How to Avoid Feeling Disconnected from the Numbers

I’ve been saving for retirement in some fashion or another since I was 22 years old. That means I’ve been accumulating money in various retirement accounts for about a decade and a half.

Honestly, I don’t look at the balances of those accounts very often. They’re locked into target retirement funds, which means I really have no reason to think about the money in there in any real way.

Every once in a while, though, I do log on and check out my retirement accounts, but when I look at those account balances, I feel a real disconnect from those numbers.

For starters, the balance of those accounts is more than what I typically deal with by orders of magnitude. I have a pretty good tangible grasp on what buying seven to 10 days worth of groceries is going to cost. I grew to have a pretty good grasp on the reality of our mortgage payment back when we had one – one month of our mortgage equalled roughly two months of groceries. Every expense in my day to day life is easily comparable to things that I can grasp, and I usually think of things in terms of groceries or gas. I rarely even consider expenses that are more than a month or two of groceries at this point.

When I look at my investment accounts, though, I see amounts that could pay for many years of groceries. Many years. That money has been accumulating for a decade and a half while also growing along with the stock market. It’s built up to a tremendous amount, and it’s an amount that’s beyond what I deal with in my daily life. It’s hard to really grasp it.

Another reason I can feel a big disconnect with those numbers is that most of the work I did to earn the money in those accounts is long in the past. The majority of the money in those accounts came from my previous career where I worked in a research field. While I have some fond memories of that career, enough time has passed since I left the field that I no longer have a real connection to the work I did back then. Yet some of that money is still here, working for me. It feels like it came from another life.

To be honest, I sometimes feel a similar disconnect when I’m working on a family budget or making projections for the future in Excel. It often just looks like rows and columns of numbers, rather than the reality of our day to day life and predictions about the future of our lives that it actually represents.

It’s not exactly hard to see how that kind of disconnect can spread to things like bank statements, credit card statements, and even account balances. When we look at numbers – particularly lots of numbers – that are larger than what we normally deal with on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to feel disconnected.

And when you feel disconnected, it becomes a lot easier to make mistakes.

spreadsheet numbers

Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw

If you’re disconnected from your bank account statement, it’s easy to tell yourself that you have plenty of money to afford whatever treat you want at the moment. Slowly, over time, you start chipping away at the buffer you’ve built up until suddenly you’re broke and you’re wondering where all of the money went.

If you’re disconnected from your family budget, you can easily overspend in a particular category without realizing it, causing you to run out of money well before the end of the month. Suddenly, you don’t really have any idea where your money is going. It’s a week before payday and you just don’t have the faintest clue where all of the money has gone, but you don’t have any cash.

If you’re disconnected from your investment accounts, you can easily tell yourself that you don’t need to contribute more and thus mortgage your future. If you look at your investments and retirement savings as just a number, your future isn’t going to be the nice, pleasant thought you have envisioned.

All of those mistakes come from a disconnect between a person’s financial statements and their day to day life choices. If those numbers on a statement or a spreadsheet don’t have any real meaning in your life, then you’re going to make day to day choices completely independent of the big picture, and that’s going to lead you into a situation that you’ll really regret.

There are several tactics I use to eliminate the disconnect between numbers on a statement or a spreadsheet and the realities of my life. I find that these tricks work well at different times, and not so well at other times, but usually one or two of them are clicking at any given moment and give me the support I need to keep things real.

The ‘Back to the Future’ Trick

Remember that scene from Back to the Future where Marty is looking at the photograph of his family? That photograph depicts Marty’s family thirty years in the future, but as bad events are happening in the present, elements of that photo disappear as he watches. Here’s a clip, for a reminder:

One of the most powerful motivational tools I have in my toolbox is my “picture of the future.” I have an idea of the life I want to have down the road, in about 15 or 20 years or so. It involves a lot of road trips with my wife, a lot of volunteer work, visiting my children on occasion but not intruding too much in their adult lives, enjoying my grandchildren if there are any, and not worrying about any sort of working grind.

It’s a great picture. It depicts exactly what I want out of my life at that stage. But it’s not going to be cheap to make that happen.

