You’ve finally learned how to budget. It’s Friday, it’s payday, and you’ve budgeted $100 to last the whole weekend. That should be plenty for a couple of nice meals, a trip to the museum, and maybe even a cocktail or two. Then you get a text from an old friend.
“Heyyyyy I’m in town! Let’s go out!!!”
You do go out. You see a movie. After, you’re hungry and there’s this fancy burger joint that your friend would just love, so you go. It’s been a while and you want to catch up, so when she asks to go get drinks, feeling spontaneous and free, you say yes, let’s absolutely go get drinks. It’ll be a long night, you can tell already, so you grab a Lyft and you have an amazing time and on Saturday morning, reality sets in:
Shit. I spent my entire budget for the weekend in one night.
We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s not even a fun night out — maybe it’s an emergency that pops up (in which case, you need an emergency fund, stat). Whatever the scenario, I’ve been there, too, and there are three specific tactics that have helped me recalibrate after blowing my budget.
Make a List of Potential Expenses
When you know you have exactly zero dollars to last you until a certain date, it’s so easy to say screw it and dip into your savings (or worse, put your expenses on a credit card). You’ve blown your budget anyway, so what’s the point? You’ll do better next time.
But this moment is really a fork in the road. You can go back to doing the same old stuff (and yes, eventually, you will probably learn your lesson) or you could learn your lesson now and put an end to the “oh shit” cycle of overspending and regret.
To encourage an end to the cycle, I’ve found it helps to make a list of your anticipated spending for the weekend. List every single thing you were planning to do or buy: lunch on Saturday, brunch Sunday morning, the museum trip, and so on. Making a list accomplishes a couple of things:
- It makes it easier to search for cheaper alternatives. You know you have to eat lunch on Saturday, but while you were planning on getting sushi, you now have to come up with a more cost effective alternative: leftovers or groceries, perhaps.
- It tells you exactly what you need to avoid. When you have an actual list, you won’t be blindsided and “forget” that you’re supposed to avoid spending so you can get back on budget.
At this point, there’s still time to save your budget, but that’s a lot easier to do when you know what you’re likely to spend money on for the next few days.
Come Up With an Emergency Budget
It’s time to go on a spending freeze. Is this obvious? Yes. Is it easier said than done? Yep. But it’s also absolutely necessary if you want to stick to the plan. It might be hard to not spend a single cent for the rest of the weekend, but the idea here is to do the best you can and spend as little as possible.
This is where the list comes in handy again. If you know you have to spend money at some point (let’s say you need to eat and your fridge is 100% empty), come up with a backup plan. An emergency budget, if you will. Instead of going out to dinner, for example, you’ll go grocery shopping. Then, actually put a number on how much you’ll spend on groceries.
Sure, it sort of defeats the purpose because you’ve already blown your budget. You now have $25 to spend on groceries — but that’s still $25 more than you budgeted for the weekend. However, giving yourself a limit at least ensures you don’t revert back to the “screw it” mentality and end up blowing your budget by $100 or more.
You’ve broken the rules, and yes, that’s bad, but neglecting to set new ones is almost like giving yourself permission to give up altogether.
Remember Your “Why”
None of this has much of a chance of working if you don’t remember why you created a budget in the first place. When you’re learning how to budget, one of the first steps should be establishing a purpose for your budget. “I’m an adult and adults are supposed to have budgets” is quite possibly the worst purpose ever. It is meaningless to you. And it makes money the boss rather than the tool that’s supposed to support you.
Your goal might be as simple as “pay rent so I can keep my apartment” or “make sure my family has food on the table.” Whatever it is, keep it front of mind at this time so you’ll remember that you’re doing this for yourself.
Finally, it can’t hurt to have an accountability partner: that person who is always there to offer support and feedback. That friend who desperately wants you to succeed. When you’re tempted to skip lunch at home and grab all-you-can-eat sashimi, you text her, and she says, “I’ll be right over. We’ll make sandwiches.”