Broken Windows, Broken Budgets

Broken Windows, Broken Budgets

When it comes to personal finance, many people think that small expenses don’t matter.

People share advice along the lines of: don’t worry about buying coffee everyday before work, don’t get all that bummed out about the costs you incur for dining out or for entertainment, don’t let it get to you that you’ll be paying off student loan debts or car payments until you’re fifty.

As long as you don’t go overboard, they seem to be telling you, it’s all good. It’s the big stuff that matters; don’t sweat the small things.

This could hardly be more wrong.

I suspect much of this is well-intentioned advice meant to penetrate the resignation of Millennials who think there’s nothing they can do about the big-picture spending items they’re locked into (or, alternately, the big-ticket items they’re kept from having). Naturally, they then want to enjoy smaller pleasures and pursuits.

I’ll admit, that’s not the worst perspective to have; trying to get people to care about saving money and making better financial choices is always laudable. Moving a person just a little bit in the right direction is still progress, but beginning from a place of consumerism, assuming that being cavalier with small-ish expenses won’t hurt your budget, is a big deal. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Let’s think about the famous “broken windows” theory of law enforcement as it relates to forming habits and making choices. (Isn’t money just a visible symbol of our choices?)

This strategy was made famous at the end of the 20th century in New York City by NYPD leaders who wanted to attend to smaller crimes like jumping the subway turnstile without paying or vandalism in order to prevent people from thinking that other crimes wouldn’t be punished. New York had a decades-long crime problem, and things like broken windows and vandalism created an air of permissiveness when it came to lawbreaking.

To make a loose analogy, money can be viewed the same way.

Allowing yourself to buy all (or most of) the small things you want will only make it harder for you to resist the big splurges. It’s hard to say yes to artisanal coffee in the morning and gourmet lunches at work only to sit down at your computer and resist buying things on Amazon and impulsively booking tickets for pricey events or getaways.

It’s hard to save at the end of the month when you indulge continually along the way.

That’s how my mind works, anyway, and I would bet that’s true for you.


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