Using Personal Finance Data to Drive Smart New Year’s Resolutions

Each year, near the end of the year, I like to take a look at the personal finance data I’ve accumulated over the preceding 12 months in order to see if I’m making any mistakes and if we should be making some changes in the coming year.

Mostly, what I do is multiply our monthly budget by 12 and then see how close we are to our target in each category. I look very closely at anything that goes over our target and I also take a long look at anything that’s close to going over.

This year, I identified two issues from our spending over the last 12 months, both of which led to very smart and very doable resolutions for the coming year.

Changes in Food Spending

As I alluded to a few times earlier this year, 2015 was a challenging year for my family due to some medical problems that my daughter faced in the middle part of the year. Those medical problems caused us to have to travel many times to medical facilities, often on multi-day trips, to seek treatment.

Those trips were expensive. The fuel costs added up, as did the hotel stays and the food.

The fuel costs were somewhat mitigated by the low fuel prices in 2015. Overall, even with all of those road trips, our fuel spending was down in 2015 by quite a bit.

Our inexpensive vacation this year, most of which was spent camping in state parks in Wisconsin, mitigated the cost of some of the hotel rooms, as did some time spent on the floors and couches of friends and relatives when hotel rooms weren’t available.

That leaves us with the food spending. Believe it or not, our food spending was just barely above our budget level for 2015, even after all of those meals eaten out on those countless road trips to the medical center.

We achieved this by eating at home a lot more during the year than in 2014 (excepting those times when we were on road trips). As I mentioned before, we joined a new CSA in 2015 and were very happy with how it went, as they provided tons of good, interesting foods for us to use.

However, I gained some significant weight during the latter part of 2015. This was due to a lot of things – eating a lot of restaurant food in a condensed period over a few months, being stressed out almost constantly, and also having my activity and exercise routines completely and totally disrupted.

All of that data points us to two separate resolutions for the coming year related to food.

First, we’re going to put a harder cap on restaurant spending. This is mostly going to take the form of eating out a little less during the year so that eating out doesn’t have much of an impact if medical issues rise up like they did in 2015. Remember, without that medical situation, our food spending would have been down substantially in 2015, so we’re going to try to keep on track with our reduced restaurant usage that occurred in the first part of 2015, through the summer months. Our goal is to eat out twice a month at most.

Second, we’re going to join the CSA again and make it our goal to use everything that they bring, if possible. We were fairly close to 100% usage until late August when our family’s medical challenges began. Provided that nothing major interferes in the coming year, we’d like to hit 100% usage throughout the entire growing season. Of course, we’ll supplement that with our own garden’s production.

Those two things together will naturally have a positive impact on our health. We’re going to be spending 2016 eating at home more and eating a lot more fresh produce.

Notice that I’m not committing to some kind of radical dietary or exercise change in the coming year. I don’t really think those kinds of commitments will really fix the problem.

For example, as my routine slowly starts to find a new normalcy, I’m finding that regular exercise is naturally becoming a part of things again, and I’m finding that normal daytime routines mean that I’m eating at home for virtually every meal again. The hope is that those changes add up to consistent positive results on their own without a strong initiative for change.

Changes in Hobby Spending

Another spending challenge that reared its ugly head in 2015 came from hobby spending. To sum things up, through October I was actually quite a bit over my budget when it came to hobby spending. This mostly came about as a result of my choice to jump on several hobby-related deals in the middle months of the year.

The hobby in question was my board gaming hobby, and my spending related to that hobby choked my spending on other hobbies of mine in 2015. I bought very few books and didn’t do any replacement of home brewing supplies (even though I actually do need to replace a few items as soon as possible).

In November, I made up for this by selling off a significant portion of my board game collection at a convention, bringing me back below my hobby spending total for the year (by a fair amount, actually).

Still, I was unnerved that I let myself go that much above what I should have been spending on hobby expenses this year. I didn’t like that much at all.

So, I decided to focus directly on the hobby that triggered that overspending in 2015 and tighten things up big time when it comes to that hobby in 2016.

Simply put, I am spending $0 in new money on my tabletop gaming hobby in the coming year.

Now, what do I mean by “new money”? It means that I can actually spend money on that hobby if I choose to, but I must have already earned that money by selling games I have or doing something else that earns revenue within that hobby (like volunteering at a gaming convention or something).

If this is a hobby I love, why am I pledging to spend $0 on it for a year? To put it simply, if I look around my game shelves, I see a lot of games that I haven’t even yet played and many others that I am excited to play again. I have a lot of stuff on my shelves that I want to dig into over the next several months and acquiring new stuff would just get in the way of that.

I want to spend this year enjoying the many wonderful things I already have, not acquiring new ones.

Doing that does free up some hobby money in 2016 for other things. The big thing I want to do is update some of my home brewing equipment. I want to build a homemade mash tun, for one, by converting an old insulated water cooler with a handful of parts from the hardware store, and my primary fermenter has got to be replaced as it seems to be designed to be difficult to use and clean. That won’t eat nearly all of my 2016 hobby budget, of course, but those are purchases I’m looking forward to making.

Basically, I just don’t want to be in a position where I’m in October and I’ve already spent my entire hobby budget for the whole year, which is what happened in 2015. I also want to enjoy the stuff I already have, and by not spending any money on my most expensive hobby in the coming year, I’m going to be spending my time enjoying what I have rather than acquiring new stuff.

Final Thoughts

Both of these discoveries – and both of these resolutions – were led by spending the time necessary to keep track of my spending and evaluate it honestly. It didn’t take a lot of time – mostly just importing transactions into You Need a Budget and labeling them individually within categories – but it did take consistent time and commitment.

Because of that effort, it was easy to see where I was making missteps, and, as they say, knowing is half the battle. It enabled me to really think about the actual choices I was making and whether or not they really made sense or brought positive results into my life.

Was spending that much on food really helping me to go where I wanted to go? What about spending on hobbies? The answer is a resounding “no” in both cases.

Of course, the final ingredient in all of this is willpower. I know exactly what I should be doing to improve my spending in 2016, but do I have the willpower to stick to it? Can I say no to buying an interesting new board game? Can I drive home for a family dinner around the dining room table after a day spent out and about with my family instead of just heading to a restaurant?

That’s the real challenge, isn’t it?

My personal finance tools have shown me where the problem areas are. It’s really clear what I need to fix.

But, in the end, fixing those problems comes down to me. I know what choices I need to make.

I just need to make them, both for my own future and for the future of my family.

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.