If you have been following my progression you know that we started our FI effort in the 2nd half of 2018, beginning with what are considered the foundational steps: Fully load 401K, HSA and any other tax-advantaged accounts. We also began collecting information to track expenses and this is where we are at.
My wife and I built a basic expense tracking spreadsheet and have tried to be as diligent with getting receipts as we reasonably can. Everything is sorted and then accounted for by month. I see this as having two stages that I would call Flexible and Fixed. For the first stage, we are not going to focus on most of the defined payment streams such as the mortgage, various insurance plans or auto loans (those are the Fixed expenses). We researched them all before we started each and the effort to improve them is not worth the squeeze, while other optimizations can be had for vastly less effort. Instead, our first stage focused on capturing how we tend to spend what’s left.
To do this, our spreadsheet is set up with simplified categories. I suspect most homes would have similar buckets. We broke them down by how we pay them so that there can be a simple 1:1 correlation between a payment and a line in our bank or credit card statement. From there, each section has a Catch All row for things we would include in the category but don’t want to constantly track as a distinct item. For these, we also include a comment so that a simple hover of the mouse can remind us what that expense was.
Now that we have the 2018 numbers all loaded, we are seeing where the spreadsheet could be improved but it’s been a solid beginning. We especially like the direct mapping to how we pay for things and the fairly simple buckets. We even have our receipt-accumulation folder mapped to match so that we have a simple and organized place to put things. At the end of the month, the spreadsheet is updated and the full month of receipts removed from the file folder. Finally, my wife and I have a shared understanding for what each category means to us. The process of accumulating, tabulating and entering is fairly smooth now and minimizes our time to get things done.
Our categories shake out as follows:
Housing (Gas, Electricity, Water/Sewer/Trash, Maintenance, Cable, Phone, Miscellaneous)
Transportation (Fuel, Maintenance, Miscellaneous)
Food (Groceries, Dining Out)
Entertainment (Vacation/travel, Events/Shows, Kids Activities, Miscellaneous)
Personal Care (Medical – Paid from HSA, Health Clubs, Grooming, Clothing)
Miscellaneous (Online purchases w/o receipt, School Supplies, Gifts (Bday, Xmas, etc.), Gifts (Charity), Other
No big surprises were found. Food is one of our single greatest expenses at just over $1500/month for a family of five. We think that we could pare this down to $1000/month and that will be the goal of the next several months. Maintenance costs and Medical were also big hitters for the year and I’m not sure what to do there.
For maintenance, I do as much around the house as I possibly can. I can do most of the electrical, carpentry, plumbing and even troubleshoot my own HVAC. We still got hit with replacing Freon and having to replace a main control board for our heating/AC units. Cars were especially troublesome with an unknown wiring issue in our 2009 VW Passat costing us over $2000 before we surrendered and bought a new car…tough decision since it is in amazing shape with only 83K miles on it!! Its sudden unreliability pushed the situation over the edge. Finally the year came to a close with our refrigerator and microwave dying and the final decision to just upgrade our kitchen appliances as a package since the stove and dishwasher were nearing end of life as well.
In summary, we are getting a great view of our ordinary costs and are looking to establish reasonable savings allocations to buffer these. We are currently budgeting for lower food costs and planning vacations. It is interesting to see a ‘savings’ mindset show up in all of our discussions…it has certainly entered our consciousness and is influencing the direction in almost every case now.
(I can’t resist…so here’s a quick segue on home repairs)
I’m pretty handy around the house and I enjoy being able to do it even when I don’t necessarily enjoy the work. If you are not terribly handy around the house, the internet is your friend! Start by becoming familiar with your home. Where do your water, gas and electrical supplies enter your home? How does water drain out of your home? What does your electrical panel look like? Where are the filters for your HVAC system?
Buy some basic tools and don’t be afraid to give it a go. My one bit of advice for the inexperienced is to not reinvent the wheel. Start off with like-for-like replacements when things are broken. Take pictures before you start, go slowly and don’t be afraid to ask for help. For major appliances in your home, almost all of them come with schematic diagrams that are often fixed inside a panel that you need to remove for maintenance. For things like HVAC, washing machine or dishwasher, spend some time with your system while it’s working to get a feel for what a normal startup sequence sounds and looks like. Heck, start small…take the cover off your toilet tank and then flush to learn how it works. Just knowing toilet repair has saved me over $300 in repairs in 2019!