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You learn a lot of financial lessons as you grow up. Some come the hard way, like losing money to a scammer, while others are more exciting, like using your first credit card.
But 53% of Americans say learning how to budget and track expenses is the most valuable money lesson they’ve learned, according to a recent survey of over 1,000 Americans from financial services company Empower. Having an emergency fund and avoiding excessive debt followed closely, each with 50% or more of respondents naming them as valuable lessons.
Tracking your income and expenses is foundational for many aspects of wealth building, from paying off debt to saving for retirement. The good news is, Americans are learning this lesson early — by age 22, on average, Empower found.
But knowing you need a budget and sticking to one are two different things. Around 84% of people who say they have a monthly budget also report exceeding it, a recent NerdWallet survey found.
Here’s why it’s so difficult to track your spending, and tips for making and sticking to your own money plan.
If you want to start budgeting and tracking your cash flow, there are numerous tools available to help, including apps, downloadable worksheets and financial professionals. (Check out this list of the best budgeting apps from CNBC Select.)
But at their core, these actions are habits. And like eating healthy or working out, it takes time and effort to start, and consistency to make it habitual.
“Even with tools like a budget tracker or net worth calculator, all good habits require dedication and time,” Courtney Burrell, a financial advisor with Empower, tells CNBC Make It.
“Just like with starting any new practice, there must be a good ‘why’ or purpose behind it to help you stay motivated and accountable,” she says. “Without one, it’s easy to give up.”
If you want to start budgeting, “the most important thing is to understand your financial goals first,” Burrell adds.
Additionally, it may be difficult to start good money habits if you have subconscious negative beliefs or feelings around money that you haven’t addressed.
“Oftentimes our relationship with our finances is rooted in something deeper than we realize,” Aja Evans, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in financial therapy at Laurel Road, tells CNBC Make It. “Avoiding your money or having trouble starting the process of tracking your expenses can feel like you are protecting yourself from a daunting task.”
Taking a critical look at your cash flow can feel intimidating, but it’s critical for achieving your financial goals.
While budgeting is important, it doesn’t have to look a certain way.
“People are often fixated on a one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting, making them hesitant to begin if they don’t meet certain parameters,” Evans says. “It’s important to break this barrier and come to terms with your unique situation without comparing it to other peoples’.”
You don’t have to track every single dollar you spend, Evans previously told CNBC Make It. But having a plan and a general understanding of how much money you have and what you want to do with it helps tremendously.
Here are three tips to get started.
1. Adjust your mindset
Many people think of budgeting as restricting, which is part of what makes it so unappealing. But viewing it as a way to reach your goals can help you stay motivated.
“It’s often easier to plan and stick to a budget every month when you reframe the choice as investing in a better financial future, rather than a sacrifice,” Burrell says.
Don’t think of it as “skipping drinks with friends to save money.” Consider it an investment in the house you’re going to buy or a meal you’ll have on the vacation you’re saving up for. It goes back to the premise of finding your “why.”
“Doing the foundational work of understanding what you’re saving for will help make budgeting feel more productive and intuitive,” Burrell says.
2. Take control
Thinking about tracking your expenses might make you feel anxious and overwhelmed. But actually creating a budget or other financial plan is one way to take some power back. While there will always be expenses that are mostly outside of your control, like your rent or insurance premiums, you can control how well you’re prepared to deal with them.
“Having a [financial] plan in place can help balance those months you feel like splurging on a vacation or the days you don’t feel like cooking and want to indulge in DoorDash,” Burrell says. “You’ll be able to handle the little things when you have the big things mapped out.”
As you track your spending, figure out how much of it should go to set costs and how much is left for discretionary purchases. Once you know how much you need to spend on necessities, the rest is up to you.
3. Leave room for error, and celebrate the small wins
The moments when an expensive emergency comes up or you lose income and have to skip a contribution or two to your savings goal have the potential to completely derail your motivation.
But part of making your financial plan is knowing setbacks will happen, and planning ahead. Your budget can offer you a sense of stability that helps you get back on track after a slip-up, Evans says.
On the flip side, make sure you congratulate yourself when you make progress toward a goal. Even small wins, like putting an extra $20 in your emergency fund or cutting an under-used streaming subscription, can help encourage you to keep going.
“Celebrate any financial wins, no matter how big or small,” she says. “Remembering every step counts will help instill a sense of achievement and confidence.”
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