Know where your money goes by tracking it.
I was a scientist during my college days - I studied Biological Sciences and spent a few years working in a research lab. One of the crucial things I learned during that period is the importance of measuring.
You see, if you don’t measure whatever it is you’re experimenting on, how will you know if it got bigger or smaller or better or worse? How will you prove or disprove your hypothesis? How will you know if the experiment is a success or a failure? More importantly, what on earth are you going to cook up for your thesis paper that's due tomorrow???
I didn’t end up becoming a professional scientist, but I did walk away with some ingrained habits that spilled into other non-scientific areas of my life, one of them being: finances.
I didn't always have a handle on my money and what was happening to it. When I first started earning and managing my own money, they would disappear without a trace. One day I would have $100, and the next day I would be left with $5, and I was always confused. Where did it all go? Why is there never enough??
Only when I started tracking what I was spending on did the picture become clearer. I saw how much I was spending on X, and on Y, and on Z. I noticed that I was spending way too much on things I then ended up not using, or that brought me a lot less pleasure than I thought they would. At the same time, I had thought of myself as a rather charitable person, but realised, through tracking, just how woefully little I gave to charity in reality. (Thankfully, I found a way to get better at this.)
Only by observing and recording my spending did those insights reveal themselves. Otherwise, I'd still be sitting here asking the same questions I asked ten years ago: Where did it all go? Why is there never enough??
Oblivion is bliss?
You too will learn a lot about yourself by tracking your spending, and sometimes the picture may not be a pretty one.
Someone I knew once attempted to track his spending, and it revealed to him just how much of his money was used for alcohol. He didn’t like what he saw, and stopped tracking, choosing to remain oblivious and to continue with his habits.
An unfortunate choice, but hey, we all write our own endings.
Some of you may be averse to, or scared of, tracking your spending. Just like the guy above, maybe you prefer not to know. This is entirely your choice, but do know this:
Until you confront your spending habits, you will never be able to overcome your financial issues. You cannot correct what you don’t know. And when it comes to money, what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get fixed.
For the rest of us, the main reason we don’t track is not fear, but sheer laziness.
Still, laziness can be overcome, especially if something matters enough to you. I don’t exactly get excited about brushing teeth, but I still do it first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, and it is probably the same for you. Why? Because the results of that action (clean teeth) matter very much. So it has become a habit, and an almost automatic one. Sometimes in my half-asleep, groggy, not-quite-there state, I don’t even realise I’m brushing my teeth, but there I am, by the sink, brushing away.
Tracking your spending can be just like brushing your teeth - do it often enough, consistently enough, and you will do it almost subconsciously every time money goes out of your wallet. Get yourself to that point.
Take the following suggestions as starting points - all of us function differently, so customise it to your preferences, and be patient. If one method doesn’t work, try another, and again until you find something that fits you.
1. The End-of-day Recall
For the laziest of us all, this one basically involves you taking a few minutes at the end of each day to jot down what you spent your money on in the past 24 hours. Dedicate a page in your notebook or fancy Bullet Journal or iPhone notes for this purpose. You can do it in broad categories (food, clothes, rent, misc… etc), or you can go detailed (eating out, groceries, work clothes, casual clothes, petrol…etc).
Just add on the relevant amounts to each category as you spend day after day after day. At the end of the month, take a look at the resulting numbers and see if there’s anything surprising.
Pros: simple daily habit, doesn’t require fancy apps or technology
Cons: you may not remember everything you bought by the end of the day
Suitable for … those who don’t care to know the details, but just want rough estimations of where their money is going by eyeballing it
2. The List
For more details rather than just broad categories, and to know exactly what you’re spending on, keep a thorough list of each item you spend on. Every time you purchase something, jot it down somewhere.
At the end of the month, copy into a manual or digital spreadsheet and tabulate by category, either with a good ol’ calculator or with your mad Excel skills.
Pros: lets you see exactly where your money is going, data can be used for all sorts of analysis
Cons: requires a bit more effort and math, may involve spreadsheets (gasp!)
Suitable for … those who want to know the nitty gritty of their spending and play around with the data for better understanding
3. The App
Same as The List above, but done via an app, because as we know, there’s an app for anything and everything (including farting noises) these days.
