2015 Review, Part 1: How I Spent My Money This Year

This is a little bit premature, since there’s still almost a month until the end of 2015. But I wanted to make December a month for retrospective review; I have some thinking to do about what worked and what didn’t this year, and what I want to keep doing, or make changes in, next year. That starts with analysis. While there may be a few unanticipated expenses during December, I did my best here to project them (for example, I haven’t even mailed in the check for my passport renewal, but I counted it anyway under “Gremlins” since I know what to expect. Ditto with my car insurance, which I won’t pay until the end of the month but which I count here anyway.) So this should give a pretty accurate picture of 2015. Shoutout to YNAB, by the way; while of course I could have tracked in other ways, their reporting tools made it easy to see what I’d spent both by category, and to various vendors. Assembling this report therefore took a lot less time than it would have otherwise.

Two things I didn’t include: the $1262.88 I spent on health insurance premiums, which were deducted from my paycheck before taxes, and the deducted taxes themselves. Omitting these from “spending” kept these numbers consistent with the spending reports I’ve been providing all year. I’m not sure whether this is the “right” decision but I think consistent is better than right here.

Fixed Expenses

Rent and utilities: $4881.00. This includes one last electric-bill payment to my 2014 housemate, plus $400/monthly for rent/utilities to my 2015 housemate.

Cell phone: $200.00. This is a bit misleading since I really pay $25/month. But my friends forgave $100 that I had been going to pay them this spring, because it came due at the time that I had just spent a boatload of money on an emergency visit to them.

Car & renter’s Insurance: $569.64. My car is really old, so I carry the state minimums on everything. Renter’s insurance is rolled in and I get a substantial discount for doing both together, so I end up paying just a couple dollars extra a month to protect my stuff.

Total Fixed Expenses: $5650.64. This is amazing to me. That’s, oh, about three months’ worth of fixed expenses from the last two years I lived in New York. Even the earlier years there when I lived very cheaply, that would have represented about six months’ bare-bones fixed expenses (rent/utilities/phone), not a full year’s.

Basic Expenses

Cash draw: $3420.00. This is where the lion’s share of my food spending (both groceries and eating out) came from, and I also spent cash on things like dry cleaning, postage, small entertainment like movie tickets, donations at church, small gifts, whatever.

Fuel: $347.08. Ridiculous. Obviously I was helped substantially by lower recent gas prices and by having a very very short commute, but still, I see bloggers who spend this much or more monthly. It’s worth noting that I sometimes did pay for gas using my “travel” money, so this is not all the gas I used this year, just the gas I bought for basic daily life stuff.

Total Basic Expenses: $3767.08

Variable Expenses

“Stuff”: $682.12. This includes CDs, books, kitchen supplies (including all that canning gear I bought over the summer), cleaning supplies, and a few other odds and ends — new bed pillows, that kind of thing.

  • I actually wish I had a better breakdown of this. Roughly half of these transactions were from Meijer, Target, etc, and I don’t have a better description of them in YNAB. I’d like to know how much of this money actually went to groceries that I folded in to a credit card transaction, how much was canning gear, etc. I do know that I spent about $100 on books (mostly used) and CDs (mostly new) because I had separate transactions for each one instead of bundling them. I also spent about $200 buying kitchen gear (rice cooker, large stockpot, and some smaller ticket items) in separate transactions but I can’t say precisely because I know other small items were bundled in with those general big-box things. Next year: better record-keeping!

Pantry: $220.92. This is stocking-up money I spent on mail-ordering food/cooking supplies I couldn’t find in the city I live in, plus money I spent on picking fruit over the summer.

Eating out (not including what I spent on eating out from my cash draw): $224.34.

Entertainment (not including what I spent on, eg, movie tickets from my cash draw): $261.38. This is about equally divided between what I spent on single-event tickets (music, theater) and what I spent on subscriptions (magazines, MLBtv, etc).

Gifts and Donations (not including giving out of cash draw): $550 (including estimate of remaining Christmas spending; current number is $486.31.) A wide variety of stuff, ranging from Christmas and birthday presents to small donations to various causes. The big ticket item in here actually turned out to be a housewarming gift I spent $75 on. I usually put money in the church collection basket out of my cash draw. After I make a housing decision next year, I want to increase my giving — right now I’m hoarding against a possible down payment.

“Gremlins” — this is the category I was most interested to study. What surprised me this year?

  • Speeding ticket: $166.25
  • VPN subscription: $39.95
  • taxes owed after filing: $31.00
  • License and registration renewal: $73.85
  • Passport renewal: $110.00

…huh. That’s $421.05. Better than I thought, and surprisingly few specific transactions.

Personal and Health: $937.89. I’m actually kind of stunned by how much I spend on this stuff when I don’t even have a gym membership! This includes co-pays for doctors’ visits and prescriptions, contact lenses (the big-ticket item), haircuts, and various visits to real drugstores, to drugstore.com, and to sephora. It seems like a lot, and yet looking back very little of it seems unnecessary (maybe some of the sephora stuff, but that was only $142 all year.)

