Since 2013, I’ve been using an excel budget spreadsheet to track all my income and expenses for every cost in my life. Every coffee, every dinner, every parking meter, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I could tell you how much I spent on pretty much any given day in the last five years (vacations excluded). But when I started tracking my budget, I didn’t mean for it to get this far. I kind of stumbled into the world of personal finance. Truth be told, I didn’t think I would continue with it when I got older (ironic). I thought that one day, I would just know what to do with money. All I really wanted to do was pay off my student loans and go on a graduation trip after I finished school.
Up until I was 22, I was living at home and always only spent what I made from my part-time job after paying my tuition for the semester. However, in 2013, I had the opportunity to work on a paid internship (as a part of a co-op program) for the Canadian Federal Government for a year in Ottawa. I’m originally from Vancouver, so not only was this the first time I really lived on my own with regular expenses like rent and groceries, but it was also the first time in my life where I was making more money than I needed to necessarily spend all at once.
So I started an Excel budget spreadsheet. I had never really been interested in personal finance before, so I didn’t look at it as anything other than a way to figure out how to track my spending. But five years later, this is what I’ve learned about myself:
1. I spent way too much on coffee.
I was not only the millennial “spends too much on coffee” stereotype; I was worse. I used to buy coffee every day, multiple times a day. I became addicted to the Tim Horton’s Ice Capps (that Canadian stereotype is real) and I would buy two or three of them in one day. That’s almost $6-$9 CAD a day. ON COFFEE. I hate to say it, but it took me a couple of years to really whittle down this habit. Once I saw what it was doing to my budget (I wasn’t really considering my health in my early twenties) I slowly limited myself to only one coffee a day and then to less expensive alternatives. Finally, my co-worker said to me, “You know you could just make that drink at home.” I was initially hesitant because I specifically enjoy ice coffees, but a few Pinterest recipes searches and a great tumbler later, I finally have cut this budget down to less than one-third of what I used to spend. From $100/month, I now spend less than $30 on average (I still treat myself every now and then on weekends).
2. How Long It Takes To Save For Things
When I was 22, there were two major things that I wanted to pay down and save up for
a) My tuition (I was determined to pay off my student debt before I graduated); and
b) A graduation trip to backpack through Asia to see my extended friends and family.
Because my co-op placement gave me a set amount of income, I simply subtracted the amount of time I needed to save up for my goals by the months I had left before graduation. I quickly realized that while I was making a good income at the time, I actually didn’t have that much left at the end of the month when I factored in my savings goals and my rent, food, etc. This was a real wake up call. I really had to create discipline in my budget at a time when I could have afforded to deviate. There was nothing and no one stopping me from blowing my budget and living in a nicer apartment or spending more on clothes and going out. Actually, that’s what I saw a lot of my friends do. But my savings goals really constrained me, and after I moved back home, the savings habit stuck.
After accomplishing those two savings goals, it became a natural habit for me to save money. As I got older, because I had no student debt, I saved for a down payment and travel. Although I thought it would be difficult, I actually could save for these goals without ever having to lower my lifestyle habits. Saving became second nature and I’ve never felt the need to blow my entire paycheque on something because I’ve never been in a circumstance that has allowed it.
3. If I can’t afford something, I have to side hustle for it.
I never needed to get creative to find money before. I only worked a few part-time jobs, and by the start of a new semester, all of my money went to paying my tuition. But when I started this budgeting plan, there were items in my budget that I wanted but truly could not afford. So I had to get creative to make money. That’s when I started Mystery Shopping! At first, I was hesitant it would a scam, but I found a great company to work with. It was easy enough, all I had to do was complete a certain amount of tasks in the store (ask questions about clothing, try on outfits in the fitting room, etc.) and then write a report on it. I would make on average $8-$16 per assignment. I had a rule that if there was something I really wanted but couldn’t afford, I could only use my side hustle money for it — I eventually bought a bike!
4. The real cost of subscriptions (and laziness).
I think that we all know this one, but for me, it was a real wake up call. This was a two-fold situation. On the one hand, I was spending too much on subscriptions I didn’t really use or need. At first, $10/month didn’t seem like that much for extra subscriptions (that I didn’t use) or for extra insurance (that I didn’t need) and charities (that I no longer truly supported). But, when you’re planning a budget and have so little leftover money, that extra $10, $15, $20 in your budget is what stands in between being able to go out for a dinner with friends or sitting at home on the bedroom floor eating bologna sandwiches while watching reruns of Gossip Girl. I learned this one the hard way.
