Alicia got me thinking again, as she often does: why do I like to track spending? I don’t do it down to the penny, although I might try that for a month this year just to see if it’s more valuable to me than I think it would be. But I do it in a general way, keeping track via YNAB (affiliate link with $6 discount) and I have found it helpful.
The major reason people usually give for tracking is to discover where the “leaks” are in their household spending. I think a lot of people are stunned to find out how much they’ve been spending on groceries or coffee or what have you. But I’ve been pretty strictly limiting myself to a set amount of food/incidentals cash for months now, and don’t feel the need to drill down into the specifics of it as long as I keep to the right amount of cash.
Personally, I’ve found tracking helpful for two reasons. The first is that it got me to focus on some of my bills that I knew were too big (cell phone, specifically) and really look at how much they were draining from my potential free-spend money or savings.
The second is that I learned that there is no such thing as a normal week or month. Pretty much every single month, something has come up. Medical co-pays, computer repair, car repair, the books I needed to buy for class, a plane ticket, meals out while I’m traveling, a gift or three…. The reason changes every month, but the result is almost always the same: I find myself right up against the limit of my budget, or even dipping into next month’s money. (This is after I hit my very aggressive savings targets; my salary is very reasonable for a single person in a low cost of living town, and if I weren’t having so much withheld for retirement and put straight to debt/emergency fund/travel savings accounts, I would have plenty left over every month.)
When I first started tracking earlier this year, I felt like I spent a lot of time saying “this is unusual, this is a one-time thing,” but now I’ve said that, or variations on it, so often, that I just have to give up: there will almost always be something. The months where there’s something actually left over (looking like November will be one of them, unless something goes dramatically wrong in the next three days) are going to be rare. So the lesson I’ve drawn from tracking over the course of eight months is really just that old chestnut: save as much as you can in advance because you’re going to have rain, every month. A normal month is a month with unexpected expenses; it’s the smooth-sailing months that are weird and rare. To me that’s a useful enough takeaway to have made the whole enterprise worth it.