Why I Stopped Tracking Everything (and Started Making Intentional Decisions)

October 11, 2016

Why I Stopped Tracking Everything (and Started Making Intentional Decisions)

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One of the first things I learned on the road was that it would be impossible to maintain any kind of routine. The time I woke up varied day-to-day, the methods of physical activity I did changed in each state and climate, and I don’t think I ever ate the same meal twice (except when I did a brunch tour of Colorado and tried at least five different versions of Eggs Benedict during my time there).

Before I left, the exact opposite was true. I had streamlined so many processes that my life almost felt like it was on autopilot. I woke up at the same time, made coffee, ate the same foods, worked the same hours, took the same days off and spent them with the same people. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this – in fact, it’s incredible how quickly I’ve slipped back into my regular life, since coming home, and I’m grateful for that. It took years to create this and I’m happy to be living it again.

But there’s one routine I ditched on the side of the road that I will be happy to never pick up again: tracking things on a daily basis.

Before you think I’ve jumped on the wrong train, let me backtrack.

I know tracking things can be extremely beneficial. I started this blog to track my debt repayment journey, and am certain I wouldn’t have paid it all off (at least not as quickly as I did) if I hadn’t built that into my routine. If I hadn’t continued to track my spending after, I wouldn’t have realized how much money I was wasting, which ultimately helped me decide to do the shopping ban. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be the conscious consumer I am today.

Over the years, I’ve also tracked my workouts and my weight loss. I’ve used a FitBit to track how many steps I walk each day (which then helped me track my progress during recovery from hip surgery). And earlier this year, I tracked my food intake for 60 days, so I could figure out how certain foods made me feel and which ones I should ditch from my diet. So, it’s safe to say I’m a firm believer in tracking the progress of your goals.

But as soon as I hit the road, I realized I was still in the habit of tracking many of those things on a daily basis – namely, what I ate and what kind of workout I did. For the first week, I thought I needed to continue doing so. I was worried that sitting for so many hours in the car would mean I’d suddenly gain a bunch of weight, so I’d better limit my calories and get some decent hikes in the books.

I also felt the need to go back to tracking my spending on a daily basis – something I haven’t done in years! My reason for that: I thought I should share a really detailed report of how much money I spent, when I got back from my trip. So, that’s what I did every night during my first week on the road: opened my journal and scribbled down what I ate, how many steps I walked and how much money I spent.

And then I stopped. Quit. Cold turkey. On Day 6, you can open my journal and see that I ate an amazing breakfast in Sioux Falls and dinner in Minneapolis, walked 6,700 steps and spent $15.81 USD on gas. On Day 7? Well, who knows what happened, because that’s the day I decided I was done tracking things on a daily basis.

Instead, I opted to make one intentional decision at a time.

It started when I realized I was done keeping track of the food I was putting into my body – forever. I had no interest in gaining weight, but I was sick of feeling like I needed to account for every last crumb I put in my mouth. If 80% of my meals were healthy (and they always are), I refused to feel bad for eating dessert twice/week. Instead, I owned those decisions and enjoyed every last bite of affogato.

As for workouts, I don’t know what I was worried about! Sure, there were long driving days where I only got 5,000 steps in (you still walk, whether it’s in a grocery store, rest stop or around your final destination). But non-driving days were spent walking, hiking and exploring new places. There was no shortage of physical activity on the trip.

And as far as budgeting goes, I had transferred money down to my US checking account and taken out some US cash, and my only goal was to not run out of it. I was still able to keep track of all the purchases made with my debit card, but I didn’t want to carry receipts around for the cash I spent for the sake of being able to write a blog post about it. I was comfortable spending all of that money, so I just checked my account every week and was always surprised to see how much money I still had.

In the end, not only did I not gain weight, I actually lost some. And rather than go over budget, I came home with nearly $600 USD.

How did I do that? Because every time I faced a choice, I made an intentional decision – and at least 80% of them were healthy. When it came to food, I would ask myself: do I want to feel energized for the rest of the day or do I want to suffer? (This seems obvious, but it’s crazy how often I used to eat bad food without caring what the consequences would be.) With workouts: there was no question – I just walked everywhere. And with spending: am I comfortable trading money for the experience or not?

