Use Budgeting as a Tool to Create the Habit of Responsible Spending

Use Budgeting as a Tool to Create the Habit of Responsible Spending


Why do we track things? To make sure we do them. When something is not a habit, it’s easy for our brains to forget. So we keep a little list to remind ourselves. Once that behavior becomes a habit, we no longer need a list.

Tracking behaviors is a short-term tool to creating a long-term habit.

One Gold Star Please

When you were a little kid, you might have had a list of chores you had to do every day. You may or may not have received star stickers for these chores. One of your tasks was “brush your teeth.” Every day you had to remember to brush your teeth then cross it off your list.

Today, as an adult, we don’t have to write down “brush your teeth” because we know to do it.It has become a habit. We do not need to track the days we brush our teeth forever.

Tracking is not a long-term solution. If what you track does not become a habit, you’re doing it wrong.

Learning Financial Responsibility

After tracking my spending for several years, I feel I have learned how to consciously spend money. I am constantly aware of the money I have in my bank accounts, how much to spend on what, my current loan balance, etc. I am very close to no longer having to track anything.

Do I need to give myself a gold star when I have a no spend day? Nope, because I now do that without thinking.

For a long time, I’ve stuck to my rigid budget to the penny. This grew to the point where tracking every single cent had begun to stress me out. As a test, I decided to take a budgeting-break in June and would, instead, spend money naturally. I’ve spent the past few years training myself to create the habit of spending money consciously so I figured it was time to put that to the test.

The results: nothing really changed in June. I still did things I wanted to do. I spent money. I saved money. I paid all my bills. And at the end of the month, I actually stuck to my budget pretty well. Why? Because I have developed the habit of how to handle money.

For my current goals, I no longer need to keep a strict, stressful, eye on my budget.

When Budgets Are Useful

Now, if I were to change my goals and modified my budget to double the amount I put in my savings, I would want to keep a closer eye on my budget for a month or two while adjusting to the spending differences. This is exactly why a budget is so essential when starting your journey to financial responsibility.

A budget is a tool to learn certain skills.

Once you’ve acquired those skills, you no longer need to rely on the tools as much. Don’t throw your budget out the window! You can keep it nearby in the tool box, but you don’t have to wear it on your tool belt anymore.

Your goal is to create a habit, not to rely on a budget for the rest of your life.

How do you feel about budgets? Do you rely on yours? Did you find yourself using it less once you got your finances together?


11 Replies to “Use Budgeting as a Tool to Create the Habit of Responsible Spending”

  1. The analogy to the gold star system as a kid cracked me up. I agree with you about no longer needing to reward myself for “no spend days.” I have plenty of those without thinking, particularly because I cook in bulk and don’t go out to eat too often. I understand why some people write down every cent they spend, but that system just isn’t for me. I also don’t see it as totally practical for the long term.

    1. Exactly. That type of intense tracking is not sustainable and that’s definitely why I was feeling anxious/stressed out about it. I think tracking in that way is more beneficial in the beginning to determine how much money you spend on what. Then once you already know your spending habits, it’s not much of a help anymore.

  2. I totally agree that tracking too strictly gets stressful — for me, it is more the process of updating balances too frequently. It has helped me to stop checking and updating things as often (like, yes, the student loan balance in my spreadsheet gets further off every day because there is interest accruing, but I’ve let that go). Going to a more-manual system has helped me with these stressful compulsive tendencies. As has just cutting the number of accounts and subscriptions I have.

    I personally am a data-junkie, though, and it motivates/interests me to have months and years of data to look through. I think there are at least a few other PF bloggers who seem to fall into this category, where it’s not stressful or self-flagellating, it’s just fun for them. I like cutting the data seventeen different ways and thinking about it, and that part itself is not stressful to me.

    Now, I totally agree it might not be sustainable in the sense that I wouldn’t expect a partner to share this insane interest of mine, and if I ever had a super high salary, tracking too closely would just be a waste of time ($5 becomes “noise” at some point!) but to me it’s like people who know insane amounts of baseball statistics — I just like statistics about my own stuff. (Narcissist? Maybe!) Anyway, totally agree that this becomes less necessary when habits are formed, and I admit that I do it now more for the fun of it, insane as that may be. :)

    1. Since analyzing and reporting data is my ACTUAL JOB, I completely understand the data-junkie sentiment! This is why I started keeping spreadsheets to begin with even when I had all my finances together. I like your trick of tracking things manually, but I know that wouldn’t work for me. I think for us obsessed with just having the data, recording everything once a month might be the best way to get the stats we want without driving ourselves insane!

