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Adventures in Budgeting

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A little while back, I decided to try making a budget, thinking the experiment would either result in smug success or hilarious failure. Those are my two favorite outcomes of any situation.

My first step was to ignore my boyfriend when he suggested I use Mint.com. Although pretty much all my work/entertainment/happiness stems from the Internet, sometimes I like to play-act at being “off the grid.” (It’s worth noting that I did the math for my paper budget on my computer’s calculator.)

I started off strong. I figured out all my fixed monthly payments for necessities, like rent, bills, Netflix, my Muay Thai gym membership and hair dye. Admittedly I was a little loose in my interpretation of  “necessities.” Everything else went into categories, most of which were food-based: groceries, toiletries, eating out during work, eating out not at work, and “other.” Then, I figured, I would add up how much I spent in those categories during April, make my goal a little smaller for May, and ka-pow! Money saved.

An Unexpected Work Expense

Alarmingly, but not all that surprisingly, the largest category (larger than groceries!) was eating out during work. The worst part of this discovery was knowing that I don’t even enjoy the goods and services that I purchase in this category all that much. If the restaurants available around my office were a piece of music, its title would be, “Sandwiches: Theme and Not That Many Variations.” So while I’m not exactly making myself broke on these sandwiches, I am spending unnecessary amounts of money on food that is merely palatable. I’m not a master chef, but I am definitely capable of cooking something palatable.

Part of the problem with reducing spending in this category is that a couple of good friends of mine are interns in my office, and I am incentivized not to bring a lunch to work so I can hang out with them. I am also incentivized by laziness.

Nonetheless, armed with my paper budget—and a pocketful of dreams of pockets full of money—I vowed to write down everything I bought that month and stick to the mostly arbitrary goals I set for myself. (I wanted to be able to put $300 in my savings account at the end of the month, which is a lot? Not a lot? I don’t know.)

The mission failed. I pretty much knew it would. I started using my budget as a bookmark, then I started leaving the book at home, and then one day a gust of wind carried it down Ashland Avenue and I didn’t even bother to chase it.

A Surprise Benefit

But something good did come out of this experiment, even though it wasn’t exactly the tangible savings I had hoped for. I realized a few things about my spending. One, I am incredibly susceptible to the impulse buy. (Usually candy.) Two, I am utterly incapable of sticking to the arbitrary goals I set for myself. (I should have known this already, from the countless promises I have made to exercise three times a week, or write 500 words a day that I have almost immediately reneged on.) Keeping track of my spending doesn’t make me spend less — it just makes me realize how much I’m spending and makes me sad.

The happy epilogue to this story is that this month I am magically spending way less, thanks to one simple adjustment I made, without even intending to save money. After I gave our fridge a long-needed cleaning, I was so traumatized by the decomposing food within that I started going to the grocery store every week, instead of every “all my food has gone bad.” Now I have oatmeal packets and yogurt to bring to work for breakfast, and I cook enormous piles of food on the weekends so I have leftovers for the rest of the week. This seems like a really obvious thing to do, but it feels like a big step to me.

For me, budgeting was a farce. But where the painstaking calculation of sandwich costs failed, a simple lifestyle change succeeded. And as it turns out, I do feel pretty smug when I’m eating my oatmeal.

This post originally appeared on The Billfold.

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