Two readers sent me a New York Times story from M.P. Dunleavey that addresses a problem many of us face, especially this time of year. We do our best to set budgets, to track our spending, and to make smart financial decisions, but when we sit down to run the numbers, somehow we’ve spent too much. Dunleavey writes:

I [totaled] the extra and unexpected costs that had cropped up throughout the year: \$4,900 for new windows, \$3,100 in co-payments for my appendectomy and \$1,500 in car repairs.

I deducted those chunks from our total income — and was horrified to conclude not only that some money was missing, but that someone had apparently absconded with \$10,000. There was no way we could have spent it.

Was there?

I ran through the numbers again with my husband, and he reached the same conclusion: approximately \$10,000 was missing in action. That was the vacation we didn’t take, part of the new roof we might need, some terrific wine we didn’t drink. Now we really wanted to know where that money went.

It wasn’t long before it showed up. After sitting there for a while at the kitchen table, stunned, my husband said, “Thirty dollars.”

He explained his theory. One day, we were about to visit friends and had offered to pick up dessert and wine — which came to about \$30 . The next day we had a birthday to attend and a prescription to pick up, and we spent about \$30. We took out the calculator: \$10,000 divided by 365 is about \$27.

It wasn’t that we spent \$30 mindlessly every day, but once we started digging for the “we’re not really spending any money” money — a trip to Lowe’s, new shoes for my son, iTunes downloads for my husband, a new work outfit for me — all the little things fell into place.

I’ve experienced this too, especially after receiving a Christmas bonus or a tax refund. Without noticing, I’d begin to spend a little extra here and there. Just a few bucks — nothing major. When I’d sit down to run the numbers, my forehead would get cold and clammy. My stomach would tie itself into knots. How could I have spent my entire \$500 tax refund already? It wouldn’t seem possible.

Some experts argue that we should only pay attention to the Big Stuff because that’s where the most money can be saved. I agree that the Big Stuff is important — but I think the Small Stuff is important, too. We deal with the Small Stuff every day. And as Dunleavey’s story demonstrates, Small Stuff becomes Big Stuff in time.

[The New York Times: A little here, a little there and it's gone]

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