What I Learned from Tracking Every Penny I Spent for a Month

What I Learned by Tracking My Spending for a Month

Like most people at the start of a new year, I decided in January I’d try something different. I’d spend money on just the basics. My first three purchases of the month were bubble tea, flowers and chocolate, so clearly I was off to a rolling start.

To take it a step further, I’d write down every purchase in a notebook. I usually track our money using digital tools, but I wanted to go lo-fi with pen and paper. There’s a certain weightiness about writing things down.

And I wanted to know, would manually tracking my spending change my behavior?

Tracking Spending with a Notebook (and Cat)

The goal wasn’t to stick to a budget, but to spend as I normally would and consider my purchases as I went. How did the spending make me feel? And would I spend less?

Less-ish, for sure. In January, outside of rent and utilities, I spent $1,026.13.

What I Learned by Tracking My Spending for a Month
$1,026.13 spent in January, outside of rent and utilities

A few notes on my January spending:

The grocery costs are shared with my husband, so it’s halved here, but all the other expenses are mine only.

I always divide food costs into sub-categories:

  • Groceries = Ingredients bought from a store
  • Fast food = Takeout and work lunches out
  • Restaurants = Actual sit-down meals out

My blog friend Barry was in town, and as self-professed spendy bloggers, we met up for dinner at Van Đa. I spent $70.88 on a delicious cocktail and enough food to have leftover pork belly for work the next day.

I’m carrying around a portable charger for my phone these days, because the battery has totally degraded. I know my iPhone 5s is gonna die on me one day, and it’s just a matter of when. Knowing I’ll need to buy a new phone at some point, I’ve been automatically setting aside $100 per month to cover that expense.

I bought three pairs of similar pants to try, and will only keep one, if that, so the $210.11 I spent will more likely end up being $110-ish after I return the other two options.

There were 13 accidental “zero spend” days where I spent no money.

I bought fun-to-me things, like furniture and plane tickets.

In total, I spent $1,026.31 outside of rent and utilities, and $449.71 went to “wants” like clothes, travel, eating out, and making updates to our apartment.

Now that the experiment is over, here are some things I learned along the way.

Writing Down Grocery Expenses Got Old Fast

In January, we went to the grocery store a lot.

How do I know?

Because my hand started cramping from having to write down every single trip. When I went back to add them all up, I discovered we grocery-shopped 19 times, or almost every other day.

As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have one big grocery store close by where we can buy everything. Aldi’s and Costco are more than a handful of subway stops away, and the travel time isn’t worth the savings.

Where we live, there are mom-and-pop shops with limited options, so you have to visit multiple stores to find what you want. As I’m writing this now, my husband is on the subway headed to the big grocery store to pick up supplies for the week.

For transparency, I don’t actually do much of the grocery shopping. But I of course do eat the food, so I decided to track those expenses here, even though my individual food spending would be different. So if you double my half, we spent a total of $517.62 on groceries for January.

I’m thankful my husband shoulders the burden of the grocery shopping and cooking, so I have more time to work on hobbies (like this blog). Seeing how often he shops made me more appreciative of what he does to keep the house running smoothly.

Tracking My Spending Made Me Curious

How much should tolls cost?

For the first time, I wondered. I live in a city and don’t have a reason to drive here.

Last December I ordered an E-Z pass transponder, so I didn’t have to pay car rental companies the privilege to use theirs to pay for tolls.

But in January I kept seeing my checking account ping with E-Z pass charges. $5 here. $7 there. I assumed they were delayed charges from the December trip.

When I added them all up, the total was $45.31, which sounded suspiciously high.

I Googled around and calculated the tolls for our route should have cost no more $22 roundtrip. So why did I get charged over $20 more?

After logging into my E-Z Pass account, I saw a charge for crossing the Verrazano bridge. Hey, we didn’t go to Staten Island…

That’s when I realized I forgot to delete the license plates from the December trip from my E-Z Pass account. So that meant I was getting charged for tolls from other people who were renting the same car. I immediately e-mailed E-Z Pass customer service.

