How A Tracking App Forced Me To Face My Spending

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.

We all need money to survive, yet schools don't really teach us how to handle our finances. Money is still a pretty taboo topic of conversation in many circles. This is one reason so many people develop money problems as young adults. I was one of them.

I never learned how to spend within my limits, and I frequently spent on things I definitely didn’t need. I often felt fraught over the state of my spending habits, like I was out of control. While I never really got myself into deep debt, my mismanaged money was taking a toll on my emotions. I bought clothes whenever I felt like it, said yes every time someone invited me to dinner or drinks, and didn’t put much thought into saving for the future. I had no real understanding of what my spending should look like, and I was also scared that people would look down on me if I used money as an excuse not to hang out. I tied my worth to my bank account — and to the things I bought with that money.

However, I’ve learned that this way of living is not sustainable. These days, I’m living in Brooklyn (which is an expensive place to live, especially if you’re bad with money), I’m in the process of planning a wedding, and I’m a freelance writer (which means that I need to be on top of my income taxes, because they’re not taken out for me). It was time to get my finances in order.

I wanted to know how much I was currently spending, and on what — to sort of shame myself into financial responsibility. My brother recommended an app called Income OK, which allows users to input their income and expenses into customizable categories (for example: freelance, salary, and gifts versus rent, bills, medical expenses, beauty, transportation). I decided I’d track every single dollar I earned and spent for a month to see where, exactly, all my money was going.

I tied my worth to my bank account — and to the things I bought with that money.

At first, it was actually really fun. It almost felt like a game; the app has a widget for iPhones, complete with cute little icons for food, drinks, and other spending. But then, as the numbers started to go up (it keeps a running count of how much you’ve spent, which can look VERY intimidating), I started to sweat whenever I went to pay for something. I began to ask myself, Do I really need this? which I suppose is a thing most responsible people do, so perhaps the app was starting to work.

I also began to realize that there was a connection between my spending habits and my emotions — it was much more likely that I’d spend (and be embarrassed about it) when I was feeling anxious or sad, and it was much easier to go without when I was feeling secure with myself and happier.

For instance, I found myself buying a $48 sweater and refusing to log it in the app. I was feeling anxious — about money, about my body, about something I couldn’t put a name to. And for some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to log that purchase. That’s how I knew it was an irresponsible buy: I couldn’t justify it, and so I didn’t want to see it in the app's neat little pie chart. I didn’t want to admit to myself what I’d bought.

Similarly, at the end of the second week, I was feeling bad about working so much and being away from my dogs, so I bought them some toys. I knew the purchase was driven by guilt. The dogs didn't need those toys; really, they’re content with me just snuggling with them or taking them on an extra walk. It was me who "needed" to buy them, just to reassure myself that I'm a good dog-mom. I didn’t log that spending, either — and these un-logged, guilt-driven purchases just kept happening.

Toward the end of the month, I had drinks with some friends, and the conversation turned to money. We were all stressed out about it, but we also didn’t want to deny ourselves the things that make us feel good; there’s so much talk these days about how much money you can save by just skipping your daily coffee or some similar comfort item. But if buying a daily cup of coffee is bringing you joy, is that really worth cutting out?

As we all talked — over an assortment of cheap beers and fancy cocktails, ranging from $5-$14 each — we realized there is no one answer to the problem of being in our mid-to-late-20s and trying to save money while still having a social life. It’s a complicated question that calls for a tenuous balance that many of us are still struggling to find. And while I’m not sure if tracking all my expenses made me feel more balanced, it certainly did make me feel more aware.

Moving forward, I’ll use that awareness to help me decide when to skip a purchase. But for the most part, I want to keep living my life — saving when I can, yes, but not at the expense of that life. I don’t want to be unhappy now while saving for later.