There’s no denying that creating a budget can be the deciding factor in successfully getting out of debt, or building up impressive savings. However, many of us struggle to stick to our budgets, for a variety of reasons.
Fear not. Whatever the problem, there’s usually something that can be done to help.
1. Your budget isn’t right in the first place
Making your budget too strict is a common reason for failing to stick to it. If it’s completely joyless, you’re likely to consciously or subconsciously rebel, and strict budgets can also be capsized by small, unexpected expenses. Allow a little room in your plans for a few fun things, and build in a degree of contingency planning.
Another problem is having a too-vague, wishy washy plan. If it isn’t defined, it isn’t a roadmap that you can successfully follow. Spend a little extra time looking at incoming money and likely outgoings before writing your spending plans down somewhere. Most of all, look at the big picture of your life and set a meaningful goal.
If you’re new to budgeting, remind yourself that it’s a learning curve and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t all run smoothly to begin with. Everyone has to start somewhere, and you can modify your plans as you go along.
At this point I also need to mention the elephant in the room. Sometimes, however sensible and modest your budget might be, you may not be earning enough to cover the basics. If you’re in a position to earn more money then obviously it makes sense to prioritise this.
However, not everyone is so lucky. If you aren’t in a position to earn more then it’s wise to seek some help about what you’re rightfully able to claim, and Citizens Advice is a good place to start.
2. You aren’t monitoring your spending
Keeping track of your spending is vital. Firstly, you can use it to gain a fuller picture of your outgoings, which lets you make realistic plans and spot places where you could cut back. Secondly, it can give you an early warning system that something’s going wrong, which allows you to take evasive action.
Thirdly, monitoring can create a virtuous circle, where the simple act of keeping notes can encourage you to stick to your spending plans. To get started, read about keeping a simple spending diary.
3. You put temptation in your own way
We each have our own personal spending weak spot. It could be window shopping with friends and giving in to peer pressure, or surfing eBay in the evening because we’re bored, perhaps.
Whatever your weak spot is, you know it. Admit it to yourself, then look for ways to replace or disrupt your budget-sabotaging behaviours. Find a cheaper activity to suggest to your shopping-obsessed friends, or get into the habit of switching off the laptop after 7pm and reading a book or watching a film.
You can also make it less convenient to get at your money if you’re prone to impulse spending. Try working in cash for a week, hiding your credit cards, unlinking your PayPal account from your eBay account, and so on. While you’re at it, why not delete that takeaway app from your phone?
4. You don’t make things easier for yourself
Making healthier behaviour simpler and easier is the flip side to making temptation harder to resist. For example, setting up regular payments that happen automatically makes it much less of a hassle to remember to add to your savings or pay off a debt.
Get up ten minutes earlier so there’s time to eat breakfast at home. Put a cereal bar from a supermarket multi-pack into your bag in the morning, so you aren’t tempted to buy overpriced snacks from a newsagent. Keep a few pizzas in the freezer so there’s no need to buy an expensive takeaway on Friday night.
While technology has undoubtedly made it easier to spend, spend, spend, it can also work in your favour and help you to save. Budgeting apps and online banking mean you can check spending and balances, and sweep surplus money into a savings account before you accidentally spend it.
There are all kinds of sites and apps out there too that can help you find voucher codes to reduce the cost of purchases, give you cashback on what you buy, and offer freebies or thrifty tips.
5. You forget the point of your budget
The human brain loves a good story, and most of us need a reason for sticking to our budgets as part of this eternal attraction to beginnings, middles and endings. Once you have a meaningful goal, it helps to find a way to keep your eyes on the prize so that the motivation isn’t lost amongst the humdrum workings of everyday life.
Everyone’s different, but try to find something that works as an effective reminder for you. It could be a note stuck to a mirror, a picture pinned to the fridge, a whole mood board on your office wall, a background on your laptop screen, an index card in your purse or wallet, a ring tone on your phone, or a recurring appointment in your calendar.
6. You don’t take action when things start to go wrong
With all the will in the world, budgets can still go off track. You might have an unexpected expense that comes out of nowhere, a sudden drop in income, or perhaps you have a lapse in your behaviour for some reason.
When this happens it’s tempting to start with the all-or-nothing thinking, such as ‘it’s completely ruined, there’s no point trying to sort it out’. There’s likely to be the temptation to binge spend following on from this, so be aware of that risk and try not to sabotage yourself.
Even the best budgets and plans usually have a hiccup in them sooner or later, but what truly matters is how you then choose to respond to the challenge. Rein it in, fix whatever you can fix. Be adaptable and make changes, you can do it.
Oh, and if you feel like Eeyore and got out of the thistle patch on the wrong side this morning you can still do something. People who are allergic to motivational quotes and pep talks can aim for the least worst scenario, then congratulate themselves on their problem solving skills.
For example, if I find myself low on funds then I set myself a Tenner Week challenge. It can be particularly useful the week before payday if there isn’t much money left in the pot.
Do you struggle with your spending plans? Or do you have any tips of your own for how to stick to a budget?