Why Budgeting Is Really So Hard

by Jane Doyle ; Updated July 27, 2017
Money carries deep emotional feelings for many people.

Most people know they don't like budgeting. Generally, they chalk it up to obvious reasons: Budgeting is tedious, or fiscal self-discipline is a drag. According to Los Angeles-based family therapist Ashley Rogers, however, there's a lot more at play.

Most people's feelings about money are connected to deeply felt needs for security, freedom, control and happiness.

"We connect money with punishment and reward," said Rogers, who specializes in family therapy and addiction recovery. "If we think, 'I'm going to buy myself something to reward myself,' and there's not enough money in the budget, we start panicking and thinking, 'I can't buy myself anything. I can't reward myself. I can't have anything.' "

The emotional stuff you haven't dealt with, the emotional holes you've been trying to fill with money that you really don't want to think about, are all tied up with finances and how you live your life.

Ashley Rogers, Los Angeles-based family therapist

Money and Emotions

For many people, money is the deepest need. Having a retirement account means you're secure; not having enough to cover the bills creates anxiety about your safety. Having a good salary and a nice car, to many, means you're a success; not having them means you're a loser. Many people either aren't aware of these associations or they accept them as gospel, not as a personal perspective.

That's because most of our ideas about money come from our parents and our childhoods, according to Julie Murphy Casserly's book, "The Emotion Behind Money: Building Wealth from the Inside Out." In her own experience, growing up in a large family where there was never enough of anything and she often had to help support the family, she learned to spend money as fast as she made it. Her innate idea was that if she didn't buy what she wanted now, the money might not be there later.

When people budget, they actually look at where the money should go rather than impulsively putting it toward the thing that soothes their emotions. And if that means there's not enough to spend in the areas they use to feed those emotions, their anxiety rises, Rogers said.

Without realizing why, we flee from the process of budgeting because of that anxiety. But most of us don't understand that. In fact, we're baffled by our inability to do what usually amounts to filling in boxes and doing simple math.

"The emotional stuff you haven't dealt with, the emotional holes you've been trying to fill with money that you really don't want to think about, are all tied up with finances and how you live your life," Rogers said.

Facing It

If you want to do a budget, you must be willing to face all the feelings that arise when you sit down to do it. Rogers recommends letting the emotions you're feeling surface enough that you can really see what they are.

Some physiological tricks might make it easier. An Aug. 21 New York Times Magazine article by John Tierney titled "To Choose is to Lose" examines the results of a study social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. The research indicates that people have only so much mental energy available for decision-making and self-control. The later in the day you approach your budget, the more depleted your mental resources are likely to be. Tackling the budget first thing in the morning may help, even if you do have some other emotions that rise up and assail you.

The point is, our dread of budgeting isn't quite as mysterious as it seems. But in these frail economic times, it's worth it to break down the emotional walls and face it.

Money Issues Times Two

One partner sees money as security. The other sees it as freedom. One partner believes expensive haircare is crucial to her sense of well being. The other says having a new car every two years is crucial to his. They begin to argue, and the next thing you know, money isn't just security, freedom or self-esteem: It's now control. That's why money is one of the chief reasons for divorce.

To avoid this unhappy ending, sit down at the start of a relationship and talk about your ideas — and their origins — regarding money. Most people don't do this. If there are two of you, you may need to individually explore what anxiety buttons budgeting triggers in you, then bring those issues to a discussion once you've identified them. It may even take a little counseling to work it all out. But if it leads to a successful partnership — both financially and personally — you're well ahead of the pack.

About the Author

Jane Doyle has been writing for newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years. She served as associate editor for a business/lifestyle publication and has written articles for magazines ranging from "Bank Director" to "Natural Home." Doyle holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas.

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