My initial gut instinct when beginning this post says a lot about the backbone of my financial well-being: instinctually, I went to pull up my Mint summary from the last few months.
Mint serves as my financial accountability footprint. No expense is safe from its records—it forces me to deal with every fiscal choice I make, line item by line item.
It also serves as a fantastic tool for looking back to see how far I’ve come and enables me to present an accurate picture of my last several months.
There were two pivotal changes I made: one was a philosophical change, and the other was the tactical result of that psychological shift. (Is that cryptic enough for you?)
First, my entire attitude around money changed. I’d argue this is the single-most impactful shift—more so than budgeting, investing, or earning more. None of those secondary habits will matter or stick around unless your attitude has fundamentally shifted.
The impetus for this shift was a ChooseFI podcast interview with a woman known in the FIRE community as Mrs. Frugalwoods. It sounds suuuuper cheesy, and her story is pretty extreme, but—philosophically—her theories are really sound.
Why? Because they drive straight to the impact money has on your happiness and wellbeing—the LIFE beyond the spreadsheets and bank statements.
She explained how she and her husband made plenty of money (so much so that they could afford to buy a house in Boston) but felt consistently tethered to the consumerism hamster wheel. As they made more, they spent more—their lifestyles continued to creep further and further into the aspirational as their paychecks allowed for it.
But working endlessly to fund a lifestyle they weren’t even sure they wanted began to feel a little counterintuitive. Things that used to feel luxurious started to feel like the norm. They required more, bigger, and better to satisfy the reward centers in their brains, which—you guessed it—required more, bigger, and better money.
I had always saved before listening to this podcast, but in an obligatory, reluctant way. I saved because I knew deep down I was supposed to be saving, but I did so begrudgingly. I resented the process.
They say you’re the culmination of the five people you hang out with most. So, if your friends don’t talk about money (saving, investing, budgeting, planning), it stands to reason that it’s likely not going to be top of mind for you, either.
I never considered my lifestyle or spending habits to be frivolous before. They felt almost stereotypically normal—I’d buy lunch out once or twice a week, grab Starbucks every morning, go out for dinners and brunches all weekend—I was simply saying “yes” whenever people asked, and not really thinking twice about it. I was mirroring the behavior around me.
After all, I saw the amount coming in with every paycheck. That amount dwarfed whatever I’d spend on a nice, no-reason sushi dinner on a Tuesday night. It didn’t feel problematic—it felt normal.
My morning coffee habit didn’t feel problematic, either. My $2.44 grande Pike Place roast was merely a non-negotiable part of my routine: something I deserved because I worked hard. Same goes for my $3.70 cold brew from the boutique coffee shop next to the Henderson Corepower when my morning started on that side of town.
It was delicious and I liked it, but again—it was something I felt I deserved because I had woken up at 6 a.m. to work out and was about to work for eight more hours.
This, my friends, is the trap.
These seemingly harmless, normal expenditures were costing me more than I was willing to admit, and I’m only able to see it now that I can look back on my monthly budgets six months ago and see just how much I was really wasting.
But here’s the kicker: it wasn’t just costing me $600/month in restaurant food. It cost me the ability to enjoy and appreciate little things, because my life was jam-packed with incredible little things—and I hardly noticed.
To illustrate, here are a few of my actual Mint categories from June of 2018:
The guardrails are there: $400 on restaurants and bars, $250 on transportation, and $250 on groceries. Clearly, I had an intention of staying within budget (otherwise, why set budgets?).
But somehow, some way, I managed to exceed each one by nearly $200.
It’s because I hadn’t truly “bought in” yet.
I realized how much more genuine enjoyment I could be deriving from some of these things if they were “treats” I indulged in infrequently, vs. treated as components of my daily, normal routine that I "deserved."
Talk about an effective way to make your money go further—you’ll enjoy that $3.70 cold brew way more if it’s something you do as a reward, rather than a given. And you’ll be saving along the way.
(I know I've talked about beauty maintenance in the same way before—cutting out manicures and pedicures from my routine has saved me about $100/mo. and had little to no measurable impact on my happiness. Now I just spend 15 minutes every few weeks hunched over my big toes on my bathroom floor painting them some varied shade of pink and call it a day.)
It was after this little awakening (again, I attribute it to the Frugalwoods interview linked above) that I began to set serious goals for myself and pay attention to just how cheaply I could live, if I earnestly tried.
One example that sticks out most to me: over Christmas, I gave Ellie a flight home so we could fly back to Cincinnati together. As a gesture of gratitude, she gave me a $15 gift card to the aforementioned coffee shop.
