When I think of budgeting, I think of dating.
A few years ago I went on a really good first date. We met up after he finished work and laughed for hours about quotes from some of our favorite movies. I even stayed out past my bedtime on a school night 😬.
At one point he turned to me and said, “I wouldn’t be lying if I told you this was my most hectic workweek of the year. But I’m glad I’m here.” I was flattered, but this isn’t some big love story. I knew things were doomed when two weeks later he started telling me he had “so much work to do this week.” Cue the eye roll.
When this guy started lamenting his “crazy busy” schedule without offering alternative date ideas, it was obvious I wasn’t a priority for him so I moved on. My “on to the next one” mentality helped me weed out the guys who didn’t value my time. Throughout my dating stint, I went on dozens of first dates because I would quickly initiate conversation and, once I determined he seemed like a good enough guy, suggested meeting up. My actions reflected my desire to meet people and have fun. I never liked to sit around and wait to be asked out partly because I’m impatient, but also I don’t want to waste time chatting with someone who can’t commit to two hours. What’s the Maya Angelou quotation? When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
Why do I share this dating non-story? I learned so much from dating, but one of the big takeaways was people’s actions reflect what they value. I’m glad I didn’t waste months of my life on this guy who couldn’t make the time and it helped me appreciate my fiancé’s openness and flexibility. I share this because it’s one of the many examples of how we make time for the things that matter and find excuses for the things that don’t. When my friends complain about people who are “too busy” to meet up for a date, I immediately encourage them to move on–they deserve someone who is willing to put forth a little effort.
My dating mentality comes to mind when I think about my approach to budgeting. Since I wrote about how I help students start their budgets, I decided to write about my own budgeting mindset. What does my spending say about who I am? What do I make room for and what excuses did I use to “justify” purchases?
Although some people loathe budgets and hate the feeling of restriction that can accompany some methods, I choose to view budgeting through a different lens. Tracking how I spend my money helps as a tool to ensure I’m living according to my values. I can see if I’m wasting precious funds and energy on things that really do not bring me happiness.
Of course not everything I spend my money on makes me happy. Paying my student loans. Replacing my windshield in February. Oof. But when it comes to the things I can control about my discretionary spending, I do have choices. I’m lucky I make enough from one job to sustain a comfortable lifestyle. I recognize the privilege in having spare money, but I want to ensure I’m spending in a way that reflects my values and who I am (and want to be) as a person.
Creating and sticking to a budget proved to be instrumental in my conscious movement toward Financial Independence. When I finally sat down to create a budget, here are the steps that worked for me. Budgets should be customizable, but I found success with my Four Steps.
My Budgeting Steps
Budgeting Step 1: Take Inventory
I often spent money capriciously with no real clue how many times I swiped my credit card. It was one of those “close my eyes and check accounts later” mindsets, one that ultimately left me transferring money from my measly savings to try to pay the bill in full each month.
My first action was to comb through statements (luckily I rarely purchase goods with cash, so I had lots of transactions recorded) and figure out my baseline monthly spending. You can perform a “budget audit” electronically on a spreadsheet or with a good old-fashioned pen and paper, but the important thing is to actually put it into writing so you can clearly see where your money is going.
In order to control for “outlier” months, I used six months worth of spending to create a more complete picture of where my money went. I’ll be honest — it was not pretty. As I began to put actual numerical values on my spending, I felt guilty. I spent how much on Uber Eats?
Dealing with the shame of unbridled spending was one of the most difficult parts for me. It was surprisingly easy to keep the wool pulled over my eyes to avoid acknowledging and actually addressing bad habits. Forgiving myself for past spending decisions is still a work in progress, but I’m getting better about my approach to money.
I recommend creating categories that work for your spending. My categories included:
- Bills (rent, utilities, phone, student loan payments, gym membership)
- Entertainment (restaurants, bars, travel, sports or concert tickets, etc.)
- Ride shares
- Shopping – clothes
- Shopping – other
- Services (hair cut, oil change, etc.)
- One-time charges (car registration, sign up fees, etc.)
After I arranged six months worth of expenses in my categories in a simple Google Spreadsheet, I got to work on step two. (Side note: At the time of my first budget audit, I had all my own separate expenses. When my fiancé and I combined part of our finances to cover shared bills and things like groceries, we took the same approach with our joint expenses.)
Budgeting Step 2: Identify Trends and Themes
There were some troubling things that jumped out at me. I had multiple Amazon charges, but I could not confidently remember what I bought. After scouring my account history, I realized most of the things I purchased were impulse or boredom buys I didn’t really need or use. It was too easy for two-day shipping for a watercolor set when I thought I’d spend time getting in touch with my artistic side (I only painted one thing, so not a good look).
