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First off, way to go. If you’re reading this, you’re taking a close look at your finances.
But while thinking about your monthly financial picture is a great start, it isn’t enough to actually wrangle your expenses. The next move is tracking your spending on a regular basis so you can get an accurate picture of where your money is going and where you’d like it to go instead.
“A budget is not just a way to do accounting,” says Annamaria Lusardi, the Denit Trust chair of economics and accountancy at the George Washington University School of Business. “It’s actually a way to make financial decisions. It’s a great instrument.”
Here’s how to get started tracking your monthly expenses.
Tracking your spending by hand is tedious. Throw away your paper budget and sign up for NerdWallet to make managing your money easy.
Pinpoint your money habits by taking inventory of all of your accounts, including your checking account and all credit cards you have. Looking at your accounts will help you identify where you’re spending.
Lusardi recommends getting a sense for your monthly cash flow — what’s coming in and what’s going out.
Start grouping your expenses. Some credit cards automatically tag your purchases in categories like department store or automotive. You could find that your morning Starbucks run is costing you a lot. Or maybe you’ll realize you’re paying for recurring subscription services that you could do without.
Your spending will consist of both fixed expenses and variable expenses. Fixed expenses are less likely to change from month to month. They include mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance and debt payments. You’ll have more room to adjust variable expenses like food, clothing and travel.
Budgeting apps like You Need a Budget and Level Money are designed for on-the-go money management, letting you allocate a certain amount of spendable income each month depending on what you’re taking in and what you’re paying out. These types of apps will work if you’re willing to log your purchases, put in the time and stick to your budget.
Depending on what you get out of it, a paid app may be worth the cost. You Need a Budget, for instance, is $50 a year (after a 34-day free trial), but it has appealing benefits, like its ability to sync transactions directly from your bank account and its option for live workshops with the company’s support team.
Or, if you have a more complex financial portfolio, you can buy software. Richard H. Serlin, adjunct professor of personal finance at the University of Arizona, recommends Quicken Premier, which lets you import your bank transactions and monitor your investments.
“This is just a much smarter, more effective, clear and organized way of keeping track of your spending, and pretty much all aspects of budgeting and financial investing, than trying to do it yourself with an Excel table or paper ledger,” he says. Quicken Premier regularly costs $109.99, but Quicken also offers a basic Starter Edition for $39.99.
» Need help starting your budget? NerdWallet breaks down your spending and shows you ways to save.
As you track, be ready to make adjustments. It’s worth your time to keep tabs on your monthly expenses because of what you’ll uncover. “Tracking expenses can be very valuable for finding out what’s really costing you, and what is not as bad as you thought,” Serlin says.
He also notes that lowering the “big fixed expenses” in your life, like the cost of housing, vehicles and utilities, can make a significant impact on your budget. If you need help adjusting your major recurring monthly expenses like your mortgage or car loan, check out NerdWallet’s tips for how to build a budget.