Motivation to save small amounts of money when goal feels huge?
May 19, 2019 5:13 PM   Subscribe

There are a ton of personal finance/saving questions on AskMe but I couldn't find one in this particular flavor: what are ways to motivate yourself to save tiny amounts of money when the goal you're trying to get to is nebulous, and not achievable for many, many years? Not looking for specific budgeting tips like "cut out Netflix," rather looking for successful perspectives/thought patterns that could make saving $5 here and $10 there seem more significant if the goal is mid-six figures or more.

I live in the Bay Area where the price of buying a home is out of reach and the daily cost of living is super high. I'm always feeling sticker shock at how much my rent/electricity/water/groceries are, as well as the cost of buying lunch/socializing.

Because I constantly feel like I'm paying more for things than I'm comfortable paying -- and because the necessary amount for a down payment seems so vast -- saving small amounts of money just seems... pointless? I *do* put part of my paycheck into savings - it just goes directly there via direct deposit. But I KNOW I'm wasting money in a million little ways... and can't motivate myself to stop. Why save $5 by walking instead of a Lyft, if I'm still hundreds of thousands of dollars away from my goal? Who cares if it takes 15 years to achieve my savings goal instead of 13 (both made up numbers, but you get the picture)? Both amounts of time seem like forever away. So I waste money on unnecessary things because I feel overwhelmed.

My spouse and I are ultimately hoping to move to a cheaper area, but right now our jobs are here and this is the best place for us to be career- and finance-wise so at least *trying* to save money for a down payment here is our current plan.

As I said above, I'm *not* looking for budgeting tips like "bring your lunch to work!" or "share your mom's HBO password!". And I'm not looking for "Move away from San Francisco already, why are you wasting your life being stressed in this amusement park for the ultra-rich?!" We ARE in SF for the time being, and I'm looking for motivational tips that helped you save tiny amounts of money even though your goal is far off.

Also for context, I am *very* reward, gift and praise-motivated - words of affirmation are my love language, and I like tangible, achievable goals -- I motivated myself to pay off my student loans by focusing on each individual loan and celebrating when that one was paid off, since thinking of the whole amount was overwhelming. I don't know how to do that when my goal is "to have enough money to buy a house."

Also, I grew up with a dad who prided himself on being "cheap" and saving money, and who said people who spent money were stupid. He scrimped and saved and didn't believe in giving gifts EVER, or wearing conventional clothing, or going on vacations... and he died young before enjoying any of his money. So I guess I'm also looking for ways of thinking about saving money that are somewhere in between my "alkjslkdjf I'm overwhelmed and I live in an expensive city where everyone is constantly charging me too much, let me just throw all my money away" and the "spending money on non-necessities is morally wrong, people who do so are stupid and will live to regret their errors, wanting to be fashionable/engage in culture/have fun is wasteful" culture I grew up with.
posted by rogerroger to Work & Money (44 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
The mindset that works for me is "pay yourself". That hits my reward centers.

Instead of asking if paying $5 for a Lyft will help buy a house, I ask myself if I'd walk half a mile if someone paid me $5.

Another recent example... Cheaper flights are always at awkward times of day but instead of asking myself about saving $200 on the ticket price, I ask myself if I'd wake up at 04:30am if someone paid me $200 to do that... Hell yes I would!!
posted by McNulty at 5:28 PM on May 19, 2019 [105 favorites]

McNulty, that type of positive strategy is EXACTLY what I'm looking for, thank you! Anything that is punitive/about scrimping and saving/judgmental (either of me or others) just demotivates me.
posted by rogerroger at 5:31 PM on May 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I saved for 3 years in a minimum wage job to go to Europe for 3 months. I saved for 5 years as a single woman to buy a shit hole of a house. I saved for another 4 years to travel around the USA. I did all of these on jobs that never paid above $20 an hour (and often less & also often cash in hand) & with huge tracks of time (up to 6 months at a shot) in there when I was unemployed. I tell you this to tell you where I come from when I say the following so you don't think it a silly tried motivational quote. "Is what I want now, what I want the most?" With every single non essential purchase ask yourself that question.
posted by wwax at 5:36 PM on May 19, 2019 [22 favorites]

Break a big goal into smaller milestones and reward yourself somehow for reaching those milestones.
posted by axiom at 5:39 PM on May 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I invoke the Chinese proverb "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".
but I really like McNulty's framing of it, like would I "walk a half a mile if someone paid me $5?".
posted by DrGail at 5:41 PM on May 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it helps to expand your mind beyond focusing on home ownership. Where are you keeping your money in the meantime - 15 years is a lot of time for money to be losing value in a savings account.

