Want A Fat Bank Account? Treat Money Like Food

Publicly published money journals are the next wave of social sharing

If you want to lose weight, there’s strong evidence that tracking every bite is key to success. A Kaiser Permanente study found that those who kept a daily food journal lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t keep regular records—that includes being ruthlessly honest about portion sizes, stress-eating, and knowing when you’ve had enough.

Turns out the same approach to getting healthy might also apply to financial fitness. Just like food, we tend to use money as a coping strategy, yet underestimate the amount we spend, as well as the amount we actually need. Which is why money diaries—written by regular people and published publicly—have started cropping up, particularly on sites devoted to female audiences. Refinery29, for instance, has its Money Diaries series, as does Man Repeller, and the Washingtonian has a Food Money Sex column. Each looks at Americans of varying age, income, and employment and tracks how much they spent and on what over a week or weekend. Refinery29, the first and arguably most popular online money diary, celebrated the one-year anniversary of its inception in January. To commemorate the occasion, they had former diarists share what happened after they had kept and published their diaries.

Responses indicated that keeping the diary both stopped them from overspending the week of and in the weeks post; diarists were more conscious of where their money was going and knowing the record would be public made them feel accountable for their spending. In addition, not only did recorders spend less while keeping a diary, but it helped them “diagnose” some of their spending issues. A food diary helps identify how our emotions, dining companions, perceptions versus reality, and speed of eating affect how, what, and when we eat. The reflections from the money diarists paralleled these insights—diarists indicated being surprised by how much they actually spent versus how much they thought they did; how much they spent in response to positive emotions; how fast little things added up; and how much money was spent on social activities.

Of course, gaining the useful insight these diarists did requires actually keeping a money diary—one that is honest and thorough. Luckily, the bullet journal exists and was sent to us to accomplish just such a goal. For the uninitiated, bullet journals are part to-do list, part diary, and part planner. The creators of the bullet journal understand that you don’t have time to sit down and write about how you feel after every purchase. Instead, the form instructs quick, bulleted notes. Keep a running list of every purchase and price—maybe one note—and then go back and expand when you have time. Bullet journals typically include a page devoted to each month—this would be where you would track all monthly expenses. The beauty of a bullet journal is that the form is nebulous—and there are some very #goals examples out there.

Part of the reason the Refinery29, Man Repeller, and Washingtonian money diaries are so popular is that finance is typically a closed-door conversation—we hate talking about money. We don’t hear about what our friends make or spend, so it’s understandable that we jumped at the chance to read about others’ budgets. There’s no shame in keeping your money diary private, but part of the reason the Refinery29 diarists spent less was that they felt that a public journal held them accountable. One interesting way to imitate the experience would be keeping a money diary on Tumblr. Plus, it’s clear there’s an appetite for reading others’ money journals—why not help satisfy the curiosity?

There are also an abundance of money tracking apps available. The apps vary widely—some will even monitor your investments and others will help you maximize credit card rewards. It’s good to note, however, that many of the apps are so self-sufficient they take some of the reflecting out of the process (most even sync up automatically to your bank accounts). An app is a better option than quitting or not keeping a journal at all, but it won’t lend the same accountability that writing each purchase down will. If a bullet journal, Tumblr, or an app isn’t right for you—there’s always the good old-fashioned spreadsheet.

People are perennially bad at budgeting, and we already know some of the reasons why: Research has found that we are terrible at imagining future expenses, we spend too much to reward ourselves, and our moods too often affect our spending. Considering the insight gleaned from the Refinery29 money diarists, the heightened awareness a money journal brings could combat some of our issues with saving money. In the same way that a food diary promotes weight loss and helps diagnose problematic eating behaviors and physical symptoms, a money diary promotes spending less and helps pinpoint unhealthy spending habits. One diarist summed it up perfectly:

“The tracking helped me feel more in control. I see a similarity between eating healthy and budgeting—when I write down what I eat or spend, I tend to be more thoughtful and make better decisions.”

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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