Find the Power in Tracking Your Expenses

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Find the Power in Tracking Your Expenses

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One of the reasons budgets fail is because a crucial first (and ongoing) step is missed in the budgeting process: tracking your expenses. If you don't know what your starting point is, then there's little chance that you'll be able to harness your cash flow to your benefit.

Here are a few tips to help you track your expenses effectively, then transform your current cash flow into a well-oiled budgeting machine.

Step One: Don't Budget

As funny as it sounds, your first task in creating a budget is not to budget. Instead, continue to spend as you normally do (assuming that your spending isn't tooFind the Power in Tracking Expenses exorbitant to begin with).

This gives you a realistic starting point, and a benchmark upon which to build and track your budget going forward.

Use a Spreadsheet (or Equivalent)

Each time I whip out my wallet, I record the money I spend in a notebook that I keep in my purse. It's an easy habit to get into, but keeping track of hand-written ledgers doesn't make cash flow data very easy to interpret or manipulate in the future.

So create a spreadsheet that allows you to analyze your data, past and present. Across the top, I set up headings with the various categories of spending I want to track (e.g.: Rent, Utilities, Transportation, Debt Payments, Investments, Groceries, Phone, Internet, Insurance, Entertainment, Gifts, etc.).

Below each heading, I enter each expense incurred into rows along with the date and a brief description of the expense in the adjacent columns. Further down, I have a row which automatically totals the amount recorded under each heading.

You can create a separate spreadsheet tab for each month, or you can record all the data on one sheet, using running totals. I tend to prefer creating a new tab each month so I can view month-over-month data easily. Others prefer to organize their data by category instead of by month, creating a different tab for each category.

As an alternative to using a spreadsheet, some accounting software programs and online budgeting sites have user-friendly ways to track your expenses, in addition to applications for smart phones that negate the need for handwritten ledgers. Simply choose a vehicle with a format that makes sense to you, which allows you to view and track your spending.

Be Honest

There's no point in tracking your expenses if you aren't honest with yourself about them! So don't forget to record everything - absolutely everything - including the odd coffee or pack of gum you buy. You might be surprised to discover just how much some of the little expenses are throwing your budget off.

Round Up

I round my expenses up to the nearest dollar instead of recording them down to the cent. Although it may put my budget a bit askew by several dollars each month, I'd rather overestimate than underestimate my expenses.

Analyze Income over Expenses

Once you have tracked your expenses for a few months, take a look at your spending habits. Are they steady? Are you surprised by anything? How does your spending compare to your income?

Step Two: NOW, Create a Budget

It's only once you have a handle on your current expenses that you can create a realistic budget. Assuming you're using a spreadsheet, create a row below your running totals with a target amount that you want to spend in each category for the month.

Some expenses will be fixed each month, so those target amounts are easy to enter. In other more discretional categories, you can decide how much you can afford to cut back (depending on how much money you wish to shave off your cash flow).

Irregular expenses (like annual or semi-annual payments) can be amortized over each month, or specifically budgeted for in the months that you know you will incur those expenses; it's up to you.

Step Three: Keep Tracking

The only way you'll know if you're on budget each month is to continue tracking your expenses! Do this regularly throughout the month (I do it at the end of each day so it doesn't accumulate into an onerous or time-consuming task).

The additional advantage of tracking your expenses on a running basis is that you can see how close to your target budget amounts you are coming as the month progresses. If you notice you're likely to go over-budget in one category this month, then see if you can "find the money" from another category where you can cut back your target amount proportionately.

It's this ongoing tracking of your expenses that will keep you on-budget, and allow you to continue to tweak the budget going forward. Because nothing in life is static, least of all our spending patterns. By tracking your expenses, you can create a budget that will breathe and evolve with your life.

RELATED ARTICLES:

 Helpful Hints for Successful Budgeting

Why an Accurate Budget is Important

How to Live on a Budget 

Nora DunnNora Dunn

Nora Dunn is The Professional Hobo: a full-time traveler and freelance writer. She is a contributing writer under our Life Balance blog. Having sold her business and belongings to travel, she has been on the road since 2007. She travels in a financially sustainable manner, taking advantage of creative volunteering positions. As a former certified Financial Planner, she is financially responsible for her actions along the way. She believes there is a fine balance between planning for tomorrow, and living for today. Compensated CareOne Blogger. You can follow Nora on Twitterhttp://twitter.com/hobonora

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  • mint.com is the best for tracking your expenses in my opinion and it's freee!

  • @natural - Doesn't mint.com track your expenses by monitoring your bank account activity? What about cash purchases - can you track those as well? What do you like best about mint.com? I'm under the impression that it can do a lot more than just track expenses...

  • This is what i was looking for.

  • Great job done keep it up.

  • Thanks for sharing this important info with us.

  • It is the sound my wife make in bed last night.

  • Although things may feel the same, more changes than we think. And if we review finances regularly, it's not a long arduous process; it's empowering and easy.

  • I used to use Mint, but it doesn't have enough useful features.  For example, I can't create a chart to compare monthly spending, per category.  You can easily do this in Excel, if you have the willpower to write down every expense.

  • You forgot to add STOP USING CREDIT CARDS OR UNSECURED DEBT!

  • If a financial planner recommends investments before determining what you need the money for (ie: your goals), they're either skipping a step or have an alternate agenda. Financial planning is all about structuring your finances to help you get to where

  • Its really good advise on making a budget.

  • Want an easy way to consistently stay on track with your monthly budget? All you need is a few envelopes and a little organized commitment.

  • As the holidays approach and we run our mental highlights of the past year, let's all take the time to recognize what a brave change we are making in our lives.

  • You decide to clean up your finances, create a budget, and start saving money. But a few months later, progress is slow and you're losing inspiration to stay on track.

  • When thinking about taking care of your finances, you should also be aware that if you are a business owner, or you want to start a small home business, your bad credit history can affect your ability to get a merchant account (so your business can accept credit cards). So be careful.

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