Why Some Experts Say Budgeting Doesn't Help You Build Wealth. Have You Fallen into the Budgeting Trap?

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Eighty percent of Americans (in a survey of more than 1,000 individuals) say that they have a budget, according to Debt.com. According to the site, it’s the highest number of respondents who have claimed a budget compared to the past four years.

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But let’s be honest. Have you ever actually met people who have budgeted their way to millions? 

Probably not. It’s more likely that they invested rigorously, bought investment properties or started a business.

So why the uptick in budgeting? Why do Americans enjoy budgeting? (Isn’t it kind of like dieting?)

Let’s go over the reasons why budgeting alone doesn’t actually help you build wealth, according to some experts.

Reason 1: Budgeting is not investing.

Budgeting is not investing — it’s all about minding your pennies. You might think this statement seems strange or obvious, but it deserves some consideration. Instead of investing immediately, budgeting puts a priority on setting aside portions of money to pay bills and not overspending. In and of itself, you don’t generate cash for yourself when you budget. Putting a priority on budgeting actually sidetracks you from exploring solid ways to expand your wealth.

Reason 2: Investing before budgeting may make more sense.

Instead of budgeting to invest, why not invest first? It may help you build wealth more quickly. 

Here’s a common scenario: 

  1. You bring in a specific amount of income each month. 
  2. You put all the money where it’s supposed to “go” — you know, in those “envelopes” designated for specific savings. 
  3. Then, you find out that your car needs new tires or you realize you need to replace your HVAC system. 
  4. All great intentions of budgeting during the month go out the window because you find out you don’t have “extra” money to invest.  

When you invest before you budget, or when you pay yourself first (we’ll discuss this tactic below), you put investing at the forefront and spend your time focused on that.

Reason 3: Budgets often put investing as a last priority.

Unfortunately, budgeting sometimes causes investing to show up last on the priority list and puts paying bills first. When you fall short of your budget, it might lead you to think that you can’t invest. You might believe you must take on a part-time job, spend less or choose a different job. The reality is that you might have more than you think if you reverse your priorities. 

Invest first, then pay bills and keep an eye on spending. Help your money work for you.

What You Can Do Instead of Budgeting

What might you do to build wealth instead of focusing on a budget? Let’s take a look.

Step 1: Pay yourself first.

What does the term “pay yourself first” actually mean? It means you contribute money toward your own savings and investment accounts first. You pay for your future by putting long-term needs and expenses on your radar. Let’s look at a few examples of how you might pay yourself first each month. You might:

  • Put money into a 401(k) or IRA
  • Plump up your health savings account (HSA)
  • Create an emergency fund for future expenses 
  • Save for college for your kids

You pay your future self by saving before you spend a penny of your hard-earned income.

Step 2: Focus on saving a percentage of your income. 

Let’s take “pay yourself first” a step further. Focus on saving a percentage of your income. Many experts recommend saving at least 15% of your income in a diversified portfolio.

As long as you save at least 15% per month, think of it this way — it doesn’t really matter how you spend the remaining 85% of your money. As long as you meet your savings goal, you’ll attain the savings milestones you’ll need to hit. If you continue to do that for the rest of your life, you should have more than enough for your golden years.

If you think you can’t immediately save 15% of your income, consider building the amount up slowly. Start with just 5%, then slowly increase the rate at which you save money in your IRA or 401(k). You’ll feel the bite less if you incrementally raise the amount you save. 

Take a look at a few more tactics to help you get to your 15% goal: 

  • Save your extra paychecks. If you get paid biweekly, you’ll get about two extra paychecks throughout the year. Save that money when they show up.
  • Kick your bonus toward savings. If your employer gives out a year-end bonus, use that to make it to your 15% of investment savings for the month. You’ll end up with more discretionary income because you’ll already have been putting money toward your investments automatically. 
  • Comb through your expenditures. While this sounds a lot like a budgeting tactic, looking for ways you waste money can help you come up with the 15% to budget more.  

Step 3: Allocate your money in the best way possible.

What is asset allocation? 

It involves dividing an investment portfolio among different asset categories, such as stocks, bonds, and cash. The best mix of assets for you depends on your time horizon and risk tolerance. 

In other words, how long do you have to save? If you’re 30 and plan to retire at 60, you have 30 years to let your money build up. How you invest over the course of 30 years depends on your risk tolerance. Are you okay with taking on riskier stocks or do you feel more comfortable keeping your money in lower-risk bonds? 

Put together a portfolio that can help you arrive at your goals. The right combination of investments can help you get there, but you have to consider your needs and goals first and foremost.

Skip the Budget, Build Wealth Instead 

Don’t worry so much about everyday expenses. (Many budgeting apps try to get you to focus on that, rather than the bigger financial picture.) 

Set your money goals, make sure that you save enough to reach them, and tell yourself that as long as you’re saving enough each month, why does it matter where your extra money goes?

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