How Americans budget for life and how they don't

Despite new technology, most people still think old-school methods are the best way to budget. asked 1,042 adults over the age of 18 to give their perspectives on the best way to budget. The answers show that people believe budgeting is essential to achieve key financial goals, and most still prefer old-school methods.'s 2018 Budgeting Survey results infographic

Full Survey Answers on the Best Way to Budget

Who needs a budget?

With mobile banking apps and an increasingly paperless society, you might think that budgeting itself is becoming a thing of the past. We asked people who they believed needed to budget.

  • 92% believe everyone needs a budget
  • 3% say only people living on limited income need one
  • 2% think budgeting is necessary if you have a lot of debt
  • 1% believe you need a budget if you’re a big-spender

The best way to budget is often a family affair

We also asked questions to find out how many survey respondents were on a budget and if they had support. Over two thirds of people actively maintain a budget for their household.

  • 70% of people have a budget
  • 30% don’t maintain a budget

Even better, most people say that the entire family is involved in helping maintain the household budget. This generally makes budgeting easier, given that everyone is on board and working towards the same goals.

  • 48% say budgeting is a group-effort in their household
  • 12% said they’re sticking to a budget, but their partner is not
  • 2% reported they don’t budget, but their significant other does

Of the remaining respondents who budget, 34% are single. The remaining 4% live at home with their parents and are using a budget to achieve financial independence.

Why do you budget? / Why don’t you budget?

When it comes to people who maintain a budget, there are a variety of reasons that prompted them to start. The most common response was simply a desire to manage money of effectively, but reasons for budgeting vary.

  • 36% thought budgeting would be the best way to manage their money better
  • 19% started a budget because they believe it’s a necessity that everyone should have
  • 16% began budgeting to get out of debt
  • 9% had a goal to save money and build wealth
  • 9% made a budget after they lost a job or had their income reduced
  • 8% wanted to get ready for retirement
  • 2% started budgeting after a divorce
  • 1% needed a budget after they lost their spouse

The reasons survey respondents don’t budget also varied widely. Over one third of non-budgeters said they simply didn’t think they were making enough money to necessitate a budget.

  • 35% say they don’t have enough income to warrant a budget, while 1% said they made too much money to need a budget
  • 21% think that budgeting is too time consuming
  • 19% don’t budget because it didn’t help them when they tried it
  • 18% believe you only need to budget for special occasions, like holidays
  • 7% say they don’t need to because they don’t have problems with overspending

Budgeting is the best way to get out of debt, but you may not stay that way

Although nearly one in five non-budgeters said they stopped budgeting because it didn’t work, most people who maintain a budget believe it’s effective… to a point. For example, when it comes to debt, most said a budget helped them get out of debt.

  • 72% of people who budget say that it’s helped them get out of debt
  • 28% said budgeting didn’t help them become debt-free

However, people who budget also admitted that their budget didn’t always help them stay out of debt.

  • Only 27% of people say budgeting has helped them stay debt-free
  • 73% admit they’ve taken on new debt despite having a budget in place

Despite new technology, old-school methods are still the best way to budget

Between budgeting apps, software and personal financial management (PFM) platforms, you’d assume that most people who budget take advantage of the latest and greatest technology to do it. However, most people surveyed rely on tried and true methods of budgeting. Almost two thirds of people still pull out a pen and paper when it’s time to budget.

  • 66% use pen and paper budgeting
  • 32% build spreadsheets
  • 26% keep it all straight in their head
  • 17% rely on apps
  • 13% take advantage of free budgeting tools from their bank or credit union
  • 6% leave budgeting to their financial advisor

We also wanted to know if people considered other methods before they decided on the best way to budget. Most people have given at least some thought to trying other options.

  • 71% thought it might be best to keep it simple with pen and paper
  • 36% have considered spreadsheets
  • 32% looked into mobile budgeting apps
  • 18% have thought about using a financial advisor
  • 18% checked into the free tools offered by their financial institution

People have also taken advantage of free online resources to help them learn how to budget or to make budgeting more effective. However, not everyone believes you need to ask the Internet when it comes to figuring budgeting out.

  • 41% of budgeters came to looking for advice
  • 20% have visited other sites to find money management tips
  • However, 27% of people hadn’t considered looking online
  • 12% said they didn’t need any help

Determining the best way to budget for certain expenses

When it comes to finding the best way to budget, the survey responses reveal that it’s all about personal preference. What works for one money manager may not work for the next. However, there is some general agreement about how to use a budget to keep costs low.

For example, when it comes to grocery shopping:

  • 57% make a list to fit a set target spending limit each week; then they use coupons to ensure they stay below that line
  • 23% say that just making a list is enough and they don’t need to coupon
  • 13% believe you don’t need a list to prevent overspending
  • But 6% say they walk in to get one item and walk out with a cart-full
  • Only 1% said they buy what they want without thinking about a budget

On the other hand, the jury is split on whether you should split your food budget into two groups. Experts often recommend making two expense categories for good one for groceries and another for dining out. This helps you curb overspending on food. However, only about half of budgeters adhere to that wisdom.

  • 58% agreed that you should separate dining out and groceries
  • 42% said they put all food costs together in one line-item

The jury is also relatively split on whether or not you need to include small cash incidentals in your budget. These are things like vending machine purchases at work or quick trips to the gas station.

  • 45% say they include money for “little things” in their budget
  • 29% admit that they don’t, but that they probably should
  • However, one in four (27%) say budgeting for incidentals isn’t necessary

There’s also no clear answer for the best way to budget for the holidays

Most people at least agree that budgeting is the best way to get through the holidays with less debt. However, there is not a clear consensus on the best way to budget to avoid holiday debt.

  • 34% say the best way to budget for the holidays is to save and but gifts throughout the year
  • 25% set a budget and start saving a month or two in advance
  • 24% say they don’t set a holiday budget because they’re living paycheck to paycheck
  • 11% don’t buy gifts
  • 6% admit that they shop at the last minute and break their regular budget for things like holiday spending

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