This post is from staff writer Holly Johnson.

Before my husband and I got our financial act together, we didn’t have a budget. Since we didn’t have and sort of plan, we spent all of our discretionary income on “wants” and financed anything that cost more money than we had. And the scariest part is that we never really thought much of it. Our income always lasted until the next payday, so we never worried about making ends meet.

But, after years of frivolous spending, we finally snapped out of it. Becoming pregnant with our second child made us start thinking seriously about our financial future, and the impending impact of another mouth to feed actually made us afraid. All of a sudden, we realized that we weren’t kids anymore. Our twenties were spent chasing adventures and spending cash like it was going out of style. And here we were, in our thirties now and on the verge of having two children to take care of. And although we were completely clueless how things had gotten so out of control, we decided that we had to take control of our financial destiny.

An unfortunate truth

We started by combing over several months of bank statements, and what we uncovered was almost unbelievable. We quickly realized that we were spending over $1000 per month on groceries for two adults and a baby. We were also going out to dinner a lot. The truth is, we were actually eating most of our expendable income. We aren’t fancy folks, but we do happen to enjoy some expensive meals and ingredients. And we weren’t enjoying them in moderation; we were eating like a king and queen on a daily basis, and our pocketbooks showed it.

We took action

After seeing our pathetic results in black and white, we sat down and created a budget. Since our food budget was the main culprit of our spending, we decided to make drastic changes. After some number crunching, we agreed that we should be able to feed our family for about $500 per month. We also decided that all restaurant spending would have to come out of our grocery category. So if we decided to go out to dinner, that meant that we would have to spend less at the grocery store. I wasn’t particularly happy about it, but our new plan made us much more thoughtful about our food spending. And since we still wanted to eat out occasionally, we made room in our budget by eating cheap meals and using up all of the items we already had in our pantry. It worked.

We also cut out all other non-essentials. I’m pretty sure I cried when my husband called and cancelled our satellite television package. I was a hopeless reality television junkie, and I was convinced I would be miserable without all of my favorite shows. But life went on. And more importantly, we started saving a ton of money. Using the debt snowball method, we allocated all of our new-found cash toward the various debts that we had saddled ourselves with. And after 18 months of rapid debt repayment, only our mortgage was left standing.

Budgets can and do work

I didn’t know it at the time, but creating and sticking to a budget was probably the best thing we have ever done for ourselves. It wasn’t always easy. And quite truthfully, the process made us take a hard look at ourselves and our shortcomings. On the other hand, we’re now more confident in our choices and building wealth like never before. We’re also on the same pen and paper budget that we started with, and there’s a reason why we haven’t changed anything. It works.

Sticking to a budget can feel cumbersome and restrictive. It might make you feel vulnerable or deprived. On the other hand, creating a budget can completely change your financial destiny. Have you ever tracked your spending and created a budget? Did it work? If you’ve tried and failed, there are a variety of reasons why your budget might not be working. Here are some possible explanations:

  • You’re underestimating your expenses. It can be difficult to estimate irregular expenses like utility bills. However, it’s important to be realistic about your estimated monthly costs. Overestimate your expenses if you have to. That way, you won’t always come up short.
  • You aren’t budgeting for everything. Are you forgetting to budget for gifts? Expenses for your children’s school? Did you forget your bi-annual car insurance bill? Make sure to think of everything that needs to be included in your monthly budget. Other expenses that are often overlooked can include home and auto maintenance and bills that are paid on an irregular basis. It’s more challenging to budget for these items, but it can be done. For example, if your car insurance needs to be paid every six months, you may want to budget 1/6 of your premium on a monthly basis.
  • You don’t have an emergency fund. Whenever unplanned expenses come up, an emergency fund can fill in the gaps without knocking your budget off track. It’s also important to only use your emergency fund for emergencies, and to not see it as an extension of your monthly budget.
  • Your expenses are too high. If your income is barely meeting your expenses, it is probably time to cut some things out. Do you really need the NFL Sunday Ticket? How about your smart phone? Is it necessary to get your nails professionally done? These are just an example of some of the expenses that can be cut out of your budget if needed. It may hurt at first, but you will survive.
  • You aren’t keeping track of your spending. Certain budget categories can be trickier than others. Grocery spending, for instance, has a tendency to sneak up on me if I don’t track it closely. You can avoid going over budget by keeping an ongoing list of your spending in whatever category you find budget-busting. That way, you can check in at any time to see where you’re at.
  • You’re not saying “no” to yourself. If you are constantly spending more than you have budgeted, it might be time to take a serious look at your choices. If you want your budget to work, it’s crucial to learn to tell yourself “no.” Always telling yourself “yes” can guarantee budget failure.

Of course, not everyone needs a budget. For some reason, certain people can successfully execute their financial plans without writing them down. My parents, for instance, have always been the epitome of frugality and financial prudence despite the fact that they never really had a written budget. There’s definitely nothing wrong with forgoing a written budget if you really don’t need one.

However, many of us do need a written plan for the money we earn, and there’s no shame in admitting it. I’ve definitely learned that I’m hopeless without one. And if you’ve tried to budget and failed, I have great news: it’s never too late to try again. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch. If you give your new budget a chance to work, you could quickly become a financial force to be reckoned with.

Do you have a budget? What system works best for you?


This article is about Basics, Budgeting