What mindsets do you use to NOT spend $ you don’t have?

I have been living paycheck to paycheck forever and I’ve never been successful at not spending more than I have. It has become a default mindset where, its like, oh, I’m broke anyway, so what does it matter that I buy this or that, there’s never enough so might as well get the things I need for this month. When I set budgets, I always go over so its become pretty demoralizing, like what’s the point. I have tried writing down and re-reading all the reasons why I want financial freedom but when it comes to our monthly expenses, restraint just goes out the window. I’m one month in YNAB (but not new to tracking spending) and i keep increasing the budget number and drawing from the loan account to cover what we spend. It feels hopeless. 

I know there’s a whole world of people out there to which this kind of thinking is crazy and I really want to hear from you and learn from you. How do I become someone who strictly spends what we earn, never mind the “buts” and the excuses? But to just buckle up and say I don’t have the money for that, so no.  I read many FIRE movement/get out of debt books and blogs and feel momentarily inspired but always reverts back to old habits ..... 


To give myself some credit, i’ve made some big changes over the past decade, but still nowhere near the “only spend money that i have” goal. Our income is above average. 

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  • Powder Blue Stallion said:
    I know there’s a whole world of people out there to which this kind of thinking is crazy

    I don't think it's crazy. It's a mindset, as you pointed out. I never used to look ahead at the rest of my likely expenses before spending something (this was before YNAB.) I just always figured there would be a way to cover any overspending. That was a serious problem.

    Once I got YNAB 4 set up and got into the habit of watching my spending categories before clicking "Purchase" or heading over to the electronics store to "get that thing I think I want," things got more controlled. After a journey of several steps, I'm now six weeks ahead in my budget, and that's growing.

    The native credit-card handling in nYNAB works like a charm for me. I know others have problems; some even suggest setting up CCs as checking accounts. I tried that, but went back to the native setup because it paints a truer picture -- to me, anyway -- of my credit-card status: I think of it as an extension of my possible debt, rather than a fake asset account. That might be just me, but all my CCs are PIF every month: those green "Available" figures are a thing of beauty to me.

    Just try adopting the "mindset" that the budget is there for a reason. If you're not going to stick to it, give up. Plain and simple. It's up to you: not an app.

    Like 5
  • Maybe this will help:  think of budgeting as a survival skill. Like if you were going camping for 3 days, what would happen if you ate all the food the first day? The food was a limited resource that was going to last 3 days. With careful planning it could have. Without planning it's gone and you're eating pine cones or tree bark. There's a lot of examples where something needs budgeted, like site seeing on a vacation (time is limited), speed on a long distance run (energy is limited), healthy eating (calories should be limited), length of this reply, etc. If you're tracking expenses, I think you're half way there. 

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  • Powder Blue Stallion said:
    How do I become someone who strictly spends what we earn, never mind the “buts” and the excuses?

    By first being someone who tries do it. It may be that you get to do it slowly and fail a lot - I quit smoking cigarettes a lot of times before it finally stuck. It's important to give yourself credit for making changes. 

    When you say "might as well get the things I need for this month" how are you defining need? One of the kinda brutal first steps in YNAB is the assessment of whether your income is enough to cover your obligations. I was scared of the first budget meeting with my spouse because I didn't know. 

    Do you have a different interval than a month? We meet weekly & on paydays to decide what we're going to buy. Mostly this is a grocery list as we have one basic goal, zero the credit cards while covering our obligations and a very narrowly defined set of needs - groceries & household goods.

    Don't give up & don't beat yourself up. Make value neutral assessments of your pattern and try to understand why you won't exercise restraint. Maybe talk to a trusted friend about the goals you've made for yourself and ask them to help you judge whether they're realistic and whether you're on task. 

    Like 5
  • To answer the actual post title: "What mindsets do you use to NOT spend $ you don’t have?"

    I use the mindset that every dollar I spend while I have credit card debt is less powerful if I'm not paying off the debt with it. It's like looking at the price tag of an item and increasing it by 20% - do I really want to spend that for this

    I use the mindset that the longer term, expensive things I want (a new garage, a European vacation, more camera lenses) aren't impossible and I can make them happen sooner by forgoing other non-necessary things. 

    These mindsets reflect my current goals and priorities - and I think that discovering the sense of control practicing these priorities gives me is literally therapeutic. 

