When people look at me like a wounded puppy

Sometimes I have to tell someone that I won’t be purchasing or participating in something because it’s not in the budget. People’s responses almost always crack me up.

Sweet little puppy eyes

You see, it all starts with their body language. Their facial expression immediately changes to one of pity—as though I’ve transformed on the spot into a helpless, wounded puppy. Next come the words, usually they express their sympathy for my having to “stick to the budget” and make some kind of remark about tightening the 'ol belt or whatever. Thirdly—and this one only happens sometimes—they even offer to help out by pitching in, or covering the cost for me.

As much as I appreciate their concern, their sympathy, and the offered handout, most folks have usually completely misunderstood what I’m using my budget for.

The way most of us (my past self included) view a budget is illustrated really well by an email I received the other day:

“I don’t like living under what feels like the totalitarian rule of a ‘strict’ budget…I feel constrained and it’s hard to derive joy out of any purchases we do make. At the same time, without having a more formal budget for personal expenses, it’s pretty easy to rile the cash flow gods so we have our struggles throughout the year to keep it all in check.”

When I read this email, I found myself nodding along to the all too familiar dilemma that budgeting presents to each of us. There’s this tension between feeling oppressed by all the rules my budget imposes on me vs. feeling lost in a situation that could have been avoided if only I’d had a couple rules to keep me on track. Let’s break down that email a bit.

Most of us believe we could benefit from a budget

When I talk to people about money, they almost always comment with something like: “I know we should have a budget”. It’s like the budget is this thing everyone believes they should do, but most don’t. This is what the author is talking about when he mentions riling the cash flow gods and struggling to keep things in check throughout the year.

But my question to everyone who thinks they ought to have a budget is: why? Why do you need a budget? What’s that budget going to do for you? What job are you hiring that budget to do for you?

Most budgets oppress us

Most of the time people respond to that question by indirectly telling me they’re hiring a budget to be their dictator. Katie and I used to hire our budget for that dictator job too, we’d expect it to:

  • Decide what we can and can’t do
  • Make sure we spend as little as possible
  • Keep tabs on each other’s spending

With this kind of setup, Katie and I found the budget becoming an enemy that we had to fight against. I mean c’mon, who likes working for a dictator? I don’t like being told what to do, or how to think, and I hate feeling like someone’s looking over my shoulder. But for some reason I spent years trying to create budgets that were designed to do exactly those things!

What if your budget was serving you?

Imagine instead, using your budget to:

  • Discuss and make plans
  • Talk about priorities as partners
  • Remind us of things we need to purchase
  • Keep track of things we’d like to buy someday
  • Journal how we spend our money
  • Tweak our plans when life throws us a curve ball

See how the dynamic completely changes? Now the budget is there to help me, and to serve as a facilitator. These are the kinds of things that I use a budget for now. And unlike my budgets of the past, I’ve found that with this kind of budget, I derive more joy in each of my purchases, feel more satisfied, and—for bonus points—I end up spending my money in the way I really believe it should be spent.

The budget isn’t here to keep me in check, to tighten my purse strings, or to squeeze every dollar of savings out of me. No, I’m not here to serve the budget, the budget is here to serve me.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I dig into the principles of budgeting that have helped me escape dictators and embrace budgets that are actually there to serve me.

I’m excited to share this stuff with you!