How I Got My Budget Under Control So That I Can Finally Take My Dream Vacation

I went from hating budgeting to finding it empowering—and you can, too.
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I went from hating budgeting to finding it empowering—and you can, too.

I will let you in on a little secret: I dreaded budgeting. I thought that only finance or accounting majors could do it successfully, thinking it involved a series of complex spreadsheets and impossible formulas. Maybe it comes from my grad school days when it felt like working part-time while going to school full-time and being a teacher’s assistant was never enough to get by, no matter how budget-savvy I was.

Fast-forward a few years, and even though I am working as a therapist now, my averse attitude toward budgeting stuck with me. If I had my way, I would never have to look at my bank account. Someone else would handle retirement and savings and emergency funds. And for a while, I was able to ignore the need to manage my money. But when I decided that I finally wanted to take my dream trip to Europe and find my own place to live, I couldn’t put it off anymore. I needed a budget.

So, how did I finally manage to make a budget and stick to it? Honestly, it was way less painful than I thought it would be. Here’s what I did.

I Changed My Mindset

If you’re like me, you hear the word “budget” and shudder because it brings to mind images of color-coded spreadsheets and complicated formulas. While some people I know revel in these, this is my personal nightmare. I never remember to enter my data, or I keep putting it off because, well, there are other things I’d rather do.

Another downfall? Just the word “budget” alone seems to imply restriction, and who likes that? But after I realized that this view was left over from my scrimping-and-saving grad school days, I decided to shift my mindset. I created a Mint profile and linked all of my accounts to it. Not only did it give me an instant snapshot of where I stood financially, but it also categorized all my expenses so that I could keep track of my spending. Once I learned that it didn’t involve spreadsheets and wasn’t about denying myself everything, I found budgeting empowering. It gave me a feeling of being in control. All it took was signing up for an app. I only wish I had done it sooner.

I Defined My Financial Goals

Knowing what you want to save for is another crucial step in creating a budget. And it’s important to be as specific as possible, says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz in her financial advice column for The Charles Schwab Corporation. Using the SMART approach (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) gives you a concrete and tangible goal to work with.

“I want to take a trip to Europe” was not nearly specific enough. I had to list all the things I would want to do while there. This meant writing down cost estimates for airfare, hotels, meals, museums, transportation, and souvenirs. The cost of an average vacation is $3,200, according to Wells Fargo. But sites such as Budget Your Trip can help you calculate a more accurate cost based on average expenses in various cities. Based on my research and my ideal itinerary (eating lots and lots of pizza and gelato in Rome), I was looking to spend a week in Europe for around $2,000. Once I had the specific dollar amount that I needed to save for, I was able to create a SMART savings plan to go along with it.

I Set a Time Frame

No matter what your goal is, setting a deadline gives you a time frame within which you can structure your savings plan. I’m hoping to go to Europe in June, which gives me about six months to meet my budgeting goal. April Dykman, writer for Get Rich Slowly, recommends dividing the estimated cost by the number of months you’ve given yourself to meet your goal.

You can also use online tools such as Bank of America’s Savings Calculator. If my vacation will cost $2,000, and I’d like to go in six months, I’ll need to set aside about $334 a month for my “travel budget” (assuming I’m starting from scratch with no savings). The most important thing for me was to make sure that I had enough to pay for my trip before I left. Adding my travel budget to Mint was easy. It even recommended online savings account options where I can automatically deposit a set amount for my goal on a recurring schedule.

I Made It Easy for Myself

One of the best things you can do to set yourself up for success is to make the process as seamless as possible. If it weren’t easy to save each month, I wasn’t going to do it, plain and simple. Self-awareness is helpful in situations such as these.

One recommendation I came across again and again was to open a separate account with automatic deposits for your specific budget. Ashley Bartlett, who successfully saved to go on a six-month sabbatical in France, recommends opening a savings account that makes it difficult to withdraw funds so that you’re not tempted to dip in to your special fund. Keeping the money you’ve budgeted for your goal separate from other funds makes it easier to keep tabs on how you’re doing. Additionally, setting up a weekly or monthly automatic transfer helps make the process as streamlined as possible. After setting it up, you’ll barely have to think about it again.

I Keep Myself Inspired

Because I will be saving for the next six months, I need to ensure that my motivation doesn’t dwindle. I didn’t want to find myself skimping because I wanted to make some other purchase. The popular savings program by Dave Ramsey says that making your goal a priority is key to it being a success. For me, that means talking to my friends about the exciting things we are going to do on our trip. Did I already mention how much I’m longing for the pizza and gelato from the last time I was in Rome (years ago and when I could least afford it)? I also plan on creating an inspiration board on Pinterest so that I can save restaurants, museums, and landmarks that I’ve wanted to visit.

Bottom line: It turns out that budgeting can be relatively straightforward and achievable with a little planning and minimal anguish. Rather than limiting me, having a realistic budget has been empowering and liberating. I’m fully aware of how and when to use my money. Best of all, no dreadful spreadsheets are necessary. Believe me, if I can budget without bursting into tears, so can you.

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