The first step to financial success lies in knowing your financial situation at any given time. There is an anecdote attributed to John D. Rockefeller--that as a child he was given a monthly allowance from his parents, but upon stipulation that he had to save 10% of it, give away 10% to charity, and account for the rest of it. While his parents required that he record down to the penny where he spent it--you can be a bit more lenient on yourself!
Track your spending for 1-2 full months
Use a program like Quicken to keep track of all your personal finances. I recommend the latest version of Quicken or a similar financial program if you already own one. You should start out by entering in your present-day personal checking account, savings, investments, and cash situation.
To complete this step, you will also need a cheap plastic filing container or something similar. You can purchase these for about $15 at Office Depot, etc. As you make payments, keep track of all the receipts you receive, the checks you write, and any other monetary transactions you make. Like I mentioned earlier, you don't need to be exact when it comes to cash--just try to be, as much as you can tolerate.
At some later time, at your leisure, enter all this transaction data into Quicken. As you do so, put the purchasing receipts into the file folder under the appropriate Category. Make separate labels for each of the file folders-- I suggest some of the following:PersonalHouseholdCharitableBooks & EducationDining OutBusiness ExpensesTaxesMisc.
You can also add your own categories or remove some as appropriate. At this point, you may be wondering why you have to do all this. For the moment, just trust me that it will be beneficial to you (I will explain it later on). Also, it takes a grand total of about 10-15 minutes per week to do what I just described. The next section, Budgeting, will take a little longer. But budgeting also requires that you need to at least perform the first step mentioned above, that is, keeping track of what you currently spend.
Planning your Budget
I can already hear what you are going to say--oh no, not a budget! I don't like them either, because they tend to reign in my emotional spending or "I gotta have it" mentality. The truth is, you are the master of your financial destiny (not to sound corny, but its true for the most part). If you want to buy that fancy knickknack with the wireless PDA attachment downloader, then by all means, get it. But if it doesn't serve your needs in the long run, then you will have wasted $X dollars to serve your fleeting emotional desires. Besides, you will notice after tracking your budget for several months where the real money is flowing. You might buy a fancy computer toy only occasionally, at $200+ dollars, but eating out at lunch everyday + dinner with the girlfriend at fancy restaurants all the time is leaving you broke. How about going to bars? I like to drink, but a beer at a bar or nightclub can range from $4-$10. It's probably even more if you live in areas like San Francisco or New York.
Anyway, the point of planning your budget is just to get a better grasp on directing the flow of your money. I'm not saying that you should totally change your lifestyle or even change it at all--but if you are complaining about not having enough then there are certain things you should do, mainly spend less. It will be described later the benefits of saving & investing your money (which you probably already know anecdotally, but perhaps do not have extensive experience personally).
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The Long-Term Value Letter