How to Stop Pesky Money Leaks by Tracking Your Expenses

posted by Andrea | 10/17/2019

money leaks

For the past 15 years (since my sophomore year of college) I have tracked almost every dollar I’ve spent, given, and earned. Certainly I have forgotten a few transactions here and there, but for the most part, all my spending is accounted for in my finance-tracking workbooks.

I save a new copy to my computer every year and enter in any expenditures on a weekly (often daily) basis — it takes me less than a minute and it’s a habit now, so I rarely forget.

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As I’ve mentioned many times before, my finance-tracking workbook is NOT a budget. It does not limit how much I can spend in various areas or categories… but instead, it tells me how much I actually do spend.

I can look back over the years and see how my grocery budget has exponentially increased from rarely spending more than $20 per week back in college to my current weekly bill — close to $150 at times!

I can track how various utility bills have gone up over the years (partially because we use more, but also because the rates are increasing).

I can pinpoint when we’ve added novelty expenses like smartphones with monthly data packages, Netflix, or Amazon Prime.

I can even see how our expenses have increased almost immediately after each child is born.

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When I first started tracking my expenses back in college, I did it because I had NO idea how much money I actually spent each month… which meant I had NO idea how much to budget for various categories like food, gas, utilities, clothing, entertainment, etc.

I was on a very limited monthly income and I knew I’d have a nice pile of student loans waiting for me when I graduated, so I was bound and determined to keep my monthly expenses as low as possible.

By tracking my expenses, I could quickly see where I was spending my money – as well as where I could potentially cut back to save even more.

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Now, 15 years (and almost half my life) later, I still track our income, expenses, and giving… but it’s no longer because I’m worried we won’t have enough money in our bank account to cover our monthly bills.

Instead, I track our expenses to see how our spending habits change over the years AND to pinpoint potential “money leaks”.

It’s always amazing for me to see how easily overlooked various little expenses are. They creep in each month or each year — even for a very frugal person like myself.

The cell phone bill goes up by $5 a month

Your cable or internet bill goes up by $8 a month

Netflix raises its prices by $1 a month

The electric rate increases just a bit

The garbage company tacks on a random $12 charge

Your kids decide they like getting hot lunch more regularly

There are more mouths to feed — which means more groceries (again!)

We buy more gifts for people at Christmas

We end up at thrift stores more often than necessary

Obviously, some of these expenses might be caused by a growing family, changing needs, a new job, or a larger home; but some of these expenses are simply because we don’t even realize how much more we’re spending month after month. 

Can anyone relate?

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While I don’t analyze our finances every month, I do try to take a few minutes to glance at it every 4-6 months, and it’s quite interesting how many little “money leaks” I’ve found throughout the years.

Everything from grocery splurges that continued on for months at a time, to a pile of “extra expenses” that filled up the miscellaneous category each month. Sometimes my extra expenses are legitimate, but other times they are money leaks that, once spotted, I can “fix” and stop leaking (wasting) even more money each month.

Things like…

  • canceling our newspaper because we didn’t read it enough to warrant the increased price
  • dropping cable due to increased rates
  • calling the garbage company to negotiate a lower rate after a random $38 increase from last year (I just did this last month)
  • shopping at Aldi to reduce our ever-rising grocery bill
  • canceling various subscriptions we don’t use regularly (we’re still waffling about Netflix right now… the price has gone up so much but the kids do use it)
  • noticing when house project expenses start to creep up and become more than we originally budgeted for

I could share countless other stories like these from the past 15 years — times when I most likely wouldn’t have even noticed a slight gradual increase in spending over many months and years. However, by looking back over my finance-tracking workbooks, I was able to spot the increased spending, consider if the higher costs were worth it for our family, and then make changes to our budget accordingly.

Of course, I’m not opposed to increasing expenses as our family grows. 

For me, it’s more the point of being good stewards of our financial resources, saving when we can, and not over-paying for convenience items when we don’t have to.

While I know a finance tracking workbook won’t work for every family (remember, it’s NOT a budget) I’m certain we have saved thousands and thousands of dollars over the past several years, simply because I’m able to spot and stop money leaks — thanks to the fact that I faithfully track all our expenses month after month, year after year.

Do you track your expenses? If so, what system do you use to track the expenses? And have you found any money leaks over the years?

Feel free to download my simple Excel spreadsheets to track your own finances… and if you have other great tools you use to track your own expenses, please share them in the comments!

