The Solution to Maintaining a Budget Is Awareness

Carl Richards Behavior Gap Isn't That Interesting

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, send me an email about what you learned, the experiences you had, or what happened to you. You can reach me at I’m going to take some of those lessons, and some of my own, and write a follow-up column 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 column, titled The Solution to Maintaining a Budget Is Awareness, originally appeared in The New York Times on April 25, 2016.

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Will you try something for me real quick?

Make a mental list of the things you REALLY want to be spending your money on. You know, things you value deeply. My list includes security, time with my family, and service in my community.

Now, gently compare that list to the way you ACTUALLY spend your money.

If you’re human, that exercise probably hurt a little bit because there is almost always a gap between what we value and how we spend our money.

I’ve been exploring that gap for 20 years, and closing it is the focus of my work.

“Carl gets the relationship between money and feelings better
than anyone on the planet.”
– Ron Lieber, New York Times

If that sounds interesting to you… you’ve come to the right place.

I've spent years looking for the best way to share my work. I’ve tried Twitter, Facebook Groups, blogging with comments, courier pigeons… everything. I've come to realize that nothing beats a well-crafted letter delivered to your inbox once a week and your ability to hit reply and start a conversation.

So each week I send a short email discussing topics like money, creativity, and happiness along with a simple sketch. And if I get it right, it will take you less than two minutes to read, but you'll be thinking about it all day.

"I love Carl's hand-drawn sketches. They feel so personal and immediate… like he couldn't wait to scrawl down whatever insight had just popped into that lightning-fast brain of his…"

– Kara Cutruzzula, Brass Ring Daily

So join the thousands of readers of my Weekly Letter. There’s no spam, I never share your information, and it’s free.