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Facing financial reality: What keeping a money journal revealed


The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.

Engaging in the time-honoured tradition of ignoring problems in the hopes that they will disappear, my finances and I have been avoiding each other's calls for years. I work, I make money, I deposit that money into the black hole known as my bank account. And then I spend money (sometimes like a drunken sailor).

These two versions of me – the breadwinner and the spendthrift – are basically strangers, meaning that in terms of financial maturity I am, at best, a bratty tween. Embarrassing, yes; exceptional, hardly.

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Fiscal responsibility, like sending snail mail or playing the accordion, seems downright folksy in our buy-now, deal-later society. One-third of Americans are a single paycheque away from homelessness and north of the border we're not doing a lot better, with an estimated 60 per cent of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque.

So far, I have been lucky enough to avoid significant debt or major financial strain. (Being a childless renter has its advantages.) That said, my savings account is pathetic and my monthly RRSP contribution downright miserly.

When it comes to out-of-reach dreams such as owning property, my solution has always been to try to earn more.

Realizing that income is only half of the battle was what Oprah would call an "Aha! Moment."

Oprah also says that when you know better, you do better. That one she got from Maya Angelou (a.k.a. Oprah's Oprah), and while I'm pretty sure the great American poet wasn't talking about personal finances, the shoe fits.

Eventually I want to do better, but step one would be to pull my head out of the sand and become aware – truly aware – of how and where I spend.

I readied a financial journal (the Notepad app on my iPhone) and vowed to record every single cent I spent for one week.

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A reality-TV-style reckoning

My strategy was to stay as true to my usual (bad) habits as possible, since the end game here was a realistic budget. I dined out, drank lattes, took cabs, bought birthday presents, went to a concert and made an impulse buy (jean shorts).

My reckoning came in the form of Gail Vaz-Oxlade, best-selling finance writer and host of reality shows Til Debt Do Us Part, Princess and the forthcoming Money Morons. I contacted her to get some expert testimony on the value of keeping a spending journal.

Instead I got a lecture: "Girlfriend, how can you say those words out loud and not want to dig a hole and die?!" was her response to my admission of fiscal irresponsibility.

What followed was an impromptu analysis (part dressing-down, part therapy session), wherein Ms. Vaz-Oxlade informed me that my wanton ways were the result of never having known true financial hardship.

She agreed that keeping a spending journal was indeed a good first step, as long as I was willing to practise some serious tough self-love upon completion.

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The coffee conundrum and other wakeup calls

The collection of Starbucks cups in my recycling bin tells me that I spend a lot on coffee, but how much is a lot and how does that fit into my greater financial context? Can I afford the latte habit and what would I be able to afford if I gave it up? A very non-judgmental and patient financial

adviser at my local bank helped me to crunch the relevant numbers to get a weekly discretionary budget. It was $126 shy of my journal tally, but put away the Kleenex, it's not all bad.

A week ago I was walking around in a London fog of financial cluelessness. Now I am clear on where my money is going and where I need to trim – eating out. I am also equal parts chastened and inspired by my interaction with guru Gail. Preaching the value of conscious spending, she explained how we stop enjoying things when we do them by rote. Order Thai food often enough and it feels less like a treat and more like a right. More like breathing. (When was the last time you got a thrill out of breathing?)

The next session of financial boot camp will be living within the confines of my new budget. My plan is to go cash – only for a bit. (On one of her reality shows, Ms. Vaz-Oxlade used to freeze people's credit cards in a block of ice.) I look forward to watching my savings accumulate over time, and also to reacquainting myself with the lost art of anticipation.

The Next Challenge

Constantly feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day? For most of us, productivity tends to wind down after dinner, so why not hit the sack before Letterman and tack a couple of extra hours onto your morning. If you wake up at 8 a.m. now, try 6. (Quit whining – Michelle Obama wakes up at 4:30!)

Do those extra hours increase productivity? Decrease stress? Or are you just a walking zombie? Let us know. Send responses to:

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