Tracking Our Money

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In order to start living a frugal life, I figured I needed to know where our money normally goes. Kinda obvious, right? Well, track your expenses for the past year. I dare you. It’s an eye-popping experience.

I thought I did a decent job of money management. It’s just that we accumulated debt over time:

  • When a pipe under the kitchen sink cracked and leaked water all over, we had to call in a plumber.
  • When, over the last six years, every major appliance in the house gave out, we had to replace them.
  • When our kids grew out of their clothes or needed school supplies, we had to buy them.
  • And, of course, the list goes on and on…

I suppose we could have bought less expensive brands. There are times I’ve put my foot down, but it’s been hit-or-miss depending on our finances at that moment. And that’s the main point, really. We’ve drifted for many years without any kind of financial plan and that’s when money slips through the cracks.

I know, you hear those words “financial plan” and either your eyes glaze over or your heart speeds up like a squirrel on meth. For my family and I, though, we have to bite the bullet or we’re in for serious trouble down the road.

So, onward!

I have a bookkeeping background, which, I suppose, just makes this situation more horrifying. In my defense, though, it wasn’t by natural inclination. A couple years into my first major job I was given a choice to be laid off from my graphic design/IT/girl-of-all-computer-trades position or learn bookkeeping while the company went through a shake-up. I learned bookkeeping, but hated it. Now, I pay our bills, mostly on time, but often don’t look deeper. Hence, our current situation.

I pulled out our checkbook register and bills from the past year. I created a simple spreadsheet and started plugging in numbers. This is a shortened version of what I started with, so include your own categories. (I hope this image is clear enough. I’m learning how to do screen shots.)

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Notice at the bottom there’s a space for “Monthly Income.” Ideally, the monthly totals for the bills will be close or less than your monthly income. Of course, things are never that cut-and-dried, right?

Next, I made a list of all our credit cards, loans, lines of credit, etc. and their amounts. This example has fake numbers.

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Yeah, so, when I began to track our expenses for the past year, I learned some surprising things:

Debt Adds Up (Duh…)

Looking at all that in black and white is some scary shit. After I could breathe again, I decided we had to throw whatever extra money we have each month against our credit cards.

There’s two schools of thought on this process. One says to pay down the ones with the highest interest first. The other says to pay down the smallest amounts first to make you feel like you’re accomplishing something, so you don’t give up.

Intellectually, I know the first makes more sense. But I also know myself. I need something more to keep the momentum rolling. I know it’ll give me a big boost to pay off one credit card, even if it’s just a small one. After a couple of those, maybe I’ll be ready to tackle the big, bad VISA bill.

Exact Amounts

Bills go up, right? Everyone knows that. But unless you actually track down old bills and compare them, you don’t really know by how much. For instance, I had a bit of a shock when I realized that our term life insurance went up a little over $100/qtr. this year. Youch!

I have a bit of a blind spot with this, too. We often pay cash for things and don’t always keep receipts. I’m aware this skews the figures. From this point on, I’m tracking the cash flow.

School Extras 

Thing1 is saving for the Senior Trip with lots of fundraisers. Thing2 is in the Marching Band and they have several fundraisers every year, but with a trip to Florida in June, the push is on. So, I buy pies and frozen pizzas and Christmas poinsettias I wouldn’t normally buy. (The things we do for our kids…)

The school yearbook is $50 so could only afford one for the Senior.

Thing1 takes AP (advanced placement) classes. These are college-level classes that, if she passes the final exam, will earn her college credit. Unfortunately, we have to pay for the special AP exams. Definitely an unexpected expense since when I went to school, these were free.

I like that parents have the option to add money into their kids’ lunch account via the internet. That way, I can also find out what the little darlings are eating.

Turns out Thing1 buys a juice and a muffin quite often for breakfast. She claims it’s too early in the morning to eat at home but she’s hungry by the time she gets to school. Well, the price is outrageous and I shudder at the thought of the additives in those prepackaged muffins. I’ve started baking again and scouting juice prices at different stores. I don’t normally buy small bottles and I think the school gets a volume discount. I may have to conceed that one.

