How to Stick to a Budget and Still Use Credit Cards

by Gary Foreman

How to Stick to a Budget and Still Use Credit Cards photo

We live in a cashless world, but people tend to spend more when using credit cards. We explore the use of credit cards while staying within a budget so you can better determine if cards or cash are a better option for controlling your finances.

Gary,
I was hoping you can help me solve a problem I have encountered while trying to live on a budget. I have created a budget with a fixed amount that can be spent on certain items, i.e. entertainment. At times, I go over this amount. I charge everything on my credit card in order to receive a cash back bonus. My bill arrives the month after I overspend. That affects the cash flow for the next month, not the overspent month. I can’t figure out how to balance my budget, because my statements do not run on the calendar month like my budget, but it goes from the 11th to the 11th of every month.

My problem is applying my budget to real life, because I still want to use my charge card to pay for everything. Can you please help me figure out this problem? I have tried over and over to figure it out and I’m stuck.
Celia

Are you budgeting to stop spending or spot overspending?

A budget is meant to be a tool to help you control your finances. And like other tools, finding the best one for the job makes things much easier. You can’t use a framing hammer in place of a tack hammer. Budgets work the same way. You need one that’s designed to accomplish your goals.

There is no one official budget. Celia will want to find or create one that works for her unique situation. Part of that is deciding exactly what she wants to accomplish.

Budgets are primarily useful in two ways. One is to stop any spending over a preset amount in a specific area. Another way a budget can be helpful is as a tool that will help you find nonessential spending.

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Budgeting to stop spending after a certain amount

Although Celia doesn’t exactly say what she’s trying to accomplish, it sounds as if she’s hoping that a budget will help her stop spending after she gets to a specific amount.

If that is her goal, she’ll find it hard to continue to use credit cards. That’s because credit cards are designed to make it easy to spend money. Even money that you don’t have.

That doesn’t mean that she should give up. The first thing she needs to recognize is that you’re spending money when you make the purchase. Not when you get the bill. The only ‘purchase’ that you make at billing time is the interest and any annual or late fees that are associated with the credit card.

So, instead of depending on her monthly statement, Celia might need to keep a spending record for each category in her budget. When she makes a purchase, add it to the list for the appropriate category. When the total for the category is up to the budgeted amount, it’s time to stop spending for the month.  (See Why You Need a Spending Plan Instead of a Budget.)

If she really wants her budget to keep her from spending more than she planned, the simplest solution would be to ditch the credit card and begin using debit cards. Purchases are made with the debit card for that category of budget. One for food. One for auto expenses, etc. When the money is gone, the spending stops until the next month.

Have you overspent your way into debt?

Make a plan to get back out. Get How to Conquer Your Debt No Matter How Much You Have and create a debt payoff plan personalized to your budget and lifestyle.

Budgeting to spot overspending

It sounds as if Celia might be using the credit card statement to tell her where she spent her money each month. If that’s the case, she might want to change her ‘budget month’ to begin on the 11th. Or she could ask her credit card company to change her billing cycle. That way her credit card billing and budget periods would coincide.

Another possibility would be for Celia to simply adjust this month’s budget allocation for any overspending that occurred last month. If she went $10 over her entertainment budget, she’d simply have that much less for entertainment this month. It would require monthly adjustments. And the temptation would be there to continue to carry over-budget expenses from month to month and never really control spending.

Celia needs to recognize that a budget is a continually changing thing. She’s going to want to adjust the amounts as she learns more about her spending habits and as circumstances change.

One final comment. However Celia proceeds, she’ll be much more likely to be successful if she keeps it simple. A budget shouldn’t be any more complicated than is absolutely necessary.

Reviewed August 2020

About the Author

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar Stretcher.com website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, Credit.com and CreditCards.com. Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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