Budget With a Passion

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Jake over at iHeartBudgets had a great post the other day titled Go Spend Your Money PLEASE! The point of the article is that a good budget should not feel limiting. Instead, it should give you the freedom to spend your money the way you actually want. In other words, it helps eliminate waste so you can focus your spending on the things you truly value.

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment, but I don’t think it’s an easy place to get to. Not only can making and tracking a budget be difficult, unfamiliar and daunting when you first start, but it can also feel extremely tedious and even suffocating as you look at your spending in a new light. So how do you get past this initial struggle and find the point where it actually feels freeing? I think it all depends on how you start.

The typical advice for starting a budget

The typical advice usually goes something like this:

  1. Start with all of your regular monthly bills, like utilities, rent/mortgage, cell phone, cable, insurance, etc.
  2. Add in variable expenses like groceries, gas, car maintenance and eating out.
  3. Add in…blah, blah, blah.

Are you pumped up! Yeah, me neither. And I think that’s part of the problem. By looking at it like this you’re focusing on the depressing things first. We all have to pay our electricity bill, but no one gets fired up about it. If anything, thinking about it probably just reminds us that we’d like it to be lower, and then we start thinking about all those times we left the lights on while we were gone, and then we’re feeling guilty and bad about ourselves before we’ve even gotten past Step 1. No wonder it’s hard to keep going!

My suggested alternative: starting with passion

Rather than starting your budget with the bills you have to pay, why don’t you start with the things you want to use your money for? Maybe you have a weekly date night with your spouse that you want to make sure you have room for. Enter that first. Maybe you’re saving up for the house of your dreams. Or maybe you’re starting this whole budget thing because you’re finally motivated to start saving for retirement. Put that savings amount down before anything else.

If your end goal is for your budget to allow you to spend your money how you want, shouldn’t you start your budget with the things you actually want to spend your money on? Doesn’t it seem a little bit crazy to do it any differently?

The benefits of this approach to budgeting

There are two main benefits that I can see from this approach.

First, you’re starting from a place of excitement. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. If you can clearly define why you’re doing something and are excited about it, you are much more likely to follow through. And without follow through, the whole exercise is pointless..

Second, if you start with your bills, entering those items will feel like a statement of fact: this is what you have to spend. But when you have already considered the things you WANT to spend on, you’ll be much more likely to think about the subsequent items as opportunities to cut back so that it’s easier to spend on your priorities. You’ll have tricked your brain into thinking of ways to make your required spending fit around your desired spending instead of the other way around. If you can do this, you’ll probably find a lot of areas where your “required” spending really isn’t all that required.

Conclusions

A good budget helps structure your life so that your regular spending habits keep you right on target for the things you truly care about. It’s freeing in that you remove the guesswork from your daily spending decisions, which allows you more leeway to spend money on the things you want. Getting to that point isn’t always easy, but if that’s your end goal, why not make it your starting point as well?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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41 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Alexa Mason July 22, 2013

    I think budgeting for the things we want to do is something we leave out too much. You are exactly right though, the whole point in being financially responsible is so you do have the money to do what you love. This is a great post!

  • DC @ Young Adult Money July 22, 2013

    This is definitely a great approach! I think when it comes to personal finance, things are always easier if there are long-term goals in mind to help motivate you to be disciplined and make active progress towards your goal(s). When I first read the title of this post I thought “budget” and “passion” don’t belong in the same sentence haha but it definitely makes sense the way you explained it.

  • Andrew July 22, 2013

    I think this is a great idea. I think that I’m pretty good with my finances, but have never really liked budgeting…it is a bit tedious and boring. Your method is similar to the “pay yourself first” adage. Budget for your retirement or dream home first and then fitting in your other expenses is a great way to make you want to cut unnecessary expenses. The problem is with people who’s passion is in things such as fancy cars and high-end tech gadgets or clothes!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      Very similar to the pay yourself first mentality. Honestly, I don’t really like budgeting either. I try to set it up so that my regular habits fall in line with my budget and I don’t have to think about it too much. I still track all our spending, but mostly just to make sure we’re still in line in a big picture sense. On a month to month basis, our spending in any given category might fluctuate a lot.

  • Budget & the Beach July 22, 2013

    Ive read a lot of experts who say change the wording from budget to “spending plan.” I like that idea because it reframes the experience into something that sounds more positive. People often equate budget with “limited” resources. LIke you’re restricted when it’s often just the opposite! Of course we know this, but it’s hard convincing people who don’t have one otherwise.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      Yep I’ve heard “spending plan”. Or “conscious spending”. Whatever helps people do it is good with me. I think the hardest part is the beginning, because it can feel very limiting when you start. And it can still feel limiting later on as well, it’s just that by then you’ve hopefully also seen all the benefits and actually freed up your money to do what you want, so the limits are outweighed.

