Updated on 05.07.09

Letting Go: How Being a Control Freak Costs You Money

Trent Hamm

I’m something of a planner. I can’t help it – I always like to make plans for the future. I fill up my calendar with all sorts of little details and I’m always making lists.

My mother does the same thing, actually. She’s constantly making lists and jotting down notes. She’s always been the person that handled the paperwork and did all of the trip planning when I was growing up.

When I was younger, there were times when my strong tendency to make specific plans would get completely out of control. I’d freak out if things didn’t go exactly according to my plans.

As I grew older, I began to see how time and time again, that controlling nature would cost me time and money. My meticulous meal plans would result in a hefty grocery store bill – and when something went wrong, we were often relegated to going out to a restaurant. I’d write far-too-long lists to help me pack for trips – then inevitably forget something that was actually important, necessitating a trip to a department store. Not only that, my controlling nature continually increased my stress level, making it much easier for me to get ill.

Thus, I’ve focused on backing off on my controlling nature, back to a healthy balance of being aware and observant about what’s going on. Not only does this help me reduce my own stress, adopting less controlling tactics saves us money time and time again.

Here are four specific things you can do to cut down on the need for exact planning – and save yourself some money in the process.

Buy more staple foods and less esoteric foods. Fill your cupboards with items that can be used in lots of meals – pasta, rice, basic spices, tomato sauce, and so forth. At the same time, avoid regularly buying items that can’t be used in as many dishes.

How does this help? If you have lots of “staple foods” on hand, it becomes very easy to throw together a low-cost meal in a pinch. Plus, if you attend events like farmer’s markets, you can simply choose the ingredients that seem to be a good bargain, knowing that there’s something you can prepare with the staples in your cupboard.

Make most of your financial transactions automatic. Utilize the online features of your bank and automate as many of your bills as you possibly can. Beyond that, you can also automate savings and investing plans.

How does this help? You don’t have to go into panic mode around bill paying time any more – if something comes up, you don’t have to sweat about whether or not the mortgage will get paid. Instead, most of your bills are simply paid automatically without worry.

Keep a standard travel bag ready to go. This works like a charm for me. Just keep a bag with the essentials you actually need for a trip packed in the closet. My bag includes basic toiletries, three days’ worth of clean clothes, and similar items for my kids. I re-pack this bag immediately after trips.

How does this help? Having this bag ready at all times means I won’t forget something truly important on a trip. Also, the knowledge that this bag is ready keeps me from stressing out too much about preparing for a trip.

Perform regular maintenance on your appliances and equipment. Whenever you get a new appliance or piece of equipment, take a look at the maintenance schedule and tasks that are recommended and add them to your calendar. Keep up with these tasks and you’ll ensure that your items have a much longer lifetime.

How does this help? I tend to get very frustrated when something breaks down because it throws my plans out of whack. The lawnmower’s broken? Not only do I have some costs in repairing it, I’m also throwing time away in the repair process and my plans for the afternoon are completely altered. If I have a regular maintenance schedule, these frustrations happen much less often – plus my items have a much longer life span. Both of these factors save me money.

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  1. troy says:

    “While you are busy making plans, life happens”

  2. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    For me, you have to be careful about automating too much. Being a control freak is a great of example of one extreme, but not being aware of your spending, investing, bill paying, or budgeting all together can also cause problems.

    As you’ve outlined many times before the real issue is finding that balance between being a control freak and an automaton.

  3. George says:

    The only reason to make plans is so you can change them.

    “Just do it.”

    [actually, I make plans for the important aspects of life… but know that they’re not cast in concrete]

  4. Johanna says:

    So the idea is that when you obsess too much over the little stuff, you increase the chance that you’ll screw up the big stuff? It’s an interesting notion, but I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it in myself – and I’m something of a planner too.

