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Making a budget

How to make sticking to a budget easier

To help you save money and keep your debts under control, you need a good understanding of your income and spending.

By putting together a budget, you create a structure that'll help you manage your finances. However, it can only do this if it's an accurate reflection of your day-to-day life.

Being less confident with money can also make keeping to the budget more difficult. Let’s take a look at why you may be struggling to budget, and how to overcome your worries so you make budgeting a success.

1) Don't make big sacrifices in an effort to make your budget ‘work’

When budgeting, people often do it to see their financial situation improve quickly. For example, they may want to put savings aside for an emergency or pay off a debt. To help, they may decide to drastically cut back on how much they spend on food, clothing and other necessities so they can use that money elsewhere.

While the intention's good, this isn't sustainable. Your living costs are just as important as your household bills. You must always make sure you have enough money to cover them each month. You can’t master your finances if you’re getting ill because you’re not eating properly. You need clothes that keep you warm or make you feel confident during a job interview.

Take care of yourself first. Following a budget over time will help you slowly (but surely) achieve your financial goals.

2) Don't set up a budget that leaves no room for what makes you happy

No matter how much debt you're dealing with, your budget should include events you can enjoy or look forward to. This could be anything from attending a sporting fixture to visiting family and friends.

If you don't have something to look forward to, you might lose motivation to stick to your budget. Finding a balance between saving money and enjoying life is key.

Take a look at what you spend each month, and think about what truly makes you happy. If it’s going to a music festival once a year, or treating yourself to a new pair of shoes every six months, then set a bit of money aside each month to cover these expenses. Remember: you're not expected to deprive yourself unnecessarily while budgeting.

3) Have a financial goal to work towards

If you don't have a 'big financial goal' right now, consider putting money aside for an emergency. What counts as an emergency is up to you, but unexpected expenses happen to most people eventually. Putting money aside now can help you recover more quickly.

Perhaps there's a financial goal to work towards, but you haven't figured it out yet. That's okay. Take some time to think about what you want to achieve in the future. For example:

  • Do you want to go travelling? 
  • Do you want to move home? 
  • Is there a chance you might have or adopt a child

All of these life events cost money. As with emergencies, it's good to be prepared.

4) Talk to your partner about budgeting

It can be frustrating when you’re trying to be more money-savvy but your significant other doesn’t want to follow a budget.

Talk with them and find out why they don't feel they can use a budget: 

  • Did they try budgeting in the past and find it didn't work? 
  • Do they have a lot of stress around money? 
  • Do they find it easier to ignore their problems? 

No one likes to feel 'forced' into doing something. However, if you share your thoughts around financial goals with your partner, they may feel less pressured and start to see what you're trying to achieve.

In the meantime, try making stealthy savings wherever you can. For example:

  • Are you in charge of the big food shop? Try switching one or two items to cheaper alternatives each time. Many own brands are just as good as the premium brands 
  • Do you have children? Suggest free activities that you could do as a family. Your local council website should list free and upcoming events happening near you 
  • When was the last time you switched utilities? You can save money by regularly switching your providers. If you like your current service, you can look for cheaper deals elsewhere and then ask your current provider if they can offer you the same or better

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5) Take budgeting one step at a time

When you look at what it takes to put a budget together, it can seem like a lot of hassle. Whether you're putting a budget together for the first time, or in the process of reviewing your budget, it doesn't have to be overwhelming.

Try breaking the process into manageable 'chunks', such as:

  • Taking an hour to open all of your letters
  • Taking five minutes to check your credit file through one of the three credit reference agencies – Experian, Credit Karma or Equifax
  • Taking ten minutes to go through your recent bank statement. You should find the regular amounts you pay out for council tax, rent, mortgage and other important costs

6) Build a budget that reflects your circumstances

Like many people, you may find it's hard to stretch your money until payday. Daily expenses such as food and fuel get more expensive, and not everyone gets a wage rise at the same time.

Have you checked to see what benefits you may be entitled to? We have a benefits calculator that can help. There may also be ways you can make extra money.

Please note that any extra earnings must be declared to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

7) You can use a budget even if you have irregular income

The job market is changing all the time, and self-employed and zero contract roles are becoming more common as a result. These types of job have irregular incomes.

Receiving an irregular income shouldn’t stop you from making an effective budget. You could try:

  • Thinking of the lowest ‘net estimate’ of your income each month, and building your budget based on this. By doing this, you can ensure that your priority expenses are covered, and any extra money you get can go into savings or towards any debts you’re trying to pay off
  • Putting extra money into a ‘Hill and Valley’ fund. This is a fund you can dip into if you have a particularly lean month. When you have a great month with a higher than expected income, set some of the extra money into this fund so you have something to fall back on if times are tough.

(Please note: StepChange Debt Charity is unable to give debt advice to self-employed clients. Business Debtline can give you free and confidential debt advice solutions that’s tailored to your circumstances)

8) Stop feeling bad for 'failing' at budgeting in the past

Sometimes when you give something a try for the first time, and you ‘fail’ at it, it can knock your confidence. This isn't a nice feeling. A natural reaction would be to avoid what made you feel that way - in this case, putting together a budget that was wrong for you.

Remember: it's rare to get something right on the first attempt. This is especially true with budgets, where you're more likely to make big sacrifices in order to pay debt off quicker. You want to take control of your finances, which is hugely positive. And every time you update your budget, you're learning more about what your situation is.

Also remember that you're not alone. There are debt and budgeting tools available to support you, and there are people who have been through this and know how you're feeling.

I'm not a StepChange client. Can you help me put a budget together?

If you need debt advice, you can put a budget together by using our online debt advice tool. It'll also recommend a debt solution for you.

If you don't have a debt problem, but have a credit card, store card or catalogue debt that's taking a while to pay back, we offer information that can help you pay off your debt quicker.