Tracking Your Expenses – The First Step to Budgeting

This past weekend was the first weekend of the month, and like all first weekends this past year I was in front of  my computer reading through a pile of receipts, tracking my expenses (unless I had something better to do then I would do it the following weekend).  About this time last year my wife and I realized that we had a problem.  While we were not accruing any more debt and we were making all of our payments, we didn’t know where our money was going.  It seemed like we had less disposable income than we thought we should of had once we added up all of our financial obligations (mortgage, groceries, internet, etc.).  We wanted to pay into our mortgage more aggressively and save thousands on interest, but the money we should have had to do that was obviously being spent in other places.  Instead of getting ahead of ourselves and creating a budget, we put a bowl on the counter and started tracking where our money was going.

Why Track? Why Not Just Do a Budget?

Initially we did create a budget, but we quickly realized we were just guessing and we couldn’t stick to our budget.  This  problem is common to many tasks where optimization is the end goal.  The first step to optimizing is measuring what  you have.  There is a saying in my industry that goes, “You can’t save what you can’t measure.”  We say this when we  install energy meters into buildings because they are expensive, but they tell you when you are using too much energy so you can work to fix it.  Otherwise you are just guessing.

So in a long winded way, the first step is to gather as much information as possible and then analyze it. Once you have a  clear understanding of where your dollars are going you can then take action and create a monthly budget to control your money flows.

Give it Your Full Effort

As with all information gathering exercises, the only good information is detailed and complete information.  Large  gaps in expenses will only leave you with more questions and ultimately a budget that will not be as useful as it could be. You don’t have to track every single expense.  Target a 90% expense tracking total.  It will give you good results while being flexible enough for you to have the odd slip-up.  I do  miss the odd receipt here and there, but these are typically under $10 so they don’t have a large effect.  Make absolutely certain that these odd slip-ups are not actually regular small purchases like coffee or lunch. Office coffee runs and lunches are typically under $10, but they add up in a hurry.  Also, to be sure you include all of the large purchases are captured.

To encourage the tracking I advocate that you get a receipt bowl, and locate it in a place that you pass frequently in your home.  I personally like placing it right next to where I put my keys and wallet.  When I come home I place all of the receipts in the bowl and forget about them until the end of the month.  My wife prefers to keep an envelope in her purse, in which she will put all of the receipts inside of.  Find something that will keep you consistent.

When it comes time to record all of the purchases, I prefer doing it at the end of the month.  I used to do it every day as the expense occurred, and then it was every week, and eventually once a month.  It only takes me about an hour to do, and it is pretty brainless, so I can listen to some music as I do  it.  Not a bad chore for a Sunday morning.  It is better than doing the dishes.

“Excel-erate” Your Tracking

I was trying to go for a pun here, but I don’t think it is working…

I happen to live with an Excel guru so our spreadsheet is pretty fancy, but anything that sums up the totals at the end of the month will do.  Make sure you have all of the appropriate categories of your regular expenses and be sure to include your monthly income sources as well.  If you are not confident in your computer skills a notebook and pen will serve  the same purpose.  It will be a little more work but it will get the job done.

As an example our expense categories include: Restaurant, Gifts, House, Fitness, Utilities, Health, Miscellaneous, and Recreation.  We have found this to cover most of our regular expenses.  We don’t own a car but I imagine many people would like to add a “Car” category or maybe even a “Kids”. (Just in-case you wanted to see if it actually costs $200,000 to raise one).

Your tracking should also incorporate how you and your partner are set up financially.  Does everything come out of one account, or are your accounts separate?  My spreadsheet has three “spenders”. Me, my wife, and our joint account.  This allows us to see who spends how much and where.  I am working on generalizing the spreadsheet that my wife made and will try to have it posted before the new year for download and use.

Review Your Spending Periodically

Once you have your tracking system up and running you can put it to use almost right away.  While I am waiting until the end of the year to actually establish my budget, patterns will start to emerge after the first month.  If you sit down and analyze your spending at the one, three, and six month marks, you will have a very good idea for budget allocations by year end.  This will also allow you to make adjustments in your spending as you go.

It should not have been a surprise to us, but coffee  was  a  large  expense every month.  Regardless of where you get your favorite cup, the small daily expense adds up to a large amount.  We both bought a travel mug and started brewing coffee at home and just taking coffee from work.  The other observation we noticed was how consistent we were on our grocery spending.

Don’t Be Too Interrogative

Ultimately there will be one person who does most of the entering. If this is the case, don’t give your partner too much grief if things are in the wrong category or if they are spending money on the wrong things. The  purpose  of  this  is  to  track  expenses.  If you have  separate accounts like my wife and I, you have to remember that it is their money and they can spend it the way they like.

