How to Stick To Your Budget By Using Science to Trick You

how to stick to your budget

Learning how to stick to your budget is a habit that is difficult to establish. Let’s be honest; it’s not easy to always resist temptation and learn to work with a budget, manage our money effectively and stick to a plan. There are too many things that throw us off course on a regular basis. I know, personally, how difficult it is to stick to your budget. I fail most every single day, and I never feel good about it. I’ll be the first person to admit that I have a difficult time with sticking to a plan.

For example, I am a master of sticking to our expenses budget. Our savings plan, our monthly expenses; those are all planned meticulously and never ignored, forgotten or pushed. But I am not good at not spending money when I’m bored. We like to travel, and we do it often. So when we have a free weekend and we are looking forward to just being home and relaxing, I tend to become bored very quickly. What this means for us is an impromptu trip to Disney World when we wake up. We are annual pass holders, so it’s not a big deal, right? Well, kind of. Sure, it’s free for us to get into the parks but then we book dinner with the princesses, or we end up stopping at the Cheesecake Factory on the way home, or running into the Mall at Millenia for something. If I’m bored, I’m spending.

Learning how to stick to your budget isn’t easy; I know. However, science says that we can make it easier by making it a habit. Science suggests that learning how to stick to your budget is as easy as learning to establish a habit. It’s called learning how to focus and formulate our habits. When we learn how to do that, we learn how easy it is for all of us to stick to a budget and make life a little sweeter. It’s not a difficult process when you see it in writing, but learning how to stick to your budget is going to take a great deal of patience, hard work and dedication. It’s not going to be easy at first; it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be learning to say no to emails from Bloomingdales that offer you 25% off your entire purchase. It’s going to be not buying those underpants from Victoria’s Secret you do not need (because you already have 600 pair) just because they are 7 for $25 instead of 5 for $25 right now.

It’s learning to say no to a Sephora order because it’s the VIB 20% off your entire purchase sale because you don’t need those things just because they are on sale. It’s learning to prioritize and make a plan, stick to it and be happy about it. Once you successfully turn this into a habit, you will be surprised just how easy it is to make sure you stay on track financially. You will have successfully learned how to stick to your budget.

One thing we need to discuss before we tell you how to stick to your budget is that we learned something new. You know how people are always saying (and yes, I’m one of them; guilty) that it takes 21 days to form a habit? That’s not 100% accurate. It might take you 21 days to form a habit, but it might take you longer. It might take you as many as 36 weeks worth of days to form a habit. Apparently, habits are formed anywhere from 18 to 254 days after they begin; it all depends on you and your personality. So, be patient, learn to make positive changes by making positive changes and know that you will eventually learn to stick to your budget without too much effort.

how to stick to your budget

Trigger, Routine, Reward

These three things, together, are called a habit loop. These are things that you do that make you feel as if you are doing exactly what you want to do; even when they are not. It’s a habit formation that has to be changed if you want to learn how to stick to your budget and forgo temptation. Let’s look at each piece of this scientific equation one at a time.

Trigger; this is the moment in your life associated with a habit that tells you it’s time to do something. I’ll use myself as an example with one of my triggers. My husband and I like to plan a few date nights a month. It’s important to us, our marriage and our sanity with four small kids at home. We need that two-three hours out a few times a month so that we can eat a meal together, at the same time, without any interruption. But, we have a trigger. When we go out to dinner, we always order a bottle of wine.

Our trigger is simply date night and being alone. We will order that bottle whether we want it or not. We will order it and we will drink it, even if we had a long day and aren’t really feeling two glasses each. The routine aspect of this scientific theory comes into play by actually purchasing the bottle. We have date night, which immediately tells us we have to order a bottle of wine. Then we have the routine, which is telling the waiter that we will take a bottle of the sangiovese. The reward is the arrival of the bottle, the first sip and the final product of feeling relaxed and happy after two glasses each of vino.

