How to Stick to a Budget

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Budgeting is like dieting. Maybe you’ll be one of those fortunate eaters who can make the pounds melt away just by cutting back a little on soda pop and sugary cereals, but most of us aren’t that lucky. We need to work a lot harder to lose weight.

Same thing goes for budgeting. Maybe you can calculate your weekly spending as you go along and bills get paid and insurance is taken care of and car payment is never past due … and, well, everything looks swell at the end of the month.

That would be considered luck, and you can’t rely on luck to get you where you want your budget – or your diet — to take you. It’s going to take some work. Not hard work mind you, but more effort than just freewheeling it every week and hoping it all adds up well at the end of the month.

So, how to make a budget and stick to it? You stay disciplined. You stay committed. You stay pro-active. You don’t let a lucky feeling make you complacent. That’s how to stick to a budget.

Read on. We’ll give you some specific tips to stay on track and turn that budget you just created into the happy ending you’re after.

Start by Setting a Realistic Budget

Think about what you want your new budget to do for you. Do you want enough financial breathing room to buy a new car? Take the family on a nice vacation? Send the kids to college? Get yourself out of debt? Those are all good goals, and they can be achieved with an affordable budget.

One of the reasons budgets fail – one of the reasons people don’t stick to them – is that they’re designed with impractical goals in mind. There’s not a lot of budgets that can accommodate goals like going on a year-long cruise around the world or building a six-bedroom villa in the Maldives or buying the Dallas Cowboys football team. Sure, a budget could help with those things, but you’d need an awful lot of luck to go along with boatloads of saving money to make that kind of budget successful.

And remember: You’re trying to keep luck out of this equation.

So, how to make a budget that’s realistic enough to succeed? Keep your goals specific and measurable so your budget doesn’t become a pie-in-the-sky impossibility. Remember, you don’t have to do it all at once. Starting the budgeting process with achievable baby steps is the best way to keep you on track.

Let’s look at a handful of the fundamentals to get you going.

Gather Financial Statements

You need to understand your existing finances if you’re going to create a doable budget. That means collecting as many statements or other documents as you can about your bank accounts, your debts, your loans, your salary, and your other revenue sources.

It won’t be fun but try to gather several months’ worth of paycheck stubs, credit card statements, benefits paperwork, investment accounts, shopping receipts, and anything else that pertains to your income and expenses. The more you know about your money, the more you improve your personal financial literacy and the better your budget will be.

Know Monthly Income and Expenses

Once you have the documents in front of you, you can use them to make a record of how much you make and how much you spend (and what you spend it on) over the course of a month. If you can, total up all your sources of income in each of the last few months, and then add up all your monthly bills and other expenses in those same months. While you’re organizing how much you’ve been spending, you can begin to think about which of those expenses are essential and which ones you might be able to reduce (eating out?), or even live without, (cable TV?) in the future.

Calculate Your Budget

Now you’re ready to create a monthly budget, which will track your finances going forward. To meet your goals, you want your income to be greater than your expenses, so you’ll likely face some difficult decisions about reducing spending. The process might sound imposing, but there are various digital tools such as online spreadsheets and budget calculators you can use to smooth the way. Don’t despair!

» Learn More: Budgeting Tips for Families

8 Tips to Stick to a Budget

We’ve already told you that one reason some budgets don’t work is that they’re built around unrealistic goals. Here’s another: Sometimes, they tell you things you don’t want to hear, like exactly how much money you’ve been spending.

A survey by Intuit, a financial technology platform, found that 65% of Americans didn’t know how much they spent in the previous month. If you’re among that group, a budget might be an uncomfortable wake-up call. It’s asking you to suddenly be accountable, and that can test your willpower and commitment.

No sense sugarcoating it. Budgeting won’t always be easy. Are you up to it?

Sure you are, especially if you pay heed to the suggestions in these next sections to help you persevere with your budget.

1. Keep Your Saving Goals in Mind

Remember why you created your budget in the first place. Remind yourself about the pleasure those new wheels, the fabulous trip, that college sheepskin will bring you, or about the comfort of the emergency fund your budget is going to help grow for you. Think about your expanding family’s future and how nice it will be to not worry about saving for baby anymore. Or revel in the feeling you’ll have when you’ve paid off your credit card debt and the collection agencies have stopped calling. That should keep you motivated to stick with it.

2. Set Up Auto Draft Payments

Keep your mitts off your money! Well, not entirely, obviously. But one way to avoid over-spending is to put automatic payments in place that eliminate the middleman (you!) and go straight from your paycheck to your creditors. That way, you don’t have to remember to write the check to pay the bill. And when you never touch that money, you can’t be tempted to use it for something else. You can also have a portion of your paycheck deposited directly into a savings account, which relieves you of the responsibility of making sure that part of your nest egg isn’t neglected.