Some of these are impossible to say no to. Interestingly, this has forced the kids to think creatively. Payments for the two school trips coincide and I told Thing2 we may not be able to pay for the band trip this year (there will be another in 2 years). She offered to make the down payment out of her own money!

Parent Extras

Yes, my husband and I buy our coffees, newspapers, magazines, gum, etc. and it adds up. That’s part of that cash amount I’m tracking. Since we’re more aware, we’ve cut down on some of it. I think. At least I have.

One thing I will not give up is my Sunday morning breakfast out with my husband. He works a regular job and has a side business. This is our only time all week to get away without the kids and sometimes meet up with friends. I consider it investing in my marriage. It’s also cheaper than dinner and a movie.

Cooking More

Over the last year, I admit it: I got lazy. We ordered takeout most every weekend. In addition to the above-mentioned breakfast. Quite often we’d go out to breakfast on Saturday, too. *hangs head in shame*

Again, it adds up.

So, I’m cooking more. Which means I had to stock up. Thus, our grocery bill went up. But I expect it to level off after the staples are bought and we’re on a regular schedule.

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This, of course, is just the beginning.

I couldn’t have known where to start without guidance from some amazing bloggers, including:

Kerry at Squawkfox.com whose tag line is “Where fugal living is sexy, delicious, and fun.” Who wouldn’t want to read that? Her claim to fame is she wiped out $17,000 in student loans in six months. She has info on debt reduction as well as simple, common-sense ideas to live a frugal life. And it’s all explained with a sense of humor that’s like talking with a good friend.

Liss at Budget101.com has info on “digging yourself out of debt when all you have is a spoon.” I believe there’s also a forum on her site. She has a regular “$50 weekly grocery menu” feature that’s fascinating and recent articles include Christmas stocking stuffer ideas and how to cut home heating costs.

Obviously, this is all just my experience so far. Your mileage may vary. An internet search of “frugal living” lists hundreds of sites with a monstrous amount of info. Find the ones that resonate with you and share what you find.  

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8 comments on “Tracking Our Money

  1. D J Mills says:

    You are on the right track, listing recurring costs and once off costs. Just seeing what you spend highlights where you can cut back without sacrificing much at all. Stopping takeout is a good place to start. You can cook pizza and hamburgers and much more a lot cheaper than the takeout variety. Well done with what you achieved so far.

    Good luck with changing your lifestyle enough to remove all the credit card debt with high interest payments, and first place I would recommend starting. 🙂 The accountant in me is showing now.

    In Australia, if you pay mortgage payments fortnightly instead of monthly (half the monthly amount every fortnight) the interest drops quicker and the 20 year loan can be paid off in 15 to 18 years. It saves lots! Have no idea if it works the same way in USA.

    Got to check out the two blogs you mentioned.

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      Oh, yes. I’m getting quite the picture of where we stand, that’s for sure. Once I get the credit card debt under control, then I’ll be able to tackle the mortgage, which, yes, we’ll pay less interest if we pay it off early. Thanks!

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  2. Ah, yes…frugal living. My Thing 1 is in his second year of college, and Things 2 and 3 at home are having a hard time understanding why “they” have to suffer (especially when it comes to food–no more steaks) or going to the movies, shopping, etc. We’re going to Florida for two weeks over Christmas break, so right now we’re eating very cheap. Things 2 and 3 are slowly understanding that food costs are the simplest to control, and the less we spend on food, the more we can spend in other areas.

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      Yup, the kids always have a harder time understanding the situation, but they’ll get it eventually. How nice you’re able to get away for Christmas! That’ll make all the scrimping worth it.

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  3. You did an excellent job with this!

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  4. Not eating out and cooking at home is the hardest adjustment, I think. I’m not really a creative cook. Coming up a new menu each week that is cheap but nutritious is sometimes a daunting task. Also I hate doing dishes; I think that’s the worst part. 😉

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    • E.K. Carmel says:

      Boy, do I identify with this! I’ve tried different things over the years to make meal planning easier and cookbooks, magazines and the internet help. As for dishes, thank god for my dishwasher. Would be even better if I had magic to transfer them from the sink to the dishwasher in a snap!

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