Last night, I spent three hours documenting twelve months of expenses as part of my divorce process. Today, I added a couple more hours. The process was pretty frustrating. It involved a lot of forehead-smashing and name-calling (my poor monitor is going to have major self-esteem issues). But, I now have a pretty good idea of how I spent my money in a year. The thing is, this process would easily have taken me three weeks, a lot of Advil Liqui-Gels, and possibly a bald spot if it weren’t for Mint, a free personal finance website and tool.
In my early credit years (19 – 21), I did major damage. I racked up lots of debt and defaulted all over the place. Finally frustrated and overwhelmed, I went into a debt management program and paid everything off. I was proud of my hardwork and made an effort to continue living in a sustainable fashion. However, my ex-husband was just not in line with this and over the 7 years of our marriage, our finances got pretty stressful and precarious. A couple of years ago, I read The Millionaire Next Door and was inspired to really get myself in check financially, with or without the husband. I separated our finances as best as I could and managed “my” debt while he managed “his” debt. It worked out ok and has definitely been a big help now that we’re getting divorced. However, not everything was perfect and I did maintain some debt and such things.
One of the most important, and most difficult to stick to, steps I took about a year ago was reign in my spending. I put a big effort into coupon-clipping, made very conservative decisions about big purchases, and really did my level best to control impulse spending. I really made it a point to take my time and find good and better deals on absolutely everything. I constantly do price comparisons, always use coupon codes, and I always start with clearance racks in stores. After my ex moved out, I put forth a huge effort into taking better care of myself which led to an unexpected frugal adventure—cooking more, dining out less.
The interesting thing has been that the money adventure turns out to be fun. For one, getting better control of my finances allows me to save money. I have a 401k, for instance, which I am really proud of. I was also able to pay in full for a quick getaway trip to New York. And, I am currently working on putting the money together to pay for my lawyer and court fees in the divorce process. I am missing a few things still, most notably a solid emergency fund. It is being worked on, just at a much slower pace than I would like. I pay all of my bills and debts on time every month and am pretty sure that in a few years, despite a foreclosure, I will have pretty good credit.
I have also found that the general frugal outlook has started to re-awaken the DIYer in me. For instance, cooking at home often has prompted me to take up gardening and so it is I have a carambola tree, a cherry tomato plant, a roma tomato plant, cilantro, chives, two types of lettuce, an eggplant, and a strawberry plant. There are plans for more. I’ll let you know how it all works out but I can tell you already we are loving the cherry tomatoes and the chives taste amazing and have beautiful purple flowers.
One of the most helpful, eye-opening, and integral tools to my financial life has been Mint. With Mint, you join the site free of charge. Then, you give it the account information for all of your accounts. You can tie your car loans, student loans, credit cards, checking accounts, saving accounts, 401 k, etc. The best part? The access is only for tracking purposes. Mint does not allow you to move money. It does not even log you directly into the website of the account to move your money.
The reason Mint is so useful is it allows you to track your spending. You can’t get a handle on your spending until you really know how you’re spending it. And trust me when I tell you, unless you are tracking it carefully, you don’t really know how you’re spending it. You think you know, but you really don’t know. Mint lets you assign a category to a transaction. It even allows you to split a transaction and assign different amounts to different categories. You can make Mint as accurate as you’re willing to make it. There are some months where I have actually sat with my receipt from Target and broke it out item by item. Other months, I was lazy and threw it into a “Miscellaneous” category (I know, I know, I’m working on it). But, I do make sure, at the very least, to categorize every transaction. There are also many sub-categories you can use. For instance, under food and dining there are sub-categories for groceries, restaurants, fast food, coffee shops, and bars. So, you could, if you wanted to, see how much money is going to fast food for instance. For me, this makes it hard to budget so if I eat out, it’s simply filed under “Restaurants” whether it’s Starbucks, McDonalds, or Casteluccio.
Stir, pour over ice, and enjoy
The thing with Mint is once you get in there and dedicate some time to it, and then continue to regularly do so, you give yourself an incredibly flexible tool. Mint allows you to draw up budgets and notifies you when you’re over limit or even approaching the limit if that’s the setting you give. The scariest but most motivating aspect is the trends. Mint shows you how much you spend on any given category in a month or year. You can then drill down into its sub-categories, and then keep drilling down into individual transactions. When you first get onto Mint, I suggest you play a game and try and categorize as many transactions as you can. Then, click the trends and see if your numbers were anywhere close to your best guesses. Yeah, pretty freaky but also super useful. When it came time for me to see exactly how much I spent in November 2009 on groceries vs. restaurants, it was a couple clicks away. As a matter of fact, the thing that took me the longest in my financial paperwork adventure was a bit of clean up on transactions that I hadn’t taken the time to categorize previously (don’t put off until tomorrow…) or transactions I had categorized in a way that didn’t match up with the information I needed to reflect (for whatever reason, I categorized my contact lenses as miscellaneous instead of Medical).
I can’t recommend Mint enough. It, in combination with my decision to abandon brick and mortar banking for the high interest rates and insanely minimal fees at online bank, ING Direct, are two of the most critical tools in my quest to financial independence. Give it a shot, and I’ll be happy to help you if you run into a snag or two.