What I Learned from Track Every Dollar for 6 Months

I have always read about money management and negotiation for salaries. I’ve always wanted to become good at managing my own money but never seem to be able to apply the practices in these self-help books to my life. It will usually be a flash of excitement, then I will give up fairly quickly.

Last September, I started reading Vicki Robin’s book on “Your Money or Your Life” and it has made some gradual but significant changes in my life. One of the habits that stuck with me after reading this book was to track every single dollar coming in and out of my life.

Here are things I have learned after tracking every single dollar for 6 months.

  1. I stopped eating out & going to coffee shops.
  2. I stopped feeling guilty about spending money.
  3. I projected how many more years I need to work.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash
  1. I stopped eating out & going to coffee shops:

If I had a dollar every time I swear to not eat out anymore, I’d be financially independent just from that. I could never stop myself from habitually eating out. It is especially hard when you are hungry after a long day of working, and there is one thing on your mind, food. I was spoiled growing up eating whatever I wanted, and I kept that going well into my adulthood. So when I am hungry, my default is whatever my brain wants now, I must do everything I can to make that happen.

I realized that each time I eat out, I am spending approximately 2 hours of my salary ($30). That is 25% of my daily hard work to be just one restaurant meal. 

After starting to track my expenses, somehow I was able to limited going out to eat at a restaurant to only 2-3 times a month. In the past 2 months, I only went out once (but that might have been the Coronavirus. . . ).

Tips I have learned:

Evaluate your restaurant spending after the restaurant visit. When I do this, sometimes I consider the spending worthwhile and sometimes I don’t. It is intriguing to find out after a day or two whether I found that restaurant outing was worth the money.

The times that are worth it:

  1. It’s a friend I am not super close to and I don’t want to be weird and invite them home for a meal.
  2. I went to a new restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try.

In those cases, I put a little “+” sign next to the expense, and write out the reason.

The times that are NOT worth it:

  1. I have had stomach issue afterwards because of certain allergies the restaurant cannot accommodate.
  2. The restaurant is not great: service is slow, or food is mediocre.
  3. I was super hungry and just wanted something instantaneously.

In those cases, I add a “-” and also note down the reason. This helps me to see what are some of the reasons why I want to go to a restaurant, and when I regretted going. It has helped me cut down on the times I go to restaurants.

Side note of getting super hungry and making bad decision, I have also started making food that can be frozen for a later date, like dumplings and buns. They have saved many nights where temptations were high, and Mr. CodeJunkie all of a sudden whips out the freezer drawer and finds my favorite food (Chinese food!) and gently guiding me from the being hangry and wanting to eat out.

Photo by Andy Lyon on Unsplash
  • Coffee:

I love coffee, especially specialty coffee, lavender flavor with almond milk. It usually costs $4-$6 (yes I know, I can’t believe I paid for this). I also love the social aspect of sitting in a coffee shop, listening to the low murmuring of people, and strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. I write blogposts in coffee shops because I feel that’s the place when inspiration comes. Sometimes I get a little peckish so I will order a beautifully made macaron, or a cupcake. These all add to my coffee shop bills. 

I realized that I could make coffee at home, and also add as much almond milk and lavender syrup as I want. I can also put it in a fancy cup, and stare out of the window while typing on my MacBook, pretending I am solving world hunger.

I stopped going to coffee shops altogether.  Truth to be told, I don’t think I am making that many more friends by going to coffee shops. I stopped drinking coffee altogether since last year, and have found tea to be more suited for my body.

Exceptions would be when Mr. CodeJunkie and I visit new places, I usually find hipster coffee shops for him to enjoy a cup of black coffee, and me, probably some sweet treats. Those coffee shops usually comes pretty neat neighborhoods to wander in as well.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

2. I stopped feeling guilty about spending money on travel

My relationship with money mostly looks like when an ostrich facing unpleasant but life-threatening danger: by burying my head in the sand. On the one hand, I want to be the millennial that purchases experiences rather than physical things. I want to travel around the world and see everything. On the other hand, I feel guilty when I spend money on traveling, from flights to expensive hotels and fancy restaurants. I would be spending money during vacation without a budget (no guardrails!), but when I come back from vacation, I am scared to look at my credit card bills. I told myself, this is a “one-time-a-year” expense.

Vickie’s book encouraged me to look into the fundamental reason I want to travel. Is it for the social praise? I’ve definitely done some of those before: like visiting the Eiffel Tower. None of those things actually added much value to my experience. Rather, I just wanted to have an iconic photo and be able to put it on Instagram.

The book led me to question if those types of travel are the things I actually enjoy, and would want to keep doing. It also begs these fundamental questions.

