A Better Way To Track Your Spending Each Month

in Financial Planning by

How much do you really spend? It’s a pretty basic question, but few of us know the answer. It’s important because how much you spend directly translates into how much you save. And how much you save largely determines how much money you will have in retirement.

The problem is most couples have over a hundred spending transactions per month. Our brains are not meant to be able to track this much data. Enter technology. Most bank websites or apps will help you, but the problem is you probably have different financial institutions for different accounts. Luckily, tracking income and spending is a core feature of the Personal Capital dashboard. Now you can track and view everything in one place.

Considering I work for a company that offers tools to understand spending, and I frequently advise others on how much they should spend or save, I figured I should see how I am doing. Here’s what I did, and you can do the same if you’re interested in tracking your spending:

1) Logged on to my Personal Capital Dashboard

2) Went to the Banking tab

3) Adjusted the date range to reflect the full calendar year.

It was a valuable exercise that took only minutes to complete.


First and foremost, I learned we (meaning, my family and I) are spending about 10% more than I thought. Ten percent may not sound like much at first, but it has a meaningful impact on our savings rate. I plugged the lower savings rate into our financial planning tool (it is in alpha – we expect to release later this year) and found out I may have to work another 3-4 years. That’s serious.

I also discovered some fun details. We spent $815 last year at Starbucks. That one didn’t come as a surprise, but it is good to know. We spent a lot on sushi. That one may be worth revisiting.

All of this is incredibly valuable information. Good financial planning shouldn’t always be focused on spending less and saving more. Life is what matters, and it is important to enjoy the present – no matter what your age. But it is important to remember that saving a dollar now should allow you to spend more than a dollar in the future. Finding the right balance is critical. (Related: The Value Of Saving One Dollar Now)


Knowing what you spend is the first step. Figuring how much you should save is the second step. Actually doing it (and investing efficiently) is the third step. We’ve made the first part easy. The immediate reaction for the second step is to “create a budget”.

I’ve never been a fan of budgets, especially detailed ones. They are boring and restrictive. More importantly, most individuals are no better at following them than the government is. At Personal Capital, we believe it is better to think in terms of cash flow. If you are still in your working years, try to figure out how much more your inflows should be than your outflows and manage that.

There is only a subtle difference between cash flow targets and a spending budget, but most people will be more effective setting up a savings plan than limiting themselves to certain dollar amounts on clothes or restaurants or whatever. Life is very unpredictable. It just takes one car problem or a good friend getting married in the Bahamas to throw a budget off track. Positioning for positive cash flow doesn’t remove these wrinkles, but it gives you a better chance to save what you need to.

Happy informed spending.

Have you ever tallied up your spending one month to find out you were spending way more than you initially thought? If so, what were the culprits?

Track your spending better with Personal Capital!

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Craig Birk, CFP®

Craig Birk, CFP®

Craig Birk leads the Personal Capital Advisors Investment Committee and serves as the Chief Investment Officer. His focus is translating improvements in technology into better financial lives. Craig has been widely quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNN Money, the Washington Post and elsewhere. Prior to Personal Capital Advisors, he was a leader within the portfolio management team at Fisher Investments, helping assets under management grow from $1.5 billion to over $40 billion. Craig graduated from the University of California at San Diego and has earned the Certified Financial Planner® designation.


  1. Joe Saul-Sehy

    For me it’s always the little things….utility bills came in higher than expected or my kids had an “emergency” and needed money. You can count on this: it’s generally in the one place that I’m not inspecting that month…..

  2. Financial Samurai

    Hmmm, I clicked on my Banking tab and then Cash Flow, and my greatest expense is Taxes! No surprise.

    BTW, sushi is the HIGHEST margin food of all. Like eating a LV bag every time you got out to eat!

  3. Barbara Friedberg

    Barbara Friedberg

    Fortunately, over years (okay, decades) of tracking our family finances, in aggregate we are close to budget. Although some months we go over and others under. My secret trick is to plug in some wiggle room.

  4. Internet Banking

    Awesome tips for tracking your spending. Personally, Internet banking has really helped me keep track of my purchases, since I can check my accounts so easily on my smartphone.


  5. Jodi Vogt

    I have been using a different personal tracking app that is no longer in existence. The app allowed me to not only categorize charges as they came in, but “check them off” (by swiping the charge away) once I saw the charge and noted that it was correct. It was helpful in tracking returns – among other things. Does anyone know if there is a way to do this in Personal Captial? I can’t figure it out, if so. Suggestions appreciated!

  6. Chris

    Stick you head in the sand? The way to budget to buy a new car is not to say, “Well, it’s going to knock my budget off track. Oh well.” No, the way to budget for a new car is to save an amount towards it every month, and to cordon off that money in a “car buying” category that can be checked on at any instant. And if you don’t have enough in that category to buy a new car, you modify your buying behavior and don’t buy that car. This is WAY better than Personal Capital’s cobbled together “budget” so-called, which is based on cash flow and comparing this month’s expenses to last month’s expenses. Of what value is comparing last month’s cash flow to this month’s cash flow, when last month you didn’t buy a car, but this month you did? Hello?!? YNAB, Mint, and others let users SET a budget ahead of time instead of mindlessly REACTING to past expenditures. Instead of WASTING over $800 on Starbucks, you could have PROACTIVELY SET your budget to $1/day for Starbucks, and each day you get the Starbucks urge you check your mobile phone budget and if it says you have enough saved to buy a Starbucks then you buy it, and if it says you don’t have enough saved to buy a Starbucks then you don’t. Had you done this, you’d have $500 more in your pocket right now!

    Personal Capital is great for tracking investments. But don’t even call it a budgeting system. It neither allows you to set a budget, nor track your progress against a budget. It only shows you cash flow and the almost useless metric of how much you’ve spent this month compared to last month. Has anyone ever found such a metric truly useful and behavior modifying? $100 says you’re still spending as much on sushi as you ever did. Your spending behavior hasn’t changed, because you don’t have the tools to make spending decisions!

  7. Kevin

    Is there a way to enter and track actual cash? Pocket money not plastic money. I hate swiping a card for everything and rarely do I use a card of any kind for day to day expenses.


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