Warning: The post ahead is not for the organizational faint of heart. It includes neurotic activity tracking, data analysis, and spreadsheets galore.
Does your credit card company give you a year-end spending analysis? Mine does and it looks something like this:
The downfall is that the categories have to be somewhat broad. For example, the bank doesn’t know if my Amazon purchase was bulk spices (grocery), a Game of Thrones box set (entertainment), or a White Elephant gift (utter nonsense). It’s all grouped together as “Merchandise/Retail.” Because I buy lots of things on Amazon across a number of categories, this analysis is interesting to look at but not really that informative. The analyzer even includes a disclaimer:
Note: Transactions may be listed differently than you expect due to how that merchant is categorized.
Only you know the details of your spending…and if you never look at them, it’s unlikely that you have a complete idea of where your money is going. Let’s say you currently budget set amounts each month for different categories:
- Housing (rent, mortgage)
- Car upkeep (oil changes, insurance, etc.)
- Phone, internet
Do you ever look back at the end of each month or year to see if you spent what you thought you would on each category? Sometimes we have great intentions, for example only spending $50 each month on entertainment but regularly “borrowing” from the food bucket to fund fun activities to the tune of $100 each month. Looking back can help keep you accountable to your budget.
Perhaps your will power is iron clad and you don’t overspend on fun things, but when you review your spending you see that you budgeted $20 per month for car upkeep and have been spending $50. This is a great opportunity to revise your budget and bring it more in line with reality. You might estimate that your car only costs $20 per month to maintain, but if the true cost is $50, pretending while budgeting won’t get you anywhere.
Sometimes, the amount of money you’re spending each year on your car/phone/restaurants can be a great wake-up call. Is the data on your phone really worth $100 each month? That’s $1200 at the end of the year that I bet you can put to more fun use than scrolling through a Facebook feed while waiting in line somewhere.
So, where do you get the data to analyze against your budget to see if things are going according to plan? Easy – you already have it. It just requires a little time and organization to put that data to work. The first step is to identify a spend category worth evaluating.
I have a cat who regularly needs litter, food, treats, and spring-toys. He costs something around $50 per month. I don’t track what I spend on the cat, because knowing that I spend $70 one month and $30 the next isn’t significantly impacting my year-end finances. It’s coming out to about $50 per month regardless.
The cat doesn’t need a lot of expensive gear, vet trips, or much else. If you have pets that cost you a lot more, that could be a good category to evaluate. For me, a good category to evaluate is grocery spending. After a few years of budgeting set amounts to spend on food, I realized that I was often under- or over-spending from the budgeted amount. To see what was really going on, I started tracking exactly what I was spending.
To do this, I created a spreadsheet. It has individual tabs for each month, where I track specific spending based on food category (like beef, pasta, produce). After a trip to the store, I enter info from the receipt. It seems neurotic, but probably takes 3-5 minutes after each trip (say 6 trips per month). At the end of the month, I take a look at the total amounts spent on each category and the overall amount spent on food to see where I line up with the budget.
At the end of the year, I can create an overview looking at spending for the year. Since I’ve been tracking this for two years now, I can also compare current year to the year prior. This is useful if you have dietary/nutrition goals (for example, “more protein, less cake”). In 2017, I wanted to eat more meat and more protein, while reducing prepared items like meals from the deli.
I found that I spent a monthly average of $28 more on meat in 2017 than 2016, and that I spent an average of $58 less per month on snacks & prepared food. That’s $336 more spent on meat and $696 less spent on snacky stuff over the course of the year. Year over year, grocery spend was flat from 2016 to 2017. This means that every month for the past 24 months, I’ve spent approximately the same amount on food each month. Tracking specifically what this money is spent on has allowed me to evaluate the truth of what I’m buying and make decisions based on that, rather than just budgeting and never looking at it again. Using the same amount of money, I’m buying more meat, protein, and fresh produce than years past.
After tracking grocery spend for a few years, I have a solid idea of my food buying habits. I’ll probably stop evaluating that and take a look at a different area of my finances for the next year. Maybe I’ll dig into that vague “Merchandise/Retail” category and see how many of my Amazon purchases are useful.