Stumbling on the Simple Things

When I write on The Simple Dollar, I often write about tips and techniques that I’ve found useful for saving and investing money. I’ll talk about the big things – like always spending less than you earn – but I also list things like ten ways to avoid financially responsible buying.

I have very little problem managing the big things. My debt is steadily going downwards, I’m starting an investing plan, and I’ve got most of the things I need to pay set up automatically. Even better, I’ve found lots of ways to minimize my spending so that right now, we’re actually spending less than half of our income on the required stuff, like food and minimum bill payments.

Where I tend to stumble instead is on the little things.

I’ll go to the store and pick up a game for my DS, justifying the unnecessary splurge by thinking to myself, “I am doing such a good job! This little thing won’t make a difference!”

I’ll go splurge and spend $40 on a bottle of wine, telling myself that it is the perfect complement to a meal I’ve spent an hour and a half preparing.

I’ll buy an expensive, high quality pocket notebook (for my idea notebook) rather than a simple Mead one that does the job just fine.

Now, many people would react to all this by saying you work hard, you deserve it and you save a huge amount of money each month, these splurges won’t really matter and what’s the point of life without those little things we enjoy.

The problem is that those little mis-steps are the ones that really add up.

Rather than buying a new DS game, I could either actually finish some of the ones I own or trade one of my unplayed ones online, thus saving me $25.

Rather than buying a $40 bottle of wine, I could go to the winery down the road from where I live and buy a perfectly good bottle for $10, not only saving me $30 but also supporting a local business.

Instead of buying that expensive pocket notebook, I could save $4 and buy the little Mead notebook – it’s just for sketching ideas, anyway.

None of those alternate moves deny me any deep pleasure in life. They just save some money and reduce the impact that my immediate needs have on my long term future.

Yet, I still regularly make these little mistakes. I have a $40 bottle of wine sitting in the wine rack right now, waiting to accompany some homemade lasagna. I have a pile of DS games (and a few Wii games), many of which I’ve not played through entirely. My pocket notebook is currently not a Mead (though I need a new one soon).

It often seems as though I can see the boulders and can get past them, but I trip up on the pebbles.

So what can I do to get past this? The most powerful technique I’ve found is reminding myself a lot of what the big picture really is. I keep a few items in my wallet near my credit card so that whenever I go to pull it out, I see what I’m sacrificing to make that purchase.

Even with that, though, it’s still a constant challenge to overcome the little things.

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  1. Amanda B. says:

    “but I also list things like ten ways to avoid financially responsible buying.”

    I like responsible buying.

  2. FMF says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. You work hard, you deserve it and you save a huge amount of money each month. These splurges won’t really matter and what’s the point of life without those little things we enjoy? ;-)

    Seriously, I know what you mean. I keep a focus by reviewing my net worth every month (easy to do via Quicken) and record it in a spreadsheet. I have annual goals and want to hit or exceed them, and that monthly reminder helps keep me on track and serves as a reminder that every dollar does count.

  3. Jesse says:

    I get around this by setting aside a reasonable amount of money for toys and splurges. Once you have your fixed say $100 a month, The fixed size helps me prioritize which are most important and I quit spending when I hit the limit. I also sell a lot of the stuff when I get bored of it and that goes back into my pool – allowing for the occasional bigger purchases.

  4. SavingDiva says:

    I, like Jesse, set aside $100 a month on frivolous, fun items…make-up, beauty products, manicures, haircuts, etc…..it makes me feel like I can still spend frivolously, but within limits…

  5. My Road to Wealth says:

    We have monthly allowance of 50 each month. We can spend it on whatever we want, no question asked. If we don’t spend it, we save it for something more expensive such as wii. That way we won’t feel guilty damaging our budget and saving goal.

  6. Amelia says:

    Trent, please make sure that once the decision’s made and you do buy the $40 wine that you ENJOY it. Let go of the feeling of what you COULD have done with the money. No one can be perfect all the time. I like how the other commentors put aside a some money each month for this type of stuff. Sometimes you need to just chill out.

    It’s just like a diet (or healthy lifestyle) — you cannot deprive yourself 100% all the time. You’ll go nuts. Sometimes, you just need a doughnut. Even if you know it’s possible the worst thing you could eat. Hating yourself for eating it doesn’t burn any calories (or put any money back in the account). Just track it and move on.

    You are doing a great job of working toward balance and focusing on the values that are important to you and making those match your actions. Don’t lose sight of that. This post is the first one that really made me think you’re going a bit too far to other extreme.

