In my post last week I left out a third dimension to why my family found it so easy to change our spending habits quickly. I attributed the successful early weeks of our Fishtailing Joyride to a combo of a life-changing event that gave us focus (having kids) and a compelling story that showed us another way we could live (MMM’s blog). But here’s a factor I missed: we had begun paying attention to how our individual actions add up instead of telling ourselves a story about how we’re doing based on estimates—or even exact monthly numbers.

Paying attention to detail helped us change our behavior…

The day after my Big Changes Practically Overnight post, I received an email with the subject line, Where Personal Breakthroughs Really Come From. What a timely gift from David Cain at Raptitude—Getting Better at Being Human, a blog I’ve been enjoying lately! Although our posts focused on different means to the end, David and I were mulling over the same big question of what works when you’re trying to change spending behavior.

David argues that, to make a big change, you have to track your behavior. He posits that awareness makes stagnation impossible. Conveniently, his example of how to track your behavior matches what I’ve been working on lately: watching your financial habits by tracking every dollar that goes into and out of your possession.

In my experience, the man has a point. Knowing my monthly spending has never been enough for me to change my spending behavior. I have kept a monthly budget off and on for over a decade before this Fishtailing Joyride. I knew exactly where my problem spending areas were! However, looking at a big monthly sum of restaurant tabs made me feel like a big failure in the willpower department. And I got stuck there.

Everything changed a few months ago when I started using Mint to watch to every last cent coming in and going out, practically in real time. This was totally different from monthly budget tracking. Mint is a bit like Facebook, except you see a feed of every transaction you make instead of what your friends had for breakfast (and except for the fact you don’t share your financial information with others, of course!). Mint helps me reinforce the spending habit changes I’ve wanted to make all along. It allows me to make small self-corrections and even find new opportunities to move closer to my goal of spending more efficiently.

Turns out it’s easy for me to change habits one transaction at a time. A weekend with lots of room service meals while my kid was in the hospital?* Oh yeah, I can do better! If there’s a next time, I’ll coordinate with my partner to pack meals from home. And dammit, a stupid restaurant charge is muddying up my transaction feed! I’m not gonna let that happen again. Mint makes cutting my spending feel almost like a fun game!

On top of feeling so enthusiastic about these changes, the more I watch my Mint feed, the more I look for ways to make even more improvements! Ouch, how did I spend $100 on electricity last month? That’s way more than I’m willing to pay, especially during the nicest time of year around here! [Programs thermostat to cool the house to 80 degrees, and only at times we’re home, and turns fan from “on” to “auto.”] Crap, our electricity spending was still high this month too?! Time to get a clothesline because drying our clothes in the dryer every time is just not worth that kind of money. MMM calls this building your frugality muscle.

…but I needed more than attention to detail to change.

In spite of the fact that Mint has obviously helped me, I still stand by the post I wrote last week. I don’t think Mint would’ve led me to change my spending habits so quickly and dramatically on its own. I’ll never know for sure, I guess. What I DO know is that I lacked a vision for where I was headed. If I saved more and spent less, then what? Without a new narrative like that of MMM, I wouldn’t have realized what a positive life change frugality could be. And if I hadn’t had kids, I may never have noticed I was a frog in a boiling pot of water and embarked on this Fishtailing Joyride in the first place.

*My kid’s okay, thankfully.

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