Despite being obsessed with all things personal finance for the last couple of years, 2016 was the first time I tracked my spending for an ENTIRE YEAR! On a related note, I also made bigger gains in my net worth than any other year. Coincidence? I think not.
How I Feel About Budgets
As I’ve mentioned before, for the last couple of years I’ve used You Need A Budget (YNAB). YNAB is a zero sum budgeting program, meaning that you allocate ONLY money that you have, and that you allocate ALL of it towards something, regardless of whether it’s spending or saving.
After some stops and starts with Mint, I downloaded a trial of YNAB in late 2014 and haven’t looked back. At this point I only spend a few minutes each month actually “budgeting”, though it wasn’t always like that. In the early stages I was trying to pay off a credit card and rebuild an emergency fund. The planning aspect of budgeting was my core focus as I needed to take immediate action. Today I’m more interested in tracking my spending and looking at trends (speaking of trends, Mapped Out Money has an excellent post about budgeting for trends, not months). I still plan, and I still technically “budget” I guess – except that budget has basically become another word for “mindful spending”.
I do think it’s beneficial for everyone to track their spending, but I’m aware that “budgeting” is a broad term that has different applications for different people. As my life has changed, my idea of what a budget should do for me has changed as well. The two extremes – planning every expense down to the penny or never checking your bank account – can both work. They can also both not work with catastrophic results.
What matters is (and feel free to say it along because you probably already know the answer!) knowing what role money, as a tool, plays in your life.
Or, put in a more graphically appealing manner:
YNAB has some great charts, like the one above. At a glance I can see how much I spent in each category, or how much I earned and spent each month, or positive and negative cashflows. And for you fellow YNAB nerds, a peek at how I arrange my categories.
The biggest categories were Rent (%), Medical (%), and Groceries (%).
Rent is a two bedroom duplex shared with my girlfriend and includes utilities. Our rent is a bit lower because our heat is broken, but living in the south we do just fine with space heaters and sweaters during the relatively short winter.
Medical this year included paying out of pocket for health insurance and a few visits and tests. Next year I will have employer sponsored health insurance, as well as dental and vision. While I have some catching up to do (I hate to admit it but I haven’t been to an eye doctor in a few years) I plan on medical expenses being about the same or lower next year.
Groceries is probably the category I struggle with the most. That total is mostly me as we make an effort to split food expenses. While $200/month per person isn’t terrible, the fact that I work in a restaurant (meaning I get 20 free meals a month) makes me question whether or not I could get this lower. One of my goals for 2017 is a combination of eating healthier AND meal planning. Restaurants came to a little over $1500 for the year – again, not terrible, but I think we could do better.
Misc. and Spending is a combination of random activities and expenses (things like cigarettes (I know I know! No excuse not to quit.), event tickets, birthdays, new furniture and electronics, etc.) Misc. also includes small reoccurring expenses like my phone bill and subscription services. Looking back these are pretty broad categories and made up around 15% of my total spending – which tells me there’s a lot of savings opportunities hidden in there.
Transportation expenses came to $570 for gas and $988 for insurance, maintenance, and other random car-related expenses. The combination of paying off my car and switching insurance (I saved a lot more than 15% by switching to Geico and not having to have full coverage). Next year I am anticipating new tires and a decent amount of preventative maintenance (I hit 100,000 miles earlier this year) but not owing money on a car has been a breath of fresh air and I’m pretty rigorous when it comes to car upkeep.
The rest, like Christmas and Vacation, are probably not accurate as I used credit card rewards especially in these two areas. This year I plan on being more thorough with recording income from credit card rewards and cash back programs.
Finally, I spent around $400 on clothes and a little over $200 on random household items (I think mostly cleaning supplies). I’ve done a lot of minimizing when it comes to my wardrobe this year and outside of work clothes (the main culprit being shoes) I think 2017 will be a light year for clothes shopping.
Net Worth Progress
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about net worth in a year in review post! At the beginning of the year I sat at -$27,231.
I ended 2016 at -$7,776.
A change of $19,455. I realize the markets have done really well in the last month or so, but the gains weren’t all in investments. I was split about 60/40 on saving and debt repayment, including paying off my car.
It’s a popular discussion in personal finance circles: Should I pay down debt or invest? And nearly every response comes down to “whatever you feel comfortable with”. Let me just say that for me (and maybe you too) it doesn’t stop there. I’m in a great place where I have a decent amount of money leftover each month to put towards these goals, and honestly, I flip flop all the time. I started the year contributing 25% of my income into my 401k. Now it’s down to 6%, and I’m making higher debt payments. I’ve changed my automatic transfers to savings at least half a dozen times. Same with the 401k. Credit card debt at 18% is a no-brainer. But student loans at 3.75%? That’s a little more challenging.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remind myself how fortunate I am to have the option of even having this debate. Of even having a choice. I can do one or the other or both. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to the point where I have that choice to make, but I’ve also been very fortunate.
It’s okay if you go back and forth between the two, to be undecided. Take comfort in being able to even make a decision, even if you struggle with it.
I’ve been excited about this post for a while now for a few reasons. One, it’s my first full year of expense tracking and it’s really interesting to go back and look at where my money went. While I kept a budget for most of 2015, the last 2-3 months of the year I stopped (at the worst time of year financially, right!?) and had to start over in January. Even though recording every purchase has definitely made me more mindful about my money, it’s obvious that there are still areas that I spent a decent amount of money that I can’t remember and seem excessive. Having several months of data and being able to look at the big picture has been extremely insightful.
Second, with my excitement about this blog and my desire to interact more with the online personal finance community my hope is that sharing my spending and budget helps keep me accountable and maybe ends up being useful for someone. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional anything when it comes to money. I’m just someone who’s passionate about the subject and excited to share what’s on my mind.
Readers, what areas are you wanting to improve on in 2017? Do you track your expenses? If so, what have you learned? If your goal is to track your expenses for 2017, share! And finally, any tips for meal planning, frugal challenges, etc.?