Ever wake up in cold a sweat, next to piles of shopping bags piled on other piles of shopping bags and a mountain of credit cards strewn across the bed?
No, probably not. You’re not a psycho.
But if you’ve ever struggled with your spending habits, then you know something about how it feels to spend yet another fistful of your hard-earned dollars on something you didn’t reaaaally need in the first place.
Or maybe you’ve said the words “I seriously need to save more money” more times than you’re comfortable admitting. It was probably followed by a shrug of the shoulders.
How do you do it? How do you shake that guilty feeling you get when you find yourself forking over the VISA for yet another pair of shoes?
First of all, let’s forget about CONTROLLING your spending.
Managing > Controlling
It’s really a matter of semantics. Control implies complete command of; it gives you the idea that one has the ability to exercise total domination over the spending. That may be possible for a short period of time but in the long run that’s a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that your willpower is finite – so why waste it on trying to control your spending?
Instead, it’s best to implement systems that will help you manage your spending. After all, you have to spend something. It’s not like you can cut your expenses down to zero. (But if you figure out how to do this please let us know firstname.lastname@example.org)
By switching to a system where you make decisions based on observation and planning, you stand a better chance at making and sustaining a change. Making a guilt-motivated behavioural change often lasts only a few days and actually leaves one feeling even more drained.
The first step to achieving this is to move from an unconscious model of spending to a conscious model.
You can do this by tracking your spending. If you exclusively use credit or debit cards then it’s easy: most banks have an option that allows you to download your monthly statements. If you use cash, then start collecting your receipts. Don’t worry just yet about “controlling” your spending, let’s start with tracking. Start documenting everything. Track your spending using Excel or, for easier access, an iPhone or android app that you can pull up at a moment’s notice.
Do this for a few months. You may have unavoidable emergencies (unplanned medical bill – ouch). You want to have a lot of data to draw from so as to see the emergent patterns.
Knowing how much you spend and on what is just the beginning. Once you have a clear picture of what that looks like, you can start to cut ruthlessly. You might look at your monthly bills and realize “damn, I’m spending HOW MUCH on cat video subscriptions?” At that point you might decide to cut back (drastically) on that part of your life.
Make a Plan
Take some time to write down some goals. They can take the form of “I want to spend X% of my monthly spending on Y”. Aim for your target to be smaller than what you currently spend. If you’re ambitious try to cut back 30%; 10% if this is painful and you just want to take baby steps. On things you don’t truly care about (cat video subscriptions) you can cut ruthlessly, while still keeping a generous allotment for things you do care about (shoes).
This way there’s no guilt. Or at least not much of it. You’re giving yourself the freedom to spend judiciously on things that make you happy – while still living within your means.
You could even set up savings goals at the same time. Aim to take the money you save from spending cuts and sock it away for a rainy day.
Okay, it’s nice to put down goals – but how do I make sure I actually follow through?
It’s called the envelope method.
Here’s how it works: let’s say one of your written goals was to spend $600 a month on groceries. You would then have that amount of money set aside in an envelope marked ‘Groceries’. Every time you go grocery shopping, you’d dip into that envelope to finance the excursion. Once the envelope is exhausted, no more groceries.
You’d have a whole bunch of envelopes in this system; envelopes for shoes, cat video subscriptions, gym memberships etc. You can dip into the other envelopes if you need but the total amount of money remains fixed (i.e.: it will not change).
At the end of the month, you can see how you did. If there’s left over cash, you can roll it over to the next month or treat yourself for meeting your monthly targets.
Try to think of the envelope idea as a metaphor. So it may seem unwieldy to always use cash. Having envelopes full of dollars lying around is questionable, but think of the principle behind it.
What if you applied the envelope method to debit cards?
You could easily set up a debit card specifically for grocery purchases, then schedule an automatic transfer from your main bank account every month. That debit card becomes your modern expression of the envelope method. When your card gets declined, you don’t buy any more groceries for the rest of the month.
Protip: make sure your bank doesn’t charge you overdraft fees. If you only have $20 in your account and your groceries cost $25 then you want that card to decline your transaction rather than filling in the rest and charging you a hefty fee on top of it.
So guys, don’t try to control your spending. The idea is to just be more aware of it. Rather than “controlling” your spending, set up a lifestyle that requires you to follow a simple, stress-free system. It’s much easier than being wracked by guilt, don’t you think?
To learn more about spending less and saving more, head over to Wall Street Survivor!