Why Budgeting Isn't Really About Money

Do you remember that viral online dating video that was going around a few years ago, where the woman tried to talk about herself and kept breaking into “sorry, I’m thinking about cats again”?


Yeah, that’s me - but with budgeting instead of cats. #nojoke

*sings a love song to budgeting*

Before your eyes roll completely out of your head, let me explain something about budgeting. It’s not really about money. 

We are used to thinking of budgeting in terms of money, sure - but we also budget lots of other things, whether we are conscious of it or not. Budgeting is a fancy way of saying “resource allocation” - or, deciding how we’ll use a finite amount of something. We also have finite amounts of time, energy, and mental space, and whether or not we're aware, we’re constantly planning how we’ll use those resources. We make plans, shift those plans as things change, and constantly balance how we’ll use what we have left of whatever we’re using. Sound a little familiar? That’s because that’s called budgeting!

I recently started an experiment, because I’m a #nerd like this, where I created a budget for my time (in YNAB, because it’s the best). Just like my money budget, I set up a plan for how I’d use my time, knowing how much I had to work with in a given week. I figured out my non-negotiable obligations (like sleeping, eating, and taking care of things like basic hygiene), and added categories for all the other things that I wanted to use my time on. I had some broad categories like work, or personal and family time, that I broke down into smaller categories (i.e. client work vs. administrative tasks, alone time vs. family time). I set up my budget so it would be as easy as possible for me to keep up with by adding automatic recurring inflows of time at the beginning of each week, and adding some goals and notes to remind me of things like how many hours in a week I’d like to allocate for sleeping (8 hrs x 7 days = 56 hours a week).

A real-life snapshot of my Toggl timer for my day.

A real-life snapshot of my Toggl timer for my day.

And then, I started tracking my time. The budget is the plan, but then you need the reality so you can learn, change, and make better decisions. I started using Toggl to track my time, which I like because it’s simple, free basic tracking, and is available on all the platforms I needed it (desktop, web, mobile). I set up Toggl using the same categories in my budget (using Projects as categories). Each morning I take about 5 minutes to enter the time I spent the previous day on what. So far it’s been enlightening! I’ve been doing it for about a week and it’s already standing out to me how much time I spend on the time suck known as “getting ready for the day”. For me this includes getting dressed, cleaning myself up, eating breakfast with the family, and taking a family stroll around the neighborhood with the dog. It’s averaging just under 90 minutes a day. That, in turn, is contributing to my feeling of “I’m not getting enough done in a day!” because I’m not getting started until at least 90 minutes after I get up in the morning, and that’s assuming I somehow manage to get out of bed without a 30 minute “internet hole” (yes, that’s a category in my time budget!).

So what does this have to do with budgeting money? What I just described is budgeting at its best. I was feeling a little like I wasn’t managing an important, finite resource well, though there wasn’t anything terribly wrong, it just didn’t feel well cared for. I took the view of a scientist - I made a hypothesis (the budget) about how things would go, I gathered data (the tracking), and then I learned from the results. With the numbers in front of me, I went from “I think I spend my time like this” to “I actually spend my time like this, but would like it to be like that”. Now I can see the leaks - where I am spending more time than I’d like to - and the holes - places I hadn’t accounted for needing the resource at all - in my budget, and adjust accordingly. Which is...exactly how money budgeting should go! So why is budgeting our money so much harder?

The primary difference is that we have a lot more feelings about how we manage our money than we do about how we manage our time. Sure, there are definitely stereotypes (usually along class, gender, and racial lines) about who is a harder worker, who uses their time better, who is ‘lazy’. But because everyone has the same amount of time, there isn’t quite the same parallel to having a big bank account, or having fancy stuff because you used your resource so well that you were able to accumulate a lot of it or leverage it in a way that makes you look successful. And because we all have the same amount of hours in a day, there’s a sense of shared struggle that is different than with money. People don’t blame themselves (or their parents, or their spouses) as often for their own time management as they do just life happening and being busy and demanding. But when we talk about money, there’s so much fear, shame, and blame going on. It doesn’t help that you can go into debt with money in a way that you can’t with time.

I hope that seeing this example of budgeting your time gives you a sense of how budgeting your money can go, if you take a different attitude. The attitude you want here is one of loving detachment, which originated as a way to deal with a family member struggling with substance abuse and addiction. The idea, in a nutshell, is that an addict "cannot learn from their mistakes if they are overprotected." Now, only you know whether your spending patterns have reached the point of needing professional intervention, but I've yet to meet a single person who couldn't use at least some help in this area. In this example, you are both the addict and the family member. Come to this practice of dealing with your money with kindness for yourself, but not necessarily gentleness. Having a budget is not about making yourself feel bad, or controlling yourself or your partner. It’s about aligning your use of the resource to the way you actually need and want to use it. A budget, done right, gives you the information you need, when you need it, so that you can make informed decisions. That sounds like something we can all get behind.