Balancing The Good & The Bad Of Budgeting

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Done right, a minimalist budget brings clarity and lightness of mind. But it is not magic, and won’t compensate for misplaced priorities or lack of discipline.

As with nearly everything in life, this approach is the best of many imperfect options.

What can you realistically expect, both good and bad, as you create and uphold an effective budget?

Clarify what really matters day to day

The exercise of aiming every dollar at a purpose is invaluable.

It forces you to notice and record for your future self every tangible thing that matters. In the process, you also realize trade-offs that might not have been obvious.

Your inner, or family, dialogue will probably sound like this:

“I really want to travel next year. How much of ___ do I need to cut out to make that possible?”

“We have debt from ___. We’ve got to get rid of it before our eldest starts college, so what’s gotta give?”

Whether you act on these trade-offs is another matter, but putting them in time-constrained dollar terms is worthwhile by itself.

Achieve more of what matters, more efficiently

By clarifying in writing what means the most and what steps will realize it, you have already charted your course.

No more wondering, “Is this a realistic goal?” or “How much would that splurge even matter?”.

You no longer need to wander until you stumble across your financial destination. That is not an entirely bad thing, but is inefficient, and often unnecessarily complicated

Instead of meandering, it helps to mark ourselves a big, red “X” on a metaphorical map, with a straight and unmistakable path that to follow directly.

Easily tell whether you’re financially on track

Ever drive along, miss a turn, and your navigation app dings then blurts out, “Recalculating route”?

It leaves no doubt that you’re drifting off course. Without immediate redirection, even you don’t know where you would have ended up.

The combination of a minimal budget and financial tracking provides the same feedback. The “destination” is a few, simple goals. Earn X, save Y, invest Z, and — at most — one or two others.

When it’s this easy to know where you stand, your regular budget check-in gives immediate feedback on whether you’re heading in the right direction.

Miss the right turn? Continue a block, then take two rights and a left

Miss your savings target? Pick up extra hours, do random tasks, or sell something to hit it.

Voilà: back on track.

Enjoy well-earned satisfaction

If even minimal financial goals took care of themselves, nobody would worry about budgeting.

But the truth of the matter is we have impulses. We fool ourselves about what will bring happiness. Sometimes, our most rational and well-meaning guesses simply miss the mark.

That’s why hitting ambitious personal finance targets brings a unique sort of satisfaction. The money itself is nice, but success here stands for discipline and diligence and honesty with ourselves.

Those are qualities worth celebrating.

Build discipline that improves others aspects of life

Speaking of discipline…

If you have a child, you probably considered yourself patient until he or she came along. Suddenly, unanticipated things stretch your patience to (and beyond) limits you never knew it had.

Likewise, most of us fancy ourselves financially prudent. Yeah, the debt isn’t quite gone and we might not retire quite as early as we’d like, but it’s all good.

(To be clear, that’s a first-world problem. You’re still sheltered and fed and cared for, so it really is all good on the most essential level.)

But when we first commit to a minimalist budget with just a few clear goals, we see for the first time a never-ending stream of purchases and decisions that don’t paint the picture of a disciplined spender.

On paper, we look downright profligate.

Changing requires realizing. Realizing requires measuring. That’s the discipline-building beauty of a budget that becomes instinctive in every other area that needs similar improvement.

Beware of devoting too much mental energy

Like I mentioned at the beginning, it’s not all upside. The trade-offs of minimalist budgeting are manageable, but they do exist.

Above all, go in with eyes wide open to the fact that budgeting and tracking consume mental energy. You could say that it takes…work.

Now, so do all worthwhile things, and the refusal to work is a hallmark of childishness.

But just the same, realize going in that even a simple budget regime will drain you at times.

There will be mental battles over whether to satisfy a spending urge, and there may well be interpersonal battles over what the real priorities are.

I’ll leave the counseling to pros, but it’s critical to understand that financial progress demands mental energy. Sometimes, whatever the reason or context, you’ll struggle to come up with that energy.

Missing your goal is a bummer

Sometimes, life interferes in ways no reasonable person would have prepared for.

That’s almost certain to throw you off your budget for the month. And it’s a bummer.

When your budget is minimal, with inherently just a few goals, it’s all the more painful to miss them widely.

However, there’s a secret: it is OK.

You cannot deny the disappointment. It goes with the territory.

But when you acknowledge it and choose to move forward, you find a different sort of wealth in learning from whatever occurred. And, above all, comfort in the fact that life goes on.

Watch for missed opportunities and human, relational priorities

If there’s one great danger in budgeting, it’s becoming too hardcore.

I doubt you’ll turn into Ebenezer Scrooge and prefer counting piles of coins to spending time with human beings.

But there is a real risk of becoming so addicted to goals on paper that we turn from frugal, balanced people into misers who miss out on life.

If the desire for freedom is the impetus for a minimalist budget, then becoming slaves to that budget is a sad irony.

The best antidote is mindfulness. Just like we buy tools with repair or construction in mind — not just collection — so we must frame our budget goals in terms of purpose.

Minimalist personal finance means simple, easily tracked budgeting rather than elaborate allocations and dependencies.

That requires and reinforces clear priorities, and builds undeniable discipline as you stay the course.

But such clear achievement can become addicting in its own right, and assume a role it doesn’t deserve in our lives.

If you define the “what” and the “why,” it will be infinitely easier to budget as a tool, not as a vain search for meaning, and to minimize the mental setback when you don’t quite nail a goal.

Easier said than done? Yes, of course. But if my own financial transformation is any indication, it’s worth it on several levels.

Field notes from a (sometimes) simple life.

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