The Money Diaries: The 27-year-old product designer who tracks her finances a little TOO closely

38 Comments

Today is another post in the Money Diaries series, which is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. We’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymized them, and posted them here.

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Today’s post is by a 27-year-old woman who lives in San Francisco without a car, and commutes by train to work. She tracks her spending extremely well. But does she ignore the Big Wins to focus on smaller savings?

* * *

Day 1
7:30 a.m.: Saturday. Wake up around the time I get up for work. A little annoyed but I can’t fall back asleep so I get up and get coffee at the specialty coffee shop down the street. They are a little expensive, but really good so I try to limit myself to one a week. Spent $3. On my way out I pick up a check at the front desk. I rent out my parking space and it’s the beginning of the month. Gain $250.
10:20 a.m.: Resisted the urge to buy breakfast while I was out, thinking I could whip up something at home. I have bacon but don’t have eggs. I don’t have anything to make for lunch next week either…so I decide it’s time to go grocery shopping. I get some ham, eggs and hotdogs and the rest is all frozen pre-made food, which I know is bad but I promise myself I will try to eat some fruits and veg this week as well. $2 for the bus, $47.21 at Trader Joe’s.
12:30 p.m.: No plans today so I’m just staying home and cleaning up my apartment and other tasks that I’ve put off all week. I get on my computer and check email and various blogs, and then the I tally up what I’ve spent this week and enter it into a Google spreadsheet. I track every penny I spend. It sounds a bit weird to most people but I really rather enjoy it and finding out how much I spend on stuff. I usually try to enter it as soon as I get to a computer, but sometimes receipts just pile up. For purchases without a receipt I make a note on my iphone. It’s really just informational for me since I make enough now to cover anything I could want to buy, but I started doing it when I was a poor grad student to make sure I wasn’t spending more than I brought home. Since the beginning of the month I add up my expenses for last month. Without counting rent, I’ve spent a total of $1967.30 for the month of September and it breaks down as follows: $117.75 for transportation; $235 for health care; $140.29 eating out; $153.18 for alcohol/wine; $757.83 for household things (including a couch off craigslist for $680); $12.05 for toiletries; $134.76 for electronics (bought a GPS); $34.97 in entertainment (tickets to museums, movies, shows etc; Netflix subscription) and $32.94 in misc stuff. Some of the things I split with my boyfriend, like the couch and the Netflix subscription. For those curious, my rent is $2,020 a month for a one-bedroom in San Francisco which I split with my boyfriend. I also look up how much I’ve spent on my phone minutes. I don’t talk on the phone a lot so I’m on a T-mobile pay-as-you-go plan on an jailbroken iPhone. September’s phone minutes cost $14.03. I get data from wherever there is open wifi access. I get the mail and Wired mag has sent me yet another renewal notice. It’s actually close to renewal time so I decide to finally do it. $20 for a 2-year subscription.
2 p.m.: I get a couple of emails from various financial intuitions about successful money transfers. I schedule nominal amounts (~$150) of money to be pulled out of my checking to my savings and an index fund after every paycheck, just so I’m saving and investing but I don’t have to think about it. The start of a new month is always an interesting time for my finances, but now everything is in order and I can get off the computer. Phew!
4 p.m.: For the rest of the day I putter around the apartment while streaming Netflix. Total spent today: $72.21. Total gained: $250

Day 2
9:30 a.m.: Sunday. Get up, shower and make myself a nice breakfast of eggs, ham and toast and a cup of Earl Grey tea. I park myself in front of the computer while I eat and read the news. Unemployment is at 9.8% now. Thankfully we both still have our jobs. I chat with boyfriend on skype. He’s out of the country and coming back on Wednesday.
12:20 p.m.: I take the bus to meet up a couple of friends for snacks and drinks. We’re going to the premiere of an indie film that we all worked on, and then having dinner afterwards. Bus fare there $2, Snack and drinks pre-show $25, Tacos afterwards $14. I bought 2 tickets for the event last week for $20, so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to count it for today.
9:15 p.m.: Bus Fare Home: $2. Total spent today: $43 (doesn’t include the tickets I paid for last week.)

