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Julia Kukiewicz

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Why You Can't Stick to a Budget

Posted: 14/07/2012 00:00

We suck at sticking to budgets: I do, you do and so does your mum.

Which is a shame because chances are you, me and your mum - and probably some other people - come up short at the end of the month, don't save enough or, at the very least, spend way too much going out for coffee.

We could do with sticking to a budget. It's pretty simple. So why can't you manage it?

1. You're trying to stick to a budget

Most budgets are a time consuming way to fail.

Their basic plan is simple and logical: know what you're spending, set a goal to spend less, stick to that amount.

Unfortunately, people, and all too often the budget plans themselves, are anything but simple and logical.

Alan Deutschman notes that 90% of Americans who were asked to change their lifestyle after undergoing major heart surgery - as the title of his book says, to literally Change or Die - couldn't manage it.

One of the reasons, he says, is that changing lifestyle, a change also implied by most budgets, is a big, complex change that is actually made up of thousands of daily decisions.

When we, inevitably, fail at one decision point - "screw it, I'm having a coffee!" - the whole thing collapses. We give up.

Even a simple budget, the amount you're willing to spend for a certain item, can easily be derailed.

A study released last month found that participants who decided on a budget in advance actually spent more than peers who did not. In a condition where 'budgeters' said they'd spend about 99 cents on a pen, for example, 58% paid more; just 38% of those without a budget made the same decision.

The researchers speculated that deciding on price beforehand freed budgeters to make a decision based on quality, a factor that, unfortunately for their pockets, was strongly correlated with higher prices.

2. You've got no willpower

It doesn't help that the whole budgeting enterprise often relies on sheer force of will.

Some studies have found that our willpower can get tired, like a muscle.

After completing a task where they had to exercise self-control participants were less likely to be able to do so in the next task: they spent more.

This 'finite reserve of willpower' model is easily disrupted - other studies have reversed the results with basic incentives, for example - but the fact that it's appealing when we talk about budgets is revealing in itself.

It's a schema that makes spending less all about self denial. We immediately turn into wiggling kids, sitting in front of marshmallows we're forbidden to eat.

3. You're bad at predicting the future

We're creatures of habit so it doesn't seem crazy to suggest that if we could just get an insight into what we spent last month we'll be able to cut down next month.

Yet a 2008 study found that most people underestimate the amount they'll spend over the coming month, even though they could predict accurately if asked to estimate for a whole year.

The difference was that participants in the year condition added a buffer amount - the extra cash we spend unexpectedly even, as it turns out, in months where we don't notice it.

Better budgets

Let me just say at this point that I'm not against the idea of budgeting or of spending less - far from it.

I would like to spend less on things I don't care about so that I can spend more on things I do care about. And, sometimes, I would settle for having a little of last month's pay left.

Statistics suggest that I'm not alone here.

According to Bright Grey, one in three Britons are either spending more than their salary every month or coming perilously close, just about breaking even.

Equifax research released last month found half of those surveyed had just 10% or less of their paycheck left in the week before the next one.

Even if we're not struggling, we're worrying. According to the Markit Household Finance Index report just 7% of UK households said their finances were getting better in June.

Budgets have a wider significance. They are, as pretty much anyone will tell you, about taking responsibility, being prepared for shocks.

A Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) survey from early 2011 that I never get tired of repeating (for example, in more detail here) showed the most common reason clients fell into debt was a job loss or pay cut.

It was very much not the case, as 49% of people they surveyed thought, that clients got into debt by overspending. It was the shocks that did it.

Consider this, too: again and again over the past few weeks of the RBS, Natwest and Ulster crisis, on Twitter, Facebook and over many hours of TV and radio coverage, people said that unless their salary came through soon they wouldn't be able to pay their rent, that they'd have to default on a credit card payment or that their current tank of petrol would be the last one for a while.

As I think I've shown, we're fighting an uphill battle against crappy complicated strategies and against ourselves.

We need better budgets and other good strategies for managing our money and, let me just get this in, we need to teach this stuff in schools.

Julia Kukiewicz is Editor of Choose, a consumer focused online publication and price comparison site covering personal finance amongst other markets. The site covers a range of topics on consumer rights issues, industry debates and market research.

Follow Julia on twitter @choosenet.

 

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