how to budget
As a journalist with mild social anxiety, I often dread interviewing people in person. It makes me nervous, I worry I won’t ask the right questions, and I’ll look dumb. Don’t get me wrong, every time I interview someone, I’m glad to have done it. Not only do I get what I need for the story, but I also learn a hell of a lot from that person (like my interview with Charles Duhigg on the power of an internal locus of control).

However, when I get into the habit of interviewing people regularly, I don’t get nervous at all. I hop on the phone, ask a few questions, and have a good conversation. Big deal, right? It’s only when I haven’t interviewed anyone in person for a while that I start to build it up in my head. I get incredibly nervous at the idea of talking to that person, I can’t stop thinking about it all day, and I completely freak myself out. Then I do the interview, and, once again, I remember that it’s not a big deal.

My point is, the longer you go without doing something, even something simple, the harder it is to do it. You get too comfortable with inertia, and action becomes a more difficult task than it needs to be. 

How Inertia Leads to Lifestyle Inflation

In this vein, I had a realization the other day: inertia is why so many of us suck at managing our money. We all know how to budget. It’s not that hard, but it’s easier to not do it, and then it becomes an overwhelming obstacle.

Here’s a personal example. Recently, I logged into Mint to discover my checking out was almost at zero…and I had a huge bill due the next day. Holy blown budget. I won’t pretend like I’m broke and struggling–I still have savings to pull from–but I’ve certainly been broke, and seeing my near-zero checking account brought back some bad memories.

I mean, I write about money for a living. I tell people how to budget. And I’m usually pretty good at it myself. So what gives? Well, it seems to be our old friend inertia.

For the past month or so, I’ve taken the anti-latte-factor advice a little too far. You’ve heard about the latte factor, right? It’s about cutting back on small expenses and indulgences so you can deflate your lifestyle and save more money. Well, not all personal finance experts agree with this. Keep your lattes, they say, stop focusing on saving $3, and focus on earning $100,000 instead. It’s easy to get carried away with this advice, though, and I did. I stopped worrying about little expenses here and there, focused on my work instead, and my lo and behold, my lifestyle inflated.  Earning more is great, but it doesn’t make a difference if you’re still spending more than you earn.

Think of Budgeting as a Habit, Not a Task

Money is a tool, and you should use it on things you enjoy, but there’s a huge caveat that comes with that: if you use that tool too often, it’s not going to be around anymore. So you have to keep an eye on it.

In the back of my head, obviously, I knew this. I knew I was being careless with my budget, so I avoided looking at it altogether. I didn’t want to see what my checking account looked like. And it always looks worse than you think, which I should’ve remembered from my days being broke. When I finally logged in to see a near-zero balance with a bill due, it knocked me on my butt.

It’s important to learn how to budget and track your spending, but budgeting is a verb, a habit. It’s maintenance. Even when you think you’ve got it down, you might be surprised at how easy it is to forget about the good money habits you’ve worked so hard to build. Managing your money isn’t just about setting up a system you can forget about, it’s about checking on your money regularly and being aware of exactly what it does and where it’s going. In short: don’t let inertia get the best of you.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Learn more about her here.