In Defense of Baby Steps: Mindfulness and Budgeting

Mindful actions can lead to a healthier relationship with money

One of the things I love about my job is the clean slate that comes with the beginning of each school year. For me, this serves as a starting point for crafting a new way to frame my instruction, developing a new classroom systems, or finally getting my desk free of all paperwork (spoiler alert: my attempts at a clear desk usually do not last more than one week).

I’m a fan of the restart. The change in scenery. The freshness that comes with starting over. I’m also pretty headstrong (read: stubborn — I’ll chalk it up to being a Taurus) when it comes to diving head first into a complete overhaul of an aspect of my life.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a steady paycheck, but, for the most part, managing money has not come naturally to me. I’ve tried a dramatic budget reset in the past, only to hit a wall after a few months. The initial “fun” of beating my targets wore off and I was back to my old, mindless spending. I loved a challenge, but apparently I loved shopping more.

It’s understandable to become frustrated when you set out on a path toward financial independence. Your 401(k) balance grows too slowly. You’re still months away from having a substantial emergency savings. Your debt barely seems to decrease after extra payments on the principal. It’s easy to see  why many people give up.

When I reflect on my journey toward financial independence it really began in 2015. Not in earnest, but with small changes to my thinking. After breaking up with my boyfriend of several years, I felt an enormous weight lift from my shoulders and I forget how I found Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but it sparked a series of tiny transformations.

Mom – you get a book! Sister – You get a book! Roommate – you get a book! College friend – you get a book!

I must have bought at least a half a dozen copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as gifts. Kondo’s message stirred something inside of me. I felt empowered to get rid of anything weighing me down (and after a long relationship, trust me, there was a lot), but I’ll admit that I did not change into a different person overnight. I did not get the full restart I craved, but instead, reading the book set off a series of baby steps toward mindfulness.

What happened to me in 2015 was the start of more conscious consumption. After getting rid of bags full of belongings I carried with me out of my relationship, I did not purchase new stuff with the capriciousness and fury I had in the past. I wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination – I still bought things I regretted – but the frequency of my mindless spending decreased. Dramatically by some measures.

I’m still not perfect when it comes to budgeting, or saving, or buying, or really anything else in life. But I feel like I have made huge strides for me, especially in the past year. Kondo’s focus on things that “sparked joy” made me a little more of a conscious consumer, and practicing and refining my “joy radar” helps me prioritize my spending.

For some suggestions on mindful budgeting, check out this post from Minimalism and Your Money.

Although reducing spending on large expenses (like housing and transportation) can provide a drastic change in your budget, the little things do add up. Baby steps toward more mindful spending as a whole can improve your outlook on money and produce big results.

Here are some baby steps that led to big differences in my budget:

Say No To Things That Don’t Excite You

I loathe expensive group dinners. Offering an alternative such as dinner at my house (complete with drinks, dessert, and usually homemade Indian food) or a happy hour still allowed for fun and meaningful time with friends. Plus, these options lack the stuffy atmosphere of a group dinner (especially the ones where you’re stuck sitting next to people who aren’t the most engaging…) and, almost without exception, are cheaper. I’ve also turned down concert tickets and bachelorette party invitations when the cost-benefit analysis is not on my side.

The Fioneers have some great suggestions for intentional spending with friends here

Minimize Grocery Store Trips

When assessing my budget, I found that I would go to the grocery store at least twice a week and spend over $40 each time. These multiple trips allowed for more impulse purchases that increased the total (sure I want to try this cheese and pie is on sale, so why not? It’s only a few bucks…). I try to stick with one trip each week (with a detailed list) and find substitutes or go without when I don’t have something while cooking during the week. It’s made me more creative and less likely to eat sweets at home.

Don’t Use Subsciption Services That Make It Easier To Spend (Subtitle: Do Not Renew Amazon Prime)

It was caught in a cycle: Think of something that would be nice to have. Check the price on Amazon. See the price is low and I could get it for free in two days. Order said item with one click.

This cycle led to me buying things I really did not need. I realized the ease of ordering was not conducive for mindful spending. When I cancelled my membership, I remember wanting a little pouch for dog treats. When I realized it wouldn’t be here for two days (with free shipping at least), I looked for another alternative to use on my dog walk that day. I busted out my sewing machine, found some old fabric, and whipped up a crude, but functional bag I still use on walks. And it was free!

Avoid Buying Books/Magazines When Possible

My library system allows me to reserve books online (including personal finance books!) and pick up at the branch down the street from my house. As a result, I’ve saved $5,368.33 in two years My library emails the retail value of the materials you borrow — How cool is that?

Find Free Substitutes For Things You Love

Being active is part of who I am. I love Crossfit, so I justify spending the money when I go at least an average of 4 times a week (plus, the community is awesome). I crave yoga and I found Lululemon’s free Sunday classes and, although it’s not a fancy heated studio, my body gets the movement I need without paying for two expensive fitness memberships. Lots of studios and gyms do offer free introductory or community classes, so it may be worth it to search.

Financial Mechanic includes some ideas for being a “frugal fraud” here

Search For Phone Plans

I used to participate in a common ritual for many millenials. On the first of the month I paid my parents for my portion of the cell phone bill. It was mindless and I assumed it was the cheapest option. After a quick search on the internet, I found Boom Mobile and cut my phone bill in half. My parents totally understood 🙂

Call and Ask For Discounts

In the spirit of the last baby step, reducing monthly and yearly bills can be a game-changer for your budget. I’ve negotiated discounts and promotions for the usual suspects — cable, internet — but also annual fees on credit cards. I called to ask about an airline reward card and they waived the fee while also crediting me with anniversary bonus miles. Score!

Impose A Buying Ban – A Clothes Buying Ban Is A Great Place To Start

Ok, this is a little more than a baby step. Seriously though, just the simple act of telling myself “I’m not buying new clothes” worked. This mantra has led to me rediscovering things in my closet and realizing which clothes I love and fit best. It’s a challenge that I’ve been able to stick to (for the most part, I have made a few exceptions) because I really appreciate what I have in my closet now and have a hard time bringing myself to spend money on clothes that I may not love as much as what I already have. When I’m aware of what I actually wear, I’m less likely to want to something else.

Embrace the baby steps! Small changes over time can produce big results.

Baby steps can lead to a baby dance party

In what ways have you become more mindful of your spending? Have small tweaks to your lifestyle or budget paid dividends?

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Baby Steps: Mindfulness and Budgeting”

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