That picture has a pretty specific price tag, one that I’ve been able to calculate pretty clearly over the years. I know exactly what I need to have in our accounts in 15 years to make this vision a reality.

So, I have a very specific vision of the future and a price tag attached to it. Whenever I look at my accounts, what I see is that I’m not yet where I need to be to pay for that vision. I need to keep working at it, but I will get there if I stick to the plan.

Of course, what happens if I get disconnected and start making money mistakes? Just like with Marty’s picture, elements of my own picture for the future start to disappear. Maybe Sarah and I can’t afford to travel like that when we’re older. Maybe we have to work until we’re older. There are a lot of little details from that picture that start to disappear when I start draining money from that goal.

I keep that picture front and center in my mind almost all the time. It brings me joy to think about it. So, when I see details slipping from that picture, I don’t like it at all. I see pieces of my future disappearing whenever I think about investing less or spending some of the money I’m investing, and I don’t like it.

You can make this work for you, too, of course. Think about what exactly you want in your life 10 or 20 or 30 years down the road. What would your life be like if you were without reasonable financial worry? What if you didn’t have to work? What would you do with your time? Where would you live? Make that picture as detailed as you can.

Then, do your best to estimate what that picture costs. Calculate the expense of making that come true. That’s your target number. Start saving for it.

Then, whenever you consider making a choice that takes away from your plan to get to that number, imagine your picture of the future. Imagine elements disappearing from it, just like in Back to the Future. Then ask yourself what you need to do to restore that picture (and maybe play a guitar solo, too, a la Marty McFly).

The ‘Envelopes’ Trick

I’ve been a long time user of You Need a Budget. It has a lot of great features for recording expenses and viewing one’s spending over periods of time. It’s designed to make budgets pretty easy.

Still, as easy as it is, it’s still just an array of numbers on a computer screen. Nothing in the world can change that. A formal budget is still just rows and columns of numbers, and it’s really up to you to connect those rows and columns of numbers to your personal behavior.

That’s not easy, to be honest. This is especially true for budget categories where you’re not just paying a bill automatically each month. That means categories like food, household supplies, and entertainment/leisure/hobbies. Those are the categories where it’s easiest to feel a disconnect from your budget and to spend more than you should.

That’s why I think the “envelope system” is a brilliant way to handle those categories. It takes the relatively abstract budget and turns it into something very tactile, something you can hold in your hand.

Each month, sit down and make out your budget. For the categories that aren’t simply just paying a bill or depositing money in an account, withdraw enough cash to cover your budget for that item and stick that cash in an actual envelope. So, have an envelope for “groceries” if it’s a budget item for you. Have an envelope for “eating out.” Have an envelope for “hobbies” or “entertainment.”

Then, whenever you spend something from that category, do it in cash that comes straight from that respective envelope. When you go to the grocery store, take the grocery envelope with you and use it for buying groceries. When you go shopping for something related to your hobby, use the hobby envelope for all of that spending. When you eat out, pay for the meal out of the “eating out” envelope.

What if you buy something online, then? If you do, use a credit card, then take that much cash out of the respective envelope and set it aside. Use that cash to fill envelopes next month, so that you don’t have to withdraw as much from your checking account and thus have money still in your account to pay down that credit card bill.

When you run out of money in an envelope, then you’re done with that kind of spending for the month. Because you know that going in, you can think carefully about how to spend your money from that category.

I do this mostly with hobby spending. I have a certain amount that I spend on hobbies and entertainment for myself each month. I withdraw that much cash at the start of the month and I usually begin by putting some cash aside for a convention trip during the summer. After that, everything comes out of that envelope. If I buy something online, then I keep an envelope for next month in the cupboard and just move cash out of this month’s envelope into next month’s envelope. On the first, I withdraw enough cash from my checking account to make the new month’s envelope (which often already has some cash in it from last month’s online purchases) total my hobby spending for the month.

It’s a system that works really well for me. Hobby spending is the only category where I can get myself into spending trouble if I’m not careful and I’ve found that this envelope system really helps keep it under control.

