Before You Cut, Spend

There’s an old business adage that says you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

It’s surprising how many people ignore this advice when it comes to budgeting for discretionary expenses. In designing a monthly plan they simply write down what they think they should spend rather than taking some time to figure out what they’re already spending.

Why is this? In my experience resistance to measurement stems from two things.

First, people want to rush through the budgeting process. Sure, I like to linger over a bank statement like it contains the drama of a Jane Austen novel, but I’m wired a little differently that way. For most of us, budgeting is something we do in response to financial stress – we want to do it as quickly as possible in order to fix a problem.

Secondly, reflecting on past purchases contains all of the anxiety of spending with none of the pleasure. Those numbers in aggregate often seem astronomical (“I spent HOW MUCH on coffee last month?”) and trigger a backlash of self-judgment that can short circuit the whole process.

So people guess. They come up with idealized numbers that are not necessarily a reflection of their actual behavior. In doing so they usually fail to account for what they need or value, and down the road their budget fails accordingly.

Provided there is no cash flow crisis, I usually recommend that people track their spending for a solid month before we even discuss what expenses to adjust. A baseline measurement of your routine is valuable not only because of the data generated but also because it gives you the opportunity to work on another important budgeting skill – being able to engage consciously in financial activities and tolerate the feelings that come up when doing so.

A healthy budget is not a problem to be solved. It is a statement of purpose that reflects where you want to allocate your resources. There is nothing wrong with spending $200 a month at Starbucks provided that experience is meaningful to you and the rest of your financial choices fit around it. The challenge is whether you can look at that behavior and own it without self-judgment.

If you want a slimmer spending plan that still gives you optimal quality of life, start by going about your normal routine and simply recording when, on what, and how much you spend. A month of measurement is an investment you make in your long-term financial wellness.

Amanda Clayman