In direct response to bouncing checks for several months in a row, The Lady in the Black needed to determine why her personal finance money machine was broken. The answer was obvious, if not a bit embarrassing to admit. She had NO IDEA how much it costed to live her life.
Sure, I knew the fixed costs. Rent, car payment, utilities, etc. But how much did I REALLY spend on “discretionary” items; groceries, entertainment, eating out, fun? While my budget listed that line item at $600/month, I truly had no idea.
I could offer a myriad of excuses why I’m so clueless about my expenditures but probably the most significant is that I kinda jumped in this whole personal finance journey without following all the “first steps” that everyone touts.
Top personal finance experts would list “track your spending” as the first step in any personal finance journey. Ya. I never did that. (GASP!)
I decided that March 2019 would be my chance to get back to basics with my money management. In short, it was time this smart Lady gave my personal finances a big, sloppy, wet K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid.)
Steps to K.I.S.S. Finances Into Shape
Before we launch into my steps, let me just say that I’m sharing this as information not advice. For my particular situation, I felt compelled to undo quite of bit of the systems I put in place. In short, if your money system ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
STEP 1: Disable ALL automated savings deposits
Early in my financial journey, the saying “give every dollar a job” resonated with me. In response, I set up multiple savings accounts and started sprinkling money into them for various reasons. Vacation, college savings, investing, emergency fund, etc. In total, I had 8 different savings accounts spread across 3 financial institutions.
I pulled the plug on everything except for the $200 monthly deposit into my HSA.
STEP 2: Disable ALL automated investments
This was emotionally tough. I talk a bit about it in my last post but it was necessary to put myself in check. If there are steps to paying off debt and building wealth, investing is pretty far down the path. My entry to investing was premature. I just had to admit it.
In addition to disabling automated investing, I also sold off about half of my portfolio and streamlined the remaining. I now own shares in 3 well performing ETFs and 1 kick-ass performing stock.
STEP 3: Disable automated retirement contributions
Ouch, you say?
Yes. This one hurt but it was necessary. Again, retirement savings IS important, especially for a Lady my age but it’s not the first step and I needed to push pause long enough to see what I could really afford to contribute.
STEP 4: Keep automated payments
The one thing I didn’t want to mess with was my automated bill payments.
It’s FAR too stressful for me to handle manually paying bills on time. Plus, I’m out of checks so that’s that. My bills were all paid on time and with all the other savings taken out of the equation, it was like a little mental holiday knowing that none of them would bounce.
STEP 5: Use my credit card for all spending
This, by far, is the riskiest thing I did in this whole experiment. I’m terrible with credit cards. I’m the chick who has dug herself out of credit card debt at least 3 times in her life. I’m also the chick who lived without a single credit card for nearly a decade.
But it was easy and made sense to use my credit card to track my spending for 1 month and so I did. I just tallied up the results and want to puke. (More on that later.)
STEP 6: Live my life as usual
For this experiment, I didn’t really do anything differently in terms of spending. I didn’t try to be frugal. I didn’t restrict myself. I also didn’t live extravagantly either.
Like always, there was lots of eating out and trips to the grocery store. There were a few events that occurred in March that bumped my expenses up a bit but I figure any month, past or present, could claim the same.
STEP 7: Analyze the credit card statement
On Day 31, I printed out my credit card statement and starting sorting into simple spending categories like gas, groceries, work-related, and special events (daughter’s birthday, weekend trip, etc.). In the section below, I’ll give those interested a breakdown of my month’s spending.
STEP 8: Adjust my budget
After dissecting and digesting the numbers a bit, I can see that I have a few choices. I can either use this actual number as my new discretionary line item in my budget or set an arbitrary spending target that I think is reasonable.
In truth, I’m not sure what to do next. I do know, I now have a hefty credit card bill to clear out.
The Lady’s Monthly Expenses
Welcome to all you financial voyeurs. When I started blogging about my “journey”, I promised to be as transparent as possible. It is my thought that someone might benefit.
I’m a 48-year old divorced woman, freelance professional writer, share custody of an 11-year old daughter, rent a 2BD apartment in Los Angeles county. I drive a 2012 Prius and have been dating a great guy for over a year. I owe back taxes and pay child support to my ex-spouse due to discrepancy in our incomes. I pay my own health and dental insurance.
The Fixed Expenses
If my Excel spreadsheet is to be trusted, my fixed expenses run about $6,000/month. Of course, $2,500/month in rent is a huge chunk, as is $900 toward back taxes. I pay nearly $700 in health/dental for my daughter and myself. $480 in child support and $560 for a “catch up” whole life policy round out the big ticket fixed expenses. I pay more toward my car payment than what is required ($400 vs $279 required) in order to pay down interest.
The Discretionary Expenses
Now to the juicy part, right? My credit card bill for March, which represents 1 month of relatively normal spending for The Lady in the Black totals…..drum roll….$2,232. This figure is nearly 4 TIMES what I had budgeted.
Did you just throw up in your mouth a bit? Yes, I did, too. In fact, I feel a mixture of shock, shame, and amazement. But it certainly does explain a lot.
The rounded-up breakdown is pretty interesting:
- $75 Fees/Interest
- $70 Work-related expenses
- $90 Gas (thank goodness for strong fuel economy)
- $400 Special expenses (includes extra spending on my daughter’s birthday and a weekend trip with my guy)
- $500 Groceries/CVS
- $1,000 Restaurants/Takeout and “entertainment” (Entertainment is a super small portion.)
So who’s getting the lion’s share of The Lady’s discretionary funds? Do names like McDonalds, Claim Jumper, Charo Chicken, Ahi Poki, The Halal Guys, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and 7-Eleven sound familiar?
Truth be told, it’s not really a surprise. I don’t really like to cook. And I do really like Mexican food and sushi. I know I run higher on eating out expenses and all of my close friends know it, too.
What is surprising is the sheer AMOUNT of money thrown at this type of spending. Most of the charges are under $30…but there are lots and lots of them.
Moving Beyond the K.I.S.S.
I’m digesting much of this information while I write this article so I’m not exactly sure what my next steps are.
However, I do want to continue to keep things simple. I let things get a bit too complex and spread too thin to properly manage. I was making too many mistakes.
Intuitively, I think I’m going to start KISSing even more. I need to love myself and pay myself first, I know, but it needs to be simple. Very simple…and smart.
Here are some of my current thoughts:
- Pay off the credit card, but continue to track spending for at least 1-2 more months
- Reduce eating out (maybe to 2 times/week)
- Prioritize on building a healthy emergency fund (goal is at least $10,000)
- Pay off my car ASAP
I’ve been toying with the idea of establishing separate and dedicated accounts for fixed versus discretionary but not quite sure how or when to pull the trigger on that.
Turns out Keeping It Simple, Stupid is turning me in the right direction…even if it is backward (to where I should have started.)
And if KISSing my finances is as good as kissing my guy, it should all work out great.