Death by a Thousand Small Purchases?

I’m blessed to be in an awesome financial position: No credit card debt! No student loans! Emergency fund = adequately-ish funded! I feel like I’ve got a good balance of socking it away and enjoying happy hours and road trips.

And yet! I’m looking at the credit card statement of this past month and noticing a bunch of stupid things: I could’ve saved $50-75 per month by getting my act together and not buying breakfast at a coffee shop. Two days ago, I bought a $3 pack of pens and a candy bar, because I forgot a pen at home. Yesterday, I spent just shy of $10 getting take-out sandwiches, because I didn’t want to go to the grocery store and buy sandwich supplies—an action, which, at the time, seemed perfectly reasonable, but now fills me with Sandwich Debt Shame. None of these are killer; I’m still saving, but if I would just have had some systems in place I might have saved an extra $500-1,000 or so this year. Or, if I hadn’t been so dumb about breakfast and forgetfulness, I could be in Mexico right now.

I’d rather be in Mexico right now.

And! I realize the answers to this question are Be An Adult and “Buy Eggs When You’re Out Of Eggs, Duh,” but I feel like I’m missing out on some systems/tricks that could help me make sure that I’m using my money for what I really want to be using it for. So Mike/Readers, if I may ask: What tricks do you use to make sure you’re properly stocked/organized/under control and avoid overspending dumb money because you’re not prepared. — S.M.M.

I often have days when I’m too busy (or lazy) to throw together a sandwich for lunch before I head to the office, so I end up picking up takeout later in the afternoon. And here’s the thing: I’ve never felt this “Sandwich Debt Shame” you speak of. People need to eat. Eating gives us the energy to be productive at work, and being productive at work eventually leads to things like promotions and raises. If you are indeed going into debt because you’re eating too many takeout sandwiches, then I’d see a problem here.

But you’re debt-free and in an “awesome financial position” with an adequately funded savings account. There are going to be days when you spend $3 on pens, and $10 on takeout, and this is perfectly reasonable spending. I think you’re doing just fine.

Yes, sometimes we do spend money on things we don’t intend to buy. I keep my fridge stocked by setting aside a time to go to the grocery store every week (usually Sunday afternoons). I keep extra pens at the office and in my messenger bag. The easiest way to keep organized is to create a routine, and having a routine will make sure that you’re consistently restocking on all the things you need every week in advance.

Do you know what I’d do if I wanted to go to Mexico? I’d start saving for a trip to Mexico, and then ask my travel-obsessed friends for tips on how to find deals. You’re allowed to have multiple savings accounts. You can dedicate one savings account to “vacations” and fund your trip to Mexico by dedicating a certain amount of your paycheck to this account every month. The trick to making sure you’re using your money for the things you really want to be using it for is to become more intentional about what you do with your money.

Make a list of the things that are important to you, for example, taking vacations, or eating at nice restaurants, or owning a home one day, or supporting your favorite causes. You’re creating priorities. We save and set aside money every month to go to the things that are the most important to us. That money should be out of sight and out of mind in a separate account. Anything leftover can be spent on our day-to-day lives, which sometimes includes $3 pens and $10 takeout sandwiches. There’s no reason to feel ashamed about spending money on these things if you’ve already got your priorities in check.

“Frugal fatigue” is a real thing. Sometimes we get so caught up on watching dollars accumulate in a bank account that we forget that the reason the money is there is for us to be able to live our lives. We save for the future, yes, but we also need to remember to live our lives in the present, too.


Photo: atl 10trader


27 Comments / Post A Comment

wearitcounts (#772)

i’m with mike on the routine thing. specifically regarding the takeout sandwiches: i typically shop for two sets of groceries; one set i bring to work with me and keep in the work fridge/kitchen for breakfasts and lunches, and the other i leave at home and use to cook dinners and have snacks. i bring my entire week’s worth of breakfast/lunch stuff in on monday and then i don’t order takeout all week.

EmmaG (#1,023)

I echo the routine idea, stocking up on staple groceries on the weekend. I’ve also added meal planning to this routine: after I buy groceries on Saturday, I make a list of meals to make for the week based on what I have (or what few items I can pick up on the cheap).

I pin to the fridge my meals for Monday – Friday, with the plan that leftovers will serve as the next day’s lunch. This works because I happen to love leftovers, but the principle applies for sandwich lovers too. i.e. You could roast a chicken on Sunday, and use leftovers for a sandwich for a few days after. This keeps me from a) buying lunch on the run and b) constantly running to the grocery store throughout the week. If I don’t have a plan, my mind wanders and I end up buying more groceries than I need.

If you don’t have the stuff to make a sandwich, eat something else? I feel like so many people I know are bratty about food, overspending on takeout because they’re not “in the mood” for whatever’s in the fridge, and then often leaving their groceries to rot.

cryptolect (#1,135)

@Sandra Boiteau@facebook

I am never “not in the mood” for free food, which is what I consider the already-purchased, already-prepared food in my fridge to be! I don’t understand those people…

muffalutta (#1,420)

I keep track of all my purchases in excel, which I thought would be a really big pain in the ass but actually makes for a great thing to do during my wake-up coffee time when I first get to work. I basically have a super-detailed budget (which I know doesn’t work for everyone) and then I write over it with the day’s actuals. When something comes up, like needing a pen or whatever, I am so much more aware of what it does to my daily budget that I tend to rethink going to the store to buy something new. It just feels SO GOOD when I get through a day and can put down a big fat $0.

