What the Government Teaches About Living Without a Budget

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It’s election season in the US, and if you’re like me you’re tired of listening to the talking heads and seeing all the negative ads on TV. Regardless of what side of the aisle you line up on, one important thing is getting lost in the hubbub, and that’s our country’s debt and lack of a budget. The numbers say that the US government has been without a budget for more than 1,000 days…that’s nearing three years folks. Meanwhile, our nation’s debt has grown to just over 16 trillion, or $51,000 per person. I don’t know about you, but as a frugal person that number just churns my stomach.

Now, a budget won’t not cure of all our country’s ills but we won’t get healthy without one. To put the numbers into perspective, consider what has happened since our last budget was passed:

  • The iPad was introduced
  • BP’s Deep Water Horizon spilled a ton of oil in the Gulf
  • Swine flu scared us and Mexico silly
  • Wikileaks informed us
  • A Haitian earthquake killed nearly 250K people
  • The “Flash Crash” on May 6 reminded us of the fragility of our stock exchange system


However You do it, a Budget is Essential

There are as many varieties of budgets as there are stars in the sky. Whether you use a piece of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or an online budgeting tool really does not matter in the end. The thing that matters is that you do some budget planning and get to know your numbers. If you don’t choose to live frugally, that’s fine as living with a budget does not necessarily mean that you have to live frugally. A budget helps both frugal and non-frugal people to know where their money is coming from and where it’s going. I find that actually putting the numbers in some sort of concrete fashion really increases the probability of success with my budget. In the end, my goal is to have financial freedom. That is freedom from debt, freedom to do things I want to do and freedom to retire when I choose and living with a budget allows that for me.

Find What You Like in a Budget and Stick to it

I would be lying if I were to say that once I started budgeting that everything went smoothly from the get go. A good budget takes time to develop. I remember starting and stopping numerous times until I finally found what worked for my family. That’s because you have to begin to think what’s most important for you and how you’re going to get there. For me, it was initially to get out of debt and now it’s evolved to saving money and looking at more long term goals. What this forces you to do is to look at your income and see where exactly your money is going. If you’re living without a budget, like our country is, then you’re more likely to make mistakes that land you in debt or at the very least derail things you’d like to accomplish in life.

Living With a Budget is not Burdensome

I know the perception of living with a budget means that you can’t spend money how you like. I know that was the impression I had when I was spending money like a sugar fiend throws down Ding-Dongs, but that is simply not the case. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I love to live with a budget. I know what my priorities are and I can spend my money however I want… if the money is there. This gives me financial freedom and allows me to go on a nice vacation because I have the money for it. I can go on vacation and do it guilt free because I’ve made other frugal choices and set my priorities to allow me to freely do as I choose with my money. I am not borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and in the end I don’t have to worry about the debt (unlike our government).

In the end, there are many things we can learn from our government, some of them good. But, living without a budget is not one of them. What has budgeting taught you? Of, if you don’t keep a budget, what strategies are you using to manage your finances?


Photo courtesy of: Harrison Keely

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to GoBankingRates, Investopedia, Lending Tree and more.


  • I keep what I like to call a soft budget. I use and go with what they recommend from past history. My wife and I are both self employed so our income varies each month. Having a set budget for each month just doesn’t work for us.

  • John says:

    I can relate to being self-employed, both my wife & I are as well. Our budget is what keeps our spending and our goals in check. I think budgeting is even more critical when your income varies from month to month, not less. My larger point was that the government does not have a budget and that if we apply that to our lives it can lead to terrible results.

  • I agree with you that budgeting is very freeing. There’s no guilt felt when I make purchases, there’s no worrying. Because I know I have the money, and I know that I’m prepared to pay my future bills. It’s a much better way to live!

    • John says:

      Completely agree Jordann! I love being able to go out and do what I want, when I want and know that I am covered because I’ve budgeted/saved the money for it.

  • CF says:

    When you have a budget that works for you, there is no stress at all. I never worry about my bills and I know I can spend my spending money freely without concern. It was definitely difficult to figure out what works initially, but you just have to keep tweaking and making improvements.

    • John says:

      I completely agree, that the initial establishment of a budget can be difficult in the beginning, but the results are so worth it. I too love having no stress at all either when it comes to spending.

  • Jason @ WorkSaveLive says:

    My wife and I keep a fairly strict budget. I’m of the Dave Ramsey mentality so we budget for every dollar and use the cash envelope system. Sure, we slip up from time-to-time but for the most part all of our income is accounted for each month.

    Budgeting has taught us to be disciplined and maintain focus, it has taught us to be frugal and responsible with money, and it has also taught us to be content with what we have/what we can afford.

    • John says:

      I tend to have the same mindset as Dave Ramsey as well. While I don’t agree with everything he says, I am definitely aligned with him on budgeting and using the cash system. Sure, like you said, no one is perfect but that’s not really the goal…the goal being wise decision making.

