This weekend, I was using my time waiting in line at the grocery store to check in with our Mint account (as I do to manage our finances in just 15 minutes per month) and laughed out loud when I saw where our grocery budget was. I was standing in the checkout lane picking up a couple of items (not even our main trip for the week) and we were already $100+ over on the grocery budget for the month.
I knew instantly where that $100+ had gone, or at least the vast majority of it. The Publix deli department. Fresh mozzarella balls. Custom olive mixes from the olive bar. Roast beast – both in and out of subs. The dollar amount we use for our grocery budget ($350/mo) was set knowing that there would be *some* deli splurges like these. It does not account for the sheer number that we have had of late. =P
To some hard core budgeters out there this was anything but a laughing matter. So why did I laugh?
Because I Thought Of The Bigger Picture
As I waited in that grocery line looking at our Mint account (with even more of those pricey items from the deli already sitting on the conveyor belt ready to be rung up), Mr PoP was home laying tile.
Laying tile, particularly 6×36″ wood plank tiles, isn’t easy. As Mr PoP has found, it exerts a strain on his back, arms, and concentration (necessary to make sure that the tiles are being laid correctly to minimize lippage and keep the spacing and layout consistent). But by doing it himself, he’s saving us thousands of dollars.
In the very near term, the cost reduction of DIY-ing this install is going to be on the order of $3K-$4K based on the installation (not even removal!) quotes we got that were in the neighborhood of $5.5K – $6K to install ~550 square feet of tile. But considering that the skills he is learning now (and the tools that we bought!) will also be essential when it comes to installing the remaining tile in the rest of the house (another ~550 sqft). In the medium term (over the next year or two when that tile will be installed), that’ll probably save us another $4K+.
So, yeah. When I saw that we were $100+ over on the grocery budget and I was waiting in line with another deli roast beast sub for my loving (tile-installing) husband… I didn’t care. If he had said he wanted Boar’s Head instead of Publix meat, I wouldn’t have blinked at the $1.50 upcharge. (Note to Mr PoP – please don’t take this as an invitation to ask for every single want and desire right now…)
Don’t Lose The “WHY” of Tracking In The “HOW”
Technology has made tracking just about anything you could possibly care about (and a lot of things that you don’t want to care about) ridiculously easy. Download an app. Enable syncing. Rinse. Repeat.
- Track exercise.
- Physical movement.
- For ladies… your “eh” cycle.
- And countless others…
I’m slightly surprised there’s not a wifi-enabled Litter Robot that tracks your cat’s… um… trips to the box. Maybe I should patent that idea.
It makes it so easy, in fact, that you can drown in the data and make yourself worse off for it. (Sidenote – As a data and tracking junkie – both professionally and in my personal life, it does pain me a bit to admit that there’s a thing as too much tracking and too much data.)
It’s Like When You’re Running…
To return once again to my favorite money analogy (where managing your finances is akin to running, a comparison others agree with), the “HOW” of tracking a run is ridiculously easy. Open the app, click start when you start to run, and stop when you finish. Tracking done! It’s the “WHY” you need to keep in mind, and that “WHY” can change – even within a single run!
As running season in Florida starts to approach, I need to regain some of the speed I let drop off during the heat and humidity of the summer if I’m going to meet my racing goals for the year. To that end, I need to start actually *looking* at the data that I’m producing by tracking my runs. My app even lets me do this in real-time. But none of that is useful unless I keep my “WHYs” in mind.
- At the beginning of a long morning run, I want to find the pace that I’m feeling comfortable at that day. I pay attention to the audio cues I have set to tell me my stats every 5 minutes and mentally set those as a benchmark of the goal that I want to maintain on average through the run.
- Then in the middle of the run, I often zone out on those audio cues. I focus on other things like the audiobook I’m listening to, or counting crabs on the beach at low tide (I counted 80 before stopping on a particularly crabby weekend recently). It takes my mind off the intensity of the activity and lets me keep going.
- At the end of the run, (the last 10 minutes or so), I focus on my real-time running data. I kick up my pace to shave off time that I might have let creep in during those middle miles when I was zoned out. It’s easier to hit a certain pace when you’ve got the data to look at immediately, but it’s also much more physically exhausting. Relying on the data to dictate your movement on such an instantaneous basis instead of your body regulating it over a longer distance takes more physical effort, so while using it for 10 minutes at the end is great – I’ll make it much harder on myself if I try to use this method for the entirety of a 90+ minute run.
Financial “WHYs” Can Change, Too
There are a lot of reasons why we track our finances.
- record keeping
- planning and modeling future monetary needs
- check-in to ensure you’re not spending beyond planned limits
- staying on the same page with a financial partner without having to constantly talk about money
Our big picture financial goal for tracking this year was to (as a couple) spend no more than $50K (not including the kitchen renovation which has a separate budget) without having to feel like we’re monitoring each others’ spending or talking constantly about money. (The kitchen spending would have us talking about money enough as it is…) Along the way, the tracking helps us maintain our records and be another year of data to use for planning and modeling for the future. So far, we’re on track for that big picture goal, even including the ~$6K expense we booked for the year for our new whole-home solar energy system.
Knowing that we’re on track, and our averages are looking good, we don’t need to “shave time” as we’re nearing the final quarter of the “run” that is this PoP fiscal year. Big picture, denying my handsome tile-installer his roast beast at this point would be counter-productive in terms of our yearly goals. So I laughed when I saw the grocery budget overage for the month.
Last Thought – We Don’t Track What We Can’t Control
Not too long ago, a reader emailed me asking how we track all of our payroll deductions in Mint and I had to give him an answer he didn’t want. We don’t. Payroll deductions (taxes, health insurance premiums, 401K deductions…) never appear on our monthly income statements that constitute a summary of most of our financial tracking.
The main reason for this is that we have little to no control over these deductions. So exerting extra effort to track wouldn’t provide us any additional benefit to justify the effort.
- Taxes: We look at our withholdings and adjust them 1x/year after talking with our tax guy. Some years, we loan the governmentt $1K-$2K on a temporary basis, other years the government loans us the money. It’s not worth it to us to try and nail this to the penny by Dec 31, especially with how variable our income can be.
- 401K/HSA: We check-in and make sure these are set to max-out at the beginning of the year. We can see the deposits into the brokerage accounts in Mint on every payday (except for our HSA which *still* can’t connect to Mint!), so when they stop (as they did into my 401K recently), it’s the signal that we’ve maxed out for the year.
- Health Insurance (or Other Insurance) Premiums: We’d probably think about these more if we had control over them, but as it is, each of our employers generally provides a few different options each year and picks up the vast majority of the cost. Once chosen, we’re locked in for the year, so we choose to extend no mental energy thinking about the small cost that we are technically incurring as a payroll deduction in this category.
TL;DR – Tracking is good, but more tracking isn’t always better.
What do you (or intentionally not) track in finances and the rest of life? Why? Do you track anything unusual or weird?