    Your four suggestions seem to me to be less about letting go and more about forcing yourself to obsess less by giving yourself less to obsess over. Personally, as someone who really likes food, I find the concept of life without “esoteric” ingredients to be a very sad thing to contemplate – I don’t care how much money it would save me. Instead, I’ve tried to learn how to adapt recipes and substitute one “esoteric” ingredient for another. It might not come out exactly as intended, but the vast majority of the time, it’s still good.

    How do you pack for a trip before you know where you’ll be going?

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “How do you pack for a trip before you know where you’ll be going?”

    By having a flexible, frugal wardrobe that isn’t filled with clothes that only work in specific instances.

  6. Not to mention that you are probably a lot easier to get along with if you are attempting to control every minor detail. It is usually better to just go with the flow.

  7. Joseph Tanner says:

    Keeping a travel bag handy could be considered a bit obsessive. However it does make quick trips much easier. Family emergency? Grab the bag and go. Last minute vacation? Grab the bag and pack whatever else you may need (i.e. swimsuit for beach, coat for mountains, whatever).

    One of the biggest cons of being a true control freak is you don’t get to really enjoy things. Birthday parties become a chore. Christmas is a nightmare. No one has fun around you because things have to be just so-so. Just relax, try to have fun, and life will be much more enjoyable.

  8. MLR says:

    For the groceries, I keep a 20lb bag of rice and a bunch of pasta on hand at all times. I loveeee rice! Throw in some chicken and broccoli and voila!

    I could consider myself a mild control freak that is working on letting go, but one thing I can’t do is automate my bills. I like to see my bill before paying. If there is an issue I have more leverage if they haven’t drawn the money from me, yet.

    And for the maintenance — definitely! That is huge on cars, and so many people slip up!

  9. I like these ideas Trent… by leveraging your control tendencies in advance you’re able to ‘let go’ more in the moment.

    Good ideas!

  10. Mario says:

    I suggest taking a trip to SoCal. I don’t know why, but I grew up here, and me and most of my friends are really just laid back, stress-free people. I think it’s the sun and the surfing! And the girls don’t hurt either…

  11. KC says:

    What frustrated me so much about being a control freak was the time I wasted making lists and trying to get everything just right. I finally found an outlet (my hobby) that addresses this control “freakness” in me. But when my hobby is off-season (in the winter months, Oct-Feb) I find the control freak creeping back into my everyday life. So if you can try to find an outlet for that energy. There has to be something you enjoy that allows you to obsess over organizing and putting things in order that will take some of that away from your real life.

  12. Dr. Faith says:

    I think the packed bag is an interesting idea. However, I would worry about the clothes issue because I base what I wear on where I’m going, what time of year it is, and if it is business or not.

  13. Stephan F- says:

    It costs you a lot more then time and money it also costs you relationships. I’ve seen co-workers walk out on a micromanager and never come back and seeing him try to explain what happened to customers was awful.
    But micromanagement seems to be more fashionable now. Some people never learn.
    You can’t control everything Heisenberg saw to that.

  14. I am well-planned for everything running in my life.
    And I am doing most of your tips, Trent…
    Buy the need which I really need, and cut off others.

    Living frugal is a good habit which I build day by day.

    The most important, don’t too force ourselves to uncomfortable life. It’s not worth…

  15. samo says:

    I like to have control of things and have set tasks so that I can keep to a schedule as such. Because I work from home I find that it is important to set tasks daily anyway to keep me motivated and on track.

  16. Denise says:

    I, too, used to be a bit of a control freak and I married a laid, back, live-in-the-moment type. I learned a lot in that marriage. I control less and have learned to enjoy the moment more. I do keep exact lists for car maintainence and for my garden planning. I also am really big on emergency preparedness and have a fantastic first aide kit, always well stocked. Live and Learn.

  17. Matt says:

    Can anyone recommend a recipe blog/site that focuses on simple recipes using the staple ingredients mentioned above?

  18. Nice post. That first idea of keeping more basic staples is one many people miss . . .

    By having the core building blocks you can never really say that there is nothing to eat . . .

