The third most popular New Year’s resolution is “save more, spend less.” This is a resolution I can get behind: after viewing my student loan balance for the first time this spring, I immediately vowed to 1) never look at that number again, and 2) begin putting money away to chip into the atrocious figure.
But as a college student, saving is often easier said than done. I’ve made several plans over my college career for accruing savings. These have ranged from the “Add It Up” plan, where you add $1 to savings the first week, $2 the next, $3 the third, and so on, all the way to the “Big Block Method,” which involved placing a whole paycheck into savings every few months.
These plans were beautiful in theory: place funds in my savings account, and come back to it on a rainy day, only to find the account overflowing with funds. A wonderful picture, deftly organized with check lists and flow charts and to-do list reminders. But somehow, I always managed to drop the plan within the first month. It only takes a stressful week to completely forget about my small dollar deposits; I realized within a week that I couldn’t possibly place a whole paycheck in my account, and still afford to keep myself in oatmeal and apples.
So this year, I decided to start from the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of worrying about saving, I’d focus on what I was spending. After I’d analyzed my habits, I’d make a plan to move forward with a more effective budget, maximizing the money I earn each week.
After looking over the absolute deluge of budget-making strategies available online (I found one for those who hate budgets, another detailing creative ways to save money, and another website dedicated to “personal finance for normal-ish people:” all looked promising), I decided to use a down-home method.
One of my teachers mentioned her low-tech means of keeping track of her spending. As soon as she got a receipt, she simply lobbed it into a Ziploc baggie which rested in a place of honor on her kitchen counter. At the end of the year, she went through them all.
I decided to use the system in a monthly basis. I would load up the baggie with every receipt I received, and write down the spending I didn’t receive a receipt for. At the end of the month, I’d categorize my spending, and look into areas where I could save.
I was absolutely loyal to my system for the month of January. Every expenditure went into the bag, which grew stuffed to overflowing. When I lost my iHop receipt, I checked my debit account so I could retrieve the amount. I kept show tickets and movie stubs so I could remember my attendance, writing down the amounts later. Basically, I tackled budgeting like I tackle every other obstacle in my life: with straightforward problem-solving and an almost obsessive focus on the details.
I found it exhilarating. After so many years of worrying about how I should budget, here I was, actually budgeting! I was becoming an adult. I had control over my finances. And I would be master of my spending habits if it killed me.
I sat down on February 1st armed with a pen, a calculator, my baggie, and a bottle of Diet Coke. I anticipated this was going to be a moment of existential self-comprehension, when I realized all my spending faults and achieved saving enlightenment. With a deep breath, I dug in.
It took me five minutes. Five minutes to realize…there was no excess in my spending. I rarely went out to eat, I hardly treated myself to coffees or new clothes or manicures. In fact, the only “fun spending” I did that month was on two movie tickets and two dinners out with friends. Most of my money went to groceries, all of which were essential (meaning I wasn’t wasting a lot of food or buying extravagant items).
There was no fat to trim off. Far from overspending, I actually spent less than I had imagined.
I had a startling realization in that moment: I did not need to budget. There was one less thing I needed to stress and panic over. There was also one less thing I got to organize and plan and “do right.” Paradoxically, I felt a loss with this realization. I was good at planning and organizing this, but it would be a total waste of time and energy to worry about planning out my spending habits. If I added a bit of money to my savings account occasionally, I would be fine.
For me, budgeting was liberating, but not in the way I imagined. Through making a budget, I realized that it’s okay to not keep track of everything. It’s alright to not have a master plan, a grand scheme for how your life should be working out. Despite your brain’s arguments to the contrary, you are often doing better than you think you are.
So my advice this Monday? Let go of what you can. Realize that you can release your death grip on your life, so you can let some startlingly simple realizations slip through.