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Why Your Budget Keeps Failing (And How To Fix It)

7 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

We all know that one of the cornerstones of financial success is getting the details right. Even with good intentions and managing the general money basics like we should, the reality is that we can still fail, financially speaking. One of the main reasons is simply human psychology, when our brains convince us to defy what we know are logical decisions. Next thing we know, we’ve spent too much and blown the budget for another month. So, here’s how to fix your budget.

Budgets are a tricky thing sometimes. For many people, just having one of an immense accomplishment. After all, setting limits and tracking your spending is boring. If you’re willing to take the time to do it, it’s worthy of our congratulations. However, even well-intentioned budgets can fail — for a number of different reasons. If you’re consistently struggling to keep your budget on track, it could be for one of the following reasons.

Good Behaviors Can Lead to Overconfidence

One of the reasons your budget might be failing is your overconfidence. Think about it. You’re saving money for retirement. Building that emergency fund. Paying off all that credit card debt. Good for you! Unfortunately, sometimes all that financial discipline can lead to overconfidence about your situation. You end up spending more than you expect because you can “afford it.” (But can you?) Or that you “deserve a treat.” (Possibly). Or that one extra splurge won’t hurt. (It might.)

Another related problem is borrowing (or using credit) to buy big items in order to maintain the balances in your savings account. You can trick yourself into thinking things like “it’s okay I just charged $1,500 to the Visa for new golf clubs because I still have that $10,000 in my savings.” It’s not a good idea to get so attached to your savings (or investment portfolios) that you start going into debt when you spend instead.

Consider Future Expenses More Carefully

Most people have a good handle on how much they are spending now. They are also fairly decent at guesstimating future income, too. However, plenty of us fail to accurately estimate future expenses. These can be tricky, since life has a way of throwing unexpected things at us. However, you can actually try to build these into your budget.

If you don’t think about your outflows, that can skew the financial plan and lead to problems. It’s too easy to get caught up thinking about your immediate financial concerns, it’s easy to neglect the inevitable future expenses. When the future does arrive, it can smack you directly in the face (and the wallet) if you didn’t include it in your planning. These future expenses can be things like major house repairs (a new roof, for example), replacing appliances or vehicles, healthcare costs, taking care of elderly parents, or even funeral expenses.

Spending To Reward Yourself

We are always urged to reward ourselves when we reach certain goals. After all, hitting those milestones should be a cause for celebration. While rewards can be one way to motivate yourself to save more (or plan for retirement or do any number of positive things), the problem is that too often the reward involves spending the money you just saved.

This can lead to plenty of budget problems. First of all, spending money as a reward means that you are diluting the impact of your good financial decisions. The other problem is that when you feel good, it’s easier to spend more than you planned. So you might go overboard and spend more than you expected for your reward.

young couple balancing their budget

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What To Do Instead

Instead of rewarding yourself by spending money, think of other ways to “treat yo’self” that aren’t as costly. Maybe taking an afternoon to relax can be a reward. I know too many people who never take a day off. They often have to force themselves to take a vacation just to sit at home because they’ve reached the limit of their accrued vacation days. Don’t be like them.

Consider rewarding yourself with alternatives such as going on a hike, instead of staying home. Or give yourself an extra hour of reading or playing your favorite video game. It provides an extra treat during the day but it doesn’t require you to spend money.

Is Your Budgeting Method Right For You?

On the other hand, your budget may be failing because it’s not the right fit for you. There are plenty of ways to construct and follow a workable budget. When you want something to work, you really need to settle on a method that you are comfortable keeping up for the long haul. As with most things in life, one approach might be awesome for one person, but struggle to work for another.

If you are still struggling to understand why your budget is failing, it may be a simple case of using the wrong approach for you. Here are some simple approaches to budgeting. You ought to give another method a try.

Different Approaches to Budgeting

There are three basic approaches to budgeting: the loose (or no-numbers) budget, the average budget, and the extensive budget. As a rule, there are no right or wrong ways to budget.

Budgeting is good, as long as you have one. Find a system that works for you and your lifestyle. Ultimately, you want a budget that helps you work towards those personal financial goals you have set out for yourself. Let’s take a look at these three budget types, and the pros and cons of each.