Day 3
7:30 a.m.: Monday. Get up, get ready for work and make a cup of tea. I walk 5 minutes to the train station, grab a free newspaper and enjoy the ride. I have a monthly pass that is taken out of my pay pre-tax. A free shuttle connects the train station to the building where I work. Recent layoffs at work has increased my workload a bit, so I have a busy day ahead.
11:15 a.m.: Get bored with work so I decide to check my bank account for suspicious activity. Everything looks normal, as it does most of the time. I have about $1,750 in my checking account and $36 in credit card charges. The $1,750 is my budget for this month (not including rent), which equals about one paycheck. Every month I “zero out” my checking account by moving any money left to an ING savings account and only spend what I earn that month. It sounds nutty but that’s how I keep a budget. If I spend over that amount I have to really think if it is worth the hassle of pulling it back out of my ING account. I’ve tracked my spending for long enough to know that’s more than enough for most months – so I tend to spend my money freely.
12 a.m.: Lunch time! I have some pre-packaged Indian food from my Trader Joe’s run on Saturday.
4 p.m.: Around this time I start to zone out and think about dinner. I poke around epicurious for delicious looking recipes. Something baked would be nice….
6:44 p.m.: I arrive back in the city. I was interrupted with work while on my recipe search so I won’t be cooking tonight. I come home and bake a goat cheese pizza I got on Saturday and pour myself a glass of wine.
7 p.m.: I eat in front of the TV, putting in the Netflix DVD I got in the mail today and relax for the rest of the evening. Total spent today: $0

Day 4
7:30 a.m.: Tuesday. Same routine as yesterday. My weekdays pretty much all look the same, but this week is interesting because I’m taking Wednesday to Friday off!
9 a.m.: UGH. Arrive at work. Since I’m gone the rest of the week I have a bunch of meetings crammed into today, plus there is work I need to hand off before I run off on vacation.
11:40 a.m.: Coworker’s farewell lunch. A very delicious $20.
5:50 p.m.: Train arrives back in the city. I decide to eat something fresh tonight so I go to the grocery store across the street from the train station. I pick up an Ahi tuna steak, some yogurt and a pineapple. I live so close to the grocery store that when I buy fresh stuff I only buy for one meal. Spent $10.30
6:15 p.m.: Come home, pour a glass of wine, and make some rice. I sear the tuna and enjoy my dinner in front of the TV. Snack on pineapple the rest of the evening.
8:36 p.m.: Get kind of bored and surf Target.com. There’s a ring I’ve been eyeing but last time I checked it was sold out. OH WOW I CAN’T BELIEVE IT it’s back in stock.You get free shipping if you spend $50, so I look around and find some shoes and sweater that is suitable for work. Total for my order is $67.86. Total Spent today: $98.16

Day 5
7:30 a.m.: Wednesday. OMG vacation! Why am I up? Stupid alarm clock… I stay in bed reading the news on my iPhone out of principle.
9 a.m.: Boyfriend’s plane arrives around 1 p.m. I pace around and decide to go downtown to watch tourists. I get a latte at Starbucks ($2.90) and buy some eye cream at Sephora ($43.80), plus bus fare for $2
11:25 a.m.: Come back home and check plane status — estimated arrival is 20 minutes early. I log on to Zipcar and book a car. WTF! the car that’s parked in my building is already booked! I guess I should have done it earlier….Instead, I book a car that’s a block away. Current estimate for Zipcar charges is $28.74 for a 3 hour reservation. Boyfriend will expense that as part of his trip so I won’t be paying for it.
1:30 p.m.: Pick up boyfriend at the airport. Since we don’t have a car, often we decide to go shopping for heavy things when we get a Zipcar. We get a bag of rice and a case of my favorite wine plus some other groceries while we’re at it. Total grocery: 169.06
5 p.m.: We unpack for a bit and then head down to happy hour at the sushi place down the street. 4 rolls, 3 cocktails and 1 beer later, we are out $45.22 Total Spent today: 262.98. A bit much for one day but that bag of rice and case of wine will last for a while.

Day 6
8 a.m.: Thursday. I make breakfast while boyfriend makes coffee. We both have the rest of the week off, which is nice.
12:30 p.m.: We decide to have a day of unpacking at home, but for lunch we make a trek to our favorite taco truck. Their burritos are huge so we split one ($7.50). The truck is halfway to Trader Joe’s so we go check it out. We have plenty of food at home already so we didn’t buy much – just some more ham for breakfast and some ground beef and chicken stock. Total $16.31 + $4 bus fare.
2 p.m.: My body lotion stopped pumping this morning so I take a knife and cut open the bottle. I can get another several weeks of lotion just digging out what’s left on the bottom. Since I’m writing this diary I can imagine Ramit mocking my “frugal” habits while throwing a cup of pennies over his head – LOL. To each his own, I guess, but I don’t get the attitude that I should be wasteful just because I can afford to be. I also reuse my ziplock bags depending on what was in it and save medium to large cottage cheese or yogurt containers, but that’s another story for another day. I am a firm believer in the saying “waste not, want not.” It wasn’t until recently that I became this affluent (and by affluent I mean thoroughly middle class), and I’m not going to take it for granted. Total spent today: $27.81

