Personal Finance

I Used to Fail at Budgeting — Until I Did This 1 Thing

A woman on working on a laptop.

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One change helped get me on track.


Key points

  • Budgeting is a great way to keep tabs on your spending and work toward financial goals.
  • My budget was a mess until I made one key change.

Following a budget is something I’ve been doing for a long time. But it’s not always something I was good at.

See, I’ve had a budget in place for many years. But in the past, I’ve had a hard time sticking to it. And if you’re not going to stick to your budget, then what’s the point of having one?

The good thing, though, is that I realized where I was going wrong and have since corrected for it. And these days, my budget is a lot more accurate for one big reason.

It’s important to be realistic about spending

My budget maps out all of my monthly expenses, from my mortgage payment to groceries to my cable and internet bills. It also includes line items for different types of savings — my emergency savings, my retirement plan, and my vacation fund, among other things.

For a long time, I found myself going over my budget on a regular basis. And when that happened, I thankfully didn’t rack up debt, so I wasn’t so motivated to address the issue. Rather, going over budget for me meant having less money to put into my savings account, retirement plan, and so forth. But since I was still contributing some money to those accounts, I didn’t push myself to make changes.

But I had a change of heart a few years back and realized there was no sense in setting up a budget I couldn’t stick to. And also, I wanted to meet the specific savings goals I’d mapped out for myself, even if they were somewhat aggressive. To make that happen, I had to make one big change to my budget — allocate more money for leisure spending.

Before I had kids, and when they were really young, it was easier to be frugal on the leisure spending front. Now, if I say no to leisure spending, it means telling my son we can’t go bowling with his friends or telling my daughters we can’t join their friends at the carnival. Those aren’t easy things to do. In other words, it’s one thing for me to sacrifice something I want in an effort to spend less. But I can admit it — it’s harder for me to say no to my kids.

So I decided to make a change to my budget. I opted to allocate more money toward leisure and entertainment, and less money toward other expenses, including home maintenance and prepared meals (such as takeout and delivery).

Nowadays, we spend more on leisure, but we tackle certain home maintenance projects ourselves (even though they’re time-consuming and not fun) because we know that frees up cash for other things. And while we still order our share of takeout meals, we’ve cut back substantially compared to what we used to spend.

Make sure your budget is serving you well

Since moving things around in my budget, I’ve had an easier time meeting my savings goals. That isn’t to say that I meet them every month, because sometimes, surprise expenses pop up. But these days, my budget is far more realistic and easy to follow, and that makes it more effective.

If you’re going to use a budget to keep track of your money, you need to make sure the numbers in there are realistic. You might want to spend only $700 a month on groceries, but if it costs $800 to feed your family, that’s the number you need to work with. I learned that lesson after several years of having a budget that didn’t really serve me well, and a few simple changes made it so my budget is actually useful.

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