What You Can Learn from Tracking Your Spending

What happens when you track every single purchase for an entire month?

Well, a few things – especially if you’re new to this level of detail, which I so am. Tracking your spending is one of those things that everyone kind of knows they should be doing, but as with a huge amount of personal finance issues, the problem isn’t education, it’s behaviour.

That was certainly the case for me.

I knew I was supposed to track my spending, but the closest I ever came to actually doing it was a cursory glance at my Mint account every few months. It was only once I got really serious about taking control of my finances, from finally switching to a no-fee bank account to investing in the stock market, that I realized my version of “tracking” was woefully inadequate.

I was pretending to be good at managing my money, without having any idea where it was actually going every month. I wasn’t carrying any debt, and I was saving regularly, but that’s about all I knew.

That’s why I took on the challenge of tracking my spending down to the penny this month. At the beginning of the month, I opened up a Google Sheet and set myself up for a month of really focused tracking. Like a true personal finance nerd, I was so excited to get started.

Now that I’ve made it through 30 days of detailed tracking, I can say somewhat definitively that if you take on a challenge like this, you’ll experience at least one of these things.

You’ll learn things. Like, how easy it is to bury your head in the sand.

There were a few days, surprisingly early on in the month, that I didn’t open the spreadsheet. Not even one time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t because I didn’t have receipts to enter. No, it was more along the lines of “Wow I’ve already spent a lot of money this month and I so don’t want to face the music of seeing what the total is in black and white.”

Even after realizing I was avoiding my own challenge, it took me a few more days to sit down and face the music. I’m glad I did, especially because when I actually faced what I thought was this insurmountable failure, I saw that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. Even though a few out-of-the-ordinary expenses came up this month, when I really looked at my budget, they were manageable.

Still, I will never again underestimate the urge to bury your head in the sand. That ish is real, even in pretty ideal financial circumstances.

You’ll quickly take accountability for going “over budget.”

In the last few days of the month, I was back on track with my daily spreadsheet check-ins, so I knew – down to the penny, as intended – how much money I had to last me until the end of the month. I had a general idea of what expenses I had coming up that were non-negotiable, like eating and car insurance, so my discretionary budget was really clear. When invites to events came up, or potential purchases were in question, I could easily see what the impact would be on the rest of my month and my ability to eat.

I make it sound sooooo dramatic, but really, it just gave me the leeway to prioritize a good friend’s birthday get-together, and know that I had room in my budget to go out for a pumpkin beer.

Tis the season, after all.

You’ll notice some wins!

Groceries

Before this month, I had been pretty set in my grocery ways. Between the Boyfriend and I, we spent within a few dollars of $600, reliably, every month.

After the entirely self-powered drumroll preceding the grocery budget update this month, I announced to The Boyfriend and The Dog that we had spent – wait for it – only $469.20 on food for the month! While the reaction was underwhelming from the rest of the team, I was beyond thrilled. That $600 mark has been tough for us to move away from, but it seems like we’ve gotten into a good groove, and neither of us has felt deprived of anything in the meantime.

Our new goal is to keep the grocery tally under $500 going forward, based on the success of this month.

Gas

As if Little Car didn’t have enough going for her, my grand total spent on gas this month was one fill-up at a cool $35.09. My current tank of gas will last me well into next week too, so it’s not like I’m running on fumes to make sure my September budget stays on track.

It looks like my previous gas-budget estimates were more based on the heavier travel months in the summer, and less on my regular fall driving. This is great news that I might never have noticed otherwise.

Want to start tracking your spending?

Download the spreadsheet I use to this day, and I’ll send you everything you need to make it through a month of tracking!

You’ll also notice some not-quite-wins.

Dog insurance

I have to admit something. I super-reneged on an earlier post this month.

I thought I was sooooo cool, calm and collected about the whole buying-dog-insurance thing. Namely, I was convinced that I had the nerves of steel to do without dog insurance, and save up for a dog emergency instead. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still saving for a pet emergency.

However.

As I look at my other savings goals, I worry about the dog insurance thing. Because as cool and strong as I like to think I am about it, if The Dog broke his leg and needed surgery, and I didn’t have the money in his dedicated emergency fund yet, I would not hesitate to pull the money from one of my other accounts, like my house down payment fund.

So I did some research, and found a new insurance plan that better suited what I wanted the insurance for in the first place. It has a higher deductible, covers 80% of major illnesses or accidents, and leaves me responsible for regular vet visits and 20% of the major costs. The way I see it, this isn’t so much insurance on The Dog as it is insurance against my emotions getting in the way of my other savings goals. For the $314.75 annual premium, which I paid this month, I’ve got a year of peace of mind and 12 months to build up an even better emergency fund that might ease my mind next year when it comes time to renew.

That said, it wasn’t just a major flip-flop. It also put an unexpected few hundred dollars onto my spending budget, and I withdrew $100 from The Dog’s emergency fund to help cover the cost. It was a hit to my savings rate – but way less of one than a major procedure on The Dog would have been.

You’ll see exactly how much you spent – and saved – this month.

As the title of the blog clearly implies, my goal is to save half of my income, and there’s no dodging that goal when you track your spending this closely. You have to face the cold, hard numbers and see how you did. This month, here’s how I did.

  • Spending: 62.8%
  • Saving: 36.8%

On one hand, I didn’t hit the 50% number, which for a few days I saw as a totally stressful failure. But then I came to my senses, and focused on the fact that I saved 36.8% of my income this month, which is nothing to sneeze at! Unless you, like me, keep forgetting this is allergy season and you really need to take those allergy meds every day. Then maybe there are some sneezes.

I also learned a lot from not hitting the 50% goal, and didn’t compromise on some other things that were important to me this month just to hit a number – including birthday events and gifts for The Boyfriend, who turned 30! I made sure to give my savings goals the appropriate weight, and I realized that the 50% number can’t be the goal in and of itself. It’s there to support my life, not take it over.

You’ll want to take on another challenge.

I think it’s clear, at least to me, that I learned a lot by taking on this level of detailed tracking for a month. I’m going to keep this level of detail going for October, but I wanted to take on something new as well.  

That’s why I’m going to spend October working through Cait Flander’s Mindful Budgeting program. I think it’ll be the structure I need to really get insight into how I’m balancing my different goals, and I want to double check that I’m prioritizing the right things – not just for my finances, but for life in general. I can’t wait to dive in, and I’ll do a full write-up of how it went and what I learned at the end of October.

Also, as if it is already October.

Until then, I want to hear your tracking stories! Have you ever done the down-to-the-penny style of tracking? Did you learn anything? And if anyone else has had the burying-your-head-in-the-sand experience, please tell me I’m not alone on that!