Lessons Learned from 10+ Years of Expense Tracking

I started blogging about personal finance in 2008, but I’d been tracking my spending since almost immediately after I start my first Big Girl job.  Those first few years of budgets were not very detailed – at that point, Chad and I were living together (in sin, as my Catholic great-Aunt was fond of reminding us at the time) but not married, my taxes were uncomplicated (W-2 + standard deduction), and my focus was on debt payoff, not savings.

(I have a thought that someday,  I will go back through those old budgets and tax returns so that I can see a full picture of my taxes, savings rate, etc. over time.  I have a strange idea of “fun.”)

Still, there’s enough data there that I can cobble together a reasonable timeline of expenses, savings, and income.  Today’s focus will be spending, mainly because a.) That’s the data I have most readily available, b.) No one wants 20,000 words on my full financial picture, at least not all at once, and c.) Though I have no shortage of money topics to talk about (7 years is a LONG TIME to only talk about money to yourself), I might as well wring out as many blog posts out of a topic as possible.

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If you ignore my apparent inability to use Excel charts (oh hai random-40000 down there at the bottom), you can see that I used to spend WAY LESS than we do now.  BUT. Prior to 2010 or 2011, these really only include my living expenses. 2010 – 2012 was when Husband was in grad school and we lived on only my income + a tiny grad student stipend (he started working full-time again in mid-2012). Kiddo #1 was born in 2014, we bought a house in 2015 (that spike is the six-figure down payment), and Kiddo #2 was born in 2016.

So, holy heck, right?  Did we just start going crazy once we were DINKs again in 2012?

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Well, yes. But also, no. There’s a lot of housing and kid-related costs built into those numbers. So while it looked like we had tripled our spending, we also had some major life changes. But also – yes, there were definitely areas where we started spending more. Let’s dig into that “Other” category.

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“Debt” here refers to a car payment I paid off in 2007 and student loans that I paid off in 2014. (Mortgage debt, of course, has already been removed as “Housing”).

What are these unusual expenses?

  • Travel
  • New furniture (we moved in 2013 and bought a couch and dining room set, and we bought more when we moved into our house in 2015)
  • Charitable giving (simply because it tends to be very variable)
  • Car purchases (2012 and 2016)
  • A Yoga Teacher Training I took in 2013.

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Standard includes expenses we pay for every year:

  • Utilities – These increased as we moved – to larger homes or as previously-covered utilities became our responsibility, and in 2013 when we splurged on unlimited data plans (SO UNNECESSARY BUT SO AMAZING).
  • Food – We’ve added more people! I also feel like we’re eating better than we did before having kids (way fewer cereal-for-dinner nights).  When we only had 1 kid, we went out to eat A LOT, but it has calmed down now since we’re being more conscious and also because entertaining 2 kids in a restaurant is NOT ENJOYABLE.
  • Gas/Auto maintenance – We were able to carpool for a while, but Chad’s new job was in the opposite direction from my job. May decrease slightly for 2019 as my new job is closer to home.
  • Gifts – Increased slightly, lots of weddings, lots of younger cousins graduating from high school/college. Decreased when we stopped doing family gift exchanges (except for kids).  This is one area I might look to increase in future years.
  • Medical – Again, more people (and the new ones go to the doctor a lot more often). Plus we now have a HDHP.
  • Household/Toiletries – Increased, especially since we’ve added maintenance responsibilities. This may also include a slight increase from buying the kids toiletries.

And while a lot of this seems like little more than, “Wow, I am pretty anal about tracking myexpenses,” it’s also an opportunity for me to be mindful about our spending and how it changes.

E.g. When I see that our food spending increased by $2000 after we had kids, I have to examine the drivers – am I buying more convenience &/or snack foods now?  Is that consistent with my values as a working mom?  I think the answer is yes, since I am trying to claw back time that is better spent with my kids rather than chopping up lettuce by hand.

Or it’s an opportunity to explore how it could or should change in the future – Do I want to commit to spending more – on organic versions of our favorite foods?

And I’m hardly the first to write about the myth of stable spending, but I certainly see it in my sample set. Of course, if we retire early, we may not choose spendy vacations or new cars or handmade furniture – it certainly seems possible to maintain a consistent spending rate.   I’m sure there are people who do – Mrs. Frugalwoods, for all the controversy about transparency, certainly has joyful simplicity down pat.  I fear I am not so noble, and I worry about feeling constrained in retirement. Ultimately, I believe these “unusual” expenses will occur, whether they come in the form of vacations or home repairs.  It only makes sense to anticipate them.

Do you track and examine your spending (maybe not over 10 years)?  If you’re of a FIRE mindset, how do you plan for unusual expenses that might crop up after retirement?

3 Responses

  1. My tracking has been inconsistent over the years. I have a 4 year hole from 2011-2014, during which time our spending more than doubled, but we also moved and bought a house and combined finances during that time, so…. ?? I can’ find data for 2018, which is unsurprising given that I traveled a ton in the summer for work, then had a baby, but I thought I tracked it for half the year?

    So, I’m clearly not anal about it. I do like to know about where we are at, both to check it with my values and have a semblance of what our spending might be like in coming years.

    I’m not really of the FIRE mindset, in that I’m not close enough to worry about these sorts of details. Anything I report about how close I am to FIRE is subject to big error bars. I imagine I would just be extra conservative to cover unusual expenses.

    • Honestly, I just like playing in Excel and I think that’s the only reason I’ve kept it up for so long. Something about it is really soothing to me.

      We’re in a weird place on our FIRE path. If we were our best frugal selves, we could theoretically retire today, if I don’t count our mortgage. But we do have a mortgage, and I don’t really want to quit working… most days. I tend to go into a FIRE planning mode when I’m having a bad day, when balancing work and home (and now school… who knew elementary schools were downright hostile to working mothers?).

  2. I used to track very granularly for many years but I gave it up in the pursuit of simplifying and reducing the amount of time I spend on money management. I do wish I had the info though, just because I like noodling the numbers and seeing how they change over the years. Though … I KNOW our spending has shot up over the years so maybe it would just make me feel bad 😀

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