Tell me if this sounds familiar: you stumble upon a beautiful budget template and spend an afternoon thinking about all of your monthly expenses and penciling them in. You do the math and realize… you seriously miscalculated something. Then it becomes a game of plug-and-play until the numbers add up and that’s it!
You’re done. Budget *complete*. Sure, it is a slightly unrealistic take on reality, but that’s what budgeting is all about! Improving your financial status? So you pat yourself on the back and set that ambitious piece of potential down somewhere and never. see it. again.
That’s was me. About 10, 15, but probably closer to 20 different times in my life. I loved writing it all down, but after facing the facts I just got sad. I seriously thought I would never be able to track my money without feeling like the grim reaper was standing over my shoulder pressuring me to stop eating Chick-FIL-a and going to Target. Talking about dread…
I definitely never thought I could get it done in less than 45 minutes a month. And you can bet I never considered possibly enjoying it enough to spew budget advice and my very own method on the internet.
But here I am, a full year deep of actively budgeting and tracking my expenses. And the best part? It doesn’t live in a toddler-prone binder or on a mystery page in a notebook.
I got a degree in Finance but spent years broke, in debt, and overspending. It was actually a sad inside joke that I knew so much about money but didn’t have any. I loved it in theory and hated it IRL. So of course that was the first excuse I had when it came to actually holding myself accountable to a real, regular budget habit.I was embarrassed, ashamed, and an actual failure.
And one day I swallowed my irrational money-anxiety and created a method that makes it easy AF to plan, track, monitor, and straight up make sense of my family’s finances ON A REGULAR BASIS. And it feels & looks goooood. Here’s what I did to finally stick to tracking and following up on my budget.
7 rules for building a budget you can stick with
Money talk is everywhere and it can be obnoxious. It seems like every time I turn around there’s a new method and “mindset”. It’s exhausting!
So many budget tips to s come on strong, and that approach just doesn’t work for those of us who are anti-budget.
These days we hear so much about cutting back, making more, Paying off debt, Saving for retirement, building an emergency fund, investing, Contributing to your 401(k), mortgages and all that is just a harsh reality check reminding you why you’re broke and everything sucks. That’s what makes the budgeting process brutal, but it doesn’t have to be.
To get started with a healthy and sustainable budget habit, you gotta ease into it. Instead of worrying about the big picture, just focus on the steps I’m laying out here.
We aren’t ready to plan out massive debt payoffs or buying a new house in cash. To ght now just worry about getting familiar and crazy comfortable with the money you’re handling every month.
Let’s take it one step at a time.
Go easy on yourself
Do you ever brace yourself before checking your bank account balance? To this day, I still think “as long as it’s over $X I’ll be happy!” before the total loads.
It’s completely internal, and I still feel like I’m ready to slam my head against the wall if I fail this impromptu test I just made up. It’s pretty frickin’ dark.
Which brings me to my point: promise to be gentle with yourself. The easiest way to ruin a good thing is by surrounding it with punishment or radical thoughts.
I was beating myself up every time I thought about it and I was ruthless. Do you know why?
Because budgeting is one of those tasks where you’re both: the puppet and the puppet master. It’s hard to take sides, and most budgets fail because BOTH sides of you are fighting with each other.
You are your own worst enemy, and in this case you gotta give a little grace to both sides of this twisted game. Practice understanding puppet-you and the inappropriate decisions you make while being considerate of the authority with its hand up your back.
this is getting weird, but you get the idea! Moving on.
Reflect on the past
Instead of guessing and running with my ideal budget, I only work with facts. My budgeting method starts with the facts. Cold, hard data. Monthly.
Every month or few weeks I pull the transactions from our primary accounts and categorize them. I created a Google Sheet which pools them together based on predetermined names I’ve given them and enters them into my spreadsheet. (it’s stupid easy, I swear.)
