When I was 10 years old, and my sister 6, our parents took us on a trip to Disney World. While we were waiting at the airport gate for our Orlando-bound flight, our dad pulled us aside. Expecting a stern lecture about our behavior on the upcoming trip, I was shocked when, instead, he handed each of us a crisp $20 bill.
“This is your souvenir money for the vacation,” he told us. “I think you’re old enough to figure out what you want to spend it on. This is all the money you’re getting for the week, so don’t even think about asking for more.”
My sister and I looked at each other with a smile. Instead of a lesson on family-trip etiquette, we’d just received 20 bucks to spend however we pleased.
Before we knew it our plane had landed, and we were strutting down the terminal in the land of Mickey and Goofy. Before we’d made it to baggage claim, an airport shop caught my sister’s eye. She ambled over to the Disney-themed memorabilia.
I still remember my confusion when she turned to me and exclaimed, “I like this hat, and it’s only $19. I’m going to get it!”
“But…we haven’t even made it INTO Disney World yet!” I protested. ”You have to make that $20 last the entire week!”
“Eh, I don’t care,” she shrugged. “This hat is pretty, and I have enough money…so I’ll buy it.”
“I think you’re making a big mistake,” I pleaded, my last-ditch effort to impart some older-brother wisdom.
I reached into my pocket and clutched Andrew Jackson tightly as I watched her happily exchange her 3 hour-old bill for a Minnie Mouse hat.
The first several times I heard my parents recall this anecdote, I thought it was just another funny example of differences between siblings. But somewhere around the 100th retelling, I realized: This isn’t just a story of contrasting personalities — it’s a lens into differing money mindsets.
My 10-year-old self was already in the “saver” mindset, despite only earning $4 a week to take out the trash and shine my dad’s shoes. (Keep an eye out for a future post on how to spit-shine penny loafers.)
Fast forward to my first full-time job shortly after graduating college. I was finally making a salary, but I also finally had real expenses. Rent, car insurance, taxes — you know, that thing called the “real world.” After a few months, the luxury of a bi-weekly paycheck was diminished by an unfortunate realization: Despite making more money than ever before, I wasn’t actually saving any of it.
I set what seemed like a simple goal: Spend less money than I was earning, and save the remainder.
Though the goal might’ve been simple, the execution was anything but. I started looking into personal-finance articles and books, but each offered different advice on setting and maintaining a budget. I began to feel overwhelmed.
Eventually I realized I was making X dollars and spending Y dollars per month — and that while the former number was consistent, the latter was more of a mystery. Where was all my money going?
And so I decided to track every dollar I spent for an entire year. I did this manually in an Excel spreadsheet: one tab per month, one row per day, one spending category per column. (This was back in 2008, when automated personal-finance tools like Mint were still in their fledgling stages). Before bed each night, I’d pull up the spreadsheet and manually enter in every expense from that day. Here’s a look at a full month of tracking every dollar I spent.
This exercise worked. I got my expenses under control and started to save money. But as I think back on the process, I realize that it taught me much more than simply how to save.
Here’s what I learned:
💸 The act of manually writing down each dollar I spent helped me get a good feel for my spending (and overspending) habits. I would not have received the same level of real-time feedback if I’d used automated budget programs, which tend to slightly distance users from the nitty-gritty of the tracking process. Writing down every expense made me more conscious of each purchase I made — I knew it would all need to be accounted for each evening, so there was nowhere for anything to hide! After a few days of creeping past my normal purchasing habits, I’d notice and pump the spending brakes. This is a skill we can all develop without slogging through a year-long exercise. I recommend tracking your spending for a single month — you’ll be surprised at the insights.
💸 Identifying and writing down my monthly pay, taxes, and fixed costs gave me a number: what financial advisors call discretionary income. It’s really just the amount of money you have left to spend after bills, taxes and other necessities are paid. Knowing this number was absolutely critical in my journey toward saving. I took the extra step of breaking it into individual categories (lunch, dinner, clothing), but that wasn’t as important as knowing my number and spending less than it each month. Do you know your number?
💸 Every college grad — and anyone else looking to strengthen their personal finances — should read Ramit Sethi’s “I Will Teach You to Be Rich.” It teaches normal people how to automate their finances by creating a system, and is written in simple, straightforward language.
💸 Making more money doesn’t correlate to increased happiness. I currently earn about 3 times what I did in 2008. But am I 3 times happier? Certainly not. It’s really easy to think, “Life would be so much better if only I made X more dollars” — but even the results of a 2018 Purdue University study show this to be a counterproductive attitude.
Looking back on my year of tracking every dollar, I also discovered a few interesting spending habits:
💸 I spent 15% more at the bar than I did on groceries. Oh, to be 22 again…
💸 I spent almost no money on going out to dinner. In fact, in July, I only spent $46 on dinners out! I guess I cooked more often — or ate more PB&J sandwiches — than I do today.
💸 I was pretty darn consistent in my monthly discretionary spending, averaging $1,025 per month — with a high of $1,204 in May and a low of $823 in December.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to my $20 from that 1995 Disney trip? I stuffed it in my piggy bank — and it’s now worth $126.83.