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    • Melissa
    • Routinely questioning every assumption I have about my budget, my spending, and my savings habits.
    • todays_mel
    • 2 yrs ago
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    My mindset to not spend money I didn't budget for is:  "How does spending these dollars now, set me back in my other needs or wants later?" Because there is always a trade-off, and I need to be honest with myself before hitting the purchase button or walking into a physical store.

    If you don't have categories set up for your goals (whether they are wants or needs), create those categories. Define them and put them in a Main Category group at the top of your budget. When you open YNAB, in the web or app version, you see those first. For example, maybe your Main Category is "Things I'm Working My Butt Off For", or whatever is the equivalent motivator you need, and then create those subcategories below it so they are defined and not abstract. 

    Getting into the habit of opening YNAB before making any purchases and seeing those priorities and goals will remind you of what you're working towards. You'll have good days and not so good days, but keep reminding your self of your forward progress regardless of whether you had to take some steps backward.

    Like 3
  • JoeDid said:
    got into the habit of watching my spending categories before clicking "Purchase" or heading over to the electronics store to "get that thing I think I want,"

    ^^^ This is what it takes. ^^^

    If there is not enough money in the category, make it a rule to move funds IN ADVANCE of spending. This makes you aware of the consequence of your spending BEFORE it's too late to skip the purchase.

    Sometimes you can find a lower priority category from which to move funds. That's great, as it's better aligning the spending plan with your priorities. Other times, though, you may not find a lower priority category, and it's much easier to skip when you know what will suffer or be delayed as a result.

    Like 9
  • Another trick might be to force you to wait to buy something. Say you see this great stuff you think you need. Don't buy it before the next day. If you still want it (and you can get the budget to work for it), get it. Else, add a category in your budget for it.

    Or if you are doing something at home, and you say: "I need to go buy this to finish". Don't go. Again wait 24 hours. You might find you already had "this" or you may find another solution with what you had at home etc.

    And as the others said: it is much easier to save if you have a goal you really really want to spend this money on. While today is more important than anything else, it won't work.

    Like 4
  • My answer is the same as JoeDid and dakinemaui . You have to practice Finding the Money First. https://www.youneedabudget.com/find-the-money-first/

    Like 5
  • Try the envelope system for awhile.  I used envelopes for my first 6 months or so of budgeting and it really helped me to learn to check whether the money is budgeted before I make a purchase or I get really embarrassed.

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  • I was a very bad impulse buyer and I learned the habit from my mom.  It was a viscous cycle that kept me backwards further than even just paycheck to paycheck. My debt was stupid, using credit cards to buy something I wanted and then paying 20+% interest for that item. The thing that kicked me in the butt was when I realized I financed a loan on my paid off truck to cover a credit card debt that had gotten out of control, paid off the credit card and in a year I had that same credit card back up to that same debt level. I was now paying interest on both....

    I went full budget starvation via the dave ramsey method, locked the credit cards in a fire box, put the fire box in a friends safe and then gave the key to a different friend (didn't want to cancel the cards as they did carry weight for my credit score in length of history as all payments were made on time even if they were just the min payment). I also called my credit union and had them reduce and lock my line of credit to $1k max.  Started using MINT to track all of my spending and budget for each month as it came.

    After about 18 months of this I pulled myself out of the hole I had dug myself into, still can't look at a package of Ramen noodles without cringing, and weened myself back into a normal budget diet. I now use the credit cards in the YNAB way as no different than my debit card so if the cash isn't in my checking account budget line for that category of item then I can't buy it.  Here I am 1 year later and looking back I can't believe I was almost $20k in credit card debt as now all of my card purchases are 100% cash funded at the time of purchase.

    It took me about 3 months to really settle into the new only spend what you have in cash method, but if the cash wasn't in the envelope then i couldn't spend it. I wish I had found YNAB to be more user friendly to my way of thinking then as I think I might be even further ahead now than I am since starting with YNAB late Aug 2019. When I looked at YNAB about 3 years ago it seemed much less useful than MINT without the linked accounts, website and phone app. 

    So, long story short/TLDR: You might have to do like I did and force yourself to starve those buying impulses in order to kill them and get ahead. 

    I am now a full month ahead in my budgeting with a healthy FUBAR/emergency fund and saving the 20% down-payment needed to build  the house I want in the school district I want my kids to go to with savings for new tech toys, motorcycle stuff, guns and other wants being slowly funded in the wish farm.

