The Solution to Maintaining a Budget Is Awareness

I talk to many people who have problems with spending. Sometimes it’s friends. Sometimes it’s co-workers. Sometimes it’s neighbors. And yes, sometimes I talk to myself about my own struggles.

What I’ve discovered over the years is that most of our problems do not come down to income. Instead, we don’t notice enough. Spending mindlessly, without even thinking about it, has become a national bad habit. And we all know how hard it is to break habits. So we make the same mistakes over and over again.

Oops! I did it again! Another month, another blown budget.

We keep having this problem because we keep using the same tips and tricks while expecting a different result. We tear up our credit cards and use only cash. We may even wear a shock bracelet (there’s actually somebody who advocates that), which you can use to zap yourself when you buy something.

Crazy, right? Well, it’s time for a new approach.

Solutions that focus on negative reinforcement are like hacking at the branches when what we really need is to focus on the roots. What I’m proposing is really simple, and it’s based on one central hypothesis: The solution is not making spending more painful; the solution is awareness.

So I want you to try a little experiment I’ve created. It’s called “30 Days and Three Seconds.”

Here’s how it works. For 30 days, when you spend money, I want you to take three seconds and simply notice what you’re doing. That’s the program. Simple, easy and doable. It can be before, during or after the purchase. Be consistent, and make sure you do it for every purchase.

For instance, if you’re buying lunch at Whole Foods, when the cashier says, “That will be $8.67.” After you pay, stop for three seconds and say to yourself, “Eight sixty-seven for lunch. Isn’t that interesting?”

And those are exactly the words I want you to use: “Isn’t that interesting?” Not, “Isn’t that dumb.” Not, “Oh, I should have…”And certainly not, “Not again.” I just want you to notice.

The point of this is not to beat yourself up about your spending. All of the emphasis for the next 30 days is on awareness — that’s it.

One way you can do this is by setting up your credit card or Apple Pay to send you an automatic message each time you make a purchase. In the Whole Foods example, you spend $8.67 on your card and, almost immediately, you will get a text message saying, “You spent $8.67 at Whole Foods.”

If you don’t like that idea, get a receipt for every purchase. When you walk out the door, look at the receipt, read it and say, “Isn’t that interesting?” Then throw the receipt in the trash. And if you don’t like that, just say it to yourself each time the cashier tells you the total.

That’s all you’re going to do.

And then, 30 days from now, on May 25, send me an email about what you learned, the experiences you had or what happened to you. You can reach me at hello@behaviorgap.com. I’m going to take some of those lessons, and some of my own, and write a follow-up column that you can count on seeing two weeks after that, on June 13.

Look, I could tell you what the goals of this exercise are. I could tell you other tricks and tips on how to achieve them. But we’re not going to do any of that stuff. No budget, no list and no adding it up at the end of the month. Again, the entire objective is awareness. I don’t want you to judge yourself or to change what you’re doing, just simply notice.

Thirty days, three seconds.

Experiment with it, see what you discover and then shoot me an email.

This commentary originally appeared April 25 on NYTimes.com

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Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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