$57 for the Lego Friends set (on sale). $223 on books through the school fair. $80 for a couple of board games.
I scrolled through the spreadsheet I’d made to budget for and track holiday spending, and it quickly became clear: we’d already spent our whole holiday budget. And I’d only purchased about half of the items I’d planned out.
The ~feelings~ started creeping in. Anger at the world: Since when is everything so damn expensive? Disgust with myself: I’m such a bad planner. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t do something as simple as stick to my budget for this one thing? Frustration at my dilemma: What am I supposed to do now??
I clicked around, the storms of emotions gathering and humming in my mind. And then I gave up. “Screw it,” I muttered to myself. “I quit.” And I closed the spreadsheet, with absolutely zero intention of opening it again. I’d buy the rest of the items, I’d even look for sales.
But the budget was a no-go.
Why is it so hard to budget?
Going way over-budget with my holiday spending is only my most recent setback when it comes to budgeting. But as I’ve worked to get back on track this month, finding extra funds to make up for my sloppy slushing the last two months of 2020 — it got me thinking about budgeting. Why is it so hard and emotional to deal with, anyway?
Budgeting was on my mind as I watched a YouTube video with savings tips last week, mostly nodding along. My head froze, however, when the speaker said this: “Budgeting is an important step, but it’s one a lot of people neglect. Maybe because they’re lazy or they just don’t want to.”
I gave the 20-something bro on my screen my most scathing stinkeye and closed the video. But I couldn’t get it out of my head. And the more I thought about it, the madder I got.
I get his main point: most of us know that we “should” budget, and yet, so often it’s hard to actually do. But I completely disagree with both his guesses about why we often don’t budget — that we’re lazy or don’t want to.
And I hated how he just hand waved the question, “Why don’t people budget?” When to me, that’s one of the core questions for healthy money management:
I know what to do, so why can’t I do it?
When we’re struggling to budget, we don’t need more money advice, savings tips, or actions to take. What we actually need is to take a step back and dissect what exactly is holding us back. We need to understand the emotions behind our spending, or our negative associations with budgeting.
The “B-word:” Why we hate budgeting so much
So why is “budget” such an emotionally-loaded word? Well, it’s certainly not because we’re lazy or don’t care. In fact, I’d guess that it’s such a big deal because we care deeply about our budget. We want to do well with our money.
It’s because budgeting is 1) hard, and 2) a word and behavior that brings up a lot of complicated feelings, thoughts, and beliefs — most of which are uncomfortable.
In the world of personal finance advice, people love comparing managing money to losing weight. (It’s a comparison I typically hate because the two are so vastly different and, well, I’m not fatphobic but most dieting advice is.) But I have noticed one thing in common: both topics are very emotionally charged. To our brains, the words “budget” and “diet” are the same:
“Your emotional brain responds to the word budget the same way it responds to the word diet. The connotation is deprivation, suffering, agony, depression.”Financial psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, The Cut
Our automatic emotional responses to budgeting
Think of the word “budget” and notice what comes to mind. What feelings bubble up? What thoughts or words go through your mind? How does thinking about budgeting make you feel about yourself?
For most people, even just the word “budget” will bring up plenty of complicated emotions and negative associations:
- Money shame, failure, and guilt. You might think, “Why bother making a budget? I’ve tried so many times and it never sticks.” Or perhaps you remember that last time you set out to budget only to wind up totally off-the-rails.
- Financial overwhelm, ignorance, or incompetence. I’m not saying you are ignorant or incompetent, but that you might believe you are. And that could leave you thinking things like: “I don’t even know where to start. No one I know budgets. I’m bad with money, a budget won’t work for me.”
- Lack of funds or history of poverty. Simply put, there’s no point in budgeting when you’re short of funds no matter what you try. And if our financial situation improves, a history of poverty still shapes our money behaviors and beliefs. “Why make a budget when all my money goes to bills? I don’t have enough leftover to budget, anyway.”
- Being too busy or time-poor. Sometimes there really is too much going on in life. Other times, we just convince ourselves we’re too busy. “I can’t take on one more thing right now. Who has the time to budget?? It’s too much work to manage my money.”
- Avoidance, fear, and money anxiety. You might totally avoid thinking about your money, and when you do, you quickly put it out of mind. “I’m afraid of what I’ll find if I look. What if it’s actually worse than I think? It’s too scary to deal with right now.”
