I’ve been getting more questions lately about the mechanics of how we keep “such meticulous” (kindof sarcasm since I don’t think it’s particularly meticulous) track of our spending and balance sheets. This is the first post in what may become a short series on how we use Mint and other financial tools to keep us informed about our finances with minimal effort.
Every month when we publish our income statements and balance sheets, we inevitably hear from readers incredulous at the amount of detail that we know when it comes to our finances, and convinced it must take forever or that I must be absolutely obsessed with our budgets and spending to be able to compile all that information. But that’s just not true at all. In fact, though Mr PoP and I used to do weekly and monthly check-ins on spending together, we’ve fallen off the wagon there and are spending less time than ever thinking about and tracking our spending. (We’ve kindof got other things on our mind – like putting up walls and a ceiling!)
We’re not at an anything goes point in our spending, and our frugality isn’t so ingrained that we don’t ever need to think about it. We’ve just got it streamlined so well it probably takes less than 15 minutes per month. Total. Here’s how we do it.
Use Pockets Of Time To Categorize
I realize I sound like the woman that tried to recruit me as a Mary Kay sales rep* here, but you’d be absolutely shocked how much you can get done with tiny pockets of time and a smart phone. My favorite pocket of time to check in with Mint is in line at the grocery store. I couldn’t care less about which celebrity has been caught with cellulite or which magic celebrity diet is to thank for a fabulous new figure (easiest answer – the Photoshop diet). Instead, I open up Mint on my phone and use the minute or two I’m in line at the grocery store to scroll through the past week’s transactions and make sure they are categorized correctly. It’s stuff like:
- Making sure purchases for our duplex are marked for that instead of marked for our own home.
- Shooting Mr PoP a text to see how to categorize a cash withdrawal he might have made when I wasn’t there.
- Double checking that there aren’t any duplicates (a very rare occurrence, but it happens).
- The vast majority of our purchases are categorized correctly, because Mint has learned how I like things categorized over time.
The more you use Mint and categorize your purchases, the less work it will take you as Mint learns your preferences (you can also create rules in mint to streamline common purchases). Doing this once a week makes sure that I’m not overwhelmed with the number of transactions when I log in.
- Total Time: 90 seconds/week x 4 weeks = 6 minutes
Check Budgets On The Fly
At the beginning of every year I reset our budgets in Mint after our yearly pow-wow where we talk about what our spending priorities for the year. Then we can check these budgets on the fly to see if we’re staying within our pre-defined goals. When we talk about going out to dinner on a date night, a 10-second glance at the restaurant budget will tell us if we’ve got room for in the budget for an $80 dinner or if we’re better off with a $40 or $20 dinner. We each check the status of the budgets about once per week from our phones.
- Total Time: 10 seconds / week / person * 2 people * 4 weeks = 1.33 minutes
Forward Email Notifications
Another great thing about having the budgets set up in Mint is that we get email notifications sent to my email whenever we go over our planned budget in a given category. When that happens, I forward them to Mr PoP as an FYI and we both keep that in mind with regard to our spending for the rest of the month. This might happen once or twice per month and takes another ten seconds for each of us to process the email.
- Total Time: 10 seconds / notification / person * 2 people * 2 notifications = 0.66 minutes
Monthly Spending Summaries
Regular categorizing and keeping an eye on our budgets comprises the “maintenance” aspect of our Mint interactions, and is done pretty much exclusively on our smart phones. But once a month, I log in to the web portal to gather all the information that goes into our monthly Income Statements and Balance Sheets. I keep a separate excel spreadsheet that I enter these numbers into, allowing me to do some quick number crunches that we use to keep an eye on our progress (and graph in those nifty graphs on our Balance Sheets).
To gather our spending data, I click on the “Trends” tab, and click on “Spending” – By Category. The pie chart that pops up gives me the broad category totals, and clicking into some of the bigger categories gives me the totals for any subcategories (like auto, which contains subcategories for gas and maintenance).
If anything looks a little out of the ordinary here (a total lower or higher than I was expecting), I click on the “Transactions” link (from the mouseover) and a box pops up showing all the transactions that went into that total. I can make any category changes I may have missed easily from here without having to go back to my main Transactions tab. I usually like to pop into the list of Transactions on the “Shopping” section to see what our most expensive “stuff/lifestyle” purchases were for the month.
To fill in the Income part, I click on the word “Income” on the left and fill in those cells in my spreadsheet with the totals for our wages, rental income, and any other miscellaneous income (rebates, etc) that came our way during the month. In this format, compiling all my category data goes very quickly.
- Total Time: Maybe 5 minutes, max.
Monthly Balance Sheet
Filling out our monthly balance sheet tab in my spreadsheet goes even quicker. After entering the spending data from the Trends tab, I click back to the “Overview” tab. From there, it’s easy to copy the balances from all of our accounts into my master spreadsheet.
- Time In Mint: 1 minute. Maybe.
There is, however, one account that I can’t seem to get Mint to import – Mr PoP’s HSA. So the last task every month is to log into that account and grab the balance to fill in the last cell in the spreadsheet. Annoyingly, it takes going through 2 different menus to get to that balance page and makes me so glad I don’t have to do this same thing for ALL our different accounts thanks to Mint. (We have quite a few!)
- Time At HSA Site: 1 minute.
- Total Time: 2 minutes.
So what’s the true monthly time investment to get this detailed insight into our budgets and spending?
- Categorizing Transactions: 6 minutes (but time that would be wasted reading tabloid headlines otherwise)
- Checking Budgets and Reading/Forwarding Email Notifications: 2 minutes
- Spending by Category: 5 minutes
- Balances For Net Worth: 2 minutes
- Total Time: 15 minutes per month (14 for me, 1 for Mr PoP)
That’s really it. We keep an eye on our budgets, but don’t obsess about them. Then we compile all the detail for one big look at the end of the month. For us, this is how we balance managing our financial goals with busy personal lives and careers.
* Gawd knows what the Mary Kay woman was thinking. I wear makeup (and by makeup I mean some mascara or eyeshadow) maybe once or twice a year!
How do you streamline keeping track of your finances? Any mint questions?