The Money You Save is the Hardest to Spend

I’ve always been a saver. Ever since I was a little girl and would get a birthday card with some cash in it from a grandparent or aunt, the money went straight into my savings account. That’s just what I thought one did with money: put it in the bank. I was also fortunate to be immune to a lot of the most common and expensive vices. I never smoked or did drugs, I hate coffee, clothes shopping annoys me, and I don’t like the taste of alcohol. There wasn’t a lot to spend my money on. So I saved.

My miserly ways came in handy in college, where I managed to pay for more than half of my education through my own funds (the other half was from college funds set up by my parents and grandparents). But once I got out of college, the money was gone. I was lucky to have no debt, but I also had no cash. I found work, started following frugality blogs, and began to save again.

When I made the decision three years ago to go on this trip, I knew I’d want a good buffer of savings. I needed enough for the trip, plus a buffer for potential unemployment (I didn’t know at the time if taking the trip would mean quitting my job). So I threw together some numbers, and came up with an initial goal: $18,000. The first $8,000 would go in an emergency fund to be used if I lost my job, and the rest was my trip budget. I don’t know if $10,000 was a realistic budget, and I won’t know until after the trip is over. But it was a goal.

I set up an automatic withdrawal to a high-yield savings account at a different bank. The point was to make this money hard get at and therefore hard to spend. Funding for my trip would be one-way. I lived my life, I went to work, I stopped eating fast food, and before long the fund was growing. I tried out the goal function in Mint to see how much I had to keep putting in each month in order to get to my goal on time. My income kept going up, and my expenses kept going down. As it got easier and easier to put money aside, I raised the goal. And that’s when I started to worry.

My trip fund was becoming a very real and very large sum of money. Could I really waste it all on some idiotic dream of driving around the country? I still hadn’t told anyone about my plans. It wasn’t too late to back down. If I didn’t go, I’d get to keep all of my lovely savings.

But for what?

Savings in junior high and high school was one thing, I had college in my future. But what did I have now? A house? A car? I didn’t want either of those. So what was I saving for? I still couldn’t shake the feeling that spending it would be reckless. It was so much money. It took me so many hours of work to earn it, and so many frugal changes in my lifestyle not to spend it.

So I made a deal with myself. It was an idea the man who would later become my financial advisor gave me: Spend it either way. I didn’t have to go on a road trip if I didn’t feel like it. That was fine. But I didn’t get to keep the money. If I didn’t use it to drive around the United States, I’d have to buy a trip to Europe, or get an over-priced car. I’d have to get rid of it somehow. One way or another, that money would be gone by the end of 2013. I wasn’t allowed to keep it.

Once I got rid of the possibility of saving my savings, I stopped worrying about money for my trip. I no longer thought about how much it would cost, and only about what I could do and see. I upped the automatic withdrawal from my checking account and forgot about it. Money wasn’t the point anymore. And there’s no use in holding on to something pointless.

And now here I am. The emergency fund is well padded and my road trip account is well past my initial guess. There’s no way I’ll be able to spend it all on the drive. Since I told myself if I didn’t go on the trip I still had to spend ALL the money, it’s now cheaper just to do it. I managed to make taking an extended trip around the country appeal to my sense of frugality.

More importantly, I’m starting to learn that the point of saving money is to spend it all later. And for me, that’s the hardest part.