If you want to have confidence in your finances, tracking your spending is an important first step. Regardless of your income, out of control spending can generate tremendous stress and leave you uneasy about your financial direction. In contrast, financial peace and confidence starts with knowing – knowing where your money is going. Only then can you start to manage, making appropriate decisions to direct your money based on your goals and your values.
The problem for most of us is that we simply don’t pay attention. Tracking your spending is a chore, like washing the dishes or the laundry. It is something that must be done. However, unlike dirty dishes that pile up in the sink and demand our attention, our disorganized finances can stay out of site and the ‘mess’ can continue to grow. It is easy to float along as long as the bills are getting paid.
Fortunately, there are some new tools that can help ease the burden of tracking your finances. I personally use a free website called Mint.com that I recommend to my clients. This website is owned by Intuit, the makers of Quicken, Quickbooks, and Turbotax, so it has solid company backing. This reputation is important since the site will ask you to enter your credit card and bank account login information. I recognize that this requires some faith in Intuit, but for those of you who enter your Social Security number into TurboTax online, it should be a similar level of risk.
Once you create an account with Mint.com and link your credit card and bank accounts, the site will download and summarize your spending for you, saving you time and helping you succeed in keeping track of it all. For example, the site will know that a credit card at Chevron is likely an Auto Fuel expense, and a credit card charge at Ralphs Grocery store is likely for groceries, so it will categorize the spending for you.
The site isn’t perfect – it sometimes categorizes spending incorrectly, and some expenses, such as checks, you will have to categorize yourself. Nonetheless, the system is one of the easiest that I have seen.
The goal of tracking your spending is to see and understand where the money goes. How much do you spend on your home each month? How much do you spend on gas? How much on your phone bill? How much do you spend shopping or eating out? How much do you give? Once you track your spending for 3 months, patterns will begin to develop, and you can begin to start making decisions. Does your spending reflect your values? For example, if you are spending $1,000 eating out each month and at the same time you are running up student loan debt for your kids, would it be better to eat out less to help pay for college costs.
Yes, the end goal of tracking your spending is to create a budget. For many ‘budget’ is a dirty word that tells us when we can’t do something, but I like to approach budgeting from a more positive perspective. Budgeting is being intentional about goals and priorities. Every dollar is spent with a purpose, not carelessly but for a reason. Like charting your course for a journey, budgeting helps you avoid wandering on your journey toward financial freedom. If you don’t know your course, considering getting started today.