  • What are other things you enjoy during your travel?
  • Can you get them without spending that much money?
  • What is the fundamental value of traveling?
  • Does destination change this value?
  • Can your destination be closer, have less expensive food options, a different time of the year, and still achieve the same result?

If we remove the social praise aspect from travel, what is left for me is to see the endless possibilities of  ways to living. I have met people who believe in things that I might consider completely outrageous or impossible and they teach me that there is never one way to live your life. Because of that, I changed my travel destinations to different and less touristy places in the world. I started appreciate local hikes and greeneries. 

I also made a more conscious effort to not bring my phone (or put it on airplane mode with downloaded maps) when I am traveling, or even just going on hikes. I find that I am able to focus on the present better instead of using the energy to think about the best places to take an insta-worthy photo, or whether I should wear makeup to look more photogenic.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

3. I projected how many more years I have to work

Being able to account for every single dollar coming in and going out of my life, I started building mathematical projections. I built one within google sheet but there are numerous sources online that helps you do this. If you want to learn more about my spreadsheet, let me know and I am happy to share a cleaned-up version of it.

When my total monthly expenses (blue) equals to my monthly investment earnings (orange), I can stop working. The investment “earnings” are calculated by using my total investment divided by 25, which is the 4% rule. Surprisingly, I met that in April this year (by accident). I have to continuously meet this in order to retire. But this also shows you, the less you spend, the faster you will get to your retirement (if nothing else changes).

I realized I am closer to become financially independent than I thought. This has helped clear my mind on what I should prioritize in my life.

Overall it was a success for 6 months, to be able to tell you exactly where I spent my money. Here’s a summary of it if anyone is interested.

What are your biggest expense after mortgage? Do you track your money? What’s your best way to save money?

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin

  • How much I’d Recommend: 10/10
  • Date finished: 12/31/19
  • Your Money or Your Life: recommend borrowing from your local library – everyone should read it as soon as possible.

If you don’t like reading all that much, here’s an easier route. Listen to this almost-TED talk given by one of my favorite Financial Independent “accidental-financial-advisor” Mr. Money Mustache. 

Everyone is bad at finances, until they spend the time and put in the hours to learn it. It’s not very hard to learn, you just have to be vigilant about your spending, and put every extra penny you find into an index fund. Ok Vicki does a way better job explaining this in her book.

Some of my friends are not ready to read this book. Others have already sworn by blood that they shall live consciously about their spending. So maybe when you are reading this blog, you are not ready yet. That’s totally ok. Once you are ready, if you are in the future, you can check out this book.

The reason I highly recommend this book yet still encourages you to borrow it from the library is to avoid the paradox of paying for a book that’s suppose to ask you to save money. Otherwise, I’d say, everyone should have a copy and read it like the bible because YOU ARE SELLING YOUR LIFE for money, every single minute that you work. 

Some people may say, well I love my work. I became a doctor because I love saving peoples’ lives or whatever. Of course, these altruistic values are absolutely admirable. But you’d be an EVEN better doctor when you don’t need that money (and you know for a fact you don’t need it). 

Your Money or Your Life details the entire course of resetting your relationship with money in 9 steps. Personally, I feel the last few chapters kind of blended in together. Here are my simpler version of the steps; let’s see how many steps I can make after drinking Mr. CodeJunkie’s homemade ginger mead.

Step 1: make peace with the past

Emotionally: acknowledging everyone probably has made financial mistakes in the past.

Financially: Figure out how much you have earned in your entire life. Use social security website to log in / register to find out what was reported if you are usually a w-2’er. You will find shockingly you’ve earned so much, and saved so little.

Step 2: figure out your actual hourly wages

Take your take home salary (after tax and deductions), minus all the work related expenses (gas, wardrobe, gifts for coworkers, eating out with coworkers), and use this net amount, divide by the hours spent related to work to calculate your ACTUAL hourly rate, including:

  • actual working hours
  • commute
  • hours to unwind and decompress at home
  • hours feeling tired because of work
  • hours working out to combat stress at work
  • hours taking for vacation to relax from work

This will shock you. This is why Vicki is explaining that you are exchanging your life energy for money.

Step 3: set up expense tracking for EVERY SINGLE PENNY

You can do this pretty easily these days with online apps if you mostly use credit cards / debit cards. Most people recommend Personal Capital. I find it more user friendly than Mint, but since I am an accountant, I still use my own fancy google sheet for my expenses. You can find my learnings from tracking my expenses here.

Step 4: Invest all your extra money in a low cost index fund.

Here’s a few to start. Pick one, stick to it, and don’t sell until retirement. Ok this isn’t exactly what the book was recommending, but a summary of many many financial independent podcasts, years of reading Mr. Money Mustache. Or you can always just open a Betterment account, here’s why.