The Loose Budget

The loose budget, sometimes referred to as a no-numbers budget or a non-budget, is a relaxed way of budgeting. It’s often critiqued by more conscientious budgeters. The truth is that any plan, no matter how loose, is a bona fide budget when it limits the amount you spend or specifies the amount you save.

Some people find this care-free approach to suit their personality and their lifestyle just fine. Without feeling pressured to watch every penny spent, they are free to enjoy their spending. As long as there are guidelines (such as a debt ceiling and a modest amount of savings occurring), this approach meets the minimal requirements for financial responsibility. If you follow this approach, however, you may find that you are not able to achieve your goals as quickly as with more regulated spending. You may have considerably more debt as well, so caveat emptor.

The Average Budget

This is the budget approach most popular with the largest number of people. It’s more disciplined than the loose budget, while still allowing for some freedom of choice and flexibility in discretionary spending. Some common types of the average budget are:

Some people choose to save first, otherwise referred to as “paying yourself first.” Whatever is left over is then allocated to the remaining funds for discretionary spending. Arguably one of the best methods for achieving savings goals quickly and effectively, it’s also viewed by some as too restrictive. This method can turn savings into a chore or just another bill to pay, rather than a willful, rewarding activity.

If you have difficulty saving spontaneously or willfully, this approach may help you to be more disciplined while taking the pressure off your lack of willpower. In other words, if your savings isn’t even considered part of your spending budget, you won’t have the chance to be tempted to blow it.

Flexible and Monthly Allowance Budgets

Flexible budgets allow you to set a rough guideline of how much to spend on various spending categories. Then you do your best to adhere to the limits you set. Notice I said that this approach allows you to establish a rough guideline. If the budget is exceeded in one area, it’s simply reduced in another to accommodate.

You can also make the flexible budget less restrictive by using the monthly allowance budget method. The only difference with this method and the loose one is that you are setting a limit on your total spending and that in turn means you are saving at a clip that you are comfortable with. This way, you are limiting how much discretionary spending you have each month but you aren’t restricting yourself as to where and how you will spend it.

The Detailed Budget

The detailed approach to budgeting treats one’s personal finances as if it was a business. Everything is rigid and needs to be accounted for. There’s no room for flexibility and no excuses for not reaching financial goals.

Although many people find this too hard, too time-consuming, or simply unnecessary, some find that it’s the best and most effective way to take control of your finances and in a larger sense, their life. Detailed budgets often use a complex spreadsheet or envelope system which allocates each dollar of income to spending or savings categories. Those who have extensive or large-scale financial goals or don’t have the self-discipline for less structured budgets may find this method highly effective and satisfying.

young couple stressed about money

Shutterstock

Detailed Budgets & Retirement

One major side benefit of a detailed budget is to be able to see where every dollar went. This is useful when you want to see if there are any areas you can save without making too much of a sacrifice, but it’s also incredibly handy when you want to plan for retirement.

After all, one of the best ways to know if you have enough saved is to have a rough idea of how much you will spend once you quit your job for good, and there’s no better way to make that estimate than to have a complete detailed breakdown of how much your current lifestyle costs you.

Hybrid Budgets

You should know that combining different approaches can also work. In fact, it can work really well. I use a hybrid approach. I have Excel spreadsheets that tracks all my expenses since 2007. However, I don’t set myself an extremely strict budget at all. I just look at my expenses, try to optimize how I spend money, and save whatever I have left over.

I am self-employed, so there are months when I spend more than I earn. This only works because there are also months where I’m spending little but saving a great deal. In effect, I’m using the loose budget approach with a detailed expense tracker. I’ve done it for years and the approach works extremely well for our family’s finances.

The Bottom Line

Whatever approach you take to budgeting, the most important thing is to have one. Otherwise, you might slowly build up credit card and other forms of debt without even knowing that it’s going to eventually destroy your financial life.

I know a budget sounds boring and setting limits and tracking spending is a chore. But a budget is an extremely effective way to take control of your finances. And when you are in control, you are that much closer to financial freedom, achievement, and greater success in all areas of life. Give it a shot. You won’t be sorry once you have more money in the bank.

David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs MoneyNing.com, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.

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