Keeping a spreadsheet of everything I buy changed my spending habits — and my life

Confession: I keep a log of everything I buy. It started as an exercise to determine how much I needed to earn to pay my bills, but seeing where my money went and how small things add up helped me change my habits — and my life.

I fear the unknown. I find comfort in strategy and structure. I’m terrible at “wait and see”-ing. I categorize and rank and number and file. Somewhere I even have a list of every man I’ve ever been on a date with. Certain names may be just notes to help me remember which mistakes not to repeat (see: McNuggets Guy), but it serves the same purpose: get a handle on my shit so I can live the life I want.

When I was 27, wrapping up grad school, job-hunting, and relearning how to date after the end of a four-year relationship, I panicked about money. Now that I was responsible for 100% of my living expenses, every day was a rude awakening to the sky-high cost of simply existing in New York City. I wanted to have a “real life” — or some approximation of it — where I could pay my bills and still afford to enjoy the city’s cultural and culinary scene. Plus, I was hungry to travel now that I had time and no one to argue over destinations with.

Okay great, but how?

There’s a difference between saying “I’m going to save money” and coming up with a plan you can stick to. Previous experiments had failed. “Spending less” wasn’t specific enough, and giving up shopping for Lent had always backfired because I didn’t actually learn anything by white-knuckling it through those 40 days.

As a registered dietitian, I’ve learned many different approaches to help people meet their health goals. Some of the same things apply here. A lot of diets fail, for example, because people go on super-restrictive plans that are hard to sustain. Once they’ve hit their desired weight or reached the end of the week- or month-long cleanse or whatever, they revert back to old habits because they haven’t developed a maintenance plan to reintroduce foods that may have been off-limits or adapt to situations where they have limited control over their options.

Food journals are a tool I use with almost all my nutrition clients. They’re a great way to get an honest look at your eating habits and highlight places where you can trim excess or alert you to gaps in the diet.

With that in mind, I decided to start documenting my purchases. My goals:

— Find out how much money I needed to make each month to cover basic expenses
— Figure out where I could cut back
— Identify which luxuries to budget for

I know there are softwares and apps to make this easier (Quickbooks and Mint, just to name a few), but I chose Excel. The old-school familiarity was comforting, and knowing I had to enter everything manually kept me accountable. I kept it simple with just these columns:

Date | Amount | Type of Payment | Vendor | Notes

Fixed costs like rent, utilities, and my Metrocard were not surprises, and my grocery store purchases were far from mysterious, but it blew my mind to see how much the little stuff added up: that nail polish I bought at the drugstore, $9 glasses of wine, coffee…Didn’t I have a coffee maker at home? Why wasn’t I using it?

I was spending $12 a week on kombucha — at $4 a pop, those seemingly moderate 3 bottles per week added up to $624 a year. $624 on fermented tea. I started using the seltzer maker I’d gotten as a gift and added lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or a dash of bitters when I wanted a change from water.

Turned out I spent even more on clothes and shoes than I thought, too — and yet, I wore the same things over and over. This was a wake-up call to clean out my closet and give myself permission to stick to my uniform of dark jeans and black tops. There’s something to be said for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when it comes to personal style.

I also saw most of the “what was I thinking” purchases occurred when I was stressed, lonely, longing for experiences that seemed out of reach. Having a new sundress or bathing suit was entirely different from having actual beach plans. Seeing how my emotions showed up in my finances helped me learn to check in with myself when I wanted to go shopping. Did I actually need something, or was I trying to buy an experience? What steps could make that experience reality?

New rule: Set the date, then plan the outfit.

Similar to how regular weigh-ins have been shown to help people reach their goal weight and maintain it over time, tracking spending can do the same. Naturally, we all go through phases where it’s harder to stay on track. This is why I’ve kept up with my spreadsheets, even though I use Quickbooks for my business and check electronic bank balance and credit card statements regularly.

I’ve picked up some new habits too:

— Using coupons and rebates
— Discount ticket services
— Buying in bulk when I can take advantage of free shipping and discounts online
— Finding creative ways to use up groceries before buying new stuff
— When making my own coffee isn’t an option, ordering a small drip rather than a grande Americano
— Tea or lunch instead of drinks or dinner with friends
— A monthly yoga studio membership instead of boutique drop-in fitness classes
— Asking myself questions like, “Will I want this $11 later for something else?”

Though my approach may not work for everyone, it’s helped me feel more in control of my spending so I can enjoy my life more. With the money I’ve saved, I took a solo trip to Italy last year, and I’m currently planning my next adventure.

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