Why does this work? It turns your budget – or at least the parts of the budget that are highly variable and subject to impulsiveness – into something very tangible: cash in hand. It’s not abstracted onto a credit card or onto a spreadsheet. It’s about cash in hand, period. You have to make decisions with cash and you can see clearly how much cash you have in hand for a specific purpose at any time.

The ‘Media Diet’ Trick

There are certain websites that I visit that really tempt me to spend money. Kickstarter is one of them, as are some of the specific sites associated with my hobbies. Another one, believe it or not, is CNN.

Those sites often convince me to spend money on things that I hadn’t even heard about prior to the website visit. My life was perfectly happy before hearing about this new product or this new game or this new variety of hops, but when I hear about them, my interest is totally piqued. I want this new item.

My solution to this conundrum is to go on “media diets.” I simply don’t watch television or visit websites (besides Wikipedia for quick reference) for an extended period of time.

Instead, I read books. I play board games. I engage in art projects. I do some homebrewing. I take care of projects around the house that have built up.

I simply avoid the kinds of media that exist largely to sell things to me. Hobby and “news” websites usually fall into that category. So do most television networks – even the programming is loaded with product placement, and the “news” is often a sequence of sales pitches.

I just turn all of it off for a while.

What happens then? A lot of my desire for “stuff” just slowly fades away. I don’t really want things any more. My desire to open my wallet for the latest clothes, the latest hobby goods, the latest consumer products … it just vanishes. I don’t care about them any more.

When that happens, I’m always stunned to realize how much of that desire is actually driven by the media I consume. The things I think of as my own desires are often just fueled by the articles I read or the television that I watch or the ads that I think I pay no attention to but actually influence me more than I think.

A media diet is the perfect way to cut through all of that nonsense for a while. It helps to reconnect me with the things that are most important in my life. It helps to disconnect me from a constant race to buy, buy, buy.

The ‘Zero Day’ Trick

Even when you use the first two tricks, you can still sometimes feel a disconnect between your financial state and the things you want to do – and spend money on – on a day-to-day basis. You might not have your envelope with you, for instance, when you want to stop at Starbucks. You might begin to not see the connection between what you’re doing right now and your big goal down the road.

For me, the final technique centers around how much unnecessary stuff I spend money on. An awful lot of the money we spend, even when we’re careful, is on stuff we really don’t need. Keeping myself mindful of how truly unnecessary most of our spending helps me make good financial choices even when the “photograph trick” and the “envelope trick” aren’t clicking.

I call it the “zero day” trick. It’s a technique I wrote about a lot in the early days of Money360 and it’s one that I still use today.

It’s simple. Most days, I make it a goal to spend no money at all. That means eating only the food I have on hand. That means not spending a dime on “treats” like a cup of coffee from the coffee shop. That means not spending money on a hobby, even if I see a great sale. That means not going out to eat. That means spending nothing at all.

The thing is, most of those days are actually pretty good. I have a lot of things already in my home to entertain me. I have food in the pantry and the refrigerator, including stuff in the back of the pantry that I’d forgotten about. I have lots of little tasks around the house that I need to take care of and a “zero day” is a great time to take care of them.

I strive to have 20-25 “zero days” per month. Every single one reminds me that the things I really value in life do not cost much money. In fact, I already have the relatively small number of things I need to have a great life, and everything else really is pretty extraneous.

It keeps things in perspective for me. I find it to be a very powerful exercise and I try to do it as often as I can.

Final Thoughts

None of these techniques alone are a silver bullet against a disconnect from one’s financial state. I find that some of them work really well at times and don’t work as well at other times.

What does work is using the complete set of them on a rotating basis. If I find I’m getting disconnected from hobby spending, I’ll stick to the envelope method for a while. If I find I’m getting tempted to cut back on investing, I’ll spend some time thinking a lot about our long term goals. If I find I’m convincing myself to spend money every day in thoughtless routines, I have a run of “zero days.” If I find myself having desires for more and more and more things, I go on a “media diet.”

Together, those things keep me connected to the realities of my financial life. They show me that I have plenty of things already. They keep me on pace with my big goals.

I hope you’ll try some of these strategies, too.

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