From a wealth creation perspective, the stock market historically outperforms the property market in the long run, it's even more likely if you're talking about 10+ years.

Even once you have enough money to put into a down payment for a house it might still be advantageous to continue renting while earning a higher return in the stock market - it all depends on what the state of the market is at that point in time, what tax incentives you can take advantage of and what your future expectations are.

So don't feel like "you're doing something now with the payoff only happening in 15 years". Every dollar you save now can fit RIGHT AWAY into your long term investing strategy (which you should have worked out with a financial planner). Something like "right now they money I'm saving is earning a higher return, but at some point in the future I will have the option to move this into property which yields a lower return but provides some emotional benefits".
posted by xdvesper at 5:58 PM on May 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Who cares if it takes 15 years to achieve my savings goal instead of 13 ? You, 13 years from now.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:58 PM on May 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

Some small luxuries are worth it; some aren't. But in the moment, it's hard to say no. One way to decide is to think about it with some remove. In the evening or the next morning, think about purchases you made the previous day. Did you regret making (or not making) any? Adjust your patterns accordingly.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:08 PM on May 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

Well, I know someone (not me) who appears to do a lot in the non-cash economy ("I'll set up your Web page if you fix my lawn tractor" kind of thing, but he always seems to have a lot of irons in the fire while still holding down a challenging full time job). I only mention this in passing, only you will know if you have a social network and free time where that kind of thing might work for you, allowing you to kick more money into savings that you would otherwise have spent in those situations.

Plus you say you are praise oriented, so being able to cut these deals would show your resourcefulness and may develop a network where you get referrals. Just a thought.
posted by forthright at 6:11 PM on May 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is silly but my savings account is named "Hoard" because it amuses me to see it grow when I picture it as a big pile of gold that is our dragon-nest, instead of just numbers on a screen.
posted by teremala at 6:31 PM on May 19, 2019 [19 favorites]

I have never had any luck with budgets. For me, data on my actual behavior plus focus on a single change makes this go better.

Step 1: I get everything in Mint, and then once a month I go through and categorize every transaction.

Step 1a: I notice "Boy, I sure do spend a lot on (thing). For years this was alcohol and bars for me; lately it is airfare (traveling a lot to see my dying mom)" I'm not obligated to notice a thing and sometimes I don't. It just can come naturally from looking at the spending transactions.

Step 1b: I think, "eh, it feels like I can put another $25 a pay period into savings and still be ok; if I focus on drinking less alcohol that should do it and then some" *or* "whelp, gotta spend a lot on airfare to see my dying mom, it is what it is budget-wise"

Step 2: Adjust my auto direct deposit, if necessary, to account for the thought in Step 2.

Step 3: Don't worry about anything else on the spend side day-to-day, except for the thing that I identified in step 1b ("try to drink less alcohol"). If I wind up spending too much on sports tickets (classic me) or whatever, that's next month me's adjustment to make.

Step 3a: Especially don't worry day-to-day about my savings goals and how far/close away from the goal I am.

I'm focused on making the amount that I pay myself first go up, by focusing on spending less on one kind of thing, using data to inform my decision. What to do with the savings is a completely separate process that is independent of the payable side.
posted by Kwine at 6:57 PM on May 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Break the goal down into manageable components. You aren't going to buy a house in SF by walking instead of taking Lyft. But, set a goal of Save an Extra 20K By 2024 and you have 60 months to save that money, so 333/ month, 10/ day. Not insignificant, but possible.

I paid off my credit card at one point by taking lunch. I know, you said, but it's really about habit. Once I developed the habit of shopping, cooking extra for lunch, having a good pool of lunch favorites to make, it was no big deal. Once in the habit, I was able to keep saving when the debt was paid. Being in the habit of saving means passing up thoughtless purchases, and small luxuries, but being able to get the car repaired, take that trip to Italy when an opportunity arose.

