31 Days To Fix Your Finances, Day 10: Fitting Your Expenses Into The Bigger Picture

The Simple Dollar offers a month-long plan for fixing your finances. All you need is an open mind and an hour each day.

Yesterday, we took a look at our living expenses and tried to find places where we could easily make some reductions. The goal was not to make hard cuts, but to find ways to reduce spending that fit within our lifestyles.

Today, we want to see how this revised personal expense balance fits within our overall life plan. Pull out the overall plan you built a few days ago along with the estimates you calculated yesterday. You’ll notice that your older plan is calculated in terms of hours, which is a great way to see what your expenses are really costing you, so let’s do the same conversion for your expenses.

Take out a fresh sheet of paper and make three columns on it, with the left one taking up about half of the page and the two on the right taking up about a quarter of the page each. In the first column, write each expense down from your sheet from yesterday, then in the second column, write the amount per week that you calculated yesterday. If you skipped that part, just take your annual estimate for each item and divide it by 52.

Got that? Now, in the third column, divide each second column number by the true hourly wage that you calculated earlier. This is the number of hours that you spend working each week to pay for that expense.

For me, this exercise really opened my eyes. I found lots of places where I felt almost guilty for what I was doing – things such as working eleven hours a week just for my entertainment expenses. I was working a lot every week just for silly little things, when that time could be spent working for something bigger, something that reaffirms my life.

Once you’ve converted all of these dollar amounts to hours, total them up. Unless you have some major spending problems, this total should be less than your total hours you spend working in a given week (which you figured up earlier in the week). Ideally, it’s around 60% of the total hours in a week (mine is about 55% right now, but when I first did this, it was at about 92%), but you don’t really need to worry unless it’s pushing 95% or so. If it’s over 100%, you need to make some cuts in your spending or you will never get ahead, as your spending will grow as your income grows.

At this point, it might be useful to start a “real” balance sheet. Take the overall plan and recopy it with the same items as before, but don’t move the numbers over. Instead, just put in the total number of hours in a week and the total number of hours you spend on living expenses. The difference between the two is what you will use to begin building your future.

What if I’m left with only a 10% sliver? How can I “build my dreams” with that? First of all, even a small amount of money can get you started and, with the power of compound interest, can build up quite well over time. Second, this process of evaluation is not a one-time process. It’s useful to go through this on an annual basis, just to re-evaluate where you’re at and where you’re headed. Once you get started and watch things begin to build to fulfill your dreams, the feeling is often so powerful that you find new places to trim your spending – you pay off debts, cut down on your nonessential purchases, and so on.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what to do with that remaining fraction.

Ready? Let’s continue on to the next day.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.