This is Why Your Budget Isn’t Working

Confession time: I’ve never been a very good budgeter.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve made budgets.

I’ve done Excel budgets, and Mint budgets, and even writing-things-down-on-paper budgets (#badmillennial).

But trust me when I say they never, ever, ever changed anything about how I was spending my money.

Sometimes I would get an email update from Mint when I went over a specific budget category, sure, but it never really gave me what I needed: a harsh look at where my money was actually going on a day to day basis.

Listen: a budget can be a fantastic tool, whether you’re looking at things weekly, monthly, yearly or even, as Bridget recently calculated out, over a lifetime.

But you can have a brilliant, perfect, amazing balanced budget and still not hit your money goals.

You can have the best budget in the world and still end up overspending every single month.

The gold standard of budgets can’t help you unless you’re also committed to tracking your spending.

It is all well and good to budget a set amount for eating out at restaurants, or to spend on food, or to spend on “fun” in your budget, but do you know how easy it is to forget about that $20 lunch with friends, or that $90 date night when it’s close to the end of the month and you get an invite to go out?

So easy, and I speak from super-personal experience.

On the other hand, it’s really hard to forget about those exact same expenses when you’re looking at a spreadsheet that is showing you in no uncertain terms that no, you really can’t afford the fancy rain boots and you should be happy with the ones that are on sale and are just as waterproof (and way more waterproof than your old pair full of holes, can I just add, again from personal experience.)

Where is all this coming from?

Well, as you guys know, because I’ve written about it time and time again, I love to track my spending. (I didn’t always, since one of my best takeaways from the first month I spent tracking was “Wow, I hate this and never want to open that spreadsheet again.”)

But this month, alongside the Track Your Spending challenge, I’ve been secretly trying something beyond just a simple “money in, money out” spreadsheet.

I’ve been separating my expenses into categories, with estimated amounts of what I can spend in each.

For someone who has sworn off budgets, that sounds a whole lot like a budget to me.

It has – surprise, surprise – turned out to be hugely helpful, especially when it comes to giving myself some leeway in terms of leaving a bit of guilt-free “fun” money in my budget.

I can easily see how I’m doing on each different category, and since the categories are based on the calculations I’ve done over the past six months of tracking, they’re almost eerily accurate in terms of what I’m actually going to spend each month.

But it’s also thrown my past budgeting efforts and their somewhat-legendary failures into sharp relief.

I can see now that when I sat down to “balance my budget” all those times, I was missing one key step: making sure my money was going where I thought it was going.

And hey, to cut myself some slack and give an alternative option, it even would have been worth pulling all my transactions at the end of the month just to do a quick gut-check against what I thought my budget was supposed to look like. Even that would have been a good way for me to realize that hey, that perfect spreadsheet wasn’t actually in line with the spending habits I had built up over time.

If you’re not doing any of the above – tracking your spending or reconciling your budget at the end of the month – that’s why the whole budgeting thing isn’t helping you get where you want to be with your money.

What do you think – have you had good luck with other budgeting methods? Are you staunchly anti-budget? Have you learned other good ways to make sure a budget helps you? Let me know in the comments!