Introduction An Analysis of Budgeting Advice
Self-help advice sometimes seems to be needlessly specific. I consider budgeting to be one of the realms of self-help advice that employs needlessly specific advice, i.e. “do this particular thing and only this particular thing if you want success”. Here, I will attempt to generalize that advice.
I’ve written in the past about managing your cash flow. Additionally, I’ve read many suggestions about how to properly motivate yourself to make your budgeting goals stick. After reading so many different articles, books, etc. regarding budgeting advice I’ve been wanting to do an analysis of that advice. What characteristics do they have in common? Is there anything that truly stands out from the rest?
Steps to address the problem of budgeting
Almost all the budgeting advice, devices, tricks, etc. that I have read about as an Investment Advisor come down to some overarching strategies or steps. The standard budgeting self-help article will mix and match these steps, or give unique takes on these steps for their readers. Here are the four main steps budgeting advice usually entails:
Goal Setting – This step involves setting up a goal to shoot for so that real progress can be measured. Common advice around goal setting will involve a proper accounting (our next step) of progress, and realistic expectations of yourself. I think it’s really easy to set super ambitious goals when thinking about a new budget, but be realistic. If you consistently set goals and miss them, be honest about that, and set achievable goals.
Accounting – This step involves accounting for your income and expenses and also accounting for your current situation and your progress toward your goals. You need metrics with which to measure progress. There are a number of ways to do proper accounting. Some tout the efficiency of digital budgeting services like Mint, You Need a Budget, or similar services. Others contend that the only real way to get a true grasp of your finances is to sit down with bank statements and map out where your money is going by hand and then stuff that money in an envelope. Personally, I think it’s up to the individual. Mint might work for some people in some situations; for others, a spreadsheet and bank statements may be the way to go. Whatever you choose, be sure to make sure you’re doing some kind of accounting. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you will need some broad outline of where you currently are and where you want to be and you need to know if you’re making progress.
Mental/cognitive shifting – This step involves a re-imagining of your relationship with money or your current situation. The goal here is to jolt you out of a pattern of thinking that has been leading to cash flow shortages. There are an infinite number of different stories that can be told here; all designed to shake up your thinking about your finances. Oftentimes mental or cognitive shifting can be done with images, e.g. plotting your finances onto a chart to show their change over time, or creating a pie chart of your expenses. A good example that I have personally used with clients is to show them on a chart how much money they save over time by paying off their highest interest debt first, or lowering certain fees in their investment accounts. Sometimes all it takes is to translate the financial facts about your life into a picture for a true effect to be felt. Other times mental/cognitive shifting involves telling ourselves a new or different story about our relationship with money or happiness, e.g. perhaps money represents your life energy, or money represents your freedom to pursue your life’s mission. A common example is spending money when we’re sad or overly happy. If you’re having problems with this kind of binge spending, try to evaluate what is truly making you happy or bringing you joy. See if there are any areas to cut out expenses on items you buy when you’re bored or depressed but that don’t truly bring you lasting joy.
Public accountability – This step involves telling the world about your intentions to better budget your cash flows with the idea that doing so will cause you to work harder to achieve success, i.e. you will want to avoid public humiliation should you fail. Personally, I don’t think you should feel compelled to share your financial woes with Facebook or Twitter. You can feel free to have an open and frank conversation with your significant other or best friend though. This can help you verbalize your intention (thereby hopefully strengthening your desire to see it through) and put your partner or friend on the same page as you. e.g. if your husband always wants to order pizza for dinner while you are trying to budget better, it would be helpful if he knew it.
Another tool for accountability is to write out your goals and the steps you intend to take to achieve them. It’s easier for us to slowly change our mind about what we meant or intended when we set goals for ourselves than it is to change what we have written down on paper at the time we set those goals. Writing things down keeps yourself honest and puts your intentions out into the world where they will live on despite the mood you are currently in.
Budgeting is difficult. Well-meaning budgeting tips abound. Don’t quit when one particular piece of budgeting advice, or a particular budgeting plan doesn’t work for you. Try tweaking the steps you are using instead. More importantly, make sure you understand there isn’t anything magical about any step in particular, rather it’s the function that step serves. It doesn’t matter what the particulars are, it only matters that you have something thoughtful in place that works for you. Analyze your own budgeting goals and your plans to achieve them; do they employ all or most of the strategies listed above? If they don’t, maybe you should reconsider adding a few.
Erik Goodge is the President of uVest Advisory Group.
He holds a B.S. in Economics and Cognitive Science from the
University of Evansville.