Change how you track expenses as often as you change your goals

I don’t have a budget. It just didn’t work for me (but that’s not to say they wouldn’t work for others).

Instead, I track my expenses without imposing firm limits on myself. Here’s how I got started:

In 2007, I started getting serious about personal finance. It was my senior year of college. I had my first full-time job and apartment lined up.

So I downloaded free budgeting spreadsheets and decided on one that I liked.  It looked like this:

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/templates/results.aspx?qu=budget&ex=1&origin=TC104040653#ai:TC104035484|

2007

I wasted a lot of time creating a budget. I changed the design a bunch of times. I spent hours thinking up categories then changing them. And I made up different limits for how much I thought I should spend. I ended up not even using it that year.

Then in late 2008, I read Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. YMOYL has had more influence on me than any other book. It taught me to calculate my net worth: the monetary value of everything I own minus all debts. It taught me about real hourly wage: my actual earnings from work after taxes, commuting, work clothes, etc. And it taught me to track my expenses — every cent.

At the end of every month I answered three questions (from the book) for every spending category:

  1. Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction and value in proportion to life energy spent?
  2. Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose?
  3. How might this expenditure change if I didn’t have to work for a living (Financial Independence, FI)?

Here’s what my monthly expense tracking looked like after reading YMOYL:

2009-2010

2008-2011

On the bottom I calculated my real hourly wage. YMOYL suggests we think about our hours in terms of life energy (LE). Dividing what I spent in every category by my real hourly wage ($22.80/hr) gave me the number of LE hours things cost me.

Example: I spent half an hour of LE on Fast Food — not worth it. So I put a -1 under all three questions. Local Food Groceries had a +1 for all three questions so I started spending more there.

I eventually internalized spending habits that aligned with my goals and made me happy.

I also tracked my net worth, savings accounts, investments, and student loans. But I got tired of using multiple spreadsheets. So one night in 2011, I couldn’t sleep and combined them all.

Here’s what it looked like at the end (basic version):

Oct 2011

Oct 2011

I have used this everyday since the day I created it.

The spreadsheets above are free and open to the public so please feel free to share. You can select “File” and “Make a copy…” to your own google drive. Change and personalize it. Your copy will be private to you.

Here’s how I use it: I have spending categories that give me the most fulfillment and are aligned with my values. Once a day, I enter everything I spend.*

I also enter any money that comes into my life. I change my checking/savings less regularly, about once a week (thanks to a weekly text from my bank telling me my balance). Other accounts are reviewed once a month. I write notes to myself on the side boxes. And I enter money goals with a timeline for each.

Being honest with yourself about spending is scary. It was for me when I started and still is sometimes. But you don’t have to go through it alone. I share my system with friends and go through how to use it with them, step-by-step. I know it looks complicated — but only until you actually try it.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s crazy to track in this much detail. But it’s helped me in so many ways. When I get worried about a money issue, I look at my spreadsheet. It reminds me that I have things in control. It gives me the complete picture of my finances, with one quick scan. And it keeps me sharp to help others with organizing their finances. I’ve taken a several risks in the last few years: taking time off from work, paying off student loans in full, and changing my investing choices. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to take these risks without a clear view of my financial picture.

This daily habit has helped me tremendously. So for now, I’m not going to stop.

But I know that this system – like the others – won’t work for me forever.

I know my goals will change. So my tracking system will have to change too because tracking expenses isn’t a goal. It’s only one tool I use to meet my goals.

I hope you find these resources useful. And if you have any suggestions or feedback, please share.

——————————–

*To enter expenses, type an equal sign “=” in the cell. Then type the dollar amount “=14.50”.  The next time you spend money, add it: “=14.50+12.25”. Please comment below or email with questions or suggestions.

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9 comments

  1. I’m intrigued. When the next assignment-overflowing weeks are over, I will have a closer look at this. I’ve been trying out systems to track my spending for a while now- none had the effect of calming me down, so I ended up dropping them all. Yours would definitely be the most exhaustive one I’ve tried so far- but being quite the extremist in pretty much every other area of life, maybe this will work well for me 🙂 I’ll let you know how it went…

    1. “Yours would definitely be the most exhaustive one I’ve tried so far” haha, that wasn’t my intention but I could see how others would think that. Is it all the colors? 🙂 Just kidding. It took a few years of tracking for me to build up to this – it’s really the combination of 3 different spreadsheets into 1. I know that for the friends I’ve helped use this, just listing all savings and debts was an eye opener in itself. Some use it as a way to record estimates and goals, and come back to it every once in a while.

      What other tracking systems have you tried? Yes, keep me updated on how you use this! (And please let me know if you think of ways to make it more useful)

      1. hehe, I think I misused exhaustive- I meant it in a good way, as in complete? Oh, English, when I finally master you exhaustively, uh, completely…

  2. finished by 45 · · Reply

    very interesting. I’ve definitely bought lots of little things to keep myself happy. After I discovered minimalism I started buying less physical stuff to make myself happy. Unfortunately I started buy more experiences to make me happy. No change in my finances. At the end of this month I think I’ll look at each item with a the question, “what did I get out of this?” Thanks for the idea!

    1. Did the experiences create a change (improvement) in your happiness? I hope so 🙂 Please keep me updated on your progress on asking “what did I get out of this” at the end of the month. I’d love to know if that strategy would work for others.

  3. […] expenses: I keep track of my fixed and variable expenses using a spreadsheet. Seeing how much I’m spending also helps me figure out how much I can save every month and […]

  4. The first two lines of your post summed up exactly how I manage my finances. I track every single purchase I make using a spreadsheet that I made for myself because others didn’t seem to suit.
    I find with tracking my expenses, I can buy the things that I need to buy without worrying about going over my limit. On the other hand, watching the numbers ring up makes me want to cut spending as much as possible.
    I think it is just about being conscious of your spending. I’m about to make a post on the exact topic.

    1. Very cool that this method works for you too. As I get older, I learn more and more that we all learn and think differently. How we budget and manage isn’t an exception. I’m looking forward to reading your post on tracking 🙂

  5. Thank you, I have just been looking for information about this topic for a long time and yours is the greatest I’ve
    found out till now. But, what in regards to the conclusion?
    Are you certain in regards to the source?

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