The financial marvel that fits in your back pocket

You may not want to hear this coming from the guy writing a weekly financial advice column that you’re kind enough to be reading, but my money strategies as a kid were abysmally misguided.

Don’t be so hard on yourself, you might be saying. No one knows good money habits until someone teaches them!

While I appreciate the supportive words (that I just put in your mouth right then), I don’t think you understand the depths of my former folly. You see, I didn’t blow all of my birthday money on Gobstoppers and comic books like a normal adolescent boy. I didn’t stash it away in a piggy bank, either.

My long-term financial strategy of choice? Hiding dollar bills and checks in books and envelopes and then intentionally losing them.

I think the idea was that I didn’t want to waste my rare and precious money on something frivolous; however, found money was a different story entirely. Found money was basically buried treasure and therefore supplemental income, to be used however I pleased. If a few stray bills stayed lost, well, that was the cost of doing business, I suppose.

Later, as a young adult, I switched to the What’s in My Wallet? method of budgeting.

“Can I afford this new DVD player? I’m not sure. What’s in my wallet? Hey look – money! I guess I can!”

As you can imagine, this strategy represented great short-term gains, but created a few long-term problems, usually when I went to pay bills or buy groceries. I knew I had a problem, but the idea of completely overhauling my financial habits was pretty overwhelming. I tried saving my receipts, but they just ended up in a big sad pile at the bottom of my sock drawer. I tried writing up a budget, but I wasn’t very diligent and my numbers were all terribly inaccurate anyway.

I felt great despair!

Then – as happens in these sorts of stories – I had an idea. A simple idea. An idea that changed finances for me forever! Which all sounds a little melodramatic, but hear me out.

I bought myself a little spiral-bound notebook, one small enough to fit in my back pocket, and starting writing down the date, place and amount of every purchase I made. And that’s it. That’s all I promised myself I would do.

  1. Buy something
  2. Write it down

A few interesting things started to happen.

First, I became instantly averse to buying (and recording) anything that appeared even remotely impulsive and unnecessary. (I still get a little rashy when I drive past a Dunkin’ Donuts.)

Second, I began to see easily identified patterns in my spending. Should I really be grocery shopping three times a week? I sure do buy a lot of stuff I don’t need on payday.

Finally, it became incredibly easy to flip through my little book at the end of the month and see where all my money had gone. Without even creating a formal budget, I had a much better idea of what I could reasonably spend and where I’d end up as a result.

Suddenly, money and personal finance seemed much smaller and easier to navigate. If you know money is an issue and you’re struggling to find a starting point, consider the little notebook approach. And if you’re ready to take the next step, consider credit counseling with a certified nonprofit credit counseling agency like Money Management International (MMI). MMI also offers a wide-range of educational programs on subjects ranging from buying your first home to improving your credit score to building your savings for retirement.

The first step is always the hardest, but once you’re off and running you’ll be amazed to see how the world of personal finance opens right up to you!

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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