The Power of Intentional Spending

The power of intentional spending is at the root of Tiller’s mission, because it is desperately needed today.

The power of intentional spending is at the root of Tiller’s mission.

It’s firmly rooted in our core because it is desperately needed today. We live in a world that has grown very technologically adept at facilitating spending. Effortless and abundant spending. 

It didn’t start this way

close up photo of brown eggs

Many generations ago, before currency, the earliest form of consumerism came via bartering trade. 

Maybe I raised eggs and chickens. I could then trade them for a new ax blade made by the metalsmith in our town. The transaction is thoughtful, deliberate, and time consuming. 

I have likely contemplated this transaction for days if not weeks in advance. I will also likely recall the accounting for the trade for months or years to come as I put my new ax to work. 

Everything about this trade is intentional.

Compare that early form of trade to the purchases we all make today 

person holding black android smartphone

We swipe. We click. We tap. Or perhaps it’s a renewing subscription, and we simply do nothing. Kaching. Another purchase.

Minutes or hours later, it happens again, and again. Every day. 

More insidiously, we benefit from the convenience of credit cards and other buy now, pay later schemes. We can purchase without even having the cash. It is as if, in the early bartering story, we received the ax blade but didn’t even have the eggs let alone the chickens yet.

Loans and debt are marvelous inventions used wisely. 


Many homeowners appreciate the lifetime benefits of that intentional home purchase that benefits them for years if not decades, only made possible with debt. But consumer debt and effortless spending technologies are much more dangerous.

Conversely, income is almost always intentional. We work hard to make our income. Whether our jobs are paid hourly or through salaries, we know very well the work we put in and the income we receive. 

Ask anyone to estimate how much money they made in a year and from where it came, and their accounting will be as accurate as the early barterers who traded eggs for an ax. But ask most people to explain what they actually spend in a month, and they are often perplexed or anxious. 

In today’s economy, it’s nearly impossible to be intentional with spending unless we live as hermits or use well built tools (like spreadsheets, or spreadsheets and Tiller). 

Tiller was founded as an antidote to unintentional spending

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Personally speaking, after getting married and having two kids, we realized that our family finances would soon be out of control if we didn’t become more intentional about spending.

Yet we were also frustrated with the current tools available. None of them were up to the task of a simple family tracker that could keep tabs on spending for four humans plus income streams from a salary, a freelance writer and author (my wife), and a basement rental that helped offset our mortgage. We needed better, and we started Tiller.

If you think intentional spending is solved by sufficient income, you’re wrong. Mike Tyson made 1,000x more than most of us, but he spent even more and ended up in financial distress. Sadly, this story is repeated by many who fall into huge income streams but lack practices around intention. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Warren Buffet demonstrates the art of intentional spending even though he’s worth billions. He lives in a house he’s had for most of his life, purchased for less than $100,000 on an unremarkable block in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska (I couldn’t resist driving by it one day while attending the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting). 

He owns one car made by General Motors. Examine his lifestyle, and it’s changed remarkably little from his early career days when he made a hundred thousand dollars. He’s wired to spend intentionally because he knows what makes him happy, and none of it depends on spending money. 

He famously shares anecdotes about his intentional but excess spending, like flying private, in his annual letters to shareholders. Mostly he likes dinners with friends, often a burger and a Coke. He enjoys playing bridge, and he’s lucky enough to have time and money to travel to a few tournaments each year. 

And he loves his work, and is fortunate to have work that is personally meaningful (even into his 90s). 

As for the 99.9% of his money that he will never get around to spending, he’s giving most of that to the Gates Foundation, a place he knows spends intentionally. I know this too, because the former CFO of the Gates Foundation was an early advisor to Tiller. 

As a foundation, they track everything in a spreadsheet (of course). 

Despite the immense fortunes of Buffet and Gates, the foundation balances their spending spreadsheets to the dollar, working hard to accomplish their mission of intentional charitable spending that improves the health and welfare of children and adults throughout the developing world. 

It’s not just his money. Buffet’s calendar is famously empty. I believe his financial prowess is a big part of this, because he knows that money and time are tools that can be expertly applied in specific situations to accomplish goals. Money, however, is not an elixir nor a cure all. 

Compare that story of intentional spending to examples of spending gone awry

Those times when I’ve added a subscription to the Economist. Then the Wall Street Journal. And The Atlantic. New Yorker. National Geographic. Along the way I added a few that I enjoyed reading, but didn’t cull the subscriptions I’d stopped reading. And months, sometimes years pass, and I haven’t read a certain subscription once. That’s not intentional spending.

Or the purchases from Amazon that are frighteningly easy to make. A well reviewed book. A kitchen gadget. Clothing. Only to discover at the end of the year some didn’t even get touched. 

Or those storage spaces we have. Maybe a closet. Or perhaps we’re lucky enough to have a garage… that is filled with stuff rather than a car. Or sometimes life warrants a storage locker temporarily, but we keep it. Months and then years go by, and these storage spaces house the things we’ve owned that now own a bit of us.