On the other hand, I was spending too much on subscriptions because I was just too lazy to cancel them. This is especially true of anything with a “free trial.” A lot of times I would sign up for free trials and then forget to cancel them before the deadline date, and ended up having to pay for another month. And because I didn’t want to “waste” that money, I would tell myself that I would use it for the remainder of the month (which, no, I wouldn’t) and then cancel it the next month. And then the whole cycle would start over again, and I spent hundreds on subscriptions that I was just too lazy to cancel. Now I set a reminder in my phone if I sign up for a free trial and need to cancel by certain date. It says something along the lines of “CANCEL UNLESS YOU WANNA PAY $XXX AGAIN.” Seems to work. It really does pay to ask yourself if a subscription is truly worth it.
5. Learn To Cook
Learning how to cook on a budget has probably been one of the most beneficial lessons I could have learned from this whole process. If I was hesitant about buying $3 coffees, then those $10 lunches really hit me in the face. Not only did I learn how to better buy items on sale and cook, but realized I actually really enjoyed it. It’s relaxing to have YouTube videos and podcasts in the background while cooking. It has now become a part of my self-care time.
6. Stop Spending On People Who Don’t Matter
Going through my finances has really taught me that I spent too much on what people thought of me. I constantly attended social events with people I really didn’t like or care about that much. And I only attended because I was invited and felt like I was obliged to go because, well, I wasn’t doing anything else that evening and I wanted to be “nice.” This was a hard one for me to learn, and I still struggled with up until this year. Now I just politely say decline by saying that I can’t make it, but to have a great time. No more dinners over repetitive, mundane, superficial conversation; it’s not worth it. It just wastes time and money.
7. Budgets Are Flexible.
I originally didn’t like the ideas of budgets because I didn’t like these hard numbers that I couldn’t change. Although I was reluctant when I started, I now go through my finances about three times a week. As my plans for my month change, so does my budget. Some months are really busy with friend events, which means very little shopping. In contrast, some months are a little bit less heavy on shopping and dinners out, which means I can boost my savings.
And at the beginning of some months (okay, really only once), my washing machine floods my apartment and I have to shell out $200 to have it fixed. It happens. I have minimums for each of my savings goal, but if I have leftover money, I don’t have to spend it.
8. You Can’t “Hack” Budgeting
This one is a little much (or OCD, depending on how you look at it), but I would be constantly trying to find other ways of tracking my spending. I kept thinking “maybe if I download this app or try this technique” then I will become better at tracking my expenses, and as a result, I would be better at saving. Nope — spreadsheets work for me, and if it ain’t broke, I’m not going to spend the extra effort to fix it. Changing how I track my expenses doesn’t change my spending habits. It doesn’t’ matter if I’ve figured out how to save a bit more at the beginning of the month, but I’m just going to have to end up transferring it out later to pay my credit card bill for that dinner I splurged on. The essence of budgets is not numbers; it’s habits. When I needed to increase my savings, I had to make changes to my lifestyle, not to my budget. I could tell myself I was not going to spend any money on coffee and put $30 in my coffee category, but I needed to learn how to make coffee at home for that budget to stick.
I know it’s a lot of extra work, but I enjoy combing through all my credit card transactions every couple of days to write down my expenses. I used to think that it was too much work, but then I realized, if it’s too much work to write down my expenses, I really shouldn’t be spending that much.
9. Don’t Be In A Rush To Move Out
I think this comes with a bit of a stigma from previous generations that, to be truly “adult,” you need to move out as soon as possible. I felt a lot of judgment from co-workers, guys I dated, and even just random strangers because I was living at home for so long. When I was younger, I thought I would move out at 18. I’m so thankful that I have a wonderful family that I loved living with, and I didn’t move out until I was 26 and could buy my apartment.
After a year in Ottawa, I really learned how hard it was to manage expenses and budget. I’m thankful that I had a family that let me freely use electricity, utilities, and cooked me enough dinner every night so I could bring leftovers as lunch to school/work the next day. Starting my budget young taught me that I was in no rush to be a grown-up. It’s got its perks, but let’s be real, it can come along with a lot of not-fun responsibilities. At 22, I was only using a budget to pay down student loans and save for vacation, but at 27, I’m using it to manage my mortgage, emergency fund, and living expenses. Now that I’m older, I realize its okay to enjoy being young and taking advantage of living at home (and it’s definitely a privilege to be able to), and all those opinions of me from non-important people really didn’t matter. There are many, many years ahead to be an “adult,” and the expenses will still be there.
Kimberly is the writer behind www.millenniallifeadmin.com. MLA is a blog that helps break down the everyday adulthood tasks of growing up; one unavoidable responsibility at a time. You can also find her scrolling through memes and sassy posts on Instagram.
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