How the handle the stress of budgeting


I last talked about bare-bones living, and how it requires extra attention and care.

But when you’re living so close to the edge, you’re dealing with a lot of stress as it is. So it can be tempting to see this extra work as adding stress to an already stressful situation.

I admit that I am suggesting you do extra work. Keeping track of your expenses and bills, and even figuring out when things get paid during the month, requires attention, perhaps more attention than you’re used to paying. That takes time, and that’s something that you may not have a lot of. I hear objections to this all the time.

But it doesn’t have to be stressful or take a lot of time.

Not too much time

Let’s talk time first. The first time you sit down and make a budget, it’s going to take a little while. Set aside an hour or two, and sit at your table and figure out everything that you have to pay in a given month. (You can use a budgeting app, but technology can get in the way here. Try it my way to start.)

But here’s the thing: you only need to do this once! Next month, you’ll have a template from which to work. Yes, no month is exactly the same (you’ll have different demands on you in December than in June, of course) but you can take last month’s work, amend it slightly, and be done. My monthly budgets take less than fifteen minutes! You have that kind of time.

(Another time saver: setting up auto-pay for your bills. I’m not always about extra work.)

Less stress, not more

For me, I know that stress is amplified by the unknown. Being avoidant doesn’t eliminate stress, it just dulls it and makes it go underground. Over time, this ends up being much worse than if you were to just face things head-on.

When you keep track of money, you’ve given yourself permission to spend it. That should feel good, should it not? You have (say) $200 to spend on food, so spend it! You’ve already shown that you can afford it (as you saw in that budget you spent fifteen minutes on).

With a budget already designed, you don’t ever need to worry about not having the money for something, because you’ve already determined that you can. This is all about reducing uncertainty, and reducing uncertainty is a key to reducing stress. Leave as little to chance as you can. And in addition, by doing this little bit of extra work, you’ll ensure that you never have to worry about things like overdraft.

Stress will ease with time, too.  But to get to that point, you will need to keep your eyes on the prize.

What is the prize?

Imagine: not just keeping your head above water, but making progress. Imagine the feeling of knowing that you have enough to get you through the month. And then some extra. Paying off your debts, slowly, but steadily. Imagine how it would feel to not have to borrow money anymore. Imagine how it’s going to feel when you realize that you can do this. That things will improve. That you will be okay.

Spend a little time now, and face a little bit of your fears, and you will eventually be rewarded with less stress in your life. You will acquire a confidence, a stability, that you may not have felt in a long time. This happened to me, and there’s nothing special about me. Do this too, and you will eventually feel a calm and sense of security that will change your life. That’s worth sitting down at your table for an hour or two.

But enough about me. What are the stresses that keep you from keeping track of your money situation?


  1. michelle

    I agree, I find it calming to break everything down in my budget, make sure everything is on track and all that; what I find stressful is having debt on my plate at all. While I realize the ideal situation is to be debt free, do you have any soothing words for those of us who will be paying off unavoidable debts, like student loans, for quite a while?

    • Mike

      Hi Michelle. I had to think about this one for a while. As I see it, the question might be a more general one: how to handle something stressful that’s going to persist in your life for a while.

      I see two responses to that kind of situation:

      1. Get mad. This is messing with your equilibrium. Harness that anger to double down on your plan, to keep you focused. Getting angry isn’t always a bad thing if it’s a motivation.

      2. Accept. Realize that while having some debt sticking around is a big bummer, it’s not going to destroy your life. You are healthy, you have a life full of purpose and promise, and numbers on a computer screen can never affect this. I don’t want to get all serenity prayer on anyone, but it may help to realize that this, like so many other aspects of life, is illusory, and therefore might not be worth expending the energy required to keep it affecting you. There is too much at stake. Breathe, and then continue living your life.

      I don’t know if any of this helps, but I hope it does!

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