In the same vein, my receipts from Loft and other clothing stores showed relatively low totals individually but appeared so frequently I was shocked how “someone who’s not that into clothes” managed to spend over $600 on clothes in 6 months. And don’t even get me started on Target home goods for someone who said she worshipped Marie Kondo’s version of minimalism.
And what about those Uber Eats bills? I paid for convenience as a cover for my laziness when I ordered from food delivery apps several times a month. I actually enjoy cooking. I really had no legitimate excuse for ordering all the food I did.
Budgeting Step 3: Reflection and Action
Looking at my list of trends and themes, it came time for a reckoning: Is this who I am? Is this what I value? Did I want a closet full of clothes I got because they were on sale, or did I want an actual emergency fund? Did I care about cute throw pillows that ended up on the floor covered in dog hair, or did I want to pay off my private student loans? Did I want to spend money on delivery fees when I could take pride in making my own meals? What were the opportunity costs of these decisions I made without really thinking?
Through slow baby steps, I aspired to make my budget match what I said I value and who I wanted to be. I set up bigger automatic transfers to my savings account and vowed to leave it alone. I meticulously tracked each purchase to monitor and question my monthly spending. And now that I’m on year two of budgeting, I can compare to last year and see how much better I am with mindful spending (So far in 2019 I don’t feel financial strain and my overall spending is down 🤩).
I cut back on mindless shopping trips to Target and eventually got rid of my Amazon Prime membership when it was up for renewal. My clothing ban would begin a few months later. After combining the two shopping categories into one, I strive to keep this part of my spending the lowest because I’m trying to emphasize less consumerism.
I still make room in my budget for entertainment, but I traded expensive group dinners I didn’t enjoy for happy hours — or said no to focus on saving for eating out during vacations instead. I meal-prepped and cooked at home (making sure I had some convenient options when I came home hungry from a night out).
I stopped coloring my hair because it was expensive, time consuming, and frankly I don’t care too much about how it looks most of the time (and I’m also super lucky to not have any greys). I’m a pretty casual person who has a relatively “low maintenance beauty routine,” so the long hair appointments made me more frustrated than happy.
The goal isn’t deprivation, it’s alignment. No one gives out awards for leading a miserable life when you’re savings a few bucks. Instead I tried to ask the right question: Am I spending money on the things that bring me joy and ring true to what I value, even if they’re not conventionally “frugal?”
For example, I allow myself to spend $135 a month on a CrossFit membership because working out gives me strength, increases my energy levels, and provides opportunities to blow off steam in an encouraging, community-focused environment. I struggle to motivate myself to workout at a “typical gym,” but I actually average more days at CrossFit than not each month. Since I value health and fitness, it made sense to maintain my membership.
Traveling is also a source of joy for me, but I resolved to actually save money for trips instead of charging plane tickets and worrying about the bills later. In addition to creating my own travel savings account, I started dabbling in “credit card hacking.” These actions allowed me to book plane tickets to India and Australia for just fees and not go into debt for the amazing trip. Score!
Principal FI has some additional budget spending strategies here.
Budgeting Step 4: Self-Improvement and Future Goals
I’m still working on increasing the giving part of my budget to reflect my desire to be a generous person. I signed up for a recurring monthly donation to my local public radio station and every few months I give to the shelter where I got my dog. This week I spent money on a gift for a friend who found out some terrible news — I’m glad I have room in my budget to allow for a gesture of kindness.
Of course I’m not perfect when it comes to 100% mindful spending, but I am so much better than I used to be. I actually have a savings account! I pay off my credit card bill in full each month! I still manage to live a fulfilling life!
Since I experienced such luck motivating myself to track my spending, I am currently trying to apply my money consciousness to another aspect of my life: my time. I hate to admit it, but the iPhone screen time metric was a wake up call for me: How in the world did I have three hours each day to spend on my phone? (Minimal and Money has a reflective post about the “costs” of technology here.)
Although I’m not tracking hours in a spreadsheet (who knows, I may employ this strategy), I am consciously trying to make small changes. I’ve imposed my own phone ban — I do not take my phone upstairs in the bedroom. By keeping my charger in the kitchen and I’ve already felt the changes. I’m hoping to see my time reflect my desire to spend meaningful moments with the people (and dogs) I love, as well as staying active, allowing for healthy relaxation, and learning more.
I don’t want to be the person who simply says “I’m too busy” as an excuse. If I have to return my unread library books it’s usually not because I’m to busy to read, it’s because I didn’t make the time for something I do enjoy. In the same way I’m lucky to have money to spend on the fun things, I also have some free hours every week. But now I need to ask the question, does my discretionary time spending match my values? I need to channel my old dating self while I’m making these changes to reflect the person I am and want to be.
What strategies do you use for mindful money and time spending? Any suggestions for my “time budget?”