Why you should track your spending (and why Quicken sucks)

Last year wasn't good for me. Depression and anxiety reigned supreme. By objective standards, my life was pretty good. But subjectively, life sucked. Going into 2020, I decided I needed to make some changes. I'm pleased to report that the first five weeks of the year have gone swimmingly. Life is grand.

I've made three specific changes that I believe have contributed to this improvement:

  • I've rented office space outside the house. My office is for work only. I do not allow myself to play games (or engage in other shenanigans) at the office. Zero tolerance.
  • I've begun getting up early. I tend to be an early riser anyhow, but early for me means about six o'clock. This year, I'm generally rising at 4:00 or 4:30, which means I'm at the office by five.
  • I've curtailed my drinking. In fact, I didn't touch a drop of alcohol during January. I've had a few drinks in February, and it's been interesting to see how it affects me, both in the moment and then for days after.

Taken together, these three changes have mitigated my mental health problems and made me more productive. I love it. Over the next six weeks, I plan to integrate two additional changes into my life: I'm going to begin exercising regularly and I'm going to cut back on videogames. I expect this to provide an additional boost to my well-being.

There's been an unexpected benefit to my quest to become a better version of me. January was -- by far -- my best month with money in years.

My January 2020 Spending

As you know, I track every penny I spend. I've been doing this since 1993 (with occasional breaks). It's a valuable practice.

Earlier this decade -- after my divorce but before my RV trip -- my monthly spending averaged about $4000. After returning from our cross-country adventure, that number spiked. From 2016 to 2018, I was spending closer to $6000 per month. This led me to push for austerity measures last year, measures that worked. My 2019 spending averaged $4221.27 per month.

In January, I spent $3212.24. This is a fist-pumpingly fine number, one that I'm proud of. But I'm even prouder of how I achieved those cuts. My top financial goal for this year is to spend less on food. I did that. And because I didn't drink, I spent nothing on alcohol.

Because I was curious, I decided to explore my spending over the past few years. I think you might find it interesting too. Here's a snapshot:

My monthly spending

This spreadsheet shows monthly spending in select categories during the past five years. This spreadsheet does not show all of my spending. The 2016 numbers are for December only (because that's when I resumed tracking after our RV trip). The numbers for last year are only for the first half of the year. And, obviously, the numbers for this year are only for January.

Some thoughts:

  • Generally speaking, my vehicle costs are low. They were high in 2017 and 2018 because my 2004 Mini Cooper needed repairs. They were high last year because I spent $1900 to buy a 1993 Toyota pickup.
  • My entertainment spending is dominated by three specific expenses: my Portland Timbers season tickets, our subscription to Broadway in Portland, and my iTunes movie and TV purchases. The theater tickets are a one-time expense each February. The Timbers tickets (which I may not renew this year) are a one-time expense each August. I continue to work to keep my iTunes purchases under control.
  • I spend more on our pets than I thought. A lot more. I love our dog and three cats, but wow! I paid $142 to support them last month, and there were no vet expenses in January. Much of this spending is for pet-sitting when I travel.
  • Look at my food spending! Holy cats! I've been pushing hard to reduce this over the past five years, and January was a shining example of what I can get this down to if I try. Kim and I didn't feel deprived. We just made smarter choices.
  • Finally, when I'm not drinking, my spending on sin -- which includes alcohol, occasional tobacco, and legal pot -- falls off a cliff. Obvious, but also wow.

I know I'll spend more in February than I did in January. Our theater tickets renew and that's a $1500 expense, for instance. Still, I expect that I'll continue this trend toward reduced spending, and I'm glad. It makes me happy. It's yet another way that 2020 is off to a better start than 2019.

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More about...Budgeting, Apps

Effective tax rates in the United States

I messed up! Despite trying to make this article as fact-based as possible, I botched it. I've made corrections but if you read the comments, early responses may be confusing in light of my changes.

For the most part, the world of personal finance is calm and collected. There's not a lot of bickering. Writers (and readers) agree on most concepts and most solutions. And when we do disagree, it's generally because we're coming from different places.

Take getting out of debt, for instance. This is one of those topics where people do disagree -- but they disagree politely.

