A few days ago, I was reviewing my credit card bill and I noticed some expenses that surprised me. Two of them were annual renewals for services that I rarely use and honestly hadn’t really thought about in weeks, or even in months. Some of the other ones were for silly little things that I honestly didn’t even remember doing because that spending had been so automatic and thoughtless.
Those little expenses added up to well over $100, and that really troubled me. That money essentially vanished into thin air because I had been utterly thoughtless in my spending. It wasn’t being used for anything really meaningful or valuable in my life. Perhaps at one time those things had been meaningful or valuable, but they really weren’t at this point.
The truth is that all of those expenses had become “stale spending.”
“Stale spending” is a term I like to use to describe any and all expenses that are no longer meaningful and have become routine and thoughtless. If I’m spending money on something (beyond a core, highly essential item) without any real thought, then that spending has become “stale” and deserves to be reconsidered. Quite often, your life is better off without that stale spending, because at that point it’s become purely a money leak, causing dollars to drain out of your life without returning any real value to you.
Of course, there are times when “stale spending” is something that you want to keep in your life, but in the simple process of carefully considering that spending, you’re refreshing it and making it new again.
So, how do you find “stale spending” and how do you root it out of your life? Here are several strategies that work well.
Strategy #1: Maintain a list of paid subscription services you use and review it regularly.
This is a wonderful strategy that I’ve started using in the past several months and it’s helped me to identify and eliminate some subscriptions that weren’t providing any real value to me before those subscriptions renewed.
It’s really simple. Just start a note for yourself somewhere where it’s easy to retrieve (I use Evernote for this, for these reasons) and in that note, list all of the subscriptions you have, what they cost, and the date when it will renew (or need to be manually renewed).
So, for example, let’s say you’ve signed up for an annual subscription to Evernote Premium and it renews on Nov. 2. You’d simply list “Evernote Premium” followed by the dollar amount of the subscription and the date, Nov. 2, as one entry on the list. All other entries would follow the same pattern.
Once a month or so – I actually have this as a monthly recurring to-do on my to-do list – go through that list of subscriptions and ask yourself whether that subscription is really giving you value. Focus in particular on anything that’s recurring in the next month or two. Ask yourself seriously whether that subscription is really giving you any value in your life at this point and, if it isn’t, immediately go and cancel the subscription.
If you’re not sure whether it’s giving you value or not, ask yourself whether or not that subscription has actually been used by you in any memorable or significant way recently. Are you actually reading that magazine, or are you just a fan in concept and the issues are piling up on your end table? Are you actually going to the gym, or have you convinced yourself that just having the option to sometimes maybe go to the gym is worth a huge dollar amount each month or year?
As you switch to this simple system, you’ll probably have a subscription or two that slips through the cracks – Netflix, maybe, or a magazine subscription or something. Don’t sweat it or beat yourself up over it – just add that subscription to your list as you discover it from a credit card statement. Eventually, this list will contain all of your subscriptions and it will be a very valuable review tool.
Similarly, when you decide to start a new subscription of some kind, add it to this subscription review list immediately so that you can evaluate it later when the subscription is about to renew.
A subscription review list can be an incredibly useful tool for keeping routine and automated spending in check, eliminating the things that don’t bring you value and keeping the things that do. (In fact, if I had those two subscriptions I mentioned at the beginning in my subscription list, I wouldn’t have been dinged automatically for their renewal…)
Strategy #2: Look through your credit card bill and bank statement and consider carefully any expenses that aren’t instantly clear to you.
This is such a simple core financial step that everyone should be taking. You should be walking through your financial statements each month when you receive them and evaluating each and every item that’s on there. It’s an invaluable tool, not only for your overall financial awareness, but because it is so useful for dredging out stale spending.
It’s really simple. Just go through your bill and highlight any and all items on there that you don’t immediately recognize and see as something useful and worthwhile. If you don’t recognize it, highlight it. If you can somewhat guess what it is but it’s not bringing up any specific memories, highlight it.
Once you’ve highlighted those items, start walking through them one by one. For each item, do your best to figure out exactly what the purchase represented. Then, ask yourself whether or not that specific purchase brought any real value into your life, or whether it was something you did almost automatically without thinking about it.
For example, whenever I see a charge from a gas station that isn’t around the usual amount that I spend fueling up (I usually pay at the pump and only go inside to use the restroom if needed), I immediately highlight it and evaluate it. What did I buy there? Why did I buy it? Was it something bought completely without thought or completely due to a routine? Did I get any real value out of that purchase? What could I have done differently?
