Fiscal Fitness: Find Your Biggest Cash Flow Leaks

  

  • The Motley Fool’s Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp is in session! Every weekday this month, we’ll walk you through a fresh money-saving/money-making tip as we work toward finding $2,000 in savings you didn’t know you had.
 Begin at the beginning. Seems easy enough. But when it comes to doing a month-long money cleanse — our Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp — starting is the hardest part.

This quest to find thousands (yes, thousands!) of dollars you didn’t know you had begins with finding the answers to some basic questions: How much do you spend for food each week? What about home maintenance over the course of three months? Coffee? Hair products?

You’re about to find out.

Stop making that face. This won’t require a weekend of paperwork drudgery dusting off that shoebox full of ATM receipts, bank statements and, oh hey, there’s that dry cleaning receipt.

Today is all about cutting to the chase and getting a handle on your current state of financial affairs in less than five minutes. How? By letting someone else do all the heavy lifting!

Start 2010 by making a money buddy
Online money management tools offer an instant rundown of your cash flow, even if you’re the worst record keeper in the world. With Ginsu-like precision, these one-stop shops (or “money buddies,” as I like to call them) aggregate your accounts, provide detailed rundowns of your balance sheet, keep tabs on spending and saving, track trends, and even compare your money habits to others with similar financial psychographics. (Yes, there are others out there just like you.)

They can even help you account for those “where’d the money go” $60 ATM withdrawals, even if you spent the dough in several places.

Start here. Now.

Today, your single task is to sign up for Mint.com (full disclosure: Mint is a Motley Fool partner), a free Web-based service that’ll provide an instant snapshot of your spending. (If you already use another money tracking program like Quicken, Microsoft Money, or other online tools such as QuickenOnline.com, Geezeo, or Wesabe, then you’re already good to go!)

When you first sign up , you’re asked to introduce Mint to your bank, credit card and even investment institutions. (Read more about the site’s security here .) It then goes out and grabs the previous 90 days of data and takes a stab at shuffling all the transactions into the appropriate categories (e.g. Mortgage/Rent, Groceries, Fast Food, Home Services, Financial Fees). After that, every time you sign on, Mint automatically grabs the information and ports the data into your pre-set tracking categories. (As someone who has publicly copped to pecuniary sloth , trust me — setting up my money stuff on Mint was no sweat.)

Granted, this is most helpful if you put things on plastic (and if you do, I really, really hope you pay it off in full every month). Even if you don’t, the spending and bill-payment rundown will at least give you a general sense of your cash flow.

Is your spending “normal”?
Of course, as you review the numbers you might wonder, “Does everyone spend as much at Target as I do?” (or something to that effect). Well, let’s see what “normal” looks like using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2008 Consumer Expenditure Survey, which estimates how much people spend in various categories. Based on an average annual income of $63,563 before taxes, here’s how the average household spends its dough in seven major categories:

 

Category Average Annual Expenditures (2008) % of Pre-Tax Income
Housing $17,109 26.9%
Transportation $8,604 13.5%
Food (at home) $3,744 5.8%
Food (away) $2,668 4.19%
Healthcare $2,976 4.6%
Apparel and Services $1,801 2.8%
Entertainment $2,835 4.4%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

I’m not saying that this is how your spending breakdown should stack up. Your financial situation is unique, and there are a lot of factors that may throw your spending pie chart out of whack, like, say, an alarmingly robust monthly Target tab. Just a hypothetical example. Ahem.

Go ahead, cop to your cash flow leaks
Now that you’ve got three months of spending data at your fingertips (and the palpitations have subsided), spend time noodling around on Mint.com:

  • Create a handful of categories that best align with how you tend to spend. Don’t go crazy, though: The simpler your tracking system, the more likely you are to stick to it.
  • Next, identify three categories where you can control the amount you spend

For example, the bulk of my spending fell under the “Home” category, but once Mint filtered out my mortgage payment (which is static), my willy-nilly “Home Improvement” spending — a category which I can certainly rein in — starkly stood out. I won’t even get into the whole “Food” category until later this month, but suffice it to say, there is plenty of room for improvement there.

So where do you leak money? C’mon, fess up. Hit the “Comments” button and reveal what spending categories make you wince. We’re all in this together!

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