And, yes, put effort into where the savings reside, as that makes a huge difference.
posted by theora55 at 7:27 PM on May 19, 2019 [11 favorites]

I focus on taking a small amount of pleasure every time I find something a little less expensive, figure out a way to do without something, make it myself, or keep from paying interest on a purchase.

I'm finally down to owing only on my house - everything else is paid off. So my spouse and I have started receiving our retirement payments and are living solely on that income - including making our house payment from our retirement funds. Then we each took another job - I've started a small fruit farm that will not end up paying much for three to five years but will eventually supply us all our fresh fruit and will also allow us to sell fruit to our neighbors (we live in a rural area), and my spouse took an educational job in a private school at a much lower salary than he made in public education.

Every penny of his salary - and I mean every penny - goes directly onto our mortgage as an additional principal payment. We live solely on our retirement funds. I recently started receiving Social Security payments, and we've added those funds to the principal payment since we're already used to living on the amount coming in . Currently we're able to put more than $5600/month directly on the mortgage principal alone. Any bonuses or dividends go on the principal too. AS a result, unless something changes we'll have the house paid off in two years.

I focus on taking pleasure in the small achievements in this process: first, my goal was to get the monthly interest amount paid down to under $1,000, then to get the principal amount of the regular principal payment larger than the interest amount, then to get the mortgage balance under $200,000. Once the monthly payment began go more to principal than to interest, overall progress has seemed to go more quickly. I can finally imagine THE END.

Every time I'm tempted to spend that extra principal money somewhere else, I remind myself how freeing it will be to FULLY PAY OFF MY HOUSE AND BE TOTALLY DEBT-FREE! At that point, our mortgage payment - which is currently coming out of our retirement funds - will be "free" money added back into our monthly budget. I look forward to that!

This is a long way to say: set small goals and take pleasure in paying yourself instead of creditors or vendors in your life. Have fun! Dave Ramsey has a good program if you want an overall guide of how to get out of debt.
posted by summerstorm at 7:38 PM on May 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Have you considered the "set it, and forget it" approach? In other words, have $x/month direct deposited in your future account or set up automatic transfers of $x/month to your future house fund account.
posted by oceano at 7:54 PM on May 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

I love this question and am excited to try some of the ideas in the answers here! Here are my techniques:

-have you ever seen those thermometers that fundraisers sometimes use to show how much money they’ve raised/how close they are to their fundraising goal? I stole that idea. I printed out a clip-art outline of a car (what I’m saving for) and then drew lines on the car dividing my total amount into $50 increments. I put it on my fridge and color in a section for each time I get another $50 saved. With gold marker, because I am a boss. It’s really motivating to see the car fill in!

-I put EVERYTHING non-essential in a wish list right in my budget app and make myself save for it (or budget for it) before I buy it. I do mean everything, even if it’s only $5 or $7. My friends think I’m going overboard by doing this. But those small impulse purchases at Target add up REAL QUICK, and it’s helpful to see that if I put those $5 towards that bath bomb, that’s $5 I don’t have to put towards the car fund. And it builds in a cooling-down period that’s really helpful. Half the time, I’ll end up deleting it off my wishlist.

-speaking of my budgeting app, I use YNAB, which lets you set goals and then shows you a pie chart of how much you’ve saved towards your goal, with colors to keep you on track monthly if you set an end date toward your goal. Not saying you have to use YNAB, but maybe there are online savings accounts that let you do this, or even just a website you can find to track your progress visually.

-I avoid temptation like the plague - I switched from shopping at Target to shopping at Walmart, just so I don’t have to walk past the super tempting home/clothing/cosmetic sections at Target. I deleted the Lyft app from my phone and just don’t consider it an option for me anymore. Maybe try to set yourself up for success in whatever ways you can, so that last-minute you doesn’t just give in to the impulse at the moment.

-I am always trying to remind myself of the bigger picture of why I’m saving. Think of an inspirational quote about home ownership and put it as your phone wallpaper if you need. When I’m wanting something really badly, I ask myself if it’s worth sacrificing my values of minimalism, anti-consumption, etc etc for.

