If you’re serious about saving more and spending less, chances are you already have a budget.
But even those of us who think we have it all figured out can use a little financial tune-up every now and then.
5 easy steps to gain control of your spending
I know a lot of people go on cash-only diets that really make you think long and hard about every dollar you spend as your wallet gets lighter and lighter.
While I don’t carry cash often, I’ve discovered that my method makes me think twice about spending.
So join me as I take you step-by-step through my personal budgeting routine, using my actual expenses from July 2016. Ready to go? This will be fun!
1. Review spending using online budgeting tool
Like many of you, I track my spending using an online budgeting tool. I’ve found this to be the easiest way to make sure I’m living within my means.
Mint, Level Money and Personal Capital are a few popular programs. Read more about them in Clark’s budgeting guide.
Once I’m logged in, I usually check to see if I’m earning more than I spend, and then I take a closer look at my monthly list of categorized expenses.
2. Write down your expenses
Writing down your expenses may seem redundant, but this is the most effective way to identify spending problems that may not jump out in the online tools.
Using a pen and paper, record the date of purchase, what you bought and how much it cost.
I set my stopwatch and it took me 12 minutes to transfer all of the information on my computer screen to my pad of paper — 62 transactions in total.
You may be tempted to rush, but don’t. This exercise gets you to think about your spending. (And in the grand scheme of things, a few minutes is totally worth it!)
3. Cross out your set expenses
After writing everything down, there are usually a lot of thoughts that run through my mind.
- How did I spend that much?
- I shop too much!
- What did I even buy?
Before you focus on the areas that need improvement, use a pen to cross out your set expenses — anything that you can’t control or aren’t necessarily concerned about.
For the month of July, I had 62 transactions. I crossed out only 24.
4. Use a calculator to add up expenses in any ‘problem’ categories
Now that the list is narrowed down, this is when things get real.
While writing down my expenses, I noticed that my grocery and fast-food spending was much higher than normal. So those categories will get special attention.
Next, add up expenses one-by-one in ‘problem categories.’
In addition to the dollar amount per category, I look for spending trends, such as how many trips to the grocery store I made in a given week.
Trust me, adding up these expenses using a calculator makes a difference.
While the pie charts those online tools have are great, I find that this step is the psychological equivalent of handing over money to a cashier.
My 15 trips to the grocery store:
5. Set revised spending goals
By writing down expenses and calculating their impact on your budget, you can begin to set new goals. For example, I identified a few trends in my monthly spending:
- 15 trips to the grocery store
- 13 fast-food or vending machine purchases
- 8 visits to discount stores
After having to look down and see those numbers on paper, I immediately knew that I was shopping too much. In fact, there was only one day that I didn’t spend anything at all!
This reality check enabled me to set a new goal to only shop for groceries weekly.
Online budgeting tools are a huge help, but if you have trouble with conscious spending, this method can give you the wake-up call that you need.
One last thing: While budgeting is necessary, it’s not necessarily fun.
A long time ago I made a rule that I would not do mundane things – paying bills, laundry, giving the dog a bath – on my days off from my job.
So set aside 30 minutes after work to do this and enjoy your weekend!