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From PhD to Life

A spreadsheet keeps me honest


Ten years ago, when I started my PhD at the University of Toronto, I began tracking every penny (R.I.P.) I spent. I can’t remember what motivated me to do this, other than the knowledge that I’d now have to pay rent and buy my own groceries out of my fellowship and teaching assistant income; previously, I’d lived with my parents. I’m still tracking my spending now. I know exactly what my life costs.

My spreadsheet – I use Excel, after switching from Quattro Pro a few years back (a move I still regret, by the way) – includes columns for items in different categories, and I create a new spreadsheet for every month. I can see at a glance how much I’ve been spending in each category. Because I enter each purchase or shopping trip total individually, I can also see how many times each month I spend money in every category, and how much I spend each trip. At the bottom of each column I also calculate what percentage of my monthly outlay that category accounts for. I’m very well informed about where my money goes.

I’ve considered putting myself on a budget but never have. I find that some months require bigger purchases – that 6-months’ supply of medication, for example, or that sofa I had to get when I moved into an apartment by myself. Seeing the numbers on a regular basis is enough to keep me from becoming a spendthrift. I get a little boost when I see empty Alcohol and Entertainment columns; resolve to bike more when I’ve bought a 7-pack of subway tokens more than once or twice; and feel good knowing I haven’t spent a cent on clothing, shoes, accessories, or outerware since November 2013 — I haven’t needed to.

My point here is not that I’m miserly or cheap; rather, it’s that my spreadsheet helps me make good-for-me decisions. That pricey Le Creuset braiser pan I bought a couple months ago? Excellent purchase. And I get the expensive kitty litter and cat food for Izzy. There are some things that are worth the extra dollars. I want my spreadsheet to reflect this – to reflect my own values, needs, and priorities. When it doesn’t, knowing I’m going to have to account for my actions motivates me to make better choices in future.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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