The Benefits of Sticker Shock

It wasn’t that long ago that most of my weekday mornings included a stop at Starbucks. There, I would spend a little over $3 on a breakfast I justified as relatively inexpensive by coffee-bar standards: A Grande Misto (coffee with a little bit of steamed milk) and a Top Pot donut (made all the more delicious by the fact that it seemed to have been literally dunked in a pool of glaze).

All that changed in April of 2008. That was when Starbucks stores started posting calorie counts of all of its options. My Misto was fine – even though I had it made with two-percent milk rather than skim (which seems to me little more than colored water) – but the donut weighed in at 495 calories. I did some mental math: nearly 2500 calories a week, 10,000 calories a month. Or three pounds I had to avoid or work off elsewhere. I stopped cold turkey.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised at the results of a new piece of research out of Stanford University. It found that the calorie posting in New York City resulted in what can only be classified as sticker shock. As in my case, people stuck with their choices in cappuccinos and other drinks but swapped to foods with smaller calorie counts or skipped foods altogether. Average calories from food per transaction fell by 14 percent, the study found. And for customers who averaged more than 250 calories per transaction (like me) calories fell by 26 percent.

In other words, once you know what you’re consuming – as opposed to consuming mindlessly – your behavior is likely to change. That’s why keeping a food diary has been acclaimed as the one thing you should do to insure success of a diet. (One study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in August 2008 that tracked 1,685 overweight or obese adults found that the primary predictor of how much weight a participant lost was how many days each week they wrote in their food diary. Although the average participant lost 13 pounds over six months, the people who kept written notes six days a week lost twice as much weight as those who wrote one day a week.) And it’s why I firmly believe that tracking your spending is the one thing you should do if you want to increase savings and pay down debt.

When you track your spending, or keep a spending diary, you note – to the dollar – where all of your money is going. A dollar into the vending machine for a soda? Write it down. Twelve dollars for a sandwich and a couple of magazines at the 7-11? Write that down, too. Hundreds for a special outfit to wear to your niece’s wedding? No expense is too large or too small to be logged. As the days pass, you’ll start to notice that you’re spending more than you ever thought on greeting cards or taxi fare or takeout sushi or whatever. And you’ll use that information to make changes. Here are some hints for making tracking your spending a habit.

Find the system that fits. Some people track by keeping a notebook or checkbook register in their pocket, briefcase or tote and writing down what they spend at the moment that they spend it. Others back into their spending log in various ways. Personally, I get a receipt every time I spend money. I shove the receipts into my wallet (it zippers so they don’t fall out) and every few days I download them into an Excel spreadsheet I’ve been keeping for years. You can track on paper or via computer. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but there will be a way that is better for you.

Add it up. The $5 you spent in the dollar store, $14 you spent on the movies (plus popcorn) and $36 to fill up the car with gas look innocent when they’re standing solo. It’s when you see that you’re actually filling the car two and a half times a week ($360 a month), going to the movies three times a month ($42) and dropping by the dollar store every other day ($75) that the numbers get surprising. It’s amazing how much even a few cheap dollar-store thrills can run when they become habitual.

Don’t force yourself to go cold turkey. The point of this exercise isn’t complete and total depravation. It’s to encourage you to think about the money you spend before you spend it, and then to decide to only spend it on things that are actually more meaningful to you. I still have a donut every so often, but when I do – knowing how calorie laden it’s likely to be – I make an effort to get a cinnamon sugar cake donut from the Donut Plant. And I don’t just eat it like I used to, I enjoy every bite.

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