One Saturday morning, Thomas and I wanted to buy food for breakfast and the afternoon, so we went to Trader Joe’s. We got cinnamon rolls, wine, cheese, a baguette, and meats (super well-rounded diet, clearly). The total was around $14.
On the way home, we stopped to get coffees with the gift card (a treat, at this point). I got a coffee, Thomas got a tea, and I got him a breakfast taco. The total? $14.
These seemingly “equal” purchases by dollar amount couldn’t have been more different. In one case, we got food and alcohol for the entire day (and the next), and in the other, we effectively got 20 oz. of hot liquid and some scrambled egg in a tortilla.
There’s no way around it—your money doesn’t go nearly as far when you’re eating out. (AND Trader Joe's is a godsend.)
By then, I was sold on frugality as a better way. I was especially happy when I saw my bank account balances climbing far more quickly than they used to, and I knew I had to set a serious goal for myself: $50,000 in net worth by the time I turn 25 (about 11 months away, at the time).
I could do the math—I knew in order to meet the goal, I’d have to trim my budgets down even more if I was going to expend each one fully every month.
I adjusted the ones I had control over as follows:
Rent + Utilities = Stayed the same at $1,015/mo.
Restaurants & Bars = Dropped from $400/mo. to $350/mo.
Transportation = Dropped from $250/mo. to $225/mo.
Groceries = Stayed the same at $250/mo.
Travel = Stayed the same at $200/mo. (prioritization here—travel matters more to me)
Personal Care/Shopping = Dropped from $200/mo. to $150/mo.
Hobbies = Stayed the same at $140/mo.
Overall, I went from allowing myself $2,515 of spending per month to $2,330 of spending per month. I was genuinely apprehensive about whether or not I’d be able to live within my new parameters, because up until December of last year, my spending overview looked like this, where red is over-budget and green is under:
I was consistently going over-budget every. Single. Month.
But, to my astonishment, I’m well-within my new budget. My budgets are all set to “rollover” (so if I go over, that balance carries forward to the next month, and if I’m under, that surplus carries over), so you’ll notice where I’ve been consistently under-budget, too. Consider February’s spending:
I am—by far—much prouder of this overview than those above.
Now, when I look at my overall picture (primary income, side hustle incomes, interest, and spending), I'm saving well over $1,000/mo. of my take-home pay—that doesn't include the 401(k) contribution. I'd compare this to an earlier figure, but I honestly don't know how much I was saving before. Probably closer to $300 or $400.
The crazy thing is, my life doesn't really feel any different—except a little simpler, now that my routine isn't punctuated by when I can swing through the Starbucks drive-through or get my gel manicure in.
It's hard to think about how I used to spend, because I know if I had taken the reigns sooner I could've blown past my goals by now.
But it's never too late to start. It's also never too early to get a grip on the way you're spending. Even though it may not be considered "normal," it's incredibly beneficial to be able to account for where every dollar is going.
I look at it this way: I work 40 hours per week at my day job and 6-8 hours per week at my side job to bring home the bacon (admittedly, that's not even that much work compared to my Millennial friends in fields like investment banking).
Why in the hell would I squander it away on stuff that I don't truly care about? I've found such an enhanced sense of enjoyment in my rarer restaurant meals. The occasional café coffee. The Whole Foods green juice.
And perhaps most importantly, now that I've got a lot of padding in my budgets, I'm able to guiltlessly take trips to places like Maui and buy ODESZA tickets on a whim because I know I'm $700 under-budget for the month and have afforded myself that wiggle room.
Nothing supplements your feelings of independence and control like having complete autonomy over your financial situation. Money is power, money is freedom, and money is a one-way ticket out of a bad situation (or to Maui).
Even if you're hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of dollars a month over-budget right now like I regularly used to be, I encourage you to internalize this: it doesn't have to be a source of stress or anxiety. It can be a source of peace and freedom. You're in control, if you want to be.
It won't happen overnight, but it'll happen faster than you think. How do I know? I'm on track to hit my $50,000 goal next month—seven months ahead of a saving and investing schedule that felt impossibly fast when I set it up. I don't say that to brag, but to illustrate how little changes can catapult you into a happier, more secure state of fiscal existence.
Don't hesitate to reach out!
I'd love to help. If you want a little personalized attention or someone to talk to about getting things in order, shoot me an email or a DM.
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
Download my free budget tool
Rent or buy calculator
Invest with Robinhood. Get free stock.