Help me track my income and spending.
June 8, 2012 11:38 AM   Subscribe

Turn me into a god damn personal finance Tyrannosaurus -- I need ways to track spending on the go, Mint best practices and statistics tips for the always-late bill payer.

I'm in my early 30s, in NYC, and I need to track my finances better, as I feel I've been in the red for god-knows-how-long. The reason I say that "I feel" is that along with some money in a bank-managed brokerage IRA that I can't touch for a few decades, I inherited some cash a couple years back -- around $50K -- that I've been using piecemeal to supplement my income so that I don't rack up credit card bills as I buy everything on my credit card and pay it in full at the end of the month. I generally keep about $5K in checking and the rest in a savings account which my bank upgraded to the "premium" sort. I haven't figured out what that involves outside of a waived monthly fee and not having to stand in line at the bank. The interest rate sucks, but I've asked around and no one's got a better one. Plus, I've been banking with these guys for over ten years now and they're generally pretty good to me. I haven't made much of a dent in the cash (uh, I hope) but I still don't like the idea of using that money with any regularity when I make what I consider to be pretty decent money (~55K starting next week.)

Due to anxiety (that I now have the upper hand on, mostly) and spending a good chunk of my adult life living hand-to-mouth I'm really, really bad at keeping track of financial things: bills are usually late, I couldn't tell you how much money I spend in a given week, and both the building (to whom I pay maintenance) and the mortgage company have sent me more than one threatening letter and I pay two months of maintenance/mortgage in one shot. Also, I will do careless things like accidentally use my bank's bill-pay system to wire the sum of my mortgage (say, $500) to the electric company. Again. All this throws off the stats in Mint, making it a pain in the ass to construct a budget.

So, so far I've:
Signed up at and gone through the last three months (that's how much my bank released, I guess) categorizing everything.

Put recurring bill payment alerts on my Google Calendar that I delete once I pay the bill.

Made sure I know exactly where the checkbooks, envelopes and stamps are (can't use bill pay for maintenance because they keep misplacing the bank-issued check.)

Downloaded Trakr for the iPhone to keep track of cash/credit spending only to discover it's a little too simple.

What I need:
To know if the general way I'm keeping my money (small amount in checking, large in savings) isn't terribly wrong for how much I make. I have investments so I'd rather keep that chunk liquid just in case of emergency or to sweeten the downpayment on the next house if I manage to sell this one.

As I mentioned above, for the better part of a decade, I have been buying everything on my credit card and paying the balance at the end of the month. I have a "premium" credit card from my bank -- I had a regular one from my bank before -- with all sorts of bonuses I never use (although I can exchange the points for airfare, which is nice, even if I only fly once or twice a year) and an interest rate that is irrelevant as I never carry a balance over. Should I find a new one? Does it matter? I buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, should I look into that card? I really have no idea how this works outside of the basics.

Tips on best practices in Mint. What should I do, for instance, when I accidentally pay $500 to the electric company (to whom I usually pay ~$75/month)? Or when I pay several mortgage payments in one shot?

A good iPhone app for tracking this stuff. Is Mint's good? Is it secure? I've always been wary of putting any sort of banking-related app on my phone.

Somewhere to actually manage the budget. Do I do it directly through Mint? Or in an Excel file?

Any other tips and tricks would be great.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I advise going back to a full paper system. Each day when your mailed paper bills come in, toss them in a "bills basket". On the 1st and the 15th each month, absolutely, write the checks for all bills received by hand, stamp the envelopes, and mail them.

Write the payee and the amount in a small notebook, one page per month.

There is only one exception to this process: check your credit card online anytime you want and pay as much as you can online anytime you want, all month long, and write any such payments on that month's page in the notebook. Each month, write the total of all the bills paid.

With this system you will be completely straightened out in under two months.
posted by caclwmr4 at 11:51 AM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ambivalent as to whether I should answer this because my recommendations are to how to keep your bills in order/pay them off in a more organized manner (vs the budget part of your questions). I'm answering this as a person who has been phenomenally disorganized in the past few years.

