Everything I Learned From Tracking My Spending For a Year

Well friends, in case you missed my posts about how much I spent on my car, my dog and my blog over the past year, I’ve been tracking my spending for just over one full calendar year now, and boy has it been an interesting ride. Instead of digging into yet another category of spending from this past year’s treasure trove of data, I want to take a step back and share everything I learned from tracking my spending – so far, anyways.

Let’s all settle in, because I have learned some shit, let me tell you. This one’s a long one – maybe grab a coffee? I’ll wait.

You Will Want To Quit

Really makes you want to learn more as a first lesson, right? Like, this sounds like a great opening, I should think about doing this!

But let me tell you a story about the first few months that I was tracking my spending.

Without fail, the first few days were so exciting. New, fresh spreadsheets, with only a few fixed expenses listed on them, and visions of coming in under budget dancing in my head.

There’s nothing like feeling like you’re in control to make the universe eff up your plans.

By mid-month, with an accurate view of just how much I had really spent, and a good understanding of what I still had to spend money on that month, I would be so discouraged. There were times, especially in the first few months, where I would casually just not update the spreadsheet for days (ok, weeks) at a time, because if I didn’t see it, it wasn’t happening… right?

Wrong. Obviously .

So there were several months where I went back into my spreadsheet with mere days left in the month to reconcile my spending and add all the purchases I casually ignored. The funniest part was, it was never that bad when I finally finished it. I’ve learned that my months tend to be heavily front-loaded with spending, especially since I add in fixed expenses right away (like my car insurance payment on the 26th of the month, and my grocery budget. Ain’t nobody got time for running out of food money because you bought too many dog toys.)

Your Expenses Are Probably More Variable Than You Think

The other big reason that I found it challenging to stick with tracking my spending when I got start was that man oh man , I did not see some of my variable expenses coming. Between my $315 annual pet insurance premium, to my $458 traffic ticket, to the first Christmas where I was actually aware of how much I spent, fall just happens to be a spendy season for me.

I was so optimistic going into it that I could save half my income, and yet the hits just kept on coming, putting that goal squarely out of reach. This year, I’m much more informed of what my big monthly expenses are (minus that ticket that I won’t get again because I definitely learned my lesson, thankyouverymuch) and I can plan for them.

Sure, planning for them might just mean not buying an unnecessary third fall coat because I know I have to rustproof my car this month, but that totally counts .

If you're not tracking your spending, your expenses are probably more variable than you think.

You Need to Do It For The Long Term

Since I kept missing my goal of saving half my income, I got pretty discouraged, and fell into a monthly pattern of avoiding my spreadsheet for weeks at a time, only to go back and enter everything in at the end of the month. While this isn’t ideal, I have to say I’m really, really glad I stuck with it, because I now have an accurate, complete picture of what I spent money on over the course of the year.

This data – the long term stuff, not a single month – is what really matters when it comes to planning my spending and hitting my goals. A single month might have a huge number of variable or unexpected expenses, but it’s balanced out by the months where you spend less than you expected – and if you stop tracking after a month, you might just think you’re an incorrigible spender and call it a day.

Keep tracking! It’s worth it.

This is Really All About Feelings

The hardest part of tracking your spending is never going to be the act of putting numbers into a spreadsheet. Seriously, I don’t care how long you take to input your numbers every day, or week, or month. The hardest part of this whole deal is going to be the feelings.

Oh my god the feelings .

I’m talking about feeling like you “can’t afford” to do things you want to do (even if you probably can). And feeling like you shouldn’t spend money on that thing. And then feeling like you really do value spending on that One Thing, but you need to shift your behaviour because you’re spending too much on that Other Thing you don’t care about. And the high of thinking you’re going to hit your goal! Followed quickly by the crushing blow of an unexpected expense coming in and straight-up ruining your perfect spending month.

There are feelings galore up in here, that you get to have to confront when you’re looking this closely at your spending – especially if you have a money goal in mind, like my goal to save half my income.

