8 Secrets to Building a Budget You Can Live With

Some people refer to budgets as a “money diet.” That’s an unfortunate choice of words given the negative connotations associated with dieting: reduced options, deprivation, maybe even pain.

Fortunately, a budget doesn’t have to hurt. It’s not punishment for sins real or imagined; it’s a simple, smart tool for taking control of your finances.

Like a healthy and realistic diet, budgeting is all about balance: saving money (or calories) where you can so you can spend (or eat) where you want. So, whip your finances into shape by following the next eight secrets to a budget that makes sense — and cents — for you.

1. Create a goal. What do you really want out of life in the short and long terms? Maybe your budget is currently about damage control: managing consumer or student debt, or paying off that lemon you wish you’d never bought.

Or you could be thinking about the future: entrepreneurship, a home of your own or a self-funded retirement.

Knowing what you want gives you a starting point: $7,000 for the last of your student loans, or $1,500 to kill that credit card balance once and for all. Facing the debt means you are taking charge instead of feeling helpless.

2. Schedule your goal. Financial success author Napoleon Hill wrote that “a goal is a dream with a deadline.” Without a deadline, that goal may remain on permanent “someday” status.

Prioritize your goal, whether your aim is retirement, or buying a home or car. Automate a monthly amount toward savings or debt. Open a subaccount, name it for your goal (“Pay Cash for Next Car,” “Down Payment on Home”), and save whatever you can reasonably afford each month.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking, “All I can afford is $10. What’s the use?” Automate it. By the end of the year you’ll be $120 closer to your goal.

3. Track your spending. If you don’t know where your money is going now, how can you make it work the way you want?

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Some people keep it all in their heads, or so they say. But if you’re not writing things down, it’s so easy to forget a couple of bucks here and there – and that adds up.

For example, you know you spent $30 on gasoline, but conveniently forget the energy drink and beef jerky you bought when you went inside to pay.

You don’t have to carry a little notebook. All sorts of budgeting spreadsheets exist online, such as Mint and moneyStrands. Or use a budgeting app or online budgeting software such as our partner PowerWallet, which will track your cash, measure your progress, and maybe even give you coupons.

Remember: You’re not doing this to punish yourself, but rather to get smarter about your funds.

4. Start slowly. Deny yourself too much, and you may crack after a few weeks. Next thing you know you’re going on a wild online shopping spree or buying rounds for your buddies at the sports bar.

And, no, it doesn’t matter that you used online coupon codes or that it was $3 pitcher night. You still blew the budget.

If that happens, get yourself back on the frugal wagon, but with modifications. Allow yourself a bit of a slush fund for small niceties or a touch of riotous living.

Remember, plenty of frugal hacks exist to help you enjoy life inexpensively (or even free). For tips, see 14 Ways to Have More Fun for Less Money and 10 Fun and Inexpensive Things to Do With Your Kids This Weekend.

5. Find a budget coach. Organizations such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies offer money help on a sliding-scale basis. (Tip: Be sure to check any credit counseling organization through the Better Business Bureau and your state attorney general’s office.)

A budget coach may have financial hacks you’ve never considered. This person can also help keep you motivated, especially when it comes to the progress you make.

6. Monitor your goals regularly. Compare your budget with your actual day-to-day spending. Sometimes a wild card like car repairs or medical co-pays sends you way over budget. But if you find yourself in the red more than once in a while, it is time to look for ways to stay motivated.

Maybe a “just this once” coffee, lunch out, toy for your kid or pizza for the family has burgeoned into an inability to say no. Here’s a phrase that can help: “That’s not in the budget right now.”

7. Be flexible. Suppose gasoline prices unexpectedly spike, or you need $20 for your middle-schooler’s chess club fee. The money has to come from somewhere, so you need to be able to shift dollars from category to category.

Note: This doesn’t mean a license to overspend. Quite the opposite: It means you need to get creative about meeting your needs.

If you want your kid in chess club, it could mean sacrificing a couple of treats, e.g., skipping that once-a-week lunch out two times this month.

More deprivation? Look at it as enrichment for your child and pack a couple of extra lunches. Keeping things in perspective is a major component of that thing called adulthood.

8. Celebrate your progress. In the past 90 days you pared that consumer debt by $330 — way to go! Your emergency fund is up to $800 — woot! You started that Roth IRA and automated a small monthly contribution — yay, you!

Seriously: Compare the way you’re living now — taking charge of debt, making plans for the future — to the way you used to live. Remember the feeling of hopelessness, the fear that you would never get ahead? Now you are doing something about it.

Do you have tips on how to stick to a budget? Share them in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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