The point: Learning to live on a budget is hard. Pretending it’s not is stupid, and counter-productive, and will eventually end up being the reason you quit.
Let’s talk about the most important part of personal finance: debt repayment investing budgeting.
I’ll wait until you finish yawning.
Listen, I know. We can call it the much more awkward “how you spend your money”, if it makes you any happier about this. And – even better – I’m going to save you the impassioned speech on how spending more than you earn is a sure road to ruin; you know that already. In fact, there are a whole lot of people who spend more than they earn quite happily, running into emergencies here, long periods of financial stress there, and yet somehow managing to get through their entire lives without even a faint whiff of ruin. Luck happens.
But if accidentally getting through life okay isn’t really your thing, and if purposefully matching your spending to the things that are really important to you sounds like the kind of life you want to live, I have some words of discouragement for you.
It’s going to be hard. Unless you have pretty big margins, or pretty small (or negotiable) existing commitments, it’s going to be a tough slog, at least for a while. This is the stabilization period that no one really mentions in the classic personal finance sequence of success that usually goes “make a budget, pay off debt, build an emergency fund*, save a couple of bucketloads of money, buy a unicorn, live happily ever after.”
There’s something really important missing right between “make a budget” and “pay off debt” right there at the beginning of the deceptively simple fixed-your-life-you’re-welcome formula, something so important that its omission is the reason so many people revert back to the Hoping Things Work Out method of financial planning.
(If you have a high enough income or low enough non-negotiable expenses, or if you’re starting out without debt, then you probably won’t go through a stabilizing period and this post doesn’t apply to you. Go away.)
If you’re like most Canadians, you’re coming to the idea of living within your income at a time when you don’t have piles of money just lying around to make the process easy. You probably have obligations that you can’t negotiate your way out of – kids that make downsizing to a bachelor apartment, storing your clothes in crates, and living off of ramen noodles until you’ve got your money under control a non-option, or big mortgage with small equity that takes moving off of the table, or a car that’s worth less than the loan you’re still paying for but a job that you have to drive to because you don’t live in a city and your transportation options are limited to driving a car or hitchhiking.
I have this sense that most personal finance advice sort of glosses over this awkward fact. There’s never a scale of difficulty in the front of the advice, is there? Never a “Hey, friend, if a $200 surprise will throw off your finances for more than a month, you can do this, but it’s going to take lots of practice”, or a “by the way, if you have kids this entire blog isn’t going to apply to you” disclaimer. There’s a lot of advice about getting your expense column smaller than your income column (less advice about getting your income bigger than your expenses, but that’s a different post for a different day), and even more advice about paying down your debt or investing, but not much acknowledgement that it might take you a while to figure out how to apply the whole thing (waves hands) to your own life, is there?
And do you know what this glaring omission does to most Canadians? It makes them give up. At some point, when you’re trying to reduce your previously $1,200 per month discretionary spending down to $200 because your non-negotiable expenses leave you nothing more, living your life on a budget is going to feel like a much bigger hassle than living your old life and hoping it will all work out. Plugging a few numbers into a spreadsheet or moving the sliders on Mint does not a budget make; getting used to having only so much to spend and either finding ways to earn more or learning to live cheerfully within those limits does, and it takes practice, occasional failure, and lots and lots adjustment. Sometimes years worth.
So here I am, raining on the parade, handing out be-ribboned bags of discouragement in the hopes that a healthy dose of “it will be hard, but it’s worth it” realism will make the job ahead a little easier to stomach. The pay-off is real. The feeling of not worrying about your next credit card statement, or the sense that things really, truly are going to be fine and it’s not just blind hope or dumb luck that will make it so? It’s fantastic, and it’s worth the work. Trust me. But the work itself is tedious – painful, even. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing. Pretending that’s not just makes it harder.
*Yes, sometimes it goes “little emergency fund, pay off debt, big emergency fund”, or even (gasp!) skips the emergency fund altogether. Let’s just pretend we agree on the order for a minute and deal with the whole emergency fund snarl another day.