Sticking to a budget is hard. So hard that only 1 in 3 Americans keep a household budget.
But why is sticking to a budget so hard?
Whenever I talk with people about why budgeting is so hard, I notice a few issues that come up over and over again:
- You’re not making enough to cover your expenses. The #1 rule of personal finance is to spend less than you make, and if you’re struggling to make enough to cover your expenses, there are lots of great side hustles to increase your income.
- Your expenses are higher than you realize. Whether it’s debt or everyday spending, lots of people underestimate how much they spend, and you can’t stick to a budget unless you realize exactly where you’re at.
- You need to rethink how you approach money. This is about changing your lifestyle, your way of thinking, and your habits. It’s possibly the hardest one, but it can have a huge impact on your financial life.
I honestly think making more money is the easiest of these to address because the other two issues are more psychological. You might be ignoring debt, not paying attention to how much your partner spends, or have created some pretty negative spending habits.
Those are complex issues to deal with. But there are ways to build new habits, pay better attention to how you spend money, and then start taking control of your finances.
I reached out to readers in my M$M Facebook community and asked them how they stick to their budget. and I’ve included some of their advice in this article. A number of my readers have paid off massive amounts of debt, retired early, and reached huge savings milestones, so it’s safe to say they know how to stick to a budget
Here are 29 tips for sticking to a budget
1. Start the day reviewing your accounts
Checking your accounts first thing in the morning gives you an idea of where you stand. You’ll see what you spent the day before, which can be a really good reminder to stick to your budget.
There are different ways to do this – log in to the websites for each financial institution, download different banking apps to your phone, or sync your accounts to a budgeting app and check that.
Even though this takes some discipline, checking your accounts might not always be as bad as it sounds. You’ll be able to see how well you did the day before, any progress towards your savings goals, and how much debt you’ve been paying off. Seeing how well you’re doing with your money is the motivation to keep sticking to your budget.
And if every morning sounds like too much, do a beginning of the week check-in – you can even set a reminder on your phone. The point is to remind yourself of where you’re at with your money.
2. Give yourself an allowance
One of my readers said she hates the word “allowance,” but she gives herself a set amount of money to spend on whatever she wants. You can call it an allowance or fun money, but this is money set aside for wants rather than needs.
A lot of people can’t stick to a budget because they feel it’s too restricting. Giving yourself permission to spend money lifts those perceived restrictions and makes budgeting less stressful.
But just remember, spending money can be a lot of fun as long as you’re respecting your limitations and taking care of your needs first.
3. Leave your credit card at home
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it’s worth saying again. Leave your credit card at home if you’re tempted to use it when you shouldn’t.
Credit cards are dangerous because if you’re unable to pay your balance off every month, interest charges are added to your balance. Every month that you can’t pay your balance in full, more interest charges are added. Your credit card debt just gets harder to pay off, which is why you hear it referred to as debt cycle.
There are ways to use credit cards responsibly, but if sticking to a budget is hard, you might want to avoid credit cards altogether.
4. Make a grocery list
Sit down and make a list every time you go to the grocery store. Heck, do it before you head to Target, Home Depot, anywhere. Then set a rule that you must stick to the list.
It’s easy to follow your list if you spend some time thinking about exactly what you need. For the grocery store, make a meal plan, check your kitchen to see what you have, and then make a list of the things you need.
Personal tip – don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. There is no way I am sticking to a budget at the store if I’m starving.
5. Buy used
I am a big fan of buying used cars. My wife actually drives a super boujee Mercedes that we bought used. We saved thousands of dollars on her car by buying something that was just a few years old.
Cars are depreciating assets, and brand new ones start losing their value the minute you drive them off the lot. That’s why I highly recommend considering a used vehicle. They may require maintenance a little sooner than a new car, but you save on taxes and insurance.
You can follow this same idea when you need to make other large purchases like kitchen appliances, electronics, and furniture. There’s honestly a lot of great used stuff out there, and it can help you stick your budget.
6. Rethink the way you go out to eat
We all know that going out to eat costs more than eating at home, but you can still go out to eat and stick to your budget.
- Go out for lunch instead of dinner
- Go during happy hour and eat the discounted apps
- Make a meal of appetizers and sides
- Bring your own bottle of wine (call to ask about a corking fee first)
7. Be realistic
Sticking to a budget is much easier if it’s a realistic budget. And being realistic means you’re being honest with how much you make and spend – your spending habits are especially important. Even if you’re trying to cut back on spending in a certain area, assume it’s going to be hard and give yourself some leeway. Budget for the likelihood that you will overspend.
This does a couple of things. One, you can adjust the rest of your expenses to account for overspending, and you’ll stick to your budget. Two, it builds your confidence and helps you feel in control of your money.
8. Check your calendar
When you sit down and write out your budget, be sure to check the calendar to see if there are any birthdays, events, holidays, or other plans you should budget for. You can build those events into your budget so you’re not caught off guard when something unexpected comes up.