- Perfectionism or unrealistic expectations. It’s common to cut too far or set a budget that’s too restrictive, because we put pressure on ourselves to get money right. Financial fear can convince us there’s no room for mistakes or anything less than perfection.
- Minimizing and indifference. You might not care about your money — or at least, convince yourself that you don’t. “Money’s not that big of a deal. I don’t care about my finances. I’ll worry about a budget later.”
- Restriction and scarcity. Budgeting can set off feelings of scarcity and deprivation, which can be downright scary. “If I budget I’ll have to give up too much. I won’t be able to spend on what makes me happy. I’ll feel poor.”
Name and understand your emotional obstacles to budgeting
Some “money experts” would look at this list and see nothing but laziness and excuses. But between you and me, that’s bullshit.
I look at it, though, and I see myself. I’ve felt and thought almost all of those at some point in my money journey. I spent a lot of time stuck at any one of these stages, often a few at the same time. I know it’s not “excuses,” but real obstacles, history, and experience that can make words like “budgeting” feel painful, scary, or even impossible.
Struggling with your budget is not a moral failure. It doesn’t make you a bad or irresponsible person.
But I also see that I don’t get stuck like I used to. The negative associations I have with budgeting don’t feel as true anymore. I have built an emotional and financial toolbox that helps me overcome and get past those negative associations that keep me from budgeting. I can tackle even a tricky, sometimes painful task like budgeting and come out the other side with my sense of self worth intact.
Let’s revisit my holiday budget, for example. In retrospect, I can identify a few of the above issues. I set my holiday budget based on numbers pulled out of thin air, what I thought we should spend, rather than basing it in the reality of what we typically do spend. I didn’t take my current emotional state into account, either — being at the end of a very hard year with a lot of my emotional resources and will power running low.
So when I started making purchases, I didn’t really keep my budget in mind. Instead, I was feeling sad reflecting on everything we’d lost in the past year, and thought, Don’t we deserve an above-average Christmas for such a shit year? I was stressed and desperate to just get the task of shopping over with.
Work with your emotions, then take the drama out of budgeting
When I’m struggling with my budget, I often need to slow down, reflect, and gain some self-awareness about what exactly is keeping me stuck. Only then do I have enough information to know what I need to do.
Becoming aware of your specific budgeting beliefs, emotions, and associations gives you crucial information. You can then use that information to get on more neutral ground with your budget.
When I put my holiday overspending in context, it made so much more sense. Of course I would be less able to exercise discipline to stick to a budget after a year like 2020. Of course I had a hard time telling myself and my family “no” in a year when the world had told us nothing but “no.”
I was able to offer myself compassion and understanding, and ground my actions in the context of my reality. This offset the negative emotions at play like guilt and self-blame, and got me back to neutral ground with my budget. It took the huge, internal drama out of the budgeting equation — and I could then shift my energy from dealing with big emotions to solving my budgeting problems.
Shifting “budget” from emotionally-loaded to emotionally-neutral
Most of us have a big emotional response to the words “budget” or “diet.” But both those words, at their base, are neutral. While a diet has come to mean a restrictive way of eating, it also is a more general and neutral term that encompasses what you eat.
Budgeting is the same. While we have negative associations with the word, it’s just a neutral term for the money that comes in and goes out. We all have a budget — whether we’re intentionally or actively managing it or not. And the only person’s opinion about your budget that matters is yours.
Viewing budgeting as a neutral action has power. It opens up a world of possibilities. It helps us move beyond the shaming of prescriptive financial advice and budgeting “shoulds,” to experimenting.
We give ourselves room to make mistakes and try again, without it becoming a personal or moral failing. We can look beyond the rigid budgeting methods we’ve tried in the past to build something more flexible and custom-tailored to our needs. Instead of overwhelming ourselves by trying to fix every aspect of our finances at one, we can make small, incremental changes that are easier to implement and sustain.
We can even give ourselves permission to say, “Budgeting doesn’t work for me,” or “It’s not a priority right now” — without it meaning anything about who we are and what we’re worth.
You’re not lazy if you don’t budget. Not having a budget doesn’t mean you don’t care or want it. It means budgeting can be a clustercuss, we’re all just human — and that’s okay.