How Do I Stick to My Budget?

Jan 23 / Dr. Jay Zigmont, PhD, MBA, CFP®

So you've sat down with your significant other (or on your own, if your finances are solo) and created your budget, using a spreadsheet or an app. Now the trick becomes sticking to it, and making adjustments as needed as you learn where your money goes every month. A lot of people assume that since it's a monthly budget, you only need to check it once a month. In fact, it's a good idea to check it weekly, so you have time to make adjustments to your estimates and spending over the course of the month.

It's also a good idea to meet with your significant other or an accountability partner who's encouraging you to stick to your budget. Here's a rundown of what your budget meeting should cover, and a few tricks to curb overspending. The most important thing to remember is that learning to live on a budget is a process, and there will be some months where your spending doesn't go according to plan. Just aim to make small improvements over time.

The Budget Meeting

Set aside some time in your schedule every week to discuss your budget with your significant other or accountability partner. This might sound like a major drag, but over time, the meetings and check-ins will get shorter as you refine your spending.

You don't necessarily have to monitor spending down to the penny, but it's a good idea to see if your spending during an average month matches your line items and amounts budgeted for different categories. For example, if it turns out you overestimated how much you spend on clothes shopping but underestimated your costs for dining out, now is your chance to adjust that.

Your meeting for the last week of the month should have you looking at that month's spending, as well as looking forward to the following month to see what expenses you might have coming up that you haven't accounted for. You might also identify areas where you overspent the previous month, and decide to make a concerted effort to do better next month. Your budget functions like a GPS unit, it can help you reroute your spending until you get where you want to go (meeting a big savings goal, paying off debt, retirement, etc).

Tricks to Stick to Your Budget & Avoid Overspending

If you're checking up on your budget versus your actual spending every week (and looking at those numbers in black and white), it should be apparent where you're overspending (or underestimating how much you actually spend in certain categories). Here are three ways to mitigate this and build a system that works for you.

     1. Automate Your Finances When Possible

This is easier if you're paid on a regular schedule and know how much you'll have coming in at any given time (and have a money cushion in your           checking account), but you can set up auto-pay for both bills and savings goals. With bills like your mortgage, car loan, and credit cards (that are reported to the credit bureaus), this move will improve your credit, as all your payments will be on time (payment history is 35% of your credit score). If you can afford it, you might consider setting up multiple payments per month for, say, your mortgage loan – this way, you'll have the chance to pay it off sooner.

You can also automate saving for emergencies and even big goals like retirement. Just set up automatic transfers to your savings and retirement accounts. If the money leaves your account automatically, there's no temptation to spend it. This may sound harsh, but you're setting yourself up for success if your essential costs are taken care of automatically.

     2. Prepaid Debit Cards

If you struggle with spending too much on nonessential purchases, you can give yourself a limit by relying on prepaid debit cards to shop or cover other expenses like this. If your budget for dining out is $250 per month, put $250 on a prepaid debit card, and once the money is spent, you're done for the month.

     3. Budget for Spending

Remember that a budget doesn't just tell you what you can't spend, it also tells you what you can spend. To that end, you can give yourself a category in your budget for fun spending that you don't need to justify. If you're budgeting with a significant other, you each get assigned a figure for pocket money. You can spend that money any way you want, and if you want to save up for a larger purchase, put that money aside for a few months until you reach your goal.

Don't Get Discouraged

It can be tempting to give up on budgeting if your spending goes off track one month or you have an unexpected emergency bill that throws everything off. This will happen, and it's okay. Just remember that budgeting is a process and requires adjustments as needed. Aim to make small improvements every month and you'll see the progress over time.

Jay Zigmont, PhD, MBA, CFP® is the Founder of Childfree Wealth®, a life and financial planning firm dedicated to helping Childfree and Permanently Childless people. Dr. Jay is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, Childfree Wealth Specialist®, and author of the book “Portraits of Childfree Wealth.” Dr. Jay is the co-host of Childfree Wealth Podcast. His Ph.D. is in Adult Learning from the University of Connecticut.

He has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Insider, CNBC, and many other publications.