Set boundaries, not rules

This is probably not a radical statement, but I’ve never seen my budget as being a prison filled with set categories.

I like to think of my budget more as a guideline with boundaries that you can stretch, but only to a certain extent.

Boundary = Something that indicates a border or limit.

= Decide on and make a declaration about or a prescribed guide for conduct or action.

Those weren’t very helpful. But I’m going to try and explain why that subtle word change made all the difference for me.

I don’t deal with rules, because I see them as ultimatums.

For example, if you tell yourself: NO MORE SHOPPING AT ALL this day/week/month/year, and you break your own ultimatum, you feel bad, don’t you?

That’s because you haven’t told yourself to be conscious of what you’re doing, you’re just stopping shopping completely because you think that’s just what we do to save money and get out of debt.

Not in my world!

And that ultimatum stuff never worked with me. My brain always found a way to justify what I bought, or I’d buy triple what I would have originally purchased, feeling constrained by my ultimatum, thinking: “SCREW IT! I’m spending money anyway.” But that has to stop.

Instead, if you tell yourself: I will try to consciously shop as little as possible this day/week/month/year, and only if I have just cause for buying it (e.g. a wedding).

That isn’t an ultimatum to yourself, but a boundary, and within those boundaries, you can make choices and be flexible.

The subtle change is that you’re telling yourself that you have to be conscious of what you’re buying because you told yourself to examine your actions before purchasing the item.

In essence, you are teaching yourself to learn a reflex — to shop, stop and think about what you’re about to fork your money over for, because you can now see the opportunity cost of your decisions.

And with that changed behaviour, it will naturally seep into your learned behaviour, and start to be a friendly little guide with her hand on your shoulder to begin to govern all of your spending decisions, without feeling like someone is making you feel guilty for wanting to spend money.


Just because you are in debt, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person who is impulsive without any self-control, and should be stoned by other PF’ers who are disciplined with their money.

Everyone had to start somewhere, sometime, but not many have done well when the rules are too strict, because they are unrealistic.

Er.. at least I haven’t done so well with that method…

There are very few people out there who can go cold turkey and make it work. They are not the majority of the population, and unlike me, they are not easily led to temptation (oooh pretty!)

To tell yourself to completely cut out shopping, eating out, travelling, going out to the movies just because you’re in debt doesn’t mean that it’s right.

You all think that chopping ALL the fun out of your life it’s the right thing to do just to save money and pay down debt, but it isn’t.

When people put those $0 bans on themselves, they are telling themselves that they are in debt and they don’t deserve to have fun because they had SOOOO much fun before. That, is a partly true statement but when the chain is too tight around your wallet, you tend to binge more than you would have, had you set a realistic boundary instead of a rule.

It’s the same as in dieting. If you tell yourself: No more chips, candy, pop, or junk food.. doesn’t that make you crave the items even more? And if you ate a bag of chips on this super strict diet, doesn’t that make you think that you failed miserably?

Getting out of debt and learning new disciplines, or new reflexes when you go shopping (grocery or not) does not come from a single $0 ban nor over night.

It takes time, so don’t be so hard on yourselves, but I would also caution you to not fall back into your old habits. You have to really want to change, and to make progress on your attitude, or else you might as well have taken this post and used it as your excuse to go charge up some more debt.

It will get easier with time, and it WILL become second nature after about what is it.. 90 days of consecutive behaviour?


The best way to re-train yourself, learn new reflexes, become disciplined and get out of debt is simply to set boundaries for yourself but to be flexible in your decisions within those boundaries.

If in your Shopping budget, you put $100. In Eating Out, another $100. And you see a pair of shoes for $150 that you cannot live without, what do you do?

You make a choice to either say no to the shoes (hah!), or to rob your Eating Out budget of $70 (don’t forget tax) and buy those shoes.

And then, you don’t eat out at all that month. But if you still have $30 left in that budget category, and you really wanted to go to a restaurant that you KNOW will cost you $60 at the end with the tip included (because you checked the menu prices beforehand, with the power of the internet)…

hen make another choice.

Decide to NOT go to the restaurant at all, and either use that $30 to pay off your debt, or to save it for next month, rolling it over like cellphone minutes to have $130 in your budget, so that you can go out twice to that fancy place.

Or decide to go, but NOT to get the Duck, and to eat a main dish, but to skip appetizers, wine and dessert.

AND SOON…. WILL see a change in your behaviour.

Little by little, if you are conscious about what you are willing to spend your money on, you will now see the future opportunity cost of purchasing an item now.

Maybe if you buy that purse, you can’t add extra money to your vacation fund, so you may not be able to make it to Cancun with everyone else unless you scrimp every other month to make up for what you overspent.

But if you don’t know how much you earn, what expenses you have to pay each month, and on what you are actually spending it on, this changed behaviour won’t happen as easily because you’ll be flying blind without knowing what your boundaries are.

About the Author

Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver. I cleared $60,000 in 18 months earning $65,000 gross/year. Now I am self-employed, and you can read more about my story here, or visit my other blog: The Everyday Minimalist.