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Empower Yourself Through Finance

From a young age I have loved numbers.

I suspect this passion for numbers contributed to my interest in finance. By the time I turned 15 and had my first W-2 job working as a dishwasher, I was ready to start investing in the stock market.

What a different world it was back in 1987. Back then, there was no discount broker, no online, no internet. There were only full service brokers where you had to stop by your broker’s office or phone them and place your order that came with a commission usually in the $30-50 range per trade.

My first investment was made on Oct. 19, 1987, a day in the investment world known as Black Monday, because the Dow Jones Industrial Average would go on to shed 22.6% of its value in one day.

***Interesting geeky note. This day is known as Black Tuesday in Australia and New Zealand as well as other parts of the world. Can you figure out why?***

While some may look back on my initial interaction with the stock market as unfortunate luck, I could not consider myself more blessed.

I lost a great deal of that initial investment in that first day, but it was a humbling lesson. It taught me to respect financial markets and know the risks involved with eschewing conservative financial shelters, like savings accounts, for seemingly stable investments like the stock market.

Standing before The New York Stock Exchange

The stock market crash of 1987 also provided a healthy respect for each penny I earned. The minimum wage for Vermont in 1987 was $3.35 an hour, if I recall correctly. I’m not sure how much I lost that day, but suppose it was $335. That would have been equivalent to 100 hours worked at my dishwashing job. It would have taken me five weeks of working part-time during school at 20 hours per week to make that much money.

Five weeks of working hard as a dishwasher and nothing to show for it in terms of money earned at the end of that day.

My fascination with numbers is both a blessing and a curse—sometimes simultaneously!

My mind forces me to analyze every penny I spend. This can be good because it causes you to pause before spending your money frivolously. But, it can be bad if you boil down many of life’s experiences to simply dollars and cents, such as lunch with friends. An example would be something as simple as getting lunch at McDonald’s with coworkers on your break. From my first job at 15, I always calculated the cost of lunch, not just in terms of dollars and cents but how long it would take to work at my job to recoup the expenditure of lunch.

If you are making $10 per hour at your job and you head to Chipotle for lunch to spend $15, it will take an hour and a half to earn enough money to pay for that lunch. Factor in taxes and what you actually take home in your paycheck, and it’s closer to two hours! All I can think about in those jobs is that when I return from lunch at 1300, I’m working until 1500 for no pay! It was incentivizing to either bring a bagged lunch or simply skip lunch.

Sometimes cost benefit analysis fails to register true worth, like a fun lunch with friends or family.

While some may question whether I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I’ve found this obsession with numbers to be beneficial in many ways.

Household Budgeting

Loving numbers has understandably assisted with household budgeting. While some dread this daily, weekly, or monthly reconciliation process, I relish this opportunity. Starting around two decades ago, I ditched the check register many people will remember for their checking account or still use today. In its place, I created a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.

To this day I feel guilty using Excel to track my household finances. On the one hand, it allows me to chart categories of household expenditures in a way I never could off the top of my head. On the other hand, I feel I am cheating when using the auto-sum function or formulas for calculations.

I recommend all folks budget their household finances through either Excel or Google Sheets at a minimum. If you have access to QuickBooks, even better.

Here are the benefits I see to expense tracking and budget planning that work for me:

Decrease Errors

The problem with the old check register method is that you have to scribble math calculations in a tiny space while being perfect.

No one is perfect.

By moving my expense tracking to a spreadsheet, I only need to ensure I type in the correct number into the spreadsheet and my initial formulas are correct.

Furthermore, what happens when you want to know where you bought something last year? If you are using a check register, or nothing at all, you are probably out of luck because you have probably moved on to the next check register. However, if you are tracking your purchases through a spreadsheet you can easily retrieve purchase information from last year, three years ago, five years ago, or as long as you have had your spreadsheet.

Understand Where Your Money Is Being Spent 

By writing down every purchase you make, every bill you pay, and every automatic bank transfer you make, you will understand how much money you are spending every month and where it is being spent.