    Keep up the fantastic job!

  7. Julia says:

    One thing that I do is imagine (o.k., you have to have a good imagination here) someone standing in front of me with the item I’m about to purchase…say that $40 bottle of wine in one hand and the $40 in the other. If that person was to offer one to you which would you take? I’ll be it’s the $40. That usually puts things into perspective for me!

  8. m says:

    My view is similar to what many other commenters have said: set a monthly limit for that type of spending.

    So, even though wine for example might not really be something most spend their “fun money” on, what you could do is pay the difference between what is reasonable given your grocery budget and what the expensive wine actually costs.

    For example, if you can only afford $15 wine, or even no wine at all given your grocery budget or given what you think is reasonable (if you don’t have a set grocery budget per se), then out of your “fun money” you’d pay the difference ($25 or, the full $40, depending on what your grocery budget was) between the cost and what your budget allows.

    Use the envelope system–even if you only use it for this fun money and not for your other purchases–and you can simply watch the cash dwindle and once it’s gone, it’s gone for that month. That way, you never surpass the amount YOU set as being reasonable for that type of splurging, and yet you get to still treat yourself to the types of things you like and that matter to you.

    Have the cash on hand, and when you pay for groceries, give, say, $30 in cash for the wine (assuming, say, $10 is what your budget for groceries reasonably allows for that wine) and pay the rest however way you normally pay. Using cash will make a huge difference, because you can really keep good track of your spending and it’s easy to not go over the limit because once the cash is physically gone, it’s gone.

    Having said all that, I very much believe that if you can afford it, treating yourself is important. The key to good pesonal finance and a healthy, happy life is NOT deprivation. Moderation, frugality, simplicity? Sure. But 100% or even close to it deprivation? No. Not in my opinion, at least.

    Allow yourself to buy the nice wine or the fancy notebook. Just make sure you do it in a way that allows you to be comfortable with how much you end up spending on such purchases. Your comfort and happiness depends not just on having those treats on occasion but also on being comfortable with how much you spend on them over time.

    Choosing a monthly limit that works for your budget, taking it out in cash each month, and then spending it on “treats” as well as on the difference between the budgeted cost for an item and the actual cost, will allow you, I believe, to easily acheive that peace of mind while still enjoying the occasional splurge or treat as well.

  9. John Moore says:

    This is a great post. The little things are the places where I screw up the worst. It’s easy to not buy that new MacBook when it costs $2000 or the iPhone for $600. It’s harder to skip lunch at taco bell or McD’s for $4.

  10. Laura says:

    You say you use your moleskine for “sketching,” but given that you’re a writer, I’m guessing that’s still in word form? If you are truly drawing or even doodling, I would say the extra $5-10 on a notebook with quality paper is worth it for the improved experience of putting pen to paper. Then again, I’m an architecture student so I’m picky about the weight and texture of the paper I use. What’s more important is the value you see in that extra quality in an item, whether it’s paper, wine, or anything else. I think “M” has a good idea when he talks about paying for that marginal cost out of fun money if the price is over your usual budget, but if a particular luxury is a really that important, shouldn’t it already be included in your budget?

  11. This reminds me of a recent rash of articles debating if some people are contributing “too much” to their retirements.
    The idea being that, yes, you need to prepare for retirement, but there are things that you can do now that you will not be able to do when you are older (or have kids, or are married, etc).
    The gist of the article was to make sure you are covered, prepared, but also to enjoy your life. I think that what you describe here is you enjoying life, which is a definite must.
    So yeah, I understand how you feel Trent, but you also have to live life. No one will ever be perfect.

  12. Elaine says:

    Funny you mention the idea notebook. I’d been planning on getting one, and a couple weeks ago saw a Moleskine at a stationery store. It was $16. I bought it anyway because:

    a) It was there, I was there, I was ready to start writing down all my ideas, and I decided not to procrastinate anymore;
    b) Every time I think of something that I might need to write down, I always do because I think “That notebook cost me SIXTEEN DOLLARS so I’m damn well going to USE IT!”; and
    c) I was glad to support a local small business.

  13. Red says:

    I struggle with this a lot myself.

    I appreciate Trent’s preemption of the “but you deserve it” comments. Self-restraint in the name of goals is a virtue to be striven for and being passive in the face of regressions makes it progressively easier to backslide. Certainly you must enjoy life, but Trent’s writing projects a joy in his posts which indicate that he is nowhere near miserly to the point of a diminishing quality of life.

