How to Stick to a Budget: 6 Ways to Stay on Track

By Julia Califano · November 28, 2023 · 10 minute read

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How to Stick to a Budget: 6 Ways to Stay on Track

Building a budget isn’t hard, but it does require time and effort. And once it’s completed, it’s something you should be proud of. Yet, many people have trouble sticking to a budget, essentially throwing all their work out the window as a result of impulse buys, unrealistic expectations, or a lack of discipline. Here’s a look at some of the reasons budgets can fail and tips for making a budget you can stick to.

Understanding the Importance of Budgeting

A budget allows you to organize your money according to your priorities and plays a key role in achieving financial goals. Those goals can be anything from taking a vacation and buying a new car to funding future education and retirement. With a well-crafted budget, you can work on multiple goals at the same time.

A budget is also one of the top tools to help you stay out of debt or rein in any outstanding debt you may already have. In addition, having a budget can help simplify your spending decisions, making it easier to determine which purchases are worth making and which you don’t actually need.

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Overcoming Common Budgeting Challenges

Budgeting usually begins with the best of intentions. However, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked. Temptations and unexpected expenses can cause a budget to go off the rails, leading to overspending, missed bill payments, and debt. Here’s a look at some of the most common reasons why budgets fail.

Lack of Discipline

Though people often get excited about putting their financial house in order, it can be easy to slip back into the lifestyle they led before putting a budget in place. If you already live within your means, that might be okay. But if you’re a habitual overspender, it’s important to recognize that those behaviors have to change to keep your budget on track.

Unrealistic Expectations

Many people think budgeting requires drastic measures. For example, if you’ve been living beyond your means and want to rein in your spending, you may decide you must go from spending more than you make to living off half your income. But that may not be a viable option, at least at first. When you fail, you might give up on budgeting altogether. It’s important to set achievable expectations.

Discounting Irregular Expenses

While building your budget, you probably remember to factor in regular expenses like your monthly electricity bill and grocery shopping. But it can be easy to forget to include expenses that occur on a more infrequent schedule, such as quarterly or annually.

Annual membership fees, homeowners’ association fees, and kids’ camp tuition may come up only once a year, and that can make them easy to forget. Failing to account for these costs can throw your budget off once they come due and you may have to scramble to find the cash to pay them. You can try to account for these expenses by saving a little each month to help cover them.

Recommended: Determining the Right Spending/Budgeting Categories

Getting Lost in the Weeds

While it’s important to take a thorough accounting of your expenses when making a budget, it is possible to go overboard with so many line items that can make your head spin.

A budget with too many line items can be tedious to update and track. It can be more productive to have broad line items that encompass a wider array of expenses, so if you spend a bit too much on one small item, it won’t make much difference.

Your Social Circle

The people you surround yourself with, including your friends, family, and partner, can have a huge impact on your spending. If these people tend to be big spenders, you might be tempted to spend when you’re around them. It would be a shame if one big night on the town threw off a whole month’s worth of budgeting plans.

If you’re saving for a specific goal, like putting a down payment on a home, you might let your friends know that you’re trying to stick to a budget, so maybe they won’t tempt you with expensive sushi dinners or weekends in Vegas. In their excitement to help you achieve your goal, they may be willing to trade nights at the bar for cheaper activities like game nights in.

Creating a Realistic Budget

One of the most important tips for how to stick to a budget is to start with a realistic budget — or, in other words, a budget that is easy to stick with. These three steps are key to starting off on the right foot.

Assessing Income and Expenses

To create a realistic budget, you need to first assess where you currently stand. That means calculating how much, on average, is coming in each month and how much, on average, is going out each month.

You can do this by gathering bank statements from the past several months, then adding up all of your (after tax) monthly income. This is how much you have to spend each month. Next, add up what you are spending each month to come up with a monthly average. If your average monthly spending exceeds your average monthly income (meaning you’re going backwards) or is about the same (meaning you’re not saving), you’ll need to find places to cut back.

Setting SMART financial goals

Whether your goal is to build an emergency fund or go on a great vacation, setting clear, achievable financial goals will help you create — and stick to — your budget. Strong goals serve as reminders for why you’re choosing to spend less in some areas, which can make sticking to your budget feel more rewarding.

