Have you ever thought, “I’ve got to get my spending under control?”

That’s just what I was thinking on a Saturday morning while going over bills. Somehow I’m always surprised at how all those little purchases add up. I’m 60. You’d think I would have figured this out by now.

My book, Retirement Basics: Help for Broke Baby Boomers, even has a section on how to save. I know what to do. So why do I have so much trouble?

Retirement is coming, and I know that if I ever want to stop working, my lifestyle has to change. But knowing and doing are two different things. I haven’t been very successful at saving so far. Today I decided I would take action. I’d start a spending challenge.

The Challenge

My challenge was that I wouldn’t spend money for an entire week – no cash, no credit cards, no checks. I’d live with what I had from that moment forward. I had gas in the car and some food in the fridge. I’d have to make do with whatever was on hand.

The Temptations

Milling around department stores and malls never appealed to me. It was draining and always left me dragging, but online shopping? Now that I can do. It doesn’t help that once I click on an item like a red dress for the holidays at Nordstrom or cute new boots from Zappos, I’m relentlessly bombarded with ads. They’re on my computer, my email, every site I open and now, even on my phone.

Buy with one click. Whoever thought of that was a genius. It makes it so easy to separate you from your hard-earned money. I quickly removed my credit card number from Amazon, my nemesis. If I wanted something – and Amazon has so many things – I’d have to enter the number manually. How archaic!

Amazing, but those few extra seconds gave me time to rethink the purchase. Even though there was Free Shipping, I stuck to my guns.

The mountain town where I live has a grocery store, but everything is sold at resort prices. The supermarket is 20 miles away. Not convenient. I live alone and don’t keep a lot of food, so a daily stop at the grocery store, though expensive, keeps me in fresh food. Not this week!

Breaking with Routine

As I took stock of my provisions, I saw there were several organic frozen meals. There was pasta and sauce and a couple of bags of chopped salad. I could make do. Not going to the store was tough. My car drove there after work as if on automatic pilot. I had to make a conscious effort to steer it home. Even though I knew the savings would be substantial, it was hard.

Working 9-5 kept me occupied most of the day, but the nights were painful. On the way home, I would usually pick up a snack or something to munch on while reading or watching TV. I hadn’t stocked up on anything like that and had to forage in the back of the pantry. There was some old Jell-O and packets of low-cal chocolate pudding from a long-ago diet plan gone awry. Yuck!

Diet Coke is a big weakness of mine, a real habit. I’d been meaning to cut it out for a long time. This could be my downfall. Diet Coke was more than just a beverage to me; it was an event and therefore tougher to give up. When I’d stop by the store, I’d pick up a Diet Coke. Stop for gas, go in and get one. It was my biggest challenge, but at about $2 a bottle, the savings were adding up.

Resisting The Allure

There’s no mail delivery in my town. It’s rural. We have to go to the Post Office every day to pick up the mail. The grocery store and the Post Office are in the same building. As I walked by, I could see the fresh baked muffins in the glass case at the front of the store. Pistachio, hmmm my favorite, and right behind was a cold Diet Coke just waiting. It was killing me, but I kept going.

Success?

When the week was over, I was grateful. I was also pleased. I had done it. I rose to the challenge. My spending could be controlled when I wanted. I could see just how many things I buy that I don’t need. It was a relief to see I could save so much.

I was proud that I didn’t run right out and buy the things I had done without. At the supermarket, my spending habits were changed. I didn’t buy any Diet Coke. No club soda, no bottled water, in fact, no beverages at all. Tap water would do just fine.

I was thoughtful and contemplated each item. Did I need it? I went to the deli counter and thought, what could be the difference between the $10.99/lb and the $6.99/lb ham? Turns out, not anything I could discern. Did my dog really need the treats made with all natural, human grade ingredients? I don’t think so.

My grocery bill was notably less. I didn’t buy any clothes and made not one purchase on Amazon. What it took was a change in priorities, breaking of habits and some will power. There was a goal. I wanted to quit my job and travel, and if I couldn’t control my spending, it was never going to happen. I saved money but came away with so much more. Self-discipline brought with it confidence and the feeling of independence. Now that was fun!

Will I continue on this path? I think so. I have a different perspective about money. I can see how a few small changes can make a big difference. Awareness makes all the difference in the world. I have to admit though that when I saw Sea Salt Caramel Gelato on sale, I went for it. After all, what’s life without a few little pleasures?

Have you ever given yourself a similar spending challenge? What little items do you buy that add up? Do you have trouble saving money? How do you keep yourself on track? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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