I hope these ideas are helpful, and thanks for asking the question. Good luck with your saving!
posted by carlypennylane at 7:57 PM on May 19, 2019 [18 favorites]

We went to a financial planner and are learning how to make our money work harder for us. We moved a lot of savings into investments that we can quickly move money out of if there is an emergency, for example. We are more tightly watching our retirement funds.

The financial advisor is helping us with short, middle, and long term goals.

We also live in an expensive place and I think that taking these actions has been transformative for us.
posted by k8t at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

It helps me to look at the math. When we were paying down nearly six figures in student loan debt and only had an extra $10-20 per month to throw at it, I would still add that to the tracker at and look back at how far we'd come. It doesn't feel like progress in the middle of it, but we'd be able to see the momentum picking up as we snowballed the payments and eventually paid off 100% of our loans in less than six years.

I also like to set up little challenges for myself. I don't have to go without buying lunch for the whole month - I just have to go today without buying lunch. Am I strong enough to beat myself? Can I find a way to earn $5 or $10 to contribute to the cause? Did I beat my savings or side hustle earnings from last month?

I also used McNulty's mental trick. Reframing not-spending as earning or gaining really helps emotionally.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:09 PM on May 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

For me it's been helpful (essential, really) to structure my finances so that it's easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing.

What this means for you will be specific to your circumstances, personality and resources.
posted by bunderful at 8:18 PM on May 19, 2019

Play around with a compound interest calculator and you can really see how saving $5 today can pay off in the future! Also it makes me think about how it’s important that I save that particular $5, because the longer it has to mature the greater it’s potential.
posted by itsamermaid at 8:25 PM on May 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I also live in a city where buying a home will forever be out of my reach, but perhaps you just need to rethink what you're saving for? I have some expensive hobbies and have devoted savings accounts just to them, so that I'm not paying annual fees all at once (when I wouldn't be able to pay them because I don't have a huge salary). I also think about spending in terms of what I do enjoy. I have an account for travel so that when discounts come up for places I'm interested in going, I'm ready to pay for them. Or I think how, yeah, it'd be easy to get a Lyft home, or I could use that money to pay for duck confit, which I'm way more interested in. And sometimes, taking the Lyft is worth it.

Think about how you can put money away to live the life you want to instead of some nebulous goal you feel like you should be achieving.
posted by loriginedumonde at 8:50 PM on May 19, 2019

Something that worked well for me was having a dedicated bank account just for the subset of things on which it's relatively easy to adjust spending day to day - groceries, Lyfts, eating out, etc. I had a budget for those and an automatic payment of the budget amount into the account at the start of the month.

Somehow that made it really easy and natural to adjust spending to fit in the budget. I'd often find myself cutting back at the start of the month in order to increase the odds that there was some over at the end of the month for a treat.

These days my bank app shows me whether I'm on track with the discretionary spending for the month with a handy graphic, but I'm not sure US banking has caught up with this kind of thing quite yet!
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:21 PM on May 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Can you "pay" money you actively save into a different (savings or 401k or whatever vs. checking) account right away?

When I was trying to stop going out to lunch every single day I had terrible luck until I changed it from just knowing I was saving $10 every time I did that to actively putting $5 into my savings account whenever I did. Just a matter of tricking myself by watching a number go up, even though that number did not match up exactly to the amount of money I was really saving. Walk instead of taking a Lyft? $5 in the account, even (or even especially!) if you're "actually" saving even more money than that.
posted by Polycarp at 10:23 PM on May 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

You could think of it as keeping lifestyle inflation down. i.e. actual increase in income = my raise - lifestyle inflation, so if I want to get the biggest monetary bang for my good performance review at work or whatever, I should also keep living cheaply (when it makes sense; obviously, quality of life matters too).
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:35 PM on May 19, 2019

I looked at some of the luxuries I was spending money on and tried looking at them as a sort of "subscription service". For example, if my daily latte costs $3.65, then I think "Do I want to subscribe to Starbucks for $1314 per year?".
posted by alchemist at 12:06 AM on May 20, 2019 [10 favorites]