    Like 5
  • I do a no spend month in January each year. It's not easy. But it forces me to think about all the impulse buys, all the "wasted" money that I would normally have spent without much thought, and then with the benefit that I end the month with a little extra cash left over from all the impulse buys I normally would have spent. I still keep a list of the things I want to buy, and I can always decide the next month if I really need it or not (if it was a true impulse buy then the urge to buy it will be gone by then). It may not work for you but I see it as a bit of a detox, especially in January after the overindulgence and spending at Christmas!

    Like 6
  • Well, this used to be me prior to YNAB (Feb 2019). At this point I was 43 years old with about $5,000 to my name. And that, by the way, was because my spouse took pity on me. Not because I earned and saved it. I was quite frankly sick of being such a financial failure, but I didn't actually WANT to stop buying things to make myself feel better. I downloaded the trial and set everything up and that's sort of when it dawned on me. I make at least $1000 more a month than I'm using if I spend responsibly and I'm only paycheck-to-paycheck because of my shopping addiction. And if I get my S*** together, I can help my kids with college and I can have money for emergencies and medical things and school supplies and and and and... I forced myself to try it for a month, only spending $ that I have budgeted. I figured, I can try anything for a month. And funny enough, my shopping addiction was replaced by a YNAB + "see how much money I can hoard" addiction. 

    My suggestions for being successful:

    1. Carry a calculator at the grocery store. Don't go over your budget - put things back/use coupons/buy at cheaper stores to stretch the $
    2. When I'm tempted to buy something as a means of making myself feel better, I look at the category that is for me to spend from BEFORE searching the web or hitting the mall. If it's got $40, that's how much I can spend. Now that I've gotten out of the shopping mindset the $ just builds month after month and now if I want to buy an Apple Watch, I can. But, most of the time I don't even want to buy anything anymore
    3. At first, put a little more into each bill category than the bill will probably be. For example, I put an extra $50 into the power bill category at the start of the year, so that by summer I'll have a surplus for those expensive air conditioning months
    4. I've come to think of YNAB as a game. How cheap can I be today/this week and how much $ can I hoard together so that at the end of the month I can put more money into next month

    I know, I sound nuts, lol! But hey, it's working!

    Like 5
  • Are you a stick person or a carrot person?  [referring to how to make a stubborn mule move forward, you can either hit it with a stick (pain) or coax it with a carrot (reward)]

    If you can't implement positive change based on the promise of a rosier future and can only change when you have no choice (and based on your post, I suspect that may be the case), you may have to implement some (temporary) radical measures. Chances are the radical measures would only need to be in place for a little bit for shock value.

    It turns out I'm a stick person when it comes to implementing behaviour changes.  No amount of promises of wonderful futures ever worked in getting me to stop my spending.  For me it came down to scaring/embarrassing me with the repercussions of my bad decisions, and that was a pretty effective and frightening time in my life.  I came within a whisper of homelessness and experienced some hunger as well. This horrible time was my impetus to go radical, eliminate all access to credit, and implement the cash envelope system. It took a few months, and not being able to spend below zero is what finally fixed what was broken in me when it came to my understanding of money and cash flow.  I now think of this time in my life as my re-boot.

    Like 4
  • I've silently read a few of your posts and I've seen my past self (and sometimes my present self) in your words. I don't know if this will help, but I can hope it encourages you.


    For years (I'm only willing to admit to 10, but it's been longer), I've dreamed of the debt free, spend only what I have in my hand mindset. I believed that if I made more it would be easier -- I made more; it wasn't easier. I believed if my spouse was on board more, it would be easier -- he did; it wasn't easier. I believed if I really wanted it, I'd do it -- then beat myself up when I didn't do it because that was proof I was weak. I would read, I would talk, I would worry things to death trying to figure out why I wasn't capable of living within my means. I'm a smart person; I can do math -- there should have been no reason to have month at the end of my money -- and yet... always.

    I joined YNAB eons ago. I rebooted more times than I can count. I've fallen off the wagon, and fell under the wheels more than any human I know -- and yet, I get up and dust myself off again and start over. All the while, I beat myself up that I'm incapable of something so basic -- something I believe in my bones that I want...why can I not get there.

