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How To Start Budgeting When You're Terrible At It (Zero Based Budget)

Check out the video version of this post to get a step-by-step walk through of how to write a solid budget. 

Have you ever said to yourself, "budgeting is just a particular form of torture and I'm totally terrible at it"? "I'm never going to be good at it anyway, so I give up!"

I understand  this feeling completely. In fact, I would argue that, if you feel this way, you're actually quite normal.

"Budgeting is a form of torture" was my mantra until about a decade ago up to the point where I had finally gotten utterly and completely fed up with my debt.

I was so desperately fed up with the almost daily fear, anxiety and panic that rode along with my debt that I was willing to do almost anything to get rid of it, yes even willing to learn how to budget!

Fortunately, in my process of learning to budget, I found it actually wasn't as bad as I thought AND once I got a few key skills and practices down pat, it was actually kind of fun, in nerdy sort of way.

And by the way, if you hate budgeting and feel like it's torture at first, I want to tell you that it's totally normal to feel that way.

In fact, no one is good at budgeting until they've learned some fundamentals and have tried and failed for about the first 90 days.

So if you're just getting started, hang in there and keep on reading.


Also, you can check out this post, "Budgeting 101: How To Write A Budget (You Can Actually Stick To)" for even more detail.


Here's another budgeting video in case the first one wasn't enough. :)


A Budget Is Absolutely Essential

 As a part of my own debt elimination process, I discovered that I HAD to learn how to budget to get control of my money.

Ultimately, I got better and better as the months progressed and I have to say that it has been pivotal part of both my debt elimination and overall wealth building strategy for over a decade now.

But I haven't forgotten what's it's like for you who's just getting started.

I remember that it's hard to see the benefits through all the drudgery and detail at first. There's so much to get right and so much that can go wrong. Again, that's all normal.

But I just want to encourage you to hang in there, I promise it gets easier. If you stick with it will dramatically change your financial trajectory both on this side of your debt as well as beyond.

By the way, if you’re looking for some resources to get started with budgeting, you can download our Free Budgeting Printables.


Setting Realistic Expectations For Yourself

When you’re getting started with a written budget, it's important to understand that it takes about 90 days of trial and error to get good at it.

You may get stuck along the way and need some help, but 90 days is about what it requires to not be a complete train wreck.

Keep in mind that budgeting is not a "talent" that anyone is born with. Budgeting is a "skill" that takes time, effort, trial and error do develop. You'll hear me repeat the skill versus talent statement a lot.

I repeat this because I have found over the years of coaching clients out of debt that there is almost an inherent belief in our culture that "budgeting mojo" is either something that you're born with or not born with.

I'm here to tell you that that's pure hogwash.

Budgeting skills are like any muscle group in your body, the more you train them the better they will become.

And we're going to build the skills that help you become a budgeting body builder (without all the steroids, of course).


It All Starts With "Why"

If you’re even thinking in this direction, that probably means that you have a “why”. My “why” was that I was drowning in over $43,000 in debt as a single guy who left the corporate world to pursue working as a full-time music contractor.

I went from making very good money (Just under $100k was my best year in 1999) to not knowing where the next paycheck was coming from. I was in WAY over my head.

My strong inclination was that music was the direction I was supposed to go (meaning I sensed that it was my calling at that point in my life).

I just had no idea how it was going to actually work. I took a leap of faith, but without a lot of wisdom and the ensuing debt was a heavy consequence.


Not Living The Dream

My new life as a music contractor was really slow at first and then it was really irregular, even when it did pick up. So, even when I started having more regular work, I was still having trouble making ends meet.

All the while the debt avalanche grew ever more dangerously close to breaking over me.

It was about 2004 when I discovered Dave Ramsey's book "The Total Money Makeover".

Honestly, I don’t even remember how I first heard about him, although I believe it may have been on the radio.

At any rate, I heard all this stuff about “Baby Steps” and people who had great success in paying off huge amounts of debt by following them.

Somewhere in all of that messaging, I heard about the book, read it and was set on fire!


Off To The Races 

Mastering the skill of budgeting will ultimately lead you all the way out of debt. Here's how it helped me eliminate $43k in 2.5 years!


Even though I had left the corporate world a couple of years earlier, I just decided that I was going to get “gazelle intense” (a common Dave Ramsey-ism that comes from a Bible verse in the book of Proverbs).

I continued to do music as a "side-hustle" (which was mostly comprised of working nights and weekends) and decided to try to land another corporate job.

Man, that was the ticket! I updated my resume and started putting it out there and almost immediately had a couple of interviews.

Next, I landed a software sales job in a call center and was off to the races.

