As a couple in their early-30s, Edward and Bridget make decent salaries — he’s an IT administrator at a small company, she as a counselor at a local school. By all appearances, they seem well-off — they drive nice, though not luxury, cars, and rent a pleasant home in an affluent Chicago suburb. And yet, somehow, they struggle with their finances.
“We just can’t save enough,” Edward tells me. “We’ve been trying to get together enough for a down payment for a house, but somehow it’s just not happening fast enough. Between the rent for our house, gas for our commutes, food and socializing, we somehow don’t quite have enough at the end of each paycheck to sock away. And it’s something we’re deeply embarrassed about.”
They don’t have credit card debt, but they spent their 20s paying off student loans. Now, they want to start a family and buy a home, but real estate in the Chicago suburbs in an expensive proposition, with high prices and property taxes. A down payment is substantial, but between both their salaries they thought it was achievable. Yet somehow, they’re still coming up short.
Like many, they decided to get their money act together, reading money blogs and books and even going to see a financial advisor. They even put what they learned into action.
After learning about the “latte factor” — how spending money on small purchases like a daily coffee can add up — they looked for places in their lives where they were spending unconsciously and cut back. They started bringing lunches from home, for example, instead of going out to eat to Panera or Chipotle with their co-workers every day. They cut out premium cable services they never use. But it wasn’t enough to meet their goals as fast as they wanted to.
Finally, they decided to take the most basic advice of all and track their spending, down to the very last cent.
“I don’t know why it took us so long — maybe because we thought we were already fairly sophisticated about finances,” Bridget says. “We tracked everything, from buying chewing gum out of a vending machine to big expenses like buying appliances.” Then, they took the data to their financial adviser, who took a look at their tracking and offered them a piece of advice they did not expect.
“Both of you need to lock up your phones and Internet,” the adviser told them. “You’re both spending a crazy amount of money online, and probably not even realizing it.”
Bridget and Edward aren’t alone. Collectively, Americans are spending a huge amount of money via e-commerce, whether it’s through e-shopping sites, daily coupon deals via Groupon or using mobile wallet services. It’s very easy and convenient — and as a result, we too may be leaking money unexpectedly. If, like Bridget and Edward, you’re looking to save more, you might as well begin with looking at your online spending picture — because you’re likely spending more than you think without even realizing it.
Americans love to shop. Even in the midst of the so-called Great Recession, we’re still opening our wallets. We still managed to kick up our retail spending in 2013, for example, despite higher payroll taxes and cuts in federal spending, according to Businessweek. And we didn’t just spend on basics like food and gas — we spent on discretionary items like clothes and gadgets.
We don’t just open our actual wallets — we’re spending with our computers, tablets and phones. On average, we spend 23 hours a week online or on our phones, according to Business News Daily, and a good percentage of that time involves e-commerce in some way.
According to Time, we collectively spend just over half a million dollars within just one minute online. And businesses profit handsomely, always trying to figure out ways to remove the friction between consumers and their wallets, whether it’s a one-click PayPal button or mobile payments. E-shopping has never been easier.
As shopping migrates to the Web and mobile, shopper behavior like impulse buying is changing. Shoppers still make the majority of their impulse buys in-person, but online is catching up as mobile shopping becomes more popular — according to RetailWire, for example, nearly one-in-two shoppers in the U.K. last year admitted they made an impulse buy while shopping on their smartphone or tablet.
Bridget and Edward themselves realized the Internet was an especially seductive rabbit hole through which their hard-earned dollars often disappeared. They looked at the data they gleaned from tracking and “basically did a detailed post-mortem, looking at why we bought what we bought, what kind of reasoning we gave ourselves when we got it, where we got the idea from, especially when it came stuff we didn’t need,” Edward says.
In other words, they used a little financial therapy on themselves try to figure out their spending triggers.
“It wasn’t enough just to know where we spent something, but why,” Bridget says.
