Spending Control: How’s That Working Out For You?
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PNC.com has these 10 recommendations in a post entitled, How To Stop Spending Money.
- Create a budget.
- Visualize what you’re saving for.
- Always shop with a list.
- Nix the brand names.
- Master meal prep.
- Consider cash for in-store shopping.
- Remove temptation.
- Hit “pause.”
- Think reusable.
- Keep at it!
There are probably millions of lists like this. Some are just as profound as this one. 😉
I intentionally used the phrase “spending control.” It’s impossible to stop spending money unless you’re dead. But it’s very possible to get a better grip on our spending if we want to.
Why This…Why Now?
In early March we sold our house of 25 years and moved. Clearly, it had been 25 years since we’d done it so we weren’t exactly in game shape. Lots of things have changed since the late 90s. Our age tops the list. The economy is right up there, too. Our life circumstances, too. Back then we were a family of 4 with two high schoolers. Now we’re an older couple with almost 20 years experience in being empty nesters.
Then there’s the practical realities associated with our selling our house. We had a built-in refrigerator so there was no refrigerator to move. We included the washer and dryer with the sale of the house…so no laundry to move. That’s great on the front end, but when you move you need a refrigerator and a laundry pair. So you have to buy them.
Then there’s the impractical realities associated with selling our house and moving. We moved into an apartment just a few miles away from our old house. Refrigerator, washer and dryer included. Great! But we had an opportunity to really disrupt life so we took it. We bought a house miles away and we moved into that. Wait a minute, what? You heard me. We moved twice at the same time. About 90% of our stuff was moved to the house and the other 10% went to the apartment. All at the same time! My body is still paying the price.
Thus began the outpouring of cash. That’s why this is currently top-of-mind. And that’s why I’m discussing this now.
It’s Always A Good Time
Is there ever a time in our lives when it wouldn’t be profitable to re-examine our spending? No. It’s always wise to be more thoughtful about where our money goes.
John Prine’s classic song, Sam Stone, includes the line: There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Dad came home from the Vietnam war injured, physically and emotionally. Now he’s a junkie and that’s where all the money goes. Where does all your money go? Do you know?
Here’s the lead sentence in a recent news story about the United States government spending – specifically, the debt our government enjoys elevating:
As talks over raising the U.S. government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling intensify, Wall Street banks and asset managers have begun preparing for fallout from a potential default.
Do citizens take their cues from their national government? Or does the government reflect the habits of their citizens? It’s a chicken or egg thing. I’m sure somebody smart has studied it. Here in America we love debt because we love spending. We hate saving. More than anything, we hate waiting.
The average American holds a debt balance of $96,371, according to 2021 Experian data, the latest data available.
Anti-capitalism folks blame it on consumerism driven capitalism. I blame it on lack of individual responsibility and low self-discipline. We’re bombarded with advertising and marketing urging us to buy. Right now! We mostly listen. And do as we’re encouraged because we want to. Nobody is forcing us. We’re burying ourselves because we want what we want and we want it now.
Cash Flowing Life Means Living Within Your Means (every month)
Calculate your monthly income and discipline yourself to not spend any more than that. That’s cash flowing life. It doesn’t mean you must spend that amount, but it does mean you won’t exceed it unless it’s an exception – and you’re prepared with a strategy to pay it off with no or minimal interest. For example, we had to buy a refrigerator, a washer and a dryer for our new house. Rather than write a check and cover the full amount out of savings, we opted to put it on a newly issued credit card from the store in order to take advantage of 6 months same as cash. Simply put, we’re paying monthly payments (1/6th of the total) for six months and it isn’t costing us anything. Meanwhile, our savings account continues to earn 3.75% (not much, but better than nothing).
If these appliances last 10 years, then it’s easy to calculate their annual upfront cost per year. That makes spending money on something like a major home appliance very different than buying something that we might use for a brief period, then store it away never to look it again. The ROI on a new refrigerator is much higher than the ROI on a set of patio furniture. Or a new shirt.
During our move my 10 year old Apple computer died prompting me to buy a new one about a year before my plan. I’d been preparing to ready myself to buy a new Apple Macbook Pro, but I wasn’t planning to do that until 2024. It was now March 2023, but I was now without a computer. My work – my life – depends on a working computer so I had no choice. So I pulled the trigger and again, since it was a major purchase (like those appliances), I bought it at Apple taking advantage of 12 months same as cash (that means 12 equal monthly payments with no interest as long as I pay off the entire balance before the one year anniversary of the purchase). If this new computer lasts as long as my previous computers, then I’ll have it 8-10 years. Again, that’s different math than buying a pair of shoes that may last 2-3 years. And I took advantage of using Apple’s money instead of my own upfront.