In the beginning, it’s a little like a pre-test. You know the ones you’d take to see where you start when you don’t know anything? It can be scary and used to fill me up with anxiety when I knew we weren’t making much, but I poured myself a glass of cabernet and pulled a gruesome manifesto of my poor spending habits.
It’s ok. Really, it is. I could tell you it sucks, but it doesn’t. It’s enlightening. In fact, it made me feel better. Because it made mindset so much clearer.
It is so much easier to feel good about cutting costs when you look at past expenses. Suddenly all those trips to Target have value and make impulse buys easier to bypass.
Plan for the future
After going through what happened last month, I can reasonably estimate what will happen this month.
Some things never change: internet, insurance, phone bills, etc.
Some things fluctuate: groceries, gas, water/power, Amazon. (+/- $100).
And some things are due for special occasions: birthday dinners, vacations, gifts.
Planning for the month ahead keeps the budget in perspective.
No, I can’t go to Target again. Everytime I walk in there it costs me $100 and I’m expecting an $80 dinner for my friend’s birthday on the 16th.
Don’t get me wrong – there are always surprises. Hey! I’m human, and how am I supposed to remember my mother-in-law’s birthday comes up every. single. year.! Kidding, but seriously.
Part of having a budget is setting yourself up for these “incidentals” and cushioning the blow with a miscellaneous category or padding your bank account with a minimum balance so you can afford to overspend without ruining your life.
Make a date
On the first of every month, I sit down and “budget”. I used to do it weekly, but I realized it just takes more time out of my month. With my template, it takes me less than 45 minutes to pull all the data, plug it in, and plan for next month.
Now I get excited for a month to end. It’s my money date with myself! If the first rolls around and I’m too busy (because calendars don’t always agree with our desires), I get the itch to sit down with some coffee and dig into the details.
It’s exciting to see how we did and test myself, because believe it or not, my budget is practically ingrained in my brain after being so involved. Every now and then I catch a fraudulent charge or a duplicated restaurant bill.
As stressful as that might sound, I love it. Why? Because 1. it’s always reimbursed after calling the bank or vendor (kinda like getting paid lol) and 2. I’m reminded why I do this and why it’s worth it.
My money is my money, and no one is going to look out for it like I do. It deserves your love and attention! Your bank account shouldn’t go more than a month without a thorough look-over.
Make it user-friendly in a shareable and easily accessible format
Two words: Google. Sheets.
It’s practically excel, but free and simplified (but still loaded with capabilities). Not to mention: completely cloud based and accessible from ANYWHERE with internet access.
I will never lose it. It won’t die with my Macbook one day. And when my husband starts asking questions about where all our money goes, I just send him a link and boom! It’s there. Months of factual data all pretty and sensical.
If I’m out and wondering what my limit is, I just go to the app from my phone. It’s pretty and all mine. Exactly the way I like it. And that means it’s that much easier to stay consistent with it.
What happened during my first year of actively budgeting
I started actively budgeting in late December of 2018, beginning with my November expenses and giving myself reasonable assumptions to finish the year. Since then we’ve knocked out thousands in debt, renovated our 70s kitchen (in cash..!), started investing in the stock market, began our baby’s college fund, all while maintaining a steady $10k+ emergency fund.
I’m currently on track to pay off my car this before the end of the summer and our bank balance just. keeps. growing..!
Once I was able to steadily see the unnecessary expenses leave my bank account, I was able to stop making them. And I swear it was like overnight. We started seeing so much money leftover for savings/whatever the hell we wanted. Saving and spending with intention is our new normal, and it’s entirely because I finally made it a habit that I could stick with.
And all it took were the five steps I listed up there. I’ll repeat ’em for the internet’s sake!
- Starting small with low expectations
- Not beating myself for being so bad at it
- Focusing on the facts of the past
- Using those facts to plan for the immediate future
- Setting myself up on monthly money dates 😉
- Putting it all together in a simple, kid-proof internet package with endless possibilities
Let me just end with this: if I can get into the habit of budgeting — ANYONE CAN. You can do this, I promise.
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