  • Brian @ Luke1428 July 22, 2013

    This is good stuff Matt! Passion can certainly serve as an incredible driver. We begin our monthly budgets by setting aside money to give to our local church. For us, that puts all of our bills and other spending goals into perspective. It allows us to express our gratitude for all we have been given and I find that a cool place to start from.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      That’s a great approach! Starting with what’s important, and also starting with something that keeps you humble and grateful. Definitely a good model for the rest of us to emulate.

  • MyMoneyDesign July 22, 2013

    This is exactly the paradigm shift I started making years ago when it came to my own budget. When I started focusing on what I wanted to get out of it rather than what I did/did not have to do, it became a lot more fun to stick to. Ironically my post today is about how we kinda strayed from that path and what we need to do to get back on track. It just goes to show – these things take work to make sure they are right!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      It’s definitely an ongoing effort. But I think the mental aspect of it is so key. It can seem kind of silly but it makes a big difference.

  • Your Daily Finance July 22, 2013

    I think you have to do what works for you and your family at the end of the day. Whether you want to call it a budget or something else find something that works stick to it but make adjustments along the way. I like structure and still think you should be able to enjoy life. Though I find that too many people waste money on things they claim make them happy. Follow your own path you dont have to do what the next man or woman does. Find your own happy place and enjoy life.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      Couldn’t agree more. And I use the word “budget” here because it’s what people understand, but I’m definitely with you that there are different ways to do it. You don’t have to itemize every spending category, but finding your own way to make your money do what you actually want it to do is something we should all strive for.

  • Rita P July 22, 2013

    I never use to follow budget when I had a full time job though I use jolt down one for me and track my expenses but never use to meet it. But after switching over as a freelancer with complete frugal mind set I am easily able to meet my set budget.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      It seems to me like the added responsibility of freelancing is a great impetus for getting on track with a budget. Glad to hear it’s working out!

  • Tanya @ The Heavy Purse July 22, 2013

    I love this approach, Matt. It’s so true if you don’t have passion or excitement around whatever you’re doing – it’s becomes very hard to do it on a continual basis. I admit that I have never been fond of budgets. I found them restrictive and since I was living within my means – who cared? But just because you live within your mean – doesn’t mean that you are spending wisely or even on the things that matter most. Shannon was the one who taught me budgets could be freeing. And she – and you – are both right. With the right mindset and approach, it lets you see all the possibilities.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      I definitely think at least tracking your spending helps you make sure that your money is actually being used in the way you want. Like Thomas said, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting. There are many different ways to do it. As long as your priorities are being handled, then the approach is working.

  • That is certainly more fun than listing bills and obligations. I just take out all the bills and savings goals from any income at the beginning of the month and what is left is fun money. It takes the hassle out of budgeting.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      That’s a great no-hassle approach. I’ve definitely considered doing something like that before, but we’re a little more fluid with our monthly spending. Some months we spend more that what our allotted amount from the paycheck would be, some months we spend less. As long as it’s balancing out over time, and we’re meeting all of our savings goals, I’m happy.

  • Done by Forty July 22, 2013

    That’s a common sense approach. To play devil’s advocate though, for those starting out the budget’s main purpose really might be to divert limited funds to needs first and wants later, and only if there are sufficient funds to do so.

    I think this would be an excellent “advanced” budgeting technique, for those who have a solid handle on their recurring costs and can address all their needs/wants. It provides a healthier & more fruitful approach, as long as the basics are already under control.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      Oh I definitely agree that it’s still important to distinguish between wants and needs. I don’t think this precludes that. You could be excited about a “need” such as retirement savings and start there, but I also think that starting from a benign “want”, such as the date night example, isn’t so bad either. No matter how you handle it, I completely agree that making sure the important things are handled should be a priority.

  • Ree Klein July 22, 2013

    Hi Matt,

    That’s an interesting approach. I suppose once you get down to the yucky stuff and enter the bills, if you come up short you can always go back and trim other categories. I do think that it’s important to put saving at the top of the list, though, because if you start young you don’t have to save much to make a huge impact in the long run.

    I know I’m singing to the choir here…

    Ree

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      I guess I was thinking about this from the standpoint that you had already thought about what was important to you, such as saving, and were ready to start doing your budget from that standpoint. But yes, your point about being able to go back and modify things as you go is definitely something I had in mind. Nothing is set in stone, but at least you’re starting with the things you’ve deemed to be important.

      • Ree Klein July 22, 2013

        I completely agree, Matt. I like that approach because I think more people would be willing to at least try budgeting if they can first secure some of the cash flow for things they hold dear or are trying to accomplish. I’m with you!

  • Emily @ evolvingPF July 22, 2013

    My husband was actually given the corollary of this advice for time management in a seminar on procrastination. When planning your week, make time for the fun things you really want to do before getting to your obligations. Then, if there are clashes, get creative in how to resolve them (instead of automatically giving up the fun).

