Money Savin’ Mama: Getting out of the habit of spending

It’s been an expensive fall for Money-Savin’ Mama.

No big, unplanned expenses put a dent in the family finances. Rather, I’ve let little splurges raid my wallet.

We’ve been on the go a lot, with a wedding in Minneapolis and a banquet in Grand Forks. My best friend came to Fargo for a few days. My husband used a flight voucher to visit his brother on the East Coast.

We dined out and paid for drinks. I bought new (secondhand) clothes, and planned fun excursions for the kids while Dad was out of town.

These are all wonderful things I happily loosened my purse strings to enjoy. After all, that’s the point of saving, and why we have an online money market account set aside for travel and gifts.

The problem is tightening those strings again. Because like saving, spending is a habit. And little expenses here and there add up.

For example, it worked best to get lunch from fast food restaurants on our way to and from the Cities. I quickly got used to the practice.

I could have packed sandwiches to eat on our dinner-hour drive to Grand Forks a couple weeks later but didn’t, thinking how much easier it was to stop at the Burger King along the way.

Easier, yes. More expensive, also yes.

Another day this month, as I picked up Owen from his drop-off daycare center, I had a sudden craving for curly fries from the nearby Arby’s. I swung through the drive-thru and ordered a combo meal.

A few days later, I really wanted those seasoned curls again, and once again, treated myself. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and had another appointment in half an hour, I justified.

The third time I found myself pulling into the drive-thru, I realized what was happening. I’d turned that one-time craving into a habit.

I ordered only a small sandwich and fries from the value menu, reducing my bill by several dollars, and vowed to cut myself off.

The fact that the server at the drive-thru window recognized me and Owen cemented by desire to get back in control.

In his book “The Power of Habit,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg shows how easily spending – like smoking, exercising, eating or any behavior – can become an unconscious habit.

Duhigg illustrates the habit loop. A cue (picking up Owen from daycare) triggers a routine (going to the drive-thru), which results in a reward (mmm … curly fries).

Appropriately rewarded, we start to repeat the loop without thought.

When we spend because of a habit (like a morning coffee or weekly trip to the mall) we aren’t getting the best value from our money. We’re letting it slip through our fingers instead of doling it out wisely.

While there is no silver bullet to changing habits, Duhigg points out that recognizing our own cues, routines and rewards is the first step.

I recognized my potentially expensive curly fry habit quickly. I’m becoming more cognizant of other recent spending urges.

Even though I didn’t fall out of the savings habit (automatic transfers ensure our retirement, medium-term and emergency funds continue to increase), it’s time to stop my autumn of excess.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

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