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38 comments

  1. Melissa

    10/17/2019

    We’ve used YNAB for years now. Worth every penny. Our finances wouldn’t be the same without it. Tip for anyone who wants to try it… find someone they sponsor (like Young House Love podcast). You can get 3 months free!

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  2. Debbie

    10/17/2019

    I’ve been tracking my expenses ever since I was single and continued on until I got married. I use a spreadsheet too and do it monthly. I print out a summary report at the end of each month that includes the prior months and I can quickly glance at which category is high or low compared to prior months. Although I do set a budget for each category at the beginning of the year based on prior year’s data we aren’t strict with it. I find that each category fluctuates up or down every month and by the end of the year it all comes close to the overall budgeted expense. I think it’s very helpful to have a process of knowing where our money goes, otherwise you can’t set financial goals.

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  3. Jennifer

    10/17/2019

    I don’t have a system. I know I should! W shave been getting groceries many different ways (a half beef from local farm, milk from local dairy, paying my mom back for Costco groceries w a check since we aren’t members, and basic debit card usage at grocery store) that it’s gotten more difficult. Also, our cell bill varies per month since we don’t use a carried but use ting (highly recommend!!) and we often use amazon for household items, which just shows up as amazon On statements.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, I know what you mean about getting groceries from all different places — I sort of feel like that the last couple of months too (and I’m spending more because of it). I need to get back to my every other week Aldi trip and I’ll save so much more!

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  4. Ashley

    10/17/2019

    Hey Andrea, great post as always! I thought I’d let you know I couldn’t see a single one of your pictures this morning as they were all covered by ads Time to change your settings again?

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    Andrea Reply:

    that’s weird — I have ALL ads turned off for images (and just verified it 5 minutes ago). There shouldn’t ever be an ad that covers a picture (and I honestly haven’t seen any ads covering pictures in months). Sorry, I don’t know how to fix this one!

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    Ashley Reply:

    Bummer! Thanks for looking into it πŸ™‚

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  5. Katie

    10/17/2019

    If there is a way to track expenses, I’ve tried them all. Spreadsheets, Mint, MS Money, Quicken – and while I was tracking how I spent my money, I didn’t really make any changes to be intentional about how I was spending it.
    Then I discovered YNAB – You Need a Budget. It isn’t free, but you can get a free trial (starts at 31 days but they will extend it up to 4 months) – and here are the key things I love about it:

    1. You only budget the money you have. It is not a forecasting tool – but it forces you to say to yourself – what do I need to spend my money on until the next time I get paid? Forecasting always got me into trouble because inevitably it would look like I would have the money next month, but inevitably something would come up and then I wouldn’t have it – and onto the credit card it went.
    2. Their mobile app is so user friendly it makes it easy to check your budget before you spend, to enter your transactions, and to re-allocate money.
    3. A huge mantra of theirs is “roll with the punches” – don’t beat yourself up if you overspend or have something come up – re-allocate some money, and learn moving forward!
    4. Using credit cards works really well – because the app re-allocates the money out of your budgeted line item to the credit card – so it guarantees you stay on budget and have the cash to pay your card.

    I have a bunch of sinking funds set up to budget money to every month to pay for upcoming expenses – things like summer camp, new tires, auto insurance premiums – so they money will be there when the bills come due. In the past I was constantly transferring money from savings and my savings seemed to only shrink despite adding money to it regularly. Now, all of my savings money “has a job” – like that auto insurance premium, and it’s only growing over time, not shrinking!

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    Andrea Reply:

    thanks for your detailed information Katie! Super helpful!

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  6. Lynda

    12/23/2016

    It’s good to see someone thkining it through.

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  7. Katherine

    10/23/2016

    I have been using the Fudget app (free!) for a few weeks and it is all that I need, and nothing more. Just a simple way to record income and expenses on my phone. We use the Dave Ramsey’ish envelope system, but I use Fudget to track whatever I buy on Amazon or in a store when I forget to bring in cash. Simple and free and working well for me so far!

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  8. Nicola

    10/16/2016

    I want to thank you Andrea for inspiring me to call my cable company today to negotiate the pricing!

    We spent 2 hours researching what the other cable company offers, and all our options, before making the call. The other company offered 6 month at 1/2 price, and free cable box, so I wanted to get that matched, or better.