It really is hard to convey how excited I was that I now possessed the hope and was developing the skills to fairly quickly eliminate this $43k monster on my back.


Focused Intensity Pays Off

I believe that, due to my almost extreme level of motivation coupled with an already extensive background in sales, I rose to the top of my peers and was the #1 sales person in my division for the 2 years that I was in that role.

Man, I was on fire! It was tough. It was a grind. And yes, I was tired all the time, but was making some serious progress.

One check I wrote to my 2nd mortgage company that was for $13,000.

It was a commission check from a pretty seriously great sales month.

There’s a part of that that’s really hard to do, except for when I remembered that I was buying my own freedom from the debt avalanche and that I wouldn’t  have to keep this pace forever.

Fast forward to 2007, I was still plugging away and making progress when in May of that year I sold my condo for a small profit. I was then able to pay off the remaining $10,000 of my debt and free myself once and for all of this nightmare of perpetual, unrelenting debt serfdom.

That was second happiest day of my life (second to the day I married Angelica)!


Without A Budget, It's Just Not Possible:

So, what does all of this have to do with budgeting? It has everything to do with it actually.

You see, if I hadn’t learned budgeting skills (and yes I say it’s a skill because no one was ever born with a budgeting "talent"), everything would have looked much differently.

I had to learn to tell my money what to do as it increased in both size and velocity.

If I'd not learned this pivotal skill, I would have looked at my end of year statements and just wondered where it all that cash went.

I had to give every single one of those dollars a job inside of my budget, otherwise they would have been allowed to escape down the drain of "I want" or "I think I need".

That’s why we adamantly recommend (insist really) being on a written budget as you’re working through the "8 Steps To Erase Debt". Otherwise, you’re going to fall back into the same ditch you’re in right now.


Rewrite It Every Month, On Paper (First 90 Days) 

Here's a video on the 4 reasons you need to now rewrite you budget every month.


It's important to remember, you're in learning mode here.

As such, I always recommend that you do a written budget, on paper for at least the first 90 days. This way you're only learning one skill at a time.

In other words, you're learning budgeting skills and NOT budgeting AND a software program.

Also, regardless of how long you've been budgeting, you want to make sure you rewrite it every month.

This helps you keep track of irregular expenses and helps you make sure you're 100% accurate every single month. Here are some free budgeting forms you can download.

Just as a side note, I did a written budget for the whole two and a half years it took me to pay off my debt. So, please don't hesitate to keep with paper and pencil if it continues to work for you.

The main point is that you do it and that you rewrite the budget every month.

So, once you've "graduated" from your first 90 days of budget success, there are a ton of "tools" you can use. Some that come to mind are: EveryDollar, YNAB, Mint and even Excel spreadsheets.

The tool doesn't matter. What matters is that you've established the skill and that you keep doing it for the rest of your life.

No matter what you do, just get started. We're looking forward to hear how it's going in the comment section below.

And budgeting is part of the 8 Steps To Erase Debt I followed to change my life forever.

Again, you can check out this post, "Budgeting 101: How To Write A Budget (You Can Actually Stick To)" for even more detail.


The 8 Steps To Obliterate Your Debt:

This is the blog post that outlines the 8 steps I followed to eliminated $43,000 in debt in 2.5 years.
And whether this is your first or thousandth time on the blog, I want to make sure you have this “8 Steps” framework that ALL of our content is centered around. 
These are the steps I personally followed to obliterate $43,000+ of debt in 2.5 years
Maybe your number is bigger, maybe it’s smaller. Either way the principles are the same and I want you to have them.
0. Stop All Retirement Investing (Until Step 4)
2. Starter Emergency Fund of $1000
3. Eliminate Debts Smallest To Largest (a.k.a The Debt Snowball)
4. Full Emergency Fund of 3-6+ Months’ Expenses
5. Invest A Minimum of 15% Income Into Retirement Accounts (and increase savings rate to 50%+ if possible)
6. College Funding (if applicable)
7. Pay Off The Home Mortgage
8. Build Wealth, Serve, Be Ridiculously Generous And Go FI (Financial Independence)!
I’ve created a simple, easy to follow guide that you can use as your foundation as you navigate the absolute annihilation of your debt forever.



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When You Need More Help

And again, if you’re looking for some resources to get started, you can download our free budgeting forms. Also, if you’re in a place where you’re ready to kick your debt in the teeth, here's the link to our free “8 Steps To Erase Debt” guide for you to use as your foundation.
To your freedom,
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click & make a purchase, I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that helps keep Zero Debt Coach up and running. Read my full disclosure policy.



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