If you are paying your CC debt off on time, then 1) you may want to look into CCs that offer points (I use the Amazon Card because it translates into $ at the end of the year for me), and 2) just giving some of these companies access to your CC to deduct the bill.I wouldn't do this with every type of company, but Con Edison and other recurring bills for necessities shouldn't be a problem (monitor it).For me this works out well because I have to pay those bills as it is, now they are sent on time, and it adds up to points that pay of a few bills when the points are cashed out through the CC.

Also, it sounds like you are challenge by mailing in the checks. I've switched over to ING online because 1) it is a small amt interest, but more interest than local banks offer (YMMV), 2) $ can be moved over easily between local banks and ING, 3) they have a feature that is automated,namely, writing checks. You fill out the info, address,amt, and every month go back in/fill out the first few letters/review it/and they mail it away for you, including stamping the envelope (don't know how I survived pre-automated days...stamp? Envelope? Everything would be late). I'm sure you could use other online banks for this, too, just see if they also offer those features. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 11:55 AM on June 8, 2012

I love Mint. I signed up back in January, and it's now my second most obsessively-checked website/app (after MeFi, of course). I've actually got the tab open and refreshing the balances right now.

I think its budget-maker thing is great. One really good feature it has is the option to roll over balances if you don't spend as much (or too much) one month. I think this would be helpful for you when you send 500 bucks to the electric company. (Your description makes it sound like you just let that credit ride rather than try to get a refund issued?) The rollover would mean that it would keep track of that $500 bucks based on the average budget you set of $75, and (assuming you're not sending the electric company anything extra every month) it wouldn't start pinging that budget again until about 6 months down the line. If you screw something up, you can always categorize the transaction as "exclude from Mint" and just enter the line item in by hand (click "add a transaction") to keep the debits/credits in order.

All this is to say: spend some time playing around with Mint. There are a lot of tools, which can be overwhelming at first, but the more time you spend with it the more you'll be able to make it work for you. Mint will also (if you tell it to) send you an email and/or text alert to remind you when it's time to pay bills.

As for security: let's assume someone gained access to your Mint account. All they would have is the ability to look at how much money you have. You can't interface directly with your bank via Mint, so you don't need to worry about people transferring money anywhere from their Mint account.

And try to be a little more careful when using online bill pay so you cut down on errors. I double and triple check EVERYTHING before clicking submit: amount, payee, account it's drawing from, etc, because I can't afford right now to make a mistake and have a large amount of money tied up for a while. Go slower and read everything carefully; you're sure to cut down on the goofs.
posted by phunniemee at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2012

I used to pay bills late. Now I don't pay them at all - and you don't have to either.

Almost all bills can be paid automatically. You give them your credit card or bank account (for paying credit card bills, it has to be your bank account). They send you a bill. Unless you tell them otherwise, they then debit your bank account or credit card. Most places will bill you on the due date, so you actually hold on to the money longer than you would if you had to mail a check in a week before the due date.

There are two possible downsides:

1) Since you don't have to take action to pay the bill, it might psychologically feel easier to spend money, and you might end up spending more.

2) You still have to make sure there's enough money in your bank account to pay the bill, and you might be less likely to check the balance if you're not taking a specific action.

Only you can decide whether the convenience is worth those possible downsides.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:03 PM on June 8, 2012

I use each service's own automatic billing system rather than the bank's bill-pay. Mine all hook into my checking account, I'm not sure if they accept credit cards instead. My gas, electric, cable, phone, student loans all provide this service and they send me an email telling me that the charge has gone through each month. This way the only thing I have to remember to pay by check is the rent.
posted by fbo at 12:05 PM on June 8, 2012

Two pieces of input for you:

Automate every inflow/outflow to and from your checking account to the extent you possibly can. If you can't conveniently do this with your bank and/or credit card, change them. This way you never will miss a payment and you never will overpay. It narrows your focus to making sure that you have enough money in your checking account each month to meet your commitments. You don't need to get stuff to the mailbox, write checks, lick envelopes, or anything else.

