Confession: I Don’t Track Every Penny
Sometimes my personal-finance articles make my friends feel guilty.
“I read your article about saving money, and now I feel bad about the shoes I just bought,” says Guilt-Stricken Friend. “I don't need them. I think I should return them.”
Perhaps she's waiting for me to tell her that she's right, that she should return them. And then she should take that money she almost blew on something fun and put it into her 401K.
But my actual reaction is more like this: “Why do you want to return them? Also: Tell me about those shoes!”
Because here's the thing. While no, the purchase wasn't a need, and yes, it's more logical to not spend the money, there's no reason she shouldn't enjoy a fun purchase that's well within her means.
Guilt is a Killjoy
The problem was that my friend wasn't enjoying her purchase. She thought it was somehow “bad” and felt guilty about it. She thought she should have saved that money instead. As someone who feels a lot of guilt over the things I should or shouldn't be doing, I know how it can suck the joy out of life. Guilt can undermine any good feelings a purchase (or a piece of chocolate cake, for that matter) might bring.
And if you look at the Big Picture, my friend has healthy savings, doesn't have credit card debt, and is saving for retirement. One purchase doesn't make her a bad person.
Call me Irresponsible
As a personal-finance writer, I'm exposed to a lot of money advice, tips, and tactics. Sometimes I feel like I'm not perfect enough when it comes to handling my own money because I don't follow more of the advice I read. I feel like I should be more frugal. More minimalistic. I feel irresponsible because two months ago I was double-billed for my Internet service, and I just caught the mistake last week. “Maybe if I tracked every penny in a notebook, that wouldn't have happened,” says the little voice inside my head.
Also, I realized that when I do follow frugal, minimalistic advice, it isn't because it saves money (although that's an added benefit). For instance, I like having a small, functional wardrobe, so I scrutinize clothing purchases. I don't really like or watch much TV, so I don't pay for cable. I enjoy cooking, so 99% of my meals are home-cooked. I don't like big gyms, so I work out at home. These things might make me sound frugal and responsible, but in truth I do them because they're personal preferences, which happen to save money over their alternatives.
So I've finally come to grips with something: There's some personal finance advice out there that could save money or make me more responsible according to the financial gurus, but I'm never going to do it. Ever.
Want a few examples? Here are the eight that top my list:
- “Write down every penny you spend and every penny you make.” I've tried so many times. So many. I've tried a notebook, Quicken, and various apps, and it just doesn't stick. The only thing that's worked for me is automated savings into targeted savings accounts. That's how I was able to build an emergency fund, take a trip to Europe, and make sure I had enough money to pay the irregular gas bill. I've about given up on maintaining a detailed budget, even though I've advised other people to do it in the past, and even though I want to be able to do it myself.
- “Drink tap water; it's free.” If you're buying water or you've purchased a home filter, there's probably a reason for it. Your water smells like chlorine or you're a health nut like me who's concerned about what's in her water. So advising people to drink tap water is pretty worthless money advice. And while we're on the subject of beverages…
- “Drink water instead of coffee.” Seriously? I go to bed excited that I get coffee when I wake up. I can't even deal with this one.
- “Buy everything secondhand from garage sales or thrift shops.” I can't tell you how much I wish I could do this. The problem is that I hate shopping. Sorting through a bunch of stuff for hours just to find a pair of used jeans that actually fit is kinda my idea of hell. I've also bought secondhand things that were “just okay” just because they were so cheap, and they wound up in my donation pile a few months later. These days I do buy some used things, especially antiques, but usually it's because my mom found it for me.
- “Start a garden and grow all your food.” This is great if you know how to garden and have the room. But to amuse myself, I like to imagine people reading this tip who have zero gardening know-how. They go to the plant nursery and buy mulch and dirt and fertilizer and seeds and shovels, spend days making garden beds and starting seeds, water every day, weed the beds, transplant seedlings, then harvest their overflowing bounty. All to save exactly how much money? And that's only if the squash vine borer doesn't decimate your crops. Little jerks. I like the idea of growing all my own food, and maybe one day I'll get there, but right now I'm just proud that I've kept my tomato plants and herbs alive all summer.
- “Instead of buying books or paying for Netflix, use the library.” I know it's free, but I never go. I got as far as getting a library card, which expired. Then I renewed it, and now it's expired again. Also, I'm pretty bad at remembering to return books and movies on time. Blockbuster made mad late-fee money off of me.
- “Make your own laundry detergent.” I tried this for a few months because I thought it was kind of fun. But it doesn't save that much money and the novelty wore off the second time my husband had to say, “Uh, I need to do some laundry and there's not enough detergent…”
- “Have a no-gift policy.” I don't care about gifts personally. Instead of buying anniversary gifts, my husband and I splurge on a really great meal. But if my nieces want a popcorn machine for Christmas, they're gonna get a popcorn machine. Gifts are a social norm I just don't want to disregard.
I've read that I should do each of these things, but the fact of the matter is that none of them work for me. And I've decided that that's okay. I say we shouldn't let the “shoulds” make us feel bad anymore.
What are you “shoulds”? What money advice have you tried to follow, but couldn't keep up in the long-term? What are examples of personal finance advice that doesn't work for you?