Sunday, February 12, 2012

Frugality exercise post mortem

This post is a little late in coming. Before the new year I set a goal to spend money on as few days as possible during the month of January. I'd like to give a wrap-up for how I did and then give an overview of lessons learned.

Last time I updated was mid-January, after I returned from my cruise vacation. I can happily say that all but one of my spending days from the 19th thru the month's end involved a trip to the grocery store. I'm counting that as a victory because I need to eat and grocery trips are the cheapest way of making that happen. But seriously, 1/20 was a single trip to Costco, 1/24 was a Harris Teeter run, and 1/27 included a trip to Trader Joe's. Into January's final weekend I also batched a trip to the mall and a visit to a local Mexican restaurant. $5 top-shelf margaritas are one of life's simple pleasures.

I did an okay job combining trips, though I could have done even better. Realistically I could have combined the grocery run with the Costco trip, or all the driving around onto one weekend day, or both. I blame it on imperfect foresight and that sometimes (okay, most of the time) it is a pain to spend large chunks of the day running errands. I'm getting ahead of myself, though, and that leads me to...

Overview and lessons learned
Here is a take-away from this frugality exercise routine: it is a pain to spend large chunks of the day running errands. This is as it should be! Errands should not be easy nor should they be fun, but only if you are lame like me and your primary mode of transportation is a gasoline-consuming carbon-spewing automobile.

You are more efficient when you batch up your errands. You reduce your trip distance, you save transit time. It does mean that you devote a large chunk of time to going out and staying out, and that is a legitimate pain point. You can reduce it in one of a few ways. Either you go the lame route, spread the pain around, and run one or two errands a day throughout the week until you're done; or you man up, devise an efficient plan of attack, and dispatch those errands in the minimum amount of time in one fell swoop; or, best yet, you find a way to forego the errands all together.

This is the main reason I love Amazon Prime. I've saved probably dozens of trips to the store last year with my Prime subscription. Okay, full disclosure, I also probably bought a few things I wouldn't have, had I not been a Prime subscriber. I've since seen the error of my ways and now I use my powers for noble purposes — which is to say I don't use it much at all anymore.

Anyway. When I set this goal to exercise my frugality muscle, I didn't set a target for my number of spending days. The real reason is that I had no idea how often I usually spent money, in an aggregate statistics sense. That was part of my problem. The biggest benefit I got from trying to limiting my spending was a cognizance of when I was actually spending. And that is the benefit of tracking how often you spend, and not just how much.

That's not to say it isn't dangerous spending $200 in one go. My January 20th trip to Costco felt like a punch in the stomach, and that final amount was after splitting the total evenly with my girlfriend. Fortunes can be spent quickly. They can also, however, deplete slowly over time.

You should take note of the fact that I did not purchase lunch at work a single day this month. That's no accident. A part of me was scared straight after I looked at my November 2011 credit card statement to find triple-digit spending on eating out during lunch. The other part of me has been held in line by an understanding of how seemingly small amounts of spending can add up over time.

Almost every day a group of coworkers go out to purchase lunch, and almost every day I'm asked if I want to join them. I'm running out of new and novel ways to say "no thanks". In isolation, a single purchase of between $5 and $9 is not anything to be worried about. But I eat lunch every day. What if my willpower breaks down and I eat out once a month, at a recurring cost of $6? That expense is equivalent to a 'stash of around $2400. Yeah, it takes me like two months to reduce my student loans by that amount. No thanks.

Eating out for lunch is just an example. I feel good about my frugality muscle exercise routine — the first of many, I hope — because of the way it's changed my relationship with spending. All this without explicit goals, just observing and recording what I was already doing, and taking an extra moment to consider how each purchase fit into my plans.

Cognizance is so important for Mustachianism.


  1. Awareness, intent and effort - sounds like a recipe for success to me.

    On the subject of batching errands, that's something I've become very familiar with. I live in the mountains an hour's drive from a major city. Seriously, I pay for the drive with the savings on almost any purchase (clothes, groceries, house maintenance materials, etc.) - but the time spent is time wasted. We save up errands until we have more than we can manage in one visit to the city - and then we pair up the errands with a family visit or, even better, a business-expensable trip.

    It's amazing (i) how you can organise things so that purchases don't need to be made 'now', and (ii) how many purchases you find you can manage without!

  2. Nerode,

    I completely agree! So many purchases can be foregone, or at least put off.

    Wow, an hour drive to a major city takes batching errands to a whole new level. I'm impressed. Thanks for the anecdote.

  3. Amazing how much those daily lunches can add up huh? I still have a recurring problem with constantly eating out multiple times daily. Not just me, but my wife too. I have done days though where I don't spend a single dime, but clearly not as much as you did recently. I will have to document this better and try to stay motivated in eating out way less, and therefore, spending way less on food.

    1. Seriously. Since eating out is something you do all the time, it might be easier to cut back than go cold turkey, although often what's easier depends on your personality. Still, cutting back even a little will show a big improvement in your budget picture, which can give you the motivation to keep going. Step one is measurement.

  4. Good stuff. You're aware of your spending and that's what counts. Doing a great job documenting your mustachian journey!