  • VTI – vanguard total market
  • FSKAX – Fidelity total market
  • SWTSX – Schwab total market

(Almost) Zero Waste Gardening Progress

I am a bit of a black thumb when it comes to keeping plants alive. I am genuinely surprised I was able to keep my dog alive for this long. 

Here are some of my gardening this year and tips to battling the black thumb!

1. Use the waste to create new life

My “Infirmary” in the kitchen.

  1. Eggshell seedling tray: Since learning this trick of making eggshells as seedlings, it’s such a brilliant idea instead of buying those cardboard paper seed starter trays. Eggshells are free, easy to come by. I have tried cracking the egg carefully on one end and preserving most of the shell, and found that really unnecessary. Cracking the egg in the middle like usual gives you enough shells to make two seedling pots! I usually poke a hole with the chopstick (from the INSIDE guys, don’t be an idiot like me trying to crack an empty shell end from the outside. It doesn’t work, folks!). I find it also easier to transport these seedlings to pots, and the eggs decompose way faster than the cardboard boxes for the roots to extend into the bigger pots.
  2. Vermiculite: I usually fill these egg shells with vermiculite I bought from Home Depot. Vermiculite itself encourages root growth, so it’s fantastic for seed starting and propagating. Since it’s so expensive, I try to only use it when necessary. Seeds usually sprout religiously around 70-75 degrees (unless you’ve roasted your sunflower seeds…then you should just eat them).
  3. Seeding pads: If the temperature outside is still too cold, you could try this $10 heating pad, which I have found to be very useful! You can also use this heating pad to make mead in the winter.

I just read online that my chamomile seedlings are too bunched up together, and I need to thin them out. I just gave them a little trim this morning, let’s see if they will survive the seedling stage this year.

2. Regrow your vegetables

Before I met Mr. CodeJunkie, I have never eaten leeks before. The leeks in America is so big it looks alien to me. It looks like a giant version of the green onions which didn’t sound appetizing at all. Mr. CodeJunkie loves it; and once I’ve tried it, I realized that it’s surprisingly refreshing. Now we eat a lot of leeks when we cook twice-cooked pork (a Chinese dish from my hometown Sichuan). One day Mr. CodeJunkie asked if we could grow leeks with the stem we have leftover, and we tried it. The leeks we bought from Walmart seems to be extremely eager to not be completely eaten. You can almost see the growth overnight. Now we just put the leftover leeks into some water, wait for it to root, then plot it down into soil. They seem to be loving it.

I also grow green onions in these pots too, considering they look so similar. The newly grown leaves taste so much better and fresher than store bought that now I am considering having an herb garden collection!

3. Compost

I have watched a lot of composting videos about the brown and green ratio, vermicomposting (with worms; this guy from the youtube is so excited about worms…), pile composting in the backyard, etc. The most clean and no-brainer I’ve found is the Trench Composting method. It basically means you dig a hole and bury your kitchen waste. I don’t necessarily dig holes in the yard. I have a raised garden bed and use one of them as my composting area, where I dig and bury the kitchen waste

If you live in apartments, then you might like this vermicomposting indoors. I wish I had the organization to be able to do this, and not have a dog that eats almost everything who will certainly want to personally investigate this worm bin.

What are some ways you find helpful to reduce waste and/or grow new things?

Sapiens by Yuval Harari

  • Date read: April 2020.
  • How strongly I recommend: 10/10. 
  • SapiensRecommend having a copy, and read every year.

This is such a great summary of human history from the start. At the same time, Yuval addresses some of THE BIGGEST problems we face today: religion, war, consumerism, nationalism, and so much more.

Granted, he is probably a bit depressed giving the overview of the entire human history, seeing a lot of its brilliance, but also its faults, and unavoidable stupidities. See this fun interview of him by Dan Ariely here after his second book Homo Deus was published. He argues that science is about control (e.g., being able to control nature, our health, death, etc.), and religion is about order.

This book is so well written. It would be ironic and almost impossible to make a summary of a book about the entirety of human kind. Here are some quotes I love.

That spectacular leap from the middle to the top [of the food chain] had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

A Letter to My Boss Who Doesn’t Believe in Working from Home

Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash

February this year, prior to the pandemic of COVID-19 that drove everyone to work from home, I had a conversation with my boss’s boss’s boss (boss-ception!), the SVP of our company. During this conversation, I proposed an improvement be made to allow the flexibility of work from home without needing an excuse (a sick child, a plumber at the house, etc.) 

Of course it was not well received at the time. Even though he acknowledged my desire of working from home can be completely honorable and beneficial to him and the company in the short term, he doesn’t believe that we can succeed / advance in the company if he allows us to work from home. He believes that there are certain optics employee should maintain. Socializing with coworkers daily is something he values highly. He likes walking around and being able to greet everyone. (Little did he know that within a week from our conversation, COVID-19 will force him to eat his own words and allow everyone to work from home!)