    What I ended up with was our landline phone for $10/ month for life (we were paying $35/month), cable for $60 off a month for 1 year, and internet discounted for a year. They also quadrupled our internet speed and bandwidth AND threw in 2 cable boxes, which retail for $348 each.

    The key was saying that we were thinking of cancelling and going to just netflix and our cell phones, then saying we might be interested in staying with them if they could do better than the other company was offering us.

    I’m SOOOOoooo happy that I read your article and that we spent 2 hours of our day researching and making 1 phone call. We’ve saved AT LEAST $720 and now have better internet and can watch TV in our spare room with the extra cable box. YEE Haw!!!! πŸ™‚

    (as background, I’m in Canada and the 2 companies in question are Shaw and Telus)

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    Andrea Reply:

    WOW — this is amazing! so happy for you, and thanks for sharing your update. Congrats again πŸ™‚

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    Brian Reply:

    What is your current internet speed?

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  9. Katie

    10/15/2016

    I really enjoy your blog! You are so motivating!! My husband and I have used mint.com (free) for our 5 years of marriage (it was recommended by our pre-marital counselor). They also have a free ap. Mint allow you to link all of your financials — banks, credit cards, loans, investments, assets, etc to give you a full financial picture. We also love it for and use it mostly for setting budgets and tracking spending. We mostly use our credit cards to maximize on cash back and then pay them off monthly although our checking account is linked too. You can also input cash spending/income if you so choose. It is super user friendly and simple yet can give you all kinds of info in our charts, graphs and trends if you want. I like too that it sees patterns and notifies you of things like “you paid more than usual for internet this month” which stops “leaks” quickly if you choose to act on it! And will tell you things like ” you pay more for car insurance than most”. These alerts are just at the top of the page and aren’t super annoying πŸ™‚ FYI. Anyway, we use it mostly for loose budgeting and definitely for tracking our spending monthly and over time. I have also used the ap while out to see where our spending was for the month in a category to help me in a purchase decision. I would HIGHLY recommend it!!!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks so much Katie — this sounds great! I’ve heard of Mint.com before but never actually used it (at least not that I remember) I might have to check out the free version!

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  10. CAROLYN

    10/15/2016

    First I want to say how much I have enjoyed your blogs through the years. Thank you for sharing your life and beautiful family with us with refreshing honesty. I love the pictures of you, Dave and the kids.
    Secondly, i would like to know how you save on cell phones. I recently retired and want to cut back on some of these expenses. (For instance, I too would like to cut my ties with the cable company.)
    Thirdly, I have excel on my iPad. But, I am having trouble saving your tracker to it. What am I doing wrong?
    Once again, thank you. You are the one blogger I consistently read.
    Carolyn

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Carolyn! I appreciate your kind words!
    If you want to save on cell phones, I’d suggest using a track phone and just paying as you go — it’s very basic but it will save you a lot.

    As for the ipad, I’m honestly not sure about that either — I don’t use Excel with our iPad. I think you could probably save the spreadsheet in Dropbox or some online storage place, but I don’t think you can actually save documents to your iPad as it doesn’t have storage for that (but again, I’m not 100% sure). Sorry!

    Thanks again for your consistent readership!

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    JoDi Reply:

    Carolyn, you might also want to research Republic Wireless or Google Fi for cheaper cell phone service. I’ve read some really good reviews for both of them, and if we didn’t already have such a good discount with our current service, I’d be using one of them for our cell service!

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  11. Amy Campbell

    10/14/2016

    Do you have any recommendations for paperless way to balance the checkbook each month–I’m still using check registers and digital bank statements. I don’t really want to pay the $$ for Quicken….Is there another way?

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    Andrea Reply:

    I don’t have any ideas personally (I still use the checkbook register) but I just posted the question on FB so we’ll see if anyone answers. You can follow along with their answers here: https://www.facebook.com/AndreaDekkerDOTcom/posts/1301299036568641

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  12. Francie

    10/14/2016

    Thanks, so much for sharing this. I actually started using your worksheets a few years back, and we have save hundreds. http://www.supersimpleways.com

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    Andrea Reply:

    yay! Glad my excel sheet has worked well for you!!

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  13. Beatriz

    10/14/2016

    I use a free app I have on my phone that is pretty good. It tracks the categories and breaks it down for me in a pie chart. It also has a pro version but the free version is really comprehensive. I have to say it’s pretty good at keeping me in line with my budget.

