Print out three to four months of credit and debit card statements. Yes, print them out! I find that people are able to analyze information better when it is in print. Then look at the expenses in order of size value and categorize them by high, medium, and low costs. Next, look at the frequency of each purchase. Do you see multiple charges for one location? Do you see daily or weekly charges for something? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Review your spending from the last three to four months and try to place every dollar spent into one of these categories. If you have everything listed as a need, then you should go back and look at each item more objectively or ask for help in categorizing everything. Look at your wastes and add them up. How much could you have saved in three to four months if you had avoided wastes? Are there wants or wastes that can be eliminated or adjusted?
If you have determined any problem areas above, write them down and strategize how to eliminate or work on them. Consider whether each is a problem because of the frequency of purchases, the size of purchases, or both. Do you need to go to Starbucks every day? Can you replace one of those Starbucks trips with coffee from home or a cart on the street? Are you going to J. Crew or any retail store too much? Determine why you are frequenting the store. Is it because it is on your way home? Can you plan a different way home? Can you walk into the store, find things you would want to buy, write down the prices, and simply walk out?
Most people at various times in their life have spending problems. Some of us have it worse than others. I had a very bad spending problem, which stemmed from making good money and having credit. I always told myself there would be more money down the road, so I could put purchases on my credit card. I never thought there would be an end to the money. However, when I wanted to make a career change that would provide me less money but more fulfillment, I realized that I needed to control my spending. The basic tenets of financial health are earning more and spending less. If you cannot earn more, then you need to spend less. This exercise is the most valuable one for my clients to help them with their spending, and you can do it every single day. Every time that you are about to spend money, STOP yourself for a brief minute and ask, WHY? Why are you buying what you are buying?
The great news for you is that there are only two correct answers to this question: (1) It is life and death. You will literally die if you don’t buy health insurance or a medication or take a trip to the emergency room; (2) you have planned for it. If you made that purchase of the new phone or the clothes for work part of your plan for the year, then you can go ahead and buy that item. If one of these two answers was not applicable, put down that item, walk away, and don’t look back.
So you have just practiced the STOP and WHY exercise, and you feel bad. You typically feel good buying things and spending money, and you really wanted to spend the money you were just going to—but instead you practiced a financial fitness exercise, and now you feel bad. Now what? When you experience this level of sadness for not making a purchase, find a new outlet for the displaced happiness.
When I was losing weight, I really wanted to eat a cheeseburger, and eating a salad just didn’t feel as good. So I would eat the salad and visualize the way it would make me look. Or I would let myself have the salad with a small treat like a glass of wine or a piece of candy. Similarly, the thing you were just about to buy was not part of your plan, but is there something else that is? Can you buy that instead?
You can also try distracting yourself with something that makes you happy. Call a friend, play an app on your phone, go for a walk. Try a number of different distracting exercises so that you do not fixate on the fact that you felt bad that you did not make that purchase. You do not want to feel as though you are deprived or missing out while you are on the road to financial fitness. If you do, then you are less likely to stay on this important path.
Another way to prevent yourself from having a spending issue is to commit to achieving a certain number of no-spend days a month. During a no-spend day, you literally will plan to not use your cash or debit and credit cards for an entire day. It is a best practice to plan one of these a week, and an easy way to accomplish this exercise is just to take your driver’s license out with you and leave the rest of your wallet home for the day. While you are practicing a no-spend day, make sure you reflect on where you would have spent money if you could have spent money. This is another great way for you to identify problem areas in your spending life.
Similar to no-spend days, I think it is a best practice to have at least one cash-only day a week. The set amount of cash you allow yourself to spend during the day should be a difficult goal for you, and for most clients this number is usually around $20. Think of cash-only days like “push days" when you are working out at the gym. Maybe you can easily run two miles at a time, but on a push day, you make yourself run three. Maybe you normally spend $40 a day on various items, so push yourself once a week to only spend $20.
A number of my clients have a difficult time understanding how much money they are spending, because they typically use credit cards more than they should. Or they will go through the process of creating their FitPlan, but have a difficult time tracking it because they are using credit and debit cards and do not always update their monitoring system. A great solution for these issues is creating envelopes for the funds that you allocated through your FitPlan.
If you designated $200 a month for food, then you should take out $200 once a month and put this in your food envelope, and only use the funds from this envelope to pay for food. If you are getting close to the end of the month and there is not much cash in the envelope, then you will know that you have to eat what you have on hand or make different plans. I would encourage you to create an envelope for as many categories on your FitPlan as possible. Then you should also create a “fun” envelope. You can use this envelope to hold the funds that remain in the other envelopes at the end of the month. This is your reward for responsible planning during the month.
Take the time out of your schedule to create a reward chart for yourself. Think about what your short- and long-term financial goals are and how you should reward yourself for achieving them. You can make this in Excel and add pictures or photos. If you are new to the financial fitness process, you can start with one or two easy goals, but as you do this for longer, you should challenge yourself to achieve more difficult goals.
An example of a short-term goal is not using your credit card for a month, or spending only a certain amount of money a week, or paying down a certain amount of your student loans or credit cards. The goal should be achievable within a month, and at the end of the month, if you have accomplished this, give yourself a small reward. This could be an iTunes gift card, an extra cocktail when you go out, or a new pair of earrings.
An example of a long-term goal is something that you could accomplish within six months to a year. It could be the same as the short-term goal, only larger in size. If you accomplish this goal, you should have a bigger reward. This could be a new purse, a fancy dinner, or a nice bottle of wine. Please keep in mind that your rewards should not create additional financial burdens on you, so keep them appropriately sized, given your goals.