You heard where I started. This is where I went next…
Between September 2016 and March 2017 I paid off over $5,000 in credit card debt. By September of 2017 I had saved $5,000 in an emergency fund.
The change in my cash flow was even more dramatic than that if you consider that prior to September 2016 I was still adding to my credit cards, spending into the red most months. If this level of savings sounds dramatic, it is. It’s also quite simple.
Here’s how I did it.
Step 1: The simple, horrible task of confronting the truth.
How much did I owe? What am I paying in interest? How much was I spending, and where on earth was it going? I knew if I had any hope of making progress I needed to take a cold, hard look at my starting point. I honestly think this is the worst part. It feels awful to look at the sums of money you’ve wasted. Don’t dwell on it, look into it just long enough to know where to change. This is an assessment, not a trial.
How exactly do you find out where your money has gone? My starting point was Mint.com.
I had previously attached most of my accounts and had a quick (depressing) tally of debts vs assets. When I went back to check in I had months worth of transactions listed.
If you’re thinking you need to start this process, but you’re not sure if you’re ready, start here: Create a Mint.com account and link EVERYTHING. Every checking account, savings account, credit card, student loan, car payment, everything.
Confronting your financial situation and making changes can be a very emotional path. I say start here partly because this is a pretty mundane task. If you’re like me you’ve never kept track of your usernames and passwords, so this ends up largely being clerical work. Just knock it out. Set it up now, then when you’re ready to dive in the information is right there.
It’s a perfect first step.
You’re going to hear me talk about Mint.com a lot. I’m not an affiliate for Mint. Meaning, I’m not getting paid to write this or send you their way. Of course, I’d happily join an affiliate program if they had one. It’s amazing tool and well worth promoting. Have I mentioned that it’s free? I wholeheartedly recommend using Mint.com.
On its own Mint does a reasonable job of guessing what spending category different transactions belong in (rent/mortgage, auto insurance, groceries, pet care, clothing, etc). If it’s wrong, of course you can change it. You can also set rules so that certain merchants are automatically sent to certain categories. I’ve created a number of my own categories so I can track my spending in ways that are more helpful to me.
What’d I find out?
I found I spend a whole lot of money going out to eat. And parking at work. And buying essential oils. The list goes on from there. I looked into all my expenses in the last few months and started to think about what I was overpaying for, what I could do without, what actually brought value to my life.
Step 2: The (sometimes) ruthless spending cuts.
Not that ruthless really. You’ll see.
Some cuts were simply well-timed events that were outside of my control. I had pushed myself a bit in order to save $6/day on parking, but it was pretty inconvenient. Luckily, shortly after I switched I got an opportunity to move to an even cheaper and much more convenient location where I was saving a total of $12/day.
Other cuts were harder. I cancelled my Rodan & Fields subscription (fancy face wash) despite the fact that I loved how my skin felt with their product. Even this opened doors though. By March I stumbled into some handmade goats milk soap that does wonders for my skin at a fraction of the price.
In that first few months I changed my spending by nearly $700/month. Here’s the breakdown:
I cancelled subscriptions for makeup, face wash, music and TV. (Since then I’ve modified my media subscriptions to have a little bit of my favorites in my life.) When it came to making a value judgement on what was important enough to pay for, these things missed the mark. The makeup and face wash just didn’t bring enough value to my life. The TV and music had free or cheaper alternatives.
I switched parking lots at work to the tune of $100/month.
I limited my gym membership to the basic package.
I shopped around my auto and renters insurance and saved a bundle. I also dropped the collision and comprehensive I had been paying a 14-year-old car worth less than $2k.
Skipping the internet? It’s not a typo, although it’s not for everyone and it’s probably not forever. When I moved into this place I kept meaning to research alternatives to the big companies whose prices I resent. After 6 months I realized… I didn’t miss it. I was reading more, drawing more, and exercising more. Of course, sometimes you need to accomplish tasks online. I went to a local coffee shop and started a category in my Mint account called “internet coffee.” AKA the price I pay to sit in their space and use their internet.
That lasted about a year, now I’m only pseudo-unplugged. My parents bought unlimited data. (Yes, I’m still on their plan. Don’t judge, I pay them.) Since that time I’ve been using the personal hotspot function to great success, including to write this post.
Last, and certainly hardest, came the reduction in eating out, groceries and general shopping. The numbers you see above are a comparison of monthly averages for several months of spending pre and post-debt crisis. In this category I have learned several things.
- Work on small goals. The very first thing I did was to start packing a lunch for work every single shift. That was 16 months ago and in that time I’ve only gone to work once without my lunch, and that was a premeditated gift to myself.
- Be realistic. I couldn’t do everything at once. I knew that if I was going to dramatically curb my “eating-out” budget I was going to be buying more groceries. Early on I gave myself permission to go hog-wild at the market. This meant I was buying slightly more enticing meals to cook than I normally would have. I needed to want to cook. It also meant I was focusing my emotional energy. This was a marathon, not a sprint, and if I became disillusioned I would just quit. I decided not to care what my grocery budget was at all and simply focus on the habit of carrying a lunch to work every day. Later I’d work on the eating out, then maybe the grocery bill.
- Put things off. When has this ever been listed under good advice before? Whenever I come up with a new purchase I think I “need” to make, I put it off. I have a list in my notes app where I have the things I want. They’re categorized by general magnitude of purchase. If I come up with something new and add it to the list, it needs to sit shoulder to shoulder with all the things I’ve been wanting for a while. Suddenly it doesn’t feel quite so urgent. Suddenly I remember how badly I wanted a new mattress. When I need to compare desires and consider what’s important, I suddenly find my impulse purchases are a lot less interesting.
When I began this part of my journey I was convinced I was sacrificing. I was convinced each change would take a slice of my happiness away. Packing a lunch every day? Exhausting.
Turns out I’m more than up to the task. The first week or two I had to work at it. I had to think about what to pack. Was it enough? Don’t forget it at home! But it rapidly turned into a new normal for me. Lunch-packing fits into my morning routine just after makeup and before getting dressed.
This was my first inkling of the power of habits.
Things that once took effort became effortless. This involved more than just lunches, friends. The changes I had made proved to be invigorating and inspiring. Instead of feeling exhausted like I expected, I felt energized. Instead of stressed, I felt relaxed. I wasn’t deprived, I was empowered. I knew I had done something good.
My “normal” had changed.
The many cuts listed above have fluctuated over the last year and a half. At times I’ll add back in a subscription (Pandora, Audible, Apple Music) and keep it for a while. At times I’ll acknowledge the need for a week without meal planning and get some microwavable meals. My life is not and will never be run by adherence to strict rules. But I’ve formed new habits, and I’m excited to form or refine my habits moving forward.
Each time I push myself I find I’m actually happier for it, and my habits sustain themselves with remarkably little conscious thought. What was once a choice becomes normal.
Read along while I push into my next new normal.