Day 7
8:30 a.m.: Friday. I have to say, my ham breakfast is delicious.
11:30 a.m.: I feel like a shopping trip today so we take the car out to Ikea, Target and Petsmart. Zipcar for 3.5 hours ($33.54); Bridge Toll ($4); Target (clothes hangers and cleaning supplies – $4.68); Ikea (plant, cushion, pet toy and a soft serve – $21.83); Petsmart – Forty some odd dollars, but I have a $100 gift card from my credit card rewards.
3 p.m.: I check my email and PG&E has sent me a bill. $22.99 for last month that I pay right away.
5:15 p.m.: Happy hour! There’s a place nearby that is doing 50c oysters and I love oysters. Total $38.00 for the oysters and drinks. Afterward, we take a walk up the Embarcadero (the waterfront) and watch tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf.
9 p.m.: $4 bus fare back home. Total spent today: 129.04

In Sum
Total for the week: $633.20. It’s a bit much for a typical week, but I was on vacation for a good chunk of it. Most of the spending was on food, either eating out or grocery and I also stocked up staples (as much as wine is a “staple”). It’s still early in the month but I’m well within my budget so I should be fine the rest of the month. I am perfectly at ease with my spending this week.

* * *

My thoughts

  • I love that she rents out her parking space to earn $250/month. If you’re interested in earning more, I’ll be announcing something next month…sign up here to get details first.
  • I don’t know how long she’s been tracking her money, but she’s skilled at managing costs and monitoring her spending.
  • She understands her own behavior and how to strategically apply barriers to control her behavior. Here’s a good sign of someone who’s expert at self-awareness: “If I spend over that amount I have to really think if it is worth the hassle of pulling it back out of my ING account. I’ve tracked my spending for long enough to know that’s more than enough for most months – so I tend to spend my money freely.”
  • This is a move right out of my parents’ handbook: “My body lotion stopped pumping this morning so I take a knife and cut open the bottle.” I laughed out loud. My parents add water to the shampoo bottles.
  • I’m a huge fan of how she takes vacation and enjoys it without guilt. That’s Conscious Spending at its best.
  • Overall, I’m impressed with her self-awareness and control. This is someone who has a smooth financial system. Next steps include earning more (at work and on the side), investing more, double-checking her asset allocation, and planning for longer-term events. But these are natural and completely manageable from her current level.

* * *

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38 Comments

 
  1. I track my money the exact same way. It’s so interesting to see where it is all going. I’ve been doing it for over a year now and it is just habit. She sounds a lot like me!

  2. Interesting. One thing that this reminded me of is that most people have no idea how they spend their money. Unless we write down every cent we spend for a whole month, we really don’t know. Everyone thinks they know, but they don’t. I am speaking from first hand experience, because I learned a lot when I tracked my spending for a whole month.

    Another thing is that she is very good at tracking her spending, but I wonder how she is at making money. Many people love to save money because it is easy to track. And, I think that if she spent as much effort making money, she would have a lot more to spend.

    • George, I love your point about how saving/tracking is easier (and therefore more prevalent) than earning more…but earning more is ultimately more rewarding.

      One of the 3 legs of my CEO Model is E: Earn more. I’ll be focusing on that soon, so if you guys are interested in earning more… sign up for early details.

  3. What a great idea with renting her parking space! Increasing income and keeping expenses withing reason is the smart way to go.

  4. Like this person, I also track every penny I spend. The only warning flag I see here is that she tends to shop when she’s bored (the Target purchase and IKEA run are great examples.) Instead of shopping, I’d replace that with a hobby. I didn’t see any mentions of hobbies in her timeline.

    I use that same random downtime to create content — writing blog posts; creating products to sell — and it works well for me.

    -Erica

  5. She sounds almost exactly like me!! Except that I:
    1) Earn extra income by way of my Etsy shop
    2) I track my spending to the penny as well, but with debit/credit through Mint.com and yodlee… I’m done with tracking via spreadsheet because it is MUCH too time consuming
    3) I don’t empty out my account once the month is over. I think that is a bit extreme even for me.