I don’t want to say the process was that simple, because it sounds so easy. But after years of tracking these things and learning so much about myself, it really was that easy.

Tracking things has helped me tackle a number of goals over the years. It has also helped me figure out what I value (and what I don’t value) and determine what kind of life I want for myself. It has served its purpose and I will forever say that tracking something is the first step to becoming aware of its role in your current life.

But someday, I also think you’ll get to a point where you can replace tracking with trusting yourself. And when you know what you value and trust yourself to only bring that into your life, the decisions you have to make each day get a lot simpler.

As my friend Jen says, “Intentional living is deciding to go for a run. Or to bring a packed lunch. Or to say ‘no’ to a disposable coffee cups. Or to spend 10 minutes with your children without distractions. … It’s about being honest and doing what feels right to you. There is no right or wrong answer. … There is no finish line. Living with intention means being in constant communication with yourself, deciding what’s working (and what’s not) and making small adjustments every day.”

This became my new routine on the trip – and I was glad to bring it home.

Now, for those of you who are really curious, I crunched some numbers, played with currency exchange rates online and came up with a rough outline of what I spent on my road trip. Keep in mind, this is only for six of the seven weeks I was gone. The week I spent in San Diego for FinCon is a business write-off, so I kept those numbers out of the equation.

Canadian $ % of Budget
CASH $894.14 19%
Gas $694.17 14%
Ferry $178.20 4%
Hotels $1,619.52 34%
Car Maintenance $36.75 1%
Park Pass $105.73 2%
Groceries $432.57 9%
Restaurants $611.61 13%
Shopping $188.11 4%
Pedicure $39.74 1%
$4,800.54 100%
÷ 41 days

Also, I would guess 75% of my cash was spent on food (groceries and restaurants). And this is all in Canadian dollars, which works out to roughly $3,630 USD.

If I could leave anyone with three tips for saving money on the road, they would be: (1) buy most of your food from the grocery store, (2) sign up for every store loyalty card to get the discounted prices, and (3) don’t get gas from the station closest to the exit. Drive down to even the second or third gas station and you’ll often find they have cheaper prices.


  • Reply The Green Swan October 11, 2016 at 5:10 am

    I’ve gotten great benefit out of tracking my spending for years and I too feel that I’m at a point where I could put it on auto pilot and still be in the ballpark of my budget/goal. I can see how tracking for so long builds so much muscle memory that now you’ve reached status of being a “pro” and can do life off the cuff now instead of actually tracking. Good for you, Cait!

  • Reply Rob October 11, 2016 at 5:15 am

    Hi Cait!
    Happy to see you back home, safe and sound, and that you experienced an amazing enjoyable trip.
    To your point relating to tracking things on a daily basis, I would add this. Years ago I found out that what worked best for me was to track things on a daily basis but only for awhile until they became habit forming and then I didn’t have to continue tracking them as frequently. This especially was true with investments. As you know the stock market and the economy regularly go up and down, daily – even hourly – and to track one’s investments too frequently just gets frustrating. Better you make “course corrections” to your strategy less often and when trends change. This also applies to other activities in one’s life, whatever they may be, at least in my experience.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Yes, you always know how to further clarify my points, Rob! Everything I used to track daily has since become a good habit. I like the rewards at the end (more clarity, more money, better health, etc.), so I will keep doing what helps me get those things. And good point about investing! I try not to look at mine often. Just update my net worth once/month and carry on!

  • Reply Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies October 11, 2016 at 5:23 am

    Yes! For me, it’s all about purposeful decisions. My husband was teasing me the other day when he watched me key in grocery receipts. I basically hit our grocery budget on the nose every month since last October when I trimmed it down to $200. We repeat our favorite meals. And I usually buy the same staples and shop at the same two stores. So there really isn’t much variation in price. It reminds me of a math problem when you look at all the different ways to add up to the same sum! In that regard, my husband is totally right. There’s really no need for us to track groceries and fuel and other standard items. For now, I track them anyway. It’s still a source of pride and motivation, so I’m going to ride that out as long as I can. When it gets tedious or stops serving a purpose, then I’ll move onto a new strategy!

