The physical trappings of personal finances have become nearly as quaint as the abacus. (It can't be long before you'll start seeing listings like this on eBay: "For Sale: Half-used box of original circa 1998 unused checks! (checkbook cover included).")
Still, despite the advances in modern money management -- online bill payment, automatic transfers, e-alerts, and that thing on the counter at McDonald's that takes your money when you wave your wallet in its general vicinity -- I still have no clue how I spent last Thursday's $100 ATM withdrawal.
Your money has something to say to you
We're certainly not lacking in raw data about our dough. At every moment of every day, our banks, our other banks, our brokerages, and our credit card, mortgage, and utility companies faithfully record every minute money move we make.
We're drowning in personal financial data, only it's not telling us a thing about how to improve our personal finances.
But just imagine if it did ...
- Your credit card statement would include a flier that says you should brown-bag it for the next two weeks because, compared to your restaurant spending the previous couple of months, you appear to be binging.
- Your bank would tell you the next time you hit the ATM that it's happy to record where you spend that money in any of dozens of categories if you just take a sec to let it know.
- That savings account you set up eons ago would get back in touch with the name and contact information of a competitor's institution that will pay you a much better interest rate on your money.
Until our financial providers start pointing out your flaws (and theirs) and offering some workable solutions, it's up to you to figure out how to make the most of those $100 ATM withdrawals.
Fortunately, that job just got a lot easier to do.
Let your money buddy do all the work
If you've never used financial software -- or have, but found it too tedious or not nimble enough -- it's time to try the new breed of money tracking tool. (You'll find links to one of them -- Mint.com, our brand-new, hand-picked Motley Fool partner -- on this page.)
Mint.com and its ilk -- Yodlee, Geezeo, Wesabe and others -- are different than traditional financial software in many ways, the most obvious of which is that they're online (so you can watch your money from any secure Web browser) and most of them are free (as in they cost zip. Nada. $0).
Frankly, I'd be willing to pay a small fortune for what they do. (No, that's not an offer, Mint, though I will be composing a heartfelt thank-you note soon.) With Ginsu precision, these one-stop shops 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 like you.) Mint in particular even lets you account for that $100 ATM withdrawal, even if you spent it in several places.
Too lazy to bother checking on your checking account or bill due dates? No problem: Your online money buddy is keeping tabs on your cash flow 24-7, and will even ride you to pay your bills on time if you let it. (Let it.)
Sound tedious? It's not. To get started, you simply make an introduction to your bank, brokerage, or credit card online when you first sign up, and after that the tool 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.)
Stop stealing from your doe-eyed child's future
I know, I know ... it's hard to get too worked up about something that sounds suspiciously like a budget. So let me put it another way: Every time you brush off a $100 ATM withdrawal or $40 dribbled away (or any other transaction), you might as well be wadding up cash in yesterday's newspaper and tossing it to the curb.
That's right: Every dollar that passes through your fingers with nary a fleeting acknowledgement is another dollar that doesn't get invested into your daughter's 529 college savings plan.
Every dollar you shell out for an unmemorable meal is one less dollar socked away in your family's summer vacation fund.
And, most painful for us Fools, every dollar that's not allocated toward something that assures either your physical welfare (a roof, food, and safety) or psychological well-being (don't deny yourself that latte if it's really what gets you through your day) is a dollar that never even gets a shot at being invested.
The $3,100 ATM withdrawal
We Fools see an investment opportunity in every single one of those dollar bills. (At least the ones we didn't earmark to lose in a Final Four betting pool.)
Let's pretend that instead of blowing off that mysterious $75 credit card charge or bank debit entry for "merchandise/retail" (an actual entry on my credit card statement), you instead diverted it into a dividend reinvestment plan account (a.k.a. "Drip"). Plenty of well-known companies offer these plans, including 3M
If you earned 7% average annualized returns on your investment, you'd pocket an extra $63 in one year. If you continued to treat your dollars with that same consciousness over the span of three years, that $75 a month would blossom into $3,100.
Maybe if that ATM withdrawal slip actually told us that the money we were taking out could be worth $3,100, we'd start treating our cash with a little more respect.
Treat every single dollar as an investment
There's a good chance that every month, at least 75 chances to make better spending or saving decisions (and, we bet, a whole lot more) present themselves to you. I recently read that the average American household could easily find an extra 10% to set aside if we only bothered to really look. For someone making $75,000 a year, that equals 7,500 opportunities -- 7,500 investment opportunities.
With tools like Mint doing all the heavy lifting, tracking down every single investment opportunity is a piece of cake. Give it a try -- it takes just a few minutes to set up and, I repeat, it's free.
Once you start viewing every dollar through the lens of its potential, you'll start making better choices about what you do with your money.