Clothing: $792.00. Again, this seems like both a lot and not that much. Considering I’d spent nearly $0 on clothing and shoes over the preceding three years, it doesn’t seem that bad. However, this is a category where I definitely want to strategize better in 2016, so more later on that.

Car Repairs and Maintenance: $962.21. Ouch. There are a few oil changes and car washes in there, but the bulk of this stems from two “damn, your car is really old” sessions: one in the winter when it wouldn’t start and I ended up having it towed, had to get the fuel lines flushed, and replaced the spark plugs, and one in the summer to deal with a couple of issues that were causing it to make the dreaded “weird screeching noise” when I took a hard left.

Non-Car Repairs and Maintenance: $260.93. The vast majority of this — more than $200 — went on replacing my laptop’s hard drive. Well worth it. I also had a small charge at the bike shop, some dry cleaning that I didn’t pay for out of my cash draw, and I bought some waterproofing spray. Very minor stuff.

Travel: $3800 (including projected estimate of expenses for Christmas trip home). The big kahuna! Aside from rent, this was by far my biggest expense this year. I will say that about 1/3 of it went on the last-minute weekend emergency trip I made this spring. A bit less than 1/3 went to a fairly epic trip that took me to the Caribbean with friends, and to wintry Minnesota for work and to see friends, in the same week. Virtually all of the rest of it went to smaller-scale travel to see friends and family, with a little bit dedicated to gas and train tickets for some small local excursions.

Non-reimbursible professional expenses: $219.74. It’s nice to see this number so low. It represents a few yearly membership fees for professional societies along with some photocopying. This category can get really expensive if I’m not looking out — there have been years when I’ve spent hundreds on books, supplies, and non-funded conferences and research travel — but I was careful this year. Some of my work travel has been covered by, well, work, but I also was good about not buying books but asking the library to buy them instead, etc.

Total Variable Expenses: $9332.58

Total Total Expenses: $18750.30

That strikes me as a very solid number. It’s an average of $1562 a month.* No single category overwhelmed the others, and as you’d expect the largest categories were for housing, food, and transportation. The travel number is pretty big relative to the other optional categories, but considering the circumstances of my best friends and family all being in different parts of the country, I’m not bothered by it.

I will definitely be doing more blogging about these numbers in the next couple of weeks. My plan is to spend next week thinking about what went right for me this year, and the following week thinking about what didn’t work so well and what changes I want to implement (they are not all about spending less, though some are.)

[*It’s also roughly the same amount I saved. Confusing accounting practices that I implemented in 2015 prevent me from getting a precise handle on that question, but between cash savings and investment accounts I put away somewhere between $18000 and $21500, I think probably closer to the lower figure. And yes, I’m fixing the accounting practices in 2016.]

25 thoughts on “2015 Review, Part 1: How I Spent My Money This Year

  1. I think it’s great you are analyzing your categories and breaking them down. It gives you a much clearer pic of where you need to cut back (if you want) or other options. Your gas price is amazing!! Wow! I’ve been using an excel spreadsheet for budgeting, but I’ve been considering giving YNAB a try. You’d endorse it?

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I would. I don’t think it’s strictly speaking necessary, and it does cost money after a trial month (that’s an affiliate/discount link up there.) However, (a) I do think that working through their “philosophy” was helpful to reorienting my thinking in a few ways, and (b) the software is actively fun to use. It’s really pretty, and I love that it syncs with the app on my phone, and I enjoy making entries into it and looking at where I’m at. It just works really well and I don’t have to think about writing formulas the way I would in Excel. It makes zero-based budgeting extremely easy and also, again, fun, and I think that the enjoyment I’ve gotten out of using it has paid off in the fact that I actually *do* use it and it’s helped keep me on track.

  2. I’m super impressed that you’re saving 50% on a consistent basis. Perhaps with your more finely tuned accounting next year, you’ll find that it’s actually more than 50%. As you write more about this, will you look at the degree to which your spending is in line with your values? That’s something I’m trying to sort out myself.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I am totally going to look at the spending-values issue — I think that’s something I’m actively going to think more about next year, in addition to this month. Also, I doubt that my better accounting is going to show more than a 50% savings rate 🙂

  3. Wow, just wow. That number is super impressive. I want to high five you and then curl up in a ball and cry. 🙂 I know… you live in a low cost of living area, which makes a huge difference, but so many of your totals are just completely unrealistic where we live, even with extreme scrimping. But all the more awesome for you! And an extra high five for tracking everything in so much detail, and keeping those gremlins to such a minimum.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      An insanely low cost of living area. Really, it has to be one of the cheapest in the nation. So much of my success is wrapped up in my low rent and lack of car payment! But it’s helped a lot by my doing most of my own cooking, which is mostly vegetarian (=cheaper), and relying on the library for most of my media consumption.

  4. I don’t think I realized until now that you’d been using cash all year — very cool! I always tell myself that I would never do this because I want my credit card points, but I’m positive that on some level I don’t want to do it because then I’d have to face the reality of my actions every time I made a purchase. Is this the first year you’ve done it?

    Also, does your university not cover your VPN subscription? That seems unfair. (I guess I’m assuming you use it for work.)