There’s nothing wrong with our habit. But we don’t always want it. Sometimes I’d rather have a martini, and sometimes I’d rather just go somewhere casual and throw down a beer. But that feels un-date-like to me, and we won’t do it.

Changing our Habits

To learn how to stick to your budget, you have to learn to change your habits. What you have to do here, since we are talking about our financial situation, is learn to focus on the reward.

Let’s say you want to learn how to stick to your budget so that you can save more so that you can go on a vacation somewhere amazing at the end of the year. The reward here is the fact that in 12 months you will be lying on a beach somewhere tropical and amazing doing nothing at all productive but enjoying your time and loving every second of it. That’s the reward. The reward is having the money to do that without worrying about it, without charging it or without dipping into your Christmas budget or your emergency savings to do it.

Now we have to come to the difficult part of using science to learn how to stick to your budget. Now you have to learn how to focus on the reward instead of the routine and the trigger. So let’s say you want to start saving money by eliminating habits that aren’t all that productive. If you use my example above, you could say you want to learn to stick to your budget by not spending $120 every week on a bottle of wine at dinner. If we did this one time every week, that would be a savings of $480 a month. Over the course of 12 months, we would save $5,760. That’s enough for a nice vacation.

Now we have to stop our habit and refocus it. It’s not going to be easy, but we have to focus on the reward. Is there a way that we can still focus on the date night reward by doing something that we feel gives us that same feeling of relaxation and happiness we are so used to on date night that costs far less and helps us learn how to stick to our budget? Well, we could have date night at home. We could, instead of asking our parents to come to our home and watch our kids for a few hours, take our kids to the grandparent’s house for a few hours and stay home for our date.

We could then pick up the same bottle of wine at the supermarket for far less ($20 to be precise) and still enjoy the same feeling that we get on our date and the same reward we get from date night. How? We are still alone, we are still enjoying a wonderful meal with no interruption, no crayons to pick up off the floor and no requests to go to the potty. We still get our two glasses each of great wine and we will have the same feeling at the end of the night. In fact, we might have a better feeling since we don’t have to wear shoes or get dressed up to go into our own kitchen.

We can do a lot of things to focus on the reward while still keeping to a reasonable budget.

how to stick to your budget

Make it an Automatic Habit

Do you realize that when you do things on automatic settings, you do them more efficiently? Let’s take a look at a few examples that might not seem much like they are going to teach you how to stick to your budget even though they actually are. For example, if you automatically set your coffee pot to start brewing your first cup in the morning at a specific time the night before, chances are good you will wake up at a reasonable time and not oversleep in the morning. Why? Because your coffee is going to be ready at a certain time and you do not want to drink it cold.

Now, you have to pay your mortgage payment every single month on the same date. You don’t want it to be late, so you set up automatic payments. It saves you time and effort writing checks, buying stamps and going to the post office. It’s easy when it’s automatic. I sign up for diapers to be delivered to my house every other week with Amazon Prime and Amazon Mom so that I never have to remember to buy diapers and wipes (and so that they come at a slightly discounted price…we have four kids and two of them are 20-month-old twins, if that helps you understand just how many diapers and wipes we go through).

If you cannot find a way to automate your new habit, look harder. I can sign up for a wine club that allows me to get these bottles at a slightly discounted price if I buy them in bulk. They are then delivered to my house and I can use them right away. That automatically makes it easier for me to stay home rather than go out on date night since I have all these bottles of wine just sitting around waiting on us to schedule at-home date nights.

Create a Mantra

One way to ensure you learn how to stick to your budget by focusing on the reward is to create a very peppy and upbeat mantra. In this example, we are saving money for an amazing vacation, which means we need to periodically remind ourselves that we are focusing on a different reward. If we stick with the example we’ve been using, I’d tell myself regularly that I have to focus on the fact that at the end of the year I’ll be on an amazing vacation. We could look at it regularly as a mantra and help in difficult times.