When it is time to sit down and review the expenses, this is the appropriate time to bring up spending areas that can be improved upon.  Don’t rush over to your partner with receipt in hand and demand that they justify themselves.  This is your emotions getting the best of you and will only be met with equally charged emotions from your partner and a lonely night for the both of you.

What is Your Budgeting Goal?

Of course you should have a reason as to why you want to create a budget before you start tracking your expenses.  It is a long commitment and it helps if there is a goal at the end.  It can be to save money, spend more responsibly, have more money for vacations, etc.  The main thing is that the reason is yours and it is something that both you and your partner are ready to commit for.

My reason was a little more generic, but this year-long exercise has helped.  We have been able to curb our spending a little and divert more of that money into our mortgage.  Now that we have a year’s worth of data we can properly establish our monthly budget amounts that we will use in the year 2012 and contribute even more to our mortgage. With the new year almost here, this is one item that makes for a fairly easy NewYear’s resolution.

Are you tracking your expenses?  Do you have any tips to add?

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12 years ago

I think that I have a limit in mind when it comes to expenses. My limit is my budget and I always try to reduce it further. Whenever I have an extraordinary bill, I make choice of just paying it or defer it to next month.

We use Quicken to track everything for us. Then based on what reports we read off it we make adjustments to our budget and spending. It works really well. We just made some adjustments to allow for more investments.

12 years ago

We went down this road and Maria spent many an evening tracking every penny. She developed a spreadsheet that you can look at in the post here. It would be interesting to have your observations.

12 years ago

I track my expenses via excel also. I would say have a budget and an actual column. Create a zero sum budget and on a weekly basis input your expenses in the appropriate area.

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago

Thanks for posting the link John. i like to see how other people approached the same task. I will take a look at it over the next couple of days and let you know what I think.

12 years ago

Great post on how to track expenses. I used to keep track bit it became too burdensome and i equally stopped tracking. After reading this post i am thinking to start back again. would you mind sharing your excel spreadsheet?

12 years ago

I use Adaptu to track my expenses. I still keep track of everything in my checkbook register but I like Adaptu because I can login from anywhere and see where my actual spending compares to my budgeted amount. They just came out w/ an iPhone app too.

I started tracking our expenses (to the penny thanks to Excel and online banking) years before doing anything with that information. But when we finally needed to create a budget, we had everything at our fingertips. And now, at year end, I get to create cool graphs that show how our spending has changed year over year.

12 years ago

Yep, I am the one who enters the data in our house (as John already mentioned). My OCD is getting really bad – doing the budgetting calms me down and I love my budgetting tool (self styled, of course; but these should be I find). But I won’t call it a budget – it has the level of flexibility that no budget affords. It is more that budgetting develops mindfulness so our spending is controlled by motivation rather than discipline.

12 years ago

I am excel deficient. I have thought about using Quicken…. It is great how you and your wife work together on your spending and budget.

I use Mint and Wave to track mine. I hate excel with a passion but I find that I do need to track my spending and a pen and paper wasn’t going to do.

12 years ago

I have quicken but I don’t know how to use it! LOL

That is how bad I am with excel! :( Maybe it’ll be my new years resolution to use Quicken/ learn excel.

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago
Reply to  Mr. Harvey

Well John I overshot my estimate by almost a week, but I finally got around to looking at Maria’s spreadsheet. She has pretty much taken the spreadsheet a step further than the one that my wife developed, but the outcome is about the same. Instead breaking down each category into the individual items, we just left the broad categories. I don’t know which method is better in the long run, but I guess I will find out soon. I am really impressed by the level of detail in the itemization and appreciate how difficult this is to create and keep… Read more »

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago

I plan to set aside some time over the Christmas break to clean up our spreadsheet and have it posted on the site for general use. Please check back in the new year, I will likely make a quick post of an article to announce that it is posted up.

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago

Hi Maria,

I finally got around to taking a peak at your tracking tool and as I mentioned to John above it goes one step further than my tool. After a year of tracking I admit I don’t know what a lot of my entries actually bought, more what broad category they belong too. We thought from the outset that this would be enough to guide us in the right direction and to crib your words, motivate us to spend appropriately. Once I post it would be good to hear some of your thoughts on our tool.

12 years ago

I have never tracked before but I want to try it. Can anyone advice me a free software to start with? Thanks in advance.

Mr. Harvey
12 years ago

Hi Alex,

While I don’t know of any free programs, the excel files that John and Maria linked in the above comments, and my own that I recently posted here should prove useful.

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