Proof of Purchase

So, since forever (or more accurately since my high school trip to Europe for which my parents got me a credit card - a silver Citibank Visa to be more specific - at the suggestion of the trip chaperones to facilitate purchases with foreign currencies at better rates), I have tracked all my credit card spending. What this has meant is saving every receipt for every purchase I have ever made on a credit card and cross checking it with the statement that comes each month. I think my mom taught me to do this, more by osmosis than anything else. She was always "doing money." In the beginning, I found this quite a nice activity. It made me feel good; it fed my need for order, being right, being organized, and was yet another way to document my life. For several years, I also stapled all the receipts to the back of the monthly statement and put them in a folder. And for years, when I had few credit card expenses, and no points to earn, this amounted to 5-10 purchases a month. Easy.

Then I starting making a little bit more money. Then I got married and got a card for my husband, Brian, and me associated with points for frequent flier miles, hotel stays, etc. It got us a big discount on our lame honeymoon. Then I started to try to purchase everything on the card to aquire the most amount of points possible. Then I did things like buy more groceries, get a gym membership, become a regular newspaper subscriber, have medical expenses, graduate school, dinners out, and occasional $4 cups of coffee. Brian had the card too now so both of our purchases were on there. It was way more than 5-10 purchases a month. It was closer to 100. Cash was becoming irrelevant for most things in my world. And I loved that our card - now a Starwood American Express - sent me breakdowns of my spending by category, making even more tracking possible.

Somewhere in the middle of our second or third year of marriage - we had recently purchased our first home - I had a panic attack about the tracking I was doing every month. It was taking a full day to do. Brian did not have the same need to track - he literally had a need NOT to track - expenses the way I did. I felt like I was wasting my time but I couldn't stop myself. Online purchases sent me over the edge. I would go through my email and print out receipts and harass Brian for all of his. He was also traveling extensively for work and before we got smart and put those trips on a separate card altogether, they were all mixed up everywhere. I feel anxious just writing about it. I knew not everyone tracked things at this level, but I thought they should. Shouldn't they? I certaintly knew that Brian's laissez faire attitude of just skimming over the statement every month couldn't be right, could it? I had found mistakes before - a few cents here, a few dollars there, a wrong charge altogether. But was it worth it? I didn't know.

And then came the children. And monthly checking became bi-annual checking which meant DAYS of going through receipts. Then came, and I'm ashamed to admit it, a few MISSED payments because I literally forgot to pay them. I'd never been so un-on top of the administration of my life. It was shocking to me (though apparently not to other new moms or former new moms who thought I wasn't above these kinds of mistakes, harumph!). Then follow up calls to the credit card to remove the fee for being late: "I've never been late, except for that time two years ago when I was late paying you after the birth of my FIRST child." Shouldn't there be some kind of exception for mothers of babies? They made them for me at least. But I didn't. I was mortified. I finally put auto pay into effect on every account.

I continued tracking but started to loosen the reins the tiniest bit. The first big step was getting rid of receipts after I cross-checked them with the statement. This may not have saved any time but it certainly tidied up the file drawer and it made me feel good to throw things away. Then, I started to not "need" every receipt. I'd let things slide - a lunch here, a tax ride there. "Sure, that looks right," I'd say, acting for myself. "That amount sounds okay." I wasn't completely comfortable with it but I forged ahead. I started to consider the value of my time over the value of finding what would likely be no or very few small errors. When I was getting paid to work, this kind of attention to this kind of detail would not have been worth my hourly rate at least.

So, last month, I discussed my "issue" briefly with my therapist, oh, and more importantly, talked with one of my BFFs who feels similarly about money. Even she doesn't cross-check receipts and pointed me to Mint*. I signed up for Mint (and downloaded the free iPhone app too) and stopped saving receipts altogether. I don't ask for them, don't keep them, don't want them - except of course for major purchases or for things that I know might need to be returned, or donations to charity, or, no, I think that's it, really. I announced it to Brian and expected him to throw a party in my honor to celebrate but I don't think he believed me right away. It's been pretty freeing so far. I spend a few minutes each week checking my purchases on Mint, and that's it. Now I have time for more important things, like writing really long blog posts about receipts.

*This is not a paid advertisement for Mint. I don't know anyone there and they don't know me. I'm just pretty excited about what they're helping me do - for free, in terms of tracking all my money, debt, goals, budget, etc. and helping me allow myself to be free of receipts.