  19. tammy says:

    Great ideas Trent. I automate savings and bill paying. I also keep a bag ready to go! I don’t travel much, so I switch the bag at the beginning of each season instead of after trips.
    I’m a music publicist so much of my stress revolves around planning far in advance. This obsessive work planning spills over into my daily life. Thanks for reminding me that too much control causes chaos and robs us of “the moment”

  20. CathyG says:

    re: How do you pack for a trip before you know where you’ll be going?

    I think Trent has mentioned that his family travels frequently to take a long car trip to visit family. Knowing that they do that frequently makes it easier to pack for the next trip. Any different type of trip would likely then require a few additions to the basics.

    I do the same thing when I go to the gym – it is much easier to remember everything I need to pack if I do it right after I get back, rather than wait until I am ready to go the next time. By then I have forgotten that the shampoo needs refilling or whatever.

    For trips, which I don’t do frequently, instead of keeping a packed bag, I keep a packing list in my suitcase, which I review/update as soon as I get back from a trip.

  21. tentaculistic says:

    I think it’s a great idea to have a travel bag ready to go. My husband is like you (control freak about trips), but he actually doesn’t do the planning (I do, but not as well as he *would* have done it – if he had actually done it) or else he waits till the last minute and then obsesses himself into a foul mood. So I’ve learned to have basics put aside: several pairs of undies for both of us, jeans and a few pairs of t-shirts each, and 2 mini-toiletry bags (the clear airline kind) ready to grab and go. Actually, 2 bags: 1 in the closet, 1 in the boot of my car. That’s probably too much for most people, but for him it’s a good idea :)

    For camping/hiking (which he loves, but often ruins with the above behavior), I made a list of everything we need, “laminated” it by putting it in one of those clear plastic document sleeves and taping up the open end, and have a whiteboard pen taped to a string so we can check off as we go along, kept in my backpack. He rolls his eyes, but it works. I also promised him he can keep buying quality camping gear whenever he needs to, if he would store the vast majority of it in the actual backpacks (apparently that degrades some of the equipment), so that it’s all in one place and not spread out all over.

    As a professional emergency manager, some other things I recommend for everyone (do it! Do it now if you’ve been procrastinating) include: 1) a basic car kit (any old bag, with items so you don’t freeze to death in a blizzard or thirst to death in a desert, basic car maintenance items like jumper cables, various fluids your car needs, a small folding shovel for if you get stuck in snow/mud, etc. Keep it light but useful)

    2) a small work emergency go-kit (that includes glow sticks & a small flashlight for evacuating, comfortable shoes for when you have to walk many miles to get home because your transportation options are all jammed, spare home keys, space-efficient but seasonally appropriate change of clothes, 1 bottle water, and some small non-melting comfort food (for me, those rum Lifesavers or Worthers) – keep it light enough to carry).

    3) Having an emergency evacuation kit (including copies of key family documents, medications, season-appropriate clothes, good walking shoes for everyone, climate-appropriate cooling/warmth, tarp/garbage bags for shelter, water bottles and water filter or iodine tablets).

    For more complete lists of kit contents, check out the http://www.Ready.gov website.

  22. NYC reader says:

    The idea of keeping a bag always packed really depends on the purpose of trips, how far, one’s gender, etc.

    A male would have a very easy time having a bag packed for a three day trip, and the contents likely wouldn’t vary much between a three day visit to family vs. a three day business trip .

    It would be much harder for a woman to have an all-purpose three day bag packed, the difference between business attire and comfortable casual wear is much greater in women’s clothing.

    I have spent many years with a heavy work travel schedule, and I always have a bag HALF packed for a week-long trip. My trips are usually one week in duration, so I scale the bag contents up or down with additional items for longer/shorter trips.