Looking at these major purchases gave me pause anyway because I don’t usually buy these things. It had been many years since I got any new appliances. It had been about 10 years since I got a new computer. These are exceptional purchases with long life spans (hopefully).
That’s not where the troubles usually are found. It’s mostly in those impulse buys of things that just don’t matter. Buying unnecessary stuff because we like having new things – different things.
I began to examine my spending because moving is expensive. Much of it is part of the process. I wouldn’t consider it extraordinary or wasteful.
Here’s a list of a few things that were one-off type expenses associated with moving. These are in no particular order.
a. Moving expenses (truck rentals, help to load and unload trucks, packing material, specialty boxes) – once and done
c. Blinds at new house (for just 2 rooms; blinds were already in the house elsewhere) / black out drapes for apartment
d. Staple supplies (this was necessary because we have an apartment and a house so we needed some things in two different places, hardly normal)
e. Landscaping at new house (it’s a once and basically done ordeal because it’s an Arizona yard, meaning mostly rock) this is not an inexpensive endeavor but like my computer and the appliances, it’ll hopefully have a multi-year benefit
f. The Yellow Studio gear (I mostly owned everything I needed, but now I was going to have version 3.0, which quickly became 3.1 and I was also going to be working to get version 4.0 up and going) this included desks, chairs and other gear that based on my history would last for many years
g. Mid-longer Range Stuff (do you like that category label? :D) it includes things like ladders, leaf blowers, lawn chairs, storage tubs and things that will have a long life…but it also includes things like favorite shoes that go on sale so I buy 3 pair, favorite pants on sale so I buy 2 pair, and other things that will last at least 2-3 years or longer
h. Short Range Stuff includes food, household items like paper towels, detergent, toothpaste, razorblades and that kind of thing
i. Gifts – we mostly try to gift things that will last (for example, our most recent gifts to each other were these awesome “camping” rocking chairs that we can take to the kids’ ball games or use wherever we want…we’re currently using them inside our apartment ’cause they’re that comfortable…and yes we got two crimson ’cause we’re OU Sooner fans 😉
I began to examine this stuff – all of it – and realized that we’re currently going through an extraordinary circumstance that’s got upfront expenses. The danger is failure to realize that and falling into a habit of spend, spend, spend. Take the landscaping of the new house. It started out estimated at one price, which didn’t last long. It climbed. And climbed some more. And kept climbing. Not because we were changing our mind and adding more stuff, but because estimated amounts of rock were inaccurate. We decided to add some bigger rock in one area where rain water run off is greater. That drove up the cost, but just slightly. The climbing costs weren’t dramatic, but more like a dreadful creep.
Our biggest spending (by a wide margin) include:
- My computer
- Household stuff like blinds, ladder, leaf blower, step ladder (the new house had ginormous ceilings and Rhonda still feels like a Smurf), bar stools, chairs (those gifts we got each other), Yellow Studio stuff (desks, chairs, video lights, Rodecaster Pro 2 (I’m using the original RCP 1 in one location), Rhonda needed some shelving installed at the new house (it looks pretty terrific and gave her so much more linear shelf space)
The only consumable items have been food, paper products (plates, paper towels, toilet paper), detergent and cleaning products. While those add up, they’re a small fraction of those larger ticket items. And the majority of the big ticket items were financed using somebody else’s money without costing us any interest. That includes some podcasting stuff that I got using 12 months same as cash or 6 months same as cash.
But It All Adds Up To Real Money
Thousands of dollars later I’m realizing the need to not hit “pause,” but to hit the brakes. There are only a few things that now remain and some that’ll happen later.
For example, landscaping didn’t include planting much because we’re going to wait until next Spring (2024) for that. That won’t be a break-the-bank expense, but it won’t be free either. We’ll figure out an appropriate amount to spend.
The Yellow Studio 4.0 is going to require a bit of work that I’ll need to hire done, but hopefully the same folks that built and installed the shelving in Rhonda’s sewing room will be able to do the job. I plan to have some acoustical fabric installed on the walls and a few other things that’ll require carpentry skills I lack. I suspect it’ll cost me a little bit (maybe a few thousand), but again…it’ll be a long-term investment that won’t require any update unless I get sick of it. I’ve given it enough thought to know that won’t likely happen. Yes, it will remain The Yellow Studio. No, that doesn’t mean the walls will be yellow, but we’ll see! I’m also going to need a few pieces of furniture to round out the space. Again, these are all one-off expenses.
Where Does The Money Come From?
