What Happened When I Started Tracking My Spending

Adults always say that if you’re at the ATM and shrink away from printing your balance, then you really ought to be printing your balance. I’d felt this same thing about tracking my spending for, oh, about two years. It’s a mixture of optimism, willful ignorance, and guilt.

The thing about tracking your spending is that if you don’t use a lot of cash everyday, you can do it retrospectively. It’s also easy. You’ll want a spreadsheet with categories of spending running along the top, and dates running down the left hand side. Log into Internet banking and download your transactions list. If you keep a diary or planner, have it by your side and note ball-park figures for when you paid cash for lattes and split dinner bills. When you’ve entered all the expenses you can find, compare that amount to your income and make sure there isn’t too much difference.

Here’s a little list of things I learned about myself when I bit the bullet and metaphorically printed my balance:

#1 I spend so much on coffee, takeaway, and treats, yet I fret over which loaf of bread is on special at the supermarket when I go grocery shopping?

I went full-on with separating certain categories of spending. For example, “bills” was mobile phone and utilities all lumped together, but I separated “coffee” from “cakes and sweets” because it very quickly emerged as a slightly troubling trend. Objectively, I spend way too much money on coffee, but I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is how many $4.50 cupcakes and $8.90 slices of lime cheesecake I consumed over January and February 2017. In my head I had lumped the cake spending into the coffee spending, but I cannot lie to myself about this any longer.

By contrast, I stress myself out trying to save $1 at the supermarket. If I cut back on takeaway cakes, I could spend more money on actual good food for the fridge and pantry, including sweets, and still save money overall.

#2 I spend in spurts and I’m highly emotional

There were clear peaks and troughs in my spending, and when I compared the purchase dates to my diary, I realised that I bought more stuff when I was either very happy or very sad. (Interestingly, cake money was consistent across mood swings.)

When I found out some good career news I splurged on a fancy dinner, which is fine, but I then actually also bought a total of $80 worth of random stuff throughout that week. For example, I bought 30 more Textas when I already have 50 Textas. Why did I do this? I dunno, I was just very happy.

One week when I was sad I went to the movies twice. That’s okay, but the $34 candy bar (including Pinot Gris) expenses were not.

#3 I drink more than I thought I did (boo!) but am very happy I quit smoking (yay!)

The thing about your finances is that they’re a pretty good indicator of your priorities, and sometimes also your health. In tracking my spending at pubs and Bottle-O’s (and Palace Cinemas, lol!?) I realised I consume significantly more beer and cheap white wine than I thought I did. This is bad for my health, obviously, but also my wallet. By contrast, since quitting smoking at the end of January I’ve been saving $30 per pouch of tobacco! (And think about how many future health bills I’m avoiding now too!) You can’t hide from your own bank balance.

To paraphrase (and butcher) Marcus Aurelius: we need to know ourselves in order to be good people. Self-improvement can only come from self-awareness.

I felt bad about some of my spending behaviours but I also felt proud of others. For a long time I’ve been fretting that I’m not saving enough compared to my friends in their mid-twenties, but when I compared my earnings to my savings I realised I was doing alright. I catch the bus more than I drive the car. I make more donations to charity than I thought.

I’ve started a new online savings account now, and for each week I don’t buy multiple baked goods and bottles of Pinot Gris, I’ll put money in it. Maybe I’ll take a trip to the Barossa Valley and eat at Maggie Beer’s restaurant. Wink wink.

Bri Lee is a Brisbane-based writer and the Founding Editor of Hot Chicks with Big Brains. Her first book, Eggshell Skull will be released in early 2018.