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A Better Way To Track Your Spending Each Month

March 3, 2014 | Craig Birk, CFP®

How much do you really spend? It’s a pretty basic question, but few of us know the answer. It’s important because how much you spend directly translates into how much you save. And how much you save largely determines how much money you will have in retirement.

The problem is most couples have over a hundred spending transactions per month. Our brains are not meant to be able to track this much data. Enter technology. Most bank websites or apps will help you, but the problem is you probably have different financial institutions for different accounts. Luckily, tracking income and spending is a core feature of the Personal Capital dashboard. Now you can track and view everything in one place.

Considering I work for a company that offers tools to understand spending, and I frequently advise others on how much they should spend or save, I figured I should see how I am doing. Here’s what I did, and you can do the same if you’re interested in tracking your spending:

1) Logged on to my Personal Capital Dashboard

2) Went to the Banking tab

3) Adjusted the date range to reflect the full calendar year.

It was a valuable exercise that took only minutes to complete.

MONEY SURPRISES THAT ADD UP

First and foremost, I learned we (meaning, my family and I) are spending about 10% more than I thought. Ten percent may not sound like much at first, but it has a meaningful impact on our savings rate. I plugged the lower savings rate into our financial planning tool (it is in alpha – we expect to release later this year) and found out I may have to work another 3-4 years. That’s serious.

I also discovered some fun details. We spent $815 last year at Starbucks. That one didn’t come as a surprise, but it is good to know. We spent a lot on sushi. That one may be worth revisiting.

All of this is incredibly valuable information. Good financial planning shouldn’t always be focused on spending less and saving more. Life is what matters, and it is important to enjoy the present – no matter what your age. But it is important to remember that saving a dollar now should allow you to spend more than a dollar in the future. Finding the right balance is critical. (Related: The Value Of Saving One Dollar Now)

FIGURE OUT CASH FLOW

Knowing what you spend is the first step. Figuring how much you should save is the second step. Actually doing it (and investing efficiently) is the third step. We’ve made the first part easy. The immediate reaction for the second step is to “create a budget”.

I’ve never been a fan of budgets, especially detailed ones. They are boring and restrictive. More importantly, most individuals are no better at following them than the government is. At Personal Capital, we believe it is better to think in terms of cash flow. If you are still in your working years, try to figure out how much more your inflows should be than your outflows and manage that.

There is only a subtle difference between cash flow targets and a spending budget, but most people will be more effective setting up a savings plan than limiting themselves to certain dollar amounts on clothes or restaurants or whatever. Life is very unpredictable. It just takes one car problem or a good friend getting married in the Bahamas to throw a budget off track. Positioning for positive cash flow doesn’t remove these wrinkles, but it gives you a better chance to save what you need to.

Happy informed spending.

Have you ever tallied up your spending one month to find out you were spending way more than you initially thought? If so, what were the culprits?

Track your spending better with Personal Capital!

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