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Moderators and abstainers

When I was a boy, I told my father I wanted a fish. I meant that I wanted a little orange goldfish in a small bowl that might live on the kitchen counter, just like other kids have. My dad knew that. But instead of buying me a goldfish, he went to the pet shop and purchased a 20-gallon aquarium with a bunch of expensive tropical fish.

The fish were fun for a day, but I was seven or eight or nine years old. I lost interest quickly. The fish became more of a nuisance than a novelty. And, eventually, one of us three boys -- I can't remember which -- broke the tank, and then we had no more fish.

Thank you for the goldfish, Dad?

Dad was like this.

If he had an interest (or if he saw that one of us had an interest), he was "all in". This was a part of his money blueprint. He had an invisible money script that led him to dive deep into whatever interested him, to pour money into passions. No surprise, then, that I too grew up to have a similar money script myself.

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More about...Psychology

Who has the best savings account in 2020?

Another year, another search for the best savings account! That's right: It was almost exactly a year ago today that I was hunting for an online savings account so I polled you, the Get Rich Slowly readers.

Last year, Ally Bank was the clear winner. More GRS readers had their money there than anywhere else. But folks also liked Discover Bank, Synchrony Bank, and several others.

This year, it's my girlfriend who is trying to find a better bank. Kim is perfectly happy with Ally -- in fact, she's a vocal crusader for Ally, which I find amusing -- but at the same time, she's curious if she can find a better interest rate somewhere else.

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More about...Banking

The clean slate

I'm pleased to report that seventeen days into 2020, my mental health seems to be making some marked improvements. I'm happy, engaged, and productive. I'm not ready to claim victory over my anxiety and depression, but the changes I've been making -- more exercise, zero alcohol, separating work life from home life -- all seem to be helping me get back to normal.

"Let's talk about your anxiety," my therapist said to start our session a couple of weeks ago. "You say that you've always had depression but that the anxiety is relatively new. Why do you think that is?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "Kim and I have talked about it. We know it wasn't there when we started dating in 2012. In fact, I didn't have trouble with anxiety until sometime after we returned from our RV trip in June 2016."

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More about...Psychology

Selling our home was the best financial decision we have ever made

Hello! My name is Wendy Mays, and I'm super happy to share a bit of my story. In the past couple of years, my husband and I have taken several big steps to change our financial future.

From the outside looking in, it appeared we had it all: a perfect family in a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy home in sunny San Diego, California. We'd reached the pinnacle. We were living the American Dream.

Wendy's dream house

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More about...Home & Garden

My spending goal for 2020: Spend less on food

I'm pleased to report that 2020 is off to a fine start. As I mentioned in my year-end review, 2019 sucked for me. I have high hopes that this year will be a vast improvement. So far, it has been.

The biggest change is that I'm not drinking alcohol. While this is meant as a January-only test, it's possible that I'll extend the experiment. It's saving me money and making me more productive. Plus, it may be helping with my anxiety and depression. I like that. (Thanks to the GRS readers who sent me private notes about their own struggles with alcohol. I appreciate it.)

I've made other small changes this year too. While I didn't make any resolutions -- I rarely do -- I'm using the new year as a prompt to alter some of my habits, to do things differently.

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More about...Food

My 2019 year in review

On a cold first of December 2000, my car was totalled during morning rush hour. I was cruising along in the slow lane -- I drive like an old man -- when a tractor-trailer rig changed lanes into my Geo Storm. According to the guy behind me, the car spun around twice (although that seems unlikely) before slamming into a guardrail and coming to a stop.

The entire accident probably took all of five seconds but it seemed more like five minutes in subjective time. From the moment I felt the first jolt, my mind entered a state of hyper awareness. I could see everything happening around me -- the truck looming to my left, the airbag deploying, the chaos as the car whirled about, the traffic in other lanes -- but I was powerless to do anything about it.

When my vehicle came to a stop, witnesses pulled over and rushed to see if I was okay. I was stunned, but I was fine.

Over the next couple of hours -- and then days -- I went about picking up the pieces. The accident itself had been chaos, as I said, and it left a bit of a mess to clean up afterward. I had to have the car towed. The insurance company had to evaluate it. They had to issue me a check. I had to buy a new car. And so on.