Sometimes, those feelings will drive you to avoid your tracking project for weeks on end, or take a few months off. That’s OK. Obviously it’s not ideal, but acknowledging what’s up is the real goal – and of course, being gentle with yourself is kind of a big thing too.

If Everything is On Your Credit Card, You Don’t Need Receipts

For the longest time, paper receipts were my favourite way to keep track of everything. This actually predated tracking my spending, and started as a way for The Boyfriend and I to split our food costs every month. Here’s the thing: I carry one of those tiny wristlet wallets, and trying to shove a grocery receipt into it at the end of the month is like trying to squeeze an NFL player into a Smart Car. It can happen, sure, but it’s no one’s best case scenario.

I’ve started relaxing my all-receipts-all-the-time strategy, and I haven’t missed a single thing in my tracking spreadsheet yet. This is all down to the simple fact that for me, like basically every millennial I know, cash is a total afterthought. I already have a system that keeps track of everything I spend, and it’s called my credit card.

Now, the only times I get receipts are when the balance isn’t going to handily show up on my Tangerine online banking interface.

Manual Tracking is Not “Just Like Mint”

Before I started tracking my spending, I used Mint. Or… more accurately, I hooked Mint up to my bank account and deigned to open the emails they sent me from time to time.

Manually tracking your spending, in my experience, is nothing like Mint. Why not? Because Mint is passive af. I had Mint turned on for years, but never once did it make me adjust my spending, question a purchase, increasing my savings rate or do a single thing to better my finances. It was the functional equivalent of doing nothing at all, plus some data.

But tracking my spending in a more active way, by using my own, albeit simple, spreadsheet, was a game changer. Now that I had to record every purchase, I began actively looking for ways to save money, and I knew that every swipe of my credit card was in the context of how much I had already spent that month – not to mention how much I could spend before ruining any hope of achieving my 50% savings target.

Tracking is Simultaneously a Big Deal and Not That Big a Deal

It’s been a big year – which you know by now if you’ve stuck with me through this monster of a post – and it’s weird to think back on how much has changed, and how much awareness I’ve gained from tracking my spending.

Looking forward, I’ll be honest: I wondered if maybe, this level of tracking was a bit… too much.

Not too much effort, really, because it’s second nature now, but too much in the way that maybe I don’t need to be quite so hardcore about tracking my money. So, when the thought came up, I sat with it for a while.

Maybe I should relax and let things ride a bit? Loosen up?

And then I thought back to how I used to make money decisions.

I distinctly remember signing up for a $200-ish training course with The Dog one month, and basing my “I can afford this” decision solely on the money that was in my bank account at the time. Not on what I still had to buy that month, not on an informed view of my current spending, not against my dearly-held and important savings goals.

Just, “I have the money, let me go spend it.”

That isn’t a perfect example, because I love The Dog more than words, in both the I-can’t-describe-it way and the I-genuinely-do-love-words way. I probably would spend that money again, even knowing what I know now.

But that decision process? Yeah, it stresses me right out to think about it now.

As there are more and more demands on my money, and competing priorities, I can’t even imagine how easy it would be to slip back into the habit of spending money because it’s there, instead of because I had an intentional plan to manage it in line with my values.

Tracking my spending is the one, single, only thing that has helped me make that change. Literally above and beyond any other strategy or tactic to improve my money, tracking my spending manually is it.

The Big One.

The One That Changed Things.

So, shit. I guess this is less a question of relaxing, than it is of realizing that this is my new normal. This isn’t a phase, or a project. I am a human who tracks her spending, and you know what?

If I look at the amount of effort I put in versus the benefits I get out of it, that’s just fine.

If you've been on the fence about tracking your spending, here's everything you need to know - and why you should definitely do it.

Have you ever tracked your spending manually? Did you feel like it made a difference? Or, on the other hand, has an app ever actually changed your behaviour with money? If yes, I want to hear about it!

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