When it comes to personal finances, the most common recommendation from experts is to have a budget. However, many people create an initial framework for their spending only to continue struggling. Often, that’s a sign that your budget isn’t quite where it needs to be to serve you well. If you’re wondering, “Is your budget working?” here’s what you need to do to figure it out.
Do You Feel Overly Restricted?
In many ways, budgets are inherently restrictive, as they’re designed to ensure your money is going to the right places. However, if it’s restricting what you do to the point where it leaves you feeling miserable, that’s an issue.
Ideally, your budget needs to have some room for spontaneity and enjoyment. Otherwise, the rules you’re placing on yourself are challenging to follow over time. Essentially, your budget starts seeming like a punishment or burden, and that can leave you frustrated, unmotivated, or even angry.
While it’s wise to ensure you’re handling all of your financial responsibilities, try to designate some of your money for activities you genuinely love. By doing so, you’re giving yourself an outlet for fun, and that can positively impact your well-being. In turn, following the rest of your budget isn’t as difficult, as you’re still getting some joy from your hard-earned money.
Are You Being Too Idealistic?
When many people sit down to create a budget, they outline their perfect spending plan. The issue is that budgets drawn up in that manner don’t always align with reality. Instead, they’re overly optimistic based on how household members typically act and spend or don’t account for realistic costs for needed goods and services.
Overly idealistic budgets are incredibly common during periods of economic uncertainty, particularly issues like high inflation. They don’t provide enough room for rising prices, which causes households to bust their budgets even if they’re trying to be responsible.
Additionally, not accounting for actual spending patterns means missing the mark more often than not. As a result, it’s critical to take an honest look at your typical spending and set realistic targets in discretionary categories. That helps you mold your budget to your preferences and priorities, ensuring you aren’t being overly idealistic.
Do You Have an Emergency Fund?
Even the best-planned budget is quickly derailed if you can’t cover the cost of an unexpected event. Whether it’s medical bills, car repairs, or anything else, being able to cover those expenses without harming your budget makes a difference.
By having an emergency fund, you’ve got a stash of cash you can tap when the unexpected happens. As a result, the rest of your spending can simply align with your usual budget in most cases.
Make saving money in your emergency fund part of your monthly budget, allowing you to build up the account and recover the cash you had to spend to handle the unexpected. Ideally, you want to make your initial target at least $1,000. Then, work your way up to three months of living expenses, and then try six. That way, you get a sizeable cushion in place.
Did You Factor in Everything?
Common advice is to review your spending over several months as you create your budget. That lets you see where your money is going, which can make it easier to choose reasonable targets.
The problem is that only looking at a few months means you aren’t seeing irregular expenses that occur during the year. For example, you might overlook how much you usually spend on gifts for holidays and celebrations or miss routine expenses that don’t occur monthly, like vehicle maintenance.
If you don’t factor in everything and plan for it correctly, you’ll encounter months where your budget just won’t work. Instead, examine all of your spending during a year. Identify those irregular expenses, and break them down to see how much you need to set aside for them each paycheck or month to ensure they’re covered. Then, shuttle the cash to a designated savings account during the year, allowing you to tap that money when it’s time to cover those costs. That way, you’re planning for those expenses while keeping your monthly budget consistent.
Can You Actually Afford Your Lifestyle?
In some cases, the reason your budget isn’t working is your trying to maintain a lifestyle that you genuinely can’t afford. If your expenses and spending exceed your income, all you’ll do is rack up debt if you keep pushing toward a lifestyle you can’t support. In turn, the cost of your debt repayment usually rises, potentially to the point of becoming entirely unmanageable.
While it’s hard, it’s critical to get a grip on a situation like this quickly. Examine your spending across every account, including bank accounts and debt-related ones, like credit cards. Then, see if your outgoing money exceeds what you’re bringing in, and if it does, find ways to scale back. Otherwise, you’ll need to boost your income to cover the difference.
Are You Making the Right Adjustments?
Budgets aren’t a one-and-done document. Instead, they need to live, breathe, grow, and change. If you aren’t adjusting your budget regularly, what’s currently in place may not match your reality, as it’s based on old information, out-of-date costs, and other irregularities.
Make a plan to review your budget at least quarterly. See if the categories and allocations make sense for where you are today. If not, change your budget to fit what’s happening now, allowing it to grow and change with your circumstances and ensuring it’s easier to follow.
Do You Genuinely Want to Follow a Budget?
While creating a budget is an excellent first step when you want to get control of your financial life, writing one down won’t magically change how you act and spend. Instead, you need to actively commit to sticking with your budget. If you don’t, then the work you put into creating one won’t improve your situation.
Consider what you hoped to accomplish when you created your budget. Think about how adjusting your habits help you reach important goals and what it would feel like to achieve them. Use that as ongoing motivation, regularly reminding yourself of what’s most critical to you to keep yourself focused on the target.
Do you have any other tips that can help people answer the question, “Is your budget working for you?” Have you ever discovered that your budget wasn’t working and want to share details about how you got back on track? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Tamila McDonald has worked as a Financial Advisor for the military for past 13 years. She has taught Personal Financial classes on every subject from credit, to life insurance, as well as all other aspects of financial management. Mrs. McDonald is an AFCPE Accredited Financial Counselor and has helped her clients to meet their short-term and long-term financial goals.