I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the future lately, which always seems to bring me back to budget and finances. We recently revamped the process we use to track our expenses. Since it’s all new, I thought I’d share how we stay on top of everything. The best way to create discipline is to clearly outline a large financial goal you’re trying to reach. It is SO much harder to save money for something big if you don’t have a specific reason for making sacrifices today. Everyone has a financial “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) that requires significant commitment and investment.
It may be a down payment on a house, a new car, to pay off credit cards or student loans. It could just build up your retirement account. No matter where you are financially, we’re all working for something large. And it’s almost impossible to get there without a strategy. If you have a big financial goal but have trouble thinking you can get there in less than 50 years, keep reading.
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It’s true – day to day expenses and unexpected costs come up. These are the things that make it harder to budget for long term bigger goals. What can seem like an urgent “need” takes priority when it doesn’t have to. Letting short term unplanned expenses take over is one of the fastest ways to sabotage your long term goals. Don’t get me wrong, if your plumbing bursts or the car breaks down, get it fixed. But maybe think twice about that sale at The Gap (or Nordstrom, or The Container Store, or going to Target – ever). You also may not really need that coffee from Starbucks. In order to hit one of the Financial BHAGs, you first need to know where your money is going.
It’s impossible to know how to get there if you don’t know where you’re going.
Ok – this part isn’t the most fun or glamorous, but seriously guys, it is SO IMPORTANT. You have to know where your money is currently going. We break down all our expenditures every month into major categories. It’s then easier to trend over the years to see which areas are increasing as our lifestyle changes. Knowing where your money is going is the first step to taking back control.
We used to manually export all our transactions from our credit card and bank statement into an excel document. This is an incredibly time intensive (and error prone) exercise, so I’d recommend using a software program. If doing it manually is the only way for you to tackle tracking expenses, it’s definitely better than nothing. We finally graduated to Quicken. Although it also has its kinks, the auto sort feature is hugely helpful at the beginning of this process. We still go in to sort things properly as there is always some manual adjustment involved. Even so, it saves a ton of time on the front end, which allows us to spend more time on the trends.
The next phase is to take what Quicken gives us every month and put it into our trended spreadsheet. We can easily see which categories are over or under versus the prior month. We also know what percent of our income is allocated in each bucket. When we revamped our tracking process we did this at once for ten months in a row. I was SHOCKED by how much we spend on our house and food. Those two categories are over 50% of our total income every month (not including bills). We had been talking about moving out of our town house into a single family home. Doing this exercise revealed exactly how much we’re already investing in housing. Since we have other BHAGs, it made us think twice before sticking the house on the market.
How we track our spending over time
In order to easily track these trends over time, I created my own template. If you’d like a free copy, click the button below and sign up to have one sent directly to your inbox.
You can input your own expenses in the grey shaded boxes and can to track your largest drivers. You can also view how they change over time. Apparently housing and food are the top two drivers for almost everyone. I just never realized exactly how much of our income was going into those two categories. Once you understand where you’re spending, it’s time to make a budget. You’ll need to pay yourself first to hit that big goal. Set a realistic amount aside each month that will allow you to reach your goal in a reasonable amount of time. You can set smaller interim goals if you’re working toward something huge. This can help you celebrate progress along the way.
Now that you know where your money is going, and you have an allocated amount monthly to hit your big goal, it’s critical to WRITE DOWN what you want to accomplish. This can be a new tab in your expense tracker or budget worksheet. It can be a post it beside your bed or on your mirror. It just needs to be somewhere you’ll see it and can be inspired. A lot. Again, in order to make the map you need to have a destination!
Here comes the part where I fall off the wagon. Up until now, I’m 100% on board. I’m super nerdy and love making spreadsheets and charts to understand where my money is going. I love the idea of a new house, a big vacation, or being able to send my little lady to college. Where I go off the rails is on the actual BUDGETING part. Since we’re all in it to win it and hit big financial goals, bear with me and keep reading!
Pay yourself first
When you’re making this new budget, “paying yourself first” means that you set aside the money for the goal off the top, before you divide up funds among all your other expenditures. This means that you’ll have a little less to go around, which is why setting small goals is helpful to keep you motivated. After you’ve allocated for your goal, then all your bills and required expenses, it’s time to divide up your discretionary income. This is usually the hardest part, and where a lot of the short term things pop up and veer you off course. I’m susceptible to a great sale myself, so the best advice I have is that you hold yourself accountable. If you go “over” budget, then the next month you have to pay yourself back. I know it sounds obvious, but continually overspending is what keeps us from ever reaching those large long term goals.
Sticking to a budget is hard work, so it’s important to check in at reasonable intervals to make sure you’re on track. We look at our finances monthly, but if you’re really having trouble living on a budget, sitting down weekly may be the best way to go at first. Either way, having a check in to ensure accountability ensures you don’t get too far away from your goal for a long period of time. Although budgeting is hard work, you can definitely achieve your big dreams and financial goals with a little up front planning and a lot of perseverance.
The Mamma’s List on hitting your big financial goals:
- Understand where your money is going and what your big expenses are
- Write down your big goal somewhere you’ll see it frequently
- Set a budget to “pay yourself first” to hit that goal
- Initiate frequent check ins with yourself or your partner to ensure you stay on track
- Reward yourself for hitting mini-milestones to stay motivated
If you decide to start a budget and take control of your finances, let me know how it goes!
Click the picture below to link to the software we use to start the budgeting process!