Wondering where all the money goes? I did, until I got a spending wake-up call from, of all sources, my MasterCard. In a year-end recap, the lender kindly broke down my purchases into 11 neat categories, displayed in color-coded pie charts, even.
Horror of horrors -- 54.64% of my charging went towards "merchandise/retail"!
I spent an hour scrolling down memory lane, reviewing all of the lovely "merchandise/retail" I acquired in the past 12 months. Since I do not pay my rent or utilities with my MasterCard, it was necessary to recalculate the allocation for that particularly frivolous-sounding category. I came up with a more reasonable 6.2%.
Oh, alright. I'll be adult and own up to my budgeting blunders, and even admit that most of my money-management shortcomings are due to sheer laziness.
It should come as no surprise to half of you reading this that sticking to a budget is about as hard as passing up a two-for-one shoe sale at Nine West. According to a poll by American Consumer Opinion, half of the 3,136 people surveyed said they do not always stay within their monthly budgets. What's more, the higher the income level, the more likely people are to blow their monthly stipend. Those with incomes in excess of $100,000 more frequently broke the bank (58.9%) compared to respondents with an annual household income of $35,000 or less (43.3%).
Since I write about this stuff for a living -- and, no, the irony is not lost on me -- it's time to heed my own advice and get a handle on my cash flow. But this time, I'm going to do it my way, meaning the easiest way possible.
Step 1: Stop spending on autopilot
The first step for the Lazy Girl is determining where your money is going. Thank you, MasterCard, for providing the raw data to jump-start my cash flow reconnaissance. It even gives me a monthly spending summer bar chart. There in fully graphed glory are my weak spots -- the months of April, July, and October.
As I mentioned before, I don't do all of my spending on one card. Plus, the program doesn't always file items under the correct headers. For instance, I found travel, doctor, and Hobby Lobby charges got filed under "miscellaneous," when there were categories for travel, health care, and "craft stuff that we know you're not going to end up using so just put it back on the shelf for crying out loud."
For those weekly or -- fess up -- daily expenditures, nothing beats a Post-It note, or the Fool's own stylish Spending Patch (pdf download required). For one month -- or just a week if you can't stomach the task -- jot down all of your expenditures. Every time you gas up the car, pay the dog walker, or rent a movie or an RV, write it down. And no funny math, either. A dollar is a dollar, no matter how bling-bling you think those $5 drugstore shades make you look.
Lest you are tempted to skip this step, consider the all-too-personal scenario of spending just $7 a day during the week on salty snack food and caffeine. It adds up to nearly two grand over a single year. That's $2,000 that could go toward even more lovely "merchandise/retail," or even several weeks at the puppy day spa for my dog. (It's not all about me, after all.)
Step 2: Develop a "Spending Plan"
After you get over the horror of your daily spending, go ahead and pick up a little something to lift your spirits. Go on a spending spree!
No, wait. We're trying something different. Think of Step 2 as a cerebral trip to the mall. The idea is to merely visualize your spending -- and how it enhances or detracts from your life -- so you can redirect the flow of your cash and ensure that it goes to the important stuff. After all, it's much more fun to decide how to spend it without the sticker shock of the next month's Visa bill.
On a piece of paper (bigger than a Post-It this time), list five uses of your money that will positively affect your life in a decade or more. Then, list five uses of your money that will add little to your quality of life in a decade or more.
For me, those things that give me gratification are travel, art classes, car maintenance (so I don't have to buy a new one), decent haircuts four times a year, and a well-stocked emergency fund. In the long-term future, retirement and possibly my own home are on the list. A few things that don't enhance my quality of life are cable TV, parking tickets (because I'm too lazy to move my car from the restricted parking in front of my building), and dining alone on meals that cost more than $7 because I'm too lazy to go grocery shopping.
Voila! A spending plan! (Thanks to the folks on the Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board for hashing out the idea of planned spending (whether on bills/expenses, debt payments, or "toys").
My finances are relatively uncomplicated, making this two-step Lazy Girl approach to money management a big step in the right direction. If you have debt, or are commingling your finances, your plan may need to be more aggressive and organized than mine.
Be strong, girlfriends
The funny thing is, I'm known as particularly frugal in my circle of friends. I can put together a very stylish ensemble for less than $20, given access to the right discount stores. My cheap home decorating tricks are celebrated in at least three states, not including the one where my parents dwell. I fund my retirement and short-term savings with every paycheck. My coffee maker is six years old; my toaster is from my mother's generation. I don't have cable TV, I drive a used car, and I can open most jars of pasta sauce without assistance.
Still, it's easy to walk through life trailing frivolous expenditures and missed opportunities. There are many ways -- big (credit card interest!) and small (pedicure!) -- to fritter away your cash.
Even in my laziness, I think I can muster enough energy to take two steps to control my cash flow. The payoff is the knowledge that my money is truly going towards lasting, meaningful, and somewhat stylish "merchandise/retail."
Dayana Yochim will be tracking her spending for at least an entire week. Starting tomorrow. Promise. She's the author of Couples & Cash: How To Handle Money With Your Honey. The Motley Fool is investors (and shoppers) writing for other investors (and shoppers).