Even better, set a savings goal each month to put money aside specifically for birthdays and other events. There doesn’t have to be something coming up any time soon, but you’ll know that you’re really prepared.
9. Talk about money with your partner
If you’re married or in a serious relationship, sticking to a budget requires that you first start talking about money. You can start by talking about your financial goals.
- Do you want to buy a house in the near future?
- What about early retirement?
- Do you want to pay off your student loans early?
- Do you want to start a business?
- What about kids?
Being aware of each other’s goals will help you connect your spending and saving habits to those goals.
10. Budget weekly, not monthly
Some people get hung up on the monthly budget thing, but there’s no reason you can’t break your budget down into more manageable chunks. This makes a lot of sense for people who are paid on a weekly basis.
Weekly budgeting makes sense for things like groceries and how much gas you buy going to and from work, but it’s also possible with monthly bills. For example, if your mortgage is $1,000/month, you need to set aside $250 each week of the month. That smaller amount might be easier to digest.
11. Sleep on your purchases
I’ve heard this from several people, and it’s a good rule to live by: give yourself at least 24 hours before making a purchase.
If you wake up the next day and still want it, then go for it. But this gives you a chance to talk yourself out of a purchase by giving yourself time to think about better uses for that money. You might realize that you’ve already bought something similar and never used it.
You might be surprised by how often you’re able to say no to yourself.
12. Research your purchases
This is something I do a lot, and it’s honestly saved me a ton of money. When I start thinking that I want something, I go into full research mode. I literally scour the internet for reviews, testimonials, and price comparisons.
I want to know that I’m using my money wisely.
But there’s another side to it… most times I realize that I don’t actually want or need whatever it was I was researching.
13. Don’t fall for the upgrade cycle
Do you buy a new phone as soon as the newest model comes out? What about video game consoles, computers, shoes, etc.?
It’s tempting – new is exciting. But if sticking to a budget is hard, try to get as much life as possible out everything you buy. Companies know that they can lure you in with fancy new features and a shiny new look, but drown out that noise and think about how it affects your overall budget.
14. Put your bills on autopay
Autopay means you're telling your bank to transfer a certain amount of money every month at the same time to pay a bill. It’s a really simple solution to paying your bills on time, so you can save money on late fees and interest charges.
You can use autopay on credit card payments, student loans, your mortgage, your cell phone bills, and some utilities.
You’re sticking to a budget because you’ve put things on autopilot.
15. Don’t use autopay
Even though I just told you to use autopay, it’s not a perfect solution for everyone. Autopay removes you from the process of paying your bills, but some people need to be part of the process to really understand where their money is going.
There’s no rule that says you need to do one or the other – try both and see what works for you.
16. Try a no-spend challenge
No-spend challenges are daily, weekly, or monthly challenges that help you stick to your budget because you’re eliminating days that you’re allowed to spend money. There are two different kinds of challenges:
- No spending on anything, not even essentials. You plan for this in advance by doing all of your grocery shopping, filling up your gas tank, paying all of your bills, etc., before starting. This works better if you’re doing a no-spend day or week.
- No spending on anything beyond an allowance. You give yourself an amount of money you can spend, and then you have to get creative to make it stretch.
Here’s the thing, both of these options are basically a budget. You’re just looking at it from a different perspective, and sometimes that’s all it takes to start sticking to a budget.
17. Pay attention to patterns
Tracking your spending over the course of a couple of months can give you some valuable insights into how and why you spend your money. And when you notice times that you’re spending more than you should, you can start correcting those bad habits.
For example, if you’re prone to ordering takeout after a tough day at work, keep a meal prepped and ready in the freezer. If you’re more likely to do online shopping when you’re bored, then pick up a book, text a friend, or pick up a hobby.
It can take a little while to break those bad habits, but your budget will thank you.
18. Always pay yourself first
Paying yourself first means that before you pay any of your bills, you set aside a certain amount of money for savings. It could go towards a retirement account – your 401(k) or IRA, emergency fund, or some other savings account.
If you’ve ever said, “I don’t have enough money to save,” this forces you to save first and then adjust the rest of your spending accordingly. It’s a budgeting strategy that will help you build a consistent savings habit because you’re not waiting until the end of the month to see if there’s anything leftover.
19. Set up spending alerts
Most banks and credit card companies will let you set up text alerts if you or your partner spend over a certain amount of money. One of my readers swears by this – she and her husband have alerts set up, and she said sticking to a budget is easier because this gives them trust and transparency.
20. Delete apps that make it easier to pay with your phone
Smartphones have made life easier for all of us, but it’s made spending too easy for some people.
If you realize that easy accessibility with your phone is part of the problem, you can get rid of PayPal and Venmo, and delete your bank and credit card information from your virtual wallet.
This works because it puts up a roadblock. Sure, you can download the apps again, or go grab your debit card to make a purchase, but the minute or two it takes you to do that may save you from spending money.