    I’m lucky enough to be a fresh out of college dink with a minimal amount of debt (Student Loan with

  14. Red says:

    I struggle with this a lot myself.

    I appreciate Trent’s preemption of the “but you deserve it” comments. Self-restraint in the name of goals is a virtue to be striven for and being passive in the face of regressions makes it progressively easier to backslide. Certainly you must enjoy life, but Trent’s writing projects a joy in his posts which indicate that he is nowhere near miserly to the point of a diminishing quality of life.

    I’m lucky enough to be a fresh out of college dink with a minimal amount of debt (Student Loan with less than 3% interest rate) and an above average starting income. I’m trying to capitalize on this early success with massive savings which will hopefully benefit me greatly 10+ years from now and it’s these kind of purchases which can kill that effort.

  15. I agree that I can get awfully depressed when I feel like I have to avoid EVERY “but you deserve it” purchase — but I also agree that it’s easy for the deserving feeling to snowball until you deserve new skis, a long vacation, a new expensive house and dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town.

    Reining it in is key. That and boxed wine that comes out to $6 a bottle (Black Box).

  16. bunny says:

    as with most things, even with the small things you get what you pay for. if you are putting a mead notebook in yr pocket everyday, the front and back covers will likely fall apart and the edges will become frayed.
    if you live anywhere near a borders and haven’t already, join their email list. i get coupons from them several times a month for 20-30% off and use them on moleskines when needed.
    also, if you are going to keep yr used notebooks, moleskines will look better and be easier to reference.

  17. Mrs. Micah says:

    Amelia has a point…once you own the wine (unless you can return it) you might as well enjoy it. Once something’s paid for and cannot be returned, one’s best move is to enjoy it. Not just in an attempt to recoup the sunk cost, but also for the sake of enjoying it.

    My simple stumbling point is opening and paying bills. I think I’ll remember when they’re due, but I don’t always. Still, I’m getting better about doing it right away or at least setting calendar reminders.

  18. Susy says:

    I enjoyed this post! I think this is so true. Often these are the things that start increasing when you get a raise. Once you work hard at reducing “the little expenses” it’s much easier to resist them.

    I stopped buying little things I don’t need in Jan of this and according to my budget I’m spending $100 less per month on things like, expensive wine, nicer paper, wrapping paper, etc. All those little things really add up. I don’t feel like I’m enjoying my life any less, I actually feel like I’m enjoying what I have more, and I’m really enjoying the extra grand in the bank!

  19. vh says:

    Interesting post and even more interesting responses. Forty bucks for a bottle of wine, eh? Gosh.

    Still, it’s no more extravagant than $20 or $30 for some decent makeup. Do we blink at it? Hmmm…

    After passing beyond the first phase of frugality (freshly divorced, in full Bag-Lady Mode, convinced I’d soon be living under the freeway overpass, laying up canned foods hoarded from sale shelves), I discovered that once you’re out of debt and living within your means, certain small indulgences can make you feel as though you’ve given yourself a great luxury without coming anywhere near breaking the bank. These miniluxuries contribute something toward your overall morale that’s worth way more than they cost.

    Strikes me that the $40 bottle of wine (shoot, ya could’ve bought 4 bottles of Ravenswood for that!) is in that category, right along with the $12 jar of perfumed bubble bath (yup, sure coulda got that box of Calgon instead). You don’t have to take a trip to the Riviera to feel pampered and pleasured once in a great while. As long as you can afford it, an occasional indulgence is an important part of a frugal lifestyle. Do you deserve it? No more than anyone deserves anything. Do you need an occasional break from austerity? Probably most of us do.

  20. Mary says:

    Thank you for the reminder to splurge occassionally. I often feel guilty that the money could go to more productive things, but I equate paying off debt to dieting. If you deprive yourself of everything, you are more likely to go hog wild and cheat. If you allow yourself moderation, you are more likely to succeed.

  21. Brad says:

    Trent, I love your website and you inspire me to stay on the right path after years of financial irresponsibility. I gotta tell you buddy, maybe it’s because I just rewarded myself with lots of wine and dinner tonight (close friends are in town from Europe…), but I think you deserve these little luxuries. Believe me, when you’re waiting at Heaven’s gate, you’re not going to be thinking “Gee, I should have bought the $9 bottle of Yellow Tail.” You inspire a lot of people with your personal (spiritual-)financial journey, and if those (revelations-)blog entries flow better in Moleskine than Mead, you should allow yourself the occasional splurge :)

  22. Steve says:

    I set up a monthly limit for leisure spending. That way, I get to have the pleasure of the splurge and indulging without feeling guilty or without really denting other plans.

