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Don’t Want to Budget? Do This Instead (Alternatives to Budgeting)

Are you secretly looking for alternatives to budgeting…because you just don't WANT to budget? Our alternative budgeting system.

wooden calculator on white desk, text overlay "the alternative to budgeting this money blogger has used for years"

Not only do alternatives to budgeting exist…but I've got a confession to make: I've been using them for years.

We don't record our purchases, carry around free printable cash envelopes, fill up jars with anything other than home-canned Meyer lemon marmalade, or use Excel to meticulously update our daily spending log.

I'm just not that kind of a person.

Yes, we have our finances worked out.

And yes we know how much money we have coming in and approximately how much bills are going to cost each month.

We've never actually overdrawn on our checking account, and the only bill we ever missed was during a ‘changing-of-the-guard' experiment while working through financial friction in our household.

We have a solid handle on our finances without lots of the work people think is involved.

So how do we get away with this?

Instead of performing all the maintenance usually associated with the word ‘budget' (like looking for a cute free printable budget template, choosing a personal budgeting method, planning each category out, etc.), we do a once-and-done master key, set our internal thermostats to it, and check in periodically.

I'll talk about that more next, plus several other alternatives to budgeting you can try out for yourself.

Budgeting Alternative Method: Set Up the Once-and-Done Master Key

We've set up a low-maintenance money funnel that works for us as Step One to our system.

And then based on the figures we came up with just once, we set up automatic bill pays and automatic savings withdrawals so that we know each month that we'll have $XXXX amount of money left over to cover our variable expenses.

This means that yes, at some point we sat down with an Excel sheet to work out (here's my tutorial on how to fill out a budget sheet):

  • what our monthly bills are (both fixed, like a home mortgage, and variable, like electricity)
  • what our income is
  • how much we can automate towards our savings goals (income – spending = retirement + permanent savings + travel fund).

This was after plugging our info into Empower's free money dashboard and associating each of our financial accounts. The cool thing about they can bring in historical spending/earning data within hours of you signing up so that you automatically get a clear picture of your variable spending needs by category based on real historical data (love instant gratification!).


Now the trick is, that we just need to stay under this extra amount left in checking each month.

Then We Set Our Internal Thermometers to the Variable Values

For ex-environmental investigators, like myself, this means we calibrated to our new numbers.

You see, your brain has these sorts of internal triggers to know what is and is not normal.

So you need to set your new “normal” for the various types of variable spending in your once-and-done master key so that you start getting the inner alerts when you get close to these numbers.

And by “set your normal”, I simply mean look at the numbers in your Master Key and sort of sear them into your head.

For example, we've allocated $350/month for groceries (find out what the average household grocery bill is for a family of 2, 4, or whatever size yours is).

Since I go grocery shopping twice per month I know that on each trip I can spend approximately $175. Or if I go crazy-with-the-cheese-whiz one trip (no, I don't buy actual cheese-whiz), I mentally subtract that from the $350 and know that I can spend $XXX on our next trip to even things out.

And let me tell you, this “internal thermostat” can get ridiculously precise.

I have a killer internal thermostat when it comes to things like grocery shopping. I've gotten so good that sometimes I come within a dollar of our $175/trip budget without having used a calculator or anything!

It's like… I just know that I'll have to skip out on those Dove dark chocolate almonds this time because I picked up a clearance organic meat special (triggered by natural alerts set off by my internal thermostat).

It just balances out.

Establishing Your Built-in Financial Alarm System

I know the parameters of our household finances – such as salary, bills to be paid, large purchases for the month, and spending budgets – and my system is set to alarm at very low price thresholds.

It fluctuates depending on what I am looking to purchase, say $20 for a piece of clothing, a few dollars for non-durable consumer goods, or $2,000 for a vehicle (I have always driven a beater car).

You might be looking at my alarm thresholds and wondering how I can survive in our modern society.

I assure you that my husband and I live quite comfortably and rarely do without. If the alarm goes off, then I think of other ways to obtain what I want, such as entertaining ourselves with:

Having this internal sensor is especially important for the set-it-and-forget-it financial mindset we have in our household.

Since we have automatic withdrawals into our retirement account each month and we don’t like to whittle away our time reviewing/readjusting our budget every two weeks, we must stay within the agreed-upon maximum price thresholds.

Not heeding these internal financial alarms might cause a financial catastrophe in our household, such as over-withdrawing our checking account or going back into debt.

Check Up with Your Budget Alternative As Needed

It's not a good idea to completely run your finances in your head – especially when you're new to the process and your internal thermostat might not have been properly calibrated (that's just the old environmental investigator-speak in me coming out).

For example, if you allocate $300 a month for food, then you should spend roughly $75 per week. So if the second week of the month rolls around and you have already spent $200 at the grocery store, you will need to slow things down.

And don’t forget, the alarm is just to warn you to make some changes before a problem occurs.

Pssst: you should check in with your overall budget after major life changes, and at least once a year. Find tips like this, and more, in my article on simple budgeting tips for beginners.

Don’t be discouraged with a few breaches; rather take it as an opportunity to check your spending and ensure that you will meet your numbers for the month.

And when you start feeling those triggers, you should check up on things anyway (triggers can really be anything, like “that voice” or “gut feeling” telling you that you shouldn't purchase X because you're close or over your limit).

You can do this by logging into your banking account/credit card account and taking a look at things weekly, bi-weekly, or whatever feels comfortable to you.

Just like seasonal changes mean you have to reset your home's thermostat, as your life changes you'll need to reset your money thermostat.

A sure sign of when it's time to re-look at that master key is if you find yourself juggling between categories and robbing Peter to pay Paul several months in a row.

It might simply mean that you need to allocate more money into the grocery budget and a little bit less money towards savings in order to relieve some of the stress that you're feeling.

But overall, once you set the master key, and then set your internal thermostat, you'll take a lot of the maintenance part of keeping a budget out of the equation. It's really pretty cool!

One or two purchases that set off my internal sensors are not going to cause a financial disaster. But a cascade effect could be set into motion that will (it has been found that one innocent purchase can open up the shopping floodgates).

This is why it is important to set meaningful alarm systems so that problems can be avoided instead of dealt with.

What are your internal financial sensors set at?

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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.