How to [Finally] Stick to a Budget

Budgeting for your monthly expenses is fairly easy. But sticking to a budget is hard. Sticking to a budget month after month is really hard.

Budgeting for your monthly expenses is fairly easy.

But sticking to a budget is hard. Sticking to a budget month after month is really hard.

You might be asking, “how am I supposed to stick with this budgeting thing?”

That’s a very common concern when you are first getting started with managing your finances. And for some, it may be a common question even after years of trying to budget. It can be frustrating. And many give up trying to budget because of this frustration.

Up front, let me just say that the point of budgeting isn’t so that you are 100% on budget, 100% of the time. No one is going to be perfect. The point of a budget is to create a standard for your spending. An expectation does wonders.

Just like with raising your children, you should expect the best from your spending by creating guidelines to follow. That’s all that a budget is. So don’t think that you have to be perfect with this process. Just do it. Month after month. Eventually you will get better at it.

That said, here are a few tricks you can use to motivate yourself into sticking to your budget. They will at least help you look at your budgeting process differently to achieve the results you need.

First, Get Inspired to Trim Your Budget and Save

I find that when I tie my finances to my dreams and goals in life it’s pretty easy to stay motivated to save. I have a ton of dreams and goals.

Things like:

  • quitting the rat race,
  • building successful businesses,
  • spending more time with my kids,
  • putting them in good schools and programs,
  • traveling and seeing the world,
  • retiring without worry, and
  • helping others with my wealth.

The list goes on, but you get the point. All of these things are tied to my ability to successfully manage (and save) money. I sit down usually once a year and re-assess where I am with my dreams and goals and add new things to the list. There’s always something else to save for it seems.

I suggest you do the same – think about what you really want in life, and write down the logical financial steps that it will take to get there. When you use your actual dreams and long-term desires to run the show, you’ll always be heading in the right direction.

But at the end of the day, you’ll do best when you “set it and forget it” with your savings plan. Let’s talk about getting that done.

Get Fancy with Your Budget

If you are working with difficult household budget spreadsheets or boring pen and paper, then you might want to try a different approach. Step into the 21st Century by using budgeting software to manage the process. Start with a free service like Mint.com or Budget Pulse.

You could also try something like You Need a Budget or Quicken. Some swear by these premium budget software tools. A slick design and a small investment might be the motivation you need to come back to your budget each month.

You Need a Budget Screenshot

Screenshot of the You Need a Budget Platform

Create Reminders

The good thing about the tools I mentioned above is that they all have automatic reminder services to keep you engaged with your budgeting process. I get reminders all the time when I’ve exceeded my budget within a category in my Mint.com account.

If you don’t use budgeting software, then create some type of automatic reminder for yourself to review the budget. Most cell phones have this feature nowadays. And if you are really anti-tech, write down your budget review days in your planner or on the household calendar.

The hardest part of budgeting is remembering or wanting to come back to it. Make sure you don’t forget.

Move to a Weekly Review

If you are currently reviewing your budget once a month, consider moving to a weekly review. Fewer days between sessions means you might be more likely to stick with the process.

Set aside a specific time each week (e.g. Sunday night) to review spending from the previous week and to plan spending for the week ahead. This may be micro managing for some, but it may just do the trick for you.

Find Accountability For Your Budget

If you have a spouse, make sure they are engaged in the process too. Two heads are better than one, and you are more likely to stick to your budget routines if your spouse is responsible for remembering to do it as well. If you aren’t married, find a trusted friend to hold you accountable.

There are also plenty of financial forums online to find accountability. 

Other ways might be to create signposts, like notes on your fridge or mirrors where you see them regularly. Or connect with like-minded people on forums, on Facebook, or other social apps you frequent. Of course, you can create automated reminders for yourself using calendar apps, budgeting software, or to-list apps on your phone that allow repeated notifications.

Simplify Your Budget

Forget the fancy tools and numerous spending categories. Simplify your budget by focusing on those one or two spending categories that you know you have trouble with.

If it’s shopping for clothes, focus on that. Set a simple limit for the week or month, write that down somewhere, set aside the cash if you want, and then review your spending a week or month later.

This hyper-focus on the problem areas may be the only thing you need to reign in your spending to desired levels. It will certainly be easier.

Drop the Budget

Finally, understand that a budget isn’t necessarily meant to be followed month after month. Most people need a budget for just a few months to help them understand their spending habits, trim the excess, and reign in crazy spending.

There is nothing wrong with doing the budget thing for a couple of months and then moving on if you feel like you’ve got a handle on things. Everyone’s situation is different. So the use of the budget is going to be different from person to person.

Reasons Why Budgets Fail

Maybe you have had some success but failed to keep going on your budget. These are the main reasons that people lose hope and their urge to budget.

Too Complicated

Your budget can be as detailed and as automated as you want it to be. If you want to focus on just a few spending categories, that’s fine. If you want to just do it with pencil and paper, that’s okay too.

When I do a budget, I focus on just my dining out category. I know that’s where I tend to overspend. And if I want to limit my spending for the month, that’s where I should attack.

Some people swear that a zero-based budget, like the budgeting software You Need a Budget provides, is a simplest way to go. Find what works for you and stick with it.

Doesn’t Align with Your Goals

A good budget will help you achieve your goals. If your budget doesn’t specifically reflect your end goals, then you are likely to miss the mark.

Was Impossible to Achieve

Your budget needs to be based in reality. Make sure your budgeted categories aren’t extremely different from your past spending. Otherwise, you’ll just serve up a big dose of disappointment for yourself.

Wasn’t Fun

Finally, budget shouldn’t be about only limiting your financial life. It should set you free and include a little fun. Make fun savings goals (i.e. vacation, holiday spending) a part of your budget. And be sure to include those splurge expenses too.

What are your tips for sticking to a budget? Do any of you do a rigid budget each and every month? What’s your secret for sticking with it?

Avatar About Philip Taylor, CPA

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a CPA, blogger, podcaster, husband, and father of three. PT is also the founder and CEO of the personal finance industry conference and trade show, FinCon.

He created Part-Time Money® back in 2007 to share his advice on money, hold himself accountable (while paying off over $75k in debt), and to meet others passionate about moving toward financial independence.

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  1. I really like the great tips you’ve provided. Completely agree with the last tip, you don’t need a permanent budget, its essential to figure out your spending habits and keep them under control. Once its under control a budget isn’t necessary.

  2. We have a paper budget and have had one for years. It works because it’s impersonal. We hash it out in November once we find out what the following year should look like (COLA’s or raises if any), then pretty much stick with it. There are few changes from year to year, so basically we tweek it from the previous budget. If something major comes up, (like a big car repair), we talk it through. Each of us is responsible to list their own spending. (So if someone picks up meds from the pharmacy they write it in the book and subtract it from the balance) The kids are old enough to chose their own clothes, so they work within their budgets. Food money is in cash. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Because we don’t have alot of wiggle room financially, we plan to keep a written budget. It’s helpful for all of us to know where we’re at.

  3. Avatar Briana @ GBR says

    I think I’m going to go towards a weekly budget because I always anticipate updating to see my net worth and get anxious. I just have to find the right platform to use.

  4. Setting a realistic holidays budget. Spend the extra time to save money over the holidays. That way your budget isn’t as beat up at the start of the New Year.