I’ve got the same problem, and I’m reading the answers with interest. carlypennylane’s suggestions come the closest to the sorts of things that my brain seems to be needing. I’ve also done something like green stamps, where I make a little coupon book (with a picture of my goal on the cover) and then cut out a bunch of squares from brown paper packing material. Then I label the squares with different values - $1, $5, $10, $20 and stash them. I “buy” the coupons when I’ve got the right sort of money and glue-stick them onto different pages in the book and put the money someplace quarantined and separate so I can’t transfer it or use it without being very clear that this will mess with the coupon book’s accuracy. Probably best shift the money somewhere more useful than a coffee can from time to time, but having it physically nearby (hoard-like) can be a nice feeling until you have a chance to take it to Gringott’s or whatever. It’s still slow, but the act of exchanging money for tokens makes it possible for my brain to feel that I’m doing something, rather than refraining from doing something. And having the physical coupon book makes it tangible in a way I seem to need also. For larger goals, you’ll want to be able to exchange a full book worth (e.g.) $500 for a special coupon in a level-up book or something.
posted by you must supply a verb at 1:26 AM on May 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I love Dan Ariely's Dollars and Sense. Wonderful, non-judgmental, and lots of psychology and economics. Instead of trying to rephrase the book is, I'll just use the cover words.

"Exploring a wide range of everyday topics—from the lure of pain-free spending with credit cards to the pitfalls of household budgeting to the seductive power of holiday sales—Ariely and Kreisler demonstrate how our misplaced confidence in our spending habits frequently leads us astray, costing us more than we realize, whether it’s the real value of the time we spend driving forty-five minutes to save $10 or our inability to properly assess what the things we buy are actually worth. Together Ariely and Kreisler reveal the emotional forces working against us and how we can counteract them. Mixing case studies and anecdotes with concrete advice and lessons, they cut through the unconscious fears and desires driving our worst financial instincts and teach us how to improve our money habits."

If the book is too much, their talk is good too (that was the reason why I bought the book)

One of their tips was to give yourself a visual marker on what you were saving for and why.
posted by moiraine at 1:35 AM on May 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

What works for me is to say “Having some savings is better than having no savings.”

Yes, it would take many years to amass enough money for a house where I live now. But I save anyway, because (1) if we move somewhere cheaper, then we’ll be able to buy a house; (2) even if we never do get to buy a house, those savings could keep us afloat in an emergency. Having the savings gives us options.

Even having a couple hundred dollars in savings could mean you don’t have to put an unexpected car repair on the credit card. Or at least put less on the credit card. You know?

And automate savings as much as you can. Even if it’s a small amount, just have it auto-transferred from checking to savings every time your paycheck comes in. Then you don’t have to feel guilty about spending money in your regular life; savings are already locked in.
posted by snowmentality at 5:16 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a very "me-specific" saving strategy, but I find that electronic displays and spreadsheets and such just don't really do it for me when I think about small amounts of money that I save. Instead, when I want to concentrate on saving small bits that add up, I'll actually take that money in cash and put it into a box. So if I saved $5 on a ride on one day, I'll put $5 in the box. Eventually, it looks like a giant pile of cash (because it's made up of small increments) and I can put it in my savings account, feeling accomplished for saving a tangible amount of money towards a goal.
posted by xingcat at 6:17 AM on May 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's hard to work towards a goal that's distant and vague. Goals that work are proximal and achievable.

So instead of saving toward a down payment sometime in the future, set a goal for this week. Can you save $50 this week? If so, do it, and then stretch it a little bit, like try for $60 next week. Be sure to reward yourself when you reach the goal, preferably by doing something that doesn't cost anything but that you really value -- like watching that guilty pleasure TV show, or taking a bubble bath, or whatever is motivating to you.

