The Psychology of Sticking to a Budget, Part I

In the course of writing this blog, and teaching KOAB couponing classes, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to you about my struggles with finances.

Not only does talking about it help to keep me on the straight and narrow, it’s also taught me that I’m not alone. I may have been a money idiot, but apparently, I’ve got good company!

Indeed, it seems I’m not the only one who has struggled to live within her means.

This is such a basic concept and yet – three years ago – I really didn’t believe that I could ever truly live within my means. I thought it took some skill, some ability, some brain organizational function that I lacked.

I’ve told you how I would make a budget in Excel – and then promptly close the document and disregard the numbers.

I fundamentally failed to understand that the numbers on that chart actually had to serve as the referees of our spending. If we needed bread — or new shoes for the kids, I simply bought them.

It didn’t matter how much I’d already spent that month, or how much was left in our bank account.

I just swiped the credit card.

Most of the time, I didn’t even bother to check the receipt afterward.

I was completely and totally out of touch with (a) how much we were spending and (b) how much we were OVERspending.

Now mind you, we weren’t doing extravagant things. We weren’t vacationing in exotic places. We weren’t buying a new car every there years. We weren’t upgrading our cellphones every 6 months.

We were just living. Groceries, clothes, a few extracurricular activities for the kids. Oh, and two cell phones, a home phone, cable, utilities, gas in a country where it costs $10/gallon… Just regular life stuff.

I looked around and didn’t see a single expenditure that seemed indulgent. My home was filled with, what I perceived, as standard, middle of the road purchases, about which I blithely thought to myself, “Surely two decent wage-earners should be able to afford this stuff, right?”

Yet, when we finally got serious about facing our debt problem, I learned a rather sickening reality: Our very regular, non-indulgent life was costing us about $1000 a month more than we were taking home.

And that didn’t account for payments on credit card debt and a personal loan to my parents.

The sobering truth was that we were living way beyond our means.

Horrifying is that is to admit to you, it was even more gut-wrenching to admit to ourselves. 

Still, emotional al chets aside, fessing up to our foolishness didn’t teach me now to fix it. Sure, Dave Ramsey gave us the baby steps – which, as you all know, have been truly life-changing for our family, B”H.

But before we could start working those baby steps, I had to figure out something even more basic than paying off debt and saving money.

I had to figure out how to live within our means.

I had to figure out how not just to make a budget. But to stick to it.

I’m not talking about the math here. I’m talking about the ME. The dysfunction that kept a perfectly intelligent, college-educated person from believing that yes, indeed, I could responsibly manage my money.

Eventually, I did figure it out. Turns out I do have the skill, the ability, the brain organizational function to live within our means and spend (less than) what we make.

Over the next several weeks, I am going to share with you some of the insights that I have gained along the way about the psychology of budgeting. Now I am not a psychologist, so don’t expect Freudian essays.

Rather, look for some posts that share my simple truths – learned the very, very hard way – about how one lives within his means.

These may not be truths for all of you. You fiscally responsible adults who have never so much as swiped a credit card will probably not enjoy this series very much ;-).

But I am hoping that some of you will recognize parts of yourself in my posts. And maybe even pick up a tip or two along the way that may help you learn to master the “ME” of your budget.


  1. Great post, Mara! We all have budget and spending weaknesses…I do battle with them every time I go shopping. The nagging little voices that say “it’s just thirty dollars, big deal” or “you so deserve this” or “but we need this and can’t wait.” If you’re not prepared to confront these little “budget demons,” you’ll eventually lose to them.

  2. Changing yourself is the hardest part, as always…

  3. thanks Mara, I’m looking forward to reading more!
    (and learning more!)

  4. What an inspiring post. Looking forward to this series.

  5. This sounds very helpful – looking forward to reading!

  6. Really looking forward to the rest of the posts in this “series” great introduction post:) Thanks

Leave a Comment