Marie Kondo’s wonderful book and Netflix series brings Japanese wisdom to an all-American problem: clutter. We easily find ourselves suffocating under the clutter of things we’ve acquired with spending, and we need Marie to save us. 

Tiller hopes to provide a different antidote. Rather than waiting for each of us to clear our clutter, we’re hoping to catch the clutter before the unintentional spending happens.

Control over money is a bit like control over the weather

There is plenty you can’t control (jobs vanish, roofs leak, transmissions fail), but there is also plenty you can.

At Tiller, we’re successful if you feel an increasing modicum of control over your finances. We believe you are better in control of your life and your future if you are in firmer control over your finances.

Grab a hold of your own boat’s tiller, which controls the rudder, and guide your ship towards your destination. Sometimes you may have headwinds. Sometimes tailwinds. But an expert sailor can sail upwind even in a fierce gale. In fact, sailing upwind is an exciting way to sail. 

person holding the tiller of a boat

Intentional spending can happen at many levels using Tiller

For some, simply having every transaction and balance from every account in a single spreadsheet, updated every day, leads to a significant new awareness about money. This is especially true the more accounts, credit cards, and family members you have. 

Perhaps your life is too busy to allow anything more than a few minutes scanning that spreadsheet a few times a week. That simple practice of seeing all your finances in one place will change your spending. You’ll spot trends you didn’t notice. You will see subscriptions to cancel. You will become more intentional because you are now aware in a significantly heightened way. 

Others choose to take this to the next level with more detailed tracking. In addition to reviewing the sheet with every transaction, they apply (manually or with AutoCat if using Tiller) a few of their own categories. This allows monthly tracking and reporting by category. The spending and cash flow trends become even more visible and the accountability your money has to support your life will increase. This always drives behavior changes, and it will always result in more intentional spending that is more closely aligned with your values. 

The final tier of diligence is not just the awareness of seeing it all in one place, not just the accountability of tracking and reporting on a few categories each month, but a budget that sets goals for each category and tracks your spend relative to those monthly category budgets. This is the most time intensive. It’s also the best antidote for those who truly need to rein in their spending immediately and significantly. 

Success with Tiller comes at any of those levels

You can decide how much effort you want to apply and for what benefit. But any regular practice with Tiller, even one that is just witnessing the transactions regularly in your spreadsheet, will lead to more intention. 

Keeping tabs on your money is not penny pinching. There is no judgment in this work. What’s most important is that your spending aligns with your goals and your values. 

Why does this matter? Who cares if our spending is intentional? 

The answer is twofold.

First, you deserve this. The average global income per day is $x and the average US income per year is $Y. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely well past that global average and either fast approaching or generously exceeding the US median. 

If you’re not spending intentionally, it’s like living in a house with a leaky faucet. Yes, you can afford one leaky faucet and you’re fortunate to have clean water at your house. But then there’s a leaky toilet. And another faucet. And the hose bib outside. The water bill each month is growing. You don’t actually need more water to be happier or healthier. You’re not drinking more or washing more laundry. But your water consumption is growing. Your waste is growing. Your bills are growing. And it quickly feels impossible to know which leak is worse because together they’re significant. The drips keep you up at night because you can hear them. You’re thinking about them at work because you worry about water damage to the house. The joy of clean water is no longer a joy at all. The situation is chaotic and maddening. You begin to resent your water!

And yet, while the personal impacts of intentional spending are profound, our focus at Tiller on intentional spending isn’t just about you. It’s much worse than your leaky house. The world we live in is a construct of the dollars we have all voted and spent. The clothing we’re wearing (its design, its durability, the work practices that made it possible) is a vote we’ve made with our purchase. The design of our things, or neighborhoods, and our towns reflect the collective dollars that have been spent. It’s a mistake to think that some portion of that spending is not intentional, and it’s terrifying to think that in some places, a large part of that spend lacks intention.

Flip the coin over, and imagine a world where more people spend according to their intentions. Imagine how you would feel each day if you wake up feeling your finances reflected your intentions. Imagine how time with friends, family, and colleagues might be different if your money stresses were lessened or even absent. And imagine the good you could create if you had excess money to share in ways that address the unique needs of the world that break your heart?

That is the world we’re fighting for at Tiller. That is the future we want to build. And that is why intentional spending matters. Simply put, we want to shape your relationship with the money you get to spend in a way that intentionally aligns with your values and goals. 

Join us and take your next step today. Start a free trial with Tiller today or make a copy of this linked spreadsheet (Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel) and manually enter your spending on your own. Your future will look different, and better. And so too will the world benefit. 

I’d love to hear your stories about intentional spending, good or bad. Please drop me a note – I look forward to reading what you have to say. peterp@tillerhq.com 

Peter Polson

Peter Polson

Peter loves designing great products and creating tools and systems that help people live better lives. He was a founder and president of Junxion (acquired by Sierra Wireless) and later CEO at Dashwire (acquired by HTC). He enjoys most activities around mountains and water, especially skiing and hiking with his family.

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