Exactly How I Tracked Every Dollar I Spent (And Earned) For 5 Years

calculate

When I graduated college, I had $60,000 in debt. My parents carried $25,000 of that debt in their name, plus $15,000 worth of their own consumer debt on various credit cards. Shortly after I started earning an income through the military, my parents got behind on their credit card payments and their interest rate was hiked up to 29%. One night, my mom finally had the courage to tell me that she had made some mistakes handling her consumer debt and could no longer contribute to my school loans as she’d originally intended. I told her to give me the account information for her credit cards, and I built spreadsheets to plan out how I would help pay off the cards and the remainder of my student loans. I was fresh out of engineering school, so I set it up like any engineer would; I wanted to collect all of my spending and earning information because I needed to understand how much debt I could afford to pay off each month, and what the long-term timeline would be.

The lessons I learned from my mom (both good and bad) pushed me to get an early start on tracking my spending. After I paid off her debts, I started making aggressive payments ($1800/month, which was 38% of my income) toward my student loans. In the last email my mom sent to me before she passed away, she reflected on her trying debt situation, and she encouraged me to keep up my habits so that I could pay off the remainder of my student loans in just a few more years. Little did she know, I was planning to surprise her just a month later by making my final payment on my student loans, but I, unfortunately, never got the opportunity to. It’s now years later, and I want to share my story with people who have similar financial burdens to the one I had after college. I started sharing my quirky spreadsheet rituals online. Some people were intimidated, but many were genuinely interested in learning more so they could get serious about improving their own spending habits. I love sharing my spreadsheets because, whether or not we like to admit it, money and personal finance play a very significant role in all of our lives. If I can help encourage people to discuss their finances, and be honest about the money coming in and out of their lives, then I see that as a valuable use of my time.

I’ve been tracking every penny I earned and spent for five years and it has made me incredibly aware of my finances. Tracking my spending habits forced me to confront my priorities and take a firm, honest look at myself to distinguish between what I want and what I need. I now know exactly how much money I’m willing to dedicate to hobbies, living comforts, and investments. I intuitively know when I need to dial my spending back. I’ve built an emergency fund, and know what spending habits I would need to tweak if something unexpected happened. This awareness gives me the confidence I need to enjoy my life without feeling guilty about spending when I need to, or feeling anxious about being unprepared for the future. I can comfortably turn down spending temptations because I have a clear view of my bigger financial picture. I can determine what spending is right for me using my own data, rather than having to rely on other people’s dogma. I can make better, more accurate predictions about what my future will realistically look like and improve my financial decision-making with that foresight, especially when planning for investments and big-ticket moments in life.

I made a tidy version of my budget for TFD and posted it on Imgur recently. It was the most viewed post of the day on Imgur, gathering over 10,000 upvotes and 500,000 views. I think this proves that people truly are interested in getting their finances in order, and the start of the new year is a great time to make saving or paying off debt (or both) a priority.

Here is a breakdown of my budgeting routine:

I print out this spreadsheet at the beginning of every year:

spreadsheet

Every month, I populate the columns by figuring out three numbers: how much I earned (“income”), how much I invested (“assets”), and how much I paid for rent, utilities, and other bills (“cost of living”). I use this to extrapolate how much I can afford to spend (recreationally) in one month because I never spend more than I earn. 

Here is the step-by-step process:

1. Write down how much cash you earned.

2. Write down how much debt you paid off. (I color this number red.)

3. Write down how much you contributed to your appreciating assets like retirement accounts, stocks, and other investments. (I color this green.)

4. Write down how much you paid for rent/mortgage, utilities, and bills. Then decide how much money to give yourself for expenses like savings account contributions, emergency fund contributions, gas, groceries, and other costs that you wouldn’t necessarily consider recreational spending. I put all of these numbers under “total cost of living.” (I color this blue.)

5. Subtract the red, green, and blue numbers from your total income. That’s how much money you have left in your account that you can spend on recreational activities if you so choose. (I color that number gold.) 

