June 29, 2020
A couple of years ago, right before I turned 30, I became obsessed with fixing my finances. I had spent most of my 20s making every mistake (not saving enough, not putting money in a retirement account, not paying bills on time) and I didn't want to be a repeat financial rookie in the next decade of my life.
I sat down and looked over every inch of my finances, from my monthly expenses to my five-year goals, and decided that one of the things I needed to do to get in a better money state was to start saving more.
My credit card bills were higher than they needed to be. I spent too much money on food, entertainment, and expenses that I should have thought twice about. Saving more money would mean that I'd be able to shower my retirement fund and emergency savings account with the money they deserved. It also meant that I'd have more financial safety in case of any pop-up problems.
The only way I ever tried (and failed) to save in the past was with a budget. I'd sit down at the end of a month and set a really strict budget that was almost impossible to stick to. I knew I needed to try something else, so I went through four savings strategies — and one actually stuck for over a year. That's the one I personally recommend, especially if saving isn't something you're good at.
Strategy #1: Set an honest and obtainable budget
Whenever I'd tried to set budgets in the past, I always set myself up for disaster. I'd create really strict budgets that were impossible to stick with, unless I fully committed to changing every aspect of my life (cutting back on eating my meals out by 75% and not spending a dollar on anything non-essential, from fun activities to clothing). I thought a strict budget would work, but all it ever did was limit my life and cause me to give up on trying.
A couple of times, I set budgets that were more practical by looking at my past credit card statements and taking the averages of what I spent, per category, and making that the budget line item for the month.
For example, if my grocery average over three months was $365, that would be the budget for the month. In the past, I would have made it $200 and found myself struggling to stick to it.
This more honest and obtainable budgeting strategy worked well for me at the start. It limited overspending and allowed me to track spending throughout the month. However, I was never able to properly plan for pop-up expenses that always threw my budget off.
For example, one month I'd have three birthday parties for friends that would eat up my restaurant budget too fast, or I'd have to send money for a future bachelorette party trip that would take up my activity budget. I ended up not being able to plan for extra events or things that occurred throughout the month that would end up rocking the budget.
Strategy #2: Deleting my credit card information from my computer
After a while, I started to notice that a big problem I had was paying for everything on my credit card without thinking twice about what I was buying. I enjoyed the ease of checking out online, with my credit card information saved on file, or just dropping the plastic card down on the table at a restaurant to pay my bill. All of those monthly purchases added up and caused me to go over any kind of budget I set for myself.
I deleted my credit card information from all of my favorite online stores. That way, I couldn't impulse buy or purchase anything online without really thinking about it and having to get up from the couch to find my credit card.
This worked for a few months. I stopped buying things I didn't need when retail stores emailed me about big sales and huge discounts. I forgot about half the things I left in online shopping carts because I got distracted and never grabbed my wallet to put in the credit card information.
I reduced my online shopping urges quite a bit — until I caved. I started auto-saving my credit card information again. I even put a sticky note on my computer that said "do you really need this," which acted as a stop sign before clicking the "buy" button. It worked sometimes, but ultimately this was not a money-saving strategy that I was able to rely on or stick with for good.
Strategy #3: Writing down all my purchases in real-time
When I began to realize that I spend money too quickly, without thinking through every purchase, I decided to try to record all of my spending in real-time.
Every day, when I bought something, whether it was a cup of coffee or a box of tissues, I would write down what I got and how much it cost. The act of doing this after every single purchase not only helped me refrain from making quick buys, but also let me see how much money I was spending on a daily basis. Before this, I had the habit of only checking my credit card statement once or twice a month, which wasn't enough to process my overspending.
This strategy helped when I kept up with it, but I found that writing down everything I bought, as I bought it, was something I'd forget to do. I'd be days behind and then give up. It wasn't something I could maintain or follow through on in the end.
The strategy that worked: Dividing my money into envelopes
After trying so many different savings strategies, the one that has worked the best for me and has lasted over a year is the envelope trick.
As a way to not overspend every month and also not have to think too much about it, I decided to start using cash more for everyday purchases. I put most of my credit cards away (to be used only for big purchases) and carry only one with me. I now carry mostly cash.
At the start of every week, I'll look ahead and see how much cash to budget out for particular things like dining out, groceries, activities, and transportation. I put the cash for each of those things in separate envelopes and every day, take only the amount I know I need for the day. If I'm planning a trip to the drugstore, I'll estimate how much the bill will be and bring cash to pay. The same goes for how much I give myself to spend daily on eating out at restaurants. If I do have to use the credit card, I go home and take the cash out of the envelopes and put it aside.
The visual aspect of having cash separated in envelopes allows me to see and feel where my money is going. I've started to use my credit card less and rely more on cash, especially to help me budget on a weekly and daily basis.
Even right now, with the quarantine and many things in New York City closed, I've still resorted to using the envelope strategy. Though I am buying most things online right now because I can't go to stores, I'll take the extra step of putting money into envelopes at the start of the week and taking it out day by day when I buy something online. That way, I can go through the motions of budgeting with real money and watching it move out of the envelope every day, even if it's just going back in my wallet for now as I use my credit cards.