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How to Stick to a Budget: 5 Fixes for Common Budgeting Problems

July 13, 2021

Sticking to a budget isn’t easy—even the best savers sometimes struggle to stay on track. The good news is making mistakes is part of the process. And when you start to get the hang of it, you’ll have a better understanding of your relationship with money and gain more control over your personal finances.

There’s no magic spell to keep your budget on track, but there are a few tips that can help. Here are 13 ways to overcome challenges and stay inspired to stick to a budget.

13 Ways to Stick to a Budget

1. Know your why.

The whole point of a budget is to help you reach your financial goals. If you haven’t set those goals, it can be harder to stick with them. Start by asking yourself a few questions. What do you want money to do for you? How can money help you live your values? How can you use money to improve your life? Write these financial aspirations down and keep them handy when you’re making budgeting decisions.

2. Find the right tools.

These days, there are dozens of budgeting apps and online tools to choose from. Take advantage of free trial periods to find one that works best for you. If you’re more of a spreadsheet person, that works too. Being able to visually plan and refer to your budget can help you stay on track.

3. Create your own budget categories.

Most budgeting apps automatically categorize transactions. It works—sometimes. But don’t feel like you have to stick with their suggestions. Create custom categories that align with your spending or savings goals. This helps you create a budget that encompasses your real-life financial situation.

4. Include less frequent purchases.

Large, infrequent expenses—like bi-annual insurance premiums or even a yearly vacation—can throw your budget out of whack and discourage you from sticking with it. Do an annual review of projected expenses, and try to save monthly for those anticipated, one-off costs.

5. Track your emergency fund.

An emergency fund can help cover unexpected large, unexpected expenses—the kind that tends to blow up even the best budget. If you don’t already have enough saved for an emergency, add it as a savings goal to your budget.

6. Use a “cheat” category.

A “cheat” category in your budget can give you some much-needed flexibility. Pull from here when you want to buy something that didn’t make it into the budget.

7. Create weekly budgets for certain expenses.

While monthly budgets are the norm, you may need to think shorter-term for some expenses. For example, if you spend a lot on entertainment early in the month, you’ll be left with nothing for that category toward the end. Instead, try a weekly budget for frequent expenditures.

8. Set non-financial limits.

Sometimes it can be easier to stick to a budget if you focus on the activity rather than a specific dollar amount. For example, give yourself a “budget” for how many times you can eat out or order takeout each month.

9. Wait before buying.

If online impulse spending keeps you from sticking to a budget, add items to your cart but wait a day before buying non-essential items. Taking a beat gives you time to really consider the purchase and make sure it’s not sabotaging your goals. Some retailers send abandoned cart coupons, too.

10. Stack your savings.

Saving money on your purchases can help keep your budget on track without sacrificing your needs or wants. Whether you’re shopping online or in a store, look for opportunities to save—like stacking coupons, using discounts, or taking advantage of cash-back opportunities.

11. Work with your partner.

It’s difficult to budget with a partner or spouse if you’re not on the same page. Start by building your budget together, and have regular money dates to discuss your challenges and wins.

12. Cut your monthly bills.

Reducing your monthly bills can free up room in your budget and motivate you to stick to it. Regularly comparison shop and try to negotiate rates for insurance policies, subscriptions, and telecom services. Refinancing high-rate debt, like your auto loan or credit card bills, can also help you save money each month and slowly pay off debt.

13. Find ways to make more money.

Saving money is only half the equation—you can also reach your money goals by increasing your income. Look for opportunities to earn more money at work or through a side job. After all, nothing feels better in your budget than frequent additions to the “income” category and savings account.

5 Common Problems & Solutions When Sticking to a Budget

The 13 tips above can help you stick to a budget. But let’s take an in-depth look at major setbacks people struggle with when budgeting. Many of these stem from fears and emotional roadblocks that can be difficult to overcome.

Problem #1: You get overwhelmed and don’t start.

For some, starting is the toughest part. There are dozens of budgeting tools to choose from, and figuring out which one you “should” use can leave you in a state of analysis paralysis.

Solution: Try options without committing.

You can read reviews and comparisons of budgeting tools, but the best way to start is to simply try it out and create a budget. Many apps offer free trials you can use to get a feel for the platform. And don’t feel like you need to fill everything in during the test run. Start with one or two categories to get a feel for the new system.

You also don’t necessarily need to use an app. After all, the “best” budgeting tool is the one you’re going to stick with. Some people create an envelope system and only use cash or their debit card because that’s what works for them. However, you can connect budgeting apps to bank accounts and credit cards to sync your information, and many people find apps make it easy to organize and analyze their budget.

Problem #2: Facing your finances can be scary.

Creating a monthly budget means coming face-to-face with your financial situation whether you have high average monthly car payments. Listing out your income and expenses can be fun when you’ve got all the money in the world. But it’s much more difficult when you are afraid to look at how much debt you have, struggling to get by, or when your income is irregular. This is especially true if you’re ashamed of your debt.

Also, learning how to stick to a budget can be synonymous with limitations. You may prefer to spend money freely rather than being constrained by a set monthly or weekly budget.

Solution: Focus on your goals.

Rather than focusing on what might be troubling about your finances, list the goals you want to use your money to achieve; like being debt-free or grow your savings account. Perhaps you’re saving for a home, building an emergency fund, saving money for the holidays or paying down student and personal loans. Prioritize the goal, and keep it in mind as you get real about your finances.