      I also agree with the learning to be disciplined. Like you said, being content is key to that.

  • I love budgeting! To me- a budget is only a plan for my money. And it seems insane to not have a plan for my hard earned money! We use a zero sum budget.

    • John says:

      I do too Holly! I would probably consider myself somewhat of a budget nerd. 😉 I agree that I view a budget as a plan for my money…it took a lot of hard work to get it and I want to be wise about where it goes.

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    I’m like the government, have been without a budget for a while. Unlike the govt. however, I’ve taken steps to make a budget instead of continuing on without one 🙂

  • Nick Swan says:

    Being an observer from the UK I think it is criminal that so much money is spent on election campaigning in the US.

    • John says:

      It’s good to have that perspective Nick. I agree, so much money is being spent and so much of it by special interests on either side…which just makes it worse with all of the negative ads. I am thankful we only have another 6-7 weeks to go before it’s over.

  • Cat (aka mycanuckbuck) says:

    I’m a pay myself first kind of girl. So, I make sure I put aside money for retirement and savings, then enough for all other expenses. Anything else leftover goes in the chocolate fund. 🙂

    • John says:

      That’s great Cat! I am of the same opinion. LOL on the chocolate fund…I think a lot of people would be happier if they added that to their budget. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  • You are right when you say a budget takes time and miracles won’t happen over night. We designed our own budget and it has went through changes over and over the past almost 2 years now. Budgeting has helped us sleep better at night and we don’t feel guilty when we spend money now because it is all accounted for even the projected expenses (expenses that we pay once a year, every few months etc). I encourage budgeting and hope that many others jump on board and give it a try. Great post mate. Mr.CBB

    • John says:

      You are definitely right Mr. CBB. I love being able to spend what I want and not worry because I know where the money’s coming from. I remember all the work we put in to our’s, but the payoff definitely made it worth our time and efforts.

  • The government is in a little different situation because we can’t just decide “oh, let’s raise our credit line whenever we run out of money to spend!”

    Bleh…..I could go on for hours on this topic!

    • John says:

      I know. I am sure there’s be some people out there who’d get themselves into a world of hurt if they could just continuously extend their credit line.

      I agree on being able to go on for hours on this. Which is why I commonly avoid the news anymore and just turn on a Seinfeld re-run.

  • I’ve always said that if i ran my business like the government I’d be broke. I am not great with a formal budget, but that is on my list of goals and i will get it together soon.

    • John says:

      I think many of us would be that way Kim. 😉 That’s awesome you’ve got it on list of goals. As one who lives with one, it is worth it….don’t let the hard work needed to put into it discourage you.

  • Jason Clayton | frugal habits says:

    I’m a cash system, strict budget type of guy – but I do go over from time to time (Bad Jason!)

    In regards to the government, it would be great to have a balance budget law that requires them to stick to a budget unless in the event of an emergency (like being attacked by a foreign country). What we have going on now is absolute LUNACY.

  • John says:

    I am with ya Jason…although not perfect myself, I do like having a solid budget.

    I am right there with you on the government. I think a balanced budget law would be great, but am nearly certain that it will never happen…we like printing money off too much. 😉

  • The no budget budget is a clear loser. I’ve found that the key to making budgeting interesting is to set goals that you care about. It gives you an incentive to work hard with your money.

  • John says:

    I totally agree JP. I think goals are vital when it comes to budgeting. My wife and I love to travel, so we make that a goal and view it as a challenge to get to our goal because we want to go on that next trip. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Pauline says:

    I remember some pretty scary infographics about the US debt! Governments definitely need a budget. I don’t have a strict one, as I keep a constant tracking of my balance and usually know what I have and what I can afford, but every time I have a major life/income change, I review the numbers and adapt my lifestyle.

  • John says:

    I would tend to agree Pauline. Just spending money, as a government, with no way of tracking it against expectations can be dangerous. That’s the key, making changes as life warrants it. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Catherine says:

    Knowing that budgets take time to really work is so key. I felt like a failure when I couldn’t get my budget to work initially but I learned, the budget is still evolving to work for us. I have accepted it will take some time.

  • John says:

    You’re right Catherine. Learning to live by a budget does take time. I remember it took us several attempts as well as time to find what we liked. The time spent was definitely worth it though.

  • Unlike the US Government I can’t print my own money, wish I could! Some deficit spending is required in economic downturns but over the long run spending should be neutral. I’m a Teacher and don’t work for the month of July so I have to budget my income and expenses the entire year to account for this.

  • Kathy says:

    With the risk of revealing my political persuasion, I find it interesting that the group of people in Congress who wanted a budget and less spending were the ones vilified and castigated for standing by their principles. Why support people who don’t believe in fiscal restraint as the rest of us must?

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