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Watching Every Cent

Watching Every Cent

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    If you’ve been working on getting your personal budget balanced, going offline can make some sense. There are plenty of web applications and other tools that really do well at interpreting your spending patterns and other information just by taking a look at your monthly bank statement. But there’s really no substitute for doing some financial tracking on your own.

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    Every Little Cent

    One reason many people seem to struggle with building a budget that actually works for them is a lack of understanding when it comes to telling where their money really is going. Between cash, debit cards, credit cards, automated payments, one-click purchases and all the other myriad ways we can pass our money along to someone else, is it really any surprise that creating a spending plan that works longer than a week is a difficult proposition?

    Building a budget that is truly effective requires a very thorough understanding of your own spending. There is a relatively simple approach to getting the necessary grasp on your typical spending — tracking every cent you spend.

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    It isn’t a long term approach, of course, but if you’re working on getting your finances under control, a good first step is to spend a week or a month simply observing where you’re actually spending your money. It’s a matter of making a note every time you pull out your wallet, whether you’re spending cash or using plastic. At the end of your observation period, you’ll have a list of transactions that will give you a much clearer view of your expenses than a bank statement can. At a bare minimum, you’ll have an idea of where the cash you pull out of the ATM goes.

    Keep It Simple

    For most people, tracking spending for a full month will give you the best picture of finances: how you spend right after your paycheck comes in can be quite different from how you spend during other parts of the month, for instance. However, it is difficult to keep up with tracking your spending for that long. There are a few ways to make the process easier:

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    • Keep a notebook with your wallet, so that you have to pull it out whenever you’re making a purchase.
    • Write down every transaction, even if you get a receipt. It helps turn the process into a habit — and you’ll have one document with all your information.
    • Go with the paper route. Messing with texting your expense to yourself or shooting off an email just adds more hassle than a simple note.

    The important part of keeping this sort of ‘every cent counts’ record is to get the best data possible to work with. While some people can build a budget that they can stick to without such specific records, the fact of the matter is that most of us struggle to stick to a budget if we have spend without accountability. For those of us who fall into that category, budgeting becomes much easier when we already know how much we spend in a given category over the month. We know where we should cut back — and where we can cut back.

    Processing Data

    At the end of the observational period, you’re likely to have at least a few pages worth of records that you’ll need to interpret into a usable format. You may be able to spot patterns without doing anything in the way of processing, but it’s probably worth investing some time in the project and creating a spreadsheet with each of your expenses. Categorizing your expenses can make spotting patterns much easier — like picking up a candy bar every afternoon for a snack. These sorts of patterns are the starting point for changing your finances for the better. There are both good and bad spending patterns, and being able to see them can make a major difference in your ability to budget.

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    Once you’ve gone through all the data you’ve collected, it’s time to compare it to what you’d like your budget to actually be. There may be a large discrepancy between your plan and reality — the typical reason that so many budgets fail — so make note of where those big differences are. Breaking just one or two patterns may make all the difference in bringing your actual spending in to line with a budget: if something like a daily candy bar is driving up your budget, taking a step to eliminate the need for that candy bar (like bringing a snack to work along with your lunch) can make a dramatic difference. It’s worth noting that breaking a habit is often difficult — replacing it is usually easier. That fact applies to spending as much as any other habit.

    After an observational period, it almost always makes sense to end your financial tracking. It’s useful to get the sort of data you need to form a lasting budget, but it can be a fairly time-consuming process. Furthermore, you probably don’t need a cent-by-cent accounting of your finances beyond the planning stage. You may need to occasionally revisit your daily spending habits to make sure you’re still on track, but otherwise, reviewing your bank statements and receipts will more than suffice. It’s also worth looking into some sort of financial tracking application: while they may not be so useful in understanding the details of your spending, they can provide you with a broad overview that can be enough to guide you if you’re already on track.

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    Last Updated on March 4, 2019

    How to Use Credit Cards While Staying Out of Debt

    How to Use Credit Cards While Staying Out of Debt

    Many people will suggest that the best thing to do with your credit cards during these tough economic times is to cut them up with a pair of scissors. Indeed, if you are already in huge debt, you probably should stop using them and begin a payback strategy immediately. However, if you are not currently in trouble with your credit cards, there are wise ways to use them.

    I happen to really love my credit cards so I will share with you my approach to how I use mine without getting into deep financial trouble.

    Ever since about 1983 when I got my first Visa card, I continue to charge as many of my purchases as possible on credit. Everything from gas, groceries and monthly payments for services like my cable and home security monitoring are charged on credit. Despite my heavy usage, I have maintained the joy of never paying any interest fees at all on any of my credit cards.

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    Here are some tips on how best to use your credit cards without falling into the trap of paying those nasty double-digit interest fees.

    Do Not Treat Credit Cards as Your Funding Sources

    Too many people treat their credit cards as funding sources for major purchases. Do not do this if you want to stay out of trouble. I use my credit cards as convenient financial instruments so I do not have to carry around much cash. In fact, I hate carrying cash, especially coins. When you buy things on credit, the purchases are clean and you will not get annoying coins back as change.

    I do not rely on my Visa, MasterCard or American Express to fund any of my purchases, large or small. This brings me to my golden rule when it comes to whether I will pull out any of my credit cards either at a retail or online store.

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    I never purchase anything with my credit cards if I do not have the actual cash on hand in my bank account.

    If I really cannot pay for the item or service with cash that I already have at the bank, then I simply will not make the purchase. Remember, my credit cards are not used as funding sources. They are just convenient alternatives to actual cash in my pocket.

    Make Sure to Always Pay Off Balances in Full Each Month

    The next very important part of my overall strategy is to make absolutely sure that I pay the balances in full each and every month no matter how large they are. This should never be a problem if the cash has been budgeted for my purchases and secured in the bank. I have always paid my full balances each month ever since my very first credit card and this is why I never pay interest charges.

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    Using Credit Cards with Rewards

    Most of my credit cards are of the “no annual fees” type, including one MasterCard on a separate account I keep at home as a spare in case I lose my wallet or incur any fraudulent charges. However, I do use a main Visa card which does have an annual fee because all purchases on that card reward me with airline frequent flyer points. For me, the annual fee is worth it since I do travel and I get enough points to redeem many free flights.

    You have to decide for yourself if you will charge enough purchases on credit each year without paying interest charges to warrant a credit card that rewards you with airline points (or other rewards). In my case, the answer is “yes” but that might not be the case for you.

    I occasionally use a MasterCard or American Express card on small purchases just to keep those accounts active. Also, I have been to the odd retailer that accepted only a certain type of credit card, so I find that having one from each major company is quite handy. Aside from my main Visa card which earns the airline points, the rest of my cards are of the “no annual fees” variety.

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    So this is how I use my credit cards without getting into any financial trouble with them. This strategy is recommended only if you are not in debt, of course. In fact, it is worth keeping in mind once you’re out of debt so that you can keep your credit cards active and treat them responsibly.

    What are your credit card usage strategies? Let me know in the comments — I’d love to hear what methods you use.

    Featured photo credit: Artem Bali via unsplash.com

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