I’ve come to realise that just about everyone thinks their own level of spending is “normal”. Even if they have no idea what their spending actually is.
So if you want to answer the question:
Where does it all go?
then the only way is to record your actual spending with real numbers. It’s no use just assuming your spending is all sensible and essential, you have to be prepared to record it all and face objective reality up close and personal.
I admire the fact that, despite being a multi-millionaire, Mr Money Mustache continues to track every dollar spent. He publishes details of his spending of about $25,000 per year for a family of 3 (helped by having paid off his mortgage).
The Escape Artist is lazier than MMM and I no longer tally up and analyse all my spending in a spreadsheet every month. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done that in the past for long enough to figure out where does it all go and to optimise my spending. This is powerful because the process of observation changes the behaviour being observed. And no matter how big your stash, you can only know whether you have enough if you know your spending.
Its just that having worked in finance (and having got my spending under control) I no longer want to spend my days as a beancounter. But tracking where it all goes remains a useful discipline from time to time. And so, to provide some much needed semi-original content for the blog this week, I decided on the spur of the moment to publish my actual spending for the last 7 days.
So just to be clear, this is like a dawn raid…a spot check where the frugality inspectors descend without notice. So when I did my spending last week, I did so without knowing that this would be hung out in the garden like dirty linen for the neighbours to tut over and gossip about.
Here are the rules. This captures every penny that I spent over 7 days. For the finance nerds out there, this is based on cash accounting rather than accruals accounting. I include all real cash flows in the 7 day period. But I don’t include the prorata share of the cost of utilities (gas, electricity, phone etc) that get paid for on a monthly basis. Nor the food taken from the fridge and eaten…just the cost of food (or whatever) bought during the period.
The purpose of this exercise is to focus attention on short term discretionary spending. I can’t change my council tax by altering my behaviour within the week. So that’s not relevant for these purposes (although over a longer period I could reduce this by moving house). Rather this focuses attention on impulse spending…the shite that we tend to buy in the moment…often without realising how it all adds up.
It doesn’t include the spending of other family members who are all free to spend their pocket money (children) or own earnings (wife) as they see fit. And none of us use budgets which I think of as the financial equivalent of most diets (i.e. unpleasant things that people don’t stick to).
Last week was pretty typical for me and my spending. I was not in prison or in a coma…nor being deliberately frugal. I bought everything that I wanted. I deprived myself of absolutely nothing.
And here are the results:
Went to the gym (body pump : class free with annual membership at my local authority gym). New PB with my weights on the biceps track (£0). Picked up Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss from the library (£0). Started writing blog article (£0). Cooked casserole for supper for the family (£0). Funded #1 son’s school lunch account (£30).
Spent all day in London with coaching clients. Spending was a standard class return rail fare (£28.90…outrageous) plus 2 coffees for clients (Gasp! has The Escape Artist not heard about frugality and the Latte factor???) and a mixed berry granola yoghurt for me from The Natural Kitchen at Waterloo station.
Went for an hour long run in the countryside with intermittent sprints (£0). Ordered Tesco groceries for home delivery. Foodcost £137.13, kindly brought to me by an artisan in a white and blue motorised chariot, no extra cost for Tesco club card members. Read some more Tools of Titans (£0).
Spent day in London with coaching clients. Another standard class return railfare (£28.90) to Waterloo (no tube – walked from Waterloo to The City and back). Then went to gym (£0) in evening. Afterwards went with a mate from Bodypump to the pub (2 pints of lager with 2x peanuts. £11…go crazy!) then bought some extra tinnies (4x Stella Artois…reassuringly expensive…£5.84) on the way home.
Missed Park Run (9am, free) due to hangover. Too enfeebled to do anything difficult like go shopping or spend any money. Watched 2 episodes of The Walking Dead with #1 son (£0 – free on Amazon prime – the best training in evolutionary psychology anywhere).
Took son #2 to Karate (Jedi training). £15 for his grading….EPIC PASS!…plus £5 for his new belt (total £20).
Weekly total: £275.99
Weekly total excluding coaching expenses (income related): £206.94
When I look back over the week, I spent nothing on 2 of the 7 days. I often go for several days without spending anything. Spending is a habit. And over time, its a habit I have largely slipped out of.
Your environment matters. One of the advantages of working from home and not being forced to go into an office is that you control your own environment. You don’t have to walk through a mall…nor past any shop window displays. You can screen out advertising and TV news. If you want to see how the environment affects people’s spending, I suggest you go to Dubai or Las Vegas. Actually on second thoughts…just take my word for it. 😉
Now, a naive consumer might imagine that the spending-free days would have been days of deprivation and suffering. Or that the days with spending would be happier than the days without. This is, of course, bullshit.
There was absolutely no link in my week between the amount spent each day and the level of happiness experienced. Perhaps the scientists are right on this one?
No, what matters for my happiness is getting a new PB at the gym. Or helping coaching clients stop worrying about money when they already have enough. Or dancing (badly) around the house to tropical / deep house music. Or seeing my son pass his orange belt Karate grading.
A low (but happy) level of spending is often a result of having something useful to do. This blog takes a disproportionate amount of time to write etc but it does have the useful side effect of keeping me out of the pub during the daytime and generally occupied in a positive way…without needing to spend money.
My spending is sustainable in the financial sense. I earned more than this from coaching in the week. My spending was also exceeded by my dividend income for the week. There is much debate on the internet about the level of the safe withdrawal rate. But if you are able to do some part time work and live low cost then you can still be a net saver in “retirement”. And therefore totally unworried about what the stockmarket might or might not do next week. If you’ve recently stumbled over the whole FI thing, then you probably won’t believe this…I didn’t at first…but its true.
I’d also like to think that its sustainable in an environmental sense. None of the spending related to physical shit. No cars, no petrol, no cushions, no curtains or other soft furnishings. No snowglobes, no fridge magnets, no amusing garden gnomes. In fact, none of the stuff that The Hard-Pressed Working Families of Britain seem so keen on.
None of this will need to get put in the attic or the garage or stored in a rented self-storage unit. None of it needs insuring, maintenance, dusting, warranty claims or any of the other nonsense that goes with buying shit.
No landfill was directly created by my spending. The stuff I bought was all edible / drinkable or delivered me somewhere (travel) or just provided good vibes (e.g. music).
Could I have spent less? Of course. But once you get to financial independence, the point is not to sweat the small stuff.