My Five Worst Money Traps – and How I Handle Them

As proud as I am of our positive financial progress over the last several years, there are still big areas of my life where I don’t always make the smartest spending choices. Even with all of the mental preparation and good choices that I do make, there are still times when I will choose to open my wallet when, in a more rational moment, I can see that decision as very foolish and costly. Such choices take me away from my goals and rarely buy me anything valuable or lasting in return.

I find that, as I dig through my credit card statements and bank statements and other receipts, almost all of my poor spending choices boil down to one of five different areas. These five areas account for virtually all of my spending mistakes.

Problem Area #1: The Hobbies of My Friends

Whenever a close friend of mine gets into a hobby, I am naturally pulled into some level of interest in that hobby as well. My logic there is simple: if a friend of mine enjoys this, then I will probably enjoy it, too.

Here’s one recent example: one of my friends got into the hobby of collecting pocket notebooks. Sure, it seems like a strange little hobby, but there are some rare ones out there that are worth quite a bit of money and there are many that are incredibly aesthetically pleasing. I’m an avid user of pocket notebooks, but not really much of a collector, but this friend’s interest in this hobby convinced me to start hunting down a few rarer notebooks that were aesthetically pleasing to me (namely, the Field Notes National Crops edition).

Another example: several of my friends enjoy playing tabletop role playing games. They get together with several friends once a week at one of their houses and sit down together to play a pretty imaginative game. I don’t actively play any games, but several years ago their happy talk about these games convinced me to start getting interested in them. I wound up purchasing a few core rulebooks for various games and a big bundle of books from another person I knew who was moving away. Now, I have enjoyed reading these books, but have I played more than a session or two before acquiring them? Nope.

Here are a few strategies I’ve learned to combat this tendency.

First, I’ve learned to let my friend be the leader and teacher in the hobby. While I might find their hobby interesting, that doesn’t mean it has to become a major hobby of my own. With the pocket notebooks, I could easily just admire my friend’s collection and perhaps trade with her on occasion to get a pretty edition (while buying a few cheap ones for my own actual non-collecting use). With the tabletop role playing games, I could simply accept an invitation to their game nights. In both cases, I’m letting my friends do the leading and just following along with their interest.

Second, I’ve learned to recognize that I only really have time for a few hobbies in my life. If I want to actually enjoy hobbies with any depth, they need to have some time devoted to them. If I keep engaging in whatever hobbies my friends are into, I’m either going to have so many hobbies that I don’t really enjoy any of them or I’m going to have to drop other hobbies that I really enjoy and am already invested in.

Finally, I let them be my facilitator. Often, when my friends see that I have a fledgling interest in something that they’re passionate about, they’ll want to get me more involved. I’ve had friends give me all kinds of items related to their hobby in order to encourage my own interest. This lets me dabble a bit in their hobby without fully adopting it – and the expenses that go with it – as my own.

Mostly, I recognize that I can be interested in their hobby without adopting it as my own hobby.

Problem Area #2: Board Games

I love playing board games that either make me think or spur my imagination. I’m a member of two different board gaming “groups” that meet regularly at various places to play games and Sarah and I host semi-regular game nights at our house. I get a lot of enjoyment out of sitting down at a table with like-minded people, enjoying some conversation, and playing a game together that requires all of us to stimulate our brain cells.

The problem for me is that this hobby encourages buying. I’ll hear about a game or see one in a store and my mind will often envision myself playing it with my children or with my friends. I’ll think that a particular friend will really like this game and I want to play that game with that friend, so I’ll end up buying it. Sometimes, I’ll just be interested in a game myself and want to purchase it for purely selfish reasons.

Thankfully, there are a few things that I do to combat this tendency.

First, I try to avoid duplicating the collections of friends. If a friend of mine has a game, there’s little reason for me to own it, too. I can just ask that friend to bring it to a game night and we’ll play it together, which is most of the fun anyway.

Second, I bend the focus more towards playing games rather than acquiring them. For instance, I made it a personal goal in 2015 to play thirty of my favorite games fifteen times each. That’s a lot of playing and it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for acquiring new games. That’s by design – I want my focus to be on playing the games above all else because that’s where the joy comes from.

