis. Because I get paid every two weeks, I want to track my budget using a four-week cycle.
I can’t tell you how annoying it was to have Mint send me an alert that I was over budget in a certain category when all I had done was pay a bill early because I had the money (so, for example, my mortgage payment would hit my account twice in a one-month period). Finally, I just admitted that it was never going to work for me and moved on.
If you have never budgeted or the system you’ve previously used didn’t work for you, try something new. You could stumble upon a system you love and if you don’t, you at least know what doesn’t work.
Reason #2: Your Budget Doesn’t Reflect Reality
I often read about people saving money—and getting healthy!—by biking to work. Yeah for them!
But, even though I only live about 8 miles from my office, biking is not an option because the route is not safe for cycling (and also, I really don’t want to).
This means me zeroing out my gas budget is setting myself up for failure because it would not reflect my reality. I will use my car to get to work and I will need to buy gas to make that happen.
If your budget doesn’t reflect what you can actually do to control your spending, make adjustments today.
Reason #3: You Don’t Make Enough Money
You can only “frugal” so much before you hit a point where you just can’t cut costs anymore. When you do, to get ahead you will need to increase your income.
I remember very early on in my career dreaming about the day I would no longer need to have a roommate to make ends meet. Given what I was making at the time, however, it wasn’t going to be anytime soon: there was nothing else I could cut from my budget that would let me live alone.
If this is the situation you are in, ask yourself how you can turn things around. Can you ask for a raise? Go after a promotion? If you move to a new company, could you increase your salary? What about a side hustle?
Figure it out and make it happen!
Reason #4: You Didn’t Implement Your Budget
You’re probably thinking I’m being a bit of a smart-ass by including this one, but it was true for me and could be true for others so it stayed on the list.
Here’s how it played out: I would invest a ton of time in tracking my account balances and figuring out how much I could spend in each category and then go to Target and buy whatever I wanted.
Not unlike the dieter who says they are going to cut back on sweets but then makes so many exceptions that they end up gaining weight, I would make up excuses as to why my budget didn’t apply in certain situations. Eventually, there were so many times it didn’t apply that it was as if it didn’t exist at all.
If this sounds familiar to you, then keep reading and see if either of the following reasons explain your actions.
Reason #5: You Don’t Really Want to Succeed
Looking back, a lot of my failure with budgeting was due to the fact I didn’t really want to succeed. I liked the rush of endorphins I got when I bought something: shopping brought me joy when a lot of other things in my life did not.
I also used shopping as a way to fill the time and distract myself from things I didn’t want to think about it. Finding a “good deal” was way more fun than contemplating what I was doing with my life and worrying about my family. Way. More. Fun.
These were the things I learned during the self-imposed shopping ban I undertook from Memorial Day to Labor Day of 2016. Talk about eye-opening!
If you are trying to figure out why you’re struggling, I would highly recommend doing something similar. You may be surprised by what you learn!
Reason #6: You Don’t Believe You Can Succeed
If you have made mistakes with your money in the past, it’s easy to assume it’s because you lack a “money gene” and that you might as well not try because you will just fail (again).
The reality is that most of us are never taught how to manage our money so of course we are not going to be great at it right away.
There are lots of great resources online you can turn to for help—including this blog—but you can probably also find classes and workshops near where you live if you prefer to attend an in-person class.
Just don’t let the mistakes you made in the past dictate how you interact with money today and in the future. There is just too much at stake!
Reason #7: Your Goals Aren’t Big Enough
In the Spring of 2017, I had a conversation with a co-worker about my goal to be debt free other than my mortgage by April of 2018. The exchange is one I will never forget:
Co-worker: That’s so awesome! I wish I could do that but I love to shop. How do you stop yourself from buying a new purse or pair of shoes that catch your eye?
Me: I guess for the first time in my life, I have something I want more than a new purse.
Prior to this conversation, I don’t think I had articulated why this time it was working but once I said it, I realized it was true. I wanted the freedom that came with having no debt more than I wanted more stuff.
Prior attempts to pay off my debt had been about the freedom to spend money without guilt and they had failed. This time, it was about the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my time. That is what made it easy to skip buying a new purse.
If you struggle with budgeting, ask yourself what purpose a budget serves in your life.
Is it so you can finally stop worrying about money? Or so you are able to take a dream vacation without coming back to tons of credit card debt? Or maybe it’s so you can build up an emergency fund to cover your expenses while you take time off to look for a new job?
Dream big and you might find this time is different for you, too!
Which of These Budget Fails Has Held You Back?
Do any of these reasons resonate with you? What can you do next time to increase your odds of success? Let me know in the comment section below!
Thank you for including not making enough money as one of the reasons. We like to think you can always work things out through more frugality, but sometimes it does take more money, even a short term side hustle, to really get ahead.
Thank you, Angela! I agree completely–I will never forget how tight money was in the early days. If I wanted to do something special, I would sell CDs (I wish I was kidding). And the only reason I had a gym membership is I worked a second job at the YMCA.
Jenny I am with you about Mint! We used it for years and I love that it’s free, but those glitchs you refer to drove me nuts. We finally changed to Tiller so we could budget on a quarterly cycle and it’s been a huge improvement. We pay $5 a month for it, but I feel like it saved us a lot more by keeping me on track better.
Tiller is on my list of options to check out (Andy Hill profiled the founder on his podcast Marriage Kids and Money and it was an interesting story). I also like how they have just moved to allowing for the use of Excel. Thanks for the tip!