    It has a full selection of toiletries, which I refill when I come home from a trip. It has a week’s worth of clothing items that are universal, and for which wrinkling is not an issue (undergarments, socks, bathing suit, workout gear/sweats, golf shirts, jeans, running shoes, travel clock, etc.). I pack the trip-specific items on the eve of the trip (business attire, season-specific items such as sweaters, clothing that might wrinkle).

    I always put a change of clothes, a small toiletry bag, and something that will pass for business attire in my carry-on bag, for those inevitable airline screwups.

    I use a packing list, and I have been doing this for so many years that it is second nature to me.

    I keep my gym bag fully packed. I refill the toiletries once a week, and I always put clean workout gear in the bag when I get home. I’ve found that having the bag packed and ready to go gives me one less excuse to avoid the gym.

  23. Michele says:

    I keep my weekend bag packed with a toiletries kit, too! It is so great because I never forget a toothbrush, deoderant, etc. I don’t keep clothes in there, though, although it might be a good idea to keep some socks and underwear, too.

  24. Candi says:

    I would have to say that having a bag prepacked would take the fun out of it for me. I cannot afford much in the way of vacations right now, nor do I have any sort of unexpected travel events. Getting to pack my bag for my one upcoming week vacation (next Sun, btw) is a lot of fun. Packing and deciding lets me get ready for the trip and get excited about going. I would never want to grab and go. And I agree with the other poster who said that a woman would have a much more difficult time with a prepacked bag than a man.

  25. LOL! I used to be SUCH a planner. There are positives and negatives for sure, but after some serious life changes I realized that most of my planning and related control issues were about fear. I didn’t trust life to unfold the way it “should” and planning gave me a false sense of security. This all became painfully clear when a left-field event squashed my carefully laid plans. Painful as it was, it was the best lesson I could have gotten. Moral – God’s (life, whatever) plan works. Yours does not. Plan when needed and let go to enjoy the rest.

  26. tentaculistic says:

    I guess the point of all of the advance preparation is that being a control freak isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you do it in advance, and make sure to plan flexibility in. But once life starts rolling, being a jerk or whining about reality vs fantasty isn’t terribly pleasant, for you but especially for those around you. Take-away lesson: be prepared, don’t be a jerk.

    Sharp right turn here – if you haven’t seen the movie “Hoodwinked”, check out on YouTube the “Be Prepared” song. Makes me giggle every time. One of these times I’m going to make one of my emergency preparedness classes sit through it. :)

  27. prodgod says:

    Since I can have a vacation suitcase packed in 5 minutes, no need for me to have one ready at all times. However, we do now keep jackets in the car at all times now. Too many spontaneous day trips to the coast, only to experience unexpected chilliness and the need to purchase outerwear in some coastal resort town. Live and learn.

  28. Egirl says:

    Very good tips! I keep a toiletries travel bag at the ready but the clothing doesn’t go in until I know where I’m going.

    However, about automating bill payments . . . this is dangerous if you don’t manage due dates against checking account balances. I learned the hard way that I have a tendency to slack off if something is automated. (I automate so I don’t have to think about it.) I pay bills online but don’t use the automatic feature. Being somewhat of a slacker I use this method to force myself to stay cognizant of all my transactions. I feel more secure when I exercise that kind of control over my finances. As bills are paid I make a notation on my budget spreadsheet.

    Your articles continue to be a great help to me. Thanks!

  29. Jon says:

    I, too, am a major control freak and list-maker. I used to get upset when things didn’t go according to plan, but I’m slowly getting better about it. I don’t find, however, that making lists has ever caused me a problem in packing for a trip, or planning events. They’re an extremely helpful tool. For example, I have a list stored on my computer for packing for a motorcycle trip, a list for a car-camping trip, and a list for a waterskiing excursion. I just print out the appropriate list, which I’ve refined over time, and I can be packed for the trip very quickly, without forgetting anything important. The only variables are adjustments for weather and location. If we’re staying in a hotel on a motorcycle trip, I leave out the coffee pot, propane stove, etc.

