How tracking investments instead of expenses changed my life!

Published: May 7, 2018 at 2:52 pm

Last Updated on

In this post, I write about how I went from tracking expenses to tracking systematic investments and how it changed the way I look at money and has taken me to financial independence within a decade of regular employment starting from a net worth of minus three lakhs (I was in debt). This post was first published in Sep. 2015. After seeing the positive response from readers who have tried the same method, I thought of republishing it.

A while back, I had requested readers to suggest topics to blog on. (still, need to work on several suggestions there!)  In that post, Anand said,

how about covering the other half of income-savings-investments? ie Tracking and wrangling with Expenses? I am keen to understand how an expert like you would log and manage expenses.

I went from writing expenses (in a 100 page bound book !) by date – then throwing it away to logging all expenses categorised ( eg: groceries, tax, utilities etc) and I noticed wastages and was able to cut down wastages…

What struck me about his comment was the phrase, “other half of income-savings-investments”. Tracking and managing expenses is a deeply personal topic and I think it is best for me to state, ‘what I do’ and let you critique it.

I have the account notebooks maintained by my great grandfather (would crumble into bits if I try to open it), my grandfather, and of course, my parents – using which I was able to write about, Inflation in India: Some Real Numbers.

My parents managed the expenses and tracked them until Jan. 2006. When my dad fell ill, I started to use his notebook along with my wife to track expenses. We used the so-called envelope system like my parents. We used plastic dabbas instead of envelopes because they tore often when we repeatedly checked if they were empty or not!

In the envelope system, each type of monthly expense – milk, vegetables, salary for paid help etc. – would be placed in an individual container at the start of the month. The idea is that the basic and mandatory monthly expenses are accounted for, at the start of the month itself.  Only the amount in the container should be (theoretically speaking!) used for a particular expense. Each month we would try and keep some dabbas in different places in the house to see if that would prove lucky and reduce our expenses. No such luck.

In 2007, I switched from a notebook to a graphing software called Microcal Origin. I had never used Excel at that time.  I still maintain that file, but do not write all entries.

Soon when I started making retirement and goal planning calculators, my emphasis shifted from “how are we spending?” to “how much are we investing?”. That was a bit of a watershed moment for us.  The goal each month was to invest as much as possible. Initially, I was not able to invest as much the calculators told me to.

Somewhere along the line, I realised that as long we invested enough, it did not matter how much we spent (without borrowing). That is when I decided to give up the envelope system.

The key,  in my opinion, is to track investments. Not expenses and not definitely not returns (at least for the first few years). So I created columns in Excel where the monthly investment target for retirement and other long-term goal were listed for the current year. I decided to increase this investment amount by say, 8-10% each year.

Later on I developed it into a monthly tracker (download link below) which everyone could use. Here is a screenshot to illustrate my point.

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I tried to beat the target as much as possible that it irritated my wife. At times we did not have enough to meet monthly expenses because I would have invested a large chunk of my salary as soon as I got it.  Yes, ‘pay yourself first’, expenses  = income – investments, and all that sort of thing. It worked wonders to my net worth.

Unfortunately, I was a little too obsessed about investing. For close to 6  years, I was able to invest like clockwork. Thankfully, much of that was during the sideway market after 2008.

Unfortunately, soon I witnessed the perils of unexpected recurring expensesMy mom broke her hip (read about my experience with cashless mediclaim)  and required an attendant. This sent my cash flow for a toss. My investment schedule was severely affected and it took me quite a while to recover. Fortunately, the markets started to move up around that time and all that “capital in the market” paid off big time. By December last year, I was able to catch up with my investment schedule.

My point is, first I was obsessed with tracking expenses. I got over that but instead became obsessed about investing each month. I soon realised that life can make investing regularly difficult at times. Now I am a lot more relaxed. As long as I meet my target for the year, I am fine. Don’t need to do it each month.

Systematic investing with a little luck from the market has taken me to financial independence:

  • The rise and fall of my retirement corpus

Older versions of above Post:

If you are a young earner, I suggest you do not track your expenses or spending habits (get rid of those budgeting apps). Instead, focus on your long-term goals and how much you need to invest for each of them. Set your targets and do your best to meet it at least on yearly basis. If you do it on a monthly basis, you can engage in some guilt-free spending faster!

You can use this monthly financial tracker for this purpose. This is based on the version that I use, but only much neater! If anyone wants to build an app based on this, do let me know.

Download the monthly financial tracker


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About the Author

M Pattabiraman author of freefincal.comM. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the founder, managing editor and primary author of freefincal. He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. since Aug 2006. Connect with him via Linkedin
Pattabiraman has co-authored two print-books, You can be rich too with goal-based investing (CNBC TV18) and Gamechanger and seven other free e-books on various topics of money management.  He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India” an organisation to promote unbiased, commission-free investment advice.
He conducts free money management sessions for corporates and associations on the basis of money management. Previous engagements include World Bank, RBI, BHEL, Asian Paints, TamilNadu Investors Association etc. For speaking engagements write to pattu [at] freefincal [dot] com

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Sir,

    I have created several personal expense/investment trackers for myself because I had to track my expenses. Yes all it started with tracking my expenses, how can I reduce my tax and how much my net worth is. Also I tracked my credit card expenses with various heads under which I am spending, tracked personal cash expenses and it gave me a sense of how to reduce these. Also you can defer the expenses to the next month or so.

    Then it I saw different websites including Pattu Sir’s (Thanks and please accept sincere gratitude) and switched gears and changed the purpose to set goals, set realistic timelines to achieve these goals and review goals annually.

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