Death By A Thousand Small Purchases: A True Story

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Napkin1_SaraHailePhotographed by Sara Haile.
The Billfold — which, mind you, is not another personal finance site — aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable. Instead, they've created a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. Or, why we'll buy a dozen oysters before we pay our rent. This week, a reader writes in to ask about overspending

"I’m blessed to be in an awesome financial position: No credit card debt! No student loans! Emergency fund: adequately-ish funded! I feel like I’ve got a good balance of socking it away and enjoying happy hours and road trips. And yet, I’m looking at the credit card statement of this past month and noticing a bunch of stupid things: I could’ve saved $50-75 per month by getting my act together and not buying breakfast at a coffee shop. Two days ago, I bought a $3 pack of pens and a candy bar, because I forgot a pen at home. Yesterday, I spent just shy of $10 getting take-out sandwiches, because I didn’t want to go to the grocery store and buy sandwich supplies — an action, which, at the time, seemed perfectly reasonable, but now fills me with Sandwich Debt Shame. None of these are killer; I’m still saving, but if I would just have had some systems in place I might have saved an extra $500-$1,000 or so this year. Or, if I hadn’t been so dumb about breakfast and forgetfulness, I could be in Mexico right now.

I’d rather be in Mexico right now. I realize the answers to this question are 'Be An Adult' and 'Buy Eggs When You’re Out Of Eggs, Duh,' but I feel like I’m missing out on some systems/tricks that could help me make sure that I’m using my money for what I really want to be using it for. So Mike/Readers, if I may ask: What tricks do you use to make sure you’re properly stocked/organized/under control and avoid overspending dumb money because you’re not prepared?" — S.M.M.

I often have days when I’m too busy (or lazy) to throw together a sandwich for lunch before I head to the office, so I end up picking up takeout later in the afternoon. And here’s the thing: I’ve never felt this “Sandwich Debt Shame” you speak of. People need to eat. Eating gives us the energy to be productive at work, and being productive at work eventually leads to things like promotions and raises. If you are indeed going into debt because you’re eating too many takeout sandwiches, then I’d see a problem here.

But you’re debt-free and in an “awesome financial position” with an adequately funded savings account. There are going to be days when you spend $3 on pens, and $10 on takeout, and this is perfectly reasonable spending. I think you’re doing just fine.

Yes, sometimes we do spend money on things we don’t intend to buy. I keep my fridge stocked by setting aside a time to go to the grocery store every week (usually Sunday afternoons). I keep extra pens at the office and in my messenger bag. The easiest way to keep organized is to create a routine, and having a routine will make sure that you’re consistently restocking on all the things you need every week in advance.

Do you know what I’d do if I wanted to go to Mexico? I’d start saving for a trip to Mexico, and then ask my travel-obsessed friends for tips on how to find deals. You’re allowed to have multiple savings accounts. You can dedicate one savings account to “vacations” and fund your trip to Mexico by dedicating a certain amount of your paycheck to this account every month. The trick to making sure you’re using your money for the things you really want to be using it for is to become more intentional about what you do with your money.

Make a list of the things that are important to you, for example, taking vacations, or eating at nice restaurants, or owning a home one day, or supporting your favorite causes. You’re creating priorities. We save and set aside money every month to go to the things that are the most important to us. That money should be out of sight and out of mind in a separate account. Anything leftover can be spent on our day-to-day lives, which sometimes includes $3 pens and $10 takeout sandwiches. There’s no reason to feel ashamed about spending money on these things if you’ve already got your priorities in check.

“Frugal fatigue” is a real thing. Sometimes we get so caught up on watching dollars accumulate in a bank account that we forget that the reason the money is there is for us to be able to live our lives. We save for the future, yes, but we also need to remember to live our lives in the present, too.
The Billfold — which, mind you, is not another personal finance site — aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable. Instead, they've created a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. Or, why we'll buy a dozen oysters before we pay our rent.