In my last post, I explained how to create a budget that actually works. But what about the harder part: Following it! The secret to sticking to your budget comes down to managing your variable spending.
I’ve never heard of someone accidentally breaking their budget on a fixed cost. “Crap, I spent twice what I’d budgeted on internet this month….” said no one ever. It just doesn’t happen. If your fixed costs fit within your budget, they will not be the problem.
Time for some tough love….. (this might hurt us both)
If you are someone who swears they cannot stick to a budget, please try again (with my method). Imagine if you tried walking once as a toddler, fell over, then decided this walking thing wasn’t for you. Are you going to crawl forever? If baby you can learn to walk, adult you can learn to follow a budget.
No one will make you stick to your budget. Fortunately or unfortunately, that part is up to you. You created your budget; you must have goals and reasons for doing so. Want to get out of debt? Save for a vacation? Start a family? Figure out your why, and use it to motivate you when you feel like overspending.
You must remember though that your variable spending limit is your hard maximum!
You may not go over it. Don’t play the “I’ll make up for it next month” game, because you won’t. You honestly believe that when you couldn’t follow your budget this month, you’ll spend LESS than your budget next month? I’m sorry, but I call bullsh*t. You set your limit…. honor that, and you will be one step closer to your goals!
Sometimes (aka often) sticking to your budget can be hard. I’m not going to sugar coat it: You will have to make choices! Deciding to live within your means and manage your money responsibly is a very rewarding aspect to being a grown up. But it is NOT easy!
I write a public blog where I tell the world about my debt and spending. The spotlight is on me, and I’m still not a financial saint. I’m no stranger to the thought “Ooooh, I want that!”. There are always more things I want to buy: kitchen gadgets, makeup, travel, specialty food, clothes, climbing gear. The list is extensive. But it’s about learning to take care of your financial commitments first, having responsible fun with the money leftover afterwards, then saying “NO” when you hit your limit.
You can always buy it next month.
The secret to sticking to your budget: Managing your variable costs!
Let’s ignore all your other expenses and focus on the ones that really count: your variable (or non-fixed) costs. Variable costs include anything that fluctuates from month to month. Examples include groceries, skincare, gas, pet food, eating out, medications, gifts, lattes, and anything else your heart desires.
Managing how you spend on these expenses is what will make your budget “magically” work. Figuring out a method for my variable spending (I don’t even track non-variable spending because it is always the same) is what finally made me a successful budget-er. My method is not fancy, and I would argue that’s why it works.
First, I DON’T sub-categorize my variable spending!
I have seen and tried budgets where everything is broken down into categories. I’m about as much of a Type A and planner personality as you can get. But guess what: it doesn’t work! Maybe something like this looks familiar to you:
As much as it annoys me, I just don’t think life can be planned THIS much (oh how I wish it could). For example, lets look at the food category and I will discuss three reasons I think this method of budgeting fails.
First, not every month looks the same! So you have $400 a month for food…. Do you always consistently spend that? I bake a lot around Christmas time. It’s something I love doing, but it definitely would break the budget if I categorized food as $400 a month. Same goes for months where I hit up Costco (typically every 3 months). Overall, my monthly food costs average $400 over the course of a year (I didn’t pull the number out of the clouds). However, there are wild swings in my month to month spending on groceries.
Second, you can only spend each dollar once. I think this is a concept that is so easily forgotten. Every dollar can only be spent once. Do you REALLY want that thing you’re about to buy, or is there something else you would rather spend that dollar on? When money is over categorized I think it makes you forget to ask that question. You’ve already assigned it to a category, so you spend it there without thinking. This isn’t very wise for getting the most happiness from your money.
Third (and similar to the second point), I actually believe categorizing can make you overspend. Say you have $400 a month for food, and you’re doing your last grocery shop of the month. How many people would spend all the money that is still available? “Oh, I’ve got money left…. I’ll buy those cookies I’ve been eying. They fit in my food budget!”. This might not seem harmful, because it’s money you’ve pre-approved for groceries. But what if you would rather spend that $10 elsewhere?
Ultimately, even if you categorize everything, all your money comes from the same pool. Leave your variable spending money in one big pool, and make month to month decisions about how you will get the most from it!
How I actually manage my variable spending:
As I discussed in my article on creating a budget, I give myself $940 a month to cover all my variable expenses. So how the heck do I manage that money??
First, I take my monthly money and divide it into weeks. For me this looks like:
$940 a month/ 4 weeks= $235 a week
Dividing my spending into weekly amounts has been HUGELY important to my budget success. Weekly budgeting spreads the money evenly throughout the month, so I can’t go crazy and break my monthly budget in the first week. It really prevents you from getting to the end of your money before the end of the month. As a bonus, it also makes teaching yourself to say “no” to overspending easier because you only need to wait until next week to have more money, not next month!
Second, at the beginning of each month I take my little notebook that is always in my purse and divide a page into 4 sections (each representing a week). [Note- You can absolutely use an app on your phone (I used to use Goodbudget on my Iphone and it worked well) if you’d like, but I prefer the old fashioned pen and paper method. Use what works best for you!]. In each section, I write $235 at the top because that is my weekly maximum for what I can spend.
Third, I think about the month ahead and whether there are “unusual” variable costs that are going to happen (things that don’t happen every month). Using my actual May as an example, I know I am going to spend:
- Dog food ~$60 (save money on your dog)
- Foundation ~$55 (the best products to get clear skin)
- Mom visiting (we typically go to a restaurant, etc) ~$100
I add each unusual cost to one weeks’ section as a reminder that those costs are coming up, and to spread them throughout the month:
After that? I just live my life!!
As I spend money, I write down the cost of things I buy and deduct it from that weeks total. I always know how much money I have left for each week at any given time. Once I run out of money that week, I stop spending. No negotiations. At the worst, I’m 6 days away from having access to more money. That’s the beauty of budgeting weekly rather than monthly.
If I have money leftover at the end of the week, I roll it into the next week. That’s right, I still plan on spending it!
What if I want something that does not fit within the $235 I give myself each week? I save up! How annoying is that, right? Waiting until you have the money before purchasing something? It honestly feels amazing. Say I want a new rain jacket that’s $300. I might try to under spend by $75 each week, and roll that money into the following weeks. In week 4, I can buy it easily!
I have been budgeting this way for over a year now, and it is honestly the only method that has worked for me. Try it- I think it’s the secret to sticking to your budget! Please let me know in the comments below if you have further questions, or if you try it and how it worked!
For a list of all posts I’ve written, click here