Last Thursday I began my spending diet. My self-imposed rule was to get everything that was not a bill to $350 for the month of July. This meant any purchases that were to be made were to be needs, not wants. I’m only on the sixth day and already feel a need to write about it. To put it bluntly, I’m shocked and nervous.
Personal finance is something I’ve been truly working on for a couple of years now. I’ve tracked spending, frozen my credit cards, become a regular reader of Get Rich Slowly, made changes in spending habits and priorities, set up savings accounts, created fifty million types of budgets, matched my employers contributions to my 401k (at one point I was exceeding it), worked out a debt repayment plan (debt snowball), and even enrolled in Upromise to help save for the kids college educations. That being said, I still felt a true grasp of my money was not happening. So, spending diet begins and already, we have lessons cropping up.
- I thought I had a good picture of my spending. I didn’t. Because I was determined to do this experiment with heavy, if not sole, reliance on cash versus the debit card I ditched Mint. I turned instead to a very basic, very handy Excel spreadsheet. Mint, I love you and you saved my butt when it came time to do those divorce papers, but apparently I’m really still an amateur in the personal finance marathon of life and you seem better suited to Intermediates and Advanced types.
- This morning I went in to update my spreadsheet with the most recent purchases and was surprised to find I’d already spent money on groceries earlier in the weekend. Here I was completely convinced I’d managed to keep my grocery spending under my gas spending for the week to find myself in a cold shower of awareness. Ouch. It turns out my grocery spending was almost double the gas bill. The fact I had completely blocked the first round of groceries out of my head in just four days was completely disturbing.
- Spending money flicks across my brain a lot. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that spending comes across my brain as frequently as scientists claim sex flickers on the male human’s mind. For example, planning an outing to the beach with my kids and a friend I fantasized how nice it’d be to take along a large box of Cuban pastries the way my family used to do. It wouldn’t be very expensive… I didn’t buy the box. Instead I pillaged my refrigerator and pantry and packed what I thought was a pretty decent picnic basket evidenced by the fact it was pretty much completely devoured. I thought picking up some bottles of water would be smart until I remembered I had several empty BPA-free plastic bottles in my house that I’d purchased for the Disney trip. I packed those instead. On the beach my son was fascinated with kids floating around on inner tubes and I briefly wondered if maybe I should have one for the next trip. I thought the $20 rental package for 2 chairs and an umbrella wasn’t entirely unreasonable. Some food from the café would’ve been nice. When I got home beat up with that special beach-induced exhaustion and hunger, I desperately wanted to phone in an order for pizza. On and on it goes and that was just a day on the beach.
- I need to do a better job of planning. I paid $2.75 in tolls plus another $8 to get into the beach and park. Was it worth it? Absolutely, especially since we decided to ride out the rainstorm that greeted us not even an hour after we got there and were rewarded with a far emptier but far more glorious beach day. But in the essence of the spending diet, I should’ve looked up the parking rates, this would have been a no-no and a less expensive alternative would’ve been sought out instead.
- As of right now, I have $201 left for the month of July; however, if I maintained the spending pace I’ve had since the diet started, I’d be hitting $600 this month at the pace of $24.71 a day. Looming ahead of me is a weekend without the kids, a time I am prone to even more impulsive spending as a cure to loneliness. It’s true and I admit it. I spend on dinners out, I go to the stores, I even go to the movies these days—something I never did when I was married despite it being a favorite activity of ExMutant and our friends. I have books to read and I have an entire bin of yarn that could be knitted up into a million things. I also have Netflix on the Xbox and lots of food in my fridge and pantry. I have DS games to play. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to sit tight and do those things instead of fleeing my empty house in search of distraction.
So far, the Spending Diet has not been the liberating and self-empowering experiment I fantasized it would be. Instead, this has been somewhat painful for me. It’s not the best feeling in the world when you think you’re doing pretty well with something to only find out you’re not even close. And yet, the more I do this the more convinced I am this is necessary for me and at this point, I am strongly inclined to recommend this sort of drastic program to anyone not entirely pleased with their spending habits. I am in no way trying to minimize the experience of an addict, but I do believe the way people generally spend money is similar to habitual drug use—you’re not even fully aware of how much you use it, think about it, want it, or are comforted by it until it’s taken away or at the very least stripped to bare minimums.
One small thing I came up with for me to do during this experiment was to create a Mental Shopping List during the Diet. Here I would jot down all those little impulses I felt I could easily rationalize were it not for the Diet. So far, it’s been amusing. Just like the trip to the grocery store, I have items on there that I can’t remember why or how I put them on the list and yet there they are. But I’m dedicated to this project and so I’m continuing. I’m curious to see what other behaviors I turn up in myself related to money and “things” and how I can resolve them.