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Dreading Your Annual Financial Checkup? Graphs are Your Friends

Kristin McGrath

July 19, 2013

It’s an oft-repeated bit of financial wisdom: Look carefully at your bank statement to see where your money is going. We may have repeated it a few times on this site as well.

However, when it comes to spotting long-term spending patterns, logging in to online banking and scrolling through past transactions will make you dizzy in no time.

So, for my annual financial checkup this year, I decided to turn my endless list of transactions into some easy-on-the-eyes charts and graphs. My bank allows me to export my account history into a spreadsheet, and once I had the numbers, I fed them into Google’s “Fusion Tables” tool, which digests data and spits it out into various interactive charts and maps.

It took about an hour to clean up the data and generate the graphs, but once I did so, I had a bird’s-eye view of my primary checking account activity. Here are some things I measured and what I learned from them:

My financial pulse
The first chart I generated was a diagnostic one — a line graph showing my running balance for the past year. You can’t tell from this flat photo, but the chart was interactive, allowing me to zoom in and mouse over points on the line for more detailed stats. Because I didn’t want the world zooming in on and mousing over my exact account balances, you’re getting the censored version (zoomed in on the first half of 2013):

What’s great about a chart like this is that it lets you see where your account balance has plummeted. In my case, those dips were largely predictable (they happened at the beginning of the month when rent was due). Any other dips were immediately suspicious. The first thing I checked on was that huge dip in the middle of January. Turns out, that was the time I accidentally double-paid my credit card bill by hitting “pay now” twice on my bank’s website. That dip in the middle of March? Moving costs.

Thanks to this chart, I was able to zip to the correct bank statement and verify that each plummet was a temporary blip. However, I do wish those plateaus after paydays would stretch a bit longer. For some tips on plugging spending leaks, Andrew from the blog Listen, Money Matters has some tips on cutting waste.

Where my money is actually going
I spent a great deal of time fretting about my new expensive hobby and the cost of my trip to Germany. But those things are tiny slivers on this pie, which shows how my money has been divided up since August 2012:

If I really want to downsize, the first place I should look is not my hobbies and travel, but rent. Of all the money I spent over the past year, nearly 30 percent of it went to my desire to live in a particular neighborhood. The “Miscellaneous” category (the name I applied to incidentals, clothes and food) could use some whittling down as well. The “Credit card payments” category looks intimidating, too. However, because I pay off my balance in full each month, none of it’s going toward interest. In fact, that chunk should actually be divvied up among the other spending categories. Let’s face it: Most of it would probably end up in “Miscellaneous.”

This chart showed me that when it comes to my spending, it’s the big stuff (rent) and the little stuff (miscellaneous purchases) that are bleeding my account. How fitting, then, that the “Savings” portion of the pie appears in between those two categories. If I want to increase the size of that slice, I know I’ll need to start with its neighbors.

For some ways to lower your living costs, check out the blog Rowdy Kittens to learn how a couple can live in less than 200 square feet. If it’s miscellaneous impulse purchases you want to attack first, find out how personal finance blogger The Frugal Toad went about it.

My most expensive months
I wanted to see if there were any seasonal patterns to my spending. Was I guilty of going overboard during the holidays? Were my high electric bills during the Texas summer breaking the bank? My results showed me that April and November were my most expensive months this year:

I can blame plane tickets home for Thanksgiving and Christmas for November’s extra-long bar. As for April, that’s when I transferred some money into a separate account I was using to budget for my trip to Germany. Travel (either back home or abroad) aren’t things I’ll sacrifice unless I have to, but I will try to get my holiday tickets home a bit earlier this year to try to snag a deal — and see if I can shorten that bar just a bit.

If you’re trying to rein in seasonal spending, Morgan Quinn provides some tips over at Mint.com.

There are many programs that allow you to turn spreadsheet data into charts — and some personal finance apps that make it super easy to chart your spending. However you go about it, visualizing your spending can be both fun and eye-opening — and a good way to hone in on anomalies and possible trouble areas.

I’ll never be the type to enter every single purchase on a spreadsheet, keep a spending journal or crunch numbers regularly. But I’ll be making these charts every year so I can keep an eye on the big picture.