Next, zealously track your expenses. I mean, like a freak. Carry an envelope with you in which you save all your receipts, and if you don't get a receipt for something, then write the amount spent, what you spent it on, and the date on the back of the envelope. At the end of each month, get your bank statement and credit card statement and this envelope, make sure that covers the universe of expenses, and total it all up and see what you're spending your money on. It is eyeopening. Do this for six months, divide the total by six, and you'll have a very good idea of what your budget should be. (This helps resist the temptation to say, "Oh, that was a one off expense that I won't pay again," since each month you always have some of these). Also, this practice helps make you really mindful of where your money goes, and it's valuable for that reason alone.

Getting a new credit card is sort of a small detail. The main thing (IMO) is that it works with these other priorities--ease of automated payment and ability to know where your money is going. You might find it desirable to get an Amazon card, or some other card, but it's not that crucial.
posted by MoonOrb at 12:06 PM on June 8, 2012

We started using You Need A Budget (YNAB) about 5 months ago and it has had an enormous positive impact on the way we spend our money.

I've used Quicken and others like it before, and that's okay and all, but as you note, doesn't really help with budgeting, especially for those infrequent-but-big expenditures. YNAB does. All it does is budget, in fact.

There's a free trial period and tons, tons, tons of video tutorials and online classes. Even if you don't end up using the software, the budgeting concepts are totally solid and will help you sort stuff out. Yes, it takes a bit of time to set up and keep up with - I spent more than a few hours setting it up and now spend about 10 minutes every morning going over yesterday's purchases and making sure the budget is in line.

As for the regular bill-paying stuff, as others have pointed out, check your bank for bill paying services or with your creditors for auto-debit stuff. Very useful.
posted by agentmitten at 12:10 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

You need to also talk to a financial planner. they will have work sheets who can help you understand your expenses, goals and how to meet them. I used Edward Jones because of a family connection but your mileage may vary.

Part of this is the immediate monthly budget, the other part is understanding that fitting long term goals is part of that monthly budget.
posted by iamabot at 12:11 PM on June 8, 2012

Oh, some advice for Mint - You can set it up so they send you an email every week with your balance. Every time I get that email, I log in and review all of the following:

transactions for the week, relabeling the categories if necessary
monthly budget, and adjust as necessary (it gets copied for the next month automatically)
the pie chart graph of how much you're spending in each category

I don't delete or mark-as-read the email until I have done this.
posted by fbo at 12:15 PM on June 8, 2012

Mint has a much lower barrier to entry than an Excel file, paper reciepts that you have to carry around, etc, provided you are almost always on the internet, so I'd recommend sticking with that unless you really like paper.

- Mint can actually set up reminders for your bills itself, so you can cut out the Google Calendar section.
- it's going to be easier to have one system, not two, so I recommend the Mint iphone app. It's as secure as the website, basically.
- switching credit cards is not important. I wouldn't do that until you have everything else set up just right and you start wanting the points and shit.
- I have bills that literally cannot be auto-paid, so it's possible you do too. I'm not sure what you mean by 'they keep losing the bank issued checks' - is there something you can look into there? Auto payment is by far the easiest fix to your problems, which are not lack of money but of organisation.

I suggest that you go ahead and set up budget amounts in Mint. Average the three months of data you have, and set that as your expected spend in each category. For bills that you sometimes pay in two month amounts, set the budget amount to carry over. (Assuming that you are caught up on them all at this moment, that will work). Now add a couple budgets for annual/unexpected stuff like medical expenses, christmas gifts, insurance payments, and make them all carry over. Unless you can immediately see a problem area, you can just go ahead and keep spending as normal for another couple of months to verify that the numbers match up, then start deciding whether you are ok with spending that much on food/etc.

More generally, small amount in checking and large amount in savings sounds right to me - that's how I do it. My checking account goes down to about zero each month, and I have a few ING savings accounts.

If you want somewhere to track what you are doing and get regular feedback from other people, you might like to join the forums at Get Rich Slowly, specifically to open your own journal thread in the Fiscal Fitness Journal section.
posted by jacalata at 12:53 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to use my debit card for most expenses and I could check my bank account at any time to know exactly how much I had left to spend before my next paycheck. After I switched to primarily paying everything with my credit card and paying it off at the end of the month (yay travel rewards!), the biggest challenge was tracking what I was spending vs how much money I had left to cover it.

