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The myth of “I’m broke”

At a Glance: Why tracking your spending is critical to taking charge of your financial life, regardless of your income level.

Keeping track of your spending is a lot like counting calories. Maybe you don’t think eating half a muffin or finishing off your kids’ uneaten cereal matters that much—but it really adds up.

Budgeting—or detailing every expense—seems easy enough. But according to a Gallup poll, only about 30 percent of Americans keep a detailed budget, despite the fact that managing your family’s finances, and avoiding financial difficulties, usually involves creating a family budget.

Barbara Stanny, author of “Sacred Success and Secrets of Six-Figure Women,” was shocked to learn how much she was spending on face creams and cosmetics. “Tracking takes you out of vagueness around money and gives you clarity,” Stanny says. “It’s a tool for lowering your expenses, getting out of debt, or increasing your savings. The tracking connects you with your money.”

How to begin

Start by writing down absolutely every dollar you spend. Stanny says it helps to mark down your purchases immediately, as you make them, wherever you are and with whatever method: check, credit card, debit card, cash. She prefers writing everything down by hand in a notebook or empty checkbook register. “There are a lot of apps out there to help you do it, but I think at least for a few months, you need to do it by hand. It connects your money to your brain, and you really feel it.”

Next, after two or three weeks, start creating categories and how you’re feeling as you’re spending so you can understand triggers and patterns. “The whole idea is to see where you can shave and save,” she says.

Fight the resistance

It’s normal to not want to track your spending. Maybe you feel like it takes too much time, or that you’re too disorganized, or that you can keep track of everything in your head. Or maybe the truth is you’d rather not know. “When I first started tracking my money, I went into total resistance. It’s scary to see the truth of your financial habits,” Stanny says.

But seeing the truth doesn’t mean you have to stop spending altogether. On the contrary, it gives you all the information you need to make choices that are best for you and your family.

Tracking your spending raises your awareness of your relationship with money and your relationship with yourself. “It shows you what’s missing in your life,” Stanny says. “It shows you where you’re doing impulse spending, and where your real needs are.”