A budget tells us what we can’t afford, but it doesn’t keep us from buying it.
— William Feather
A budget is akin to taking cough medicine. As Buckley’s marketing team so eloquently penned, “It tastes awful — and it works.”
There’s an unspoken consensus that budgeting is helpful. But the mere fact that it’s probably the least-sexy ‘tool’ makes it unappealing.
Up until I decided to address my student loans, I felt like this. I heard a lot about this ‘budget’ schick, but I had no desire to start one, and even less motivation to learn how to make one. I’d rather have sat in a ten-hour lecture on Real Estate Law than take 10 minutes to look at my last month’s credit card statement. And you know why? It wasn’t because I thought it was too complex or too time-consuming. It was because I didn’t want to be honest with myself.
Because looking at all your past transactions is like staring into a mirror. What the hell are you spending money on? When’s the last time I wore that $100 shirt? Did I really spend $40 on that shitty meal?
If any of this resonates with you, I’m going to assume that like me, circa 2015, these three truths apply to you.
You Don’t Want to Confront Your Vices
This is the most important - and deadly - truth. We don’t want to confront what we buy when we’re bored. Or when we’re sad. Or when we’re angry. Or when some stranger driving by you shouted a degrading comment from his car. We all know this to be true - we have ‘go-to’ purchases for every emotion that we’ve ever felt in the history of our lives.
A budget forces us to not only flippantly review these spending decisions, but also actively write down every single one.
And the cold truth is this: We’re afraid to embarrass ourselves. We don’t want to confront our weaknesses. We don’t want to acknowledge that sometimes we make impulsive choices that don’t really add long-term value to our lives. And that, by far, is the biggest obstacle.
You Don’t Want to Confront Your Savings
By its very nature, budgeting forces us to scrutinize our outflow of money. In other words, we are being forced to consider the ratio between the money we’re spending and the money that still sits in our bank account.
When we track each purchase we’ve made, every day, and review all of them once or twice each month, most of us realize that we are probably not saving as much as we should be. According to this article, 65.2% of Canadian households are saving for retirement. That’s great, sort of, but what the article doesn’t say is how much they're saving in proportion to their income. 2%? 5%? 10%? Because sure, you can say your saving for retirement. But if you’re only throwing $20 each month towards your long-term savings, you’re still going to be fucked.
In the U.S, things seem equally bleak. According to this survey, 57% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings account. I know that there’s lots of factors that need to be taken into account - low minimum wage, polarization of income distribution, etc. - but regardless, it’s an anxiety-producing statistic.
Now, I’m not here to harp on anyone’s spending choices. Nor am I ignoring the reality of the dumpster fire that is our current labour economy. Sometimes we just simply don’t make enough to save.
I am, however, suggesting that a desire to refrain from budgeting might in part be a manifestation of not wanting to confront the truth about our savings habits. Especially if we spend our money frivolously.
You Don’t Want to Confront Your Debt
This was the biggest truth for me. Out of all the intimidating stuff that’s ever presented itself to me, owing $50,000+ to two different institutions ranked at the top of the list. I had so much anxiety around that figure that I had to seek professional help. I didn’t want to admit that I was lost and, most importantly, needed help drawing up a strategy on how to face it head-on. I also knew that if I made a budget I would be forced to sacrifice some of my indulgences.
Joining the ‘real world’ is a weird thing. You finish school. You think the worst is over and you can’t wait to get your big boy/girl job. You start to make more money than you’ve ever made before. And then you totally succumb to lifestyle inflation and arguably get yourself into a bigger financial hole than you did when in university. The first time we touch money, we’re like some kid in a candy store who doesn’t know that cavities are a real thing. Until we get a toothache. Which, for adults, can be your student loan statement. Or in some cases - a budget.
A budget forces us to look at what we’re forced to spend money on. Rent, food, clothes, and - oh yeah - our debt. Like the other two truths, it’s something we don’t want to acknowledge.
Conquer Your Ego
We’re all adults here. We know what is good for us, so why do we have such a hard time with its execution? It comes down to pain avoidance. We don’t want that mental ‘ouch’ when we see our weaknesses. We don’t want to see that we mess up. We’re perfect and justified in everything that we do. A budget forces us to be responsible to ourselves. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.
But at the end of the day, I know it and you know it. What’s good for us isn’t a matter of whether we like it, so much as whether we need it. I hope, for the sake of your financial health, you get the courage to face these truths.