3. Take a Step Back Before Buying Impulse or Large Purchases

Tell yourself this: Maybe tomorrow, but definitely not today. Take the time to re-think the ‘must-have’ item that suddenly crosses your field of vision at the mall or on the web, even if you’re consumed with jealousy because your best friend has already splurged on it. Resist the urge. If after a day or two (or a week or a month) of sober reflection its allure is just as powerful, you’ve at least given yourself the chance to say no. And one more thing: If you still must have it, don’t use a credit card to buy it. Don’t add to your debt. Pay cash.

4. Watch Out for the Small Stuff

They’re part of your everyday life, like you’re on autopilot. A latte at the coffee bar. The monthly streaming service. Weekly lunch out with your peeps. The premium-priced pre-chopped veggies at the grocery store. An after-work, traffic-beater beer. Taken individually, none of them will break your bank or your budget. But when you track them collectively on your budget every month, you’ll see how quickly they add up. They are corners that can be cut.

5. Use a Budgeting App

Why not make it easier on yourself? A budgeting app will do some of the dirty-detail work for you. It’ll give you access to all your accounts in one place. It’ll track and categorize your spending. It’ll alert you about payment due dates or overdrafts. It might even whistle Dixie for you. (Well, probably not. That’s a different kind of app.) There are numerous budgeting apps available out there. Find one you like. It’ll help keep you on the financial straight and narrow.

6. Have an Accountability Buddy

You don’t have to do this alone. Get a teammate and stick to a budget as a couple! You can designate somebody you trust such as a spouse or a friend to be your conscience through the tough choices a budget will ask you to make. Check in with him or her at least once a month, and more often than that when you’re unsure about a spending decision. It’s an especially good idea if you’re both budgeting and you can hold each other accountable.

7. Make a Weekly or Monthly Grocery Budget

Here are some quick stats about the importance of budgeting specifically for groceries — 84% of Americans who have a monthly budget say they’ve gone over it at some point, and 47% say groceries are among the categories in which they regularly overspend. Why? Probably because it’s so easy to buy more than you really need at a grocery store. Paying particular attention to your food budget by planning meals in advance, sticking to your grocery list, and using coupons will help. Most grocery stores have their own apps that make finding deals easy.

8. Don’t Forget to Treat Yourself Every Once in a While

Sticking to a budget doesn’t have to be all austerity, all the time. When you get to the end of a month and you’ve met your budgeting goal, it’s healthy to allow yourself a little celebration. In fact, you might want to build a small reward for yourself – a night out, a bottle of champagne, a small purchase — into your budget and use it as motivation. To be sure, it makes sense to put a price limit (maybe $50, tops?) on your treat; it is part of your budget, after all. With the right planning, you might also be able to include regular outings such as a weekly coffee meeting in your monthly expenses.

Discuss Your Budget with a Credit Counselor

Apps, spreadsheets, online budget-creation tools … there are plenty of resources available for how to make a budget and stick to it. But there is no substitute for human guidance, especially when the size of the debt you’re trying to address is significant and the budgeting process can seem so imposing. A free-of-charge conversation with a real, live credit counselor from a nonprofit agency such as InCharge Debt Solutions can provide the advice and focus you won’t find elsewhere.

Credit counseling is an excellent starting point for finding the right debt-relief solution. A certified credit counselor from a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge will help you create an affordable monthly budget tailored to your unique circumstances. The counselor will discuss your financial situation with you, examine your income and expenses, review your credit report and work with you on a personalized plan to solve your money problems. Anyone experiencing problems with debt would benefit from a free counseling session.

Why leave the solution to your budgeting problems solely to technology, or the guesswork of luck? Ask for help!

About The Author

Michael Knisley

Michael Knisley writes about managing your personal finances for InCharge Debt Solutions. He was an assistant professor on the faculty at the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and has more than 40 years of experience editing and writing about business, sports and the spectrum of issues affecting consumers and fans. During his career, Michael has won awards from the New York Press Club, the Online News Association, the Military Reporters and Editors Association, the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Sports Emmys.


  1. Mint (2020, December 11) Survey: 65% of Americans Have No Idea How Much They Spent Last Month. Retrieved from
  2. Porter, TJ (2021, September 14) 5 Reasons to Use a Budgeting App to Manage Your Finances. Retrieved from
  3. Marder, A. (2023, May 30) Most Americans Have a Monthly Budget, but Many Still Overspend. Retrieved from