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I’m not great at tracking my spending. As someone who rebels against rules and hates feeling confined by regulations, being told to track my spending felt unpleasant. It seemed like yet another task to add to my to-do list: Brush my teeth, work out, drink water, sleep enough, look at my phone less and track my money.
But I kept hearing about the magic of tracking. There were so many stories of people saving money and finding spending leaks that I decided to try. I wanted to know if it could help my finances.
Over the course of one week, I tracked everything from the coffee I drank to the books I ordered on Amazon. I’m surprised by what I learned.
In one week, I spent $120 on groceries. Considering I rarely eat out, that might not sound too bad. After all, cooking at home is supposed to save money. But the truth about my grocery bill is that it was the result of impulse purchases and haphazard planning. As I passed the produce section in Costco, I grabbed a bag of fresh snap peas on a whim and scooped up a package of pomegranate seeds seconds later. On my way to the checkout line, I stopped for a 24-pack of protein bars “just in case” and got a bag of tortilla chips for good measure. The problem? None of these items were on my list, and at a place like Costco, each additional item can add $10 to $15 to your total.
The fix: As I reviewed my grocery spending for the week, it became clear I viewed my grocery list as as a set of guidelines. After seeing the numbers on paper and facing the reality of my impulse grabs, I’ve begun to think of my grocery list as a set of rules. If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t enter my cart. It’s as simple (and difficult) as that.
Over the course of one week, I went for lunch with former colleagues, grabbed coffee with three different friends, bought frozen yogurt with my wife and ate sushi with my sister. The total? $35. It might not seem like a lot, but for one week, it’s a big chunk of change. Grabbing coffee always seemed like an inexpensive way to see my friends and catch up, but after realizing I spent $10 on coffee in one week, it became clear I underestimated the financial impact. Over the course of one month, I’m on track to spend $40 on coffee. That’s nearly half the price of massage, which is a luxury I’ve told myself I can’t afford. Looking at the numbers in black and white, it’s clear I could afford a massage every other month if I simply stopped spending money on coffee.
The fix: Never hanging out with friends isn’t an option. Neither is cutting out lunch dates with friends and family. But $35 per week on coffee and lunch doesn’t align with my priorities. I knew something needed to change. Instead of using the coffee shop as the default place to meet, I’ve gotten creative. This past week, I had my sister over for homemade banana bread and invited a friend on a walk to catch up. The cost? Less than $2. They may seem like small changes, but it wasn’t until I actually looked at the numbers that I realized these “small” expenses equaled $140 per month.
Overall, I’m happy with my shopping budget and the $38 I spent on “extra” items during the week. I bought replacement fairy lights for the living room for $10 and two books from Amazon from $28. All my purchases were intentional and mindful. The lights are replacing an item that broke. The books are ones I’ve already borrowed from the library and know I want to own so I can read them again and again. But as I looked over my purchases, I realized how easy it is to shop online without paying attention.
The fix: I’m normally pretty good at controlling my urge to shop, but there are times I find myself scrolling through the Amazon app or browsing ASOS with no intent to buy. To avoid the temptation, I’ve deleted the apps from my phone and no longer store credit card information on my laptop. One-click shopping makes spending a little too convenient. Creating barriers is an easy way to make it less enticing.
For the first day or two, it was annoying to track my spending. But once I got into the habit, it became second nature to make a note of my spending. Even though I don’t plan to track my spending all the time, I do plan to use it as a financial tune-up every few months. It’s easy for spending to become mindless. Tracking is a simple way to ensure the reality of your finances falls in line with your goals and ideals.
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