Why Budgeting Fails

Corey —  May 17, 2010

       I recently watched a series of interesting videos on TED.com about the psychology of motivation and decisions. One in particular got me to thinking about why budgeting fails. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, talked about his experience as a burn victim and the research he later did on pain. His question was whether it’s better to rip off bandages faster (high intensity of pain, short duration) or take them off slower (lower intensity, longer duration).

       What he found after extensive experimentation was that our brains don’t seem to register or remember duration as much as intensity. In other words, slower removal of bandages is better. You can hear him talk about this in the first few minutes of his talk. I’ve included the video below if you want to watch right now.

How Does This Relate to Budgeting?

       In thinking about Dan’s findings, I wondered if this could be why budgeting fails. Generally, we approach budgeting like ripping off a bandage. We go through every category of our budget ripping a little (or a lot) off of each area all at once. Effectively, we’re making our budgets extremely intense in terms of the pain we experience. Since we seek to avoid pain, we often abandon our attempt at budgeting and proclaim that it doesn’t work.

An Alternative Approach

       What if we made budgeting a bit more like slowly taking off the bandage? What if we kept the pain low (or at least a bit lower) but extended the time it takes? Here’s an example of how this would work.

       First, you’d need to track your spending so you know exactly where your money is going. I’m not talking to the penny – rounded to the nearest dollar is good enough. (I’ve written in the past about tracking your spending.)

       Next, take a look over your spending for the past month (or 3 months). Pick one or two areas you want to focus on saving money (or earning more). You can find ways to cut back, get a better deal, or replace it with something else that costs less. The key is that you keep the pain level low by only focusing on a little bit of “deprivation” at a time. The same approach can be used for increasing your earnings. Rather than going from 40 hours a week to 60, you can find incremental ways to improve your income.

       Then, you repeat this process over and over. Track your spending, review it, pick a couple areas to cut back on, and repeat. It will take you longer to get to your final destination (that unrealistic budget you tried but failed at), but you’ll actually get there rather than giving up.

       I don’t think this would be a smart method for someone in crisis mode. If your spending significantly exceeds your income, you obviously need to take drastic measures right away (cutting back or earning more). But for many people who aren’t in crisis mode, this approach may be much more effective and successful than the all-at-once, cut-back-everywhere budgeting method.

       I don’t think this is the only reason traditional budgeting fails. Wojciech at Fiscal Fizzle talked about ten reasons why budgets fail and highlights some other pitfalls you may have to consider.

Your Take

       What do you think about this idea? Have you used this model for improving your financial situation? Did it work for you? Do you think it’s too idealistic or foolish? What am I missing? Can it be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments and let me know.



Corey is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in religion. While he enjoys learning and writing about Christianity, another one of his new passions is writing about personal finances in order to help others make wise decisions with their money.

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