I read a column recently that focused entirely on recurring monthly financial subscriptions. Think of a Starz add on channel to Amazon Prime, a gym membership, a Washington Post news subscription. The point of the column was to take a look and see if there are any services you are paying for that you are no longer using or even remember.

What subscriptions have you forgotten about?

I was surprised when the writer spoke about folks who continue to pay monthly for services that not only did they no longer use, but had no idea they were still paying for automatically each month. That simply doesn’t happen with me because I write down every expense I incur.

By forcing yourself to keep a detailed log of every dollar you spend, it will not be possible to be paying for services you no longer use.

Furthermore, budget planning is like life. It’s about priorities.

Some folks would rather live in a small house and use the money they saved on rent or mortgage to travel more. Others would rather skip the travelling and spend the savings on a larger home, because when they aren’t working, there is no place they would rather be than home.

The same principle applies to your finances. Once you start seeing where your money is going, it puts you in a better position to decide what your financial priorities are. Is it a $200 monthly cable bill or a once a year $2,400 vacation for you and your spouse?

Getting Started

Unfortunately Microsoft ended their $14.99 military family discount on Microsoft Office. They replaced it with a $69/year yearly subscription for Microsoft 365 that usually runs $99; however, if you will only be using this software for expense tracking and budget planning, it’s probably best to use Google Sheets.

Expense/Budget tracking template

Google Sheets is Google’s version of Excel. To access Google Sheets, you do not need a Gmail address; however, you will need a Google account. Simply go to Google and select “create an account.” Once your account is created, you will need to click on the keypad in the upper right hand corner and select Google Drive. Once Google Drive is open, you will select the “+New” button in the upper left corner and choose “Google Sheet.”

For those familiar with Excel, it will be fairly simple to create a spreadsheet like the one I created above. If you have no experience using Google Sheets or Excel, not to worry. After clicking on +New from Google Drive, do not immediately click on Google Sheets, but rather click on the “>” to the right of the words “Google Sheets.” Select “From a template.”

A list of templates will populate the screen. Select “Monthly Budget.” This budget template is pre-populated with formulas and has a tab where you can enter in all your transactions. This is a great way to get started if you’re someone who wants to get their finances under control but are intimidated with trying to tackle the task of tracking their expenses while mastering spreadsheets simultaneously.

I’ve been using the format above for more than 20 years (numbers are for demonstration purposes only and do not reflect mine or anyone else’s actual budget/expense tracking). Over time I will add and subtract columns. For example, when my wife and I were younger and money was tighter, the “Utilities” bucket was separated into individual buckets for each utility (i.e., electricity, water, trash, mobile phone, Netflix).

The less money you have, the better it is to have more detailed budget buckets so you can detect immediately if you are overspending on your budget and adjust as needed. As your finances get better, it becomes easier to lump items by category and put a little padding on top to ensure your budget runs smoothly.

When the transaction clears my bank account or has been paid off my credit card, I highlight the row in color and place an “X” next to the item to denote it has cleared my account and funds have been withdrawn. This helps me understand clearly what is outstanding.

This method also helps me understand if I have enough funds in my checking account required to pay my credit card. I try to use a credit card for every purchase. Not only does it provide points through my American Express Platinum card but also helps with an electronic record of all my purchases. Instead of trying to remember where I spent that $100 in cash, I  simply look at my AMEX statement. I pay my credit card online either weekly or biweekly, so I never incur a finance charge.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Learning to budget or trying to improve your household finances can be scary and overwhelming. Unfortunately, what is hard to understand is the power you will feel once you start tracking your finances. You will feel empowered. Empowered by your knowledge. Empowered by your ability to make choices on where to spend your money. It takes work but with effort you too can be empowered.

DISCLAIMER

I’m not a certified financial planner/advisor or CPA. The contents of this piece are for informational and entertainment purposes only and do not constitute financial or accounting advice.

Author

1 Comment

  1. Sharita Knobloch

    Lots of great info here, Scot! Thank you for sharing your experience with us– We track our budget with each paycheck, writing down expenses to “see” where our money is going (and yes being sure to cancel services we no longer use). Also: Love that you are a numbers dude… I LOL’d because I’m a words girl at heart, through and through 🙂

    Reply

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