Is Budgeting Keeping You Poor?

It was the budget, with the spreadsheet, in the library–That’s who killed your finances.

The dictionary defines a budget as “an estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future.” Budgeting, the quintessential money management tool, should identify where we spend our money so that we can make better spending choices. While there is no one right way to budget, the purpose of any budget should be to give us the information we need to make smart spending decisions.

But what if it’s your budget that’s killing your finances. Imagine, you take the time and effort to prepare a budget in the first place, and the budget ends up causing more harm than good. Or at the very least, your budget doesn’t get you the results it should.

To help you avoid this, and to maximize the benefit of your budget, here are seven budgeting pitfalls and how to fix them:

7 Budgeting Pitfalls and How to Fix Them

1. Missing Expenses: Does your budget have a leak? With automatic bill pay, it’s easy to forget about regular monthly expenses. We recently lost track of an expenses that was charged to our credit card each month. It wasn’t a lot of money, about $15 a month, but every dollar counts.

The Fix: Take the time each month to carefully review each credit card and bank statement. Make sure you understand where your money went, what automatic payments were made, and what was charged to your credit cards. This doesn’t take a lot of time, but in the hurry and rush of life, it’s an easy thing to forget.

2. Unrealistic Budgeting: Have you or someone you know ever gone on an extreme diet? In their desire to lose weight, they deprive themselves of food in a way that’s just not sustainable. The result is almost always to gain more weight when the diet crashes. The same thing can happen with our finances. We put together an unrealistic budget that deprives us of any fun, and eventually we crash through the budget with a big spending splurge.

The Fix: We need to keep our budgets realistic by providing for some measure of enjoyment in life. Whether that’s eating out, buying books, traveling, or whatever, our budgets need to reflect in a reasonable fashion who we are and how we want to live our lives. If you are looking for a place to start, try the 60% budget. Sixty percent of gross income should cover your fixed expenses: Mortgage, food, clothing, taxes, insurance and so on. The remaining 40% gets divided into 10% portions for retirement, long-term savings, short-term savings and fun money. These numbers are just a starting point, but it should help you to keep your budget realistic.

3. Too Little Information: A budget should arm you with the information you need to make smart spending decisions. One type of budget that works for many is to “pay yourself first.” That means to save a portion of your paycheck first, and then spend the rest without worrying about where or how you spend it. While this can be an effective and easy way to budget, the lack of information on how you are spending the rest could be causing you to spend more than you should.

The Fix: Every few months, track how you spend the rest. This doesn’t have to be a monthly exercise. A few times a year works for many people. And you don’t have to track your expenses for an entire month. Track expenses for a week or two. Armed with information on how you are spending money, you can make spending decisions that may allow you to save even more or accelerate debt reduction.

4. Too Much Information: To much information can be a real problem, too. It’s a lot of work to track where every single penny goes. While there are good budgeting tools (see below) that make tracking expenses easier, for many, tracking everything is overwhelming and unnecessary. And the result can be frustration and a budget that ends up in a drawer.

The Fix: Limit the spending areas you track to those that really cause you to overspend. If eating out is your financial Achilles’ heel, use a cash-envelope system for just that one category. In fact, many people overspend in just one, two or three categories. Tracking just those categories can move a family’s finances from red to black.

5. No Real Time Data: We make hundreds of spending decisions every month. As you make those decisions, do you know how much you’ve already spent and how much you have left to spend? This is where real time data is important. While looking at how you spent your money after the fact can be helpful, there’s nothing better than knowing where you stand financially right now.

The Fix: There are several budgeting methods to help you know where you stand at any given moment. The old fashioned cash-envelope system mentioned above is a good one. So is using debit or credit cards and reviewing your spending data online or downloading it into a personal finance software package like Quicken or Money. The key is to know where you stand at any given time, but only for those categories that you must track to properly monitor and control your spending.

6. Using the Wrong Budgeting Tools: While there is no one “right” budgeting tool, it is important to use a tool that works for you. Use the wrong financial tool, and frustration can quickly end any effort at budgeting. While many swear by Quicken, for example, for us its budget function just didn’t work. We use it for everything else, but just not budgeting.

The Fix: Recognize that there are many free and paid budgeting systems available. Take some time to review them, and give a couple of them a try before deciding. You can check out this list of online budgeting tools to get some ideas. You can also check out one of my personal favorite paid budgeting software systems, You Need a Budget.

7. Forgetting Periodic Expenses: This one use to get us every time. We thought our budget was looking good, and then the car insurance bill arrived. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realized we weren’t doing as well as we thought. But there is an easy fix for this budget pitfall.

