(Money Magazine) -- It's all well and good to set goals, make a budget and keep track of your spending. But when life gets stressful, I often make unnecessary and unplanned splurges without giving much thought to them.
What are some tips or strategies for avoiding or minimizing such splurges and for strictly sticking to a budget? --Emily S., Champaign, Illinois
There's no way you're going to be able to stick to a budget unfailingly. The real world has too many twists and turns and, besides, we humans don't live our lives as predictably as spreadsheets.
And even if you were able to somehow muster the willpower never to deviate from your budget, really, what kind of life would that be? A pretty grim one I suspect.
So I think minimizing splurges and getting the biggest bang for your buck with the ones you do take is the right way to go here, rather than trying to avoid indulgences altogether.
How can you do that? I've got a few suggestions you can consider.
1. Save automatically. I'm not a big fan of budgeting per se. That may sound strange coming from a personal finance columnist.
But unless you get your jollies out of the process of devoting specific percentages of your income to specific expense categories, the point of budgeting is to assure that you save.
So my feeling is you might as well just cut to the chase and simply devote a percentage of your income to savings. You can do that by signing up for your 401(k) and having, say, 10% of your pay automatically go into your account.
Or you can sign up for an automatic savings plan and have, say, $500 a month transferred from your checking account to a mutual fund each month. For that matter, you can do both -- and increase the amounts as your pay rises.
By putting saving first, you increase the odds that you actually will save. And you install a certain discipline in that you now have to live on what's left over after savings.
That fact alone should limit your splurges, plus, if you do indulge, the spending will have to come at the expense of something other than your savings (assuming you don't do an end run by running up debt).
2. Ditch the cards. Speaking of debt, credit cards are probably one of the biggest enablers when it comes to unplanned and unnecessary spending. You see something you want and it's so easy just to whip out the card and worry about the bill later.
If that sort of convenience makes it too easy for you to stray from your budget, you don't have to go to the extreme of ridding yourself of plastic altogether (although some people do).
Rather, just leave your cards at home except when you know you'll really need them, such as when you're traveling or making a large purchase you've planned for ahead of time.
There's also a side benefit to cutting back on credit-card use. Research shows that people are willing to shell out more for the same product or service when paying with a credit card than when using cash.
3. Avoid big purchases. Another way to prevent "off budget" spending from wreaking havoc with your finances is to keep splurges small.
At first glance, that may seem to take the fun out of indulging yourself. But that's not necessarily the case. A recent paper from researchers at the University of British Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia shows that the pleasure you get from big splurges fades just the same as it does for small ones.
So you may be able to enjoy yourself more by partaking in many small splurges than fewer large ones.
4. Get a sounding board. A tactic that comes from my MONEY colleague Paul Lim is also worth a look. In panel discussions that he and I have participated in on retirement planning and budgeting issues, Paul has noted that when it comes to spending in his family, he's usually more the instigator than his wife.
Before springing for anything major, however, he makes a point of running it by his better half. That way she can, as he puts it, "guilt" him out of doing it or, perhaps more likely, get him to consider scaling back his ambitions a bit, settling, say, for a 40-inch flat screen instead of one of those monster 100-plus-inch jobs.
The point is that consulting with someone -- a spouse, significant other, trusted friend -- can be a good way to get some outside feedback on your spending habits.
You want to be careful, though, that you don't choose a bigger spendthrift than yourself as a sounding board. Nor do you want to put someone else in the position of always having to play Dr. No. That can be corrosive to a relationship.
5. Budget for splurges. That's right, since you know they're going to occur, make them a line item.
It could be a dollar amount you expect to spend each month or quarter or every year. Or you could devote a percentage of salary (likely very, very small) to indulgent spending. This way, such spending won't derail your finances, and you won't have to feel so guilty about doing it. After all, it's in the budget!
Ultimately, the real test of whether you've got your finances under control is whether you're saving enough on a regular basis to provide financial security for yourself and your family and to stay on track toward long-term goals like retirement. If you're doing that, I wouldn't worry too much about the occasional splurge. You deserve it.
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