What happens when you don’t track your spending on vacation

I love traveling. I love seeing new places, or even old places with a new eye.

And vacations, those limited periods of time when we uproot our normal routines, are most often when we experience travel.

While vacations are salutary, and I highly recommend you take your vacation time if you have it, all too often vacations are seen as a bubble in which one doesn’t need to think or care about any of normal life.

And that can be a problem. “I’m on vacation” is often code for “I don’t care how much it costs.” Which can mean that in addition to whatever souvenirs you’ve purchased, you also bring home a credit card bill.

But you don’t even need to use a credit card to make poor financial decisions. All you need to do is to not track your spending when you’re on vacation.

This is exactly what happened when my partner and I visited New York City this past week.

I want[ed] to be a part of it

I used to live in New York City, before I decided that my life would be better if I left. It’s a fast-paced, busy city. People aren’t unfriendly, but they have exactly five seconds for you, and if you go over that limit, people tend to get irritable.

Lines are long, everything is seemingly half-broken, million dollar condos have piles of garbage outside, and people who have been there for a long time tend to have Stockholm Syndrome about their city. “It’s the greatest city in the world,” they say, just a little too forcefully to be totally believed.

My partner and I went there to visit some friends and to see my old stomping grounds. We had a few days to do everything we wanted, and it became quickly clear that our itinerary was way too ambitious.

But we tried to do it all anyway.

Tracking your spending on vacation

Now, being somewhat focused on personal finance (as you may have guessed), I prefer to track my spending very actively on a trip like this. This is mainly as a check on myself, to make sure that my spending is roughly in line with my budget.

Granted, some spending is lumpy (you only buy a subway pass once after all), but tracking during the trip as opposed to afterward gives you a general sense of where you are. If you know what you want to have spent, and you do a little bit of tracking each day, you know where you are.

While this can help you figure out big things (if you only have $80 left, don’t spend $150, duh) I also believe that there are more subtle and ineffable ways that knowing your budget can help you spend accordingly and with intention. You may not realize that you’re changing your behavior, but you are. It’s why I say that if you’ve never tracked your spending before (at home), it will feel like you’re getting a raise.

And which is easier, tracking your spending, or getting a raise at your job? (Hint: Which one do you have total control over?)

And then things got busy

But this plan hit headfirst into our over-planned schedule, which had us going uptown and downtown, walking miles and miles all over the boroughs, eating at the places we wanted to, seeing the sights we wanted to, and being the tourists we wanted to.

The first night, we arrived home and just collapsed. That’s okay, we’ll do our spending tomorrow.

The second night? We had switched boroughs, and the details of the move had wiped us out again.

The third night? We were so busy that we just forgot.

The fourth night? You get the idea.

We just got out of the habit. It was always in the back of my mind (“we really should write down our spending“) but the time pressure just let it get away from us.

The unfortunate truth

On the plane ride home, finally strapped into seats, we looked at what we spent.

Our budget, not including airfare, for this trip, was $425. This included three main categories: Transportation, Food, and Experiences.

When we tabulated everything up, we came up with a trip total of: $750.

Yowch. Almost double our budget.

Maybe we should have strapped ourselves into our seats sooner.

Spending is a feeling

What happened? Simple: we didn’t know how much we were spending. More importantly, we didn’t feel how much we were spending.

Spending is a matter of feeling. If you doubt this, note that not every purchase feels the same, even if it’s the exact same amount of money. I’ll spend $30 on a meal, but spending $30 on a cab makes my skin crawl. That’s a feeling.

And when you don’t know how much you are spending, your feelings get out of whack. Things feel okay to do, because you don’t have any built-in feedback that says it’s not.

Would we have not done things had we known how much we had spent? Sure. Would it have materially affected our trip? Maybe a bit, but not necessarily. We might have made other choices, but that doesn’t mean that we would have enjoyed our trip less.

Conscious spending is more powerful than unconscious spending. You won’t need as much when you’re paying attention.

Perfection doesn’t happen

If there’s one point I want to highlight, it’s that no one, even some guy who writes a blog about money wellness, is perfect when it comes to money behaviors. This site isn’t some font of wisdom by someone on the mount who has discovered the true way and is there to show the world the light. The hell with that. I’m imperfect, I mess up, and I’m figuring it out as I go.

Yes, I have determined strategies you can use to understand your behavior and take control of your financial situation, but every day is a new fight. Your path to financial wellness is paved with a million little decisions. Some of those are going to go sideways. That’s okay.

The hurt I feel now is less about the amount of money (which isn’t that much) than the feeling of having lost track, or maybe control.

You may think it feels good to spend with abandon, but in aggregate, it doesn’t. Eventually, the feeling of being out of control, the fear of the bills, or the shame of your largess will catch up to you.

Luckily, you have the power to take back control. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work. It’s just up to you—and me—on whether we choose to take up the challenge.

But enough about me. When was a time you lost touch with your spending?

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