Paying closer attention to my spending helped me find a leaky ship. If I hadn’t done this experiment, I honestly would have just let the charges go unnoticed.

I Don’t Always Need the Best Quality

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Last year I spent over $100 on a pair of slippers, looking for the very best. They arrived. I tried them on. They made my feet look like oven mitts. It turns out that sometimes aesthetics matter more to me than quality.

I decided to return those and go with my old standby slipper brand, Minnetonka. I caught a sale on a pair of black slip-ons, which I love to wear, and cost a fraction of the price of the “nicer” slippers.

Household Supplies Are a Black Abyss

It’s easy to underestimate how much we spend. I know some people are baffled about what happens to their money. Sometimes I look at my own spending, and think, what happened? As if somebody else were responsible. Trust me, there’s an explanation.

Over $100 on household supplies per month seems like a lot. And for us, it seems to be a recurring theme.

I bet most people estimate the only household supplies they buy are just toilet paper, paper towels and trash bags. Well, my friends, those three items don’t explain how I spent over $70 in one go at Target! A few days later, I couldn’t remember exactly what I ordered.

But after investigating, I wondered if we actually did need those Swiffer dusters.

Then it happened again. I went to my local discount store to pick up some some oven cleaner, but left with several “so-cheap-I-might-as-well” purchases, and $16 poorer. Even now, I’m struggling to remember everything I bought, which means the shopping trip definitely wasn’t mindful. So, TJ Maxx, Target and Nordstrom Rack–I will overcome you next time!

Some Expenses Were Hard to Write Down

Money and denial are real. Naturally, if you don’t face your spending, you don’t have to face the shame.

So those slippers I returned came from the UK. Which meant it cost me $40 to ship back. Return shipping costs always sting a little, but this time, it was like a punch to the gut. It’s not always immediate, but the choice to shop had a real, tangible consequence.

While the brand said they’ll return shipping fees no problem, it’s a family-owned business, and I didn’t have the heart to ask them to refund the costs. Lesson learned: I need to think through the full lifecycle of shopping instead of just assuming “I’ll figure it out.”

A Lack of Planning Sets You Back

When it comes to money, one good habit tends to beget other good habits. It can also work the other way.

I spent almost $70 on lunches for the month. That’s not a lot of money for some people, but for me those were low-value purchases that didn’t add much to my life.

The problem was I didn’t go to Trader Joe’s on Sunday to buy my lunch supplies. And if I don’t go to Trader Joe’s on Sunday, there’s a 5% chance I’ll go there during the week. Instead of mustering of the willpower to drag myself to Trader Joe’s, my life is easier if I focus on habits and natural motivation. So now I know that if I want to have a frugal work week, I need to consciously carve out time on the weekend to get my lunches together.

Serendipitous Spending Can Be Pretty Great

One of my favorite purchases was a $15 antique chair I found when I was walking home from the hardware store.

But then I walked through a flea market and saw this bentwood chair. It was worn in the best possible way. I asked for the price and held my breath. The vendor replied, “Fifteen dollars.” FIFTEEN DOLLARS, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I’ve had mediocre salads that cost that much, and those don’t last for decades like a piece of furniture does. So I handed over the money and carried it home. Now I’ll always remember the story of how I bought this chair.

Unexpected Things Happen No Matter What

People can be really hard on themselves when they don’t stick to their budget. I could have never predicted things like E-Z Pass charges, or $6,000 car rental snafus, or a pet coming down with an eye problem.

Budgets should be thought of as living documents that change with you. Trim a bit here, add a bit there. And it’s always good to build in buffers, if you can. Because no matter what, life has a way of keeping you on your toes.

How did your January go? Did you meet all your goals? Have you ever tried tracking your money like this, or nah, way too tedious?

Feature Image: cyndicantrell.net

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