The author with his twice-a-day habit.
Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Today, a self-proclaimed penny pincher in Ansonia, Connecticut, tracks his purchases for a week to see if he really does spend as little cash as he thinks.
I pride myself on being a pretty frugal guy. I have a reputation among friends of turning down any event that costs over $30. I used my last laptop for nine years, only replacing it after it died. I still use a 10-year-old classic iPod that I got for Christmas in 2006. I am a pro at denying myself large purchases.
Still, I thought it’d be a useful experiment to track my spending for a week, if only to get confirmation that I’m so great at resisting a purchase. Right? Right.
Sundays are when I stock up on groceries for the week, so they’re typically my most expensive spending day.
The first stop of the day brings me to Starbucks, where I buy a venti Americano for $3.25. While there, I also pick up a pound of ground coffee for $14.95 so I can brew it at home, bringing my total bill to $18.20. Off to a great start.
After my coffee, I go to Stop & Shop for my weekly groceries. I tend to eat the same thing for breakfast (a protein shake with oatmeal) and lunch (a salad with salmon) every day, so it’s a relatively quick trip. Also in my full cart: a gallon of milk ($3), a tin of oatmeal ($3.49), two boxes of black bean spaghetti ($9.38), a six-pack of romaine lettuce ($5.99), two cucumbers ($1.98), two pounds of chicken breast ($6.58), a package of sandwich wraps ($2.99) and two boxes of salmon burgers ($25.98). I realize that I’ve forgotten my obligatory avocados, and run back to grab two ($2.94) before checking out — what kind of millennial would I be without them?
That brings my total grocery bill to $62.33, which I know is high for one person, and for what is really not a lot of food. But I’m OK with paying extra for some premium items (like the spaghetti and salmon burgers) because they are healthy and taste good. To me, they are worth it, but I try to stick to generic brands for the rest.
Total Spent: $80.53
I’ve already bought all of my groceries for the week, so I don’t have any reason (or inclination) to stop in a store today. That being said, while at work I walk over twice to the local coffee shop near the office and get myself a large Americano ($3.14 each). That’s it. For the entire day. Not so bad!
Total Spent: $6.28
I get my morning and afternoon coffees from the coffee shop near work (again, $3.14 each) and then head to a training session with my personal trainer, which is $90 a month and includes today’s in-person session, workouts he assigns me via an app and help tracking my diet.
After the session, he starts talking about the different kinds of supplements I should really be using to get the most out of my exercise routine. It’s the same spiel he gives me each month, so I know to expect it. I don’t really buy into all that, but for some reason I cave and buy a bottle. Maybe it was because I’ve been seeing results and I’m happy about them, so I subconsciously want to throw him a bone. Either way, when I walk out of the gym my wallet is $30 lighter than I expected.
Total Spent: $126.28
Two coffees during work ($3.14 each) and then over to my cousin’s apartment, where I’m cooking dinner. She requested veggie burgers and pasta. The pasta I have at home, but I don’t have any veggie burgers. That means a quick stop at the supermarket, where I grab a package for $7.99.
While waiting in the checkout line, I decide to buy a pack of gum ($2.19).
Total Spent: $16.46
Two coffees during work ($3.14 each). Yes, this is a running theme with me.
One of my best friends had a birthday over the weekend and we’re celebrating tonight. We consider going to a movie, but decide to wait until Tuesday, when the tickets will be cheaper. Instead, we go out for all-you-can-eat chicken wings, something we’ve done since high school. It being his birthday and all, I split his bill with another friend who joins us, for a total of $27 (including tip).
The bill being so close to $30, I feel a twinge of regret as I reach for my wallet. And then, of course, I feel like a terrible person and friend because, like seriously, I spend more on coffee each week. I throw an extra $2 in with the tip to make myself feel less awful.
Total Spent: $35.28
This morning when I stop by my regular coffee joint ($3.14) the barista says “See you in a few hours!” and I’m kind of embarrassed. I know buying coffee is a twice-a-day habit for me, but I don’t want attention brought to the fact. So I decide to skip my afternoon cup and stick with water. ($3.14 saved!)
Hanging out with friends that night, I stop for a six pack of beer ($8.99), which we share. I don’t drink too often, so two beers makes me pretty happy, and when I get home I make a strange purchase on eBay in my relaxed state: a novelty Trump coin ($4.98). I’m shaking my head the next day.
Total Spent: $17.11
My Saturdays are usually spent at home catching up on work or otherwise relaxing, so I don’t have any reason to venture outside and spend money. I’ll be buying groceries tomorrow and starting the whole spending cycle all over again, so for today, I live up to my frugal reputation.
Total Spent: $0
Weekly Total: $281.94
What I Learned About My Spending Habits
I could look at that amount and say, “Oh, that’s not too bad — less than $300 for the entire week!” But I don’t, because I know that I can do better. That might not seem like a crazy amount of money, but multiplied by 52 weeks, that comes to nearly $15,000 spent on, what, coffee, food and a silly trinket?
I might be good at denying myself big purchases, but I think I have some work to do when it comes to the little things. Over the course of the week, I bought 10 cups of takeout coffee and spent $31.51 doing so, which is pretty typical for me. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and it comes to more than $1,600. On coffee. That doesn’t even include what I buy to brew at home. That’s enough to buy a cheap car, or money I could be putting toward my student loans. A few years ago I went to Thailand for two weeks for $1,500 (including flights) and I really want to go back — it's crazy to think that simply cutting back on my takeout coffee habit would get me there.
I might be a sucker for healthy foods and supplements, but there’s no way I’m going to keep up a coffee habit as expensive as this one. Yes, I love it, but I don’t love it more than paying off my student loans and traveling around the world. Starting next week, I’m going to cut back to one purchased coffee a day, and then just drink what I brew at home. A big part of me suspects that what I really like about those daily coffee runs is the physical act of getting out of the office for 15 minutes. So maybe I’ll just go for a walk when I think I want a coffee and see if that satisfies the craving.
This experiment showed me that the small stuff matters just as much as the big stuff (especially when all you buy is small stuff). It’s easy to feel smug denying yourself a new iPhone, but if you spend double that on coffee (or takeout or cigarettes or weird trinkets) over a year, it can wipe that smug smile off your face.