I think that many people (myself included) tend to feel the same way towards budgeting as we do towards dieting: we resent the need to restrict ourselves, but we know it’s good for us. It's difficult, tedious, and unpleasant to exert the necessary willpower. We wish we could achieve the desired result (financial stability, thinness) without the requisite effort. But as much as we might hate budgeting and dieting, we feel badly when we stray from our intended plans.
I’m no expert on either personal finance or nutrition. There are times when I’ve made decisions that, in hindsight, I wouldn’t make again. And you know what? That’s just fine, so long as I don’t continue to make those same mistakes. My approach to both personal finances and nutrition is about balance, prioritization, and making small changes. Here are some of the tips I have found to be useful in my own experience.
- Establish realistic goals with incremental benchmarks
Whether you want to pay off $10,000 of debt or lose 10 lbs., be realistic and specific with your goals. If I set pie-in-the-sky goals, then I am likely to become discouraged and give up when I don’t see immediate progress. However if I establish a set of smaller, more attainable goals (e.g., pay down $2,000 of debt by May, or exercise three times per week), then I take pride in progressing towards my goals. This, in turn, motivates me to continue.
· Set a reasonable timeframe
In this age of hyper-consumerism and instant gratification, we want to have it all. And we want to have it all, right now. When I first sketched out our five-year plan, I was discouraged to see that it would probably take us at least four years to purchase a rinky-dink starter home. But then I realized that my parents waited just as long before buying their first home, and they saved much more aggressively than we do. We're trying to learn to be patient and give ourselves time to reach our goals. Nothing worth achieving will happen overnight. As the saying goes, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
· Keep your eye on the prize
With long-term plans, it can be easy to lose sight of the end goal. When I find myself tempted to abandon my budget or diet, I remind myself of what I'm working towards. When I was getting in shape for our wedding, I posted a picture of a leaner, trimmer me on my refrigerator as an incentive. Now, when I feel like buying myself a new, unnecessary pair of shoes, I remind myself that every dollar I spend is less that can go towards our starter home. Every $200 that I spend now means we have $1000 less to spend on a home ($200/20% down payment = $1000). This equation has been a real source of motivation for me.
· Make room for fun
There have been times when I’ve drastically cut back in order to reach a goal. This applies to both food and money. This may work for some people, but it usually backfires on me. If I restrict myself too much for too long, I end up going overboard with whatever behavior I was trying to improve. To avoid this backlash, I incorporate a modest amount of “fun stuff” into both my budget and my diet. For instance, Mr. W. and I each allow ourselves $100/month to spend on whatever we want. When it comes to food, I allow myself 200-250 empty calories each day. These are amounts that feel right to me, based on my personal situation and priorities. Maybe you only need 100 calories/day of junk food (you bastion of self-control and restraint!). The amounts don’t really matter; the point is that you’ve built “fun” into your plan so that you don’t feel deprived. These "small splurges" can make the process of budgeting and dieting much more bearable.
What are some steps that you take to help you stay on track with either budgeting or dieting?