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Dopamine budgeting: Why you should try it

Composite image of a woman smiling while preparing a budget, alongside a coffee and croissant.
Dopamine budgeting: The art of allocating cash for your wants as well as your needs. (Source: Getty)

You might have heard of dopamine dressing – the new (OK, newish) idea that dressing in bright-coloured clothing or garments that we love can make us feel happier.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Our nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. When dopamine is released in large quantities, it induces feelings of happiness and pleasure.

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Dopamine is heavily linked to motivation. When we experience a surge of dopamine from a behaviour, we’re more likely to repeat it. That’s why it’s so hard to break the habit of ordering Deliveroo after a bad day, or why shopping became known as ‘retail therapy’. It feels good in the moment, so our brains are naturally thinking “more please.

So what do I mean by dopamine budgeting? Glad you asked.

Is dopamine budgeting the key to making finance fun?

OK, firstly, let me be extremely clear that I have absolutely, 100 per cent made this concept up. But I really do think I’m onto something.

What I mean by dopamine budgeting is creating a money-management system that’s actually fun to use, tailored to our personalities and individual styles, and that actually makes us want to stick to the darn thing.

Tell me more, tell me more, like, do I get a Negroni fund?! (Hint, you absolutely can, darl.)

Budgeting needs a rebrand

Prior to cleaning up my financial act and becoming a financial behaviour creator on the internet, I spent most of my life as a hot money mess. Seriously, steaming hot.

I’d constantly be pulling money from my weak attempt at savings. I’d always overestimate how much was in my bank account and be shocked and confused when checking my balance. And I absolutely didn’t feel good about money.

One of the (many) reasons I struggled to stick to a budget or take control of my finances was because budgeting was boring AF. It wasn’t how my brain worked.

Every time I tried to set a budget, it just felt restrictive. Many of these attempts were in the late 2000s or early 2010s when diet culture was raging the earth, so each attempt at taking control of my money just felt like another day in the paradise of calorie counting and light mayonnaise.

OK, I’m sold. How do I get in on this dopamine budgeting thing?

There’s no wrong way to do dopamine budgeting, but the key thing is to lead with joy.

Think about who you are as a person, the way you work best, and the things you love spending money on. Then, build a budget with those things in mind.

All too often, budgeting strategies are rigid, dull and procedural. Put this money here, that money there, and then you’ve got this much left.

With dopamine budgeting, we craft a financial ecosystem that’s all about YOU.

First, we get the boring stuff out the way – the essentials.

My favourite way to do this is total up your essential expenses for a full year, and then divide that by the number of paydays you get in a year. That way, you’re covering an equal portion of your expenses from every single payday, even if they’re not falling due right there and then.

Then, we can get going on that dopamine.

Now, let me be clear, we’re not sacrificing our financial stability for dopamine. We’re more relying on the motivational benefit of positive reinforcement to help us stay on track with our goals.

A woman selects vegetables from a supermarket shelf.
Some expenses are unavoidable but a good budget will allow for that. (Source: Getty)

Dial up the dopamine on your savings habits

When it comes to saving, some people are great at stashing a set amount each week. Not this gal. I get bored – and fast.

I like to dial up the dopamine on my savings structure by varying the amount I save week to week, by cycling through different budget structures regularly.

Some weeks, I get more to spend, other weeks I send more to savings.

The variety keeps me interested, and I soak up the dopamine from sending bigger portions to savings rather than having to rely on pesky delayed gratification.

Build dopamine-boosters into your budget

Going through the motions of adulthood can be monotonous - save for a home, pay rent, pay bills, etc. What could you build into your budget that would make it feel a little bit easier sticking to those good habits?

A morning pastry? A visit to the infrared sauna? A pilates class? Parma night at the local with your buddies?

Intentionally portioning off some of your discretionary spending for dopamine-boosting categories can make your budgeting all the more enjoyable.

By taking an active decision to factor those things into your financial structures, you stretch out the joy they provide by anticipating the experience while you’re crunching your numbers.

A budget that’s all needs and no wants isn’t very joyful to manage or to live by. By peppering our budget with a few categories or line items that are deliberately there to bring a little extra happiness into our lives, this whole money-management thing can feel way more achievable.

Dopamine budgeting is all about taking an active role in using your money as a resource to enjoy your life. Trust me, a croissant fund hits much higher on the dopamine scale than car rego, water bill and pest-control fees.

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