The Psychology of Writing Down Expenses

Megan wrote in recently with a long story that I’ll use in a future Reader Mailbag, but in a paragraph that didn’t have to do with her story, she asked a seemingly simple question.

What made you shift from not paying attention to what you spent to worrying about spending a nickel extra on toilet paper?

It would be easy to answer this with a broad answer of saying that it had to do with the realization of my responsibilities as a parent and with changes in my personal values and beliefs.

Looking back, though, I think it had to do with something much more “real” and practical than that.

For several months – just shy of a year, actually – I made a habit of writing down every penny that I spent. If I spent a quarter on a piece of gum, I wrote it down.

I kept track of this in my pocket notebook. It wasn’t really hard. I just had to make a routine of jotting down every single expenditure in that notebook. If I didn’t have time immediately, I jammed a receipt in there and wrote it down.

What I found is that as I was writing down each expense in that notebook, I became really critical of that expense.

I’d write down $100 spent at the grocery store and I’d think to myself, “Really? I blew $100 at the store. Why?” Then I’d find myself studying the receipt and questioning a lot of the items on there. “Did I really need that item?” “Couldn’t I have just bought the generic?”

Over a period of time, I began to really question everything I spent money on. It became a very natural thing to look for a lower-cost alternative.

I wanted badly to reach a point where I wasn’t shaking my head at myself whenever I wrote down an entry in that notebook.

Eventually, I reached that point, more or less. I went weeks without writing down anything that made me uncomfortable or made me want to seek out a lower-cost alternative. It was at that point that I put the habit aside.

That period of time reshaped the way I think about spending. Every little dime matters and, as you’re spending money or considering it, it’s worth thinking about whether or not there’s a better way to go about this purchase. Do I really need to buy this item? Is there a cheaper alternative that’s just as good?

Forcing yourself to go through every single expense is a real eye-opener. It’s not just a matter of buying the slightly more expensive toilet paper. It’s about dozens – even hundreds – of those types of decisions we make each week, and they really add up, on the order of hundreds of dollars per month.

Try it. Get yourself a little pocket notebook and a pen and take it with you everywhere. Write down every single little thing you spend money on. As you’re actually writing it down, think about whether that was a good use of your money. Was there a better way to do it that achieves the same or similar results with less expense? Did I really need to buy that item or service?

The amount of waste will probably shock you.

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