How to Budget: Choose Your Sacrifice

In the end, no matter how many financial articles you read, how many how-to guides you buy, or how many Youtube videos you watch, it all boils down to one simple fact: you have to start. And to start, you need to make the time in your daily life.

In the US, a 2013 Gallup poll reported that only 32% of Americans prepared and maintained a comprehensive household budget. In Canada, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada reported, in their 2019 study, that 49% of Canadians budget their personal finances. Obviously, financial responsibility is not a widespread cultural phenomenon here in North America.

In the findings of the Canadian survey, reasons given for not budgeting were as follows “not having enough time,” “finding it boring,” “feeling overwhelmed about managing money,” and “preferring not to know about finances.”

What does this have to do with sacrifices, of all things?

First of all, let us agree on what I mean by sacrifices. I do not refer to the (hopefully) obsolete religious practice of slaughtering one’s best goat or favourite child to appease God’s wrath or to petition for a plentiful harvest. Instead, I refer to the more modern notion of sacrifice, similar in principle but more abstract in practice: the act of giving up something of value in the moment for something more important in the future.

The Sacrifice of Abraham taken from Flickr

Whether you realize it or not, you make sacrifices every day. Because our time, energy, and attention spans are limited resources, every single thing we decide to do or focus on is done at the exclusion of something else.

For example:
🠊 If you decide to go to the gym at 6am, you sacrifice additional sleep in the hopes of becoming fit and strong.
🠊 If you decide to work overtime on weekends, you sacrifice a social life with friends or family in the hopes of keeping your job, earning a raise, or receiving a promotion.

The crucial thing to remember is that sacrifices are entirely subjective. You are the only person who decides which sacrifices you want to make for yourself. There are arguments to be made in favour of or against certain sacrifices, but ultimately only you can decide which sacrifices are appropriate for you for the current season of your life.

Think of every decision you make as a micro-sacrifice. In the moment, they may not seem like events worthy of being called sacrifices, but over time—weeks, months, and years—they compound to represent a sacrifice of one thing for another. It is up to you to determine if you are actually making the trade-off you want.

Another benefit of acting deliberately, of consciously deciding how to spend each moment of your life, other than the satisfaction of reaping anticipated rewards, is the ability to withstand unforeseen adversity.

It is important to remember that while we control our decisions in life, we can’t control the exact outcomes of these decisions. Sometimes, a right decision has unforeseeable and undesirable consequences. Sometimes what feels like a right decision turns out to be a mistake.

I believe that as long as we act in good faith toward ourselves—not lying or deceiving ourselves about the sacrifices we are making and the reasons why—we can weather undesirable outcomes of sacrifices consciously made.

How does this relate to budgeting? Let us go back to the reasons given for failing to start or maintain a household budget and see how we can apply the concept of sacrifice to find possible solutions.

“Not enough time”

Image by Aron Visuals taken from Unsplashed

I believe this excuse comes from a misguided notion of what maintaining a detailed budget entails. Here is how much time I dedicate to my finances:

🠊 10 minutes every night of the week to update my expense tracker (70 minutes/week)
🠊 an extra 30 minutes once a week to do my expense report
🠊 an hour session once a month to close the month and plan for the next

In all, each month, I spend just over two and a half hours maintaining my household budget. That is less than most people spend mindlessly browsing the internet in a single day!

Contrary to popular belief, doing one’s finances does not have to be a tedious, gruelling task done under duress. Maintaining a budget is not the same as doing your taxes! Thankfully, that horrid task really does only need to be done once a year!

Are you not willing to sacrifice a portion of the time you would otherwise spend in front of a screen in order to diminish your financial stress?

“It’s boring”

Image by Camila Quintero Franco taken from Unsplashed

I am not a numbers girl, and my budgeting practice is relatively new. It’s a skill I have learned (am learning!), not a talent I was born with. But I have learned to take enjoyment from the process because I have accepted the responsibility and understood how it impacts my life and future.

