Find Your Biggest Cash Flow Leaks

The Motley Fool's Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp is in session! Every weekday this month, we'll walk you through a fresh money-saving/money-making tip as we work toward finding $2,000 in savings you didn't know you had.

Begin at the beginning. Seems easy enough. But when it comes to doing a monthlong money cleanse -- our Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp -- starting is the hardest part.

This quest to find thousands (yes, thousands!) of dollars you didn't know you had begins with finding the answers to some basic questions: How much do you spend for food each week? What about home maintenance over the course of three months? Coffee? Hair products?

You're about to find out.

Stop making that face. This won't require a weekend of paperwork drudgery dusting off that shoebox full of ATM receipts, bank statements and, oh hey, there's that dry cleaning receipt.

Today is all about cutting to the chase and getting a handle on your current state of financial affairs in less than five minutes. How? By letting someone else do all the heavy lifting!

Start 2010 by making a money buddy
Online money management tools offer an instant rundown of your cash flow, even if you're the worst record keeper in the world. With Ginsu-like precision, these one-stop shops (or "money buddies," as I like to call them) aggregate your accounts, provide detailed rundowns of your balance sheet, keep tabs on spending and saving, track trends, and even compare your money habits to others with similar financial psychographics. (Yes, there are others out there just like you.)

They can even help you account for those "where'd the money go" $60 ATM withdrawals, even if you spent the dough in several places.

Start here. Now.
Today, your single task is to sign up for Mint.com (full disclosure: Mint is a Motley Fool partner), a free Web-based service that'll provide an instant snapshot of your spending. (If you already use another money tracking program like Quicken, Microsoft Money, or other online tools such as QuickenOnline.com, Geezeo, or Wesabe, then you're already good to go!)

When you first sign up, you're asked to introduce Mint to your bank, credit card and even investment institutions. (Read more about the site's security here.) It then goes out and grabs the previous 90 days of data and takes a stab at shuffling all the transactions into the appropriate categories (e.g. Mortgage/Rent, Groceries, Fast Food, Home Services, Financial Fees). After that, every time you sign on, Mint automatically grabs the information and ports the data into your pre-set tracking categories. (As someone who has publicly copped to pecuniary sloth, trust me -- setting up my money stuff on Mint was no sweat.)

Granted, this is most helpful if you put things on plastic (and if you do, we really, really hope you pay it off in full every month). Even if you don't, the spending and bill-payment rundown will at least give you a general sense of your cash flow.

Is your spending "normal"?
Of course, as you review the numbers you might wonder, "Does everyone spend as much at Target as I do?" (or something to that effect). Well, let's see what "normal" looks like using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2008 Consumer Expenditure Survey, which estimates how much people spend in various categories. Based on an average annual income of $63,563 before taxes, here's how the average household spends its dough in seven major categories:

Category

Average Annual Expenditures

% of Pre-Tax Income

Companies Affected by Consumer
Behavior Include:

Housing

$17,109

26.9%

Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL  ) ,
Home Depot (NYSE: HD  )

Transportation

$8,604

13.5%

Ford Motor (NYSE: F  )

Food (at home)

$3,744

5.8%

Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT  )

Food (away)

$2,668

4.2%

Darden Restaurants

Health care

$2,976

4.6%

Merck (NYSE: MRK  )

Apparel and Services

$1,801

2.8%

Gap (NYSE: GPS  )

Entertainment

$2,835

4.4%

Disney (NYSE: DIS  )

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I'm not saying that this is how your spending breakdown should stack up. Your financial situation is unique, and there are a lot of factors that may throw your spending pie chart out of whack, like, say, an alarmingly robust monthly Target tab. Just a hypothetical example. Ahem.

Go ahead, cop to your cash flow leaks
Now that you've got three months of spending data at your fingertips (and the palpitations have subsided), spend time noodling around on Mint.com and creating a handful of categories that best align with how you tend to spend. Don't go crazy, though: The simpler your tracking system, the more likely you are to stick to it.

Next, identify three categories where you can control the amount you spend. For example, the bulk of my spending fell under the "Home" category, but once Mint filtered out my mortgage payment (which is static), my willy-nilly "Home Improvement" spending -- a category which I can certainly rein in -- starkly stood out. I won't even get into the whole "Food" category until later this month, but suffice it to say, there is plenty of room for improvement there.

So where do you leak money? C'mon, fess up. Hit the "Comments" button and reveal what spending categories make you wince. We're all in this together!

Tune in every day this month for the latest installment of our Fiscal Fitness Boot Camp, as we stay on course to produce at least $2,000 of savings for you.

Dayana Yochim should totally own shares of Target, given that she's singlehandedly propping up the stock, but she doesn't. Disney and Home Depot are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Disney and Ford Motor are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (13)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 05, 2010, at 4:10 PM, KismetPlan wrote:

    I've been using Mint.com for over a year now, and find the tool/site to be very beneficial. There is some functionality in the desktop versions of the money management software that is not included in the Mint version (like bill pay, cash flow forecasting, and manual transactions). I haven't missed the additional functionality much. The features included on the website are the primary money management tools I used, and the other features just made the desktop software a little more complicated to use.

    If you find that you'd like a little more instruction on how to get up and running on Mint.com. I've published a Getting Started Guide available from my website. www.mintguide.com.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 11:07 AM, lemoneater wrote:

    Good article. We have microsoft money and it is easy to see where our spending goes. "If I didn't eat, I'd have money to burn.." The cat costs about as much as a cable fee, but he's cuter. Also someday I will probably break down and buy Barnes & Noble stock just to give myself a coupon on the books and DVD's I buy!

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2010, at 1:01 PM, InvestingRookie wrote:

    I have never used a service like mint.com. It is asking for the username and password info for all my financial accounts. How safe is this? They could really have a field day with this if they wanted to.

  • Report this Comment On January 30, 2010, at 2:50 AM, BDRudolph wrote:

    I use the cell-phone version and I have to say I have no complaints!

    I use the computer to set up my budget categories and $/mth. allowed for each category. When I am out in the world a quick check on my phone lets me know what I can and cannot do.

    Thanks TMF for the suggestion. My life is easier, and cheaper too.

    And thank you Mint for coming up with the idea!

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2010, at 7:45 AM, Suzane89 wrote:

    I like to be in control of tracking my own spending...I guess the old-fashioned way is for me. My husband and I each have an allowance and when it's gone for the month the spending is over. I love this website SMARTMONEYMOM.ORG For tips and advice on creating budgets, saving money, managing credit, paying down your mortgage, savings deals/rebates and coupons, lists of free sites to take surveys and do secret shops to make a little extra money and more! http://www.financeandmarkets.net

  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2010, at 7:46 AM, Suzane89 wrote:

    17% unemployment rate. Yeah, people can save thousands upon thousands per year. These kind of articles, given the current state in our country, are almost a slap in the face to everyone just trying to keep their head above water. http://www.financeandmarkets.net

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