Most people look forward to doing the monthly budget about as much as they look forward to going to the DMV or fishing a dropped cell phone out of the toilet.
People know that managing their finances will get them through emergencies, provide for their future security and move them closer to financial independence — but the thought of budgeting is just so…ugh.
Maybe it’s the language itself.
“The word ‘budgeting’ brings up feelings of scarcity and restriction in people,” said life and money coach Sibylle Leon, founder of Wild Spirit Coaching. “It smacks of a joyless experience chained to financial demands with no room to breathe. That a budget can free up cash for spontaneous purchases, joy, hobbies and passions, is something many people don’t even think of.“
Most of the experts who shared their insights agreed that it’s not so much the word that’s important, but the concept that the word represents.
“When I coach clients, I usually use the phrase ‘spending plan,'” said Stacy Mastrolia, a tenured faculty member in the Freeman College of Management at Bucknell University and founder and CEO of Prof Stacy The Money Teacher. “People seem to respond more positively to the idea that they’re creating a list of allowed spending, versus a list that results in denying spending.”
Mastrolia said that her clients “have a visceral relationship with the word ‘budget,'” even when they recognize the value of strategic spending and money management.
“Words matter and they can affect our attitude,” she said. “Especially toward money.”
The word “workout” describes an unpleasant process like running to exhaustion or repeatedly lifting up heavy things. The term “getting in shape,” on the other hand, describes the pursuit of a positive outcome — functioning, feeling and looking better.
Similarly, the word “budget” is a turnoff because it describes the drudgery of money management — tallying coffee purchases and scouring bank statements for overlapping streaming services.
That’s the personal finance equivalent of running and lifting weights.
Instead, pick a term that reflects the positive outcomes of doing those things — the good feelings of control, freedom and a life without money stress.
“The concept of budgeting may have a negative connotation to some people because it fundamentally is an administrative chore,” said Jesse Little, senior director of advice for Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management. “Although a very important exercise, the concept of budgeting is generally focused on short-term objectives, and does not necessarily capture or reflect the fundamental long-term goals and objectives that are most important to a person.
“For anyone who might be turned off or resistant to the concept of budgeting, there is likely a benefit to taking a step back and thinking about the big picture. Where would I like to be in five or 10 years? How about in retirement? How do I want to safeguard my money and support my family? What do I want my legacy to be? All of those questions have both financial and emotional components, and the corresponding answers represent goals. Once those goals are defined, a person is likely to be more motivated to do the work necessary to accomplish them.”
Typically, people only start thinking about money management once they’re already experiencing financial stress and all the negative emotions that come with it. In those cases, it’s easy to view budgeting as a burden they have to endure to reverse the negative consequences of things like overspending and debt.
But if you were so bad at managing money in the first place that you need a budget now, who’s to say you won’t be bad at budgeting, too?
“We often associate many emotions with ‘budgeting,'” said Sam Garrison, vice president of the financial wellness app Stackin’. “It’s one of the core money concepts we are all familiar with, but comes loaded with the belief that you are either good or bad at it. So when people talk about budgeting, they quickly revert to the belief that they are bad at it and try to avoid it so as to avoid failure.”
Instead of looking at it like a math problem that you either get wrong or get right, think of it as a custom-made roadmap to reaching your specific goals.
“A budget should be a reflection of your values and how you want to use your money,” Garrison said. “When we see budgets as a way of prioritizing what we care about, we see that people are more likely to complete and use a budget.”
Budgeting Isn’t Futile If Money Is Tight — It’s Your Ticket Out
Nicole Thelin, founder and lead resource specialist at Low Income Relief, agrees that it’s time for a vocabulary change — especially for people who are already dealing with money stress.
“Nothing gets people to shut down faster than using the word ‘budgeting,’ she said. It sounds like work and it sounds like restriction, which can cause people to react negatively.”
Thelin works closely with people who don’t have enough money to meet their needs. Already deflated and defeated, it’s common for them to just throw up their hands.
“Some of them feel like there’s no point in budgeting because the money just isn’t there,” she said. “As a result, the money they do have often gets wasted because it’s unaccounted for. In reality, budgeting can be a very liberating experience. It can help you understand your cash flow and improve your quality of life. A good budget should free you, not restrain you. In my experience, knowing your needs are met and knowing how much you can spend on extras removes a lot of stress and worry from your life. It can be life-changing.”
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