Be aware also that the little splurges you're trying to cut down on have a function. They probably help you feel better momentarily, like they are ways that you're treating yourself. Be aware that if you're going to stop those mini-splurges, you've probably got to build in some moments of emotional self-care. Next time you feel like taking that $5 Lyft, ask yourself what's going on? How are you feeling? See if you can come up with some ways to pamper yourself that don't involve spending.
posted by jasper411 at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

You can also encourage yourself to take the healthier option. walking instead of Lyft saves $5, and is better for your heart, lungs, brain, etc. desserts, many Starbucks drinks are loaded with sugar and dairyfat in addition to the expense. Alcohol is bad for your health, so pass on 3rd round. Carry a water bottle, 16 oz. = a pound, carry two and have a mini-workout while you walk. Investing in financial savings is great. Investing in your health, to whatever extent you can, has huge financial and personal rewards.

You're motivated by rewards. Keep an Excel/ Google spreadsheet with charts showing the growth of your savings. I did a slapdash example. Tracking progress visually helps a lot.
posted by theora55 at 10:59 AM on May 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Just had this in my feed. I feel it's relevant to your question: My Financial Self-Care Rituals.
posted by WCityMike at 11:00 AM on May 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I thought of one more thing - looking back at my progress is also super motivating to me. I keep a little note on my phone of a date in the past and the small amount of savings I had on that date, and the current date and current amount in savings. (For example: May 2008: $513 in savings account, April 2019: $7,324 in savings account). I only update it once every few months, but it’s helpful to reflect that, hey, I managed to accumulate that huge amount $5-$10 at a time.
posted by carlypennylane at 11:39 AM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't spend $5 bills. I bought a hollowed out book and put them in there, which is such a thrill every time I pull it out of my bookcase to add to the pile of money. It helps to think of the bills as genuinely not existing during the time they're in my wallet before I add them to the stash. Anyway, not spending fives is a budgeting tip, I guess, so ignore that, but I do find it very pleasing to save cash, so I can see it piling up. The hollowed out book is extra enjoyable.
posted by tangosnail at 12:54 PM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could set up a challenge/reward system for yourself. For instance, you could decide that you have set amounts to spend on each category (food, clothes, transportation, entertainment, etc.) every month, and if you're under budget at all at the end of the month, you get to take that "extra" money and blow it on something fun. That way you're sticking to your budget but you're squeezing the maximum amount of utility and enjoyment out of it.
posted by orange swan at 3:28 PM on May 20, 2019

I don't know if your bank does this or you can use one that does but mine has a program where they deduct a small amount of money from my checking account - like less than $5 each time once or twice a day. They won't do it if my balance is less than a hundred but I think I've accumulated about $300 in savings since the beginning of the year without even noticing.
posted by bendy at 4:48 PM on May 20, 2019

As some have said upthread, my "mental hack" is to focus on the raw mathematical power of compound interest (and compound debt).

In middle school, we had to do an exercise about buying a $200 handbag with a credit card and only paying the minimum and I am too lazy / in transit to recrunch the numbers, but you end up paying a ton more and it takes forever to pay off. That really stuck with me.

Conversely, that 5 dollar lyft? In 13 years in savings or stocks, it's worth like 18 dollars. That baby over tripled in value, and it's literally a drop in the bucket in the present. What if you multiplied it BY A THOUSAND?

but also, automating your savings is great advice. I got it young from the book I Will Teach You To Be Rich which really set me up right for financial independence while making literally $14,000 a year in grad school (weeps). So I recommend that book too-- he is explicitly against the "just bring your own coffee!!!" school of personal finance.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:51 PM on May 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I mean, just check out these compound interest graphs!
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:55 PM on May 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

In order to avoid my internal trigger about scarcity and deprivation, I have found it helpful to focus on what I can do today in order to be kind to myself tomorrow (I tend to think of it as my current self and future self, but that doesn't work for everyone). I keep the focus very narrow, today vs tomorrow or this week vs next week, because any future farther out feels meaningless. When I was at a thrift store (one of my favourite places in the world for shopping) yesterday to buy a small item I needed, I was able to avoid buying anything else by reminding myself that buying exactly and only one small thing was a kindness to myself rather than a punishment. Also, that I was choosing this for myself (which is true) rather than having it imposed upon me.