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      Well it sounds like you get a lot of value from it, so there’s no point stopping! I still track my expenses once/month and keep it in a spreadsheet. I just don’t set targets anymore, because I know I’m always going to spend similar amounts (it just happens!).

  • Reply Matt @ Optimize Your Life October 11, 2016 at 5:49 am

    This is a great observation. I think that tracking is a great way to force yourself to be more mindful and purposeful in your decision-making, but the goal should be to be mindful and purposeful without the hassle of tracking everything every day. In most areas of my life I have moved to mindful decision-making and will drop in and track a day or a week every once in a while just to make sure I haven’t slipped too much without noticing. This helps me stay on track without the effort required to always track everything.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 1:07 pm

      You know what you want and check-in to make sure you’re making it happen. Sounds like a great system, Matt! :)

  • Reply TJ October 11, 2016 at 5:50 am

    I love this! I’m still working on making my small dollar decisions intentional (I’ve always been fairly analytical over large dollar purchases), but I have never found the individual tracking method to be beneficial for myself other than being even more obsessive about money.

    I’ve thought about instituting some sort of budget for the road trip because income will be more uncertain, but there’s definitely a lot if importance in what you say about trusting yourself that you’ll be okay (and also trusting yourself that you’ll adapt if your circumstances change.)

    It’s super fun to see your numbers. Do you have any sort of rough estimate of the percentage of nights that you spent in hotels, camping, and on people’s couches?

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 8:40 pm

      Oh man, I will say I’m actually so glad I did NOT set a budget (like X many dollars per day or per category) and instead just had a large lump sum to work with. BUT I did track these numbers monthly, which helped because I truly had no idea how much I would spend each month. So for you, you could track the first month and then tentatively try to stay within those parameters in the following months. Or you could just see how little you spend and think “CARRY ON!” :)
      And hmm… I could do the math but let’s say 70% people, 25% hotels, 5% camping haha. I mostly wanted to camp in California and Oregon, but ended up skipping so much by coming home early!

  • Reply Physician on FIRE October 11, 2016 at 6:08 am

    This is the same attitude I’ve adopted and explained in a “Budgets are Not Sexy” post. I still allow Mint to track spending for me, but the dollars spent are spent mindfully. One decision at a time, rather than trying to fit everything into a tidy, categorized budget.


    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Yep, that was a great post! (He also doesn’t budget anymore either, btw, hehe.)

  • Reply Hanna @ TheMillennialNextDoor October 11, 2016 at 7:16 am

    Wow…I’m amazed that you only had to spend $36 on car maintenance! :-)

    As a runner training for races, tracking can become an obsession. Burying yourself in the details of weekly mileage and average pace will eventually make running feel like a chore and take the joy out of it, but when you’re so immersed in that routine it can be really hard to let go. That’s why it’s so important to make the intentional choice, as you say, to just run – no GPS watch, no mileage goal, just go! (but do pay attention to time at least so you’re not late for work! :-) )

    On the other hand, there are some things I really should start tracking – like my own spending and dietary choices. I’d like to think if I can commit to that for a while and find the value in doing so, I will get to the point you’re at where I too can have more trust in myself to make the right choices on my own.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:04 pm

      Oh my gosh, you don’t even know! I lucked out and brought my car to the most amazing place in Denver where they did an oil change, tire rotation and inspection for only $27 USD!?! It was surreal – and now I recommend it to everyone I know there, haha.

  • Reply Alyssa @ GenerationYRA October 11, 2016 at 7:21 am

    “And when you know what you value and trust yourself to only bring that into your life, the decisions you have to make each day get a lot simpler.” — THIS is my absolute favorite line. Determining what I value in life while growing up has been a huge theme for me lately, but incorporating the element of trust is a huge factor. I am so happy to learn more about your trip – there was such a great amount of connecting, learning, and more. :)

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:06 pm

      Oh girl, I feel like I could write about the trip forever! But I don’t want to bore anyone or let it drag on too long, haha. It was definitely life-changing though. Still SO glad we got to meet up at the end!

