Budgeting isn’t really about money. OK, maybe that’s not entirely true, but it’s less about the numbers than you think.
Successfully managing your money has more to do with psychology, and how you can most effectively convince yourself to make the right choices.
It’s easy to come up with a budget that takes all the important factors into account – it’s much more difficult to actually follow that budget.
Anyone who has ever blown their rent money on an impromptu shopping spree knows exactly what I’m talking about.
To make things easier, you need to better understand how the human mind operates.
Here’s what current research is telling us about the psychology of budgeting.
Find an Accountability Buddy
A study from Harvard researchers looked at how peer pressure could help Chilean microentrepreneurs save more than with just individual willpower.
Participants were divided into three groups, one with a .3% interest savings account and a peer group, a second group with just a .3% interest savings account and a third group with a 5% interest savings account.
The first group met once a week and had to provide proof they were putting money in their savings account. At the study’s conclusion, they’d outsaved the control group by twice the amount.
If you’re struggling to budget, find a friend or a group who will keep you accountable. Set up regular check-in times and clear goals, like sticking to your budget or increasing your savings account by $1,000 in six months.
Don’t be afraid to share your slip-ups and mistakes, and be understanding when someone else shares their own.
Create an environment where everyone feels supported and the results will come.
Drowning your sorrows at happy hour or indulging in retail therapy is a common remedy for everyday stress, anxiety and depression. But just like binging on Ben and Jerry’s will only make you feel worse, so will overspending.
When you’re in a stressful situation like an end-of-the-year meeting with your boss, face the feelings surrounding it.
Take a few minutes to journal, talk to a friend or go for a quick jog. Acknowledging feelings like sadness, anger and anxiety might not make them go away instantly, but your impulse to spend away the pain will probably decrease.
If you have a chronic overspending problem, you might benefit from going to therapy or beginning a meditation practice. Becoming more aware of your emotions will help you notice when you’re shopping to compensate for feeling bad.
Imagine Your Future Self
The concept of saving for the future can be difficult when you’re still young. A lot of people avoid saving for retirement because they don’t see the point of saving for something so far away.
But if your budget doesn’t currently include putting away 10-15% for retirement, you’re setting up a future where you’ll need to work well into your golden years.
A study from New York University found that people who were shown a digitally aged photo of themselves started saving more money for retirement.
It’s easy to assume you’ll stay young forever, but coming face to face with reality is enough to shatter that idea.
By truly acknowledging the inevitability of aging, you’ll have an easier time saving for long term goals.
Imagine what you’ll want to do in retirement, like travel across Asia or take long bike rides. If you have kids, think about how you could help them navigate young adulthood.
Consciously considering what you want in retirement will make contributing to your 401k a necessity rather than a choice.
Build in Rewards
Deprivation is rarely a successful approach, whether you’re trying to eat less junk food or save more money. When your budgeting strategy revolves entirely around limiting yourself, don’t be surprised when things backfire.
Take my story as an example. In college, I had a bad habit of overspending to cope with stress. If I wanted to get pizza, I’d order a large pie for myself. If I wanted to go shopping, I’d spend all afternoon at the mall. Anytime I felt like treating myself, I indulged.
When I graduated, I suddenly had to grapple with repaying $24,000 in student loans on a paltry journalist’s salary.
Every time I looked at my loan balance, I cringed at the thought of much money I’d wasted in college.
So I attempted a complete makeover. I started budgeting and tracking where every dollar went, often to the point of extreme anxiety. I’d worry about splurging on a $4 pint of ice cream or buying name-brand chocolate syrup.
Even though my budget was healthier than ever before, the stress and shame was only making me feel worse. I learned the hard way that living like a monk only works for… well, monks.
Eventually, I started building fun things into my budget and rewarding myself when I reached certain goals. By setting benchmarks and rewarding success, I redirected my mindset to focus on growth rather than austerity.