How I Save – Prioritizing Spending & Tracking My Progress

by Ryan Guina

There is a famous quote attributed to Peter Williams that states, “You can have anything you want. You just can’t have everything you want.”

You can have anything you want in life, you just can't have everything you want.

There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. It exemplifies the importance of creating personal priorities so you can achieve your goals. I have been reasonably successful when it comes to managing my personal and business finances. And much of that is due to setting priorities for saving and spending, and sticking to those priorities. Here is my saving story.

I Prioritize My Saving and Spending

By this, I mean I pay myself first. I started this with an Emergency Fund, which I believe to be essential for any healthy financial plan. My personal Emergency Fund has varied in size over the years. At first it was a thousand dollars, which was enough to handle most medium size emergencies, such as car repairs, an emergency airline ticket, etc. Gradually, I grew my Emergency Fund to reflect my ongoing financial obligations and my growing family. That $1,000 Emergency Fund turned into a full month of expenses, then 3 months of expenses. Now that I am self-employed, I try to keep about a year’s worth of living expenses on hand. It took a long time to get there, but I feel it’s an important safety net for my family.

Retirement savings is another area where I prioritize savings. I started my first IRA at age 19. I have maxed it out almost every year since then, even when I wasn’t making much money. I also contributed to employer sponsored retirement accounts, including the TSP when I was in the military, and a 401k when I transitioned into the civilian world. I haven’t always been able to max out my 401k, but I have worked hard to at least fund it to the company match.

I Spend Where it Matters Most

Saving money is great, but I’m not a miser. I save so I can spend where it matters. There are a few things I am willing to splurge on. This includes business expenses where I expect a positive Return on Investment, and experiences for myself, or with my family. This can be travel, adventure, time with family, dining out, etc. My wife prioritizes her spending on healthy foods and health care products. This is important to her, so it’s important for our family.  Our children’s education is another area where we are willing to spend money. These things are important to us, so we are willing to sacrifice in other areas.

I Cut Costs on Things That Don’t Matter As Much (to Me)

Everyone has different priorities. This is neither good, nor bad, so long as you can afford the things you are prioritizing. The way I do it is by cutting back on the areas that aren’t as important to me. For example, I drive a 9 year old car. I bought it brand new, and have taken very good care of it in the time I have owned it. The car isn’t fancy; it’s a Mazda 3. But it’s functional, safe, and efficient enough. While it would be fun to have a new car, it isn’t that important to me. At least not more important that having experiences with my family. Or saving for retirement. I can come up with dozens of other things that aren’t more important to me than the items I mentioned above.

You can have your priorities. Even if they are extravagant. Just make sure you are able to afford them, even if it means cutting back in areas that aren’t as important to you.

I Track My Savings – and My Investments

The final thing I do is track my progress. It’s important to keep track of what you have. This gives you an idea of your current state of affairs helps you track your progress, and often shows you where you can make improvements. I track my savings and investments two ways.

The first, is with an Excel spreadsheet. It’s simple, and the manual updating each month ensures that I log in to each account and look over everything. The spreadsheet is handy for tracking my contributions (IRA, 401k, and HSA), and when certain payments are due, such as my quarterly estimated taxes. I also like the manual method because it gives me the opportunity to see how each account has tracked over the previous months and years. It’s the same information found in many software programs, but I have the flexibility of how I see it.

But spreadsheets aren’t always as powerful as software. Which is why I also use different tools to track my finances – including my banking (saving and spending) and my investments. I am currently using two different software programs, both of which have some excellent features. And both of which are free! I highly recommend them if you want to track your saving and investments:

Personal Capital and Future advisor are both free tools that give you insight into your total asset allocation, and both make recommendations on how you can better allocate those funds. Both have some similarities and slight differences. But I use the both since they are both free. I highly recommend them to get a quick financial checkup and to help you track your finances going forward.


Published or updated March 21, 2017.
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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 LaTisha

Are you kidding!? The Mazda3 is the hottest car out there! Only the cool people know that. I’ve had mine since ’07. 🙂

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2 Ryan Guina

Lol. Nice, LaTisha! I bought mine new at the end of 2005, so I’ve had it 9 years now. I’m actually quite happy with how well it has held up over the years. And there is something to be said about driving a car that has been paid off for years!

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3 E.V. Freign

I like your post – I think you do a good job of communicating moderation and it is certainly wise to start saving for retirement early on. When you manage your investments, do you rebalance your asset allocation on a regular basis? I’ve recently learned about the use of rebalancing to capture gains and take advantage of assets that are down. What are your thoughts on rebalancing?

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4 Ryan Guina

Hi, E.V. Yes, I rebalance, and I believe it is important to do so on a fairly regular basis. How often you should do it is up for debate. Some people recommend once or twice a year, while others recommend rebalancing your portfolio any time your allocation gets out of your target range by a certain percentage. For example, if your target asset allocation is 75% stocks, and 25% bonds, you would want to rebalance when either asset class is more than 5% off target. So that could mean rebalancing if your asset allocation hits either 70/30, or 80/20. The investing tools referenced in the article (Personal Capital and FutureAdvisor) both make is easy to rebalance your investments by showing you exactly what you have in each asset class, and in the case of FutureAdvisor, even making recommendations on which funds to sell and buy to rebalance your investment portfolio. This can take away a lot of the guess work and research and make the job much easier to accomplish!

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5 Jason Vitug

I’m with you when it comes to savings I’m not a miser. I spend on things I love rather on small things I like. It took a while to realize what it was I actually love doing or love using so that I curbed the temptation to buy things that derail my savings goals.

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6 Ryan Guina

Jason, it also took me awhile to learn that to prioritize my spending and saving. But I’m glad I learned it, as it has been the basis of my financial system for years now, and it has allowed my family and I to get ahead of the curve.

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7 dojo

We’ve been able to save more in the past years, by tracking our expenses and not purchasing stuff just for the ‘joy’ of owning it. I am not that pleased though and think there’s room for improvement, but we’re clearly way better than 5 years ago for instance.

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8 Ryan Guina

dojo, I think it’s great that you are making progress. Changing habits is more of a process than a destination. So just the fact that you have made improvements over the last 5 years is cause for celebration. 🙂

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9 Jane

I totally agree with your theory on saving so you can spend more on the things that matter most to you/your family. Refreshing to hear this approach to saving.

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10 Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom

I love that quote, I think it’s a very wise mantra to live by.

I love that you still spend on what you want, but limit spending on what you don’t want. We actually increased our budget this year in some areas, but found other areas to cut.

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11 Joseph Hogue

Very true. My wife and I do the same things ourselves. For example, we take a look at our monthly expenses and figure out where we can cut corners. And like you, we also prefer to spend our money on the things that are most important to us, and we’ve cut on frivolous spending.

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