Start Paying Attention

A few years back I read a great article by personal finance writer and artist Carl Richards. He was lamenting how all the budgeting strategies he’s tried over the years have failed. He’s cut credit cards, only used cash, and tried all sorts of other stuff to better control his spending. But, nothing changed until he tried something altogether different. Here’s what he had to say:

I love the No. 9 Unwich (it’s a wrap with lettuce instead of bread). Over the last few years, I’ve probably ordered it for lunch more than 50 times. One day, I realized that despite buying a bunch of them, I didn’t know how much one cost. If someone were standing right outside the store and asked me how much I had just paid for my food, I couldn’t say. I thought it might be somewhere between $5 and $12.

On my next trip, I made a point to pay attention to how much I spent for my lunch. In Park City, Utah, a No. 9 Unwich costs $7.50. I didn’t do anything with this information that day. I just noticed it and found it interesting.

About a month ago, I bought one of those health/fitness watches. A few weeks into wearing it, Geoff asked me what I’ve enjoyed or learned by wearing it. I started listing off some benefits—knowing how many calories I’m expending, seeing my heart rate during a workout, getting stats on my sleep habits, even being able to scan the bar code on an item of food and knowing what’s in it. But, as I thought more about it, I’ve found the greatest benefit to be quite simple: mindfulness.

Having a Fitbit on my wrist has encouraged me to pay more attention to what I consume every day and how often I visit the gym. I spent the first few weeks just being mindful but gradually I started evaluating tradeoffs. What’s more important to me: a bag of chips with lunch or a cookie after dinner? Do I want a #1 from Chick Fil A or can I bring a salad from home? What if having a salad means I can also enjoy an IPA, guilt free, later on?

Surprisingly, saying “no” to certain things hasn’t felt restrictive at all because it’s allowed me to say “yes” to others. It’s given me greater enjoyment of the things I really value.

Whether it’s calories or dollars, there’s only so much we can consume or spend without getting ourselves in trouble. If you’re having trouble getting a handle on your spending, start by simply paying attention. Take advantage of a service like Mint or YNAB to monitor where your money is going. Don’t judge. Just notice. After a month or two, reflect on how you’ve been using your money and see if it lines up with what’s most important to you and start evaluating tradeoffs.

There’s nothing more important to master in personal finance than your spending. If you’ve had trouble in the past getting a handle on where your money is going, start by paying attention. I’ll close with this quote from Mr. Richards:

Why not test my theory this week? Instead of building ever-bigger defensive walls, just pay attention. Over the next few days, notice how and when you spend money. As you pay the bill for something, how do you feel? Do you discover gaps between your values and your spending?

As always, let us know how we can help!

Ryan Smith
[email protected]

Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I moved to Raleigh in 2011 to marry my wife, Emily. We have two kids, Jack and Gwen, a golden retriever named Olly, and are members of Church of the Apostles. I have been a Financial Advisor since 2005 and earned a Master’s of Science in Financial Planning from Bentley University in 2007. I became a CFP® professional in 2009, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® in 2015, and a Certified Tax Specialist™ in 2023.