4 Steps to neutralize budget rebellion

Jul 10, 2014 at 1:19 p.m. ET

How can a financial "wild child" grow into money maturity?

I hate to budget. Or, to be honest, I've never actually had a budget that I could stick to. Every time I try to cut back on my spending or focus on saving more, something comes up that blows my plan out of the water. I'll admit that sometimes that "something" is me. I get so stressed and feel so deprived that I run out and splurge on something stupid just to make myself feel better. I'm not in terrible shape financially. I contribute to my 401(k) and my credit card debt is low, though it does seem to be creeping up slowly each year and that worries me. My parents were such obsessive scrimpers and savers that I know I should be better at this. Can you help me find a way to budget that doesn't make me want to rebel with a trip to Macy's?

The choice of words in that last question is perfect. Your understanding of a budget and what it does is closely tied to your parents, those "scrimpers and savers" you colorfully describe, and is something you find yourself rebelling against even into adulthood.

Believe me, this happens all the time. Many adults I've worked with react to and rebel against the financial circumstances that impacted them as children, sometimes over their entire lives. When we're young, our financial lessons are much more about emotional experience than they are about any specific instruction. If your parents were tight with a dollar and you experienced that as restrictive, chances are you will grow up with a negative association to the control of money. Similarly, if your parents' financial carelessness caused instability and stress, you're going to react to that by being a black belt-level planner.

While this is normal and understandable, it's not a good way to go through life. A child's limited understanding of money isn't up to the task of modern financial management. It's a blunt rock hammer when what you need is a surgical scalpel. And right now you’re banging at your budget with a rock.

So let's take this process out of the past, out of emotion, out of reacting and rebelling. Let's re-frame money management in positive, growth-focused terms that won't trigger your urge to chuck it all just to show mom and dad who's boss.

woman checking budget

Photo credit: Blend Images - JGI/Jamie Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

1. It's your power to choose

Picture your money as a resource, a form of energy that enlivens the things it touches. But it's finite, so you need to decide what parts of your life are more or less important to grow. The purpose of a budget (or feel free to call it your "spending and savings plan" if "budget" makes your skin crawl) is to direct your money toward the goals, activities, and responsibilities that you decide are important. If you don't give money direction, it tends to just ooze all over the place and you lose those growth-producing benefits (not to mention dragging yourself down with continued debt).

2. Adjust to fit

Your budget shouldn't feel like a straitjacket. Rather, think of it as a custom-tailored garment. It should have the right fit, support and personal details to make you feel fabulous. If you design it to comfortably cover the things that are personally important, then it gives you support to not spend on those less-important things. And if you feel fabulous in it, you're less inclined to backslide into your no-budget sweatpants.

3. Love your results

For someone who strongly associates budgeting with deprivation, it's critical that you keep your focus on what you gain from managing your financial resources. You need to feel rewarded for your hard work. What goals do you attain? What encumbrances (I'm looking at you, credit cards) do you shed? What experiences, like a debt-free vacation, can you achieve when you create a plan? It is tough to make sacrifices, so the rewards have to be worth it.

4. Look to the future

Your budget is the tool that helps you incorporate future goals into your life right now. Without one, things might work out or they might not, but are you comfortable leaving that up to chance (especially against tough odds)? The benefits of goal-setting are not just in the future, either. A sense of connection to and confidence in the future boosts a feeling of calm confidence that you can enjoy today. And isn't that better than gnawing worry, or corrosive shame?

Working toward financial maturity is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. And even if your own journey to parenthood may be a bit down the road, it's also a gift you give to any potential future children. Rigid reactivity with money can reverberate through a family from generation to generation. The grandparents scrimp, the parents spend wildly, the children scrimp, and so on forever. You have the opportunity to change your family's trajectory, creating a new legacy of balance, growth and wisdom. Good luck to you.