Give Me Back My Five Bucks

This is why your budget doesn’t work

My story is probably similar to yours: I didn’t create my first budget until I was 22 years old and halfway through college. I always knew I had to make one, but the process seemed overwhelming and I didn’t know how to even start. I knew I was spending more than I was making, but I didn’t have the discipline to stop, or the energy to figure out a way to make my situation better. So I kept chugging along, going deeper and deeper into debt.

During my last year of college, when I knew graduation and “real life” were just around the corner, I tried to create a student budget that I thought was realistic – but it failed. I’d get frustrated with myself, adjust the numbers, and fail over and over again. After a few months, I gave up. I ignored my bank statements and didn’t try budgeting again until I graduated with over $20,000 in debt.

When I look back at why my budget kept failing, I realized it was for four specific reasons:

No knowledge of past spending habits

It’s pretty hard to create a realistic budget if you don’t have anything to measure your numbers against. If you have no idea how much you spent on restaurants or entertainment last month, how will you be able to spend less next month? It seems like common sense to me now, but back then, I didn’t have a clue.

The basics of budgeting begins with figuring out how much money you will have for the month (your income), dividing it up based on what you want to do with it, then tracking where your money actually goes.

A budget is supposed to provide guidelines and goals to strive for, and when you’re accurately recording your spending habits – whether it’s in a simple spreadsheet, or with budgeting tools like Mint or Quicken – the numbers don’t lie.

I had never saved receipts before, or recorded my spending habits, so when I went to build my budget, I started arbitrarily plugging numbers into the spreadsheet that sounded reasonable to me. I had no idea that the $100 I thought I spent on groceries each month was actually closer to $250. And the $20 I thought I spent at Starbucks? Well, that number was actually closer to $50.

Related: Can you feed yourself for $100/month? 

No defined goals

Most people budget because they want to achieve a financial milestone – like paying down their debt faster, saving for a down payment, or making a big purchase. While these are great goals to have, they aren’t specific enough to be truly motivating. Sure, I’d love to pay down debt and get ahead, but why am I doing it, and what do I actually need to do in order to achieve those goals?

For example, instead of creating a specific goal like, “I want to save an extra $100 per month to put into an Emergency Fund,” or “I need to pay down my debt by $300 each month,” I just knew I wanted to stop going further into debt, and didn’t take it any deeper than that. So without defining a way to get me there, I ended up lost. And my goal of stabilizing my debt (while I was still in school) remained a distant dream.

Quitting too soon

I stopped using my budget midway through my third month. I spent weeks creating a budget and kept track of the money coming in and going out of my bank account. But I was always going over my budget, and constantly spending more than I was making. It was frustrating not being able to see results, so I took the easy way out – I quit.

However, budgeting – much like exercising – takes time to see real results, and I was too impatient. I wanted to see immediate, concrete evidence that my efforts were paying off. For some reason, I had it in my head that I could eliminate my debt just as easily as I accumulated it. :) But at that point, I hadn’t even figured out how much my average monthly income was. And I also hadn’t taken the time to identify what areas I was constantly going over on my budget. If I had just taken an extra step or two to average out my numbers and figure out a way to decrease my spending in the categories I was constantly going over, I likely would have seen improvement over the following few months.

Related: How much is your car costing you?

Not realizing what a budget is meant to do

I saw budgeting as a restriction; a way to stop me from having fun. I knew I had to do it, but I wasn’t happy about it, and because of that, I had a really bad attitude.

I didn’t understand that the purpose of budgeting was to help me manage my money so that I could have even more fun with my life. And once I realized that my debt (and my unsustainable lifestyle) was going to always hold me back from achieving the goals that I wanted for myself (like home ownership, travel, and potentially starting a family), it finally clicked. A budget wasn’t about deprivation, it was about empowerment! By choosing where my money went, and living below my  means, I was creating a better future for myself.

What do you think is the hardest part about creating (and sticking to) a budget?

Spending Recap: September 16-22, 2013

Monday 16th
No Spend Day!

Tuesday 17th
$10 dinner

Wednesday 18th
No Spend Day!

Thursday 19th – Toronto
$3 transit
$6.35 dinner
$25 baseball game
$1 snack

Friday 20th – Toronto
$2 breakfast
$4.10 coffee
$22 lunch
$34 dinner & drinks

Saturday 21st – Toronto
$4.38 Starbucks

Sunday 22nd – Toronto
$5.37 Starbucks
$40 dinner

Freelance Income: $0 
Expenses– $157.20

TOTAL: – $157.20

This was a stressful week. With a conference and event to plan at my day job during the first half of the week, I was in Toronto for the Canadian Personal Finance Conference during the second half of the week. It was a lot of fun. I loved seeing familiar faces, and meeting new people at both conferences, and it’s getting me very excited for my conference in France next month. But right now? All I want to do is sleep. :)

That being said, I think this is the turning point of GMBMFB. It was a quiet summer around here, but I’ve just drafted my editorial calendar for the next few months, and am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. If there’s anything specific you’d like me to write about, please let me know! 

How was your week of spending?

Heading Back To School On A Very Tight Budget

Note: this is a guest post

The month of September means the end of the summer, and the beginning of the school season.  Families across Canada must cope with empty nests as their children leave their homes to begin the next chapter of their lives at college or university.

Back to school season invokes different feelings within people, depending on who is asked.  But the one feeling that many students and their parents can share is coping with the reality of young adults living on a very tight, student budget.  The cost of living is very expensive, particularly for students who devote most of their money towards paying for tuition with little additional income to spare.

First year college or university students can especially feel overwhelmed when they must learn to become their own primary breadwinner and caregiver.  Between rent, food, utilities, cell phones, credit cards, textbooks, transportation, leisurely shopping, and maintaining a social life with what little time there is to spare – the total cost, in terms of time and money, adds up very quickly.

Even with school just getting back in session, many students already look ahead to their next summer break by planning for a new vacation.  These types of plans incentivize many students to save every dime they can spare for their next big trip, while learning to live modestly throughout the school year.

Financially savvy students look for money saving resources and budgetary advice to provide a roadmap that can help achieve their goals.  Many independent financial resource websites created their own back to school guides to save money and to help students discover options to save on primary and miscellaneous expenses.

These guides offer advice to reduce the monthly cost of rent and other housing expenses, how to use coupons to save money at grocery stores, what are the most affordable cell phone plans, and so on.  Following even some of these guidelines can help students save a little bit of money every week, which can then be added to next summer’s vacation account or whatever goal provides the incentive to save.

Returning to school is a different experience for everyone, especially young adults who are leaving home for the first time.  But the experience can be a little easier by following a few money saving tips.  Every little bit helps as they say, and any amount of money saved takes students one step closer to achieving their next goal.

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