  • Reply Amanda @ centsiblyrich October 11, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Yes! I think tracking is great when you are starting to make changes in your life, whether it be diet, exercise or spending. But once you’ve done it for a while, and make those little tweaks here and there as a result of the tracking, it becomes redundant. For me, eating healthy has become a part of my lifestyle. I know which foods make me feel better and tend to eat basically the same meals in rotation (breakfast and lunch are almost always the same meal each day). It’s weird, though, I still track my spending down to the last penny, even though I’ve done it for years!?

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      Well that’s ok! I track all my debit/credit card purchases at the end of the month. Don’t use much cash (maybe $40/month) so I don’t track that. But I do still like to have the majority of the numbers in a spreadsheet. I just don’t do it daily or weekly anymore, because I know the numbers always add up to a similar range (within a couple hundred dollars).

  • Reply Mr Crazy Kicks October 11, 2016 at 9:12 am

    Alright! Join us non-budgeters! While we do track our net worth, we have never tracked our spending very closely. Probably because our growth is more exciting than our spending, and we are lazy. Instead we just make conscious decisions each time we make a purchase. If expenses seem high we might review our CC statements at the end of the month.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:08 pm

      Oh yea, I joined you 1.5 years ago! Hehe. I still look at numbers once/month but don’t set budgets or force myself to stick to them. And this is the first year I’ve tracked my net worth every month too! That’s been a fun one :)

  • Reply Erika October 11, 2016 at 9:32 am

    This is such an interesting topic. I’ve been tracking my food intake since May (weight loss is the major goal here – 30 down and many to go so far) but have been thinking lately how it seems kind of trivial since my eating habits are so improved already. I think I’ll eventually get to this point of trust with myself and am looking forward to getting there, but feel at this point that I need more than 6 months of tracking. Glad to see that someone else is thinking about these things like this and I look forward to when I get to the point where I don’t need to track!

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      Congrats on your progress so far, Erika! You must be feeling great :) and I think you’ll get to that point too! It’s ok if it doesn’t happen soon. But one day you could start small by not tracking snacks anymore (trusting you’ll eat good ones) and then eventually get to a place where you just stick to a meal plan and that’s good enough! For now, keep doing whatever is working and giving you the most value!

  • Reply Melanie October 11, 2016 at 11:17 am

    I use to track every single thing that I ate – I even had a log-in streak on My Fitness Pal that almost reached a year. But when I looked back at my weight loss history over that time, I only varied between a few pounds, never losing the desired weight. now I am following a more instinctual way of eating – really asking myself if I am hungry, or bored, and making good decisions, and I’ve lost ten pounds!

    I still do track my spending fairly closely. At first, it was to manage us right out of debt. Then once we were out of debt, I stopped for a while but I noticed we were getting rather lazy with managing our money and spending on things that didn’t matter. So I’m back to tracking now – the difference is that I’m excited at the end of the month to see how much money we can have left over to transfer into savings or throw on our mortgage.

    Congrats on such a successful trip – sometimes when I go away I just throw all caution to the wind!

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      See, and if you’re excited about it, then that means you’re getting value from the experience! So yes yes yes, keep tracking your spending! :)

  • Reply Amanda S. October 11, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I love this post, Cait! I’ve been so obsessive over tracking everything and it makes me forget how much I already know and what I already have under control. I’m working on letting it go little by little. I look forward to what you have for us next post.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      Slowly releasing your grip and letting go of some control sounds like the most natural progression. Looking back, I was probably doing that too, until I eventually got to this place. :)

  • Reply Ula October 11, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Very wise conclusion about your “adventure” with tracking things.
    “tracking something is the first step to becoming aware of its role in your current life” – I agree! But after some time and after making good changes, it’s good to stop tracking.
    I just have stopped tracking our family spendings. After a year of looking close at our budget, there is almost nothing left that I would like to improve in the budget. Now we have a newborn. And I was sitting at nights in front of the laptop, typing the amounts from our receipts… Nonsense!
    But I suppose it will be good to choose on or two months in a year to track the budget again. To check if we’re still satisfied with our spending habits.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:14 pm

      Yes, I think that’s a great idea, Ula! Or maybe do it quarterly. I’ve certainly noticed (mostly since being self-employed) that it’s hard to set monthly goals now, but quarterly ones are easier to work towards. Anyway, do whatever feels best and works for your family! (Congrats on the newborn!)

