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9 Tiny Habits to Help You Stick to a Budget

Have you ever wondered how to stick to a budget? It starts out so well, such a clean, fresh, organized budget. But then something comes out of left field. There goes the budget.

But the thing is—you have financial goals! And sticking to a budget seems like a reasonable way to get to those goals faster. Well, either that or winning the lottery. But although it’s very true budgeting will help you reach your goals faster, it’s also a long game. 

Do dramatic, extreme measures work for a while? They can. But if you want your money to really work for you, it’s more than an extreme measure here and there. You have to change the way you think about money, make some changes to your spending habits, and apply it with consistency. You have to not just create a budget, but you have to make it stick.

There’s some good news though. Instead of relying on sheer grit and will power, I always like to suggest creating some tiny habits that build the budget into your life in a way that’s realistic, sustainable, and a little less painful.

If you’ve read the best-selling book Atomic Habits, you’re familiar with this concept of focusing on small daily changes rather than focusing on one big goal. The research behind it is fascinating. It goes like this: to make real, lasting changes, we have to build tiny habits, on top of behaviors that are already part of our lives. One tiny change at a time. 

If you want to read more, you might say, when I climb into bed, I will read one page in a book. Just that. Focus on that first little change becoming a habit. 

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
-James Clear, Atomic Habits

If you’re trying to stick to a budget, maybe it looks like this: 

  • After I get the receipt from the cashier, I will pull my phone out.

So then you are holding the receipt—and your phone—and you’ll record that transaction and build that habit.

Or maybe you want to build the habit of a Saturday morning budget review. So you say:

  • After I get my coffee, I will sit down at the computer and check the budget.

You aren’t committing to spending an hour reviewing the budget. You're just saying I will sit at the computer, with the assumption that it will trigger a good behavior.

You only have to do it a few times before that tiny, little trigger, becomes a reliable trigger that happens every time. And you will be shocked at how a tiny little thing that you do differently can kick start positive habits, and ultimately, change.

So, let’s take a deeper look at some of those tiny habits that can help you stick to your monthly budget and stay on track with your savings goals. 

9 Tiny Habits to Help You Stick to a Budget

  1. Check your budget when you eat breakfast. The easiest way to keep the budget top of mind is to make it easy to see, access, and use. If you’re a budget planner type with envelopes and bullet journals and you’ve got your system that works, more power to you. Here at YNAB, we made a budget that’s as logical as paper envelopes but we’ve put it all in digital form so you can have it at a glance whenever your phone is around. Which might be, always. Maybe your “breakfast” is more “dinner,” or maybe you check the budget on your evening bus commute. Whatever the habit pairing, make it daily and make it convenient!
  1. Enter money when it hits your bank account. That means every payday, every birthday check, whenever you receive money that’s the moment it should be entered in your budget. 
  1. Give every dollar a job. You’re the boss. You decide where your money goes and allocate all of it to your spending, to pay off debt, and to saving money. Your budget isn’t just a static list of expenses, it’s a system and process that is dynamic and changing!

If you’re scratching your head at this point, “giving every dollar a job” means embracing the habit of zero-based budgeting. It will give you clarity like never before and takes just minutes a month.

  1. Check the budget, not your bank account. Even just a quick glance before you go to the grocery store will do the trick, but this tiny habit might require a bit of mental rewiring. An easy solution is to make your most-used categories like groceries, dining out, or gas top of mind with widgets on your home screen. This keeps your budget—or more importantly, your priorities—top of mind.
  2. Enter day-to-day spending as it happens. It’s best to get in the habit of entering frequent spending like groceries, gas, and dining out right when they happen. If you use YNAB, the Direct Import feature comes in handy to automatically catch any transactions you missed without duplicates. This helps your budget be the best accountability partner and also gives you the most accurate look into your financial situation at all times.
  3. Reconcile frequently. This means matching your budget balance with your checking accounts, savings accounts, and credit cards. If your account balances aren’t right, there’s no chance your budget is right. If you’re just getting started, we recommend reconciling daily.
  4. Cover overspending as it happens. Overspend on your grocery category this month? It happens to the best of us. As soon as that category dips in the negative, “rob peter to pay paul” — find another category that has money in it and move some dollars to your grocery category to cover this overspending.
  5. Change your mind? Change your budget. Budgeting is the process of prioritizing and reprioritizing. You don’t just create a plan and then set it and forget it. For long term success, you should feel empowered to make changes to your budget whenever you need (or want) to.
  6. Pay yourself first. Want to build wealth and have bulletproof personal finances? Pay yourself first instead of last. The easiest way to set up this habit is to remove it from your willpower entirely. I have an automatic monthly transfer that gets pulled from my checking to a savings account with better interest rates. I set it up once and now I save a chunk of money every month without even thinking about it. 

Maybe your habits look slightly different from my list, but one thing I know for sure: if you focus on those small, bite-sized healthy money habits today, you’ll completely transform your tomorrow.

Think about what kind of habits you want to build around your new financial life. You might only have a little bit of resolve right now, and that’s OK—that is all you need to find some automatic triggers to attach to new tiny habits, to lead you toward positive change.

Start a budget that can stick today! Sign up for a free 34 day trial of YNAB, no credit card required.

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9 Tiny Habits to Help You Stick to a Budget