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In 2017, for the first time in my life, I actually stuck to a resolution. What’s more, I’d failed at the same resolution — to make a budget and stick to it — for many previous years. Now, if you think there’s something shameful in a grown person not being able to handle her finances, you’re right!
But what’s even more shameful is that I had tried, for literally 20 Januaries in a row, to figure out this mystery called “budgeting” and simply couldn’t hack it. And don’t tell me about your Excel system or your Mint.com or say “how hard is it to track your spending!” For whatever reason, there were chunks of unaccounted-for money, and the numbers wouldn’t reconcile, and I would feel ashamed and enraged. I always gave up by February.
But in 2017 I didn’t abandon the resolution, I just tweaked how I phrased it to myself. Instead of “I will make a budget and stick to it,” I said, “For an hour a week, I will sit with the frustration and shame of learning how to budget.”
This rephrasing had two immediate benefits: First, I didn’t have to get it right in the first month – it was ok if there was money gone that I couldn’t account for, or I forgot to make a budget category for haircuts. I just had to put in my hour a week at the computer. And second, it acknowledged that doing this resolution felt bad to me, which was a bit of a breakthrough, because up until then I’d felt bad about feeling bad, which hindered me even further.
So for the first three months of 2017 I sat for an hour a week (sometimes in 10-minute chunks, sometimes the whole hour at once) and learned the budgeting program You Need a Budget. If I didn’t understand something, I emailed the help desk or asked on the sub-Reddit. I watched videos on how to use the program. When the accounts didn’t reconcile, I hunted for the discrepancy. If finding it took more than an hour, I pushed “make an adjustment transaction” — the accounting equivalent of saying I don’t know WTF happened there — and moved on. I told myself that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand budgeting even after a year, as long as I stuck to my resolution, which was to devote an hour a week to a really unpleasant task.
I also did a couple of other things that upped my chances of success. I took a cue from people who study exercise motivation and enlisted a partner, my husband. He’s as bad as I am when it comes to budgeting, but he also wanted to change his no-good ways and stop feeling, as he put it, that a boulder was chasing us down a hill. Second, I linked the crummy task (sitting at the computer trying to learn something unpleasant) with a nice task: eating dessert and watching a show.
So once a week, we’d put the kids to bed, deal with our accounting, eat a bowl of ice cream, and watch Netflix. I am so fond of dessert and TV that I actually started to look forward to our budgeting evenings. But here’s the thing: It was a really slow process. I didn’t even start to feel like I had a handle on our new system until early summer. (I told you I had a block.) Even now, a year later, there are still some things I don’t totally understand, like why the program thinks I’m in the red on my credit cards when I’m not.
At this point, our accounting sessions are a weekly habit that I actually feel pretty good about (experts tell us that motivation gets you started, but new habits are the key to long-term change.) I don’t feel ashamed anymore, and I’ve started a system to teach my kids how to manage money, which is also working ok (though my son didn’t manage to stick to his holiday budget).
Will this work for other kinds of New Year’s resolutions, like quitting smoking or losing weight? I think so. Instead of “I will quit smoking,” one could say “I will find something to keep me busy every time a craving hits,” or “I will hit the gym for even just twenty minutes, three times a week.” Enlisting a partner, or pairing something pleasant with your task (like listening to podcasts on the treadmill or audiobooks while you cook healthy meals) can only increase your chances for success.
My 2018 New Year’s resolution? Er, to cut down on desserts. I mean, “to spend my evenings reading really good novels instead of eating ice cream.” Perhaps I can even use budgeting as reward.