Consider using the SMART framework when setting goals. You’ll want your goals to be:

Specific: Rather than saying, “I’d like to save more,” try to be more specific, such as “I’d like to put a downpayment on a car in four months.”
Measurable: You want your goals to have a measurable outcome, such as a set amount of money you’d like to save by a certain date.
Attainable: If a goal is too hard to achieve, you might give up before you get very far. Strive to set goals that are attainable given your current income, expenses, and time frame.
Relevant: It’s key that your goals address your top needs and concerns. Consider what will give you the most security and value to your life right now.
Time-based: Having a set timeline to reach your goals can help you stay on track.

Recommended: Smart Financial Strategies to Reach Your Goals

Prioritizing Essential and Non-Essential Expenses

A budget is an opportunity to align your spending with what’s most important to you. You’ll want to have three main categories for spending:

•   Essential expenses (“needs”) These are your necessities, such as groceries, housing, healthcare, and transportation.

•   Nonessentials (“wants”) These are the expenses that aren’t necessary for survival but enhance your quality of life.

•   Savings This is the money you separate from spending each month and allows you to reach the financial goals you established earlier.

A very basic approach to budgeting is the 50/30/20 budget rule, which divides your net income into the above categories, spending 50% on needs, 30% on wants, and 20% on savings. Those percentages may not be realistic for everyone, however, If you live in an area with steep housing costs, for example, you may need to spend more than 50% on needs and take some away from the “wants” and/or “savings” categories.

Recommended: See how your money is categorized using the 50/30/20 calculator.

Practical Tips to Stick to Your Budget

Once you have a basic budget in place, you’ll need to stick to it — or you won’t see any progress towards your goals. Here are six ways to keep spending and saving on track.

1. Sleep on Big Purchases

Impulse buys can quickly throw your budget off course. To avoid the problem, try the 30-day rule: If you see something nonessential you want to buy either online or in person, put the purchase on a one-month pause. Tell yourself that if, after 30 days, you still want the item, and you can afford it, you’ll buy it. This gives you time to reflect. You may well decide that you don’t need or want the item that badly and forgo the purchase.

2. Aim to Never Spend More Than You Have

Getting into debt can be a vicious cycle that is tough to get out of. Just paying the minimum on your credit card balance, for example, means you’re never getting ahead of your debt. Running a balance also means you’re going to end up paying far more for your purchases than the original price tag.

If you want something you can’t afford right now, plan for it, and start setting money aside for it each month. When you have enough, you can splurge without guilt — or throwing off your budget.

3. Set up Auto Draft for Bills and Savings

To make sure you never miss a payment (and avoid late fees), consider setting up autopay for all of your regular bills. You can apply the same principle for paying yourself (a.k.a saving). Simply set up a recurring transfer from your checking account to your savings account for the same day each month (ideally, right after you get paid). Even small amounts will grow into something larger, which can ultimately buy that vacation or cover an unexpected car repair.

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4. Plan Your Meals to Curb Impulsive Spending

When you’re hungry and there’s no food in the house, it’s hard to resist the call of the drive-through or your fave local take-out spot. You can avoid this temptation by planning your meals (including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks) each week, making a grocery list, and sticking to that list in the store. Meal planning saves you from blowing your weekly food and restaurant budget. Bonus: You’ll probably eat healthier, too.

5. Utilize Technology for Tracking and Managing Your Budget

One of the best ways to stick to a budget is to harness technology. Putting a budgeting app on your phone, for example, can help you keep track of your spending and savings. These apps connect with your financial accounts (including bank accounts, credit cards, and investment accounts), so you don’t have to manually enter your purchases and transactions.

Apps can help you monitor bank accounts, credit card spending, and even keeping track of how much you spend in cash. Some apps allow you to split your spending into your own categories and can send you alerts when you start to max out your budget to help keep you from going over. Even better, many budgeting apps are free (at least for the basic service).

6. Revisit and Adjust Your Budget as Needed

A successful budget is rarely a one-and-done proposition. As your income, expenses, and/or financial goals change, it’s a good idea to revisit your budget and make adjustments.

You may want to check in on your budget every six to 12 months to reflect on your budgeting journey. How well is your budget working to advance your goals? Is it still relevant to your life? Maybe you’re spending more in certain categories and less in others. Perhaps you can siphon off a bit more to savings each month and reach your goals faster. Picking up changes in your financial habits can help ensure that your budget reflects your current priorities.

The Takeaway

Learning how to stick to a budget means starting with a realistic budgeting plan, setting SMART goals, picking the right tools, and keeping a watchful eye on your money as your income and expenses change. Remaining agile and staying disciplined with your budget will allow you to meet your expenses, enjoy extras like travel and entertainment, and achieve your future goals.

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