In my early twenties, I had a love for impromptu sushi dinners with friends and exactly zero will to stick to the half-hearted budgets I put together every time an unexpected bill would leave me grasping for a sense of control over my money. Money came and went, and I didn’t pay much attention to it one way or the other.
It wasn’t until my husband and I made our marriage preparation retreat and started talking about finances that either of us thought seriously about our financial habits. Soon after that retreat weekend, we read some books and made some solid plans and goals for gaining control of our financial future.
If you’re anything like I was, the thought of a complete overhaul of your habits around money can seem soul-crushing. Over the last few years, I’ve picked up a few intentional habits that help me feel like I’m in control of my money while also giving me a sense of freedom to treat myself and live a full, abundant life.
Always set aside some fun money
There is nothing I love more than leaving my favorite local bookstore with a stack of new reads. Other things I love include colorful felt tip pens, quiet afternoons writing in coffee shops, lunch dates with friends, fancy cocktails, new clothes, shoes, and pedicures.
Every month I set aside a portion of my income as “fun money.” This is money I can use for whatever I want. The only rule is that it’s not used for necessities, like socks or groceries. Fun money is for life’s little extras that often get cut when we’re tightening our belts to save for a big purchase or to pay off debt.
Get your mind right
I tend to be the kind of person who does things to the extreme. Mostly, this has been the case when it comes to my relationship with food and exercise. I have a history of extremely restrictive dieting followed by binges on pizza and red wine that left me feeling sick, bloated, and guilt-ridden.
That same mindset quickly worked its way into my relationship with money. One day I’d be counting out pennies in the Aldi check out line and a week later I’d be loading my cart at Whole Foods with reckless abandon, heart racing as the total climbed, filled with buyer's remorse as I unloaded fancy waffles and specialty cheeses into the fridge.
As with anything, when we become overly restrictive with our budgets, we set ourselves up for the inevitable binge. We need to adopt a mindset of moderation. Budgeting isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and. With a plan in place, you can go out with your friends and save for retirement. You can buy a new pair of running shoes and pay off your student loan debt.
Own your mistakes and move on
So you overspent on margaritas and novels this month. Welcome to the club. If you haven’t misjudged or just plain ignored your plan at least once, are you even budgeting?
So you’re not perfect. So you made a mistake or lost your focus. You’re not the only one. What matters is that you own the mistake and move on. Don’t let one slip up become the wrecking ball you use to demolish all of your hard work.
Your relationship with money is a lifelong one. And just like with anything else, it’s not going to be perfect. Progress — not perfection — is our battle cry. Own your mistakes, learn from them, and move on.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my early attempts at budgeting was a lack of accountability. As soon as the excitement wore off, I would just quit updating the spreadsheet and quit caring about where my money was going. Now that I’m married, my husband and I sit down once a month to review all of our spending and income from the previous month and make a plan for the upcoming month. While it’s certainly not the most romantic thing we do, it’s definitely one of the most important. The regular communication about our finances has kept money from being a point of conflict in our relationship.
If you’re single, ask a family member whom you trust and who has a healthy financial situation to help you create a budget. Then set up monthly check-ins for accountability. If that’s not your jam, find a friend who’s also interested in improving their money habits to be your accountability partner. Even if you approach your budgeting systems differently, consider meeting up once a month and reviewing your goals and progress. What did you do well that month? Where do you have room to grow moving forward? Having time set aside to review both your wins and losses is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be more intentional with your money.
Small steps in the right direction are going to get you where you want to go. In fact, it’s when we try to move too fast that we fall on our faces. Maybe now isn’t the right time for a complete budget overhaul. Maybe an extreme change in your habits will only result in a sense of shame and defeat when you fail in a few weeks or months. Know thyself.
The whole point of budgeting is to be intentional about where our money is going and what it’s doing. Maybe you only pay for meals at restaurants with cash this month. When you’re out of cash, you’re done eating out for the month. It’s one little change, but one in the right direction — a practice in being more mindful with your money — and that’s a good step.
When it comes to money, there’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it is great, and some of it is just plain garbage. So much information can actually do more harm than good. It can leave us paralyzed, unsure of the “right” first step or next move in the pursuit of a more intentional financial plan.
The best advice I can offer is to trade in the “all or nothing” mentality for an “all or something” mentality. Once you know what your goals are, any step toward those goals will get you closer than never taking a step at all.