This article originally appeared on Free US.
If someone asked you how much money you currently have in your bank account, would you be able to answer? Do you know how much you spend in a week, or every couple of days, without relying on your inner Whoopi that whispers “you in danger, girl” when you're waiting in the checkout line?
With so much focus on “securing the bag” and report after report about millennials not saving enough for the future, I try my best to keep up with my finances. I invest in my 401(k), put money away for my “one day I’ll buy a house” fund, and make sure I’m up-to-date on the essentials—like my car payment, rent, and student loans that will likely take forever and a day to pay off.
But when it comes to budgeting, creating spreadsheets—sticking to the strictest of financial plans and forecasts—and actually keeping it up with it all? Yeah, I pretty much suck and get frustrated at the thought.
Budgeting for me is like trying to tally up those diet plan food points: I fail miserably every time, feel like a loser when I fall off the wagon, and land right back at square one without collecting $200. There’s something confining and time consuming about budgets that makes me say thanks, but no thanks.
Don’t get me wrong, budgets are important. We do need to know where our money is going as it’s not stored in a cloud somewhere with our favorite songs and pictures we’ll never admit to taking. But setting hard limits on what I can and can’t have just doesn’t vibe with my spirit or how I live life, because life itself doesn’t perfectly fall into some pie chart or allocation model each and every month.
Still, getting in front of my finances was something I knew I had to do that would require more action and less excuses on my part. So instead of setting a strict budget and trying to stick to it, I decided to to track my spending instead. Although I only did it for five days, it was a huge eye opener.
I’ve always been interested in tracking my spending—and even used the Monefy money manager app to help categorize things—resulting in a busy Tanvier and piles of receipts I never logged. But now that I actually forced myself to do it, I’m going to keep it up, because I might go broke if I don’t.
Here's what happened during my five-day journey:
Day one: willpower prevails, planning fails
My first day of tracking started off light. Willpower dominated lunchtime, prompting me to make a sandwich instead of order food. (After all, I am tracking my money now.) Dinnertime got a little sketchy as I spent $15 on my two little ones at McDonald’s after failing to make sure the chicken nuggets in the freezer were actually cooked prior to picking them up from daycare.
This expenditure, however, is a win in my book as moms sometimes have to do what they have to do to keep meltdowns from happening.
Total spent: $15
Day two: restaurant food is tasty—and dang expensive
Day two had me making a mad dash to the store to take out $40 for my babysitter to watch my 4- and 2-1/2-year-old kids. My husband had a rugby game that Saturday, and I had a brunch date (no avocado was harmed) with a gal pal that totaled $12.
Later that evening, the guy and I had an itch for Mediterranean food and opted to enjoy our best lives (with children in tow) at a new restaurant for dinner. The good news is that the food was excellent. The bad news, however, is that the total bill, with tip, cost $73. (Ouch.)
Total spent: $125
Day three: pre-gaming pays off
The third day of my money challenge was all about the fortieth anniversary of Grease and sneaking a Wendy’s salad ($5.43) into the theater to balance the nachos ($7.17) I was craving all day. I pre-ordered my ticket prior to tracking my spending, but ultimately still opened my wallet.
Total spent: $12.60
Day four: the Target struggle is too real
Then day four happened that included a trip to one of the most beautiful destinations known to man: Target. I headed into this place of refuge—whizzing by the affordable trinkets in the front to pick up the household essentials I needed.
The problem is that Target had a noticeable sale on clothes, resulting in me filling up my cart with stylish finds … and some random candles that keep my zen in check.
Total spent: $123.43
Day 5: I need a time out from spending
Because of my Target trip on day four, day five was more of a “you better stay your butt inside this house” kind of day. I spent nothing as I dreaded totaling up my expenses from the previous days knowing I would grasp my chest in shock.
I was past the point of “you in danger, girl” as I knew I entered the “you done f**ed up, A-aron” territory. Over the course of five days, I spent $276.03 … and I feel ashamed, so so ashamed.
Total spent: $0
What I learned from tracking my expenses
Expense tracking on Monefy shined a light on an area in my life where ignorance is NOT bliss, but costly ... pretty dag on costly. As much as I buck back at the thought of utilizing spreadsheets and restricting my life to the straight and narrow path of budgeting—a path I know would likely take detours here and there—this money experiment reiterated to me how failure to prepare can be preparation for failure.
Yes, I am taking care of my bills, but last time I checked, my name doesn’t end in Winfrey or Gates —so who the heck am I to be spending over $275 in five days?
This experience made me realize I need head back to the drawing board when it comes to taking a hard look at my spending habits and ensuring I’m not blowing through money. It was so effortless to spend the money I did in the five days, and that’s a huge wake-up call.
I need to cut back on the amount of “one more” excuses I use every time I see something pretty, shiny and new I feel I need to have. I can survive without one more pair of shoes, one more pair of dresses, and one more random thing from Target that catches my eye and hurts my wallet.
While there are levels to the budgeting game, tracking my expenses offers me the flexibility to color outside the lines from time to time that past budgeting efforts didn’t. There will always be some random movie anniversary and a much needed brunch with a gal pal I haven’t seen in months—things that usually fall outside the hard limit of most traditional budgets I’ve seen—that I can prepare for, even if it means cutting back in another area.
Thankfully, there are ways apps like Mint.com give real-time updates about your money situation so you aren’t taking constant detours around your favorite store acquiring things you don’t really need. You can also set balance notification alerts on your credit card so you know when you're spending over your target amount.
Tracking my spending, especially on the weekend, was the kick in the butt I needed to put my expense tracking app on my phone to good use—but only time will tell how the adjustments I make, and having the ability to look back at my spending habits, will change my future.
This article originally appeared on Free US.