    I also tend to window shop when I’m bored… my greatest vice…. but I feel like I’m saving and investing SO much already (transferring $1000 to a high interest savings acct per month and 15% of paycheck pre-tax to 401K) that a little bit of shopping is okay.

  6. [...] Comment! The Money Diaries: The 27-year-old product designer who tracks her finances a little TOO closely [...]

  7. I concur with Elle. It’s so resourceful to rent out that parking space. Most wouldn’t think about that.

  8. Thanks Ramit… just bought your book! Its my new favorite PF read

  9. She watches every penny she spends so she’s earned the right to go out and shop when she wants to.

  10. The Idea of emptying out the checking account each month into a savings account is Amazing! I have never thought of that!
    I have money being deposited from paychecks to ING so i am automating savings but the idea she states is great.

    I love tracking money, i am a fiend now! I log onto my Mint.com account about 3 times a day. I use Debit to track everything (no credit right now because i am paying it off).

    I love this diary. She is smart, and making good decisions. But like myself, she needs to relax a little.

    Like you mention in your book Ramit, you plan on spending less and less time managing your money as life goes on, and automation is the way to go. Set it and forget it.
    I still worry, i check accounts like a fiend and it is hard for me to relax quite yet.
    Until debt is gone, and a HUGE buffer has been set, i will always check my Mint after a few purchases throughout the day. Just to make sure i am not going to over draft.

    Great Blog. Keep up the Awesome work Ramit.

  11. My first comment on here, but I’ve been reading the blog for a while. I love reading the Money Diaries, and anxiously await the next one. The one thing that stood out to me was that that she spent $600 in a week but only has a budget of $1700 a month. That leaves only $1100 for the rest of the month, or $366 a week. Seems like spending might fluctuate wildly each week, and I’d be interested to see week 3 or 4 of this month.

  12. I would like to see that the Scrooge Strategy does not have any strings attached- right now you have 1 month free but can still charge the cc after that first month. We should be able to join if we want afterwards- much easier.

  13. What about exercise? She lives in a great city with a moderate climate, yet she still takes public transportation everywhere. The biggest win of all can be investing in your health.

  14. It’s nice to see someone who has their finances together doing one of these! The only thing that stood out to me was trying to spend $50 on target.com to get free shipping. Spending to save money? But I guess she got some useful things anyway.

  15. I liked this post. It gives me some ideas on how I can track my spending better. The only thing I didn’t like is it would be a lot easier to live and manage my money if I was making as much as her ($55,000 per year pre tax from my estimate) that’s more than twice what I make…

  16. I love her idea of using a prepay plan on an iphone and only using wifi for internet access. One question – Does she text message? That’s where prepay goes down the drain for me. I use maybe 300 minutes on average a month and haven’t thought about this idea. I might consider this. I don’t need the internet everywhere I go and I feel I’ve become dependent on it.

    I never thought of zip car before this article either and now that seems like a more logical choice for me. The only thing is I’m a suburb of metro Atlanta so getting to one of their cars would take a few bus rides and time on public transportation.

  17. Oh and to add to my comment before. Spending $150 on Alcohol seems a little much for one month.

  18. I second Ramit and Matt – I live in Manhattan and $150 is pretty much what I spend basically every single Friday AND Saturday night in the city… It’s depressing when you think about it, but I guess it’s the price you pay for getting to be a bachelor in the greatest city in the world!

  19. Yeah, Douglas, you don’t have to live in Manhattan, either. I can go out in Cleveland and drop $100-150 in a single night on booze, especially if there’s a group thing going on.

  20. Since she already takes advantage of purchasing her monthly train pass pre-tax, she probably should also allot some money aside for a bus pass, if available. If I calculated correctly, she spent $16 for bus trips during this week, which is $800+/year.

  21. How is her PGE bill in San Francisco PG&E $22.99 ? I live in SF (not too far from her) and have a $50 bill each month while being stingy with heat. I do cook a lot though compared to her.

  22. I think whatever works is exactly what people should be doing. I admire this kind of dedication as long as it don’t make her back peddle.

  23. She could probably be having more fun and be more relaxed with her spending. I don’t see a reason why she should input every single thing into her computer. It’s taking up happy thought time (the enjoyment of what she bought). It doesn’t matter if she goes over by only a little bit if she doesn’t track her spending, she can just work more and create more value for people.

