Baby on a Budget

It all started with a letter in September from my auto insurance company that they would not be renewing my coverage for the next year at the current rate I was paying. I hadn’t had to adjust my insurance for several years, and had all but put this expense out of my mind. I’ve never claimed to be good with finances, after all. But as I asked my mom how I should go about finding another provider as a “high-risk driver” (yikes) I have never felt more like a plastic bag blowing in the wind when it came to money.

I started asking people how they kept track of their spending. I think I half-hoped that budgeting required some rare, innate skill that I simply didn’t have, so I could continue to bury my head in the sand about my spending habits. Then, my best friend showed me how her banking app categorized and tracked her spending so that she could make conscious decisions about when she could afford to eat out at a restaurant that week or buy new winter boots this month.

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Breakdown of my bills and expenses during a healthy month

“Sometimes looking at my bank account feels gross,” she said, “but I’d rather know than not know.” The magic words I needed to hear. I needed to face the damage. It was no longer acceptable to make a habit of accumulating ever-more consumer debt. I’m supposed to be a grown-ass woman!

So, I started doing some research. My mom had been encouraging me to use an Excel spreadsheet to budget my spending, however, it felt clunky and unrealistic to type in expenses retroactively and hold on to receipts to ensure accurate numbers. I have enough clutter – there had to be an app for that. And then I found Mint. After connecting my bank accounts to the app, I saw the state of my finances in all its colourful glory, and it was…gross. My spending exploded wildly from month to month, on things I could barely remember buying. I could literally trace the peaks and valleys of my depression by tracking increases in spending on things like take-out, delivery, and fast food, and decreases in gas and travel purchases. Clearly times where I was not leaving the house and seeking comfort. And by the end of every month, I was putting more and more things on my credit card, because I simply had no cash left. The whole exercise was horrifying. But now I knew. I had developed some self-indulgent habits that were extremely costly and I was overspending every single month.

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The yellow reflects reckless spending under “Shopping”, “Uncategorized” and “Food &  Dining” in the months prior to having an organized budget

Mint made it easy to plug in my bills and arrange for pre-authorized payments so that all my bills were paid in cash. (Do I sound like an advertisement yet?) The app categorized my past spending and made suggestions for monthly budgets for what I regularly spent money on – groceries, gas, restaurants, coffee, pharmacy, cat food, etc. It became clear that spending $150 monthly on coffee like I was Beyonce, was living beyond my means, to put it mildly. Starbucks, and its wildly successful Gold Star customer reward program that made me a loyal minion, had no place in my new budget.

The knowledge of the boundaries and limits of my budget has allowed me to create habits that have a positive spillover effect into other parts of my life. Making my own coffee at home in the morning cuts financial costs as well as calories, yet I don’t feel deprived of taste and have created more time for myself in the morning. Meal planning requires a level of preparation and organization, so staying within budget promotes a cleaner kitchen space, something that has always felt elusive to me in the past.

You might be asking what working within a budget has to do with mental health, and before writing this post, I couldn’t put my finger on why managing my finances properly made me feel better. But, like I discussed in my previous post about the burden of keeping secrets, my unaddressed debt and poor financial hygiene weighed heavily on me because I didn’t own it. It was a sore spot that I didn’t want to face, and on some level of my subconscious mind, it bothered me.

The cycle of good habits I’m creating will serve me well when the next depressive low rolls around, because the routine is already in place. This is particularly crucial as winter descends, a season that traditionally does not treat me kindly. In learning to accept my financial reality and face consequences, I’m shedding light on one of my biggest blind spots. There is a sense of peace in lifting the lid on my shortcomings and living transparently.