One Step at a Time: A Journey Toward Financial Independence Step 2

This is part 2 in this series on getting your financial house in order. To see all of this series click here. To learn why we are on this journey, please read this.

Step 2: Estimate Variable Expenses.

In this article we would like to talk about the rest of the money that goes out of the house on top of bills. Later we will look for ways to reduce the total for some of these expenses as well as reducing some of the monthly bills, but for now we just want to get the estimate. This will give us another opportunity to face reality and change our situation. It is amazing at how many purchases we made that were unnecessary. Most of our purchase are completed with a debit card, so we had an accurate count of amounts spent for most categories. Here are some other ways to get these figures:

  1. Make a list of your expenses and “guesstimate” the amount. Although this is not the best way to get a total it is a start. If you are going this route, I recommend writing down the amount you believe to be close to accurate, then add 15% to that total. We have a tendency to underestimate the cost of our expenditures, and overestimate our frugality.
  2. Carry a small notebook with you to record your purchases. This is a great way to get an exact amount of your expenses. I have read of several different ways to do this, but my favorite is to save the receipt in a pocket that you have designated for this purpose. Then when you get to your desk, car, or where ever you have to opportunity, write an itemized statement of what you bought along with the total. One reason for waiting till later is that you do not want to hold up the line while you write this information down; but, do not wait too long, for if the receipt is not itemized you may not remember what you purchased. I know that this can be a pain, but it will give you an honest account of your situation. I also recommend doing this for at least a couple of week, or even a month if you can. We all have those items that may only be bought once or twice a month.
  3. Use bank records to get your figures. This is the way that we came up with our totals. It is the most accurate, and we had several months of figures to deal with so we could come up with a more accurate amount. If you use online banking, and your institution offers the service, you can download your totals per transaction in Excel format.

When we sat down and actually completed this exercise, we were honestly shocked at the amount of money that we had spent frivolously. There are also a lot of purchases that we made that would have not been accounted for had we not made an all inclusive list. If you do not have a solid list to go by, here are some of the categories and items that we have that you may use as a starting point:

  • Automobiles. This, next to our next category, is our largest expense each month. Included are: GAS (by far the biggest), and maintenance (oil changes, tire rotation, wiper blades, washer fluid, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and even cleaning are listed here.) Some car care businesses will top off all your fluids whenever you have a service completed there. It pays to check with several different providers to get the best deals. Be sure to look at the cost of the “extras”, such as what was listed above, when calculating the best deal.
  • Groceries. This is our second biggest expense next to our vehicles. It is something that we are looking to reduce the cost of in the near future.
  • Household items. This was kind of a catch all for items we purchase frequently for the house. Paper towels, toiletries, laundry items (powder/liquid, fabric softener, dryer sheets, stain remover), as well as cleaning supplies such as Windex, furniture polish, carpet cleaner, mopping solution, etc.
  • Personal hygiene/care. This includes all personal care items that you use to groom yourself. Also in this category we listed our daily regimine of vitamins and other over-the-counter medicines that we use regularly. Hair cuts, unless you do them at home, are in this category as well.
  • Eating out. In the past this has been a major pitfall for us. There have been times when we have spent the equivalent of a house payment eating out. Thankfully it is something we have gotten under control lately (out of necessity, though).
  • Convenience items. Here we have all the unnecessary items such as beverages and candy purchased at the gas station, snack items purchased from the vending machines at work/school, and my weakness, gourmet coffee from various coffee houses.

This is a great place to start, coupled with the information derived from the first post in this series, the next item on the agenda will be creating a budget.

What did you find to be your greatest expense? What other items did you find while completing your list?

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