One day a few weeks ago, I absent-mindedly left my Eftpos card at home and was forced to survive on whatever change I had in my wallet for the day. I counted enough forgotten change in between all the 6-year-old receipts in my wallet to buy lunch and, proving not all heroes wear capes, managed to live to tell the tale.
The whole day, though, I felt this nervousness about not having my card on me. What if there was something I needed to buy? Some unexpected emergency that only my old faithful Eftpos card could solve?
Except there hardly ever is. Unexpected expenses are rare, especially on a regular work day when I'm behind my desk for hours and, no matter how much I try to argue the contrary, a chocolate danish does not constitute an emergency.
And yet, looking through my bank statements, I manage to swipe my plastic card a lot for someone who gets free coffee at the office. They were all things I wanted, rather than things I needed. The reality is that, looking back, if the Spice Girls were to come in and ask me, what I really, really wanted is to not have wasted all that money.
From that day on, I decided to put my big girl pants on and leave my cards at home on purpose. The "cash-only" diet is not my idea but it doesn't mean it's not a work of genius.
The thought-process behind it is that, by having a strict budget and no chance of adding to it, you will be more likely to resist impulse purchases.
On Monday, I got a shiny $50 note out and decided that, since my grocery shopping had been done for the week (using my Eftpos card), that one note had to last me all week. What I'd failed to remember is that hardly anyone uses cash in New Zealand and we mindlessly swipe our cards for all expenses, no matter how small.
This led to a number of awkward encounters and now I think I owe a public apology to all the front-of-house and checkout staff who've had to deal with me lately and who probably don't get paid nearly enough to do the complicated maths I've been forcing them to make.
But I'm sticking with it because, even if it makes me "that weird lady with all the loose change", I found that there are a number of benefits to not carrying much money (I don't think I could sound more white privilege right now if I tried):
1. I focus on what I "need" rather than what I "want"
Sure, I really want to finish this paragraph and run across to the dairy for a packet of Mint Treats but then I won't have enough money left over for dinner (so, if anyone is reading this, please send emergency Mint Treats).
2. I know exactly how much money I'm spending
I wouldn't think twice before adding a $3 chocolate bar or a $4 coffee to my daily expenses. But I have to get through today on $10 and that includes buying dinner in the innercity so $7 is just not going to cut it.
Being on a strict budget means I have no choice but to be in control of my spending. I now know I spend $50 a week on daily expenses (outside of groceries, transportation and other bills). I did not have a clue about my weekly spending a few weeks ago.
3. Physically seeing cash leave your wallet changes your perception
Plastic cards make it all too easy to not even think about what you're spending, it's all a bit like Monopoly money to me.
While this exercise is ultimately about spending less money, it is also about becoming more responsible and accountable for how you spend money. If you hold the money in your hand and actually think "I'm happy to not have this money anymore in exchange for this item", then maybe you should get it. Otherwise, you don't need it (or want it enough).
4. I'm not nearly as thrifty as I thought I was
Because I (mostly) drink free coffee in the office and have a penchant for cheap eats, I thought I was a pretty smart shopper and most of my expenses were absolute must-haves. However, I estimate (as much as one can estimate imaginary impulse purchases), that this "cash-only diet" is saving me about $40 a week. That might not sound like much but I did the maths (using the calculator on my phone because, well, see point 5.) and that's more than $2000 in a year. Now if I think back through my irresponsible card-swiping years and multiply that... actually, I won't - I'd probably cry.
5. I'm giving my brain a tiny workout every time I shop
I had no idea I didn't know how to do basic maths anymore but when I hand a $10 to pay for $3.75 worth of shopping I think I can hear some brain cells weeping.
How to do a "cash-only" diet:
1. Establish how much money you need a week for daily expenses
2. Withdraw the cash at the beginning of the week and budget for each day
3. Don't allow yourself any wriggle room
4. For some extra motivation, decide what to do with any change you've got left at the end of the week.