How Do I Make Myself Stick to a Budget?

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Good news: If you’re wondering how to stick to a budget, that means you’ve already come to the very adult realization that you need a budget. But don’t pop the (reasonably priced) bubbly quite yet. A budget is no good if you set it and forget it. Here’s a simple guide to putting your money where your math is.

A personal budget is personal for a reason—it won’t be the same for any two people. That said, there are certain guidelines financial experts suggest as a starting point. One of the most fundamental is the 50/20/30 rule. In this scenario, 50 percent of your total take-home or net income should go to your essentials. This includes things like housing, utilities, food, and transportation. (And yes, this applies even if you live in a pricey area: The idea is that if you rent a relatively expensive apartment in NYC, perhaps the payoff is that you don’t need a car to get to work.) The next 20 percent goes to savings, including things like debt payments, 401(k)s and other savings plans. The final 30 is yours to use as you please. But don’t forget that it includes a lot in modern times—your cell phone bill, streaming services, clothes and travel and dinners with friends.

If you’re a natural-born foodie and you swear you’ll go cold turkey on eating out, you’re full of baloney—specifically in the form of the sandwiches you’ll pack for one week and never again. So start by looking at how you like to spend your money and consider a way to trim from there. You won’t stick to your budget if you don’t let yourself have some fun. So maybe it’s more realistic to go out to dinner once every other week. By the same token, maybe you don’t care much for gadgets. Consider buying a used cell phone to save a monthly payment on a new device every month, and allocate that saved money to something you care more about in the same category—or increase your savings goal. You can always feel free to go over the 20 percent savings guideline, just stay under the 50 and 30.

There’s no shame in playing mind games with yourself if they help you maintain your budget. In a recent personal finance survey, 77 percent of people who stuck to their goals said they kept motivated by calculating how much money they would save over the year if they stuck to their plan. Every time you skip that latte, add five bucks to your bottom line. If you cut your weekly habit from three down to one, you’ll save $520 over the year.

Always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail or chill for the weekend in Puerto Rico? Planning to open your own small business one day? Keep dreaming—seriously. Research has shown that people who have a long-term goal are able to delay their satisfaction in the short-term, leading them to avoid impulse purchases and save more money.

You can save dough on almost any essential you buy by comparison shopping. With sales, the brand of the cheapest item, say, toilet paper, shampoo, or bread, will constantly change, so go with the flow. Feel free to whip out your calculator at the grocery store. Or better yet, check out the unit price on each store label so you can see how much something costs per ounce. That way, you won’t be fooled by packaging and you’ll actually get the best bang for your buck.

It’s always easier to save when you have someone on your side. According to a 2016 study, dating someone with good money habits has a huge impact on someone’s financial health. Researchers found that the way a college student’s romantic partner managed his or her money influenced the student’s behavior even more than his or her parents. The same principle applies to friendships—when you have a money buddy, you’re more likely to hold yourself accountable.

In addition to figuring out your financial priorities, it’s important to know where you stand. Luckily, Discover’s free Credit Scorecard is here to help. You can check your credit score at no cost to you, even if you aren’t a Discover member. Visit Discover to learn more.