The Fix: Develop a Freedom Fund. Add up all of your periodic expenses such as car insurance, gifts, life insurance, vacation expense and so on, divide by 12, and save this amount each month. It takes some discipline at first, but there is no greater feeling when that car insurance bill arrives than knowing you have the money in the bank to pay it.

Published or Updated: September 20, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Chiko777 says:

    Budgeting surely keeps you poor because most people go in thinking about how much money they can save instead of going in thinking about how to use the money to build wealth. See, for me I don’t budget, I just set goals of how much money I want to go towards building wealth and then use the rest for what ever I want. The point is to set wealth building goals not savings or budgeting goals.

  2. My CPA brother-in-law was an extreme budgeter back in the day. I saw him go off on his wife because she didn’t write down a single postage stamp purchase in their columnar pad. They were students back then and had almost nothing to live on. Their “splurge” was a 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola once per week. Today, though, he’s worth tens of millions, having taken several companies public and wouldn’t know a household budget if it sat in his lap.

    I think a lot of it depends on how much you’re making and the goals you have. Those with comfortable salaries don’t have to be as stringent as someone living on a fixed income.

  3. Ron,

    You are totally right about it depending on your income.

    I think the most beneficial budgets are for people that make plenty to live on but have a hard time realizing they aren’t quite as “rich” as they think they are.

    Enjoyed the post and different point of view than you normally see.

  4. MoneyEnergy says:

    I hadn’t thought about how budgets can ruin your finances – at least, not in that way. I think budgets might work better (for me) as descriptive tools rather than prescriptive tools. It’s easier for me to keep track of what I spent the previous month, study it, then figure out what changes to make for the next month. If it’s a top-down, dogmatic approach though I don’t think it works with me. Ron’s story above is totally amazing.

    Thanks for the article, it just gave me an idea for something that I need to post on.

  5. I really like the part about real time data. If you are over budget at the end of the month it is a little too late.

  6. Money Beagle says:

    The one that used to get me was the last one, forgetting periodic expenses. I would always forget those once-per-year type things such as license tab renewals, homeowners association fees, or roadside assistance renewals. After getting surprised once too often, I went through all of my expenses for an entire 12-month period, and identified these sorts of things. I started earmarking 1/12th every month so that they would no longer catch me. This has helped tremendously!

  7. Dave says:

    For me tracking my previous expenses helps make a better budget every month. For this, I use Billeo. It tracks your bills, acts as a password manager and saves receipts. Works for me.

  8. George Grahame says:

    How on earth do you do a 60% budget on the gross? and 10% for the other 4 categories? what about all the unaccounted for taxes taken from your pay? What – just don’t pay them? So 60 + say, 20% taxes. Savings and future savings and fun on 20% of gross. Unless you’re making huge sums of money that seems a little difficult.

    • DR says:

      Under the 60% solution, taxes are part of the 60%.

  9. Morgan at TheDebtDance says:

    Great post. In my parent’s day they budgeted on a piece of notebook paper and kept household money in an envelope in the kitchen.
    When they got money they spent money.
    When they retired they had virtually nothing.
    Today I think, as you mentioned, we have information overload. Somewhere between the piece of notebook paper and the programs calculating when you need to buy milk there must be the answer!
    Thanks for the post.

  10. Ralph says:

    I don’t budget per se, but monthly I account for the change of value of my savings (not investments). But I do monitor investments. I figure my monthly spending rate. I go and look at the statements closer if it get I get surprised to see where the ‘delta’ money went. Most of the time its Oh, the house insurance got paid, of one of the car insurances, etc. In my case, I’m evaluating my lifestyle and can make a decision if: 1. I can afford it. 2. Am I getting the value out of the expense that I am expecting. Back in the 80′s we went out to eat and got a nice sea food platter at $13.00 each plus tax and tip. We couldn’t really afford it back then and felt guilty for the splurge. I made a rule, I can’t eat $13 worth of food so dinners that run about that much could not be worth what I’m paying. It is still true, I can’t eat $13 worth of food but I find you can’t eat out for much less and still get plenty. I don’t value eating out so I try to minimize that kind of expense. I would get rid of cable in a heart beat, but I like peace in the family more than the cost of the cable. The $800-$1000/Year expense is definitely not worth it. But on a regular basis I suggest getting rid of it. I’m thinking cable is worth about $200/year. I actually get more out of Netflix at ~$100/year.

    This is my recommendation for a budget:
    Give 10% Gross to God
    Pay Taxes
    Save 20% for Emergency fund, Retirement, College and House.
    Get any Company matching contributions.
    Live off the rest, Cars, food, shelter, etc.

    If you can humble yourself to give 10% to God, you will find that the extra goes more that 10% further. Maybe, it is because we have decided to not be so selfish or self centered.

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