Because there will be difficult times. There will be nights when I will say that I’d like to get dressed up and go out and spend money and have a date night outside the home, or at a more expensive restaurant or something to that effect. And then I will say to myself (because, remember; you are learning how to stick to your budget), “I can go out and spend hundreds of dollars on dinner with that $120 bottle of wine and be happy for one night, or I can save that money by having that bottle of wine at home and I can be very, very happy in a few months.”

I can remind myself of this by creating a countdown that tells me how many more days until I will be on my vacation. I can tell myself that my favorite bottle of wine tastes just as good at home when my husband is pouring it and we are sitting on our deck as it does in a restaurant where there are dozens of other people, too much noise and the constant interruption of a waiter.

The point here is to make the fact that I am saving into something positive. I don’t want my mantra repeated in a negative manner. I want it repeated to myself in a matter that is positive and good. That’s how I’m going to remind myself that I’m doing something amazing, and it’s how you’re going to remind yourself that you are learning how to stick to your budget.

Stacking Habits

Here is the other good news you’re going to use to learn how to stick to your budget. You’re going to use this scientific finding; when you combine great habits, they’re easier to stick to. So, now you’re going to add your savings to something else that’s positive. You could buy that bottle of wine at the supermarket when you use your coupons to shop a great sale. When you are already saving money there, you’re going to feel more inclined to want to continue saving money by purchasing that bottle of wine and reminding yourself that you just saved $100 on it by buying it yourself and drinking it at home.

That’s one way to learn how to stick to your budget that’s helpful and productive.

how to stick to your budget

Be Patient

Rome was not built in a day, babies come when they are ready, you will meet the person of your dreams when the time is right; you get what I’m trying to say. Patience is a virtue, and that is absolutely not even close to being inaccurate. You will never learn to stick to your budget if you do not learn to have some patience. It could become something you learn to do in no time at all, or it could be something you need more time to turn into a habit. It’s so imperative that you do not beat yourself up over the fact that your habit might not take a minute to pick up. We cannot promise that you will learn to stick to your budget right away, but we can promise that effort, patience and hard work combined with consistent behavior is going to help you.

We can also tell you that it’s all right to splurge every now and again. Science may tell us that habit is what we have to form, but I’m going to tell you as a living, breathing human being that deprivation can kill you. Much like depriving yourself of water can cause you to become dehydrated and eventually kill you, always saying no to your cravings and your desires can also kill you in that you will not learn how to stick to your budget. It’s far easier to give up and quit when you are miserable all the time, so I think it’s important to change your habits and learn how to stick to your budget without actually depriving yourself.

Do I need to go out to dinner and spend $120 on a bottle of wine every single week with my husband? Absolutely not; I’m perfectly happy to have a date night at home while our kids have fun with their loved ones. Do I want all my date nights to be at home from now on? I do not; and I will not deprive myself of something I love. It takes the pleasure away from everything. A good compromise for me would be to schedule a date night outside the home once a month or every 6 weeks or something to go out and spend a lot, and a few smaller nights out that are not as expensive.  Perhaps we could have Sunday brunch, instead. We could leave the kids at home, have a wonderful meal, a few mimosas and spend a lot less than we would at dinner, but for the same reward.

Do you have a $5 a day coffee addiction at Starbucks? You can give it up; but you don’t have to be miserable about it. How about, while learning how to stick to your budget, you allow yourself to spend every Friday morning or Monday morning or whatever morning at Starbucks getting that amazing latte or coffee or whatever it is you want so that you feel good about having something you love instead of deprived not having it?

This is a good compromise since you can still have what you want but without spending too much on it. Allowing yourself to occasionally have something you love keeps you on track and keeps you learning effectively how to stick to your budget. It also allows you to feel as if you are still enjoying things that are a splurge instead of cutting them completely out of your life.

Learning how to stick to your budget is not going to be easy for all people. However, it’s not going to be as difficult as you want. Stick to it by focusing on your reward. Make a dream board or hang a photo of what it is you want and are looking forward to. This tangible reminder is a great way to see into the future and focus on what it is you really want long term instead of something that will only make you happy for a short period of time.

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