While a budget can help you control spending and avoid debt, only a minority of people actually stick to a regularly updated budget.
In fact, 73% of Americans say they don't regularly follow a budget, according to a recent survey by OppLoans, a loan servicing company. What's more, 1 in 10 respondents say they don't keep any sort of budget at all. OppsLoans surveyed 1,015 people across the U.S. earlier this year.
But that's OK, says Aja Evans, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in financial therapy.
"Do you need to track every single dollar coming in and out? Absolutely not," says Evans. "A budget is for making sure you have a plan or understand where your money is going."
In addition to the hassle of tracking expenses, sticking to a budget is "hard for people psychologically," as they tend to associate them with self-denial, says Evans. But a budget isn't just about restrictions, she says. It can also help you prioritize things you enjoy, like dining out or going on vacation.
People often think "if I don't keep a budget, or I'm not good at following the budget, there's something wrong with me," says Nathan Astle, a licensed financial therapist and founder of Relational Money. "Shame is the enemy of change," he says, since these negative feelings can discourage people from budgeting altogether.
For most people, it's fine to not stick to a strict budget. But "if you have no clue where your money's going, and you're running out of money in the middle of the month, then yes, it might be time to create a budget," Evans says.
There are all sorts of approaches to budgeting, but the most effective method will be what works best for you, says Evans.
A budget can be as simple as writing down your income and expenses on a piece of paper, as she does. Or it could be an 80/20 budget, or a 50/30/20 budget tracked in a spreadsheet, or by using budgeting apps like Mint or Goodbudget. What's most important is that you find a method you can do consistently.
And if you can't find the time to do it each month, don't stress over it too much, Evans says. That's especially true if you have a cushion of discretionary income, your debt is getting paid off and your expenses are fixed and stable. Only getting to it some months is better than not at all.