By Scott Hannah
Track your spending and stop money from leaking out of your bank account.
Q: I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle, yet every time I get my credit card bills and bank statements I’m always surprised by how much I’ve spent. I pay all of my bills off in full every month but I can’t help thinking that I should be putting more into savings. How can I get a better handle on where I’m spending my money? ~Adrian
A: Spending our hard-earned cash is all about making choices, and even though we might not consider our spending to be lavish or extravagant, it all adds up. Think about how often you buy coffee, go out for lunch, take the kids through the drive through, pay for veterinary costs, attend a show, contribute to your RRSP, have car repair bills – none of these expenses are right or wrong; they are simply decisions we make based on our priorities.
It can be hard to determine your present priorities when you haven’t done any prior planning. To get started with figuring out where your money is going, here are 5 things that will make it easier:
1. Understand Why it’s Important to Keep Track of Your Spending
So many people try to get a better handle on their money by developing a personal budget. They create a beautiful spreadsheet, plug in what they think they spend, and two weeks later wonder why it’s not working.
It’s a laudable effort, and a budget is very important, but they’ve jumped the gun on managing their money better if they start with a budget too soon. A budget needs to be built on real numbers, on what you actually spend. While most people can pretty accurately list off the amounts of their monthly bills, discretionary expenses are harder to pinpoint. That’s why tracking is so crucial – it tells you where you’re actually spending your money.
2. Tracking vs Record Keeping – They’re not the Same Thing
There’s a big difference between tracking what you spend and keeping a record of your expenses. Record keeping helps you to stay on top of what you owe and to pay your bills on time. It means collecting receipts and looking at the total on the bottom to make sure the correct amount was charged to your credit card or debited from your bank account, but that is only step one.
Tracking your spending involves a second step, namely looking at what you spent your money on. For instance, think about going to a big box store and what you could buy there, e.g. groceries, magazines, gift cards, household appliances, snacks, personal care items, prescriptions or lotto tickets. By looking at each item on a receipt you can identify your habits, see how much you actually spend and then make choices and decisions about how to change where you spend your money.
3. There’s No Right or Wrong Way to Track Your Spending
Most people don’t get really excited about tracking their spending, but it’s an essential part of building a budget that works. The best way to track is in a way that’s easy for you. There are apps for your phone or tablet, downloadable spreadsheets, computer programs and the old-school pencil and paper notebooks or spending journals. Try a few different ways and then stick with what works best for you and your family.
4. Don’t Make Your Spending Journal a Guilt Trip
Use your expense tracker or spending journal to track what you’re actually spending, not what you think you should be spending. You’re only cheating yourself if you selectively keep track of where you’re spending your money. When you start out, resist the temptation to adjust your spending as you start feeling guilty or begin to see patterns. After a week or two of gathering actual information, it’s then okay to start making choices about your priorities.
5. Use What You Know to Create Your Best Budget Ever
Gaining insight into your spending habits is like having a financial superpower – you can abolish debt, conquer your savings goals, and even make some dreams come true. Tracking is your first line of defense to getting a better handle on where you’re spending your money. Armed with actual numbers, you can outline a household budget that will really work.
The Bottom Line on Tracking and Figuring Out Where Your Money Goes
Tracking isn’t about not spending any money; it’s about choosing how to spend based on what’s important to you. Money leaking out of your wallet or bank account is frustrating. Taking a few weeks each year to track what you spend –and why–is worth the effort. This ultimately ensures that your hard-earned money is there when you need it, and that’s worth banking on!
To start tracking your money, click here to grab a tracking sheet.
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