His and Hers Apprentice

Every once in a while, my wife Elizabeth and I air our financial laundry in front of 3 million of our closest Fools (see Couples and Cash, Penny-Pinching for New Parents, A Couple's Manifesto, Revisited, and Foolish Bedroom Secrets). We thought it was time again to open up our checkbook and flash our finances in the hopes that such public navel-gazing will offer other Fools some helpful lints... I mean hints.

This article is the result of two developments that occurred over the past few months:

  1. We spent a lot of money.
  2. We got hooked on The Apprentice.

Following the money trail
It's been a crazy winter at the Brokamp household. The Mid-Atlantic weather has been horrible, our children have been sick since Halloween, we've begun the process of adopting another kid (you can never have enough sick people around), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't make the playoffs. So we slacked off a bit on the day-to-day operations of running a family: The "to do" pile got larger, the carpets didn't get vacuumed as frequently, the dusting went undone, and I rarely bathed. Plus, we lost track of where our money was going.

So I was shocked when I checked the balance in our checking account recently. I suspected we were spending too much, but I didn't expect the balance in the account to be down by thousands of dollars.

This can be a painful revelation. Carelessly spent money is a mistake that can't be corrected. You can resolve to not do it again, but the dollars already dallied away are gone forever. It can be an especially touchy subject for couples. On the one hand, you want to see where the money went. But, on the other hand, realizing how much you frittered away can lead to tension and recrimination.

Nonetheless, we thought it was important to figure out which merchants' children we were putting through college. So here's what I did: I pulled up our checking account statement online, cut and pasted the charges (payees and amounts) into a spreadsheet, then categorized the expenses. In less than 15 minutes, I had a very good idea of where our money went over the past couple of months. It can be done even quicker if you use financial software such as Intuit's (Nasdaq: INTU  ) Quicken or Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Money.

I was surprised by the results. To see if my wife would be equally surprised, I emailed her two lists: the list of expense categories and another of dollar amounts. Then, to make a game of it (instead of an exercise in self-flagellation), I asked her to match the category with the amount we spent on that category over the past two months.

Like me, she was indeed surprised -- and aghast. She did OK on matching the category with the dollar amounts, much better than I would have done. But it was clear to both of us that the grip on our purse/wallet strings has loosened.

The numbers don't lie
Did we learn anything specific about our spending habits? Here are a few of the revelations:

  • Like most Americans, our "dining out" bill is closing in on our "groceries" bill. However, we're not too pleased about this. It's time I make good on the wedding gift I promised my wife (almost five years ago): I will learn how to cook.

  • On a related note, we spent a wide range of money on restaurants, but we get the most satisfaction -- in terms of good service, excellent coffee, and family-friendly atmosphere -- from the $8 we spend on bagels and beverages at Panera Bread (Nasdaq: PNRA  ) every Saturday morning. This is an important question to ask about any "discretionary" expense: Was the satisfaction worth the cost?

  • We're spending approximately $200 a month on gasoline. It's the result of rising gas prices, and also our decision to move to an exurb of Washington, D.C. While we got more domicile for our dollar where we live now, our 100-mile round-trip commutes are adding up. Luckily, we don't make that trip every day, thanks to public transportation and telecommuting. But we certainly didn't figure this cost into our decision to move.

  • Speaking of cars, we spent more on repairs and maintenance than we did on restaurants or groceries. Maybe exurbia isn't such a good deal after all.

  • We know whom to blame for the nation's rising health-care costs: my children. In just February and March, we spent almost $800 on doctor and pharmacy co-payments alone -- goodness knows how much our insurer had to fork over. Good thing we participate in the Fool's flexible spending plan.

  • Almost $1,000 is unaccounted for because all that shows up on our account statement is some variation of "ATM withdrawal." In other words, cash -- and who knows where it went. Actually, we recall paying some big expenses with that cash (school registration fees, stuff bought at a charity auction). But most of it probably went to the "small" purchases that people usually don't (or can't) put on the credit card: coffee, fast food, movies, and so forth. In other words, we don't have much to show for it.

  • Finally, we noticed that our bank is charging us fees for services that are supposed to be free given our account balance (which, after all our spending, is still high enough). Which just goes to show: You always have to review your bank and credit card statements for spurious charges.

Playing the Trump card
OK, so we spend more than we need to. Now what? This is where The Apprentice comes in. Besides emailing back her guess for how much we spent on what, Elizabeth also proposed another game: We compete against each other to come up with the best money-saving ideas. We're not talking "use the jelly sludge at the bottom of the jar to make Popsicles" type of ideas. We're talking systematic changes -- ways to lower recurring bills. Once we're ready, we'll meet in the "boardroom" (or "bedroom," whatever works) and make our proposals.

Of course, there really won't be a loser. We can't fire each other, and we'll both benefit from shelling out less money. And that's really the aspect to emphasize: the benefit. Cut your bills by $250 a month and send that money to an IRA, and you'd have almost $150,000 in 20 years, assuming 8% annual growth.

We haven't worked out all the details of our competition (rules, prizes, etc.). So if you have any ideas for us, or if you and your spouse/partner/pet would like to play your own version, email me. You might get your name in a Fool article, or at least win an autographed photocopy of professional Fools' body parts.

Robert Brokamp doesn't own any of the companies or people mentioned in this article, but would love to be on The Apprentice just to spend a few weeks in New York City. He and his wife contributed toThe Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cash. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investors.


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