For us, we had money in savings. That doesn’t mean we’ve been willing to exhaust savings. It means we were able to plan and develop a strategy for taking advantage of “same as cash” financing. It also means we’ve been able to pay credit card bills on time without incurring any interest charges. We would avoid spending money if that weren’t the case. Even with this strategy we’ve planned out these expenditures over time instead of just doing them all at once. For instance, we got the refrigerator a couple of months before getting the washer and dryer. For short stays at the new house, we knew we needed the refrigerator. It wasn’t urgent for us to do laundry during a short stay. We did landscaping last, mostly because we wanted the spring rains to diminish…that way the job wouldn’t stretch out for weeks on end. The shelving for Rhonda’s sewing room was scheduled to happen before our next visit to the new house so she’d be able to unbox the remaining stuff (mostly dolls and fabric). My Yellow Studio is last because I’ve already got version 3.1 up and running. It’s not critical that I get version 4.0 going. So planning has helped spread out the funding of all these expenses.
There’s multiple sources for money, generally speaking. Checking accounts, cash under the mattress, savings accounts or investments. The first 3 are options. The last one (investments) are not under consideration. We’re unwilling to exhaust any of these. Nothing is worth that, to us. We’re still living within our means even though we’re spending more than we’ve spent in years. Remember, we’ve gone 25 years without moving. This is an exceptional time for us.
Yes, you need a strategy – a plan. Only the very rich can spend willy nilly, but I suspect most of them don’t. Counting the cost is the strategy. Do it before you spend it.
Before you spend it, you have to earn it. Income must precede expense. I’m not talking about using leverage for business growth. My personal viewpoint – which isn’t one I’d ever impose on others – is that debt-free is the goal. Rhonda and I both put a high value on being debt-free. Maybe you don’t. What do you value most? Figure out why. We prize debt-free because it provides us with a level of stress-free living we want. You might value something more.
Another why for us is our faith and conviction, coupled with our natural wiring. I hate owing people. I don’t mind people owing me (within reason), but I despise being indebted to others. It’s among my many character flaws. 😉
I’ll drive myself crazy with a debt hanging over my head. I’m also driving myself crazy knowing we’re almost, but not quite at the end of the spending spree that accompanies two moves at one time! #NeverAgain
So back to the lessons I’ve learned…
It starts with a strategy and plan. For me, the plan didn’t involve more than short-term debt without interest.
That plan was only possible – at this scale – because we had saved money and had the resources on hand to pay for everything in full in real-time. The financing options were simply tools enabling us to keep our money on hand and dole it out regularly to avoid paying interest.
Next, we measured the expenses that were one-offs. Not all our expenses were created equally. Some, like major appliances and my new computer, were done knowing these would likely last us for many years. Not all big ticket items fit that bill, but for us, that’s a requirement. Down to a $300 battery powered leaf blower that we know will last us many years. Down to work desks for The Yellow Studio that are slightly more than $300. They’ll last me the rest of my life. Guaranteed (unless some disaster destroys them). Down to a $250 chair, which I know will last years. We consider these “big ticket” items.
For us, these big ticket items are one-offs because we won’t be buying them again for a long time. Some of them, we may never buy them again. That ROI is an important part of our spending strategy.
When possible we took advantage of interest-free financing options. The biggest pain of these is keeping track of them. While we use Quicken, and have for many years, Rhonda recently (within the last year or so) moved to a new version of cloud-based Quicken. It’s been a disaster, but necessary. The old Mac she once used gave up the ghost so we had to upgrade. Unfortunately, the new (to her) Quicken doesn’t update or reconcile. The learning curve is vexing her. I’ve promised to help figure it out once the dust settles, but that has made keeping track of these payments much harder than it should be. Do you use something other than Quicken that you love? I’d love to hear about alternatives because this thing works, sometimes. But mostly, it doesn’t. While I’m sure there’s a degree of pilot error, she’s been using Quicken for decades so I’m thinking this learning curve shouldn’t last over a year!
The incidental expenses – all those smaller, but cumulative things we’ve bought – feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. This has been my most vexing experience of the whole thing. I can look at the things like computers and desks and landscaping and know, “We’re done!” These other things feel like the never ending story. The good news is, I think we’re nearing the end because we intentionally waited for these final things – Rhonda’s sewing room and The Yellow Studio version 4.0. Her sewing room is close to being done before she gets completely moved in. The Yellow Studio version 4.0 has yet be started…so I’ve got that going for me. (an uncomfortable smile) Good news…I can leverage interest-free financing for about $1000 and the carpentry stuff I need done will be part of a “once and done” ordeal.
For us, with all these costs is answering YES to the question: is it worth it?
Now that’s a bad question for folks who don’t care about being in debt up their earlobes. But for frugal folks like us, it’s a valid question. Again, everybody has to figure out what they want most and what they’re willing to give up to get it.
I’ve got friends who enjoy a big, expensive trip (or two) every year. Worth it? To them, YES. To me and Rhonda, NO. We don’t even have to debate it or think about it. Some multi-thousand dollar trip wouldn’t even be worth a single conversation for us because it’s not a priority for us. Spending a few thousand dollars on a sewing room would likely be a hard NO for many women, but not for Rhonda. Spending a few thousand dollars on a podcasting/home office space would likely give way to new golf clubs, fishing or hunting gear or something else. But for me, it’s totally worth it because…
THE RETURN ON INVESTMENT (or the cost) IS HIGH
A guitar in my hands has an ROI of zero. Same with a basketball.
