Check, Please: Discovering Where My Money Goes

This Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend was spent close to home. I didn’t get out of bed before 9am for three days. I finally put a couple of extra blankets into one of those vacuum-seal bags and stuck it under the bed. As dinner simmered away in the slow cooker, I took out my bank statement, fired up my credit card app, and decided to take a close look at my finances.

The scribbles of a lunatic

The scribbles of a lunatic

I’d rather deep-clean the dark reaches of the cabinet under the kitchen sink than come face to face with my poor financial choices. My early successes at consuming less had me confident. It was time to face the music.

My student loan payments weren’t any more appalling than usual. My fiance and I rent a nice and affordable apartment, so that isn’t too bad. My gym membership is expensive, but I use it and enjoy it, so that stays. My share of the cable bill is high, but that’s to be expected. Do I still need Birchbox? Why don’t I pay my renter’s insurance in full every year instead of paying in monthly installments? Why don’t I ever remember to budget for my haircuts?

Once I’d tallied up my regular bills and income, I saw I had about $1,500 left every month. I’m certainly not saving that much. My credit card app helpfully breaks up a month’s expenses by category. I tallied up the totals on “Dining” for November and December. The average for those two months? More than $450 per month.

I sat back in stunned silence as my fiance rifled through the newspapers. He didn’t seem surprised by my totals. “You go out a lot with me. You have a lot of girls’ nights.”

As I was going through the charges on my credit card, very few of the locations and totals jumped out at me as memorable. That charge from the Parish Cafe? That was a meal I enjoyed with a friend the night before a mutual friend’s wedding. Ribelle? My annual holiday dinner with some of my oldest friends. But that mid-November Chipotle charge for twelve dollars? Or the upteenth charge to the deli across the street from my office? They were a blur of swipe, dash, and eat.

Dining out has always been a special treat for me. My Mom bribed me to do well on my spelling tests in elementary school by promising to take me out for an ice cream sundae if I got a perfect score. When I’d go home on weekends in college, there would often be a visit to one of my favorite restaurants. After getting out of credit card debt, I figured I owed myself a little bit of fun. I knew I’d cut loose. I didn’t know I’d completely unhitched myself from my moorings.

Intrigued, I broke up the charges alphabetically. Uber? I’d spent nearly $190 per month.

I tore a sheet of paper out of the notebook I’d been scribbling my spending totals into.

AMY’S RULES, I wrote. “Those are big letters,” my fiance said.

“They’re big rules,” I replied.

1. Keep Uber to under $100 per month.

I wrestled with how to approach slowing my dining out spending. I’ll never get that total down to zero. Dining out is one of my indulgences, instead of weekly manicures or monthly facials or trips to the movies. Telling myself I’ll never eat out isn’t realistic. Should I tell myself only three meals out per week? Or put a cash limit on it? I elected to go with the cash figure:

2. Keep eating out to under $300 per month.

So far in January, I’ve only used Uber once to get home after a late event, so that’s well in hand. I tallied up how much I’d spent on dining out, and saw that I’ve spent about $175 so far for the month. With only a couple weeks left, I’m hopeful I can keep it in check. I’m also hopeful once I get used that reduction in spending, I can knock that budget back another third. But even if those two rules stay in place for the next twelve months, I’ll have an extra $3,000 that can be put to good use at the end of 2015.

How do you keep your indulgences in check? How often do you check in on your spending? Shocked and appalled at how much money I’ve flushed? Let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Austerity January, Finance, Life

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