Track and Budget Expenses
Hello everyone! Welcome back to The Green Swan. In today’s post I’ll be going over how I track and budget expenses and why I recommend a similar approach for you.
I believe everyone should establish a system to track and budget their expenses. It helps you understand how much exactly you are spending on certain expense categories. And tracking expenses for just one month doesn’t suffice as your expenses can fluctuate dramatically from month to month. I’ve never had any two months with the same amount of expenses for a variety of routine and common reasons.
For example, just last month I took a weekend trip with my brothers and some guy friends, the month before that my wife and I bought a bunch of houseware items as we are in the process of furnishing and decorating another room in the house. The month before that were my annual car tax, registration fee, and inspection fee. Each was a different, but big and lumpy expense item. It seems every month there is another “one-time” or unusual expense that deserves an asterisk. By looking at your expenses month in and month out, accumulating the totals at year end and budgeting on an annual basis can help remove some of the noise.
How do I to track my expenses? My process is fairly simple. The tools I use are a combination of Personal Capital and an Excel spreadsheet. I use Personal Capital as a one stop shop as it aggregates all the inflows and outflows from all my various accounts (e.g. checking & savings accounts, credit cards, brokerage accounts, etc). This makes it very simple to login to one place and see everything rather than having to individually sign into each and every account to track and monitor activity (which is what I used to do!). Personal Capital has been very helpful in simplifying my financial world.
I then take each transaction and plug it into my spreadsheet. I know, a little redundant. But the spreadsheet allows me to control the data and look at it in a more personalized manner. Although I do note that Personal Capital has some great tools built right into its website to track and monitor expenses, cutting and slicing them many different ways. You may consider this an extra and unnecessary step, but I prefer it as it gives me more control.
Below is a spreadsheet template to help track expenses monthly and can be used to sum each column to track on an annual basis. While this is a mock expense tracker, it is very similar to the one I use personally. Mine is slightly modified to apply to my individualistic expense categories and you could modify it to be more applicable to you (i.e. adding in or taking out certain expense categories).
To help keep things simple, I’ve laid a step by step process for you to start tracking your expenses.
1) Create a Personal Capital account. Personal Capital is fantastic. I’ve been using its services since shortly after it was launched in 2011! Today, Personal Capital has over 1 million users! It is free to sign-up, takes seconds to add new accounts, and is secure (using the same encryption and security standards as banks). Besides its tracking and budgeting tools, one of the features I really like about Personal Capital is its focus on investment planning. Some of its investment planning features includes a 401(k) fee analyzer, investment allocation advice, asset allocation targets, and a retirement calculator. Plus they have an app that makes it easy to track and get alerts on your mobile phone.
2) Open Excel and create an expense tracker similar to the one above. You can easily add and remove expense categories over time to modify and adapt it to your lifestyle. For example, I added a few categories after having a child such as daycare and miscellaneous kid expenses. Take 15-30 minutes every weekend to log into Personal Capital, record your expenses in the spreadsheet, and review your weekly expenses. I recommend doing this on a weekly basis so that week’s expenses are still fresh in your mind. For me at least, over a week and I may forget what a particular expense was for. Plus, within the spreadsheet, you can easily make notes to jog your memory down the road what a certain large or unusual expense was for.
3) Budget on an annual basis. Once you’ve started to routinely track expenses for multiple months, you can begin to better formulate a full year budget. Look back at how much was spent in each category and project next year’s figure based on your expectations and reasons for it to increase or decrease (i.e. you want to begin dinning in more rather than dinning out which should lower your annual food expense). Then, throughout the year and especially at the end of the year, look back at your actual expenses, compare them to the budget and understand why there are material deviations, if any, and what you can do differently to improve going forward. Rinse and repeat for the next year’s budget process.
4) Strategically Reduce Expenses. At this stage you will have a good basis for your annual cost of living. Start examining your expenses for areas of reduction. If you feel you are wasting too much on a certain category, look for ways to cut back. You can complete this step in tandem with your annual budgeting process and constantly throughout the year.
Having to track and budget expenses may seem like a daunting task, but it is simpler than it may appear. Get started now and devote a bit of your weekend to take control of your money. Breaking it up and staying on top of it each weekend can make it much easier and less stressful than having to try and do it all on a monthly basis.
And seriously, sign up for Personal Capital! It is a great first step for anyone (I guess that is why I list is as step #1 above!) and free to sign up. Get started today by clicking the link below!
It is an empowering process and will help get your personal finances in shape! Do you track and budget your expenses already? Do you use Personal Capital or another similar program to help? Or do you prefer a customized chart? Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for taking a look.
The Green Swan
Work Harder, Work Smarter, Retire Earlier and Find Your Beach