The Single Biggest Reason Family Budgets Fail
Has your family ever tried a budget unsuccessfully? Perhaps you heard from a friend about an app and tried it out for a while. After a few months, the fancy app fell to the wayside and budgeting with it. Keeping a budget with pocket-sized notebook often ends in the same way. Why?
"No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV
When Americans are surveyed about budgeting, there’s two common findings that always pop up. When asked if they believe households should keep a budget, survey respondents overwhelmingly agree that you should keep a budget. On the other side, when asked if they themselves keep a budget, the same survey respondents answer that they do not, often acknowledging an attempt and later abandoning their budget. There’s a reason why budgets fail.
Do you know someone who successfully lost weight and kept the weight off? They probably stand out in your mind and you probably admire them for making strides with their personal health. The other reason this person stands out is the rarity of maintaining a lower weight. Studies tend to show that some of us can lose some weight, but often regain the weight after a short time. Why does this happen? Is this the same as the budgeting problem or different?
Short term rewards are tasty: Cookies vs. Quinoa
When you eat a cookie, one that recently left the oven and is still a little warm, when do you get the reward? You get the reward right away! As soon as you pick up the cookie and take the first bite, your taste buds are rewarded. There’s no patience or waiting needed. The prize is immediate, incredible, and inside your stomach in no time at all. How about quinoa or something else considered healthy? What happens when you put a bite of quinoa in your mouth? I realize some people love it, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t compare to a cookie, does it? When does the reward come for the healthy stuff? It’s not right away. The reward comes much later, it’s undefined, and it’s hard to see. If there’s two choices before you and the first choice has an immediate and easy to see reward compared to another choice with a delayed and undefined reward, which one are you more likely to gravitate toward? It might not be right away, but gravity is always pulling in one direction, isn’t it?
“the amount of money that is available for, required for, or assigned to a particular purpose” Budget as defined by Merriam-Webster
Why do budgets fail?
The competition for keeping a budget is fierce in our households. Something simple like going out to eat one extra time this week is so easy. You know it’s not in your planned budget for the month, but you’re tired, don’t want to cook, the kids are fussy, and going out sounds good. The reward happens right away. Then, before too long, you stop looking at your budget, because you know you’ve gone over anyway and looking would just be bad news. It’s the same reason we avoid stepping on the scale after a few days of cookies. We don’t want to see the bad news. Eventually, we avoid the budget or scale altogether. What’s the point?
Is there any hope for your family to maintain budget?
Don’t be disheartened by this line of thinking. The first step is recognizing that, as human beings, we are affected and motivated by incentives. It’s the way God made us. You and your family are not limited by any sort of reward and have probably, at times, overcome this. Don’t let this diminish that perseverance but do recognize that sometimes the behavior we don’t want is there and we need to address the roadblock. Rewards, or temptations, are part of life and we need a plan for how to face the challenge.
Make a spending plan
First, throw out the term “budget.” You have a family not a corporation. Corporations should have budgets and boardrooms. Families should have a spending plan. A spending plan might sound like a different name for the same thing, but it is distinct.
A spending plan for your family
First, who’s in charge of a spending plan? You are. As husband and wife, you make the decisions on where money goes. You recognize that money from working is earned for a purpose. That purpose is to support your priorities. You have priorities for clothing, food, shelter, and other things inside your home. You also have priorities outside your home like tithing or helping others. These priorities are unique to your family and your spending uniquely supports those priorities.
Keep your plan on track
One of the ways successful weight loss plans work is with positive incentives. Some successful “weight losers” build in a “cheat day.” It’s something to look forward to and reward yourself for positive behavior. A good spending plan employs these same tactics. Build in incentives for your family to hold the plan in place. If eating out is something your family likes, make it part of the plan to eat out on Saturday if you eat at home a specified number of weekdays. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but you do need to create incentives for your household.
How to get started on your spending plan the right way
As you get started on your family’s spending plan, sit down with your spouse, and talk about your family’s most important values. Narrow the list down until you agree on your three most important values. Then ask yourselves, what are your priorities for these values and how can our spending support this? This crucial first step will help give you clarity and set you on the right path.
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