This exercise is meant to point out specific things that you’re doing where you’re spending money without really thinking about whether or not that expense adds value to your life. Reflecting on that choice now, when you’re sitting outside of the actual spending situation and you’re looking at the money you spent, gives you the chance to really decide if that purchase was worth it or not.
If you find that it wasn’t worth it, then ask yourself what you can do to cut out that stale purchase going forward. What exactly can I do to avoid buying a salty treat at a gas station? When I’m on a road trip, I tend to crave salty things and I’ll often end up buying a bottle of water and some salty snack without thinking about it. How can I avoid that? One way is to simply make sure that I’ve packed a salty snack to take with me on that trip, along with plenty of water. That way, I can still have that salty snack and water that I crave without paying the crazy high impromptu gas station prices. In fact, I’ve even started keeping a couple such snacks in the glove compartment in case I forget and I leave an empty water bottle in the car, too.
Strategy #3: Also, consider carefully any expenses that are frequently repeated.
Another thing to look for as you’re moving through your bank statement or credit card statement is frequently recurring expenses. Obviously, there are some expenses that recur out of necessity; you’ll probably find several grocery store visits on your list. At the same time, you may find yourself identifying some recurring purchases that aren’t quite as essential and actually represent fairly frivolous purchases. Things like coffee shop visits, hobby shop visits, after-work stops at a fast-food joint for a quick snack, routine expensive lunches, and so on are all things that can crop up in the midst of such a review.
Whenever you see such a recurring expense, you’ll probably find yourself remembering some of them and not others, and that’s fine. The question isn’t a black or white question of whether you should completely eliminate this expense from your life, but whether it might make sense to eliminate the “stale” instances of this routine. For example, you might really get some personal value out of a coffee shop visit or a lunch with coworkers once or twice a week, but the rest of the time, it’s kind of done out of a routine and you don’t really think about it.
Try putting a sensible cap on that spending. Restrict yourself to a smaller number of those expenses in the coming month, striving to eliminate just the stale and thoughtless expenses and keeping the ones that really add value.
This requires some regular focus on what you’re doing, so what I like to do when I’m constantly evaluating my own choices during a period of time is to add a reminder to my to-do list that simply says, “Think about whether you should be doing X today,” and changing X to whatever habit I want to be mindful of. I leave that on my to-do list as an urgent thing all day, so I see it several times, and it keeps that concept front and central in my brain. At the end of the day, it’s an easy thing to cross off my to-do list. I call this a “mindfulness to-do”; it’s just a reminder that I want to be mindful of something specific during the day.
Strategy #4: Go through every item in your grocery bill a day or two later and ask yourself if that item was a worthwhile purchase.
Whenever you go grocery shopping, grab that receipt and toss it in your pocket. Then, a day or two later, sit down with that receipt and go through it item by item.
Don’t worry about the items that came off of your grocery list – those were carefully considered already. Don’t worry about the items that you actually thought about for a while in the store – those were considered, too.
Instead, look for items that were impromptu buys, items that wound up in your cart without you really thinking about whether those purchases made sense. Look for items you snagged in the checkout aisle or out of a cooler without thinking about it at all, just as a matter of routine. Think of snack items that looked tasty and bounced straight into your cart without thinking about it.
That’s pure stale spending, right there. Those items were bought reflexively, without any real thought, and aren’t all that meaningful or valuable. It’s just another typical snack item or just another beverage to drink on the way home, nothing special, nothing memorable. It’s just money that goes away without leaving a trace in your life.
Total up the cost of all purchases like that, then ask yourself what you could have done with that money instead, things that are actually meaningful for you. Even if you spent that money on other non-essential items, at least those items would have been worthwhile and impactful instead of nearly forgotten as soon as the money was spent.
Then, the next time you go to the store, remind yourself of the mistakes you made during your last shopping trip. Remind yourself of the $20 or $30 or $50 that just evaporated the last time you went to the store. When you consider tossing something in your cart, ask yourself if it’s really adding anything to your life. If you like to eat a snack on the way home from the store and really value that treat, take one with you before you go and leave it in the car while you’re inside – a Thermos with homemade coffee in it is way cheaper than a Frappuccino from the cooler, for example. If you really value having a salty or sweet snack on hand in the cupboard or the freezer, think about it before you leave and put it on your list. Make sure the things you buy are actually meaningful and have a real positive impact on you.
Strategy #5: When considering a purchase, think about whether you could borrow that item instead and get the same value from it.
One of the real challenges when it comes to stale spending is figuring out whether a nonessential purchase that you actually enjoy is actually stale or not. For me, a purchase is stale when I’ve stopped considering what value I actually get out of the purchase and just accept that I’m getting something positive when I spend that money.
