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I wrote down my feelings about every purchase I made for a week

What I discovered about money and guilt surprised me.

secrets of the most productive people

Anisa Purbasari Horton

I don’t have a dramatic money story. I grew up in a financially comfortable family where we weren’t afraid (at least for the most part) to talk about money. For most of my adult life, I lived by three simple premises that my parents drilled into me: Spend less than what you earn; buy things on sale as much as you can; and be selective about what you are willing to spend a lot of money on (one of those should be your health). My dad also drilled into me the importance of investing early–something I ignored in my early 20s, but that’s a story for another day.

I’ve faced different financial circumstances due to changing careers, getting married, and moving countries. For the most part, I’ve had no issues adjusting my lifestyles and budgets. But upon talking to two financial therapists for a previous Fast Company story, I realized that I’d always struggled with tracking everything I spend. I attempted to adopt the practice multiple times last year–only to go back to automating my savings and looking at my transaction history every week to make sure I wasn’t going overboard in any particular category. This strategy has worked in terms of ensuring that I spend less than I earn, but I often wondered if I could save a lot more money if I was really forced to write down every single purchase.

On putting meaning behind the spending

I knew that if I wanted to stick to the experiment for at least a week, I needed some sort of mechanism that would give me no choice but to do it. Writing this article became my accountability system. I also knew that I had to introduce some other element to keep me motivated, because I’d tried it enough times to know that something needed to change for me to do it consistently.

In preparation, I scoured various personal finance articles and looked at what other journalists learned when they tracked their spending. One practice that struck me in particular was personal finance writer Kristin Wong’s method, which she wrote about for the New York Times. Not only did Wong record the purchases she made, she also wrote down the things she wanted to buy, along with a justification for each. “It helps to understand how you feel when you’re tempted to spend, so that you can watch out for those feelings later,” she wrote.

In addition to picking up ways I can cut my spending, I was also interested to take an honest look at what my relationship is really like with money. So I decided to  write down the feelings that I associated with everything I spent my money on, as well as the emotions that accompanied a desire or intention to spend money. Here’s what I learned.

I felt better spending money on shared experiences (and on others) rather than on myself

I started tracking my spending on a Saturday–the day that my husband and I would usually do something together, and the one day that we give ourselves permission to eat out for dinner or order takeout. We ended up sharing an ice cream that afternoon when we were at the beach, and ordered Tex-Mex for dinner. I wrote down how grateful I was for the experience and how nice it was to appreciate a takeout meal as a treat.

That didn’t surprise me. I’d always valued experiences over things (as most people do), and since it was something we already gave ourselves permission (and budgeted for), I was able to enjoy it without guilt.

Throughout the week, however, I noticed that what I felt guilty spending money on (and, vice versa, what I didn’t feel guilty spending money on) was less obvious. A week earlier, I’d spotted a final sale swimsuit at a discount store for $10, and I decided to apply the “one-week” test. (When it comes to nonessential purchases, I usually wait a week and see if I’m still thinking about it.) Well, I’d thought about it all week, and I was also itching for some sort of motivation to start my marathon training plan that didn’t involve eating excessive amounts of unhealthy food. When I went to the store, that swimsuit was still there (in my size), so I purchased it.

For a day, I felt intensely guilty about the purchase, even though I loved the item, and it did inspire me to hit the treadmill and pavement. In the larger scheme of things, this guilt didn’t make sense. I already set aside a certain amount of money a month for “impulse spending” for this very reason, and this purchase didn’t exceed that budget. Later in the week, I impulse-bought a scented candle for $5, and didn’t think twice about it.

Upon some reflection, I realized there was a simple explanation for my swimsuit purchase guilt: I often feel uncomfortable spending money on myself. With the scented candle, I associated it with it as part of an experience–something I can share with the guests who come to my apartment, and with my husband to make our home feel cozy.

I resented spending money on some necessities, but not others

I also gained insights on how spending on different staples made me feel. For starters, I was fine paying more for organic produce, and choosing expensive options if it meant higher-quality foods. I saw this as an investment in my health–and while I made sure that I stayed within budget, I knew that wasn’t an area where I was going to slash a big portion of spending.

I did however, feel resentful about spending money on certain necessities. I was running low on shampoo and conditioner, and I reluctantly bought more of both. I’d also noticed feeling annoyed that a couple of my beauty products were running out, and I’d need to go out and buy new ones soon. Over the weekend, one of the soles in my sneakers (that I typically wear everywhere) came off. I didn’t replace them and opted to start wearing my gym shoes instead. I also held out on replacing my beauty products because they hadn’t quite run out yet.

Unlike my impulse purchases, it became clear upon writing down my feelings why I felt good about certain essentials and not others. I have strong feelings about how affordable healthy food should be–because it isn’t–but for the most part, I’d accepted the reality, and chose to spend my money on organic food because it was important to me. With beauty products, on the other hand, there was a part of me that felt that I was spending money to confirm to an external standard I didn’t agree with. I resented feeling like I had to comply.

Tracking my money taught me the importance of a good system

By the end of the week, I found the exercise exhausting. I found it beneficial to remind myself of my values, and to take a pause and think about how I can minimize my spending in areas that I don’t consider to be important. But while tracking the emotions of my spending made me more mindful, I also found that it took up a lot of brain space. Sure, my expenses might have been slightly lower, and over time, those savings would add up. But honestly, I wasn’t sure it was worth the extra energy. I already had a system to make sure I was on track to meet my savings goal, and I felt like my energy could have been better spent working on my career to increase my earning power, or finding ways to bring in more income.

When I described my sentiment to Tiffany Aliche, founder of The Budgetnista and financial wellness advocate at Prudential, she agreed with me that a “set it and forget it” approach works much better in the long run. “I don’t believe in over-sacrifice anymore,” she said. “To me, that’s not what financial wellness look like.” Aliche told me that a better approach is to ask yourself the following questions before you make a purchase: “Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I like it? Do I want it?” 

Aliche says that most people actually struggle with the “Do I love it?” part. As a result, they spend money on things that aren’t consistent with their long-term goals. For example, a person may spend a lot of money on brunch because that’s what their friend group does every weekend, even though they’d rather put their money toward a trip.

The question to ask yourself at the end of the day, she says, is, if you pull up your transaction history, do you recognize that person? For me, I realized that was a yes. Going forward, I think that I’d be better off spending my time on refining my spending and saving systems if I really wanted to cut my expenses significantly. With money, I learned that the less I have to think about it, the easier it becomes to stay consistent and not go off course.