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I would like to get some insight inside my balance. It's not too complicated: I have very few sources of incomes, very few accounts, nearly no portfolio, etc. Yet it looks like I manage to save much less than it would be expected from my income (or at least that's what I understood by talking with a few friends). I would like to get some insight in my balance.

I started storing and summing all my receipts, bills, etc. It has the advantage of letting me separate expenses by category, but it's messy and it takes a long time.

My main online bank lets me download a .csv with transaction records, so maybe an alternative would be to download the record each month and process it with some software. I read about GnuCash and YNAB on this site. Would they help me? Are there beginner tutorials for these tools?

I'm also open to generic strategy advice. For example you may think that given my ignorance in the field, I should just stick to something simpler such as withdrawing a fixed amount of cash each month, and use cards only if I must. Personally I'd rather understand where I spend, and then decide where/if to make changes, but maybe you have different suggestions...

  • Until I get some time to write a custom answer for you, take a look at this question. – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Nov 28 '15 at 13:38
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    I've edited the title slightly to de-emphasize the request for the software recommendation, which is off-topic here. In my opinion, this is a good question. – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Nov 28 '15 at 13:44
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The key to understanding where your money is going is to budget. Rather than tracking your spending after the fact, budgeting lets you decide up front what you want to spend your money on. This can be done with cash envelopes, on paper, or on Excel spreadsheets; however, in my opinion, the best, most flexible, and easiest way to do this is with budgeting software designed for this purpose.

As I explained in another answer, when it comes to personal budgeting software, there are two different approaches: those in which you decide what to spend your money on before it is spent, and those that simply show you how your money was spent after it is gone. I recommend the first approach. Software designed to do this include YNAB, Mvelopes, and EveryDollar. My personal favorite is YNAB. You'll find lots of help, video tutorials, and even online classes with a live teacher on YNAB's website.

Using one of these packages will help you manage spending, whether it is done electronically or with cash. When you pay for something with a credit card, you enter your purchase into the software, and the software adjusts your budget as if the money is already spent, even if you haven't technically paid for the purchase yet.

As far as strategy goes, here is what I recommend: Get started on one of these, and set up your budget right away. Assign a category to every dollar in your account. Don't worry if it is not perfect. If you find later on that you don't have enough money in one of your categories, you can move money from another category if you need to. As you work with it, you'll get better at knowing how much money you need in each category.

My other recommendation is this: Don't wait until the end of the month to download your transactions from the bank and fit everything into categories. Instead, enter your spending transactions into the software manually, every day, as you spend. This will do two things: first, you'll have the latest, up-to-date picture of where your accounts are in your software without having to guess. Second, it will help you stay on top of your spending. You'll be able to see early on if you are overspending in a particular category. YNAB has a mobile app that I use quite a bit, but if I don't get a chance to enter a purchase right when I spend it, I make sure to keep a receipt, and enter the transaction in that evening. It only takes a couple of minutes a day, and I always know how I stand financially.

  • Thanks! Great answer. I'll use this budget strategy. I expecially like the bits on not worrying about perfection, and not waiting until the end of the month before entering expenses. They're exactly the reasons why my first attempt with receipts didn't work. – DeltaIV Nov 29 '15 at 9:35
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I started storing and summing all my receipts, bills, etc. It has the advantage of letting me separate expenses by category, but it's messy and it takes a long time.

It sounds from this like you are making your summaries far too detailed. Don't.

Instead, start by painting with broad strokes. For example, if you spent $65.17 at the grocery store, don't bother splitting that amount into categories like toiletries, hygiene products, food, and snacks: just categorize it as "grocery spending" and move on to the next line on your account statement. Similarly, unless your finances are heavily reliant on cash, don't worry about categorizing each cash expense; rather, just categorize the withdrawal of cash as miscellaneous and don't spend time trying to figure out exactly where the money went after that. Because honestly, you probably spent it on something other than savings.

Because really, when you are just starting out getting a handle on your spending, you don't need all the nitty-gritty details. What you need, rather, is an idea of where your money is going. Figure out half a dozen or so categories which make sense for you to categorize your spending into (you probably have some idea of where your money is going). These could be loans, cost of living (mortgage/rent, utilities, housing, home insurance, ...), groceries, transportation (car payments, fuel, vehicle taxes, ...), savings, and so on -- whatever fits your situation. Add a miscellaneous category for anything that doesn't neatly fit into one of the categories you thought of. Go back something like 3-4 months among your account statements, do a quick categorization for each line on your account statements into one of these categories, and then sum them up per category and per month. Calculate the monthly average for each category. That's your starting point: the budget you've been living by (intentionally or not).

After that, you can decide how you want to allocate the money, and perhaps dig a bit more deeply into some specific category. Turns out you are spending a lot of money on transportation which you didn't expect? Look more closely at those line items and see if there's something you can cut. Are you spending more money at the grocery store than you thought? Then look more closely at that. And so on.

Once you know where you are and where you want to be (such as for example bumping the savings category by $200 per month), you can adjust your budget to take you closer to your goals. Chances are you won't realistically be able to do an about-face turn on the spot, but you can try to reduce some discretionary category by, say, 10% each month, and transfer that into savings instead. That way, in 6-7 months, you have cut that category in half.

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My bank will let me download credit card transactions directly into a personal finance program, and by assigning categories to stores I can get at least a rough overview of that sidd of things, and then adjust categories/splits when needed.

Ditto checks.

Most of my spending is covered by those.

Doesn't help with cash transactions, though; if I want to capture those accurately I need to save receipts. There are ocr products which claim to help capture those; haven't tried them. Currently, since my spending is fairly stable, I'm mostly leaving those as unknown; that wouldn't work for you.

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I've used the website: mint.com. It links to your bank and brokerage accounts and gives you an overview of your transaction activity and allows you to set budgets. It is funded by advertisers who are willing to offer you services - e.g. you get an alert like 'you've just been charged a late fee', 'maybe you might want to consider XYZ credit card'.

If you do everything electronically, it saves the need to have receipts.

As far as priorities go, this question goes through the usual approaches:

Best way to start investing, for a young person just starting their career?

  • Nice! But unfortunately mint is not available in my country :-/ – DeltaIV Apr 6 '18 at 9:21

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