If you’re like me, the thought of tracking your spending is probably a pretty scary. Before I started tracking my spending, the thought of doing so brought to mind all my worst fears about myself: I’m sloppy and have poor attention to detail. I’m impulsive and can’t help myself around candy, have a knack for drinking expensive beer, and I spend an ungodly amount on dog food each month. Even if I wasn’t so nervous about all of that, though, tracking your spending has always turned me off. It seems too obsessive, too granular, and too time consuming. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But here’s the thing: If you’re serious about getting your financial house in order, you have to track your spending. There’s just no way around it.
I spent the better part of my twenties with only a general idea of how much money I had in my bank account at any given time, and you’d think that what that means is that I simply wasn’t worried about money. Wrong. I was worried about money. All the time. In fact, I was so worried about money, I was afraid to even look at what was going on in my bank account. I was afraid of what I’d see. In fact, this was the phase of life in which I inadvertently did something I think about at least once a week even today: I spent my last dollar on a wheel of fancy brie cheese.
Delicious, yes. Responsible? Absolutely not. But the problem was, I didn’t know exactly how much money I had in my bank account, and I didn’t know exactly how much money I had in my bank account because I was afraid I was out of money, and because I was so afraid I was out of money, I actually did run out of money.
When you track your spending, you take off all of your financial clothes
Maybe I was also afraid of tracking my spending because I was afraid of what I’d see about myself reflected there in those numbers and infographics. Because everything you know and love or know and hate about yourself is there in your spending habits: Your propensity for impulse gas station donuts, your love of craft beer, your sloppiness with fee accrual or credit card debt. Whatever your vice is, you’ll see it there, reflected in the numbers.
Embrace that. Embrace the imperfections you see in your bank account. After all, mistakes are how we learn.
Be kind to yourself
Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up about your spending habits, especially if you, like most Americans, regularly feel strapped for cash. There is a great Hidden Brain podcast about how scarcity impacts our spending habits. It focuses on a study that examined the way poverty impacts farmer’s cognitive performance. If you’ve ever been broke, what the researchers found will come as no surprise.
What the study found is that scarcity (in this case, poverty) does, in fact, make it harder to perform at our highest cognitive levels. The study found living under the constant stress of poverty added the same level of decreased cognitive function as losing a night of sleep. And just as with sleep, once the farmers in the study harvested their crops and were once again flush with cash, they were performing at their normal levels once again.
Of course they were.
Money can’t buy your happiness, but it does make everything easier
Money can’t make you happy, but it can sure as hell make you really, really unhappy. When you don’t have enough money, managing everything from your diet to your spending is harder.
I was poor as hell when I spent those last five dollars on that wheel of brie cheese. It was 2008, and I was making $1200 a month as the Arts and Entertainment Editor at a small independent newspaper and struggling to pay off my $27,000 in student loan debt. At the time, I was really hard on myself about my poor money management how to stop impulse spending, . The world of personal finance was so inundated with spreadsheet culture that it felt impossible to even think about taking control of my money. I was caught in a perpetual cycle of scarcity and impulsivity.
Accept your spending, accept yourself
I wish I knew then what I know now. What I know now is that we are all just doing the best we can, and that it’s not okay to be mean to anybody, including ourselves, when they’re doing the best they can. I know now that the first step to getting your impulse spending under control and saving money is to find your why. I know now that results don’t matter. It’s the effort that matters. I would tell myself that if I wanted to accept myself, all the way, I was going to have to look at what I was doing with my money. Because the truth is, you can’t fully accept anything without looking at it carefully. By definition, you can’t accept something you don’t understand. And you don’t understand your financial behavior until you start tracking it.
And then, I would roll up my sleeves, open a free Mint account, and get to categorizing my spending.
Tracking can save you money, even if it doesn’t lead to developing a budget
Even though I still don’t follow a rigid budget each month, if I had never started tracking our spending, I never would have realized that 17% of our food budget was going to craft beer, or that by getting on my husband’s family plan for my cell phone, I would save $50 a month. I never would have caught it when our annual InReach subscription fee came out in the middle of December (whoops! we forgot to cancel it for the winter), or realized I still had that recurring Lose It payment coming out of my account every year.
Tracking my spending allowed me to save hundreds of dollars a month with literally no changes in lifestyle. If you’re trying to get your financial house in order and you want to do it as painlessly as possible, tracking is the best place to start.
Taking care of your finances is an act of self love. And being fearless enough to look at yourself in the financial mirror, totally naked, and accept what you see there is an active way to say to yourself that you love yourself and you are willing to do everything you can, even the hard stuff, even the stuff that makes you see your own imperfections in a big, glaring way, to make sure that you are secure and cared for.
Nobody else can do that for you.