Third, I engage in swapping. I do a lot of board game trading with other people who are into the hobby. This enables me to try a lot of games without much additional expense. These swaps sometimes happen by mail (the advantage here is that I have a lot more to choose from) and sometimes happen person-to-person (the advantage here is that there’s no shipping and no wondering what exactly the other person will send).

Finally, I try to avoid visiting places that spur my purchases. Stores that cater to the board game hobby can be very tempting to me. My best strategy for minimizing spending is to simply avoid those stores if at all possible. I do have one group that meets in the open table space at one such store, so I really have to be on guard with that group.

Problem Area #3: Books

Books have been a constant financial distraction for me since I had enough money as a child to visit the nearest bookstore and spend the money I received for my birthday. I love reading. I love holding a book in my hand. I love getting lost in a good story. I love walking away from a book with a lot to think about. I love talking about books. I love learning something new from a book. I have since I was a young child and I suspect I always will.

Of course, books are a purchasable item that, in recent years, has become very easy to spend money on. With the advent of quick ordering via Amazon and particularly with instant delivery on the Kindle, it is really easy for me to order books almost without thinking about it.

I’ve had to develop some strategies to deal with this.

First, I manually turned off one-click ordering and removed my credit card information from Amazon. I still can order books from there, but I have to manually enter my card number to do so. Typically, this is more than enough to give me time to rethink the purchase. Similarly, I’ve learned not to carry my credit card into a bookstore.

Second, I discovered my local library and the many offerings they have. These offerings range from the obvious paperback and hardcover books to other things such as book clubs and electronic books. The best part? All of it is free. I find myself checking out books and taking my children there for book readings quite often. Right now, in fact, we have eleven books from the library spread out around our house, with at least one for each person in our home.

Third, I focus on reading rather than collecting books. I’ve learned to twist the pride of having a bookshelf full of books into pride in having a long list of books I’ve read. It is far better to have read a book and enjoyed it than to have a book on your shelf that you’ve never read. I do love having copies of books I refer to or re-read often, but that’s actually a relatively small number of books.

Finally, I swap books, too. I like using PaperBackSwap as a tool for trading books through the mail, but I also get a ton of value out of just swapping books with friends. Swapping with friends adds to the social experience of books, because if we’ve both read a book, it gives us something to talk about and bond over.

Problem Area #4: Gourmet Foods

As many of you know, I love to cook at home. I’m pretty good at cooking a cheap meal, but I also have a strong urge to expand that meal by adding high-end ingredients to it.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Whenever I make eggplant Parmesan, a recipe I quite enjoy, I have a basic recipe that’s pretty inexpensive, especially if we have eggplant in our garden. However, there’s a temptation to substitute the shakeable Parmesan cheese that we often use for a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that I have to grate myself right before the meal. That cheese is fragrant, delicious… and much, much more expensive.

Almost every recipe I make has at least some opportunity for that kind of ingredient upgrade. I might be tempted to turn a tomato sauce out of season into something fresh made with out-of-season fresh tomatoes (read: expensive). I’ll use fresh herbs instead of dried ones. I’ll decide to pop open a bottle of wine from our wine rack just to add a bit of flavor to a dish.

How do I get around this? Here are some strategies that I use.

First, I try to save “special” meals for rare or special occasions. There’s no real need to jazz up an ordinary “spaghetti night” meal with high-end ingredients. Instead, we save the special ingredients for times when we’re trying to make something really special. This keeps us from inflating the cost of most of our routine meals.

Second, most of our favorite recipes are already pretty cheap. The vast majority of meals we make at home are composed of low-cost ingredients that aren’t going to break our budget. If we do decide to improve an ingredient or two, we’re often just moving the cost of the meal up from about $1 per person to $3 or $4 per person. By sticking to cheap backbone meals, we reduce the impact of ingredient upgrades.

Third, I often don’t have time for some of my crazier meal plans. More than once, I’ve planned for an elaborate meal that seems like it would be wonderfully fun to prepare and eat, only to find that life interferes and puts those plans on hold. Instead, I wind up making something simple using part of the ingredients. I need to be very sure of my time commitments when making an elaborate meal – and that means fewer elaborate meals.