  23. Steve says:

    Also, I don’t hit the limit every month, but I never cross it _ever_. And the limit doesn’t roll-over either :).

  24. Vincent says:

    DS games are my weakness as well. That, and beer.

    I have a tendency to over rationalize my DS purchases in the exact same ways you mentioned, and the result is I have quite the library growing here. I don’t play the ones I’ve beaten and I don’t play some of the ones I haven’t beaten — Tetris gets most of my DS time &mdsah; so when I look at the stack of DS games as a stack of money, it’s rather startling.

    However, this does seem to contradict an older, rather excellent post, I think. The financial cost of certain indulgences (DS games included) can often pale in comparison to the spiritual gains such indulgences offer. While that doesn’t mean we should bend to every whim of our own — I have quite the collection of DS games, as I said, and not a whole lot to show for it (though to my own credit it has grown very slowly over time, though it ostensibly causes more stress than it relieves) — isn’t it often worth it to indulge oneself? $40 bottle of wine or $50 Wii game, whatever’s your drug of choice; I tend to think beating oneself up over a simple purchase is a little bit harsh.

  25. Trent says:

    The danger isn’t the little purchases themselves, but that they become regular things – habits, if you will. I don’t mind buying a DS game occasionally, but if I find myself buying one regularly every so often as a matter of course, that’s when a problem creeps in.

  26. xshanex says:

    Trent, once again a great post!

    Personal finance should not be a quest for absolute perfection but a journey where the future is prepared for and the present thoroughly enjoyed. A balance needs to be found and your writing of finding that balance in the real world keeps me reading and telling people about your site.

    I’m all for saving, investing, living frugally, and paying off debt but still firmly believe that people should indulge in their passions, hobbies, loves, and family in a way that doesn’t impact their long term goals. I’m well on track to meet my short and long term goals now and am finally learning to appreciate money for what it is and how it can be used wisely to get the most enjoyment I can out of life. My guilt about frugally spending money on things I enjoy, frequently use, and am passionate about is nearly gone

  27. Marcy says:

    credit/debit cards have their merits but it is so tempting to pull out the plastic. It’s just too easy. I have a lot of self control but there are times when I see something on sale, just too good to pass up. Now I usually leave my cards in a safe place and take them out when I need to use them. I like using cash for the little purchases, even if that means hitting up the ATM beforehand.

    Making planned, calculated purchases is key. You figure out how much you will need for everything. Say, $10 for gas, $25 for what’s on my grocery list, etc. and take that much (maybe a bit more just in case you’re estimate is off or for incidentals, like you remember you needed toothpaste).

    It’s a lot easier to have the visual image. When your looking at numbers on paper, database, etc. It’s different. The $40 bottle of wine sounds good at the time and you get it because you know you can. Again, it’s too easy. We all need to reward ourselves for staying on track and if you really want that wine, that’s fine.

    But I think it’s better to plan it out. If you’re having a special meal, decide on what you are going to buy before you leave the house. And think about it. Is that wine really going to taste any better, is it really going to matter, are you looking to serve something special for guests, what is your reason for buying it? Is there a cheaper alternative, even if it will only save $5 or $10? It all adds up and that’s money in the bank.

    And this isn’t the only issue, but you get the point. I agree with other poster, you should treat yourself, not deny yourself, or there’s no point in trying to save. However, are the feelings of guilt any better? Probably not. Guilt is just as bad and sometimes worse than denying yourself in the 1st place. Common sense, some careful planning, and taking measures to prevent regretful purchases can be valuable in more ways than one.

  28. Johanna says:

    Trent, your comment above, about the fear that your little indulgences will become regular habits, really hit home with me. Until three years ago, I was living on a graduate student’s salary, and doing just fine. Now I’m making three times that but living the same lifestyle, saving more than half my income. I have a very difficult time spending money on things – cab rides, expensive dinners out, new clothes that aren’t on sale – that I can easily afford now but would not have been able to afford then. And I think my reason is much the same as yours: fear that I’ll eventually think of these little luxuries as necessities, and that I won’t be able to dial my lifestyle back down again if someday I need to do that.

  29. Dana says:

    I keep a tiny notebook in my bag, and I write down any “non-necessity” purchases in it. Often, just the thought of having to write out that amount is enough to make me put the item back.

