5 big reasons budgets fail
Making a budget is easy compared to following it. Maybe that's why so few people even bother creating one.
For instance, last year's Consumer Financial Literacy Survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that 2 out of 5 adults have a budget and keep close track of their spending – meaning 3 out of 5 adults say, "No thanks, not for me." A 2013 Gallup poll made a similar conclusion, finding that 2 out of 3 Americans don't budget. And you probably have your own anecdotal evidence, whether from personal experience or just seeing friends and family struggle, indicating what everyone knows: Budgeting is right up there with dieting, training for a marathon and learning to juggle.
But why is following a budget so hard? Let's count the ways ...
1. Budgets restrict you. You are a caged bird. You are a country under a dictatorship. You are an overpriced sandwich. In other words, you want to be free. Budgets try to control your spending, and perhaps you don't want to be controlled.
"People struggle following a budget because it is restrictive and time consuming," says Peter Lazaroff, a wealth manager with Plancorp, a wealth management firm in St. Louis. "Traditional budgeting forces you to make every decision as if you live in a spreadsheet. But guess what? You don't live in a spreadsheet."
"The tough part of budgeting is that you just never know what will come up," says Bianca Lee, owner of White Rose Marketing Solutions in New York City. "And something always comes up. The girlfriend's trip to Mexico, a speeding ticket, vet bills for the cats ... It's impossible to plan for everything, and if it were possible, it would make for a super boring existence."
None of this means that it's fruitless to attempt to budget, but clearly, you have to come up with something that works for you, your lifestyle and your income.
2. You lack financial education. It isn't your fault; blame your school. According to the Council for Economic Education's biennial survey, last released in 2014, 17 states currently require that students at public high schools take a personal finance class before graduation, but only six states actually test the students on personal finance concepts. Sad as this is, it's a huge improvement on previous years; before the recession, hardly any state mandated personal finance classes in schools. But, still, plenty of children are currently not being taught the basics of personal finance like budgeting, which translates into adults who still don't know how to budget.
Brian Kearney, a public relations specialist in New York City, is brave enough to admit: "I'm a 24-year-old recent college graduate who is pretty awful at staying on any type of budget. Ever since I got my first job at a fast-food restaurant when I was 14, I was bad with money. I was never taught how to budget, and honestly don't even know where to begin in creating one to this day."
One of Kearney's least advisable purchases came when he was 16 years old, and he spent $250 on a pair of jeans.
"I had a reputation in high school that I was trying to uphold," he says. Kearney now throws his then 16-year-old self under the bus, saying his purchase was "very foolish. That was almost my entire paycheck."
Kearney says he is much more careful now, putting a sum of money from every paycheck into a PayPal account "that I have a debit card for, which is designated as my spending account. The remaining money remains in my bank account, and I make every effort not to touch it."
Still, Kearney admits that for the most part, "My method of budgeting today consists of winging it."
3. You're too emotional. Don't feel bad. Just about everyone is too emotional to maintain a budget. You almost have to reach into a TV series to think of people, albeit fictional ones, who budget well. Think: Spock from "Star Trek," or Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory."
"Budgets are made with logic. Purchase decisions are made with emotion. We buy things based on how we think they will make us feel. So budgets and spending are incompatible," says a sympathetic Martin Hurlburt, the Salt Lake City co-founder of T.M. Wealth Management, which also has an office in New York City.
That budgeting and spending are incompatible doesn't mean you can't budget successfully, Hurlburt says. But everyone has a unique money personality, he says, and it helps to understand how yours works.
"Without addressing this primary issue, most plans are doomed to fail as soon as they are written. Because they don't address what drives our money choices," Hurlburt says.
4. You don't think enough about the purchases you're making. Many people are guilty of this, obviously, but one area consumers often fall short in is not considering the time value of money, according to Justin Kumar, senior portfolio manager at Arlington Capital Management, a wealth management firm in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
"Let's say you earn $50,000 on a regular 40-hour per week schedule," Kumar says; that's 2,000 hours a year, and you're earning about $25 an hour, before taxes, he adds.
"So, for example, if you want to upgrade your smartphone to the next model that costs $400, that would mean you're spending the equivalent of two full eight-hour work days on that phone," he says. "If more people thought in terms of the labor it takes to earn money, then they would likely be more cognizant of how they spend money since it equates to a time factor."
5. Your budget hasn't yet given you a reason to follow it. Carrie Krawiec is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Troy, Michigan, and while you might wonder what she knows about budgets, she specializes in helping families troubleshoot problems – and many families have money-related dilemmas.
A lot of the successful budgets she sees have solid reasons for existing. People are trying to budget so that they can put money aside for a vacation, retirement or college. But the budgets that consistently fail are the ones that aren't specific or realistic.
"In many cases people set vague, unreachable goals. When they cannot achieve them or do not see progress happening, they become hopeless and give up or think their efforts do not matter," she says.
In other words, if your budget were a person, would it be the president, or a football coach or maybe the captain of a ship? Or is your budget a shady looking fellow with body odor?
All budgets attempt to be leaders. And if your budget is a good leader, you'll want to follow it.
Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report
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