My solution was to use a savings account attached to my checking account as a "holding area" for money earmarked for the credit card payment. Every few days I look at how much money I charged to my credit card, then go over to my checking account and move the equivalent amount into my dedicated savings account, which will be used at the end of the month to pay the credit card bill. That way I can see exactly how much I'm spending and how much I have left. makes it easy to compare the accounts at a glance so I can quickly tell if I have enough set aside to cover the credit card bill.

Setting up and managing a budget through Mint has also been very useful in keeping an eye on things. In fact, because of Mint I discovered a couple of recurring payments that had been hitting my accounts far more often than they should have been. By cancelling those I was able to immediately save over $100 a month that had just been slipping away in drips and drabs. Thank you Mint!
posted by platinum at 2:59 PM on June 8, 2012

Put recurring bill payment alerts on my Google Calendar that I delete once I pay the bill.

Automatic digital bill pay is a miracle that came upon the earth in the early 2000s. With it, you can set up automatic payments for the minimum amount due, or even the full balance. Then pay more when you have time to review your finances. That way, even if you take no action (lose all your stamps, etc.), you still won't get stuck with a wasteful late fee. All your personal finance energy can go to more interesting pursuits like your budget and investment strategy. It is a thing of beauty.
posted by salvia at 7:27 PM on June 8, 2012

I realize this might not be financially feasible for you, but here's what I did about my chronic last-minute oh-crap-im-late oh-hell-my-account-is-overdrafted-and-pulled-from-savings bill payments: I set myself up for success tracking-wise, and then I started running a month ahead.

Specifically, these steps, assuming you elect to start immediately:

Step one: make an Excel spreadsheet with all the monthly bills you pay regularly or bi-monthly or every six months or every year, along with the due dates. For credit cards with moving due dates (so aggravating!) call them up, find out the earliest possible due date you will ever have in a given month, then cut four more days off and call that the billing date.

Step two: for the rest of the month, pay your bills, but make sure you pay with a credit card or cash or bank check or money order, because the next steps only work if you have no outstanding checks uncashed by their recipients on the last day of June.

Step three: on the last day of June, don't spend any money. Move whatever money into/out of your checking account that you need to set it at a nice, round number, whatever number you believe (perhaps naively) will cover all your expenses for July. Best if you assume you'll spend more than you actually do. Let's say you assume your monthly nut is $2,000 all told, so set it to $2,500. The important thing is that the number is equal to or less than your paychecks for the month of July.

Step four: on the first day of July, pay all of your bills for the month, period. Put the amounts you paid in the excel spreadsheet in bold for the month. Where an amount isn't known yet, estimate. For auto-debit bills, note the amount that will be paid, but don't bold them until those auto-payments come out. For checks, bold them when they clear (but again you want to avoid checks, or at least send them out on the first day of the month.)

Step five: during July, try to keep your non-essential purchases to a minimum, and don't use cash, because you want to track your purchasing via bank statements. Also during July, as your paychecks come in, deposit them into your checking account.

Step six: on the last day of July, look at the total of your deposits (mostly your paychecks), and look at the total left in your checking account. If you made a good guess as to your total monthly outflow (when you put in $2,500 or whatever number you chose) your checking account should equal your total deposits (paychecks et al) plus whatever money from the original $2,500 you didn't spend.

If your checking account balance is more than your total deposits...

Step seven: transfer everything over $2,500 (or whatever the amount was) into savings.

If your checking account balance is less than your total deposits...

Step seven: transfer enough money from savings to bring your checking account balance back up to $2,500 (or whatever the amount was.)

Regardless of which step seven you chose...

Step eight: total up your unpredictable but recurring costs (like gas or bus fare, and certainly groceries and housewares) and use those initial monthly numbers to set an initial budget for those items in August.

Step nine: realize that your groceries, gas/transit and housewares costs are

Step nine: still on the last day of July, you now take a good, honest look at your spending in July, and figure out if $2,500 (or whatever) is too much/too little of a budget for you. Adjust the balance in your checking account accordingly, again to a nice round number...that is equal to or less than the total amount of your paychecks for August.

