woman counting out money for budget

What’s the Best Way to Stick to a Budget?

Like healthy eating, sticking to a budget is one of those things that will always be easier said than done.  Much like the motivation of the first few days in the gym on a new workout plan, creating your budget on the first of the month leaves you on a personal finance high.  You have a plan in place. You’re going to stick with it, and things are feeling great.  You crush it on the first week. All systems go for a flawless month where your spending is on track.

Then life happens.

Somewhere between the 10th and the 20th, you realize you forgot to add in a $60 annual payment for that grocery delivery service you subscribed to last year.  By the 23rd, you’ve failed to do meal prep and decide to eat out three nights in a row. This completely busts your restaurant budget for the month.  On the 28th, you need to put gas in the car for the third time this month when you only budgeted for once. (Where have you been going anyway to use all that gas?)

The budget is blown, now what?

Take a deep breath.  Going over the budget for one month is not the end of the world.  It’s not the first and certainly not the last time it’s going to happen.  The good news is there are a few steps you can take to help yourself and your family better adhere to a budget going forward.

Give yourself some grace

Step one is to not beat yourself up. Every month isn’t going to be perfect.  If you can come in under budget on most of your categories, but 1 or 2 end up going over, that’s okay.  I like to think of the budget as I think about healthy eating, with the 80/20 principle.

Every week you have 21 meals (assuming you eat three meals per day).  If 17-18 of those meals are from whole foods, satiating, and nutrient-dense, you should chalk that week in the win column.  It’s much easier to set reasonable expectations of eating well 80% of the time than it is to expect perfection and beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen.

Adjust accordingly

Budgets should be realistic.  Yes, you want to use them to stay on track and save money.  But there’s no sense creating a budget that allows $50 for restaurants when you know in advance your family goes out for dinner every Friday night to celebrate the end of a long week.  Be honest with yourself about your expenditures.  If it turns out your budget requires more money than you bring in, it’s time to ask yourself hard questions about making cuts.

Write down every expense

Swiping a card is easy.  But writing down everything you buy adds a new element.  If you share finances with a partner, having each person write down expenses can prompt honest conversations. (Just be sure this doesn’t turn judgy and ugly, keep it positive!) When the list starts getting long towards the end of the month, you can review each expense and ask, “Did I really need that?” You might be surprised at some of the things you’ll go back and return.

Keep a wish list

As I mentioned in a post on ways to stop overspending, a wish list can be a great way to keep track of all the things you want to buy.  The longer items stay on this list, the easier it is to gauge priority. You can even choose to build a “wish list” category into your budget and allocate $50 or $100 towards purchasing the next item on your list.

Add a miscellaneous category

If you continuously have unexpected expenses pop up, create a category to house them.  If you plan to have a certain amount of money set aside, it won’t hurt to spend it.  Plus, it can serve as a bonus if you make it through the month with the miscellaneous fund still intact!

Consider an alternate budget option

A traditional budget where all spending is bucketed into a specific category isn’t for everyone.  If you’ve tried budgeting for a month or two and find it frustrating, consider using an anti-budget instead.  This method of budgeting helps you do all the necessary saving and investing upfront and leaves the remainder to spend freely.  Some people find an anti-budget easier and more straightforward to use.

The main thing about the best way to stick to a budget

Budgets only work if you do.  Creating a budget is an excellent step in the right direction.  But every day is a decision if you’re going to spend money and where.  If you keep your budget top of mind and spend only where necessary, you’re setting yourself up for a bright financial future.

Do you have a tried and true way to stick to a budget I haven’t mentioned? Tell me about it in the comments!

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