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If you’re having trouble sticking to a monthly budget, the solution might not be in a fancy app or a complicated spreadsheet, but rather in your humble bank account.
Whether your goal is prioritizing essential expenses or curbing a takeout habit, you can put your bank account to work to manage your money, not just store it. Give these tactics a try.
1. Keep your checking balance low on purpose
A simple approach to combat overspending is to get your money out of plain sight. Keeping a low checking account balance “holds temptations at bay and makes it more likely you’ll stick to the plan,” Anand Talwar, deposits and consumer strategy executive at Ally Bank, said in an email. Having just enough money accessible allows you to cover what you need without going over budget or dipping into money that can go toward savings. If you opt to keep a low checking account balance, use an account that has no overdraft fees or easy ways to avoid them in case you spend more than you mean to.
2. Split your money into 2 different checking accounts
One way to keep your checking balance low is to split it up. Pamela Capalad, a certified financial planner in New York City, recommends having two accounts. One account is for recurring expenses, with a buffer for variable expenses such as electricity or gas. The second is for discretionary spending — that is, purchases that are nonessential but still important or useful. This way, you know exactly how much of your discretionary funds are left for the month, Capalad says.
3. Use automatic transfers to safeguard money for essentials
If having two checking accounts is too much hassle, you can preserve money for necessities like rent and utilities by moving cash into a savings account using automatic transfers. Then, set up another automatic transfer to move it back into your checking account in time to make payments. When using a savings account this way, check how many transfers you can make each month without incurring a fee. There could be a limit, though some accounts, including high-yield savings accounts, are currently allowing an unlimited number of withdrawals each month.
4. Store your savings in a different bank than your checking account
People can fall into a trap of viewing the sum of their checking and savings accounts as their spending budget, Capalad says. Keeping your accounts at separate banks so that you see only your checking account balance can help you avoid spending more than intended. This tactic also makes it more difficult to quickly transfer from savings if you’re tempted to spend more.
5. Turn on balance alerts
Some banks send an alert when your balance is low so you’ll know when to hold off on purchases that might cause you to go over budget or even overdraft. You can often choose to receive these alerts by text, email or as a notification through the bank's app. Your account might also have more targeted alerts available. With Huntington Bank’s Heads Up and Spend Setter tools, for example, you can set budgets to track spending by category and get alerts on your status. So if you create a monthly dining budget of $100, the bank will alert you when you’ve spent close to that amount at restaurants.
6. Try restrictive features to curb spending
Find an account that lets you take a stricter approach to avoid overspending. Ally Bank’s Card Controls, for example, lets you set spending limits for specific transaction amounts or certain merchant categories. With a Discover checking account, you can temporarily freeze your debit card as a more extreme way to prevent spending — certain charges will still go through, but you won’t be able to make any new purchases.
Whether you’re comfortable with the idea of budgeting or new to the concept, there are ways you can use your bank account to stick to a budget. You might not get budgeting right on your first try, or even your first few tries. “Remember, this is all an experiment, and it’s not a pass-or-fail kind of thing," Capalad says. “You’ll find the system that works for you.”