Finally, I involve my children in meal planning. This keeps me from doing anything too crazy with the ingredients. They like simpler meals for the most part and so when they’re involved some of the crazier ideas and ingredient alterations stay in check. After all, when I ask them what meals they’d like off of a list of options, spaghetti and macaroni often go straight to the top and I’m admonished not to make them “crazy.”

Problem Area #5: My Children

That last point leads directly into an area where I find myself making a number of spending mistakes: my children.

Before I get started here, I should point out that I have no interest in actually spoiling my children. I don’t spontaneously buy them things that they want at the store and so on. We do try to ensure that they have a nice Christmas and birthday, but we aren’t in the habit of buying them things all the time.

The “money sink” when it comes to our children is for things like after-school programs, educational opportunities, college savings, and so on. It is often very tempting for us to sign them up for everything and let them try out lots of different activities. The problem is that it adds up to a ton of expense.

I tend to have a very big weak spot for things like this. I want my children to have every growth opportunity available to them and that can add up to a huge expense if I’m not careful.

Here are four things I do to keep that tendency in check.

First, I remind myself of the value of free time. Free time gives children an opportunity to learn how to entertain and educate themselves. If you overbook a child, you never give them a chance to learn how to battle boredom and structure free time. This is a valuable lesson, one that can make all the difference in their future personal and professional lives.

Second, I recognize that my children have shifting interests. While it’s really tempting to jump on a fledgling interest and sign them up for something expensive related to it, that’s usually a mistake. That interest can easily fade over the coming months, leaving them subscribed to something they’re not enjoying and leaving us paying a bill for something that isn’t really providing us with any value.

Third, there are many opportunities to explore interests at home without activities. Sarah and I are imaginative and skilled enough to encourage our children to learn and explore without pouring out money into supplies and activities. Between the internet, the library, our respective skills, and the odds and ends we have around the house or can borrow from friends, our children have the ability to dabble in lots of things without hitting our wallets very hard.

Finally, I ask myself who really wants these things. I grew up in an environment where I didn’t have a lot of access to organized activities of any kind, really. My life was filled with a lot of unstructured free time, which was good in some ways but bad in others. When I see an interesting activity, the part of me that really wanted those opportunities as a kid speaks up and tries to convince me how incredible that opportunity is. The focus shouldn’t be on me and what I wish I could have had, but on my children and what will help them grow.

Four Additional General Strategies for Keeping These in Check

In addition to the tactics I mentioned above, here are five additional things I do that help with all of these spending weaknesses.

First, I keep myself aware of them. I know that I’m prone to making bad spending decisions in these areas. I make an effort to remind myself of those mistakes as often as I can so that I’m always aware of them. For example, if I keep myself mindful of the fact that I’m particularly tempted to spend unnecessary money when I visit hobby stores or book stores, I’m much more likely to not spend money when I’m there.

Second, I budget some free spending for myself – but not too much. I allot myself a certain amount per month in our budget for spending on whatever I please. I usually put aside part of it for one or two big events a year, but the rest can be spent on whatever I choose. I’m pretty good at keeping track of this amount, though I did have some slippage a few months when I didn’t count my Kindle purchases.

Third, I try to avoid “information” sources that tempt me to buy new things in those areas of weakness. If a website or a television program is geared strongly toward buying new things in a particular area of interest, I’ve learned to largely avoid it.

Finally, I’ve learned to ask to borrow first. Instead of just rushing out to buy something connected to one of my own interests, I’ll ask my friends that share those hobbies if they have the item in question instead, and then I’ll borrow the item from them instead of buying it myself. I make sure to be very open to lending my items out to friends as well so that it’s not just a one way street. The best part? Such swapping among friends, if done well and with respect, usually ends up cementing and building a friendship.

Final Thoughts

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: we all have areas where we make spending mistakes. All of us. The real key is to figure out what those mistakes are and adopt some strategies to make sure that the spending is well under control.

Finding the missteps is the easy part. Just dig through your bank and credit card statements for places where you spent a lot of money on the same types of things and ask yourself why you’re spending that money.

Breaking that routine – or at least putting some constraints on it – is the real challenge, but it’s one that’s well worth doing. If you do it right, you don’t lose anything worthwhile about what you love while also establishing a great deal of control over your financial future.

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