He’s not alone in thinking that way and he has his reasons for doubting if employees would be productive working from home. I would argue that giving employee the flexibility to work from home is the best thing for everyone long term.

In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes two types of norm; social norm and market norm. A neighbor helping to move a mattress inside of your new home is an example of a social norm. If instead, you offer your neighbor $1 for moving your mattress, it could very well send them storming off angrily. Why? Because how dare you undervalue their labor to $1, and insult them with the fact that helping you now is only worth a dollar?

Dan Ariely argues that 1) social norm trumps market norm, 2) people should not mix social norms with market norms (watch this short video where he explains it).

Changing something from social norm to market norm decreases the amount of efficiency, and changing it back decrease the efficiency even more. Ariely used an example to describe this phenomenon. A daycare was having trouble getting parents to pick up their children on time at closing, so they decided to impose a fine on parents who picked their children up late. This led to more parents picking their kids up late because what used to be a social norm (i.e., not being on time & inconveniencing others) is now market norm (i.e., a fine). Therefore, people are happy to pay the fine and have their guilt wiped away. Realizing this mistake, the daycare removed the fine after some time. Now there are even more parents that are late, because now there is no penalty on picking their children up late at all!

Moral to the story is, whether businesses decides to go with social norm (the warm and fluffy feeling of “we are in it together”) or market norm (“time in exchange for money”), they should stick to it, and not switch back and forth.

Reality is usually the opposite.

Social norm operates better than market norms, even in work environments. 

Ariely argues that social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuation. They give us trust and confidence. Even though it might be financially inefficient to circumvent and hide money aspect into gifts and favors, it is still a good deal because you get to keep something that is very valuable which is social relationships.

This is why, most companies choose to operate under social norms for their day-to-day working environment. Just like most other companies, my company wanted to use social norms to build a strong bond with employees to motivate them to work harder. We had a “flex-Friday” work arrangement where every other Friday can be taken off if the employee worked an extra 8 hours into the rest of the two-week period (e.g., an extra hour a day from Monday – Thursday for two weeks). 

After a year, they decided to no longer allow flex-Friday or work from home because someone abused this flexibility. The company announced that employees can only work from home under unavoidable circumstances such as a sick child, water leak etc. If someone is working remotely, he/she is required to respond to emails within 15 minutes to prove that he/she is working. In a sense, the company has imposed a “fine” (15 minute response time) on working from home.

This has stirred up quite a bit of backlash from my colleagues. Nobody was really happy that they are being punished for someone else’s mistake. To take it one step further, if we follow the logic of replying to emails within 15 minutes if working remotely, it is sending a message that (1) if I work from the office, then I do not have a deadline on replying emails, and (2) the social norm of being an adult and getting my job done turns into: as long as I respond emails within 15 minutes I can take the day off!

Now this is becoming a similar mistake the daycare has made from Ariely’s example by switching between social norms and market norms. Now even if the company remove the 15 minute deadline and allow employees to work from home, it will only give employees even more procrastination with no guidelines.

If companies choose to operate under a social norm, they should keep the social norm to best motivate employees. Flexibility at work means the willingness and ability to respond to changing circumstances and expectations readily. Companies always assume employees should be willing to respond to changing circumstances at work to show flexibility towards corporations, but the same level of flexibility is not given to employees in return. By providing flexibility to employees, companies show that they trust their employees as adults to do what needs to be done. By providing flexibility, companies can still show that the social norm is the dominant force at work. 

Although at this time when I am writing the article, we are knee deep in the quarantine zone and everyone is working from home (the lucky ones who gets to keep our jobs).

I fear that once the quarantine is over, we will resort back to the old ways and have learned absolutely nothing about our ability and capacity of working from home. Worse yet, maybe my boss would even magnify all the negativities and difficulties he had faced during the quarantine time, and use them as reasons why he should not allow employees to work from home. 

I am not advocating working from home for everyone. I have had colleagues telling me that they find working from home more distracting because of young children, or because they do not have designated work spaces. I only argue for the option of working from home for those who desire it.

I argue that if companies give more flexibility and allow employees to work from home (or work from ANYWHERE), they will see the increase in employee’s productivity, longevity, and job satisfaction.

The previous decades were filled with digital disrupters of industries: Airbnb, Uber, Tesla reimagining the new world in travel, hospitality, and transportation. I would make the bold statement that in the next 10 years, working from home is inevitable. Companies would attract and retain more talent if they become the first in disrupting our office culture, and allow working from home to become the new norm, the new social norm.