Houston, we have a problem - MoneySense

Houston, we have a problem

Tracking your expenses can be a lesson in humility.



I recently wrote about Mint.com, the personal finance website that now has me poring over every cent I spend.

Mint helps you keep track of your money by pulling all your income and expenses into one central dashboard.

Like any new discovery, I was all over the site in the beginning. I could break down my spending by category, set budgets and look at the company’s suggested ways to save money—all of which I find highly entertaining. (I know, I’m a weirdo.)

But some of the shine has since come off my new-found toy. To be fair, I don’t blame Mint for this. I still think it’s a great site. The problem is my “entertainment” expenses. In the words of Jimmy McMillan, they’re too damn high.

Before I financially undress on the Internet, I’d like to say a few words in my own defense. I purposefully avoided budgeting for the month of November in order for Mint to reveal my true spending habits, warts and all. I’m a young, single guy with a busy social life and I enjoy the odd drink. Besides, part of the raison d’être of this blog is to show how spending can get away from you if you’re not careful. So what fun would it be if I started off as a super-frugal coupon clipping nerd? Not much.

That being said, my total spending on “food and dining” for the month was $790. My initial reaction to that number was … well, denial. I couldn’t have spent that much. The web site must have included things that didn’t belong in the category, or the math was wrong. Or the site just didn’t work, period.

So I reviewed each transaction carefully. And what do you know, they were correct. Digging deeper, I learned that I spent $252 on groceries, including the lunches I bought at work. (I’m actually quite proud of this, as I really like to eat and I wasn’t consciously watching my budget.) However, I’m sure there are savings to be found if I look hard enough.

Then we get to the ugly stuff. Five meals at restaurants ate up $280. One of those was a birthday party which only cost me $60, so no harm there. However, a post-mountain biking “bite to eat” at an east-end resto devolved into a $60 affair after the beer started flowing. And then a trio of last-minute decisions to join friends in Little Italy rounded out the rest of the largesse.

Even worse: $382 on alcohol and bars. The fact that I spend so much on something that’s bad for me is not only depressing, but slightly alarming. I have a suggestion for Mint regarding their “ways to save” feature. For people like me, have the screen go black and spell out STOP DRINKING SO MUCH in large red font. Budgeting, solved.

So how am I going to fix this? As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not a details guy when it comes to my finances. I’ve tried sticking to budgets before and it just didn’t work.

My solution is to put Mint’s budgeting tools to the test. They’ve got a handy feature in which they send me an email if (when?) I bust a budget, so I don’t have to wait until the end of the month to realize I’ve failed. So my December entertainment and food budget is as follows:

Groceries: $225
I’m not much of a spendthrift when it comes to groceries but I do make the odd stop at Whole Foods, which can put a real dent in your wallet. My plan is to shop there only for things I can’t get elsewhere, and hit the discount food outlets for everything else. This won’t be too tough, but I will miss the Whole Foods staff. (They call me "sir".)

Restaurants: $200
My average spend at restos last month was $56 per meal. Not bad, but what hurt me was the frequency. If I bring it down to four meals out a month (from five) I should be able to stay on budget.

Alcohol: $200
I had 11 transactions involving alcohol in November with an average spend of $34. If I can bring this down to six transactions I’ll be saving almost $200 compared to last month, not to mention the intangible benefits associated with poisoning myself less frequently.

These limits should allow me to live within my means and maintain a semblance of a social life. I’ll just have to be better at knowing when to say when.

However, considering the holidays are coming up, this might be tough. But in the interests of having enough money to buy Christmas presents, paying the closing costs of my newly-acquired home and saving a little for an upcoming trip to Central America, I think I can muster the resolve.

Comments and advice are more than welcome on this one. If you’ve got any tips for me, I’m all ears.