Remembering that I am A. making a choice, B. this particular choice is in service to a larger goal, and C. I can do hard things has helped me do things that I am not always keen about in that moment but which I am grateful for soon after. (Derail: Also, stickers. Lots and lots of shiny stickers.)
posted by Bella Donna at 5:34 AM on May 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

This question really resonated with me. I am contemplating real estate in a high-COL area. I also get my coffee at Starbucks almost every morning. My thrifty immigrant parents would be horrified at my coffee bill, but I'm mostly at peace with this because I'm confident that in the grand scheme of things I'm still saving money at a rate I'm happy with.

The thing is, if you saved $15 a day, it would take you 91 years to save $500k. You mentioned feeling overwhelmed. That is a legitimately absurd and overwhelming thing to have to think about every time you go to the grocery store or take a cab. My solution has been to set things up so that I don't have to think about it so much.

My approach is kinda like Kwine's, in that as long as the general trends are going the right direction, I've allowed myself to not get bogged down in the details if I don't want to. It's not that a little bit here or there doesn't matter, I just looked, my Starbucks habit is going to cost me $800 this year. But it's so much easier to make a more significant dent with the big ticket items (housing, salary, investments, etc) that it seems kinder to myself to just make sure those are on track and to not feel guilty about coffee.

On the flip side, losing some of that baggage has also made it easier to consciously review and address the habits that I do want to change without getting stressed over every transaction. My cab expenditures have been going up lately. If I decide this is problematic, the advice above will be helpful in changing my habits, but I can also decide that the trade offs are worth it as long as the big picture still works. Either way (or something in between) is OK, and for me that's been very freeing to know.
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:15 AM on May 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

So there's a significant chance you could be my wife. Since I didn't write this question.

1) We stopped stopped STOPPED going to any open houses ever here in SF. You didn't mention this but not putting what was unobtainable in front of us was helpful. Since we moved to the Richmond ~5 years ago not a single house has sold for under $1.2 million, as far as I've seen. It's bonkers. When I see open house signs I try to erase them from my reality.

2) We met with a financial adviser that was referred to us by our couples therapist. He doesn't charge for the first appointment and he basically took a look at our situation, praised us for having precious little debt, gave us a few pointers he said we could do on our own (roll our old 401ks up, etc.), and told us we didn't need anything else from him, and to keep doing what we were. IT FELT REALLY GOOD WALKING OUT OF THAT APPOINTMENT.

3) That guy also referred us to a financial counselor, basically someone to help us have better conversations around money in our marriage and help us manage it better. It's been some work and an investment, but we both feel much less overwhelmed now that we know where everything is going and feel like we are actually managing the day to day and able to make small tweaks here and there to make ends meet. I don't love doing the extra work, but I DO LOVE not feeling overwhelmed by the thousand cuts that all those credit card transactions are.

4) We cut ourselves some slack. It's weird being "poor" in the land of the ultra rich. I make multiple six figures and we still need my wife to work if we're going to be able to live here long term. We're planning to buy out of state some day and maybe I'll commute in for work still, but in the meantime - hey, we get to live in SF, and this is a pretty wonderful city to get to live in. Great food, culture, we love the weather, have great friends, we just really like life here.

MeMail me if you'd like referrals to any of the above. We're much more at peace now than where we were a year ago, but pure numbers wise, the picture hasn't changed that drastically.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:20 PM on May 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is more of an indirect motivational strategy, but I wanted to share with you my very favorite thing: Digit.

Hook that bad boy up to your main checking account and it'll use awesome math magic to spirit away carefully calculated bits of your money to a savings account at irregular intervals. It quietly does its thing in the background, snagging $1.10 here or $25.15 there wherever the math magic says you won't miss it, and then BAM you remember it exists, check your Digit savings, and realize you have more than enough to cover that surprise car expense or go on vacation or something. It RULES. They are not paying me to say this (except in the sense that the Digit savings account accrues 1% interest.)

It used to be free, but is now $2.99/mo, and honestly, it's worth it to me, not only because surprise money is awesome, but also because it gives me visible, tangible hope that even small savings really can add up in the long run. It's like, hey, Digit has only been taking out like $1-$75 at a time for like three months, and look how much surprise money is in here already! It's nice to have proof that small savings can have an impact.