    When I catered the reception for my daughter’s wedding, I had a huge list of all of the ingredients and quantities needed for the food and drink, as well as things like chafing dishes and serving trays, way ahead of time. When I saw good prices on the items I needed, I bought them. When the time came to prepare and serve the food, it was all on hand. I also prepared a serving table layout chart and a “bible” describing how I wanted things laid out and garnished, and at what time each item should be ready, which I gave to the friends who were helping to serve, all in a nice three-ring binder. Things went so smoothly, you wouldn’t believe it.

    Regarding your points:

    1. Buy more staple foods, and less esoteric.
    For me, some of my staple foods are pretty esoteric. My wife and I have become rather spoiled after I was a restaurant professional for so many years, and though we eat 95% of our meals at home, we don’t skimp on the ingredients. I try to have many good ingredients on hand in the pantry and freezer at all times. Right now I’ve got about 20 lbs. of frozen shrimp and some ahi tuna and some filet mignons on hand. Oh, and perhaps 5 lbs of alligator. It’s never a problem coming up with a tasty meal for us, as long as we remember to thaw something out. When we get caught unprepared, I just grab a can of soup from the pantry, and open a bag of saltine crackers. We can eat cheap and simple, too.

    2. Make most of your financial transactions automatic.
    Amen! The only caveat to this, for me, is that there are a couple of “variable” bills, such as for my cell phone, that I like to examine before I pay it. Fortunately, my bank’s auto bill pay program puts the control in my hands, and doesn’t function by allowing the providers to “draft” against my account. The bank actually issues an electronic payment after I schedule and approve it. Any of those bills marked variable have a payment amount of $0.00 until I go in and enter the correct amount, so I can deal with any billing disputes before the company actually has my money. I’m also slowly moving to totally electronic billing statements. Saves on waste paper.

    3. Keep a standard travel bag ready to go.

    I’m still working on this one. I have a fully packed toiletries bag which I just throw in my suitcase, or into the saddle bags on the motorcycle. I also keep the left saddlebag packed with all of my foul-weather gear. We have a mesh bag we keep all of our life jackets for the boat in. I have a camping bag that we keep the sleeping bags, air mattress, space blankets, pillows and the air pump in. Have a few more things I need to work on, when I get time.

    4. Perform regular maintenance on your appliances and equipment. I’m good on some things, not so good on others. I need to come up with a good calendar function for my PC one of these days. I should probably use Outlook, and sync it with my work calendar, then set up appointment reminders for maintenance tasks.

  30. Jessica says:

    I am always making lists and planning things and then getting frustrated when things don’t go as planned. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. This post and the comments have helped me to put things into perspective. Being prepared is one thing, but trying to dictate every part of my life is just unrealistic.

  31. S says:

    I am a planner, by nature and by trade. “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” Those are the words I live by.

  32. MoneyEnergy says:

    Love the travel bag idea. I have an emergency bag ready to go, but not a travel bag. Might as well keep your passport and other key items in there too; like you said, it’s the knowledge that it’s already altogether that will be most comforting. Other items you could include: bathing suit; gym wear (running shoes, etc.); padlock; towel; rain poncho.

  33. Sharon says:

    Keeping passports in a travel bag is something I would hesitate to do. Emergency bags are great, but they are equally great for thieves if you have your ID, insurance info, credit cards, etc. there.

    At the very least, be very circumspect about what is in it and where it is kept so nobody knows how easy it would be to steal your identity. You may not want young children to know since they tend to be real blabbermouths.

  34. Vikki says:

    I love the packed bag in the closet. A good friend of mine was recently evacuated from her home because of the fires in CA. Like me, she had the bag, and an earthquake kit with food, water, and pet supplies. These two packed bags gave her time to take her laptop, family photos and a file of insurance/bank papers that otherwise would have been left in the house. While her home was safe, having those things at the temporary shelter gave her some peace of mind at a time when it was in very short supply.

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