    I know that there’s always room for improvement, but honestly I think your accounting skills this year were pretty great. 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      The VPN isn’t for work, actually. I use it to watch baseball, believe it or not. I’m not sure if I’ll renew it in 2016 — I used it less this year than I had in the past — but it’s not too expensive so maybe I’ll keep it. Regarding the cash, I started doing it in late 2014, so I’ve been at it a bit over a year. I’m hardly a purist about it, but I thought it would help keep down costs in two areas that have been consistently difficult for me, groceries and coffeeshops. With the groceries, I had a tendency to not stick to my list, but instead to throw in random things that caught my eye, which I usually didn’t need (cheese! cookies!) and which were usually expensive. And with the coffeeshops, I don’t believe that quitting lattes will let me retire early, but I did know that it was verrrry easy to buy a coffee and a snack to the tune of $7 or $8 a day, and I wanted to put a cap on that practice. I figured that using cash for that kind of thing would force me to be somewhat disciplined, while also allowing for some elasticity (if I want to drop $8 in a coffeeshop, I can, as long as I have the cash for it). It’s mostly worked pretty well, I think. I have more to say about it in a post next week.

  5. We have tried really, really hard to fight the Gremlins and each year we use Mint, it seems to get better and better at identifying them to budget for them in the future. I like YNAB, but Mint and I have been in a long-term relationship for five years, so I’m committed. Great job with the accounting and keeping expenses low! Wow!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I also really like mint, actually, but I didn’t like it for budgeting — it miscategorizes too many things and I prefer YNAB’s manual entry. I also think I’m going to improve at the gremlins over time; this year was my first year really tracking everything from start to finish, so I figured there would be a learning curve and I’ll anticipate better as time goes on.

  6. Hannah says:

    This is a great post, and I think I might replicate it in the new year. It would allow me to dissect our spending including and exclusive of the home remodel. It would certainly be helpful for me to have some annualized numbers.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I am so excited for the first time EVER to have annual numbers. There were some legitimate surprises (good and bad) for me in this breakdown, so I recommend doing it even if only to see if your perception of your spending breakdown matches your reality. So yeah, you should totally do it 🙂

  7. Kristin says:

    I love that you can break down each category. I don’t even want to break down my spending as it just feels out of control, like rent and transportation. I really should though as my expenses have dropped big time since I left Seattle and now live in Nashville.

    I also would love to come up with a game plan to utilize cash back more from credit cards, even though I’m not fan of them. I use a PayPal CC (it’s really a debit though) and earn cash back when I remember to use it.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I do use credit for a fair amount of stuff, primarily because of the rewards, but pay it off right away. The key for me is (mostly) using credit for things I have planned in advance (=meal out with friends) or for things where the price is inelastic (medical stuff, gas), while avoiding it for areas of impulse shopping (grocery store!!!)

  8. Emma says:

    I’m glad I discovered your blog and look forward to digging into your past posts 🙂 (And reading future ones!)

    I find posts like this inspiration and helpful, though I know it takes a lot of guts to put your numbers out there like that.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks, Emma. Do you have a blog of your own?

  9. Leigh says:

    This whole low cost of living area thing is so strange and interesting to me. I will have spent $24,000 on housing (includes maintenance, mortgage, property taxes, HOA dues, cell phone, condo insurance, painting, and a small bit of cell phone, internet, and electricity) this year when all is said and done. About half of that figure is my mortgage payment, so even when that is paid off, I will still spend $12,000 or so on housing each year.

    I only spent $280 on fuel so far this year 🙂 Gas has been so much cheaper this year than last year, even though I’ve driven far more.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It’s partly the low cost of living, but also, of course, partly that I rent and have a housemate. HER costs were much higher this year — she had to have a tree removed and a new roof put on (fortunately those two events were not related to each other, heh). So I guess if I were flying solo a more realistic amount for housing for me would be pushing $10000 (mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance) plus general maintenance. Still much cheaper than it would be elsewhere though 🙂

  10. I love geeking out over this stuff. Great categories. I think it’s interesting (and true for most people) that the grocery store, vacations and controlling housing costs are your three biggest areas (and the areas where you can “win” the most at a budget). Love the exercise! Congrats.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      “Geeking out” is absolutely the word. I had so much fun combing through my records for this. Glad you enjoyed! Thanks 🙂

  11. Wow, you did really well. Both at keeping expenses low and tracking your spending in big categories. I’m interested to see your continued analysis of these numbers and what you consider to be successes and what you think can be improved.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks! I’ve been trying to find a few spare minutes to write the first of my reflection posts…probably tomorrow.

      1. I see it’s up. Looking forward to it with a mug of tea 🙂

  12. Debt Hater says:

    Super detailed and loved going through all of your category breakdowns! It’s amazing how you are able to keep all of your fixed expenses so low, especially the rent and the car expenses. Having a roommate really does wonders for the rent portion. I’m thinking that even though you had to pay so much for car repairs this year, it probably balances out over purchasing and insuring a newer car.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I agree — purchasing a new car would definitely have been more expensive, especially with the sure-to-be-much-higher insurance. I’m hoping I can get another couple of years out of this car since although it’s really old, its mileage is still quite low. Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

Comments are closed.