I hate you budgets.
I love you money.
I save money and invest money and have a retirement plan that’ll let me be comfortable enough when I’m old that I can hire someone to wash my privates instead of hoping my kids will feel guilty enough to do it.
And I do it without a budget.
I know! A finance blogger telling you not to make a budget? What is this, now?
See, I tried making a budget. I tried sticking to a budget. It didn’t work. I assume this is because my life is more
unpredictable than any budget can represent.
I would make a budget, try it, it wouldn’t line up, so I’d try to make it better, that wouldn’t work, so I’d give up.
My spending wasn’t wild, and I’m generally frugal, but on the per-month level, budgets for categories like ‘food’ and ‘entertainment’ never lined up with the reality of living.
And sticking to a budget was so … boring. We’re humans — emotional and unpredictable — and now list of limits is gonna tell me how to live? I don’t know about that. You want me to ignore a good deal on pants because I already bought two pairs this month?
I love pants and I want them all.
Budgets set you up for failure
It’s not our fault. Budgets are designed to make you feel like a miserable failure.
Budgets correct your behavior through failure. When (not if!) you overspend on a category, your budget makes you feel like a failure. Then you’re supposed to use that negative feeling to listen to the budget even more?
What kind of twisted Stockholm-syndrome bullshit is that?
I don’t want to spend too much on food one beautiful summer month, get an alert from some app, and feel like a failure for having actual friends who invite me to actual dinners.
Budgets don’t give you a high-five when you reach your savings goal. They don’t make you feel good when you fix your night table instead of buying a new one. All they do is tell you what perfect spending looks like and yell at you when you get it wrong.
It’s all negative reinforcement and no positive, unless you’re under-budget in every category. Which almost never happened to me. Mint always had a red bar somewhere!
So what really happens is that you pay attention to your budget less and less because it makes you feel bad. Or stops you from having fun.
Imagine that friend from school who’s more successful and prettier and smells like whatever heaven probably smells like. Your budget wants you to turn into that person. But you can’t. You smell like farts and you always will. You’re a mess and no budget is going to magically sort you out.
What Do I Do Then? I Just Count My Money
So I don’t care where the money goes, I just care how much of it goes.
I have a spreadsheet. Along the top are all my accounts. Every two weeks I write down the balances for those accounts. At the end of the sheet there are a few calculated columns that tell me how much money I’ve got, and what the differences are including and excluding investment changes. One should always be positive, the other is unpredictable.
That’s my savings number. That’s what I track. I don’t care how I got there, as long as my savings number is within my range, and doesn’t impact my months-to-FIRE (another column), then I’m fine. Otherwise, I’ll dig into my transactions and see what spending habits are causing trouble.
Fixing your spending habits, well, that’s the hardest part. You gotta work on those habits and instincts to save more if needed and no budget will help that.
Maybe your reality is totally fine. Maybe you save enough without even trying.
Maybe your reality is totally boned and you’ll be working like a dog until you’re dead. In which case, maybe a budget is the first step to getting out of that situation.
Hard to say, I’ve always been somewhere in the middle.
Either way, you can’t change overnight but you can know what to expect and watch how gradual changes impact the long-term outcome. And you can do that without putting in much effort or tracking every transaction.
Budgets want you to change overnight and suddenly because a tight-belted boring psychopath with no friends who never leaves the house and watches the couple across the alley eat dinner in silence for entertainment.
Instead, don’t change a thing and just start counting your money.
It’s easy, and it’s more human.