March 26, 2013

Household Spending Breakdown

Credit: jannoon028
One of the things I sometimes ask clients for is a breakdown of their living expenses for several months. Just like a tax return, you can actually tell a lot about someone based on their living expenses. Think about it - if someone had a few minutes with your checkbook or credit card statement, don’t you think they could develop a decent theory about your current income, paint a rough picture of how you typically spend your money, and maybe even infer a few things about your personality? Scary to think about, huh? (Don’t worry; I treat all client information with the highest degree of confidentiality.) Anyway, back to living expenses…

I usually ask clients for a breakdown of their living expenses for one of a few common reasons. Maybe I’m trying to figure out if they can retire, or why they’re finding it difficult to hit their saving goals. Perhaps they have a consistently negative cash flow (they are spending more than they are taking in) that is threatening their financial independence, or, sometimes, they simply have no idea where all their money is actually going. I don’t judge anyone’s expenses as I wouldn’t want anyone to judge mine, but it really can be eye-opening. I’ve had clients go through this exercise and realize they can retire if they pay off their mortgage and get rid of that fixed monthly expense, I’ve had clients realize to their horror they are spending more than five digits in a year at a particular discount retailer, and I’ve even had clients who appeared to actually spend more on drink than food. It’s their money, and I would never attempt to tell anyone how to spend their hard-earned money, but I’ve seen many people right before my very eyes become truly enlightened after we have taken the time to break down their household spending.

Rewind to the 2012 holiday season - sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas: I harassed my very selective, very thrifty, and always-conscientiously-saving wife about how many “bargains” she acquired in a relatively short period of time. It wasn’t an accusation, and it didn’t lead to a “domestic difference of opinion,” but it did help motivate me to take the time to perform the very same analysis on our living expenses that I've done for so many others. I would later find out that I was dead wrong about my wife's spending and the magnitude of our joint discretionary spending relative to our living expenses. As a CPA and CFP, I didn’t even know my own household spending breakdown as well as I thought I did! As a friend of mine in college often used to say, “How embarrassing!”
I won’t bore you with all the details of the Presley Household Spending Breakdown, but I will share with you a few observations:
  • Gas and automotive expenses are considerable. When I was a kid, I remember when gas was $.79 a gallon… I must be getting old.
  • The costs of going out to eat can add up. I think I’ll ask my wife for a few more homemade dishes and cook a little more myself going forward. It’s probably healthier, too!
  • University of Georgia football expenses for tickets and tailgating should not be a separate category from discretionary (optional) spending. Anyone who knows me at all knows I’m a loyal alumni and a huge fan, but I realized that I was actually viewing UGA expenses separately from our discretionary spending, like a normal person would view utility bills. I bet I’m not alone in this twisted logic, as trying to convince some people I know that golfing, hunting, tennis, and seasonal clothes shopping are not required would be a “tough row to hoe.” I’m still trying to convince myself that I really don’t have to go to every home game, but it’s still a work in progress.
  • As many of you have probably picked up on from reading my other posts, I’m not a big advocate of debt. My wife and I work really hard and save really hard to try to put additional principal towards our mortgage whenever we can. This analysis actually showed me that we were putting unnecessary pressure on our cash flow and probably saying no to some opportunities that we should take advantage of as a relatively young couple. I still hate debt, and everyone should still have an emergency fund, but by closely examining our living expenses, I came to the somewhat obvious realization that taking a little more time to pay off our mortgage and having a full (and less financially stressful) life would probably be a better choice than paying off our mortgage as soon as absolutely possible and having a lot of spare time.
I hope you will take the time to look at the entries in your checkbook for the past few months, view those spending reports that are available online through many bank accounts and credit card accounts, or look at last year’s W-2 to see if you can figure out where all that money went. It can be helpful financially, but it can even be personally enlightening, too.
I still want to know what one client was feeding her cat. It had to be surf and turf!

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