Also, reframe the idea of a budget as a spending plan. Rather than keeping you from spending money, a budget asks you to be realistic about how much income you have and your necessary expenses. Then, you create a plan for what’s left based on your goals and what makes you happy from investing for retirement or finally invest in some of the best roi home improvements with great ROI.

If you need a helping hand, you could also sign up for a free debt and budgeting session with a nonprofit credit counselor. The certified counselor can review your finances, help you create a budget, and offer advice on how to manage debt.

Problem #3: Unrealistic budgets lead to giving up.

Figuring out how to set a budget and stick to it can be tricky, and people often stop after a few weeks or months. However, as with getting started, the tools aren’t necessarily the core issue.

financial health survey from LendingClub and Harris Poll found that 73% of people say they have enough time to learn about finances, and only 36% think budgeting is too much work.

One problem is that many people start by creating the budget they wish they could follow. But then, they give up after unexpected expenses throw off their budget or they realize the budgeting system is too complicated.

Solution: At first, focus on tracking and be flexible with your budget.

Rather than creating a budget, you might want to track your usual spending for a month or two to give yourself a good baseline. From there, you can review the results to see if your spending aligns with your goals. Then, realistically create and refine your budget based on these results.

For example, dining tends to be a variable expense and a source of surprise. After tracking, let’s say you discover you’ve been spending $150 a month on take out. Thinking that’s too much, you decide to set a budget of $75 for the following month. Despite every effort to stay on track, maybe you chose to spend time with your family, not cooking and cleaning up, or maybe after a long and stressful day at work, ordering out was just easier. So by the end of the month, you still spent $125.

Remember, your budget is your spending plan. Rather than judging your spending, you can now use this information to tweak your budget with intent. You may decide that there are times when spending money on dining is a worthwhile expense and choose to cut back on other expenses instead. Or, maybe you discover that to cut back on take-out, you need to start prepping meals in the morning to avoid end-of-day splurges.

It can take several rounds of analysis and refinement to create a budget that fits your lifestyle and aligns with your goals.

Problem #4: You’re not a natural saver.

It seems like some people are natural-born savers. They may have their own money setbacks—such as failing to invest in worthwhile purchases—but budgeting can be easier when you tend to feel good about saving and practice financial self care. On the other hand, spenders may impulsively make purchases and have trouble with repeatedly going over their budget.

Solution: Remember your goal and replace spending with another action.

If you want to learn how to stick to a budget and save money, you may need to set aside time for self-reflection. If you didn’t clearly list your goals when you created a budget, having these front and center will be important.

You could even put a sticker on your bathroom mirror, or your cards, with a reminder of what you’re working toward. Not just how much money you need, but how you’re going to spend the money or feel in the future.

Additionally, try to figure out what triggers your impulse purchases. Often, stress and boredom can lead to overspending. Or, you may find yourself browsing and buying online as a way to put off other tasks. Building awareness around your triggers is a good first step. Then, rather than trying to stop outright, see if you can circumvent your spending habit by replacing it with something that better aligns with your goals.

Problem #5: You feel like you’re the only one budgeting.

Feeling like no one else budgets can actually be a two-pronged problem. First, you might assume you can spend as other people do, but you don’t observe other people budgeting. After all, when you’re out shopping you only see other people who decided to spend money, not the ones who decided to stay home. Even shopping online, some websites will tell you how many people are looking at, or recently bought, an item you’re interested in.

Somewhat related, our survey found that most people don’t talk about their finances. Younger generations are more open to money discussions, but even 18 to 34-year-olds tend to keep to themselves when it comes to discussing everyday financial decisions, bankruptcy, and credit card debt.

Solution: Find a money accountability partner or community.

When you start opening up to others about money, you’ll likely discover you’re not the only one who has questions, concerns, and trouble sticking to a budget.

Having regular money dates with a partner, friend, or family member who is also budgeting can help you find solutions; think of it as a personal financial check up. However, don’t pressure others into having frequent money talks if they’re not open to it. A slight majority (56%) of our survey respondents feel that thinking or talking about finances can be mentally draining.

If you don’t have someone to discuss money with, or don’t feel comfortable sharing something so private, you could look for online communities where you can remain anonymous. The personal finance site Reddit has over 14 million members ready to ask and answer questions about finance, and there are smaller subReddits devoted to specific budgeting platforms.

The Bottom Line

Sticking to a budget can be hard for various reasons, but many of them come down to setting proper expectations and making a mindset shift to focus on long-term goals over immediate wants. These aren’t simply obstacles to overcome, but doing the work can result in significant growth.

How to Stick to a Budget Common FAQs

Still have questions? Some of these commonly asked questions may provide the answer.

How do I make a realistic budget and stick to it?

Making a realistic budget and sticking to it starts by calculating your total income, then adding up all of your expenses — both variable and non-variable — to understand where your money is going. From there, calculate the difference. If your expenses are already greater than your savings, you have 2 options: either make more money, or spend less. Finally, set budgets around each expense category (such as utilities, subscriptions, etc.) and be diligent about tracking each month.

How can a beginner start budgeting?

Start off small. Those who are beginners to budgeting should get started with the basics: calculating your monthly income, adding all monthly expenses, and then setting financial goals for the upcoming months.

How do I make sure I stay on budget?

Using either a spreadsheet or apps such as Mint are great ways to help you keep track of your ongoing expenses and if you’re staying within budget.

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