Joshua Lott/Reuters/File
Hershey's candy bars are displayed at a gas station in Phoenix in this 2011 file photo. Small purchases are easy to forget, but they can add up to a big monthly tab. Here's how to improve your money memory.

Selective memory and your wallet

We easily forget the small purchases we make, but they can add up quickly. Here's how I conquered selective forgetting.

I love my children. I’m proud of them. When I think about their behavior, my thoughts are almost entirely filled with positive things. I think of my oldest child’s studiousness, my daughter’s creative energy, and our youngest child’s humor.

What I often don’t recall is when they do things that they shouldn’t. If you ask me at the end of the day what bad decisions they had made, I would have a hard time recalling more than one or two of them.

I know on some level that there are things that they do wrong. They make messes. They leave their coats out. They’re incredibly noisy at times. The sibling competitiveness between our two older children sometimes reaches dangerous heights. They don’t listen at times. They make horrific messes at the dinner table.

The thing is, my ongoing memory of these events is pretty selective. We’ll handle a situation, we’ll move on from it, and I’ll forget about it. I remember them later in an aggregate sense, knowing, for example, that they’ve made big messes on spaghetti night at the dinner table. At the end of a given day, though, I don’t specifically recall many of the little things they’ve done wrong.

This is selective memory at work. My mind, on some level, works through the events of the day, chooses to remember some, and tosses aside other things.

One of my biggest financial challenges was recognizing – and overcoming – the fact that my mind does the same thing with spending decisions.

I’ll buy a pack of gum at the gas station and forget about it. I’ll buy something online and forget about it. I’ll buy a few goodies at the store and forget about them.

These are minor events, of course, but waht’s worrisome is how easily the brain discards them, even though they each do have financial impact on my life. I’ll forget about $5 purchase after $5 purchase, and it doesn’t take too many of those to start adding up to a real chunk of one’s budget.

Over a long period, I’ve essentially trained myself to stop those little incidental purchases, but that wasn’t a good solution when I was first trying to get my spending and finances under control. I had to use other tactics.

First, I kept a very careful money diary. Whenever I spent any money, even if I just tossed a quarter into a Salvation Army kettle, I would pull out a pocket notebook and write it down. I did this by keeping the notebook and pen literally inside my wallet, with the cover of the notebook jammed down over the wallet pockets. Whenever I reached into my pocket, I felt it.

The act of writing in that money diary was a constant reminder of how many trickles of money were exiting my life, but the shocking part came when I totaled up the numbers in that diary.

I had come to realize that I was spending money needlessly on a pretty regular basis, but seeing that first monthly total was one of the biggest shockers I got during my financial recovery. I simply couldn’t believe how much I was spending on foolish and unnecessary stuff.

This shock pushed me into the next phase, which was where I started to very carefully consider each purchase. I began to spend a lot of time shopping at this point because I would think really carefully about everything I put into my cart or carried to the checkout.

Did I need this item? Could I do without it? Is there a less expensive option to solve my problem? I pushed those thoughts to the forefront with every single financial transaction I made.

The goal of all of this was to make myself deeply understand the impact of each little decision I made and how they added up to a painful financial result.

Gradually, I began to view not buying those little things as the new normal and I was able to return to a faster approach to grocery shopping. I simply don’t put most of those things in my cart any more, and when I do buy something unnecessary, I fully understand why I’m buying it and what the consequences are of that purchase.

The savings from this shift is tremendous, and it was all about overcoming my selective memory, proving to myself that my choices were actually pretty awful, and then working to improve those choices.

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