Beginner Budgeting

Beginner Budgeting: Track Your Expenses

Welcome back!

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If you’ve been following along with my Beginner Budgeting mini-series, you may be familiar with the 5 practical tips and reminders that I feel are essential when creating your first budget.

  1. Know how much money you make.
  2. Track your expenses.
  3. Assign every penny a destination.
  4. Start. Right. Now.
  5. Be flexible.

Today, we’ll dive into tip #2. (If you’re new, you may want to start here, then go here.)

Is this an exhaustive list of everything you’ll need to know when starting a new budget? Absolutely not. Probably not even close. When I first started on my journey toward financial freedom, I devoured information. Blog posts, books, YouTube videos, you name it. There’s so much information out there.

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But I chose these 5 particular tips because these are the things that were most helpful for me, and I believe that they are fairly universal. In addition, they are simple concepts and things that you can do right now to get yourself started.

As I’ve said before, personal finances are deemed personal for a reason. Everyone’s budgeting process is going to look slightly different.

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We all have a different starting point. We all have different life goals, aspirations, circumstances, family situations, and priorities. Some of us have piles of debt. Some are long established in well-paying careers. Some are grappling with seemingly impossible financial situations that seem utterly insurmountable.

It would be presumptuous of me to assume that what worked for me is going to work for everybody. But if you’re looking for a good place to get started, consider following along through the remainder of this mini-series. You may find a tiny nugget of truth that resonates with you and gives you just the nudge you need to pay a little more attention to your money.

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So, what’s today’s tip?

Track your expenses.

All of them.

What do you spend your money on daily? Monthly? Quarterly? Yearly? Every few years? Every ten years? It’s all important. In order to truly gain control of your finances, you first need to know where your dollars are going. This step is so, so, so important.

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When I first started thinking about budgeting in earnest (shortly after my husband and I got married), I barely even knew which bills we paid every month. For real. I mean, bills would just show up in our mailbox and I would dutifully pay them. Then, I wouldn’t think about them again until the process repeated itself the following month.

I knew that we paid our mortgage and electric bills monthly, but we also had quarterly and annual bills that literally surprised me every single time they arrived. Like, “Oh, that trash removal service isn’t free?” Or, “Since when do I have to pay taxes on my car?”

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OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth. Remember when I said that before I started budgeting, there was nothing I couldn’t afford?

Suffice it to say I was blissfully unaware of where our money was going. As soon as that check hit the mailbox and the red flag was raised, I was back on my way, whistling a silly little tune of financial ignorance.

Then we committed to one of Dave Ramsey’s courses, Financial Peace University, that was being offered at my childhood church. Although we don’t follow his program religiously anymore (get it? church? religiously?), I credit Dave Ramsey with lighting a metaphorical fire under our butts and getting us to start caring about our money. Suddenly, I was discovering all sorts of things that drained money from our bank accounts every month. It was a very eye-opening experience to say the least.

You might be thinking, “But where do I even start?!”

Don’t panic and don’t overthink it. Just start somewhere.

You might begin by writing down everything you spent money on today.

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If you’re feeling brave, you might begin to write out a list of everything you spend money on day to day, brainstorm style.

Exhibit A:

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Think of this list as a working document. It may take you a week or a month (or longer!) to complete your list. It really depends on how aware you currently are of where your money goes.

When you discover an expense that you either just incurred or forgot about completely, add it to the list.

Have debt payments? Add them.

A car loan? Add it.

Monthly or yearly subscriptions? Coffee addiction habit? Take-out tendencies?

Add. Add. Add.

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Nothing is safe. No amount is too trivial.

If you use a credit or debit card, spend a half hour looking back over the last several months of purchases. Nothing opened my eyes to the fact that I ate out way too often more than seeing large sums of money repeatedly deducted from my checking balance or added to my credit card bill every single month.

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Sure, you could just jump to the next step of assigning every dollar of your paycheck a destination, however that may ultimately prove a frustrating and exhausting exercise. You may find yourself returning to the drawing board again and again because you forgot to consider a handful of expenses.

Think of this list as a road map. It will direct your budget down the road that’s best for you, based on your needs, your wants, and your responsibilities.

Who knows, a paper list may help you visualize your spending in a way that you never have before. Personally, I find the physical act of writing something down on paper more helpful, concrete, and tangible.

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So this week, I challenge you to begin tracking your expenses, in whatever way works for you. Or, if you’re starting from scratch, jump back to my intro post, followed by tip #1, before you begin this step.

Are you feeling motivated? Anxious? Is there a feeling of dread sweeping over you, slowly paralyzing your limbs? Just breathe.

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If there’s one additional piece of wisdom I can share from my own experience, it’s to give yourself some grace. Be patient with the process.

I liken budgeting to dieting. We often start out super motivated and all gung ho about losing weight and getting our health on track. So we take on too much all at once. We go from exercising 0 to 6 days a week. Completely cut out all of our favorite foods in the name of calorie restriction. And dutifully hop on the scale every single morning. But somewhere in those beginning stages, our motivation begins to dwindle. Decision fatigue sets in. We begin to feel deprived and resentful. Then, we either fade into the shadows with our heads hung in defeat or throw our hands up in defiance like, “NOPE!” That’s because we didn’t give this change the time and patience it deserved.

A diet needs to be realistic. Sustainable. Rewarding. And so does a budget.

It took you [insert your age] years to develop your current mindset toward money. Change is not going to happen overnight.

So, my dear friend, I see you. I see your current struggles and your frustrations. I was you. I am you.

Try to be patient with the process, and just begin.

5 thoughts on “Beginner Budgeting: Track Your Expenses”

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