a quick and easy way to control spending

I am not a budgeter. I have never thought in terms of categories of spending, partially because I view all of my expenses in a single bucket: something to be minimized where possible and reasonable, regardless of what it is. Because of this I sometimes ignore overspending for small purchases and focus on overspending for big purchases.

What does that mean?
I’ll concentrate on avoiding spending too much on buying a new dishwasher, but I’ll drop $10 per day on lunch at work. Both may be equally significant in terms of saving, but as you know from reading this blog I am much more focused on making more than I am on spending less. But I try not to waste money.

I was spending about $10 per day at lunch.
My client is in a less-than-pleasant area of New York, and the main dining option is the overpriced and not-terribly-satisfying cafeteria. I found myself spending $8-$9 for a wilted, tasteless salad and decided I had to do something about it. So what did I do? Set up budgets? Cut up my credit card?

No, I just started writing down how much I spent every day in a list (I keep it in a spreadsheet or jot notes in my Moleskine). I figure out each week what my average per day was, and here is the funny thing: seeing it written down creeped me out. Somehow just writing it out made me uncomfortable. I started thinking about writing that number down each day and found that this one tiny little habit change made me go from spending $10 per day to about $2 per day now (once or twice a week I won’t bring lunch for various reasons).

Writing anything down in a diary is a good way to eliminate a habit.

1. Spend too much? Keep a notebook and write down every single last purchase – a pack of gum, a book, an online purchase, even your cable bill. That running list of money leaving your life will make you think twice before whipping out the wallet.
2. Eat too much? Keep a food diary. Write down every single last thing you eat. Everything. You’ll start to feel the pain if you look back on what you actually ate in a single day, rather than what you tell yourself you ate.
3. Complain too much? Every time something bad happens that makes you unhappy, write it down. Look back at the list at the end of the day and see if you still care about it. That guy who cut you off during your morning commute probably wasn’t worth the agitation when you reflect on it at the end of your day.
4. Waste too much time? Keep a diary of your appointments – online calendars or pocket calendars work well for this. Maybe you have an appointment from 2 to 3 at the dentist, then 5 to 6 you have to pick up the kids and make dinner. You know those have to be written down – but also write down what you did from 3 to 5. If you can’t remember what it was, or you find that four times a week you’re writing “had to run to the store because we were out of ….” you may see that your time could be better spent.
5. Any other bad habits? If you smoke, watch too much TV, play too much Wii, don’t exercise enough, root for Boston-based sports teams or even find yourself reading blogs too often you can write down your habits and understand what’s going on.

I know this seems like a simple tip but the longer I study self-improvement the more I find that extreme simplification is the easiest and best way to achive your goals.

Creative Commons License photo credit: desi.italy