Step ten: On August first, pay all your bills, just as you did in step four. This time, you also plug your budgets for groceries, gas, and so on (from step eight) into excel -- just the recurring unpredictable stuff, not the iPad you bought or the new shoes you bought or the Starbucks you bought or the dinners you ate out -- and total up all your fixed and estimated recurring bills. Congratulations, you now know how much you NEED to spend per month.

Step eleven: Look at that number, the amount you NEED to spend per month...and look at the amount you ACTUALLY SPENT in July. That is your discretionary spending for the month of July. It might hurt to look at it, but look at it.

Step twelve: Look at the $2,500 (or whatever), subtract your NEED to spend total for August, and you end up with the amount of discretionary spending you have for the month of August. It might be $10, $100, $1000...or it might be a negative number. Depending on what it is, you can either spend like a loon, or save a lot of money, or barely scrape by, or start calling and canceling your cable and satellite radio, or whatever.

What have you gained, on the first of August, that you didn't have today when you first read this comment?

#1: Control and knowledge. You know where you stand financially;

#2: A routine for paying bills at the beginning of the month, that includes tracking autopay bills and bills you can't pay until later;

#3: You are now paying August's bills with money earned in July, instead of hoping the checks in August will come in soon enough to cover August's bills as they come due -- which means no accidental overdrafts, no need to pay several times per month, and no where's-my-paycheck stress;

#4: A true understanding of where and how you spend your money, and how much money you do -- and can, with some changes -- have in profit at the end of the month, plus the knowledge of what kind of changes you can make ("do I REALLY spend that much at Starbucks?") to get in a better position financially;

#5: A single months' financial cushion, because if your paychecks stop coming at the end of August, you still have August's money to pay all your bills for the month of September.

This approach, not only the tracking, but the idea of paying July's bills on June's income and whatnot, completely changed my relationship with money and bills, and turned me from someone like you into a financially functional adult. I've been doing it for more than two years (repeating step five through step twelve), it takes less than an hour total for the two days I have to deal with it (although the first few months took a lot longer), and it has turned money into a complete non-event for me. I adore it as a system, and I'm sorry I haven't documented it better than this, but perhaps someday I will.

Oh, and one last thing: as nice as Mint and such are for giving you information quickly (for instance, I can pull up the "how much money did I spend on gas last month" number in a jiffy), working with Mint and Quicken and such to categorize stuff is just a drag. With my system, you have all your known expenses tracked consistently and nicely, and you have the freedom to spend your discretionary funds for the month without tracking, and without guilt...although if you have a bad month, you can still go back and use Mint et al to see what you spent all that money on. For someone like me, who doesn't mind organizational stuff provided I can do it quickly, moving from a track-everything-in-system-x method to a track-known-stuff-and-generate-a-discretionary-total method was a huge relief...and made me more effective at spending less money.
posted by davejay at 9:32 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Automatic digital bill pay is a miracle that came upon the earth in the early 2000s. With it, you can set up automatic payments for the minimum amount due, or even the full balance.

Note that while automatic digital bill pay is a miracle for convenience and not missing payments, it sucks for keeping you aware of what your bills actually are and where your money is going, so be sure to at least write down and look at the numbers for your autopays every month, so you can feel the pain of it and make sure you really need to spend it.
posted by davejay at 9:34 PM on June 8, 2012

~ Check out the Get Rich Slowly guide to money

~ I've never used it, but many personal finance writers/bloggers have recommend Pear Budget.

~ My on-line bank (actually a credit union) sends almost all bill-payments by electronic transfer, so printed checks are a rarity, and therefore never lost by the payee. Maybe your bank's bill-paying service isn't set up to do what you need it to? You could take a look at the competitors and watch demos of their bill-paying service. I've stopped using Mint because I can do the same thing now through my CU's site.

~ We keep 2 checking accounts, one is only for bill paying. I've automated all our bills and just check each statement against the next payment when the bills come in. Likewise, paychecks are split by direct deposit into the 2 accounts, so there's a pre-set amount in the 2nd account for gas/groceries/cash. Once you figure out your budget, that might help keep you from accidentally dipping into your reserve.
posted by hms71 at 3:15 PM on June 10, 2012

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