A great example of this, for me, comes from bookstore visits. When I go into a bookstore, I enter a wonderland of temptation. I know this and am aware of it, so I usually enter a bookstore only when I’m looking for a particular book or have a gift card or something akin to that. Of course, given that I’m so easily tempted in there, I often find myself picking up more books and talking myself into buying them.
The thing I should be asking myself, though, is whether I merely want to read that book, not to buy it. The value in that book from a reading standpoint is the content between the covers; the value in owning it is solely as a collectible or as a reference. What that means is that if I merely want to read a book I’m unfamiliar with, I’m better off getting it from the library. Even if I suspect I may end up wanting it as a reference volume, I should still wait until I can visit the library first, take the book home from there, evaluate it, and then decide if I want to permanently own it for reference.
In other words, I ask myself what additional value I am guaranteed to get from owning this book rather than just borrowing it first and then deciding to own it later. Unless the price is absurdly low, I usually can’t come up with anything at all. I get virtually all of the value out of a “first reading” of a book by checking it out from the library. I can then buy it later if I decide the book has enough value that I want to have it around for reference.
Take that same philosophy and apply it to almost every non-consumable purchase that you make – books, Blurays, tools, equipment, and so on. Can I get the value I need out of this by just borrowing it? Simply asking the question keeps the purchase from being a stale reflex purchase, where you’re just buying something because you perceive a need or want in your life in the most shallow way possible. Ask yourself a bit more, figure out what that need or want actually is, and then ask yourself if you can just borrow something to fulfill that need instead of buying it.
Strategy #6: When considering a purchase, think about other, less expensive ways of acquiring the item (or something similar).
You can actually engage yourself in a very similar thinking process with almost everything consumable that you buy, too. In that case, it’s difficult to strictly borrow the item – you can’t really return something that you consume – but you can often find a much less expensive way of getting that item in your hands or into your belly.
I like to use the example of coffee here. I like drinking a cup of coffee in the early afternoon. It helps me extend my ability to focus well into the latter part of the day, especially when I pair it up with a cup of green tea shortly afterwards (I get the focus benefit of a highly caffeinated drink, but the tea takes away the jittery side effects).
Now, there’s a splendid little coffee shop about three blocks from my house that I often walk by when walking our family dog or getting some exercise and it is really tempting to just jump in there for a cup of coffee. However, when I think about it a little more, I realize that most of those visits only produce the value of one cup of coffee for a $5 or $6 price tag. I can go home, open up a container from the fridge, pour myself a big cup of coffee, warm it up in the microwave if I want it hot (I usually don’t), and enjoy it at home for about 10% of that price. (I just make sure to make a regular batch of cold brew coffee every few days.)
The same thing is true for my wife in the mornings. She could certainly stop at a coffee shop on her way to work to get a pick-me-up, but most mornings she just makes herself a small pot of coffee and fills up a to-go cup and a thermos with that coffee with just the sweeteners and additives she likes for a tiny fraction of the cost of what a coffee shop stop would set her back, and it’s just as fast because she’s not waiting in a drive-thru.
We both value that cup of coffee sometimes. However, we know we can get that value way cheaper at home.
So, do I ever go to a coffee shop? Sure, but when I do, I go there for the experience. I’ll buy a cup, but then I’ll spread out on a table with my laptop and some materials and get some work done in a different environment, which often spurs creativity. To me, that’s the additional value I get from buying it at a coffee shop. If I’m just grabbing a cup from a coffee shop without thinking, it’s a stale purchase because I’m not getting any value that I couldn’t easily get at home. It’s just a thoughtless, stale reflex.
Apply that philosophy to your own purchases. Are you going out to eat out of habit? Why not just prepare something similar at home for a fraction of the cost? If you do it smartly and build some cooking skill, it doesn’t take long and it doesn’t require much cleanup for most simple dishes. Are you going to the movies out of habit? Why not watch one of a million movies in your collection or on Netflix at home? You can just wait a month or two and that movie you’re thinking about will be available for rent or streaming, so you’re really just paying a big premium for a few months of impatience.
Stale spending happens when you get so used to making a purchase that you check out of the process mentally and just trust the rhythm of routine and instinct. When that happens, you open the door to lots of spending mistakes, where you’re spending money on things that aren’t really delivering a good value to you.
It’s well worth your time to step back and look for stale spending in your life. By all means, don’t cut away at spending that isn’t stale, but ask yourself that question about the ways in which you spend your money and you might find that you can trim your spending really easily without cutting out anything meaningful.