  3. I actually love tracking my spending even though it’s become habit to not spend money frivolously at this point. Like Deena said, it’s more about having the data to crunch. I totally geek out showing friends my spreadsheet and how everything is organized. Also, even though I agree that these things become habit, it’s easy for me to get off track from time to time. For example, I used to spend a lot of money on clothing and DVDs. I’ve managed to practically eliminate those things from my budget. (I typically only spend on clothing when there’s a need.) But I’m not awesome with restaurant spending yet, and I notice that if I’m not mindful of that category in my budget it will creep up through the month. (It’s gotten a ton better since I gave up sweet tea and started focusing on eating foods prepared at home more, but I’m not where I want to be yet.) So even though I agree that tracking your spending is *most* helpful in the very beginning of the budgeting process, I think it’s useful for anyone who wants to be mindful of their money, as long as they’re able to do it without stressing out. (I absolutely cannot wait to have years and years of spending data available to compare. OMG. Excitement!)

    1. I definitely agree with the data-crunching aspect. I recently went through my old budgets back to 2009 and was annoyed at the few months where I slacked off and didn’t record my spending at all. I don’t want skewed data! For data, though, just adding everything up at the end of the month will get you the information you need. I still plan to do that because I, too, want to see the numbers. It’s the constant tracking that is no longer working for me.

      1. By “constant tracking,” do you mean you’re adding things up as you go through the month? I don’t do that anymore. I list spending on my spreadsheet every day as I make purchases (because it’s too easy to forget things if I happen to use cash, a gift card, or some other non-CC form of payment), and then I total it in categories at the end of the month. It helps me more to focus on individual purchases (i.e. thinking before each purchase, “Does this align with values and goals?”) than to see how much I’ve spent in a particular category mid-month and guilt/shame myself into not eating out for the rest of the month.

        1. Yes, as soon as I spent money I would immediately assign the expense to the appropriate category in my budget then see how much I have left to spend in that category and how I’m doing on spending overall. This would always leave me shaming myself around the 15th of every month for how much I had already spent in the month on anything frivolous (in my head, food is frivolous…). I wanted to get away from that guilt especially since I know it’s arbitrary (it doesn’t feel arbitrary of course).

          I came up with two solutions. The first one is what I’m trying now, to just add up all my Variable spending throughout the month/at the end of the month and not using individual categories at all. As long as my variable spending is less than a certain amount, I don’t need to fixate on how much I spend for food/clothes/etc.

          My second option was what you suggested. To track all my spending but not in context of my budget at all. Just to make a list of each expense. then at the end of the month put it all into categories – to avoid the guilt part. I might try this down the road but for now I wanted to get away from writing down my expenses every day. It is good to hear that it’s a method that works for you though!

          1. That works! Whatever keeps you from stressing out is good. I did the same thing (stressing) over things as necessary as groceries, and when you get to that level, you have to take a step back and try something new.

            For my “budget,” I do like you and have a big variable budget of non-necessary expenses (clothes, eating out, gifts, health expenses – though I know health stuff is necessary but it’s too variable to be given a set amount each month) that I have to stay below to remain in the black, but I break it down into categories for my records. I don’t have limits for those categories. I just like to break the big pot of variable spending money down so I know exactly what I spent money on through the month/year.

  4. I love this and completley agree. When I was first starting out with this whole PF thing I really had to watch where my money was goign because half the time I had no idea where the money was going. As the years have passed I find myself being able to know exaclty how much money I have and how much I can spend at the end of the month. I don’t really budget anymore, with the exception of a little at the beginning of the school year but that’s more like number crunching to figure out how much I need to make! Loved loved loved this – thank you!

    1. You don’t budget anymore?! I thought everyone budgeted! I thought all pf bloggers had a budget! It is fantastic to hear of other’s living a successful and financially healthy life without a budget. I was worried I’d be breaking some golden rule!

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