Recently I’ve been restructuring my eating and exercising habits. I haven’t had any major health concerns or anything, but I’ve just come to the realization that I’m not getting any younger and my body just can’t take the level of abuse that I could heap on it when I was younger. This hasn’t been an easy process for me. I like food (mostly the not-so-good-for-you kind) and I tend to over-exercise to the point of injury (I’m just a tad bit over-competitive). In order to establish better habits, I’ve had to draw upon the same thing that has given me control over my finances: Conscious thought.
The one thing, more than any other, that has kept our finances on track all of these years is conscious thought. Whenever we’ve had to spend money or make a financial decision, we’ve thought about it. Even frivolous stuff gets carefully considered before it’s bought. We ask ourselves if we need the item, can we get a better deal elsewhere, do we have a coupon, do we have a place for it, and can we make do with something else. Every money decision is a conscious decision. We’ve never just tossed stuff in a cart willy-nilly or not thought through the consequences of big actions like buying a home or a car.
We also keep ourselves very aware of our money including how much we have and where it is. We balance the books every month so we don’t get caught by errors. We track balances online so we never overdraw. We keep an eye on our accounts and watch for fees or poor interest rates and change banks if needed. We decide exactly where to save and how much and we look at it again every year to see if we can increase those amounts. None of this happens by itself. It happens because we make a conscious decision to keep track of every account and transaction.
You don’t have to get obsessive about this. It’s not like thinking about money governs my every waking thought to the exclusion of anything else. And it’s not like I never have any fun, either. Sometimes the decision is to blow some money and have some fun, but we do it knowing full well what the overall implications, if any, of that decision are. Nothing in our financial universe “just happens.” We think about it and then make it happen.
In the beginning we tracked every expense and compared them religiously to our budget categories. We didn’t have any extra money, so we had to do that. Over the years we’ve loosened up, but I still input everything into Quicken every month. It helps me to quickly see where the money is going and where things might be sliding toward excess. And I still ask myself five questions when faced with a spending choice:
1. Do I need it?
2. Is this the best deal I can get?
3. Can we afford it without touching the savings? (Unless it’s an emergency, which is what the savings are there for.)
4. Will I use it? (Asked when the item is something I want but don’t need, to prevent junk from just sitting around the house unused.)
5. Can I use something else for the time being or do I already have this item at home? (If possible I like to avoid spending by using substitutes I already have, or extras of something that I’ve stockpiled.)
That’s the big secret to our financial success. I don’t spend money on autopilot and I don’t spend without first considering the costs versus benefits of the item. I make a conscious decision to spend carefully and save aggressively and then make every decision match that goal. We are successful financially because we think consciously about our spending and saving.
When you make the decision to be conscious of things, managing them becomes much easier. I know this is true with money, and now I know it’s true with food. Every time I’ve had to choose a food in the last few weeks, I’ve consciously asked myself if what I’m reaching for is good for me, if I really want it, or if there’s a better alternative available. I’m doing this at home and I’m doing it at restaurants. I’m also thinking more about my exercise and asking myself if I need to cut back or do something lower impact to offset a hard workout. It’s working. I’m much less sore and achy, I feel better, and I’ve lost about ten pounds just by making the conscious decision to choose better foods. Try thinking consciously about your money. You might be surprised where you end up.