I’ve always loved organizing. There’s something about things being neat and tidy that makes me feel like my life itself is a little bit less messy too (maybe that’s a little crazy?).
So naturally, years ago when I started really getting my finances in order, it was important to me to find a really organized system to track everything. Each year, I find new ways to improve it and make it more efficient. This year, as part of my plan to simplify my life, my goal is to refine it even more so that I only spend 15 minutes per week managing my budget.
Since I currently live in China, I maintain two separate budgets in different currencies, so this is no easy feat!
Why I Even Spend the Time
I’m meticulous about tracking our income and expenses (as you’d probably expect from someone with an accounting background). It’s certainly not for everyone, but it works well for me! I love being able to go back to previous years and see what we used to spend on things and how much we’ve increased our net worth.
As a side note, I recently found a notebook that showed our expenses when we first got married as poor college students. Our rent was $395 per month! See…really tracking expenses is about preserving memories, ha!
With regards to tracking cash flow, I am basically aiming to answer the following questions:
- Where did all our money go?!
- Are we spending according to our values, or should we be putting more money toward things that are more important to us like travel, financial independence, and charitable causes?
- How much money do we have set aside right now for x, y, and z goals?
What you may notice is that my focus is not on extreme frugality or trying to constantly lower my expenses. It’s about being intentional with our financial resources and making progress toward our goals.
How I Track My Money
While tracking expenses is essential to me, I didn’t feel like we necessarily need to monitor a budget as closely each month. So, I took some time to review our options.
Budgeting/Tracking Personal Expenses
It may surprise my long-time readers that I debated about whether or not to use YNAB for 2019. I have to keep and track two separate budgets now: one in US dollars and one in Chinese RMB for our local expenses (which is especially a pain, since I have to download and translate everything from our Chinese account).
However, I feel like my YNAB setup goes way beyond the budgeting aspect: it helps automate the entire process of tracking expenses (answering question #1 from above) and monitoring accounts and greatly minimizes my time spent doing so.
Note: my friend, Nick, from Mapped Out Money has been putting out some really great reviews, posts, and videos about using YNAB. Check it out here.
Specifically, I especially was hesitant to give up the feature to create upcoming and recurring transactions. YNAB is also the most efficient way I’ve found to keep track of savings goals without having to manage separate accounts or keep a separate spreadsheet (answering my question #3 from above).
So, we’re still using YNAB for budgeting and tracking personal expenses, adapted for my own personal preference to budget my income in YNAB as well as expenses. My two budgets (US and China) have the same exact same categories. There are quite a few categories I don’t use in each one, but it helps to keep it consistent, especially when I combine them.
Note: this would be a good solution for couples that generally manage their finances separately, but also want to see a combined view of their finances for other purposes.
We nearly always use credit cards, or in China, we can use our phones to pay directly from our bank account. Our transactions are all easily accessible, without having to manually track cash payments. This really reduces the amount of time that I have to spend figuring out our spending. I’d rather poke myself in the eye than use cash envelopes, but that’s just me.
To total my two budgets together, I use my own customized spreadsheet where I can also quickly analyze my spending (helping answer question #2 from above).
Personal Budget Categories
I mentioned how meticulous I am about tracking income and expenses, and this really is reflected in the number of separate categories I include in my budget.
I’m using the exact categories myself that I include in my spreadsheet bundles in my shop. There are a lot, but these categories are optimized so that you can easily calculate your savings rate, income taxes, and other key financial numbers. You can download this list as a PDF file by clicking on the preview below.
Including Business & Rentals
I’ve tracked both my business and my rental property along with my personal budget in YNAB for the past several years but found that it actually complicates things.
I have separate bank accounts and completely different categories, so it really doesn’t make sense to try to track them together. For 2019, I’m tracking them separately using a Tiller-powered Excel spreadsheet for each. Of course, I’ve set up tax-optimized categories for these as well.
Only the amounts that I actually transfer to/from my business or rental accounts are accounted for in my personal budget. For example, if I take out $2,000 from my business account and transfer it to my personal checking account, I count that as “Business Income” in my personal budget. Of course, for tax purposes, a more detailed calculation is required, and I have my business & rental spreadsheets linked to facilitate that tax calculation.
Putting it All Together
It may seem more complicated than it actually is, but setting up my budgets and accounts this way really streamlines my process of tracking everything. It requires some time to setup but greatly reduces the amount of time I have to spend on a regular basis.
On a weekly basis, I check to make sure everything is importing correctly into my US budget, update transactions in my China budget (no automation on that one, unfortunately) and import and categorize transactions into my Tiller-powered business and rental spreadsheets. I quickly log into my bank accounts to make sure that the bank balances reconcile.
At the end of each month, I export my data from each YNAB budget and convert my China budget to US dollars. Then, I copy and paste it into my spreadsheet, which not only combines the data together but also automatically calculates my savings rate and even pulls in that data to estimate my taxes.
Automation is KEY if you’re looking for an efficient way to manage your money.
How You Should Track Your Money
Hopefully showing how I’m tracking my cash flow this year will give you some ideas on how to track your own personal finances. You may have specific budget categories that you want to break out more or combine together. Or, this level of detail may not provide as much value to you as it does to me. That’s okay!
The important thing is that you have a way that will work for you to:
- Keeps you accountable with your spending
- Allow you to make financial decisions efficiently and effectively, and
- Give you confidence that you’re on track to meet your financial goals
It’s definitely a lot of different pieces to manage, but keeping everything organized and running smoothly pays off, quite literally!