When I have completed each month, I take all of the data and plug it into Excel. I use these Excel sheets to make “annual spending reports” for myself.

budgeting charts

I treat my finances like a personal business. I make five-year progress reports to see how well I’m doing at paying off debt, saving, investing, and growing my net worth. I then use the data to predict a more accurate budget for the coming year. You can find those spreadsheets here.

I think this system makes things easier for me because my background is in military astronautical engineering. In the world of spacecraft, everything revolves around the philosophy that you can’t control what you can’t measure. And military missions, especially those dealing with rocket science, live and die based off their ability to gain situational awareness and set up effective feedback loops. From my perspective, tracking my personal spending is simply another feedback loop. 

My experience since college has taught me that we need to think about this stuff more often than we realize. As a member of the military, my salary is set by congress and freely available to the public, so I have the unique advantage of being able to share this information comfortably and gain a reasonable understanding of how much my income will change decades into the future. But I also hope that my approach can help other people gain a better understanding of their larger financial picture.

Jason is currently a full-time graduate student. He has five years of financial & technical experience serving as a resource advisor, research engineer, and analyst for the US military.

Main image via Pixabay

Body images courtesy of Jason Lowery

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  • This is such a great tool! Thank you for sharing!

  • I never managed to build the habit of the excel spreadsheet for budgeting, but have been using YNAB for a year and a half now which also tracks / categorizes every penny I earn and spend. I love looking back on the data for the good (how much I’ve saved since I started!) and the bad (how much has gone to attending other people’s weddings) and it’s made me so much more accountable for planning the big things (like moving across the country without accumulating any debt).

    I’m looking forward to being able to look at my 5 year data one day too!

    • Francie Worley

      me too! I use YNAB and was never able to do so on an excel sheet.

  • Such a cool perspective.

  • This is wonderful! I thought I was the only weirdo left who still pencils in everything on a sheet of paper. Good to know I’m not the only one.

  • I love the passion and perspective you bring to managing your personal finances. My wife and I have been tracking income and spending since 1998. As with you, it’s been enormously helpful in making progress toward our short and long term goals. I know many find tracking spending in particular too tedious. We love it, because of the information we get. It’s so second nature now I think I’d be anxious if we stopped tracking everything!

  • Love your spreadsheets. I really like how
    you print it out at the beginning of the year and physically write on it. I think i’m going to do that and put it on the fridge. My husbands also military E5, we have kids and life only off his income. I have a blog just to keep tracking of our finances 🙂 https://payingyourselffirst.wordpress.com

  • Mrs. Simply Financially Free

    It’s amazing how tracking everything can make sure a difference. I track my own expenses but it was not until I did a year end review where I totaled my expenses with my husbands that I realized we were spending way too much on food (hello eye-opening experience). I created a new spreadsheet for the next month where we are going to track every single thing we buy at the grocery store to figure out exactly where are weakness is so we can fix it. Spreadsheets rock!

  • When I began tracking my expenses and income is when I made serious strides to financial independence. It is amazing how tracking your finances helps you to make better financial decisions. I have made my own spread sheets and like you I too print them out and pencil in my numbers then at the end of the month I update the spread sheets on my computer. Spread sheets are awesome!

  • I love this spreadsheet and I’ve spent the last several hours playing around with a copy of it. Thank you! I was wondering why Emergency Savings and Car Savings (or in my case House Savings) would go under Cost of Living? I keep wanting to see it under assets but I am admittedly new to the financial tracking game. Could you tell me why you do it this way?

    • Jason Paul Lowery

      The reason why I don’t consider my emergency savings and car savings to be an asset is for two reasons. First, that money (about $10-15K) is not making me more money. It sits patiently in a savings account or an MMF and doesn’t get put to use like the money I have invested. Second, that money is specifically intended to pay for things that I would consider to be basic costs of living (car repair & maintenance, emergency bills, rent deposit checks, etc). These are inevitable expenses that I will be responsible for, so I have a backup fund ready to handle them when the time comes.

  • Chris Durheim

    Love it. As the addage goes, you get what you measure. Thanks for sharing!

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