21. Think about how many hours it took you to earn that amount
We all understand that working pays for the things we have, but have you ever tried thinking about your spending in terms of working hours?
First, you have to know how much you make per hour. This is easier for hourly workers, but there’s an easy way to figure out your hourly pay if you’re paid on salary.
- Figure out how many hours you work a week
- Multiply that amount by 52
- Divide your annual salary by that amount
A 40 hour workweek equals 2,080 hours a year. If you make $60,000/year, your hourly wage is $29/hour. To make it easier, we’re not accounting for benefits or taxes.
Then start thinking about each purchase in terms of your hourly pay. Is it worth that amount of time? Are you willing to trade your working hours for a new pair of shoes or lunch out? Or would you rather put it towards a bigger financial goal like a dream vacation or early retirement?
If anything, this might get you thinking about earning passive income so you’re no longer trading time for money.
22. Use a cash budget
Cash is tangible. You see it coming out of the bank, into your wallet, and then out of your wallet. For some people, sticking to a budget is easier when they have a physical reminder of how much they spend.
To use a cash budget, withdraw cash from your bank account, and put a certain amount into an envelope for different budget categories.
In theory, you would have an envelope for groceries, going out to eat, gas, clothes, and anything else you can pay for with cash. You can even do a hybrid version where you pull out cash for the spending categories you struggle with.
23. Use sinking funds
Sinking funds are a strategic way to save money for upcoming purchases. It’s money you know you’ll spend eventually, and because you’ve already set it aside, you’re giving yourself permission to spend.
A number of my readers said sticking to a budget is easier when you use sinking funds. And they use them for all sorts of things: clothes, electronics, vacations, their car insurance deductible, back to school shopping, emergency fund, and more.
They think about what things they eventually need or want to spend money on, set a monthly savings goal for each category, and save money in a separate bank account.
24. Use separate bank accounts
I just mentioned this for sinking funds, but having separate bank accounts is a practical solution for all sorts of budget categories.
You can keep a separate account for grocery money, household expenses, your weekly spending allowance, and any other spending categories. Each month when you sit down to make your budget, you move a set amount of money to that account, and then only use what’s there.
25. Think about your larger financial goals
A budget is a spending plan that helps you take care of your immediate expenses and plan for your future expenses. Your long-term financial goals can feel really far away or too big to grasp, but don’t let that keep you from thinking about them.
Thinking about how good it will feel to take a vacation next summer can help you when you’re about to buy something you don’t need. Picture yourself on the beach sipping a cool drink, and get yourself in that vacation mindset.
Then think about how your immediate financial decisions will affect your ability to make that vacation happen. You’ll start to see how sticking to a budget impacts your long-term financial goals.
26. Learn to say no to your family and friends
When I was paying off my $40,000 of student loan debt in 18 months, I had to start saying no to a lot of my friends and family members. I missed a lot of nights out, basketball games, and even a couple of vacations.
It wasn’t easy or fun, but I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to be debt-free.
It’s hard to say no to people you care about, but it’s ultimately your financial life you’re working on. As long as you’re not being rude when you say no, the people you care about will respect why you’re saying no to them.
27. Use a budgeting app
A budgeting app can make it easier to keep track of your finances so you’re sticking to a budget. There are so many different ones on the market right now, and they all fill a slightly different need.
- YNAB is a M$M reader favorite, and it uses zero-based budgeting to give a job to every dollar you earn.
- EveryDollar follows Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps
- Personal Capital does cash flow budgeting and is great for retirement planning and investment tracking.
- Goodbudget helps you with the envelope style of budgeting.
- Banktivity is great for Mac users who want to focus on macro and micro-level aspects of their budget.
- Pocketguard tells you how much you have left to spend after you pay your bills.
You can learn more about these apps and more in Top 10 Mint.com Budgeting Alternatives: Best Money Apps for 2020 and Best Budgeting Apps and Personal Finance Tools.
28. Treat yourself
When you’re focusing so hard on saving and frugal living, it’s really easy to burnout and then go overboard. So occasionally and responsibly spending money on yourself can actually help you stick to a budget.
When I was paying off my student loan debt, I budgeted in for small rewards like a nice bottle of wine or dinner out with my wife. It kept me motivated and reminded me why my budget was so important in the first place.
29. Focus on what you already have
One of my readers brought this up, and I think it’s a really positive way to focus on sticking to a budget.
She said every night she spends some time thinking about how grateful she is for the things she already has because, “I think when you reflect on the fullness you already have in your life, your mind wonders less to what else you could have.”
This might not work for everyone or in every situation, but it’s good practice to get into no matter what.
The final word on sticking to a budget
Whenever I talk to people who have met a major financial goal, who are regularly saving, or who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, they all have one thing in common – they all budget.
They might all budget differently – some have rigid budgets and others are more flexible – but they all have a plan for how to spend and save their money.
What helps you stick to a budget might not work for someone else, so try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and keep working towards your goals.