There are two types of people in this world, those that track their finances and those that should track their finances. I know, some people out there hate numbers. They don’t want to look at their finances. They might not even know where to look if they wanted to. If you don’t track your finances, then suddenly decide to look at them, it’s kind of like taking the Rorschach test – you might interpret them in very, uh, unusual ways. So without further ado, let’s discuss why you need to track your finances and the five most important steps to getting your finances in order.
The truth is, starting to track your finances, looking at them and beginning to understand them, is a lot like taking on a new hobby. At first it might feel foreign and awkward. But as you do it more and more the discomfort will start to fade away. You learn along the way. Some of the initial numbers or graphs you once thought were scary or hard to understand aren’t so much anymore.
Tracking your finances is probably the single most important activity in achieving your financial goals. The funny thing is, once you see it working, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without tracking!
My Story on How I Started Tracking My Finances
When I was in college I was camping in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. I was sitting around the campfire with my aunt. I don’t remember how it came up, but at some point we started talking about tracking finances. Okay, if I had to really guess how it came up, I was probably politely complaining about being a broke student. Anyway, my aunt said something that would change my life forever.
She said, “I use software to track every one of my purchases so I always know what my account balances are.”
I was floored! “What? Every purchase? What do you do, keep your receipts or something?” I quipped back. (Keep in mind this was before it was easy to use financial software that automatically downloads transactions.)
“Yeah,” she said. “I keep every receipt and once a week or so I enter them into an app.” (And I’m sure she didn’t really say “app” as that term hadn’t been popularized yet, but you get the idea.)
I was shocked. I was amazed. Who in their right mind would do this? Well I guess I wasn’t in my right mind, because I knew that as soon as the camping trip was over, I would try it for my purchases!
So began my long journey with personal finances. As some folks know, I eventually ended up developing Banktivity, and now I run IGG Software. And occasionally I even write articles about personal finances.
Start With Tracking
Tracking your finances is at the root of getting a healthy and realistic view of your money. If you don’t know where you stand, if you don’t know where all of your money is going, it is really hard to make sound financial decisions. So step one, if you aren’t yet tracking your finances, that is the place to start.
I know many of you are already using an app like Banktivity to track your finances. So what advice do I have for you? Well, here are what I believe to be the five most important steps for a sound financial picture.
Live Below Your Means (Know Your Savings Rate)
There’s a reason this one is first. If you aren’t living below your means, you are either burning through savings or going into debt. Put simply, living below your means is spending less than you take in. However, the devil can be in the details. For example, someone might bring in $3,000 a month in income. If they consistently spend less than that each month, then they are living below their means. But notice that I said, “consistently.” If you spend less than you make most months, but then have a few high spending months where you bust your budget, then you aren’t really living within your means.
Your savings rate is the metric that indicates if you are living below your means or not. A positive savings rate means you are, a negative savings rate means you are not. The trick is making sure you have a positive savings rate over the long haul. In Banktivity we automatically calculate this for the last year and past 30 days in the summary panel, so you’ll always know where you’re at.
Develop an Emergency Fund
If you don’t ever have a cash cushion, unexpected expenses can push you to use your credits cards when you shouldn’t be. Let’s say you are more or less living paycheck to paycheck. You know you have some bills coming up, but that’s okay because you get paid soon and you can use that money to cover them. Then, while driving home one evening, your car engine makes a loud pop sound and starts spewing out steam (or is that smoke?) from under the hood. Needless to say, the car isn’t going anywhere that evening, except to the mechanics via tow truck. After they assess the issue, they determine it will be about $800 to fix. Ouch! You don’t have that kind of cash lying around, but you need your car to get to work. So out comes the credit card and you tell yourself you’ll pay it off within three months. But in those three months, that means you are paying a high interest rate on the repair and you aren’t getting ahead at all. You are effectively reset to ground zero or even a little below ground! This is why an emergency fund is so important. Even a fund of just $1,000 would have prevented you from taking on that high interest credit card debt. If you don’t have an emergency fund, it should be your number one priority to build one up. Most experts recommend building up $1,000 first and then eventually trying to build up 3-6 months worth of living expenses. The idea behind the large fund is you’ll be able to weather the loss of a job without taking on any unwanted debt.
If you aren’t sure how you might prioritize building up even a small emergency fund while also paying bills, please checkout our envelope budgeting article. If the idea of a budget sends a chill down your spine, remember, a budget isn’t about spending less, it is about spending right.
Find Free Money
Before you start wandering around outside looking for $20 bills blowing down the street, let me explain what I mean by this one. By finding free money, I mean, see if your employer has any dollar matching as part of their 401k or other retirement plan. Many employers will match dollar for dollar up until a certain percentage. You won’t find a better deal anywhere. This is literally free money and you should not pass it up! There are all sorts of investment brokers and money managers that will show you how well their investments perform, but not a single one of them can guarantee the return you’ll get from just letting your employer match your retirement contribution.
Pay Off Bad Debt
Not all debt is created equal. There are all sorts of loans you can get: student loans, mortgage, car loans, credit card debt, home equity line of credit and so on. But some of these types of debt are worse than others. Credit cards are notorious for having excessively high interest rates (think in terms of 15% or 20% – ouch!) Student loans have better rates, but the amounts can be so large they can take decades to payoff. A mortgage is generally considered okay debt to have, especially if you have no other significant loans. So take a survey of your finances. What sort of debt do you have? Car loans, student loans, credit card debt? Once you know where you stand, come up with a plan to start tackling these debts. You pay a lot of money in interest for having those debts. It’s money that you could be putting towards an emergency fund, vacation or whatever. But when it goes towards interest, it is just another unwanted and seemingly inescapable expense. It’s like having a hole in your pocket and every time you put some money in, a little is lost through the hole.
Develop a Savings/Investment Plan
Once you have your fires put out, i.e. you are living below your means, you have an emergency fund and you’ve paid off your bad debts, it’s time to start thinking longer term. You need to start thinking about long term savings and investing. A good approach is to commit some percentage of your paycheck toward building up your emergency fund. If your emergency fund is swelling at the seams then consider investing your extra savings. It’s never too late to start building up that nest egg. And if you are one of those that think your company’s retirement plan and social security will take care of you, please reconsider!
People’s finances vary widely. My five steps aren’t the be all end all. It’s hard to prescribe a single approach that works for everyone. But what I hope to leave you with is the importance of changing your attitude about money. If you are too afraid to really dive into your financial situation, it’s going to be hard to make real change. You have to begin with the tracking. You have to see where each dollar is going. Then and only then will you have the right knowledge to start making the right financial decisions.