My Budgeting Best Intentions for 2017

By Sarah Priestley Markets Fool.com

Image source: Getty.

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Budgeting and dieting have a lot in common. Both are in the top five most popular New Year's resolutions, both involve getting your head around the concept of delayed gratification, and both can be, well, boring. Mastering the art of delayed gratification is a common trait among successful people. Making a plan and sticking to it can give you enormous satisfaction despite the drudgery of executing it.

Like with dieting, I'm just OK at budgeting -- I don't spend more than I make -- but I have room for improvement. As my interest in salad wanes toward the end of the month, so does my motivation to be financially accountable. I must confess to having once or twice avoided looking at my bank statement for fear of reprisal (yes, my head is bowed in shame).

My account has occasionally fallen victim to that most impalpable of events where my hard-earned cash magically disappears, spent on goodness-knows-what. And I also have a tendency to abdicate responsibility of our household finances to my husband, who seems to have mastered the art of financial maturity better than I have.

So my New Year's resolution, like millions of others, will be to take more control of my finances. I want to understand my current spending and how I can improve it, by making a budget and sticking to it.

Masking laziness with laundry

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To understand why my budgeting leaves something to be desired, it might help to explain that I'm the type of person who's very good at being busy. You probably know one of my kind -- we make endless lists and fill our days with constant activity. Other symptoms include being up at midnight folding laundry for no good reason. The problem with this type of behavior is that I use my artificial hyperactivity to procrastinate over really important things, like checking my account, updating my budget, and researching helpful topics such as credit cards and mutual funds.

Unless someone knows of an immediate cure to this affliction -- and if so, please do let me know -- I have to come up with a way for budgeting to be less daunting, and integrate it into my day-to-day life more seamlessly. I need to make money management feel like less of a chore.

The miracle of modern technology

There may be a solution.Queue the sighs and eye-rolling, but I'm never without my phone. I often mindlessly scroll through an assortment of social media and news apps and find this extremely easy, mindless, and somewhat entertaining -- a walking cliche.

What was, in 2016, a total waste could be turned into productive money-management time. There's a whole world of financial planning apps to help you better understand your current spending and help you to budget. They are miraculous inventions, and even more mind-bendingly, many are free.

If anyone has ever gone through the painstaking activity of categorizing your spending -- creating a spreadsheet, analyzing your bank statement, creating subcharts and secondary sheets to find out if, it is in fact (as you suspected), your mild addiction to milkshakes that has tipped your financial scales -- then I may have the perfect app to save us.

Mint is a budgeting app owned by Intuit (NASDAQ: INTU). The free tool is downloaded onto your smartphone and paired with your bank accounts. It creates a breakdown of your spending, can tell you what you owe and what you have, and even sends you alerts for unusual spending activity. It helps you easily create a budget with measurable goals, and offers a visible, up-to-date guide to measure your performance. It helpfully offers hints and tips on how to do better.

Budgeting isn't hard, but it can be time-consuming, and this little app can help to reduce the friction caused by updating and maintaining your budget. It also has a great interface, making it fun to look at during my daily round of digital explorations.

But now for the hard part

With my resolution to budget firmly in my mind, and the tools I need at my fingertips, this should be in the bag, right? Will I be bragging this time next year about my 12 months worth of successful budgeting? Or, like my diet, will my resolve wither along with my interest in kale?

Well, only I can make it happen, and the hardest part of any plan is sticking to it. With the assistance of this trusty app, I can track my spending -- so I can see where I currently go wrong. I created a budget, and it was easy. Now I have to maintain interest, understand my bad spending habits, stick to the budget, and adapt where necessary.

While this seems straightforward, it isn't. Unforeseen large expenses like car troubles or household repairs can kibosh a good month. Spending on non-essentials like eating out, buying clothes, and entertainment can often creep up on you. While there's no easy solution to master the art of delayed gratification, having a clear goal can help keep you on track -- for all those times you're trying to convince yourself you really deserve the expensive kitchen mixer. (Been there.)

My goals aren't too lofty -- they are measurable and more than achievable.

  1. Understand the areas where I overspend.
  2. Increase my 401(k) contribution.
  3. Allocate a portion of my monthly savings to my brokerage account.
  4. Top-up my rainy day fund.

These goals are far from awe-inspiring, but they will hopefully help me to start a healthy habit.

Bad habits, financially broken

It's surprising how many people struggle with budgeting. The concept is synonymous with penny-pinching and struggling to make ends meet. However, a lot of people who enjoy disposable income without too much difficulty or planning could benefit from a good budget.

Bad habits can form quickly. Suddenly, that once-a-week caramel latte turns into a daily affair, and occasionally twice daily! That's all well and good if coffee is the best part of your day, but if it stops being a treat, is it worth the $3.75 a day, $26.25 a week, $1,365 a year?

True, that's an oversimplification, and cutting the coffee if you're paying $500 a month too much on rent won't help you. But when you are fortunate enough to not have to watch every transaction like a hawk, things slip through the cracks, and before you know it, you have mindlessly spent $1,000 that you could have invested, put in your 401(k), or paid for a weekend away to see friends or family.

So this year, I endeavor to be more knowledgeable, mindful, and careful with my spending. I plan to stick to my budget, which will enable me to invest in my retirement, grow my portfolio, and keep something back for just-in-case. Armed with a smartphone, an app, measurable goals, and a can-do attitude, I'm in for a great 2017, financially speaking.

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Sarah Priestley has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Intuit. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.