There are a great many things in this life that we do not and cannot control. So many factors that are imposed on us that we can only react to. Finances are not one of those things.

Even if you are not making as much money as you would like, you can still control exactly how you choose to spend the money you do have now.

What you spend your money on reflects your values and your goals. Money is the fuel that propels your life forward. If you find that budgeting is a tedious and boring activity you’d rather not do, perhaps it is because you are in a very comfortable position in life and have all that you need and more!

But such comforts and luxuries can be surprisingly easy to lose if unforeseen circumstances prevent you from earning the salary or wage you are accustomed to. Budgeting is not just for low-income earners.

In fact, even high-income earners who don’t budget live paycheck to paycheck, worried about economic downturns or tax increases, because they have not budgeted or planned for the future. Although they earn more, they also spend more and purchase more expensive items, taking for granted that their job will always be there or that they will always be able to earn the same income. That is not always the case. Life can take very unexpected turns. The current pandemic is a perfect example of that fact.

When you take responsibility of something, you also take control of it. When you take control, you need to have a vision of where you want to go or where you want to be.

If numbers and money bore you, then instead focus on that vision for yourself and use your budget as the road map to get you to your destination.

The sacrifice of enjoyment need not be so expensive if you take joy, not in the process, but in the destination toward which you are moving.

“It’s overwhelming”

Image by Gerd Altmann taken from Pixabay

I can’t help but feel that people think they need to sit down and “figure out their finances” in one session, have everything sorted out by the end of that one session, and have it remain sorted out, without any oversight or continued maintenance!

Well, that just won’t happen, and I’m not surprised people are overwhelmed if that is how they approach doing their finances.

I believe that finances are best approached slowly, but consistently. Dedicate only 10 minutes (heck even 5 minutes to start) every single night. Set a timer and “do your finances” until time’s up. Stop immediately. The following night, pick up where you left off.

If you do this every night, chances are that, by the end of the month, you will have a pretty good idea of where you are at, financially, along with a good indication of what you can be doing differently to be closer to where you want to be. All without having lost your sanity.

If you can afford it, hire a good accountant or financial advisor to assist you in the process. Dedicate an additional 10 minutes a day to do your research so you can find a professional you feel confidence in. You can ask people you know and trust for recommendations.

Chances are that you did not land yourself in a financial pickle overnight. So don’t expect to solve your financial woes overnight, either. Make the time to chip away at the beast. If you like the idea of having professional help, give yourself a few months to research and interview possible candidates to find the best fit.

If you can’t hire a professional and are at a loss of how to start, check out my other articles; I show you how to create a practical budget by breaking down my own process step-by step.

You do not have to sacrifice your sanity or mental health to have and maintain a budget.

“Don’t want to think about it”

Image by Frank’a W taken from Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know of any situation where burying one’s head in the sand was ever a good idea. Ignoring a bad situation does not make that situation go away, and the consequences will be no less devastating when they come to pass.

When I was younger, I felt a great deal of discomfort, even embarrassment, when thinking about money. It felt wrong, even dirty, to discuss it aloud. So, I do sympathize, to some degree, with people who do not want to think about their finances, whatever their own reasons may be.

Still, a house on fire won’t stop burning just because you refuse to look at it. And if it’s a house you inhabit, you will burn right along with it.

It is very rarely too late to start mitigating damage done by excessive spending. Depending on a person’s financial situation, the actions needed to start building a cushion of security may be easier said than done.

Much metaphorical blood may have to be sweated to reach the eventual harvest of financial independence. It may require sacrificing one’s favourite activities at the alter of fiscal security.

But it is possible.

Conclusion: Seek out your discomfort

I suspect that excuses such as the ones discussed in this article can be boiled down to the same root cause: it is often incredibly uncomfortable, even painful, sacrificing immediate pleasures for future benefits.

Even when the benefits are ones that practically everyone aspires to—financial security and peace of mind—in practice, very few are actually prepared to do the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it: 32% if you’re American and 49% if you’re Canadian.


Head over to the series master post to start the series from the beginning or to find a specific article within the series.

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