This article was originally written for and published on Business Insider
Tired of struggling with a budget? Frustrated with yourself for trying your best but finding yourself still overspending or not sticking to what you set?
I’m going to let you in on the secret to building a budget that actually works for you, that you can keep over time, that will be a tool to help you achieve goals.
And here it is: If you want to be successful with budgeting, don’t start with a bunch of numbers. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but there’s a better way.
Lack of clarity on your why makes budgeting a challenge
Almost everyone I talk to who struggles to build and maintain a budget has the same thing in common: They might know how much they make and how much they spend every month, but they don’t have a long-term vision for what they want to do with that money.
In other words, people go wrong with budgeting when they only think about the numbers. While knowing your financial reality is critical, it’s not enough on its own.
You also have to understand what you value in life. If you don’t know what’s most important to you, it’s almost impossible to know how to prioritize where your dollars go.
Your budget should reflect your values
Good decisions on spending and saving start with knowing what you actually want to do in your life, now and in the future.
That doesn’t mean you need to have a long list of specific goals in order to budget well. But you do need to understand your core values — which have nothing to do with dollars and cents — so that you can align your spending with things that reflect those values.
Here’s the process, step by step, for getting clear on what’s most important to focus on for you:
Create a timeline of your life, from now until age 100
Identify what you want to enjoy and achieve in 12 months, 1 to 5 years, 6 to 15 years, 16 to 20 years, and 20-plus years into the future. (This is probably the hardest part!)
If you could only accomplish one thing on your timeline, what would it be? That’s priority №1. Repeat until you have an ordered list.
Check in with your financial reality
This is what most people get wrong with their budget: They worry about the numbers first. But it’s the third step!
Only after getting clear on what actually matters to you will you have the context you need to make decisions about how to allocate money within your budget.
Now that you have that, you can ask: How much money comes in and goes out each month? What does your current spending look like?
And what needs to change to free up more money to allocate toward the things you just identified as most important to you?
And by the way: Don’t waste time trying to find the perfect system
Even when you get clear on your priorities, there’s another potential pitfall that could stop you from building a budget that works: trying to find the “best” budgeting system.
Why? Because there is no such thing.
There are countless ways and methods of managing your personal finances and cash flow each month (or even each quarter), and there is no one “right” answer.
At its core, budgeting is just a way of tracking your spending and saving so you understand what your money actually does and ensure you stay on the right course to achieving your goals.
This could be as simple as using a spreadsheet that you update manually, or as complex as using a paid software platform like You Need A Budget. Or you could go offline entirely and use a cash envelope system, if that’s the strategy that works best to keep you on track.
Experiment with different solutions. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Remember, the best budget for you is the one that makes sense — and that you’ll actually use.