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 22, 2013

      Very cool! I like that a lot. I think it’s a great way to make sure your time is balanced and not just focused on the things you “have” to do.

    • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma July 22, 2013

      My problem is that I will let the fun things completely over take my time.

  • E.M. July 22, 2013

    I like your line of thought on this, and also liked Jacob’s post. It kind of goes against the grain, which is always fun. I’ve always enjoyed crunching numbers and putting all expenses into a spreadsheet excited me, so I’m a little odd. This is a great technique for those that are already pretty money conscious in so far as they know they should possibly be saving more and trimming down in areas, but don’t want to bring themselves to look at the numbers. It’s a shift in focus toward something rewarding instead of punishing.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 23, 2013

      I agree that for this approach to really work to your benefit you already have to be at least somewhat aware of the things you SHOULD be doing. You don’t want to go overboard with the exciting stuff and completely leave out things like savings. But if you’ve got a level-headed approach, I think this can make it a more positive experience.

  • Funancials July 22, 2013

    Maybe I’m a complete n00b for never creating a budget. I think I’ve always considered budgets to be restrictive (as you stated) and that doesn’t have to be the case. I have also thought that my wife and I don’t need a budget because we have high incomes and low expenses, BUT the way you (or Jacob) position it makes it sound more necessary than I’ve always thought. Everyone can afford to reduce some waste.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 23, 2013

      Haha, NOOOB!!! Actually, I don’t really think everyone needs to create a detailed, itemized budget. If you’re living below your means, saving adequately for your goals, and have enough left over for the things you care about, then why spend the time to write everything out? At that point it’s probably a task you can do without. Maybe periodic check-ins would be worthwhile, but beyond that it sounds like you’re mostly already handling the things that a budget would help you accomplish.

  • Lindsey @ Cents & Sensibility July 22, 2013

    I love the idea of starting with your passion! By using what inspires you to build your budget, you’re able to link those numbers to something real and meaningful in your life. Your chances of success go way up doing things this way!

  • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma July 23, 2013

    I’m not a big fan of the word “passion” but even substituting it with a lesser emotion still has the same effect. That said, I would worry about turning it into a crutch for not reducing your expenses. If I started from a place of saying that I enjoy watching movies and budget for 2 new releases every month, then when I’m done with the budget, I can’t find any way to save more money. But if I start with the essentials first, then I can have a serious conversation over whether I need to see that many new movies.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 23, 2013

      I 100% agree that there needs to be balance, no matter what approach you choose. If you decide to blow it all on comic books and candy, then the point of budgeting is really lost. I don’t think that making a budget can stand in isolation from any other personal finance knowledge. But if you go into it with some knowledge, then hopefully at least some of the things you’re excited about are the things that will also be most beneficial.

  • Jacob @ iHeartBudgets July 23, 2013

    Thank you for this! Yes, yes yes, your budget will be HELL if you don’t start with something exciting. I’m always advocating to start with your priorities, and then set your goals. Without those exciting things in place, you’re just tracking your spending and feeling guilty for flushing the toilet one too many times. With goals in place, you’re cutting all the crap out of your budget to reach something bigger and more exciting than the extra money you were spending on mall food.

    Passion is the best way to say it. If you’re not passionate about anything, then you won’t be motivated to budget. Period.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 23, 2013

      Thanks for the inspiration Jacob! It’s so self-defeating to start from a place of guilt or obligation. Making it an activity based around working towards something you’re excited about really puts the activity in perspective and makes it a lot easier to be successful.

  • JW_UmbrellaTreasury July 25, 2013

    I think this post is spot on! Budgets can feel abstract and arbitrary if they don’t have a specific focus or passion. For us, we started by deciding how much we thought we should save every month since our most important goal right now is saving for a down payment. We worked backward after we decided how much we wanted to save, making sure we still had enough to cover our monthly expenses as well as other important priorities. At the end of the day, our budget amounts are arbitrary — they’re just numbers. The stuff that really matters to us — and the part that is motivating — is how certain financial decisions can help us reach our larger life goals. If we weren’t passionate about the end goal (buy a house!), we’d feel much less motivated to stick to our budget.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 26, 2013

      “If we weren’t passionate about the end goal (buy a house!), we’d feel much less motivated to stick to our budget.” Perfect example of what I’m talking about! Glad you guys have found something motivating.

  • Mo' Money Mo' Houses July 28, 2013

    Agreed, if there’s not passion or motivation, there’s more chances of not following through or failing. How I’ve managed to stick to my budget for so long is by having a clear idea of the endgame (being buying my own place). It’s what gets me through those tough days.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney July 29, 2013

      Buying a house is one of our big goals these days too. Having a clear goal like that makes it a whole lot easier.

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