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    Andrea Reply:

    Cool — just out of curiosity, what’s the free app?

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  14. Heart and Haven

    10/14/2016

    I’ve been able to track many “money leaks” over the years. Specifically when I became a SAHM, I contacted our car insurance to change our coverages to appropriate for current usage (ie. occassional vs. commuter, lower annual mileage, and any other discounts we currently applied for). We also re-fi’d our mortgage to lower interest rates, which is what saved us the most cash flow each month. Then I had to search for smaller “leaks” to fix (I also used Excel to list out all expenses by category to determine any that could be reduced or eliminated).

    I know many people are against using credit cards, but my husband and I use them as a tool to track our monthly expenses (we use debit/credit for 99% of purchases). We pay off cc in full every month, but I can easier see trends of expenses increasing or anything else unexpected.

    Just earlier this week there was an Amazon charge for $9.99 that I didn’t recognize so I asked my husband about it. Come to find out it was a subscription (after a one month free trial) that he had inadvertently signed up for (he thought it was a library domain of free kindle books, similar to what the public library offers). Luckily I caught it quickly so we didn’t have an on-going monthly charge of $9.99 that we didn’t intend to have!

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    Andrea Reply:

    Wow — that’s awesome you found so many ways to “tighten up” your expenses!

    Also, I honestly don’t think “many” people are against using credit cards. I think the majority of people DO use credit cards, it’s just the small number of people who don’t use them that speak up about it. Dave and I pay for almost everything we can possibly pay for via our credit card and we get so many perks, rewards, discounts, and cashback because of it. I appreciate that some people stay away from credit cards because it’s a temptation for them to overspend — but credit cards in and of themselves aren’t bad. πŸ™‚

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  15. Kelly

    10/14/2016

    We use YNAB as both a budget tool and expense tracker. You have to pay for it, but we won a free copy of it by taking one of their classes!

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    Andrea Reply:

    cool — I’ve heard of this but never really looked into it much because of the fee. Hope you enjoy your free copy!

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  16. Christine from The (mostly) Simple Life

    10/14/2016

    That’s cool that you can look back and see how things have changed over the years. Every month I print off my one-page spreadsheet that is both my budget and spending tracker. We moved this month, so our spending is all messed up, but I’ll be buckling down in November.

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    Andrea Reply:

    haha — moving has a way of growing your budget for a bit! New babies and illnesses apparently do it for us too! πŸ™‚

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  17. Karen

    10/14/2016

    Our cable bill has been doing the same thing and we get the same reason not to cut out the cable portion of the cable/phone/internet bundle. Time for another call, I guess, to suggest cutting cable and switching servers for the other two.

    The “loyalty discounts” they can pull out of a hat when you might be considering alternatives show how incredibly elastic the rates really are.

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  18. Tia

    10/14/2016

    What kind of antenna did he buy? The only thing we miss is local news and sports.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I have no idea — it’s just a tiny little thing though (it literally looks like the old bunny ear ones!) He bought several different kinds and this one got the most stations. It was about $20 from a local store (Meijer). I think it just depends on your area, what elevation your house is, what type of service is near you, etc. We live in a very good location for using an antenna — so I’m sure that helps!

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  19. Organize 365

    10/14/2016

    I was JUST online last night looking at cutting cable again. And my #1 concern is internet speed. πŸ™‚

    So, how is your internet connection/ speed with the change?

    πŸ™‚
    Lisa

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    Andrea Reply:

    we have the exact same internet service we did before cutting cable… we have the slowest speed offered and it’s totally find for us.

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  20. Jenny

    10/14/2016

    Yes! I also don’t have a “budget” but track what I spend as I spend it. It is amazing how many times I’ve thought about picking something up on the way home and decided that I didn’t really need it. I will also makes notes on what happened during the month (like when I broke my foot and instead of going to Aldi’s I had groceries delivered and ordered take out way more.)

    I find it is also helps to make sure that the “one time special occasions” remain just a one time thing and don’t become a habit.

    I also have a number of savings accounts for large regular and irregular expenses (property taxes/tech/travel/stuff for my condo ect.) That way if I want a new phone or to go on a trip I look at the savings account and if there is money in there I can get it. Otherwise I can’t.

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    Andrea Reply:

    I love that you have different savings accounts for various items or categories. I’m actually planning to talk more about how we handle our savings account in a couple weeks!!

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