Breaking Your Subconscious Money Habits

Everyone has heard of the latte factor – how your daily vice can become a long-term financial burden if you don’t keep it in check.  The concept got a bad rap for concentrating on small behavioural changes instead of looking at the big picture.

Related: Does your spending need tending?

The latte factor concept isn’t completely misguided.  Hey, if a latte really makes your day then go for it.  But what about the more subconscious habits that are a constant drain on our finances?  The ones we don’t really get enjoyment out of but we just do it anyway.  Small changes do add up to big savings.

Before my wife and I got married we lived across the street from a Tim Horton’s and every weekend we would walk over to Tim’s for breakfast.  It didn’t cost much: $10 or $12 for two coffees, two bagels, a muffin, and a yogurt.  Sometimes we ate there on Saturday and Sunday.  This was our equivalent to the habit of buying a pack of cigarettes a week.

Going out for breakfast just became part of our routine – a subconscious habit.  I’m not sure how we finally broke this habit (I’m guessing children) but now we eat breakfast at home for about $2 a day, including coffee.  And guess what?  The bagels and coffee are just as tasty at home, without the lousy staff and faulty lids to complain about.

Related: What’s busting your budget?

Something as simple as changing our weekend breakfast habit saved us over $500 a year.

I used to think it was impossible to save more money or to cut back on our expenses but when I took a closer look at how we were subconsciously spending money I was able to find big savings with a few small changes in our routine.

Meal Plans

We’ve all come home from a busy day at work without giving a second thought to our dinner plans.  So what do we do?  Stop for take-out on the way home from work, or head out to a restaurant for a quick (expensive) meal.

Instead we spend a few minutes a week to create a meal plan which has helped us break that habit and save hundreds of dollars per month.


Most of us find the budgeting process tedious and think that as long as we pay ourselves first we can do whatever we want with the rest of our paycheque.  My problem with this approach is that I’m more likely to squander money on little things that have subconsciously become a spending habit.

Related: What could you do with $5 a day?

By tracking your expenses for a few months you’ll get a good sense of your spending habits and then you can develop a budget to keep your expenses in line.


Canadians love debit cards, even if we have to pay up to $14.95 a month for the privilege of using them.  Even after I got my finances under control I still used a debit card for my everyday spending out of habit.

Then I discovered rewards credit cards, which work just like a debit card except you’re the one getting paid in the form of cash back or travel rewards.

Just make sure to pay off your bill in full every month and don’t overspend just to earn more points.  I’ve earned more than $800 per year just by replacing my debit card with a rewards credit card.

Create healthy money habits

We all have our vices, and I’m not saying you need to eliminate the things you enjoy.  But it’s important to understand the difference between healthy routines and bad money habits.

Small changes to your subconscious money habits can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year.

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  1. Justin on May 12, 2014 at 8:10 am

    I have to get in the habit of making meal plans. I stopped buying coffee each morning and noticed a difference in my bank account. Looking forward seeing the difference a meal plan can make.

    • Echo on May 12, 2014 at 10:02 am

      Meal planning is great – takes the stress away from figuring out “what’s for dinner”. My wife and I share an app called AnyList for grocery shopping and the cool thing is that you can put recipes into the app and it will add all the ingredients to your shopping list.

      • Kathy Waite Eureka Investor Guidance on May 12, 2014 at 10:20 am

        my worst vice is going in Sobeys or Superstore for a few bits and coming out with $250 as I see thing we have run out of and stock up…………..
        list is very good idea

  2. Bernie on May 12, 2014 at 8:32 am

    If I had to pay $14.95 per month for a debit card I’d seriously consider keeping cash under my mattress instead! I’ve paid exactly $0.00 for my debit card since 2001 when I went with President’s Choice Financial. I appear to have saved quite a pile of money! Why does anyone insist on paying bank fees when they don’t have to?

    • Echo on May 12, 2014 at 10:04 am

      Hi Bernie, a lot of people think it’s a big hassle to switch banks so they just do nothing and continue to pay fees. I got my brother-in-law to sign up with Tangerine and he loved how easy it was to set up – plus he’ll get $150 in bonuses just for opening an account.

  3. Kathy Waite Eureka Investor Guidance on May 12, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I agree with the comment track expenses for 3 months. When clients look at 1 month there is always an “excuse” like vacation. Christmas or a car repair. It takes a few months worth to see a trend.
    What I would like is an app for my phone I can photo receipts and it categorise them and add them up. I have found the photo and categorise but not one you can put the $ in and it add them up. I still have to do a total. Using one credit card works if you pay off month end but if a receipt says Walmart it can be groceries and clothes so I
    forget what to allocate to at month end if I don’t keep receipts.

    • Echo on May 12, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Hi Kathy, there’s an app called Shoeboxed that lets you digitize and track receipts and important documents. Looks like it’s pretty expensive though – starts at $9.99 a month for a basic plan.

      • Kathy Waite Eureka Investor Guidance on May 12, 2014 at 10:18 am

        I saw that , looks good but in Canada I think we have to upload. In US you can send in an envelope full and they do it. If you see one that actually adds up the receipts that would be wonderful. I use Freshbooks for work but it just downloads off of credit card bill and you have to allocate to categories which is painfully monotonous.

  4. Dave Lalonde on May 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I like the idea of meal planning. It’s very easy for me to pick up dinner to-go, which of course adds up at the end of the month. I’ll give it a try!

  5. Barry Choi on May 12, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    I’m got pretty good saving habits overall but I admit that meal planning can be difficult at times.

    I personally love meal planning but my wife gets bored of certain foods which can make meal planning more difficult.

    My most hated words from her when i ask her what she would like to eat for the week is “I don’t know”

    • Tricia Willis on May 13, 2014 at 10:48 am


      So try this trick – ask yourself or your wife somethng more specific like: “What kind of meat do you want this week?” or “Would you prefer a stir-fry or a grilled meal?” Then you can figure out the rest.

      I buy a round of basics and then enough specific ingredients for about 2-3 dinners. Once you have your groceries at home, you can always switch it up and turn a pasta dinner into a pizza or tacos into a salad. My goal is to cut down on food that gets thrown out, which is very costly.

  6. Kathy on May 17, 2014 at 6:36 am

    Planning meals for the month helped, as did even just planning for the week based on what meats are on sale.

    I have to admit I found it easier to track spending back in the day when credit and debit cards weren’t the norm — writing checks was. Because everything was paid for by check, there already was a way to track spending.

    And now I just dated myself. LOL

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