Instead of jotting down in a notebook or a digital note, you input the numbers into the app each time you spend. The app will then do pretty much everything for you: tabulate by category, by time period, by tags…etc, all in real time so you don’t have to wait till the end of the month. It will also spit out colourful charts and reports at the touch of a button, and allow you to export all that data to your computer if you want.
An example, but NOT an endorsement: Mint Finance App
Simply type ‘personal finance tracker’ into the search box on your preferred app platform, and you’re bound to find a few. They vary in sophistication - some are just simple tables with no-frills, while some offer pretty graphics and bank account integrations.
When choosing, look for:
ease of use: if there are too many fields to fill up for each transaction, you may end up getting frustrated and immediately give up. Opt for simplicity; also look for those that allow multiple accounts so you can have an account for each month, or an account for different types of spending.
range of analysis offered: at the very least, the app should be able to calculate your withdrawals and balances, and tell you whether you’re in the positive or negative.
exportability: you should be able to export all that data into your computer for record-keeping, or for further analysis of your own.
Pros: lets you see exactly where your money is going, analysis of data is automatically generated for you
Cons: the apps may cost a nominal sum
Suitable for … those who want to know the nitty gritty of their spending and are comfortable with using apps
My tracking system
I use an app which is somewhat similar to the one showed above, and I create separate accounts for each month. Every time I spend money out of my wallet, or make a transaction online, I input it into the app. At the end of the month, I download the data into a spreadsheet and do a quick review.
Here's an example of one of my spreadsheets, this one for the month of January:
1. That particular January, I spent two weeks in Japan, and therefore only two weeks back home; hence why there were relatively fewer purchases and transactions than a typical month would have. (I keep a separate travel account, so my expenses in Japan were captured in another spreadsheet) (also note that recurring expenses such as utility bills and rent are also captured elsewhere, and not included here).
2. Sometimes I make a comment when I input my spending data. In this particular case, I was not very impressed with the Coffee Bean drink I had (probably a new flavour they were introducing), and I put a note to remind myself to never buy it again.
3. This would be the total I had left at the end of the month. If it's positive, I pat myself on the back and channel the money for other purposes (savings, charity, whatever). If it's negative, I go through the list to figure out what happened, and resolve to do better next month.
4. This column is what I use to rate each of my purchases.
If I thought the purchase was worth the money, and was aligned to my overall values, I would rate a 1. You can see that I really like Secret Recipe cakes, and that I really enjoyed the two movies I watched that month.
If I didn't think it was worth what I paid for it, or if it was something I disliked paying for, I would rate a -1.
If I feel nothing or was neutral about the purchase (like groceries, for example, which are a fact of life and not a whim), I would rate it 0.
Going back to the Coffee Bean example, you can see I rated it a -1, because I did not like the drink. Parking is always rated -1, because one of my goals is to use public transport more, and parking my car means I'm not doing that.
5. Along with calculating the total money I have left at the end of the month (see item 3), I also calculate the total 'satisfaction' I felt with my purchases - if it's a positive number, it means I spent my money well, for the most part. If it's a negative number, it means the money I spent did not add much to my life (at least for that month), and I look back to see what to fix moving forward.
Over time, I started to see a few patterns and identified, very clearly, the things that brought me joy and the things that didn't. So all I had to do was make sure I buy things I actually enjoy, and to completely stop spending on things that added very little to my life. This alone has done wonders in helping me align my finances with my personal values, and to keep my spending under control.
You don't have to be as detailed as I am, of course. Or you can be even more detailed than I am and run simulations and plot out future trends and all that jazz, if that's your kind of thing. The important thing is to be able to glean just enough information to help you understand where your money is going, why you're spending the way you are, and to identify what to to continue, and what to stop blowing your hard-earned money on.
While it may seem like a lot of work, it honestly doesn't take much once you've got the habit started and rolling semi- automatically. I spend less than 20 minutes a month on my finances, but the benefits those 20 minutes have brought me have been tremendous. Especially the peace of mind of knowing everything is in order - no late fees, no overdue bills, no credit card interests accruing, no confusion, no frustration and no stress.
If you haven't been tracking your money, I highly recommend you do so. You will learn a lot about yourself and your spending habits. Only then can you truly begin to fix your finances.