Lessons Learned and Results From a Full Year of Tracking Expenses

Taking the Hypothetical Plunge

I’ve mentioned many times in my monthly financial independence updates that for 2019 I decided to track all of my expenses for the entire year. Although quite arduous at times, this was a great experience for me and gave me insight on my actual spending and where my money goes each month.

You may have noticed that I talk very little about budgeting and that’s because I have never felt the need to budget. I am naturally frugal which means that I often have more trouble forcing myself to spend money on things (as Whitney can attest to) than I do trying to limit my spending. I’ve experimented with creating theoretical budgets in the past but never felt the need or desire to actually implement them. To me an “anti-budget” makes much more sense, is less stressful, and is generally how I manage my finances. Essentially this is just a method of saving a designated amount off the top of each paycheck and only using whats leftover for monthly expenses. Since I don’t follow a traditional budget, I’ve never spent time tracking my spending (except for on our international trips) either. Nonetheless, my financial independence number is based on my current expenses and estimates and predictions for the future spending, so I decided that tracking my expenses would be a good idea to see just how close the actual numbers are to my estimates.

This is an idea that I had considered a few different times in the past but always decided against doing because I thought it would be too much hassle. Most of the hassle comes from the fact that Whitney and I keep our finances separate, which means we often pay for things together and then settle up the difference later. It’s not as simple as just looking at my Mint.com account and adding all of the transactions. In 2019, I finally decided to go ahead and do it since I knew I’d probably be reaching financial independence near the middle of the year, and having more accurate spending numbers would be valuable.

Lessons Learned from Tracking Expenses

Here are some thing that I learned from this experiment that will certainly benefit me in the future.

  1. My estimates were surprisingly accurate.

When I started tracking my expenses I was nervous that I had been underestimating my monthly expenses all along and that this new information would change all of my projections for the future. In reality though, this was not the case. I ended the year at $310 less in total expenses than what my estimates were. I was happy to be slightly under my prediction, but even more surprised with how close the numbers actually were!

2. Tracking my expenses made me think twice before making a purchase.

Although I don’t think tracking my expenses altered my spending habits to any meaningful degree, I did realize that I often thought more about if I really needed the thing I was about to buy before I made a purchase. The main reason for this is that I knew it would mean an extremely small amount of additional work for me later with entering the purchase on my spreadsheet. Keeping track of expenses will most likely make the majority of people spend less than they normally would, knowing that they’ll have to think about that purchase again in the future, and potentially make them avoid expenses that aren’t perceived as needed or valuable.

3. Traveling internationally and domestically is not nearly as expensive as I thought.

In total Whitney and I spent 4 months traveling internationally (in Europe even) and about 2 months traveling domestically in 2019. That’s half the year staying for short periods in Airbnbs and hotels, which are undoubtedly more expensive than the cost of typical housing in nightly terms. This combined with eating out at least once per day (often more than once) and various sightseeing and activity expenses led me to believe that spending much of the year traveling would be expensive. While my expenses were usually highest on the months that we were traveling, they weren’t nearly as high as I had anticipated, and they still fit nicely in my yearly expense estimate. This means that long international trips can definitely fit into my financial plans in the future.

4. Housing and utilities account for a big chunk of my expenses.

Not only is short term housing (especially less than a week) more expensive, but as a travel therapist I also have to maintain a tax home. That means that for the entirety of the year I was paying double living expenses. Normally this isn’t a huge deal when staying in one place for three months at a time on a travel assignment because monthly rent prices are often reasonable, but when paying nightly housing prices all over Europe, this expense adds up really quickly.

5. I was right about tracking expenses being a bit of a hassle.

I found myself spending more time than I thought I would recounting what I had done the prior day or two when entering expenses on my spreadsheet. I also found that thinking I may have forgotten something or would forget something in the future caused me some stress and anxiety. For most people this probably wouldn’t be an issue, but when it comes to numbers, I like for everything to be perfect even down to the cent, which is accomplished to my own detriment at times.

Where is My Money Going? The Results!

I had some trouble organizing expenses into categories that made sense to me especially with how variable my life is sometimes, but I did my best. Here are the results.

2019 expenses pie chart

Housing/utilities 44.14%
Groceries 6.54%
Restaurants/Entertainment 14.30%
Gas/transportation/Car repairs 12.23%
Health/Wellness/Medical 1.72%
Student loans 2.64%
Insurance/personal property taxes/ PT licenses 8.06%
Gifts/Misc. 10.38%

Quite the Surprise

Some of these numbers were shocking to me. I had no idea that over 70% of my expenses can be attributed to essentially housing, restaurants, entertainment, and transportation. I also didn’t realize how little I actually spend on my health and wellness. We didn’t frequent many gyms (outside of the ones included for free at hotels) while traveling and that really shows in the numbers. In addition, I would have guessed that my spending on groceries would be at least 10% of the total since I often feel like we spend quite a bit each week at the grocery store. I did have to remind myself that this wasn’t exactly a normal year with the 6 months of traveling for leisure mixed in. In prior years when we spent the majority of the year working, the transportation and restaurants/entertainment percentages would have been much less, and money spent on groceries would be higher.

I’ve continued to make minimum payments on my student loans while choosing to invest instead which is why the percentage for student loans is so low. Although I’ve reconsidered that choice multiple times in the past several years, I think I’m in it for the long haul. With about four times my student loan balance in assets at this point, I know that at any point I could sell some equities and pay off the entire balance in one fell swoop, which gives me peace of mind.

Conclusion

I’m really glad that I bit the bullet and tracked my expenses for the entire year. It gave me valuable insight on my current expenses and how these might change in the future when I settle into a more stable lifestyle… maybe even with kids (O_O). I learned a lot and this made me more certain that I definitely don’t need to adhere to a strict budget to keep my expenses under control. It also made me realize that stressing myself to keep track of every little expense isn’t worth it, and that I won’t be doing it again in the foreseeable future!

Do you track all of your expenses? If so what have you learned from it?

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