  30. maxconfus says:

    DS games? Have you considered growing up? Put down the video games and do something productive like involve your self in local or national politics as an activist before this country becomes China.

  31. Limewater says:

    Trent,
    You mention your video game habit pretty regularly. Given your typical frugality, I am sort of surprised you still buy new games at all. I’ve been a video game junkie for years, but I’ve managed to not spend too much by staying a few years behind the curve and buying systems and games used.

    Video games seem to depreciate even more quickly than cars.

  32. belleandthecity says:

    Like others, I give myself an allowance each month that I can spend on something completely frivolous, no matter what my financial situation is.

    Even when I moved to New York without a job and was living off a very small savings account, I still gave myself $10 a month to spend on something frivolous, and made sure to enjoy it.

    I tend to get into trouble with my budget when I deny myself things that I love completely and then end up overspending once I have a little breathing room. This keeps me right on track–spending the money on something frivolous does feel like a reward for keeping to my budget, which in turn makes me more motivated to stay on track!

  33. Red says:

    @maxconfus: harsh! And more than a bit judgemental.

    For what it’s worth, Trent supports and advocates supporting local politics constantly on this site.

    And video games haven’t been solely a children’s domain for quite a while.

  34. Marcy says:

    It’s funny, social scientists have found that people tend to spend more, buying things they don’t need, purchasing/drinking more alcohol during times of financial hardship, when the economy is poor, when there is high unemployment rates and other such situations. I’ve seen this happening on a much smaller scale. Say, friends of mine who are dirt poor. If they had even a little bit of structure, they could squeeze by, at least paying rent, utilities, and putting food on the table (even if it isn’t fast food). I would often see at least a $20 go thru their hands every day, spent on pizza, soda, candy for the kids, of course. But this would be the equivalent of a full time minimum wage job. But it doesn’t seem to amount to much when it’s $20 or $30 a day. Any mention of setting up an account to put even 1/2 of their cash per month would be certain strikes against me. The attitude is: Why save it when it’s only a few bucks? It’s not going to matter either way. But it does matter. It’s this attitude that does people in. If someone can live below their means and still afford video games or what ever else tickles their fancy, that’s great. They deserve it. But why spend more than needed? There was an excelent suggestion, go for used games. It’s often the thrill of immediate gratification. But it’s the thrill most people enjoy. The objects of their desire obviously have some importance. But it is the subconcious that is having a blast. When the thrill subsides, that pesky subconcious tells the concious mind to go at it again. I’m sure we all see people who are constantly driving a new car, get the latest toys and toss em aside when something better comes along. This is where people go wrong. If they feed into the desire, it will be strengthened. Then, nothing will ever be good enough or satisfy them. Maybe during the moment of newness but that’s it. It’s a miserable way to live.

  35. AGoodGerman says:

    Having a 40 Dollars bottle of wine to accompagny a superbe dinner or to reward yourself for a great achievement is a perfectly sensible thing to do, as long as it doesn’t happen every night AND as long it’s real fun and not something you bought to compensate for something lacking in your life that special day.

    Of course: if you still have some financial groundwork to do: forget about the wine!

  36. jewell says:

    I can certainly relate to this way of thinking. What I’ve learned is that I need to reprogram the way I’m thinking. If I’m thinking “I deserve it”, then I’m operating from a place of feeling deprived- I need to look at where I’ve gone too far in my debt reduction strategies and make an adjustment. A $40 bottle of wine, not unreasonable, and is it worth the amount of using water in your home for an entire month? (That’s about the cost of water at my house). In other words I try and compare the cost to the cost of my needs and see if that’s how I want to spend it. I have the EXACT same problem regarding a note tablet! I stand there in front of the tablets at Borders and think I “need” a pricey tablet. Interesting when I buy an inexpensive tablet – I use it more. The costlier ones I tend to save the paper more. Anyway, I’ve solved this by buying those black and white cosmopolitan (for school kids) notebooks at the grocery store. If I buy a few of them at a time I don’t have to go through this every month.

  37. frugalliz says:

    I have this problem, too. It’s easy to avoid the $1000 tv or the $300 playstation, but the $10 movie or the $8 book is harder to resist. I mean it’s “only $10″, right? My husband and I get around this by taking out a certian amount of cash every week for frivolous purposes. That way when the money’s gone, it’s gone. When you want that $10 movie, but there’s only $20 left for the week and you’ve still got 3 days before you take out more money…It makes you think twice.

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