What they discovered often surprised them. For instance, Bridget realized she had a serious Pinterest and Etsy habit. She often browsed the sites on breaks at work and at home, relaxing with her version of virtual window shopping.
Sometimes she would buy something. The prices, especially for the handcrafted and small merchants she favored, were so low that she figured they wouldn’t hurt. She would pick up a cute necklace for $10 here, or a handmade onesie and bib for her newborn niece for $10 there. PayPal made spending easy, and she told herself she was supporting independent, often women-run, businesses.
Yet it was only when she tracked her spending and analyzed the data that she realized how much she was actually spending. “It could be anything from $100 to $250 a month,” she says. “I never went into sticker shock because all the purchases were so small and reasonable individually. But collectively, they definitely added up.”
Edward, too, had his own online spending peccadilloes. “You know how you go to a store like Target or Wal-Mart to pick up some toilet paper, and suddenly you’re spending $100 because you found this or that on clearance, this t-shirt’s on sale and you might as well get it and, hey, while you’re here, why not get some milk, coffee and cereal?” he asks. “Well, that was me and Amazon.”
At first he’d pile things into his e-shopping cart on the site to get free shipping, “which wasn’t a problem at first because it was just books and DVDs initially, and maybe I’d buy on the site about once a month. But once Amazon started selling other things, like household and drugstore stuff, the frequency picked up.” Edward won’t disclose how much he ended up spending on Amazon a month, saying “it’s embarrassing, and significant.”
Etsy, Pinterest and Amazon were sources of their direct spending leaks, but the couple also broke down what indirectly caused them to spend, a financial soul-searching that proved enlightening — and showed that even when they thought they were saving money, they were really paralyzing their finances.
“We broke down what prompted us to spend money, like buying tires because we were headed on a road trip and wanted to make sure we were prepared,” Bridget says. “We then realized, wow, we bought a lot of things on sale — which normally is a good thing, except that we bought a lot of things.”
The couple realized they fall prey to promotional e-mails and sales announced via social media, unable to resist the temptation of a big discount on workwear at Banana Republic or a generous coupon at a sporting goods merchant.
Psychologically, Bridget and Edward have nothing to be ashamed about — merchants and companies are highly adept at creating illusions of specialness and scarcity, and with years of experience, understand more than consumers the psychology of spending.
Bridget and Edward, like many others, rationalized their spending by telling themselves they were getting good deals — and the often virtual nature of their transactions delayed the shock of realizing just how depleted their accounts were until they got their bank and card statements for the month.
Other online temptations were more diffuse, but no less powerful. Bridget realized, for example, that her fondness for reading popular design and lifestyle blogs was influencing her negatively when it came to her finances.
“I know they’re meant to inspire beauty and diversion, and that the images are glossy and super-manipulated, but they were also making me subtly discontented with my own home and life in some ways,” she says. “Like, why shouldn’t I too have a collection of antique finger bowls? It seems like a cool idea on a blog, and I’d try it at home in my own way…and realize it just didn’t fit in with my own lifestyle or taste. I was inspired by a blogger’s talent in homemaking, photography and styling, but it made me question my own taste and lifestyle and aesthetics, and I realized in this subtle way that it caused me to spend on things I didn’t need.”
Spending was an unconscious act for the couple, but tracking — and then analyzing their spending habits and psychological triggers — helped Bridget and Edward get a handle on their spending and apply some conscious changes.
They unsubscribed from promotional e-mail lists and unliked Facebook pages, for example, which curbed the temptation to spend simply because something was on sale.
“I know we should just be strong enough to tell ourselves we don’t need something and not buy it,” Edward says, “but it’s easier just to remove that temptation altogether.”
They also took care to bring some friction — and opportunities to press pause on their spending — back to the online shopping process. They didn’t save any of their credit card information on any sites, and disabled any one-click shopping.
“It makes a difference when it comes to Amazon,” Edward points out. “Those extra steps of inconvenience gives me enough of a pause to stop and think about what I’m doing.”