  • Reply Kate October 11, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    I think tracking is great initially as it provides you with a good idea of where your money goes. I did that for a year and became slightly “less discipline” recently, partially because I already have an idea of my spending habits and I have been making more intentional purchases these days that I feel I could give the tracking a closure.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:15 pm

      Sounds like we are in the same boat, Kate! :)

  • Reply Sarah Noelle @ The Yachtless October 11, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    That’s great that you found you could trust yourself to make good choices without having to track everything meticulously! I hope you’re enjoying being back home. :)

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:17 pm

      It’s nice to feel productive again, that’s for sure! I got nothing done on the road…

  • Reply Kalie @ Pretend to Be Poor October 11, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    I really love this post, Cait. I agree that tracking, shopping bans, decluttering, etc. are all tools that are meant to serve a bigger purpose. All the encouraging, motivating posts about these tools are great, but keeping them in the framework of becoming a conscious, intentional spender/eater/person is truly important.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      You summed it up in one comment. Our work here is done. :)

  • Reply ChooseBetterLife October 12, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    This is a beautiful concept. Tracking can become very distracting, like taking a ton of photos or videos everywhere you go– you have to get your nose out of the viewfinder and actually enjoy the experience in real time.
    As for food, we’re trying that now too with a modified version of Whole 30. We’ll eat what’s offered when we’re guests or at work meetings/lunches, and we’ll eat clean at home. It’s not what the directions say, but for us it isn’t worth inconveniencing others or causing a scene when eating away from home only occurs a few times per week.

    • Reply Cait Flanders October 12, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      I would do the same thing in that situation, Julie – eat clean at home, eat what’s offered elsewhere (as long as it’s not stuff I know makes me feel super gross). Everything in moderation. :)

  • Reply Sofiya October 13, 2016 at 1:20 am

    I have been tracking my spending for a year and a half now, and I think it no longer helps with my savings the way it used to. I seem to be able to make the right decisions no matter how much money I have left, which leaves me with a lot of money in the end. I’ve thought of stopping with the tracking, but I’m a bit scared!

  • Reply giulia October 13, 2016 at 2:28 am

    I’m sure you now are good to understand your feelings and make best decision for yourself, well I’m still tracking my spending but I noticed a lot of changes in my spending habits, I’m always on a budget and I proved t o my friends that is possible to have a good social life also if you are on a budget, everything with moderation…

  • Reply Shelly Seward October 13, 2016 at 7:58 am

    Another thought provoking post, as usual Cait. When you focus on what is important, people instead of stuff, you tend to spend less I think. Everyone has different spending habits and a way of living. Doing what makes you happy and knowing that buying this or that doesn’t really improve your quality of life. That’s what make a healthy mind and body.

  • Reply Tyler October 13, 2016 at 10:10 am

    I need to do better at watching how much I spend. The mindful budget works great if I follow it but well I need to get with the program lol. So glad your home safe Cait, can’t wait for more articles.

  • Reply Chris @ MindfulExplorer October 15, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Ok Ok I got busy….. finally read your post.
    Tracking every day life is a good when starting something so you can learn, reflect and the optimize. Once you have the fundamentals dialled and things are second nature I completely agree that you can ditch the tracking.

  • Reply Ten Factorial Rocks (TFR) October 17, 2016 at 3:45 am

    Good post, Cait. I have long stopped budgeting, preferring only to ‘tally’ if I feel like it at end of say, 6 months or 1 year, how much we spent. The reason I even do this is to calculate 2 critical ratios – that is the total spent / total passive income earned (target: >100%) and net worth / total spent (result in years). As long as the ratios are ‘healthy’, I don’t bother budgeting. Budgeting helps when you are starting out, not so much at later stages of your FI journey because years of sensibly frugal living makes you automatically mindful of your spending – and you don’t have to keep track of it.

  • Reply Mrs. Picky Pincher October 18, 2016 at 8:44 am

    I think this is wonderful. Once you develop the positive habits gained from tracking your behavior, it becomes unnecessary over time. The self-control is already there; why not let go and enjoy instead of worrying over more things? :)

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