The Secret Path to Tracking Your Spending

In my previous post, “New Year, New FRUGAL You”, I mentioned that tracking your spending is the most important yet most daunting step in starting your journey into savings. However, figuring out HOW to track where your money goes doesn’t seem to be the biggest challenge. We’re all smart and savvy people. We can find apps, we can keep receipts, we can download Excel templates, we can jot totals in a notebook… to each his own.

What I discovered is that the most difficult aspects of tracking your spending are the initial execution and staying motivated enough to follow through. Do you remember wanting something so badly as a child that you saved and waited and then saved and waited some more to be able to get that desired object of your infatuation? For me, it was a pair of rollerblades when I was a teenager. My best friends and I explored the neighborhood on eight wheels every single day after school, practicing tricks and showing off along the way. My first pair was an off-brand set that my parents bought me, but after those started to wear out, I really wanted a real pair of name-brand Rollerblades. Prior to setting this goal, I was the type of kid who spent every penny I came by, so I had to really buckle down to stay motivated and save every little bit of cash I received. Eventually, I had enough, and I proudly purchased that pair of black and neon-green skates. I loved my prized possessions so much because I had waited for them and earned them myself.

Do you remember what that special thing was for you? What were you willing to save every last penny for as a kid? Can you remember that feeling of accomplishment and the well-deserved reward?

setting goals

It’s time to rediscover that childhood perseverance and determination! As you read this, set a short-term goal that is really meaningful to you and/or your family. Maybe you want to stay in a picturesque pastel beach house in Seaside, Florida this summer for a few days with your family and cruise around in that quintessential golf cart. Maybe you want to spend a birthday or anniversary night away with your partner at the chic Camp Lucy in our beautiful town of Dripping Springs. Maybe you want to buy a trampoline for your kids so they can burn off that after-school or pre-nap energy each day. The dream is all yours to come up with. I just recommend that it’s realistic, that it’s short-term (achievable within six months), and that it’s something that will continue to keep you motivated, like a super cool pair of neon rollerblades. Now, write it down. Yes, write it down right now and share it with others. Text your partner, call your mom, share it with a friend, or write it in the comments below. This goal needs to be real, and as soon as you share it with someone else, it will keep you accountable. My short-term goal is to take my husband somewhere special (shhhh) for his 40th birthday coming up in May.

With that goal in mind and a very specific deadline on when you want to achieve it, let’s talk about getting there in 4 simple steps without digging into savings or just purchasing on a credit card and figuring out how to pay for it later. This goal is going to be your budget-motivator.

1. Start tracking!

There are apps, such as YNAB, Mvelope, Every Dollar, and Mint to help with tracking and setting an initial budget based on what you think you’re spending each month. You can also go old school with pen and paper or excel spreadsheets. This personal budget template has several common categories already listed and is a great way to get started, but there are hundreds out there to choose from. Pick your poison and track ALL your spending for one month.

2. Budget and eliminate!

Based on your current spending in the first month, budget reasonable amounts for the the next month and then find categories that can be reduced significantly or eliminated completely, even just in the short term to reach your goal. For example, I want to save $600 for my husband’s birthday celebration, which will be toward the end of May. This gives me approximately 4 months to save the money. That comes out to $150/month. Looking at what we typically spend in specific categories, I ask myself, where can I cut out $150 for just the next 4 months? Can I go without new clothes for that amount of time? Can I do pedicures at home for a few months? Can we cut our eating-out budget in half? This is the same process you can go through to reach your specific goal. If it’s a $300 trampoline that you want to surprise your child with at his birthday party in April, then where can you cut out $100 per month in the short term?

3. Set that money aside!

Put that money saved in a separate account or withdraw it from the ATM and hide it in the house. Don’t spend this money on other things. Keep your eye on the prize.

4. Buy it and reap your rewards!

In the process of saving for this one specific goal, I predict that you will have developed a habit of tracking your spending, and it will become easier and easier to budget every single month from here on out. It will also become easier to cut out a lot of spending fluff, all those extras that no longer seem necessary once you’ve seen exactly how much of your hard-earned dollars are being spent on them. Think of your budget as a way to afford you something you need or want, rather than depriving you from it.

Congratulations! You’ve found a personal and achievable way to get started and stay on track. Now, set bigger goals! After saving for that one reward and accomplishing a big win in doing so, now it’s time to set long-term and even bigger savings goals. What’s next? A paid-off credit card? Buying your next car with cash? A house in a better neighborhood? Early retirement? Once you’ve started on your path, anything is possible!

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