Today's tip is part of our Fiscal Fitness '09 series. Every weekday this month, you'll get help getting fiscally fit as we work toward our goal of saving $2,000 to invest in 3 stocks!

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.

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 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.

As with any fiscal fitness plan, we begin at the beginning -- getting a handle on your current state of financial affairs. No need to block out a few hours on your calendar -- we've got a quick and painless way to tackle this task in a snap.

How to take a fresh snapshot of your spending
Today, your single task is to sign up for (a Fool partner), a free Web-based service that will tell you exactly where your money goes. (If you already use Quicken, Microsoft Money, or other online tools such as, 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.)

What should your expense breakdown look like? One source is the government's Consumer Price Index, which estimates how much people spend in various categories:


Weight in CPI (Dec. 2007)

Companies Affected by Consumer Behavior



Toll Brothers (NYSE:TOL), Pulte



General Motors, Ford Motor (NYSE:F)



General Mills (NYSE:GIS), Kellogg

Medical Care


Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Merck



American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO), JC Penney

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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.

Identify your biggest 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 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? Head to our special Fiscal Fitness '09 discussion board, where Fools are already actively chatting up a storm about getting their finances in shape. And by all means, chime in if you have any questions or tips of your own about today's Fiscal Fitness tip.

More ways to save...

  • Use the old-fashioned guilt-trip trick. Write down everything you spend -- to the penny. Just knowing you're keeping a record of that $2.53 here and $3.71 there will make you think twice about actually spending it in the first place.
  • Cut back on luxuries. Tough times have made everyone think twice about everything that isn't absolutely necessary. For instance, one online survey found that more than half of those surveyed plan to cut back on buying electronic gadgets this year. That's bad news for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), but it could spell quick savings in your budget -- especially if your monthly spending shows a weakness for pricey gadgets and accessories.
  • Try out other online money trackers. Besides, there are other free tracking tools, such as and On the Fiscal Fitness '09 discussion board, ThyPeace shared how she tracks her and her husband's finances using

Read the latest from Fiscal Fitness '09: 1 Month, 2 Grand, 3 Stocks: We're warming your budget up by cutting back on everyday expenses.