LizF (#1,399)

@muffalutta I love this idea! I know what I’m building this afternoon at work.

I purchased so many things today, two things which I am excited about because they were good deals on social activities but I also didn’t bring lunch today and I have Sandwich Debt Shame.

muffalutta (#1,420)

@LizF Yeah, it’s great! I have it down to each meal, so I budget $5 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, $15 for dinner – which is inflated on purpose so that I have leftovers to use for weekend drinking! Every time I put a $0 down for lunch I can basically buy myself 1-2 more beers that weekend.

EmmaG (#1,023)

@muffalutta: This is very similar to what I do too! I actually just use the stock Excel “household budget” template modified to my needs. Every purchase gets entered into its own field and I can see what remains for the month.

I also fudge my income to be lower so I spend less. When I assume my income is $200 less than it is, putting that $200 aside is a piece of cake.

Kthompson (#1,858)

@muffalutta I don’t use Excel, I just write in a ledger, but I totally agree with how great it is when you can write down “no money spent”! Tracking my spending every day really keeps me in check, and it feels so awesome getting in to bed with those words “no money spent” ringing in my ears.

highjump (#39)

I’ve never felt this “Sandwich Debt Shame” you speak of.,

Me either. But today was the first time I brought my lunch to work in two weeks, so it might be more of a problem for me.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

I thought that I had some out of town relatives coming into town to take me to lunch today, but it turns out that that lunch date is actually tomorrow. So, I didn’t bring my lunch today (I always bring my lunch) and was super annoyed to have to go buy my lunch. But it gave me a good excuse to go to what is basically a mini-Murray’s Cheese right here in downtown Durham, where I bought an amazing local cheddar and plum chutney sandwich on locally made bread, a bag of Route 66 potato chips, and a Mexican Coca-Cola, all for under $9.00. That alleviated the annoyance some. Sometimes I love living in not a big city.

corfay (#2,188)

How to avoid spending money on impulse food purchases is seriously one of my favorite topics of conversation.

I highly recommend making a huge batch (like, 10+ servings) of something reheatable — like soup or chili or carne adovada — and portioning it out into ziploc bags. Put a serving or two into a bag and then just stack them in your freezer. When you don’t feel like being a responsible grocery shopper (or you oversleep,or whatever), just grab a bag and bring it to work. I will also add that freeze-able/re-heatable meals are often very, very cheap because (at least for me!) they involve beans or cheaper cuts of meat, instead of like… fancy cheese or organic vegetables.

Also, Mike alludes to this with frugal fatigue, etc, but — don’t let yourself get too hungry! I’m way more likely to break down and buy the seven dollar sandwich instead of grocery shopping when I have low blood sugar.

sony_b (#225)

@corfay Crockpot! I do this too – once a week I make something huge and freezable in the crockpot – taco soup, chicken and veggies in sauce to put over noodles or rice, pulled pork, etc. Then we eat some of it fresh and freeze the rest so we’ve always got a rotation of different stuff in the freezer. Cheap and good.

Another thing we started to do is put a white board on the fridge, creatively titled the “eat me” board – when something has a shorter shelf life we write it up there to remind the next hungry person that this should be top priority. We also added “we ain’t got no” (because we’re classy) which has become the basis for our grocery lists. We’re wasting a lot less food now.

orangezest (#317)

Mike Dang is on point, as usual. If saving is something you want to do more, I’m generally in favor of adjusting your budgets and routines to save more, not to spend less (because “spend less” oftem seems bound to fail — spending pops out of one part of the budget and reappears in another. It’s science, or something). I know that SOUNDS like semantics, but if you open another savings account or move the money before you can get to it, that’s much easier than trying to lessen your weekly “allowance.”

That said, if your Sandwich Debt is overwhelming, I think the best way to avoid those “d’oh!” expenses is to be honest with yourself rather than trying to change your habits. In other terms, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Keep energy bars in your bag or in your desk at work so you have breakfast on hand if you don’t eat at home. (Or do frozen breakfast sandwiches or similar at the office.) Eating breakfast on the run doesn’t make you not an adult, it makes you like… a very large percentage of the population who prioritize other things, and most of those priorities are equally valid.

Also, ask yourself honestly what you get out of it and see if there’s a way you can fulfill that more cheaply. I like to cook. I cook good food. The food I cook is healthier than anything I’m going to buy. Still, I buy myself breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner all the time. I finally decided it was about indulgence — not only eating food that was good, but having it be easy and feeling like it was a treat, even though I actually enjoy the act of cooking most of the time. So I found getting a nice $2.30 coffee first thing in the morning at my local fancy schmancy espresso place fills that same psychological place, if imperfectly, (treating myself, people waiting on me), and while I shouldn’t spend $13/week on coffee, it’s better than spending $25/week on breakfast for sure.

