For most of us, money is, at best, something we’d rather not think about, and, at worst, an anxiety-inducing nightmare. But whether or not we like it, we make financial decisions every single day, and there’s no way of escaping from the impact that money has on our lives.
It took getting married to force me to learn how to use money wisely and thoughtfully. Learning to share my finances and be accountable to someone else about how I spend and save made me examine my own habits and take ownership for my actions in a way I’d never done before.
I wish I hadn’t waited until I was married to clean up my money habits and learn how to budget properly, though. Using money with intention may sound boring, but making wiser financial choices can help us live more joyful lives. It also empowers us to use our money in an ethical way that can have a positive impact on the world around us.
Living on a tight budget doesn’t always have to be a horrible experience — it can be an opportunity to hone organizational skills, self-awareness, and self-discipline. Here are a few hacks that have helped me navigate life with less over the years.
- Take the money personality test
- Use a spreadsheet to help you plan
- Include a little fun and luxury in your budget
- Keep wishlists all year round to avoid impulse buying
- Remind yourself of the benefits of careful budgeting
You might have heard of Dr. Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, and you’re bound to know about the Myers-Briggs personality types, but did you know that we all have different “money personalities,” too? Scott and Bethany Palmer, founders of The Money Couple, explain: “Your approach to money is different from the person you are sitting next to, living with, or raising… it helps to identify, define, and give your two, unique money approaches a name.”
If you can identify your unique areas of struggle and better understand how you’re wired to think about money, you’ll become more self-aware and it will be easier to break bad habits and replace them with new, healthier ones. The Money Couple’s free quiz can help you find out what your money personality is and what that means.
We all have regular income and expenses, and keeping track of what you’re spending your money on versus what you’re earning is the first step to creating a healthy relationship with money that many people skip. Create a weekly meal plan so you know which groceries you need to buy (and, therefore, which you don’t), and find a way that works for you to plan your spending for the rest of the month.
I have friends who swear by fancy finance apps like Mint, but I personally think there’s nothing quite like a good, straightforward spreadsheet for planning and tracking your spending. I’ve been nerding out over different templates for the past few years, and update mine every few months to work better for my changing circumstances. Here’s a simple budgeting template that I created as a Google spreadsheet — you can download and adapt for your own use by clicking the image below.
I’m a freelancer and my husband has a salary, so we’ve found that it works best to divide each month into two, with our basic ongoing expenses being covered by my husband’s steady, predictable salary, and our other more “squishy” and flexible expenses met by my fluctuating income. You can edit the expenses column to reflect your own personal monthly “must-haves” and “would-like-to-haves” — what I’ve included in the template is just a very rough guide.
(Another quick note on the spreadsheet: I’ve included formulas in some of the cells that automatically do some simple sums to tell you totals and other information, so make sure when you copy and paste things, you check the formula has carried across correctly. If you’re not familiar with how formulas work in Excel, this tutorial can help.)
However you decide to keep track of your finances and plan for the month ahead, make sure you take some time once a week to quickly check in with your spending and make sure you’re on track for the month. I save my receipts in my wallet throughout the week and keep a note of anything I buy that I don’t get a receipt for in the notes app on my phone, and then enter all those expenses into my spreadsheet once a week.
You’ll also need to schedule in some longer planning time once a month to set things up for the month ahead, and to think about your big-picture financial goals (for example, you could get ahead in saving for retirement). If you find you’re regularly overspending in one particular area of your budget, you can tweak your budget to allow a larger amount for that category, and less where you find you aren’t spending as much as you expected.
Having a plan in place may not solve all of your financial worries, but it will help. After all, it’s better to know what you’re dealing with than to stick your head in the sand and hope all your problems will go away. (I say all of this as a “Flyer” and a “Spender” — a blend of the two money personalities who worry the least about money, as a general rule).
This advice might sound counterintuitive when you’re trying to save money, but hear me out. When I first got married, my husband and I were on such a tight budget that we didn’t allow for any “extras” in our budget, like going out for drinks with friends or buying each other gifts. We told ourselves we shouldn’t be spending money on anything beyond rent and bills and basics like food, but we didn’t account for the reality of our spending habits. It’s unrealistic to think you won’t ever buy anything other than the bare necessities, so you may as well account for it in your plans.
We found that it’s better to allot yourself a very small allowance for things like going out, gift-giving, travel, and even general spontaneous spending, than to pretend you’re not going to use that money. Find out what it is that you consistently spend on, even if you’re trying to be as restrained as possible.
Gift-giving is one of my primary love languages, so I find it very hard to resist getting the occasional bunch of flowers or notecard for a friend, whereas my husband’s primary love language is quality time, so he struggles if he’s not able to spend on drinks and socializing. It’s easier to be frugal if you have allowed yourself a little room for fun and luxury than it is if you’ve been too extreme and tried to impose unrealistic expectations on yourself.
One of the things I actually really love about being on a tight budget is that it’s teaching me to be more intentional in my shopping choices and to tame my spending habits. When you don’t have much money in the bank, you have no choice but to stop impulse buying and really think deeply about every optional extra purchase.
Often, especially when it comes to clothing and gifts, if we buy the first thing we come across in a hurry, it won’t be the best choice for us. Either it’s not exactly what we wanted and so we end up throwing it away or not using it much, or it’s cheap and poorly made and falling apart after a few uses.
When I’m out and about, I find it really helpful to note things I see that I think I might want to buy, and then do some research at home later when I have some time, pinning different options that I like to wishlists on Pinterest. I can then think about it, and take my time saving up for pricier items over a few months if I can’t afford it right away. This is also a great way to go about intentional gift-giving, instead of relying on hastily bought presents.
Keeping wishlists helps take the urgency out of our purchasing decisions. I find it really interesting to look back a month or so after saving an idea, and asking myself if I still want or need that item.
Living on a tight budget doesn’t have to be a huge burden. Believe me, I’ve experienced plenty of anxiety about making ends meet, and I don’t want to suggest that it’s not incredibly stressful when you’re not sure how you’re going to pay rent or put food on the table.
That being said, there are some noteworthy benefits to being careful with your money: you help the planet as well as your wallet when you’re forced to ask yourself if you really need an item, or if you can repair or sell something that’s broken or that you don’t want anymore. Turning down the heat and putting on another sweater, meal planning so that you don’t waste food, and walking to save on gas for your car are all examples of how conscious consumerism can have a positive impact on the world.
Likewise, living on a budget can actually build integrity when you do your research to make sure you’re buying something that was produced ethically and that will last a long time. It just takes a little more time and effort to slow down your shopping habits — to shop for classic clothes that won’t go out of style too quickly, or to search vintage and thrifted, second-hand items.
Ultimately, you won’t stick to your good intentions if you’re not intentional or don’t feel good about them, so focusing on the positive and making a plan that works for you and your lifestyle is vital.