Five seconds of chaos, five weeks of picking up the pieces, and then life settled into a new normal.

The left side of my Geo Storm (after accident)

My 2019 felt much the same, my friends. I'm not trying to be overdramatic (or to catastrophize), but for a lot of the past twelve months, I've felt as if I'm stuck in a spinning car, clearly able to see what's happening but powerless to stop it.

This is, of course, a product of my anxiety and depression. Objectively, my life is fine. Great, even. Subjectively, everything's been spinning and the airbag has deployed. I know this is all in my head, but that doesn't make it any better.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that I believe -- hope, maybe? -- that the wreck has come to a halt. The car that is my life has stopped spinning. Over the past month, I've been "assessing the damage". Things are messy, sure, but they're not as bad as they might have been. Now, I've slowly begun to pick up the pieces, to work toward a new normal.

Fortunately, nothing's totalled. It's a mess, but there's nothing that cannot be repaired.

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More about...Spending Wisely

When to follow the rules — and when to break them

Last night's recipe from HelloFresh was Bulgogi Pork Tenderloin. As always, the instructions were clear and easy to follow. As always, it took me about twice as long to prep things as the recipe card said they would.

HelloFresh instructionsI chopped the vegetables, boiled the rice, seared the meat, made the sauce. But when I reached the final step -- "finish and serve" -- I hit a wall of sorts.

"Ugh," I said to Kim, who was playing with our three cats and one dog simultaneously. "The recipe calls for a tablespoon of butter in the rice. I hate adding butter to rice. It makes it gummy and gross. But HelloFresh always wants me to do it."

"I like butter in my rice," Kim said, throwing a bacon ball for the dog while kicking a catnip toy for the cats. "But if you don't like it, don't add it."

I sighed. Of course, she was right: Just don't add the butter! Such an obvious solution, right? Yes — and no.

You see, I am fundamentally a Rule Follower. When I'm cooking, I follow the recipe exactly. When I'm building an IKEA desk for my new office, I follow the instructions exactly. On the road, I generally stick to the speed limit (which sometimes drives Kim nuts). I used to take pride that never once did I cheat on my homework or tests in high school and college — and I never helped anyone else cheat either.

As I said: I am, fundamentally, a Rule Follower.

This has been true when it comes to managing my money too. Since beginning my quest to become the CFO of my own life fifteen years ago, I've surrendered to wiser minds than mine. I tend to heed the time-tested "rules of money", rules like:

  • When average people like me are wondering how to invest, the best answer is usually "set up automatic contributions to an index fund".
  • When setting up a budget, it's more important to pay attention to the Big Picture than it is to fret over details. Follow the balanced money formula and you should do okay.
  • When you want to get out of debt, use the debt snowball method. If possible, pay high-interest debts first. Many folks (including me) have more success, though, if they pay off low-balance debts first. And still others use a debt snowball approach in which they start by tackling the debts with the greatest emotional weight.
  • If you're going to use them, know how to use credit cards wisely. If you're unable to use credit without digging yourself into debt, then throw away the "shovel".
  • And so on.

Following these rules has proved profitable. These "rules" are rules for a reason. Because they work. They allow folks to get out of debt and build wealth. Crazy, right?

Here's the thing, though. As effective as these financial rules have been for me, as much as I like strictly following a recipe, I've also come to realize that sometimes it makes sense to (gasp!) break the rules.

The challenge, then, is determining when to follow the rules — and when to break them.

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More about...Planning

Different strokes for different folks

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped in to visit Prosperity Pie Shoppe, a local dessert and coffee place co-owned by Luna Jaffe. Jaffe is a sort of wonder woman who blends art, psychotherapy, and financial education into something she calls "wild money". The space that Luna and her partners own isn't only a source of tasty treats; it's also a studio for money coaching.

Over pie and coffee, I chatted with Luna and one of her money coaches, Dryden Driggers. We shared our backgrounds with each other and talked about the direction we'd like to take our work. I think the three of us have a lot of shared viewpoints and visions. I imagine we'll find ways to work together in the future.

Prosperity Pie Shoppe

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More about...Psychology