1,976 Reasons to Budget

a.k.a., The Art (and Expense) of Accumulation


I recently stumbled upon my Amazon purchase history. I’m not just talking about my last several orders, either. It went all the way back to 2009, to an innocuous $8 purchase, a book called Five Flights Up, by Toni Schlesinger.

I don’t remember why I ordered that book, or how I’d heard of it, but it was magic. Its pages offered a glimpse into the personal lives of several New Yorkers via a series of interviews and revealed their many hobbies, aspirations and quirks.

One story, in particular, stood out—and not just because it was wonderfully weird—I was sure I’d heard this one before, from a guy who was friends with the guy in the story. I’d met him in my neighborhood park, in Brooklyn, a few months before. Small world, right?

The details have faded, but I remember listening as this guy described the friend, including his unusual lifelong hobby. The version in the book went like this: “Here’s my rubber-band ball. It’s 129 pounds, about twenty-one inches in diameter. I’ve done it since I was four, about twenty-two years. I add to it when I have to. See, rubber bands rot …”

Recalling that story made me feel better about my pages and pages of Amazon purchases. Not only was that book a complete gem, it offered proof that maybe accumulating was just a natural part of being human. His thing was rubber-bands. Mine, it turns out, is mostly books.

9 Years of Data and a Whole Lotta Books

After taking a fairly rigorous tally, my purchase history—from 2009 to today—can be summed up as follows:

  • Total purchases: 168 (That’s $4,533.39 in merch. Oh, my!)
  • I still own 71 of those purchases, although I’m actively trying to sell two of them on eBay.
  • Five items broke. (I still can’t believe how fast that food scale flew out of my hands before it bit the dust on my tile floor!)
  • 16 items were gifts. I only needed two, but that’s another story.
  • 13 items were used up, perishable or expired—including a candle, calendars and several containers of my favorite, hard-to-find-locally, toothpaste.
  • My top two categories were books (49, to be exact) and fitness gear (22 items).

Of my 168 purchases, I truly enjoyed or needed just 87 of them. Total cost? $2,557.18 (which means I blew $1,976.21 on things I didn’t really want or need). That’s right, I could have purchased just 51.8 percent of that stuff and saved nearly $2,000, which works out to roughly $400 per year in savings. And for what?

The Meaning of Things

Obviously, I didn’t set out to blow $2,000. In fact, quite the opposite—I’ve diligently budgeted my pennies since I fell for YNAB in 2013. I haven’t reached budgeting nirvana (yet!), but I’ve dutifully tracked every expense, cut back on mindless spending, and dramatically decreased my money worries. A little better every day, right?

So, what gives? Why did I give 1,976 of my dollars jobs that didn’t excite me? First, let’s look at what I bought:

Clearly, I like books. I care about my health. I feather my nest. I give equally to myself and others. Actually, if you count my pet purchase, I give more to others. (You’re welcome Will and Lulu!)

Closer inspection reveals three dominant motivations: eating healthy, exercise and writing (or, rather, learning—mostly about writing). No real surprises, there. But, ironically, I can do all three without a steady stream of Amazon deliveries.

What Went Wrong?

Truly, I don’t feel too bad about my “lost” $1,976. I see it as the cost of participating in life and nurturing my interests, but there are just a few places I’ll cut back on in the future:

Weight Training

Would I have spent far less on exercise books and gear? Uh, yeah—but I did kind of enjoy learning proper powerlifting form in the privacy of my living room. Thanks, barbell. Thanks, way-too-expensive barbell clips. Thanks, Starting Strength. No, thanks, two boxes of gym chalk that I never even used.

I haven’t stopped lifting, but I realized that, for someone who tends to move cross-country, a gym membership simplifies things. Who knew?

Yoga

I’m happy to have my yoga blocks and strap, but I could’ve skipped the anatomy and history books. Turns out, I’m in it for the asana and community. I don’t need to know as much as the teacher about musculature, I’m not into the spiritual bit, and bracelet malas get in my way … from now on, I think I’ll just show up to class. Another vote for a membership!

Books

Books are my biggest expense, by far, accounting for nearly a third of my purchases. I’ve lost several during moves, but when I scrutinized which ones I really want on my shelf, only 21 of 49 made the cut. If I’d only purchased those books, I’d have saved $473.45! Library card, here I come.

Lessons in Prioritization

The three biggest lessons from my walk down Amazon Lane are:

1. Be More Thrifty.

This exercise became excruciating when I realized how much I’d paid for barbell clips. I could have started my powerlifting journey with the awful, but cheap, springy versions and upgraded after I vetted my interest. Or, as I mentioned above, just joined a gym.

… and that’s a theme in my life: I get excited about a new passion, buy all of the gear, and maybe get serious about the endeavor (but probably not—and I have a pretty fancy DSLR camera, currently listed for sale, to prove it). From now on, I’ll stick to the basics and start cheap. New mantra: I can always upgrade later.

2. Borrow Fitness Books!

Reviewing my book purchases was surprising—I couldn’t believe how much I’d paid for a book about running! In fact, on average, the health and fitness books that I bought cost nearly twice as much as other genres! I paid an average of $20.65 per fitness book and only about $12.50 for the others! What’s more, I only kept 30 percent of the fitness books I bought. Contrast that with the 81.8 percent I kept about writing.

Lesson? From now on (especially when it comes to books about health and fitness), I’ll try to borrow them from the library, first. If I want them in my home for reference, I’ll buy them later! Try before you buy.

3. Get Real.

Do I strike you as the type of person who would dehydrate my own jerky, fruits and vegetables? If you guessed “heck, no!” you’d be right. What about packing dainty, bento-style lunches in a food container so complex that it rivals a transformer? No, again! The theme here is, “Things I buy that are a total waste of money.”

I can’t explain why I sometimes fool myself into buying things that are so far outside of my lifestyle and preferences, but at least I’ve developed an eye for catching myself before it happens (mostly). If that’s a problem for you, too, it’s time to tune in and listen to your inner skeptic.

Pro-tip: turn off Amazon’s “one-click” ordering. (I’m pretty sure that one of my pricey yoga books said it’ll lead to more mindful shopping.)

How About You?

Overall, my spending jives with the life I want to live. I’m a lifelong learner (books!), I enjoy feeling good in my skin (health and fitness!), and I actually needed about half of the stuff I bought. Now that I know my weak spots, I plan to shop smarter.

What about you? If your Amazon order history could talk, what budgeting advice would it give you? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. Email [email protected]