Five ways to handle the stress of budgeting

Budgeting is a core part of being a MoneySaver, but for many it can feel a little daunting. However, avoiding it can have a negative impact on our mental health. As someone who's just started budgeting properly (at the grand old age of 46!), I've learned the following, which may help you too:

1) Becoming aware of my finances benefited my mental health

In the past I saw budgeting as a stressful exercise, something that restricted my spending and, therefore, my potential happiness. However, making the decision to try to address my budgeting shortcomings has been a revelation. I've noticed a positive impact on my mental health, both from budgeting and having a clearer overview of my finances.

But it wasn't an overnight change; it took baby steps. Being unaware of my outgoings has, in the past, meant that I've googled company names from my bank account app to see if I'm being defrauded out of cash – only to realise that, of course, yes, the amount tallies up with something I'd recently bought.

The more I worked on budgeting, the more I realised that I had been hiding away from knowing both what I spent and when I spent it, with spikes of horror or worry when I saw an amount leaving my account that felt wrong, or perhaps even like a scam. Best of all, budgeting means I actually have more to spend, as I check in with what I have, what I might want to spend and whether what I want to buy is worth it for me.

If you're ready to make some changes but still thinking 'but how do I budget?', then head on over to the Budget Planner for a step-by-step guide from Martin, including a downloadable free Budget Planner.

It might feel easy to avoid budgeting because you perceive – as I have in the past – that it restricts what you spend. However, I'd argue that the positive impact once you do embrace budgeting far outweighs this and, if you're feeling bogged down by your finances, it really is a gateway to a more positive money mindset.

2) Deciding to look for – and ask for – help was a big first step

Going from being a 'no budgeter' to a 'mega budgeter' is a bit like saying you'll run a marathon without even considering a Couch to 5k or Park Run. Much like enlisting a personal trainer, it's OK to ask for help. I say this as someone who is quite bad at asking for help! Asking for ideas from family or loved ones was futile for me as I knew their budgeting 'advice' would come across as 'telling me what to do'.

I decided to enlist the help of a financial mindset coach, although I know that's not free so perhaps not a budget-friendly option for everyone. Working with the coach allowed me to take control of the feelings budgeting gave me, and led, ultimately, to a feeling of control and liberation.

My efforts to find ways to change my mindset also led me to MSE's Mental Health & Debt booklet. This 44-page PDF is FREE and supported by Mind, Rethink and others, and covers how debt works when you're unwell, how to work with banks and even free debt-counselling. You could also consider contacting charities such as Citizens Advice or reading our Debt help guide.

And another key tool for me was Martin's Money Mantras, which you can even download to carry with you.

Here they are right now for you – in both cases, also ask: "Have I checked prices elsewhere?"

  • If you're skint, ask yourself: "Do I need it? Can I afford it?"

  • If you're not skint, ask yourself: "Will I use it? Is it worth it?"

3) I created smaller budget goals to ease myself into the budgeting mindset

If, like 'former me', you baulk at the thought of deciding how much to spend on what, then the idea of overhauling your budget can feel so overwhelming that you end up avoiding it altogether. However, when your head's in the sand, there's the knock-on effect of the uneasy feeling when you know you're overspending, and the mild fear that begins to prickle on your skin when you think 'should I have bought that? Could I afford that?'

Then there's the guilt, the tarnishing of the joy of the purchase by the lack of knowledge of whether you really could afford to buy it.

Instead, set smaller, more manageable, goals. For example, that you'll check your bank balance once a week if you never normally check it. Commit to doing a Direct Debit audit within a certain time frame – for example, within 48 hours of reading this blog – or say that you'll spend a day cutting your bills. Another amazing goal to give yourself is to read up about and implement the clever system of piggybanking in our Budget Planner guide.

4) I began to reframe my 'spreadsheet fear'

Once you're feeling more confident, you could take the step of downloading Martin's free Budget Planner spreadsheet. Just got the 'ick' at the word 'spreadsheet'? Well, if you're like 'old me', the word 'spreadsheet' may put the fear of God into you. Renaming it might help. I still get quite nervous around spreadsheets when it comes to budgeting, and if you relate to that, the MSE Budget Planner comes in two formats – one is a spreadsheet for you to download, and the other is a printable page – a bit more like a shopping list with categories to fill out. Perfect if the idea of filling out a spreadsheet has you running for the budget-free hills.

5) I demotivated myself (and now do it all the time)

I love, love, love the MSE Demotivator tool. It's a brilliant spin on goal-setting (it's anti-goal setting, if you will). Essentially, this tool shows you how much you would spend on an item over a year or lifetime. This is another moment for the Money Mantras, which I now even say out loud in shops.

As an example, I put in the price of the soya cappuccino I bought at Pret the day of writing this blog. Then added my income, and for the sake of the example, said that I bought a coffee every day. I don't always buy a coffee, but I'd say I do three times a week at least. Over a year, a daily coffee comes to £950. Over a lifetime, that's £42,750. Suddenly I feel a bit like Carrie Bradshaw when she realised she'd spent the down-payment for an apartment on shoes.

This could be a challenging money mindset moment with self-judgement and promises to abstain. But there is a way to find balance. When it comes to mental health and budgeting, I would say that an item such as a coffee is a bit of a treat for me, and I want to still enjoy that, but then it's about thinking of the price of the coffee, where you buy it and so on. Asking yourself if you can still have that treat with a more budget-friendly option.

Let's try another example. Putting in a monthly gel manicure, which I pay £43 for, comes to £23,220 over a lifetime. That's a hard one because for me, having a manicure gives a mental health boost (albeit a 'treat' one!) and I feel like 'me' with my nails done. The flip of this, as a new-to-budgeting convert, is that I could seek out cheaper manicures or have months off as it's not a necessity. Or, with managing the stress of budgeting in mind, I could think about what else I spend on and where I might then cut back to try to allow the money for the manicure.

If I'm honest, I'd prefer to have the manicures and fewer coffees – and doing the Demotivator has brought me to that conclusion. But that's the thing with budgeting – the more you do it, the more in control of your financial decisions you are, and, ultimately, the happier.