Tracking and Forecasting Expenses with Mint, Todoist and Google Sheets

I’m hesitant to say the word “budget”, but understanding where I spend money is important. With it I can plan out how much I should save, understand how much money I actually need to live, and how much of my spending is on luxuries. I’ve tried a number of strategies for tracking and planning these, and have finally stumbled on one I love. I prefer to think about things on a yearly level, rather than a monthly level, which has conflicted with most common forecasting tools. Here’s my attempt at yearly budgeting.

My Monthly Overview Template

Here’s the Google Sheet I use for my forecasting. Values have been changed from my actual spending, but categories are the same.

Google Sheet

30 minutes a month is all it takes!

The rest of this post is a breakdown of how to use this sheet in a way that only takes 30 minutes a month to upkeep by leveraging some amazing tools like Mint, Todoist and Google Spreadsheets.

Manually Tracking

If you’ve never manually tracked your expenses, I’d encourage you to try it for a month.

For a while, I manually tracked every single expense in a Google Spreadsheet. I fully categorized these expenses, and forecasted spending on a yearly level. This has some advantages — I was holding myself accountable for every dime I spent. The trouble is that this takes up a LOT of time, and was directly against the minimalist in me who wanted to make this process easier. It was an important step to try and helped me understand where I was spending, but there are easier ways to do this using a combination of tools including Google Spreadsheets, Todoist and Mint.

Automatic Tracking with Mint

mint

Mint is the workhouse of this process. Link up every credit and bank account to mint, and let it do the hard work of importing these transactions and recommending a category. I’ll login to Mint once a month and go through and take a few steps including categorizing these transactions for the past month. I do this on about the 5th of each month to give all the transactions from the previous month a chance to clear.

What About Cash?

todoist

I’ve used a bunch of todo lists over the years, but I’ve never felt more productive than in the time I’ve used Todoist.

Mint isn’t going to track cash transactions unless you manually add them in. To get around this, I rely on my handy todo list application — Todoist. On the rare occasion when I spend cash, I’ll add a todo list item for the 5th of the next month with the details on the transaction, and put it in my “Ledger” project.

On the 5th of each month, I’ll add these transactions manually to Mint, categorize them, and see the results. Let’s start with the categorization.

Create Your Own Categories

Mint’s categorization is a good start, but it’s only a starting point. Based on your situation these could be completely different. I prefer to categorize these areas by a small number of high level areas based on intent, with sub-items for individual expenses. For example, everything related to living in my home is in the Home category. If I moved out of my house and into an apartment, I’d probably be able to get rid of some of these expenses. Being able to see at a glance how much I would save in that situation is important for decision making.

Create categories in Mint that work for you. Be OK tweaking them as you learn about your spending habits.

Home

  • HOA Fees
  • Mortgage, Insurance, Taxes
  • Home Maintenance
  • Home Improvements
  • Home Utilities
  • Cable Bill

Entertainment

  • Subscriptions
  • Concerts & Performances
  • Recreation

Travel & Luxuries

  • Luxuries
  • Travel

Personal Care

  • Medical, Dental, Personal
  • Clothes
  • Fitness

Transportation

  • Gas
  • Tolls
  • Car Insurance
  • Car Misc
  • Car Payment

Food

  • Groceries
  • Dining Out
  • Coffee & Breakfast

Education and Career

  • Books and Education
  • Cell Phone Bill
  • Websites, Software & Subscriptions

General

  • Gifts
  • Unexpected Expenses
  • Pets
  • Other

On the 5th of the month, I’ll make sure all transactions (paychecks and expenses) from the previous month are in Mint and categorized. After that it becomes a lot easier to work with the data.

A Mint Budget for Every Sub-Category

Mint Categories

My next step is to transfer this data from Mint to a Google Spreadsheet. Although it’s not a budget per-se, you can use the “Budget” page on Mint to get a breakdown of how much was spent during this month for each category.

By changing the month and selecting “Everything Else” drop down on budget page, you can get an easy snapshot of how much was spent in each category each month! This is great data, and now we can start tracking/comparing it over time using a Google Spreadsheet. I’ll select the previous month, where all transactions have been categorized, and run down the list, copying the values into the Google Sheet.

Once every row in the sheet is filled out, the job of Mint and Todoist is done for the month!

The Google Sheet

This is the core place to really learn and analyze how things are going. Here’s the template I’m using for this:

Go to “File” > “Make a Copy” to start editing this doc.

My Monthly Overview Template

sheets-logo

Here’s the Google Sheet I use for my forecasting. Values have been changed from my actual spending, but categories are the same.

Google Sheet

The doc itself is relatively simple as far as these things go. It uses calculations of course, but also some conditional formatting, graphs and sparklines to help see trends as a glance. Here’s a breakdown of some of these features.

Monthly Overview

On the 2016 sheet, there’s a column for each month. This is the key place to feed in data from Mint by category. By adding in your data here each month, you can see how it’s changing over time for that category.

There is also conditional formatting on the percentage column. Data in this row shows up red if spending is above 100%, indicating that this budget needs to be adjusted. Yellow means I’ve spent more than I expected for the current year already — which assumes linear spending throughout the year, so may or may not be useful depending on the category.

Yearly Overview

The 2017 Budget and 2016 Budget columns are some of the most important — those are the indicator of how much I’m on track to spend this year. The column for the current year always has a number higher than I’ve spent, since this is a real expectation for how much I’m spending that year.

A pipe started leaking in our wall this year, which was a large unexpected expense.

The 2017 column is a place to experiment with “what-if’s”. What if I payoff my car? What if I eat out less? What if I refinance my mortgage? What if I don’t buy that new computer? What if next year there’s no major house issues.

2016 Overview

Sparklines

Sparklines are one of the coolest things you can use to get a quick view of change over time. I love this view, because it helps me identify lifestyle inflation at a glance. Am I spending more on restaurants each month?

In this view it’s also possible to see your total spending, and if you add in income here you can get a snapshot of how much you could be saving.

Cashflow Graph

The Cashflow Graph is the place to go to understand your spending at the highest level. Are you spending more than you’re making? How does your spending correspond with your investments? Are you currently financially independent?

If the blue line is below the yellow, I’m FI!

Cashflow

What I love about this view is that I could easily see if my spending was under one of the 4% or 3% lines for multiple months. Cutting expenses to that point for a short period is one thing, but doing it for a full year is another thing.

Takeaways

My goal in all of this was to create a process that I could spend the absolute least time on, but still get a huge amount of data from. This allows me to spend more times on other things including (ironically) writing about it. What kind of tools and process do you use for budgeting? How could it be streamlined? The easier you make it, the more chance there is that you’ll stick with it, so find a process that works for you.


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