Though it may occasionally feel like it, you don't actually have to stay in and eat nothing but Top Ramen to meet your financial goals. In fact, it's possible to make your lifestyle more personally rewarding while spending less (or just spending differently).
After getting our basic needs met, what we want to use our money for is unique to each of us: Some of us are looking to build more peace of mind in the form of bigger savings; others are looking for the freedom to leave their jobs or the opportunity to travel more. What we all have in common is that we only get to spend each dollar we have once, so we can all try to allocate our spending in the way that's going to make us the happiest in both the short and long term. Here's how to maximize your joy per dollar:
1. Keep track of what gets spent and where.
A lot of us can fall prey to automatic spending. We can get into a pattern of spending simply because we are in the habit, even spending just because other people are doing it. I used to buy lunch out every day with my coworkers until I realized it was costing me thousands of extra dollars each year. And the nearby take-out options weren't even that delicious.
One of my favorite ways to reconnect with my spending is to write down every dollar I spend in a money journal. Much like a food journal can bring mindless snacking to your attention, a money journal can bring unconscious spending to your attention. When I started keeping a money journal, I realized I was stopping for frozen yogurt and grabbing random snacks at the corner store way more than I thought—and it was really adding up!
It sounds really simple, but magical things happen when you become aware of what you're really spending money on. You might even find yourself deciding not to purchase something because you don't want to write it down. I found myself waiting the extra 20 minutes to get home instead of buying a snack on the go and walking a lot more rather than hopping in a taxi. Every purchase became a lot more conscious.
You don't have to keep your money journal perfectly, either—it's not a big deal if you forget to write down every single pack of gum. If you find you've stopped using it, and your bank account is suffering, you can always just pick up where you left off and get back on track. One of the sneakiest ways to cheat ourselves of what we want most is to give up as soon as we're not perfect.
2. Discover your priorities and get them down on paper.
Take some time to reflect on what's really, genuinely important to you. What experiences mean the most in your life? Maybe you value travel and find exploring new cultures and taking a break from your own life eye-opening and rejuvenating. Maybe a primary goal in your life is to own your own business. Maybe you want to spend more time with friends and family. There's no right or wrong answer here. Go with your gut rather than what you think you should choose.
Also, is there anything that you'd like to have in your life that you are currently saying no to because of financial limitation? I wanted to travel more but thought I couldn't afford it. Others might be putting off starting a hobby, taking a class, or purchasing a piece of furniture.
Take this exercise further by creating a values statement. This is essentially a mission statement made up of our values, which can become a roadmap for our lives and help us make every decision easier—financial or otherwise.
3. Look at the bigger picture—the annual calendar rather than the day-to-day.
We tend to look at our expenses in isolation. For example, lunch today costs $15 and your trip to Florida next month will cost $1,000. The problem with this is that we don't see the true impact of each expense. Take a look at each expense you have annually. For example, if you have lunch out three times per week, 52 weeks per year, that's $15 x 3 x 52 = $2,340. When we take an annual look, it's a lot easier to decide if something is worth it to us, and it's also easier to reallocate expenses that are not worth it to something more important.
This might sound tedious, but it's worth the work. It also doesn't have to be perfect—you can ballpark it. What does a particular spending habit of yours, such as lunches or after-work drinks, cost on average? About how often do you purchase them? If you aren't sure, take a look at a recent bank statement or two to get an idea of your behaviors.
4. Align your spending with your values.
Once you know both what's most important to you and have a better idea of where your money is going, you can take a step back and see if your spending aligns with your values.
When I first did this exercise, I realized I was spending $1,570 per year on my daily latte. I really valued travel, so I decided to reallocate my coffee spend there. I started drinking the free coffee at work and took a trip to Spain with my cousin using the $1,570.
That said, I work with many people who consciously decide to continue buying their daily coffee out. It brings them joy and is important to them. That's the beauty of this exercise—again, there is no right or wrong answer. It helps us take an honest look at what's important to us and decide how to spend our hard-earned cash.
This is an exercise you can do over and over. Each time you take the steps to become more conscious about your spending, determine what's important, and look at your annual expenses, you'll find ways to further align your spending with your values and make your spending more meaningful.
Ashley Feinstein Gerstley is the founder of the Fiscal Femme and the creator and author of The 30-Day Money Cleanse. For more, sign up for Ashley's weekly Money Musings, where you get a textbook's worth of money knowledge in two minutes.