Also, although Mr. Money Mustache is kind of a polarizing money/FIRE blogger, his post about thinking about small expenses in terms of years + interest (including a handy-dandy formula) has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Knowing a hypothetical coffee habit costs $20/week or $80/month is one thing—knowing that same hypothetical coffee habit could cost $15k+ over a span of ten years is pretty sobering.
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

So, my partner and I just started trying to control all our “little” unnecessary spending decisions and this is what we did:

1. We figured out where we’re spending the most that we don’t need to. It was mostly eating out (both of us) and Starbucks lattes (my partner).

2. Instead of setting a weekly budget, we set a weekly schedule. We agreed to only eat out 3x a week (any meal—grabbing a bagel for breakfast is included in this), only get lattes 3x a week. We then decided that we would eat out for breakfast or lunch + partner gets a latte on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays (because these are the days we exercise so it acts as a reward). We each get to spend $10 on the meal, and partner gets to spend $5 on a latte. So, $25 max, 3x a week. We also added the caveat that we only get to spend if we do go out and exercise (even if not always for the full time).

3. If we want to eat out or buy something outside those times, we take it away from our budget for the next exercise/spend day. If we eat out Wednesday, we have to skip our Thursday meal (but still have to exercise!). If we spend $25 on lunch, no latte. And so on.

4. Now for the savings. We each pick a goal to work towards—a new video game, an outfit, a piece of furniture. Every time we skip our designated spending, or spend less than allotted, we put it towards the goal. So if I’m saving $25 for a new game, and I skip my Sunday lunch (saving $10) I update a little note on my phone to say $10/$25. If I then spend only $5 instead of $10 on my Tuesday lunch (saving $5), I update it to say $15/$25. The reason this works is because I also view the savings as exciting and fun. It makes me feel good to go “I saved $10, only $15 more till my game!” Because, of course, I spend money on these things to feel good. It’s imperative that the savings also feel good, otherwise I feel like I’m just punishing myself.

5. Everything is rounded towards savings by increments of $5. If I spend $6 on lunch, I round it up to $10 and don’t count it towards my goal. If I want to buy something that’s $26, I round it up to $30. This sneaks in a little more “ghost” savings here and there, and also keeps me from having to juggle specific dollars and cents in my count.

I just started this a few months ago and am not trying to save up for anything big. If I were, though... I would continue making small goals (e.g. new shoes for $50). But I would then double (or triple, or quadruple, or however high you want to go) the cost and make myself save up that much before I get to buy the thing. So I would have to save up $100 before I buy the $50 shoes, which gives me $50 towards my “big” goal but uses the smaller goal with a much more immediate reward as the motivation. Eventually I will probably also implement this with other spending categories (e.g. groceries) but I think it's important to start small to build the habit before overwhelming myself.
posted by brook horse at 1:41 PM on May 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I live in NYC and am in the exact same position. Houses are crazy expensive here. My husband and I decided to power through the pain instead of dragging it out over many years. Currently we live off one pay check and save the whole other one. That paycheck goes to a totally different account (synchrony high yeild savings).

While you might think you can't afford to live off one pay check, there is an excellent chance you can. Just not at the level of comfort you might be used to.

We're making incredible progress. Sure it sucks but I also am so much closer than I ever thought I would be. To us, two years of pain is worth it for a house. Plus when housing markets fall we are ready to buy.
posted by KMoney at 7:06 PM on May 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

I lived in the Bay for a bit, and left. If you don't have enough loot, it stinks, and if you do have enough loot, most of the people you liked outside of work? They left.

That rant aside, the thing that helped me was anytime I found extra money; raise, bonus, selling something on EBay, whatever? I put half the difference into investments. That way I had some extra loot to spend, but also had saved more, as well.

"Investments", in this case, is a Standard and Poor 500 index fund, SPY.

The other thing to remember is that in the Bay Area, since everyone keeps damn well leaving, you have an additional advantage at work; you're not always easily replaceable. It may be worth negotiating for more loot from time to time, especially if it would be easy for you to find similar work elsewhere.

If you're not in a position where you're going to get a raise pretty much every year? You should flee the Bay now, as costs continue to go up, so you're going to take an implicit pay cut every year work doesn't pay you more.
posted by talldean at 6:31 PM on May 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

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