Making Your Money Matter: Part 2 of 4

This is part two of a four-part series on aligning your personal finances with your values.  Click here for part one.

Last week we talked about the first step in aligning your personal finances with your values, which was identifying your life values in the first place. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish, you won’t be able to make your money work for you.

Talking priorities is great.  “Yes, of course I want 10% of my income to go to supporting my favorite charities!  And I want to use all my discretionary income to pay down my student loans!”  But when it comes down to standing in the line at Starbucks, are you remembering your priorities or are you using $5 of your discretionary income to buy that delicious salted caramel latte?  (Mmmmm…. Salted caramel latte.)

How do you figure out if your actual spending is in line with your lofty goals?  Last week, I talked about how relationships with food and money have similar traits, and this is another way in which they are similar.  How do you know why you keep gaining weight?  You track your food intake. How do you know where your money goes? You track it.

I’m not going to tell you the right way to track your money. Everyone does things differently, and just like with food, what works for me might not work for you. You can track your money by keeping a notebook in your back pocket and writing everything down; you can use the functionality provided by your bank or credit union (many of them have websites or apps that allow you to budget and track expenditures); you can use a third-party website such as Mint.com. What I am telling you to do is to take one week and track every penny that leaves your presence.

Start today.  Start right now.  Don’t put this off, or you’ll never do it.  Why?  Because it’s not fun (and in some cases, it may be unpleasant) and it’s not “sexy”.  But it is the most important part of this process.

Here are a few tips to make this more meaningful:

  • If you’re anything like me, you never carry cash. This makes it fairly easy to track expenditures because you can easily see everything you spend via your bank’s online activity.  But if you DO have cash, don’t forget to track what you do with it. It’s easy to forget that money if you have only a few dollars in your wallet.
  • Also, realize that your $100 receipt from Target might include multiple types of spending.  $90 of it might be actual household supplies, but then you have that Time magazine or Frappuccino that you picked up while you were waiting in line to check out. I’m not asking you to get really specific with your categories (at least not yet), but knowing that not all of that bill related to actual needs can be helpful.
  • If this is not an average week, that’s okay.  The information you glean from the process can still be valuable. But if it’s a REALLY out of the ordinary week (like, you’re in South America for a once-in-a-lifetime trip — in which case, why are you reading this?), you might want to plan another week.

Do this process for seven full days. Keep the results. Don’t feel bad about them! Look at this as a learning opportunity. Bring them back and we’ll talk about what to do with them next week.