  24. Very interesting, I thought I’m the only one who tries to track every penny I spend…I also make sure that I get my money’s worth…in fact aside from making sure I squeeze out all the remaining shampoo, lotion or whatever items I have…so long as I could keep the containers, I would…recycling lol…I don’t get to spend on some boxes, containers, etc. :P..funny but true…

  25. In Bangkok you have to factor in an extra tenner or so a month to bribe police but as its so damn cheap out there I don’t worry about it too much.

  26. I am so confused!

    Am I missing something or did the monthly expenses she listed NOT include groceries?

    I’m seeing:

    =$1967.30 for the month of September

    = $117.75 for transportation; $235 for health care; $140.29 eating out; $153.18 for alcohol/wine; $757.83 for household things (including a couch off craigslist for $680); $12.05 for toiletries; $134.76 for electronics (bought a GPS); $34.97 in entertainment (tickets to museums, movies, shows etc; Netflix subscription) and $32.94 in misc stuff.

    Unless this is lumped into the “household items” – but in that case she’s only spending less than $90 a month or so given the $680 couch…

    I’m confused on this one.

    What is her grocery budget?

    An extra 200 a month should be added onto this I’m guessing…

  27. Well where i am from it is more fun to hit up a liquor store, buy 100 dollars split between 5 or 6 people, hang out at a house and get trashed.
    I rarely go to bars. A few months ago i decided that it was one area that i can easily control spending so i always keep it below 25 a month. And i still get to have fun..

  28. Ramit’s initial comment about the big wins is probably the only place she can “improve”. Although she’s tracked everything well there’s no indication of a future or anything to work towards. This girl won’t be 27 forever and living like this she’ll do ok, but she has potential for more.

  29. Claire,

    If you add the amounts given for those expenses listed, the sum is not what she gave for her total monthly spending ($1618.77 vs. $1967.30). The difference is likely her food budget. She spent about $235 during the Diary-week on groceries, so the ~$350 difference is in line with what her monthly spending might be if she typically stocks up one week for a good portion of the month.

    Now I’ll stop wasting time and actually start studying for finals.

  30. [...] Sometimes they make me feel like a star when it comes to Personal Finance and then I read ones like this, and realize how much better I could be [...]

  31. If you are a Canadian, you know how hard it can be to find personal finance software for Canadians. Here is a review I did by putting together software that can handle money tracking – http://adawnjournal.com/2009/10/08/personal-finance-software-review-by-financial-author-a-dawn/
    Hope this helps.

  32. I really enjoyed reading her day to day life, it was interesting. I like how she monitors her spending which is what I try to do. I am no where near as good as this. I track what I spend but usually the big items… but thinking about it now and reading her post it looks as though a lot is spent on smaller things and that could be where my money goes having a coffee a couple of times a week will soon add up. She has inspired me to monitor it properly for the next month, may be after christmas now – December is always an extreme month.

  33. Funny she mentions her jailbroke iphone on tmobile. You need an unlocked AND jailbroken iphone to use another carrier. Jailbreaking alone doesnt allow you to use another carrier. Unlocking is what allows you to use another carrier.

  34. Wow, so interesting to see how other people live! What’s a jailbroke i phone? I can’t believe how little the phone bill is. I live in a rural area so can’t get free wi-fi too many places. I wish there were restaurants that were worth spending the money eating out. I can’t believe she only spend $47 at the grocery store. Just so interesting to see the different lifestyles.

  35. Wow, this girl is really into monitoring her spending. The cool thing is that it seems that she enjoys it! She does not seem to do it “because she has to” but because she views it as a hobby or something that makes her feel good about herself :)

    Her automated system of transferring money is also effective. I tried to do it for myself too, by attempting to create an ING direct account, but failed; I am on a Visa status and the account is only available for US residents or resident aliens. Do you know a bank that allows automation through sub-accounts for non-resident aliens?

    - Maria

  36. This girl seems to have her finances under close monitoring. A couple comments:
    Why does she spend more just to get free shipping? Unless the price difference would equal a free item, just suck it up.

    With paying her (I’m assuming) utility bill immediately after receiving it, she misses out on optimizing her cash flow. If you monitor your spending this closely, you can ensure you pay bills right as they are due.

    Lastly, I wonder if she is auto-saving for her 10 year plan into ING. I recently started this, and it is great!