We all know how easy it is to be thrown off from even the most carefully-planned budget. You start the month, you’re logging expenses, all is well, and then something throws you off. This can be discouraging and disorienting, but I promise you: no matter how far off course you are, you can get back on course. In this article, I’ll share how to get your budget back on track in 7 easy ways, and how to regain your calm and focus on starting fresh.
It’s a super easy predicament to fall into: an unexpected medical or dental bill, a surprise household fix requiring a contractor, the A/C going out on your car just as the weather is getting warmer. As carefully as you follow your expenses, a single event like these– something that’s necessary to tend to– can really throw your budget.
But let me get real for a second: falling off track doesn’t always happen out of necessity. Perhaps you ran up a bar tab with your girlfriends. Too many Postmates meals during a tough week? The cashmere cardigan you found on double-clearance and couldn’t pass up: these are some other ways I’ve taken a backslide.
Take a deep breath, give yourself some grace, and prepare to get things back in order. You can do this.
It can be a challenge to know where to start when you want to get your budget back on track. Here are some quick tips you can use to get the ball rolling.
Start with your fixed expenses each month: housing, your car payment, insurance, prescriptions. Whatever is leftover is what you’ll be working with– withdraw this amount from your bank account in cash. Now you’ll have to fork over actual money each time you spend– and I’m telling you, it’s going to hurt a bit more than swiping some plastic (or worse, simply holding your phone next to the point of sale).
Make a list of what this cash will need to cover for the month. This will be anything that fluctuates or the expenses you have a bit more control over. Groceries, for instance, can be pulled from this sum. Do you have a clothing or cosmetic budget? Now it comes from cash. Your eating out or “fun” budget? Cash. And once the dollar bills run out, you’re finished for the month. So you’ll need to make it stretch.
This may happen as you’re forking over cash throughout the month, but it’s worth looking over a few months of bank statements and determining where your money has really been going. Just because you’ve established a budget category doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been following it. And those “miscellaneous” expenses can pile up fast.
Being honest with yourself– and with your partner, if you have one– is key here. Figure out what you can spend, and compare it to what you’ve been spending. There are many ways to come up with the difference, but you’ll need to either spend less or earn more. Period.
Reverse budgeting is one approach to shaking up the way you make and spend your money. Frequently referred to as “paying yourself first,” this process involves targeting your savings goals out the gate– and then letting the remaining chips fall into necessities and wants.
This is not to say that you target your savings above or before necessary expenses like housing or your electric bill. But it may look like ensuring that $200 makes it to your savings account before tackling anything else for the month. Maybe it’s a paycheck auto-draft into savings, so you never even “see” what you’re missing. Or maybe you line up your credit card minimum payments first, ensuring these are met each month before allotting a grocery or clothing budget.
If you feel like you’re on a hamster wheel and cannot gain any traction toward your savings or debt payment goals, sometimes flipping your whole budget on its head can be a fresh start.
Diligence is key because– spoiler alert– you’re going to fall off the wagon—more than once. Like I’ve mentioned above, all it takes is one unexpected expense to throw your budget into turmoil. And I know how discouraging that can be when you’ve dedicated hours to pruning your budget spreadsheet.
First things first: don’t panic. Build your emergency fund, which is not as scary as it sounds. Empty those closets: any handbags you haven’t used? Shoes you haven’t worn in a year? Holiday gifts that were never removed from the shrink wrap? Gear up to sell these things online, and build a few hundred bucks of cushion in your bank account. When the next unexpected bill hits, you can pull from your emergency fund instead of burying the expense on a credit card.
Once you’re ready to unpack where you are, how you got here, and how to climb your way out, My online Crush Your Debt course is a great place to start. Remember, you are not alone, and this is something you can work through.
Once you’re on the treadmill of minimum payments, it can be hard to see progress. And when you feel like you aren’t making any headway, it can be easy to slide even deeper into debt. I was $40,000 in credit card debt at my lowest, my car was repossessed, and I had to level with my husband about the immense secret I’d been hiding. Today, I’m on the other side, and I promise you can be too.
You may have heard of the debt snowball method already, and it’s one great way of starting and building momentum. Begin with your smallest debt first, and as you pay off each balance, you’ll feel a sense of confidence and motivation to keep going.
To recap, there are plenty of things you can do to get your budget back on track. I know that getting out of debt can be discouraging and stressful, but there are many small things you can do to achieve your goals.
Drop that budget spreadsheet for a hot minute and pull out your bank statements instead. Once you know what you’re really spending each month– and where the discrepancies are– you can focus on where your behaviors need to change.
I know, this probably doesn’t sound fun. But once you know what you’re spending, and you’re serious about adjusting it to meet your actual budget, stashing the credit cards can be one way of facing facts. If you’re paying with cash or a debit card only, there’s really no way to overspend– so this is a good foundation for getting your budget back on track.
If you’re constantly combing together your minimum payments or struggling to save, try flipping the whole budget on its head. When your paycheck comes in, pay your debts first, then focus on necessities like housing, food, and health insurance. Everything else can come from what is left.
Even if your emergency fund only starts out with a few hundred bucks, this can be the buffer that saves you from piling on a credit card the next time an unexpected expense comes up. Flat tire? Pull the cost from your emergency savings, and then using the reverse budget method, pay yourself back first by replenishing your savings account ASAP. This way you’re avoiding credit cards altogether.
If you struggle to stay on track with the budget you’ve created, it’s time to re-think your plan for getting out of debt. Be sure to shine a light on all that you owe, and line up a repayment plan using the debt snowball or debt avalanche approach. Each has its own pros and cons, but the important thing is finding a method that keeps you motivated and making progress.
No debt repayment plan moves smoothly from step to step. It’s the exception and not the rule to make smooth monthly payments without hitting some sort of speed bump. If you stay dedicated to building your emergency fund, and rebuilding it as needed, your budget can weather some surprises without completely toppling over.
But also, I’m here to tell you that at some point, it’s going to topple over. This is where you remember your “why,” stay away from toxic self-talk, and right your apple cart to begin again.
If you’re not comfortable talking money with close friends or family, you can find a community online to support you through this process. Understanding that you aren’t alone is important throughout this process. Breaking through the silence and isolation will help you get– and stay– on track with your budget. Connect with me online and join my online course for access to a community of people with the same challenges and goals.
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