Other adjustments were harder — Bridget, for example, surprisingly found it difficult to give up her Pinterest and Etsy habit, as well as her favorite lifestyle blogs. But once she realized she used the sites for inspiration and relaxation, she found a substitute. “I subscribed to a few print magazines instead,” she says, and leafs through a few pages a night.” She also uses the time in the evening for crafts and cooking, exploring her own creativity instead of passively consuming others’.
They also adjusted their spending habits in other ways. They make lists for their real-life shopping excursions, and only allow themselves to buy what’s on the lists, whether it’s at the grocery store or at Target.
They also follow what many experts call an “envelope system.” Bridget and Edward, at the beginning of every month, put certain amounts of cash into envelopes earmarked for certain needs like groceries, clothes, household goods, entertainment and other categories. They try to spend only the amount in the envelope — and only in cash.
“Spending only in cash has made a huge difference,” Bridget says. “Something about spending the actual physical dollar bill makes you realize the real cost of a transaction. It’s something that’s easy to forget when shopping is virtual, convenient and seemingly painless.”
The process of looking closely at their spending was very challenging and eye-opening — and a good lesson that no matter how far along we think we are in terms of financial maturity, we can always bring more awareness and consciousness to our problem areas, especially as technology makes processes so seamless that they become automatic or mindless. The antidote to that mindlessness for Bridget and Edward? Bringing back mindfulness and attention to something they’d taken for granted.
“We had initially prided ourselves on being financially responsible grown-ups for much of our adult lives,” Edward says. “We paid our bills on time, we have retirement accounts we contribute to. So we were really embarrassed at what our spending habits revealed. It didn’t fit in with our self-conception of who we are, but I guess it just goes to show — we all have areas we can improve in.”
“There’s a lot of self-righteousness when it comes to spending and money,” Bridget observes. “We don’t find it easy to talk about this kind of stuff with friends or family, because there’s a lot of ‘You should know better’ judgments — despite the fact that there’s really no real financial education in this country. But I think it’s important for people to realize and talk about this kind of stuff — and realize that no one is perfect when it comes to money, even when you live in a nice house and drive a nice car. We all have our challenges.”
Not that Bridget and Edward have become completely puritanical about spending. Their planner actually recommended they give themselves a “fun” spending amount a month, as a reward for wise spending in other areas, so they don’t feel deprived.
“Money isn’t supposed to make us feel punished, it’s supposed to enable and empower us to live the life we want,” Bridget says.
Having a “fun fund” helps them not to feel deprived, she says, “and spending it allows us to think through and talk about what is genuinely fun and meaningful for us to spend on.” The couple discovered, for example, that they prefer to spend their fun money on experiences they can share, and not just going out to eat or buying stuff.
Above all, rethinking their spending habits reminds Bridget and Edward of a basic but often forgotten truism about building wealth. “It’s easy to get distracted by talk of the latest investment strategy when people talk about becoming rich, or fixate on a bigger income,” Bridget says. “Those are important, but the most basic building block of wealth really is spending below your means — and sometimes I think that’s something we forget.”
She points out we’re bombarded with media and messages that equate happiness with spending — in a world that tries to part us from money as easily as possible — so looking closely at our spending is not just a way to save money, but to retune and recalibrate our financial and life priorities.
Bridget and Edward report now that they have more money at the end of the month to put towards their dream of a beautiful family home. Curbing their spending isn’t a miracle fix, but both report feeling more positive and in control of their lives — which is almost more valuable as the actual money itself.
“You know that saying, how money is a good servant but a poor master,” Edward says. “One of the biggest ways to make money a good servant is bringing some awareness to your relationship to it. It’s way too easy to avoid or put it on auto-pilot in some way. Don’t get me wrong — it’s nice to automate some things. But when it comes to aspects of your finances, it’s better to go slow and bring some real focus and attention to it.” ♦