Finally, like he said: nothing wrong with getting a sandwich instead of going to the grocery store once in awhile. Really. Nothing.

OllyOlly (#669)

I probably have added this comment on every website that I read, but HOMEMADE FREEZER BURRITOS. I make dinner most nights and then pack leftovers for lunch. But somedays you want to eat out or what ever so I grab a burrito from the freezer, 3 min in the microwave and lunch is ready. Just cook your favorite filling (I do slow cooked beans/tomatoe/spices ect.) with rice, sour cream, cheese, salsa, cilantro, whatever really. Roll them up in tinfoil and stock that freezer!

probs (#296)

I like to leave one or two of what I like to call “noodle food product” at work- you know, microwaveable noodle soups like Nissan Souper Meal or whatever. Then if I’m out of stuff at home or I wake up realizing I haven’t packed a lunch, I eat that. It’s not exactly a whole food, and it’s surely not great for your blood pressure, so YMMV, but I like it and it costs a dollar.

DON (#706)

Whenever I forget my lunch, I like to shoot the moon and wash oysters down with martinis instead.

mishaps (#65)

I think cutting yourself a certain amount of slack is necessary.

One of my friends has the “two meals” rule – two meals out of every three have to be homemade. So if she forgets lunch at home, it’s no big deal, she just knows it means she’s not getting takeout for dinner. It’s a way of keeping restaurant spending down without being uber-rigid, and I’m a big fan of it as a system.

Also, +1 for naming the goal you’re saving for. The “trip to Mexico” or “furniture for the new apartment” account is much more compelling than the “savings” account.

shannowhamo (#845)

@mishaps Exactly! It’s NBD to get food out somtimes if you can afford it. And like sometimes the food restaurants makes tastes better or satisfies a craving that your usual lunch/breakfast doesn’t. I think feeling guilty about something silly like that is a waste of psycic energy. NOW if you are eating something super sad for lunch you don’t enjoy as punishment- like the blandest turkey wrap or something, well, then that is a waste. If you have to buy lunch on a random forgettful day TREAT YO SELF!

I think @mishaps is correct about cutting yourself some slack. Speaking strictly for myself, there’s a fine line between “frugal” and “miser”, and blowing a few bucks on an overpriced sandwich reminds me that it’s not the end of the world to spend a small amount unwisely once in a while.

blair (#1,962)

I am PLAGUED with Sandwich Debt Shame to the point where it’s an honest relief to see that it has a name. I’m a champion meal-planner-grocery-shopper, so every single cup of coffee and bagel and movie ticket and parking (ugh) ticket that I get spontaneously becomes a disproportionately huge marker of POOR PLANNING and DOOM. When I was saving up to live in Montreal for a while (doin’ it now, hayy) I would look at everything I bought in terms of what I COULDN’T have later if I bought it: a pint at a bar OR a dozen eggs when I was living the starving-artist life. How could my present self be so present-selfish when my future self was curled up in hunger on her shitty futon?

But, realistically, this has never been the case. I’m not going to die. I have plenty of money–well, *enough* money, but that means enough money for the occasional espresso or cheapie Tuesday ticket to Looper (showtime’s in an hour!). So I’m trying, really trying, not to let my shoestring budget strangle all the normal, enjoyable digressions out of my life.

Megano! (#124)


Iglooramous (#1,397)

Maybe try a “Buy Nothing Week.” For me it’s like a budget cleanse. Removing the opportunity to spend any money helps me see habits I’ve developed that lead to spending I don’t feel good about. From there I can build new routines that lead to spending I do feel good about.

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

I don’t get sandwich guilt, but I get coffee guilt. I have a great coffee maker, grinder, quality beans, and coffee creamer at home. I just need to setup my coffee maker the night before to start brewing my coffee when I wake up so I can bring it with me. But then I forget, and then oversleep the next morning, and end up at Dunkin Donuts.

sparrow303 (#1,641)

Re: routine, I try to pick up things I know myself to be low on when a) I’m already headed to the store and b) I’m going wherever it’s cheapest.

So today, for example, I need to hit the grocery store, and while I’m not quite out of handsoap, the giant buckets of it they sell there are MUCH cheaper than buying smaller containers later at Target. So I will pick some up today, not be out later in the week, and save dough by not buying it at a convenience store. It’s a habit I picked up from a lady I used to babysit for– pick up an extra at a good price before you run out.

Now if only I could remember to do that with food…

Tim Chuma (#458)

When I only got paid once per month I had an incentive to only buy lunch once per week. If I am working close to Chinatown it is harder to save money though.

workerbee (#638)

Re: take out – order your favorites and “repackage” it, it works. It isnt’ “free” but it’s a great cost savings and weight loss plan.
For ex… I love singapore curry noodles. the large portion I order is about $10. If I take it home, I divide it up into three baggies. Not bad…. I do the same with pizza – order a large, divide it immediately (no nibbles), 2 pieces = 4 meals.

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