When You’re Stuck and Can’t Get Going

A question I receive nearly every day goes something like this: I’m ready to take back control of my finances. But how do I get started? It’s like I’m stuck.

Don’t think you are alone if you find yourself wanting to do all the steps at once. But that could be a big mistake. If you were building a house, you wouldn’t try to pour the foundation, raise the walls and put on the roof all at the same time. It’s the same with building a plan to manage your money. You need to take things one step at a time …



First, you need to lay the foundation. I call this initial step “tracking.” You cannot manage what you cannot measure. 

Tracking means knowing exactly where every penny goes. If you bring home $793.42 this week, next week you should be able to account for every single cent. Where did that money go?

I suggest that you track on a daily basis. The only way to do that is to write it down. Every morning start with a fresh sheet of paper or note on your smartphone. Somehow, come up with a method that works for you. Throughout the day write as you spend any amount of money, write it down. You need to record just two things: How much did you spend and what did you spend it on? How much, what for. Got it?

Do this for at least 30 days (longer may be necessary if you are really in a financial fog). One sheet of paper or note per day. Then just stash them away into a safe place and start fresh the next day. Ideally, both you and your spouse, partner or person with whom you share your finances should be tracking. 

At the end of a month pull out all of those daily records. Categorize your spending. You will begin to see patterns. Perhaps you spend $3.49 a day on lattes. Okay. That’s a choice you make. However, you might want to point out to yourself that if you keep this up for a year, you will shell out $1,273 on coffee drinks.

Apply this multiplication to all of your sending categories. Where are things really out of line? Can you see why you are spending more than you earn? How much of your spending was done with cash? Debit cards? Checkbook? Credit cards? What might you have done differently to come out with a more favorable end? 

It is not going to take the assessment of a professional financial planner to point out problems in your spending. You will see that instinctively. Putting things in black and white has a way of clearing away the fog.

You may find this to be the activity that keeps you going in the right direction month after month. Some of us find that we need to do this for the rest of our lives as a normal part of our personal finance management. It can’t hurt.

Cutting expenses in every way possible is the next logical step. The goal is to get your outgo to be less than your income by trimming expenses. The best way to do that is to trim a little bit in every area. Little things really add up when it comes to trimming just as they do when it comes to foolish and unaccounted spending. 

Just think: If you had your lattes just three days a week rather than seven, you would trim more than $700 from your annual spending. It takes time, but little by little you will be amazed how well you can do. 

Okay, there’s your jumpstart. I would love to know how this is working for you.

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7 replies
  1. Patricia Fadden Rimkunas says:

    I switched from buying canned soda to using the Soda Stream I got for my birthday. I was surprised at how much money I saved.

  2. Toast Points says:

    I just returned from a biz trip with a traveling partner who I like very much. Yet she’s forever moaning about not having any money and being close to the edge financially. That’s no lie, and it doesn’t surprise me now that I’ve seen how she operates . On this trip (some, but not all of our expenses were underwritten by our company, and we are outside contractors) she insisted on three squares a day when two and snack would have done, and she never passed up on a pre-dinner drink or the dessert menu, where one slice of cake with ice cream ran up to $12. She insisted on in-room WiFi ($14) when we could have used public space WiFi downstairs. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Had I done this trip alone, it would have cost the company less, and me much less. Meanwhile, this same thoughtless spending goes on in her personal life. I use coupons. She can’t be bothered. I stay off the toll HOV lanes, she insists on getting there faster and paying through the nose. Again, I like her. But I won’t travel with her — ostensibly to “share” expenses — ever again. Too expensive for me.

  3. RanchMommy says:

    I’ve used several methods over the years for tracking expenses. Paper, xcel, quicken… I really like the one that we switched to this year, mint.com. It helps track and categorize spending, establish budgets and notifies you if you are approaching a budget limit. You link it to your accounts and it will download transactions. Of course you have to manually add cash, but that is very simple. I add them on my phone in the car before I drive away from the place I spent the money. My husband and I have many shared accounts and we use this to stay ‘on the same page’. Best of all it is free.

    • Toast Points says:

      RanchMommy — Sounds good to me. But may I suggest you add on phone in car AFTER you drive away and park briefly elsewhere. For security, you don’t want to linger in a parking spot after someone has spotted you walking frohm a retail establishment. Reposition yourself and then do it while briefly parked elsewhere.

  4. DianaB says:

    I totally agree with the tracking thing, but pieces of paper or using a phone app are not the way to do it. A program like Quicken is the way I have tracked my expenses for years, reconciled all my accounts online, track my cash spending (rounded to the next dollar as I keep my change separate) and post everything daily as I spend it and categorize it. Simplifies income tax, as well. Quicken is not that expensive and is a great way to know exactly what you have on hand in cash and the bank, work on savings goals, set up bill pay reminders and all sorts of things. If we want to be efficient, that is one of the best ways to go. You can set up all sorts of accounts–checking, savings, credit cards, home mortgages, loans owed to you, loans you owe to someone else, and download all the accounts into Quicken when you have a new statement available. The list goes on and on.

    • Petoskey says:

      I’m happy that works for you, but not all of us (including myself!) use computer programs, phones or electronics extensively. For me, a little notebook works perfectly; I can keep it in my purse and write things down as I go along. I believe it’s a balance of what works well for each individual. I have a three ring binder that I use, with a section for each credit card or bill that we are paying down and the current balance; we make weekly bank auto payments and I keep track of every weekly payment, etc. (I say “I”, but it’s my husband and I; as he travels, much of this falls to me to make sure things are paid timely. Auto pay is wonderful! We even break down our utility payments into weekly auto pays.)


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