Put a guitar in the hands of Jason Isbell, or Mark Knopfler and you’ve got an ROI that’s hard to even calculate ’cause it goes so high.
Put a basketball in Lebron’s hands and the ROI is hundreds of millions of dollars.
To each his own.
Have I learned anything new in all this?
Maybe. It ain’t over yet. 😉
Mostly, I know this…we cannot afford to make this a habit. It’s an event that has an ending. And I think that’s largely what many people don’t figure out. We’re working hard to bring it to end as quickly as possible.
The next thing I’ve learned it to focus more on income. Replenishing accounts has been a priority. Rather than to just see it go out, I’ve concentrated on bringing it in. If what goes up must come down, then what goes out must be replaced or replenished. At least, that’s our viewpoint.
What began with purging possessions ended with making two moves – one to an apartment and one to a new house we never intended on buying (at least, not yet). We maintained our purging commitment, even in the face of making new purchases. That sounds odd, but the reality of our quest toward practical minimalism meant that our purchases were vetted based on their worth or value to us. Those major appliances are a necessity. So is landscaping. Rhonda’s sewing room and The Yellow Studio aren’t necessary, but they’re long-term preferences. She’s been sewing since she was a teenager. I’ve been podcasting and working from a home-based space for decades. These aren’t activities we’re unsure about. Both of us know with great certainty that we’ll be rewarded with the investments (costs) we make in these areas. Simultaneously, Rhonda is continuing her purging because unlike me, she had to delay her’s until we moved. There just wasn’t time for her to sell off the things (fabric, fabric and more fabric) she wanted to purge. My stuff was more easily purged because my 3,000 plus books couldn’t be converted to much cash…so our local library benefited. Her stuff can be sold for cash so she needs to approach her purging differently.
Purchases are put on trial. They either pass the test or they don’t. Do we spend money on things we don’t necessarily need? Of course. My son gave me an Apple iTunes gift card for my birthday. Do I need to buy new music? No, but I enjoy it and I’d argue that a $10 Apple iTunes purchase will last me for many years and likely endure hundreds (if not thousands) of plays. The same could be said of Kindle books and other non-vital things. Or a package of black T-shirts I just bought for $12. But like more expensive items, I’ll get years of use from them. Except for food or other consumables, I don’t buy things with a short shelf life. Something as mundane as a pair of socks – I recently purchased a 3-pack of my favorite dress socks – will last me for multiple years.
Clothing, including shoes get worn. Year after year.
The Yellow Studio gear gets used. Day after day, year after year.
The furnishings get used daily. For years.
The landscaping remains in place. For years.
So you can see a big part of whether or not to make a purchase is based on the length of use. I know that flies in the face of people who exhort us to make purchases based on joy. I’m chasing something more lasting. More practical. Even my monthly fiber Internet connection is viewed through that lens. Most folks don’t need fast upload speeds. But when you’re sometimes working with large, multi-gigabit video files and uploading those to TV station servers around the country – something I do in part of my volunteer church-related work – it matters. Eighty bucks well spent each month…instead of fifty bucks.
Overall, I put more emphasis on the practical in practical minimalism. And as with most things, it’s a choice. But it’s a conscience well-thought out choice.
- When I sign up for a free trial that converts to a paid subscription, I calendar the date it converts to paid minus 1 day. That way, if it proves unworthy I know to cancel it before it costs anything.
- When I sign up for a paid subscription I calendar the date it renews minus 1 day. That way, I’m reminded that I have this subscription and I can decide if I want to keep it or cancel it.
- Most of my clients use ACH to pay my invoices. I use mobile depositing whenever a client sends me a check. That speeds up the deposits hitting my accounts.
- Currently, I’m trying to earn enough return on some investment dollars (annually) to reduce our annual overhead. I view it in terms of months. For example, if our monthly overhead was $2,500, then I’d aim to see how many months worth of income I might earn over the course of the year. I’m trying to earn at least 2 months worth of income so it reduces income strain to 10 months instead of 12. If I can get to 9 months instead of 12, all the better. You get the idea. It’s congruent with our cash flow approach.
- No, we have no designs on retiring (translation: to stop working altogether). Beginning in 2024 Rhonda will focus more attention on her sewing (and sewing business making custom made doll dresses – DollDressesByRhonda.com). I’m going to continue with my coaching practice and podcast so I have no plans to change anything I’m doing – just more of the same.
- It’s all subject to change as our circumstances and ideal outcomes change. Give yourself permission to alter your course. Growth and improvement are always the goal.
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