I have a confession to make: I am terrible when I decide to go on a diet. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The universe conspires against me when I decide to go on a diet. It begins when I decide that I need to lose a few pounds. Now, I understand that I should set a sensible goal, improve my eating habits, and begin an exercise plan. However, it never seems to work that way. Instead, I decide that I am going to eliminate the fat from my diet. No donuts, no French fries, no potato chips. Just chicken breasts and vegetables. Armed with my new resolve, I go to work with a bag of fresh vegetables and maybe some rice cakes. When I arrive at my office, I notice a box on the receptionist’s desk. I bet you know what’s there—donuts! I love donuts. I especially love icing-filled, chocolate-covered donuts. Since I haven’t had breakfast (remember that I’m on a diet), I’m starving by nine a.m. If I eat just that donut today along with my chicken and vegetables, I’m still under my fat gram limit, but just barely. I reason with myself that I will be good the rest of the day. I eat the donut.
No sooner is the donut consumed than the phone rings. It’s a friend I haven’t seen in a long time who is free that day for lunch. Could I possibly find time for her, even in this short notice? Of course I can. I’ll save the veggies and rice cakes for tomorrow. Surely the restaurant will have healthy options. At lunch, I don’t check if the restaurant has chicken because I am enamored with a guacamole bacon burger. I eat the burger and the fries as a side.
Back at the office, I am beating myself up because I haven’t met any of my chicken/vegetable goals. And I also feel sorry for my husband who hasn’t eaten as well as I have, since usually, I have also put him on a diet. Since I have already strayed from my path, I decide to fix him a nice meal, complete with his favorite lemon meringue pie for dessert. I will start the diet again the next day.
I know why I fail when I approach dieting this way. I’m not realistic. I set goals I cannot keep, and when I fail, I beat myself up, declare failure, and eat more.
When I teach financial seminars, I tell the attendees that budgets and diets are both four-letter words. They also fail for exactly the same reasons. Let me tell you another story.
If I decide to try to save some money, I create a shopping list before I go shopping for food and household items. I vow that I will buy nothing that is not on the list. This works right until I see that the store has already received its holiday stock. I want a new package of napkins, but it’s not on my list. This knowledge slows me down for about fifteen seconds, and into my cart the napkins go. And now, I’ve broken my budget. I compensate for this failure by buying plates, cups, a new wreath for my front door, and maybe a pair of holiday socks. In other words, I go nuts and vow to begin my budget on the next trip.
Do you see parallels? I do, and I see them with my clients and friends, as well. Once we have broken the rules we created, we lose heart. It often results in additional behaviors that we wanted to avoid.
I can’t help you with your diet, but I can help you with your budget. Don’t create a budget that is a short-term, unsustainable fix to a problem. Instead, try to alter your lifestyle. For spending decisions to be effective, they involve changes that last years, not minutes.
First, realize that your budget is your creation. It is compiled of expenses you really can’t control, expenses you really don’t want to control, and expenses that you can control. The expenses you really can’t control are your home and your basic utilities. I know that downsizing is possible, but most people avoid the option. Expenses you really don’t want to control are your car payments, your cell phone plan, and other expenses that create the core of your lifestyle. The easiest expense to control is discretionary spending. We waste money without even realizing that we have spent it. When we try to create a budget, it is usually the discretionary spending that gets us off course.
One way to help avoid this trap is by giving yourself a predetermined amount of spending money each month. I am not going to try to tell you how much spending money you can have. It’s based purely on your personal situation. Maybe it’s five dollars, maybe it’s fifty, or five hundred. The principle is the same. When you shop, give yourself an allowance of how much spending money you can afford that day.
The day I went on a holiday binge, if I had given myself permission to buy the napkins, I would have purchased the napkins and likely nothing else. I would have stayed within the guidelines I had set for myself, and I probably wouldn’t have also purchased the plates, wreath, and socks. The obsessive behavior tends to begin once we have failed.
Give yourself permission to spend money on those things you enjoy, albeit wisely, and you will find your budget a livable challenge, not a noose around your neck! And not having a noose around your neck could always be defined as prosperity!