What to do if your budget breaks

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®Managing Editor & Certified Financial Planner™Hanna Horvath, CFP®, is a certified financial planner and former managing editor at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in NBC News, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Best Company, and HerMoney.

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Living on a budget can be difficult. While it’s a great way to monitor your financial health, going over your allocated spending month after month can cause frustration.

Instead of giving up, it’s best to take a step back and take stock of your budget. Most of the time, budgets fail because they are poorly planned or executed. But just a few tweaks can put you back on the right path.

Here’s what to do if your budget breaks.

1. Focus on the problem categories

It’s likely that only one or two budget categories are the major offenders. It could be your recurring takeout bill or your monthly shopping spree. Either way, it’s best to focus on reducing spending in those categories instead of revamping your entire budget.

But avoid going from one extreme to the other. It’s unrealistic for someone who eats out all the time to go straight to meal prepping. Be realistic about what you can cut back on, and forgive yourself if you don’t get it right every month.

2. Prioritize saving

When you’re budget falls apart, it's tempting to lower your savings limit to accommodate your overspending. But savings should remain top of mind, as they protect you against financial emergencies. You don't want to stop paying yourself first, for instance, and then never start up again.

Automate your monthly savings contribution so you don’t forget. Worried about tapping your emergency funds for a non-emergency? Open a savings account in a different bank. (Our partner Even Financial can help you compare and open a high-yield savings or money market account.) It’ll take a couple days for transfers to go through, which curbs impulse buys.

3. Keep it simple

I’m a control freak, and my budget spreadsheet reflects that — it has over 15 categories. While itemizing everything you spend money on may make you feel in control, it also makes you more likely to quit. Case in point: Anytime I went over my $30 coffee budget, I would get frustrated, even if my spending was down in other categories.

If your current budget isn't working, consider keeping it simple. Try the popular 50/30/20 budget, which has you organize your budget into three simple buckets: needs, wants and savings. This budget stresses balance, and gives you the freedom to spend, within reason, without feeling too constrained.

4. Create physical spending barriers

You can’t spend money you don’t have. Leave your credit card at home or have it available for emergencies only. You’re more likely to notice how much you’re spending if you use cash, so sticking to paper can keep you from making impulse purchases.

With budgeting, persistence is key. Like with any habit, adjusting to a budget takes time. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it completely right the first couple of months.

Want to get started? Check out this easy, downloadable budgeting spreadsheet.

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