    Then -- tragedy happened. My husband lost his job. We lost 2/3 of our income overnight. I know this won't be forever; I know this will be a speed bump in our journey -- but damnit, it hurts. Instantly feel back to my YNAB planning -- how far can I get, what runway can I give my husband to find his next job....you know, the basics.  To do that, I went to my roots -- Dave Ramsey says protect the 4 walls: Ok, my salary can do that and a little extra - BREATHE. I drew a line in the budget and said, 'below this will wait' -- dang that hurt every ounce of my pride. But we do it.

    I've done the math -- 6 months after he gets his first pay check, we will be debt free.  SIX little bitty months. My worry, GONE. My fears, GONE. The toddler inside me saying "I deserve this thing because I make so much money," will just need to shut it for SIX months. I can do ANYTHING for SIX months. 

    Maybe I'm a stick person too --- but this was a huge wake-up call for my family. What smarts the most is that a few years ago, I thought "You know, we'd be out of debt, if we just lived on his income and throw all of mine to the debt." But alas, I needed the push to do it.


    So, you ask how and you'll see so many say you just do it. You see people who have fully buffered lives (that pile of cash you are jealous of), and think you'll never get there. You don't see those of us quietly in the corner hoping that we don't get a flat in our near bald tires because we need this one paycheck to pay the mortgage and there's nothing left. You don't know how many of those fully buffered people were once where you are -- and some of them aren't natural savers. I'm a spender, my husband is a spender. We aren't savers by nature -- never have been. We always made enough money to hide that we didn't have reserves. But I'll tell you, neither of us will ever go backwards after this 'speed bump.' 

    I say, you begin where you are RIGHT now -- with the cash you have right now. You budget your four walls. You don't put money into sinking funds for a rainy day, you pay debt, you create a baby emergency fund, you live on ONE income. You scale back as far as you have to to live within your means. Start there. Figure out what your 'means' buys you and decide that's good enough. 

    Good luck! Starting over 1000 times isn't failing...until you failed for the 1001st and refuse to start again.

    Like 3
  • Don't feel bad! I've never been a naturally frugal person, either. I look back on my highest earning years now and feel a lot of regret knowing that I could have saved so much more. Don't compare yourself to people who are naturally frugal. Others are wired differently, which will make it hard to relate. There's lots of people who were financially irresponsible but grew gradually over time.

    For me, it wasn't so much about getting money inspiration...it was changing my habits, little by little. A few things that helped:

    - Goodbye, Things, a book by Fumio Sasaki. He's a radical minimalist, but I like his idea that people should understand and reconcile with the true value of the things they own or be rid of them and enjoy the freedom.

    - After hitting rock bottom with my finances at the beginning of last year, one of the simple things I decided to try was: go just ONE day without spending money on something. That's it. If you like games, this can be fun. For some people, this might sound easy, but I was always buying stuff—a coffee here, a pastry there, something from Amazon that would get thrown away 2 weeks later, house decorations, redundant gear for a hobby. Going One. Single. Day. without buying stuff was a monumental difficulty for me. I had to make changes to my lifestyle that I'd never considered before, but were honestly pretty minor. Eventually, I got to two days without spending. Then three. Now I can go a week fairly easily if I want to. But I didn't leap there right away. Start small and mentally encourage yourself to meet the challenge. Tell a friend or loved one you trust to help with accountability.

    - Never buy anything online the moment you think about buying it. Always wait a few days...see how you feel later. Most of my purchases were impulse purchases. I felt a momentary high upon receiving them, and then they turned into clutter immediately.

    Most of all, don't expect perfection immediately! You can do it, but forgive yourself and stay the course.

  • Also you may want to check out: https://lynnesomerman.com/

  • What stops you from spending, when you do stop? (Is it the limit on the loan? The loan reaching a certain size?)

    What you’re talking about isn’t really learning a new habit and mindset, so much as getting less comfortable being that close to the edge.

    We all know someone who is comfortable spending all but the last $20 of their checking account. For someone else, it’s the last $200. For others, it’s the last $2,000 or $20,000. And for the debt-prone, they are comfortable as long as they’re within $X of their credit card limit or whatever. 

    YNAB trains you to be less comfortable near the financial edge. It slowly builds your “how far from the edge can I feel good about?” distance until eventually, you no longer even think much about the edge, because you’re happily budgeting and paying for both your wants and your needs, and you’re no longer feeling stuck choosing between the two!

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