Track Your Expenses

Boolsis

No, seriously. You should be tracking where every single cent is going.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Through The Years

I didn’t grow up with money. My parents emigrated from Southeast Asia to America as teenagers to different parts of California and eventually met in Fresno where they married. Growing up, we struggled. My father had to work two jobs while attending college in order to provide for us. We lived off big blocks of cheese and Kix cereal where the occasional McDonald’s visit was a miracle. Yet, I never felt the struggle. I never felt the pinch. For that, I’m super grateful to my parents. But, what that did was leave me without a strong understanding of money.

It wasn’t until I got much older that I realized the importance of budgeting and tracking my expenses. I really mean, much older. Growing up without a lot of money allowed me to have a critical eye on purchases, but also left me without a strong understanding of the dollar. I only spent money when I had it, but when I had it, I spent it. I was picky with what I bought, but I never cared how much as long as it was less than what I had.

In recent years, I’ve been much more diligent with my spending. I went from tracking general categories to now tracking every cent, with budgets for every category, investment, purchase, etc.

So, What Changed?

My credit score doing a nose dive into the lower 400s. Hundreds of calls from collection companies, not just to me but to my family members. And ultimately, the realization that if I don’t get my sh*t together, I was going to end up trying to dig myself out of a hole of my own making without the ability to ever help my parents or provide for them in their later years. My parents braved the jungles of Laos and Thailand to escape war and genocide. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t take full advantage of the American opportunity that they forged for me.

Why It Matters

As I mentioned, I’m now tracking all of my expenses with such a close eye that I can easily talk about how much my wife and I spend on retail or food or how much gas we pump per year. And all of that is super relieving.

A common theme I see on Facebook amongst my friends and family is the fear of looking at their accounts because they’d then realize how much money they’ve spent. This. Scares. Me. As much as it sucks to see what money you don’t have, it would suck even more to spend that money you don’t have.

I’m sure my family is tired of hearing me preach, but I cannot say enough about the need to budget and track every cent that goes in and out of your accounts. This is much less a Scrooge moment and more a way to empower your day to day decisions. Having my budgets top of mind allows me to splurge on a fancy dinner, feel at ease when I pick up an extra box of donuts, or just be stress-free knowing exactly where my financial future is headed.

Mint and Truebill

When I first started my journey, I had no idea what or how to track my expenses. So, I opted for apps and programs, such as Mint. And more recently, Truebill. Both of these connect directly to your various accounts and automatically categorize your transactions. Occasionally, they have the wrong categorization, but they do about 90% of the work.

My experience with Mint has been decent. When I first started using it, it connected to my accounts and allowed me to set goals for myself. However, they’ve made a lot of improvements and if you connect to all of your accounts, you can even see your net worth. Along with that, you get reminders of upcoming bills, spending habits, and more.

With Truebill, my experience has been a little newer and less great. I have to be honest that I don’t use it often. Mostly because, it’s a recent discovery and well after I’ve already developed my own method (more below). Still, for anyone starting out, I highly recommend both of these as they do a lot of the initial set-up and work to get anyone going.

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Screenshot from my Mint page, amounts redacted for your safety.

Personalized Spreadsheet

So what do I do? Through the years, I’ve found it easier to track my own expenses in my own way. So, I set up my own spreadsheets where I track every single transaction across all my accounts. This means, every dollar, every cent tied to a date, a transaction name, and a category.

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Screenshot of my Expenses Tracker.

Having this level of granularity allows me to track expenses by date and category. So, at any given time, I can see how much I’ve spent at Target back in July. I know. We all spend too much at Target…

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Screenshot of example query within my Expense Tracker.

As a lover of spreadsheets, this gives me so much peace of mind and fulfills my inner project manager. What’s great about this is that it gives me so much flexibility if I want to run analysis on my spending habits, create projections on my investments or savings, or just plan a debt payoff strategy with my wife.

Now, with Mint and similar companies, you can also do a lot of this. However, when I first started using these apps, I just couldn’t deal with the rigidness and inaccurate categorizations. With my spreadsheets, I can track shopping at Target as retail if I bought clothes or food if I picked up a dozen eggs. The latter would then come out of my food budget instead of my extra money fund.

I can go on and on and on about my spreadsheets and how I track expenses. And maybe I will one day in another article. For now, though, I might just wrap it up here. So, get going. Go track your expenses already!

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