The 5-Minute Weekly Ritual That Transformed My Financial Life

Budgeting gets all the attention, but careful expense tracking is how I feel confident and in control of my money.

Budgeting gets all the attention, but Libby Kane, CFEI (and Executive Editor of Insider Personal Finance) believes the “best, most critical first step you can take to improve your finances is to track your spending.” 

After all, you can’t make an accurate budget until you really know how much you’re truly spending on everything. But while keeping a budget is powerfully helpful, many people prefer to simply track their expenses.

This describes me. I only update my budget once or twice a year for planning purposes, but I relentlessly track my spending (and by extension, my household’s spending).

A couple of times a week, I open my Tiller-powered spreadsheet and scan all my transactions. I’ll manually categorize any expenses skipped by AutoCat, which helps me catch unusual charges. I’ll glance at my current bank balances, and sometimes I review a Spending Comparisons report.

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This 5-minute ritual makes me feel confident and informed about my finances

This simple, 5-minute ritual has provided greater financial confidence than anything else I’ve ever done. (Increasing income is a close second – but that only goes so far when expenses from living, taxes, and fun are too high.) 

I’ve eliminated vampire subscriptions, prioritized credit card payoff, and (somewhat) right-sized my grocery spending.

It’s also how I know when we can afford a random weekend getaway, a big dinner out, an unexpected donation, or a surprise gift for the kids. 

What works best for you? Do you emphasize keeping a budget, or do you simply focus on tracking spending? Or are you somewhere in between? 
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Notable Replies

  1. Like you, I focus on expense tracking. I do the full budgeting 1x per year. After all it’s a budget and budgets are expectations. I may recast my budget 2x per year if and only if there is a material change that causes all my reports to show large budget variances and thus the budget has become meaningless. The vampire subscriptions are something I really pay attention to; eg. I juggled my internet sites and saved $250/year. I use the budget to really understand the ratio of fixed expenses to discretionary and make sure I’m spending in the right areas of my life.

  2. The primary reason I subscribed to Tiller money in 2018 was to to get a handle on my expenses prior to my early retirement scheduled for January 2020. I needed to be certain that I could maintain a positive cash flow on a fixed income. My wife handled paying the bills but unfortunately she passed away in 2016 leaving me both clueless and in a panic regarding my financial and cash flow situation.
    I knew what my income would be while working and had a good projection of what my fixed income would be upon early retirement.
    Using the categories in the early version of Tiller money allowed me to sort out my income verses expenses. After about 3 months of collecting data from the various categories I was able to get a better understanding my cash flow and determine the necessary categories to develop a 50/30/20 budget.
    I look over my income to expenses quarterly to see if any significant tweaks need to be made. In January I run a category report and use that information to adjust the budget for the upcoming year.
    My budget is a subjective expectation of income to expenses. Since I maintain a mostly positive cash flow that can still include savings I don’t have a need to scrutinize my budget status monthly.

  3. I was happy to see these posts because I am using Tiller in the same way that the previous posters have mentioned. I hope that the expense comparison sheet provides more flexibility on the time periods that you can compare. Good discussion thread.

  4. Avatar for Exo3 Exo3 says:

    I second above comments. Relentless tracking is what I’m mostly focused on. At this point i don’t sweat going over the allocated budget. I’m more focused on trends i.e. do I consistently go over my budget in a given category? If it’s a “one-off” I don’t really care. Otherwise I ask myself: should I change my spending habits in this category OR is my budget not realistic anymore?

    I also like tracking long-term trends. I have a tab where I copy & paste category totals at month end, month by month and look at averages every quarter. I may manually adjust this tab and exclude large one-time events (e.g. chimney repair) to avoid skewing the overall trend. This is also a foundation for my budget thresholds.
    At this point I have +2 years worth of data which provides valuable insights about our habits and their seasonality (e.g. I expect to go above my average for spending on drinks, events during summer months etc.). It also helps with evaluation and execution of the 50/30/20 goal.

  5. Avatar for mjsef mjsef says:

    I am also an ‘expense tracker’. I am fortunate though in not counting pennies so it is more about ‘can I keep expenses under control (equal to last year)’. Also helps me plan for big shifts in my status like moving or kids going to College. Similar to [mkarbowsky] I am transitioning to retirement soon and doing a fair amount of planning. In fact, my relentless expense tracking has helped me know EXACTLY what my expenses will look like post kids and when I transition to retirement. So rather than using some made up benchmark for post retirement expense levels, I have the number dialed in based on prior spend, less kids, + more travel etc. Gives me a lot of confidence that I am where I need to be!

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