Author Topic: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses  (Read 7183 times)

La Bibliotecaria Feroz

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Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« on: January 07, 2016, 02:16:38 PM »
So... Mr. FP and I spent every penny we made last year (at least for the 9 months for which we have good data). Actually, we came up a few hundred dollars in the red. Granted, we bought a house and bought stuff for it, but still, it's alarming.

Our current method of tracking expenses is to just log everything into a spreadsheet. The only categories we look at specially are groceries, daycare, car/house maintenance (combined), travel, transportation, and daycare. Everything else--clothes, kids' clothes, general shopping, medical and dental copays, entertainment, you name it, just gets lumped together as "discretionary." (Even though some of it is clearly not "discretionary," as in Little Brother's broken leg copays.)

I'd like to change that and get a better idea of where our money is going. I already have Personal Capital set up, so I can use that. (Mr. FP will keep using the spreadsheet, but is not interested in changes, so I'll be double-logging all my data.)

My question is, what categories would be most useful to me in figuring out how we blew through $65K (and hopefully avoid a repeat performance)? I know this is an area with a lot of individual variation, but advice would be appreciated. I'm most interested, I think, in differentiating between stuff and experiences and just-for-fun vs. necessary.

BarkyardBQ

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #1 on: January 07, 2016, 02:29:13 PM »
We use personal capital, and use the categories it offers appropriately.

Our spreadsheet is a little more simplified, based on another table that divides all expenses by Monthly, Quarterly, Bi-Yearly, and Yearly...

These go into a spreadsheet (these categories) with 12 columns (months), and they are dropped in wherever they belong. This helps us project the entire year. We edit the category expense at the end of each month.

Some of these categories like baby don't even have expenses yet, but we keep them there cause, it will happen eventually. Going Out, clothing, hobbies, charity, and travel don't have 'expected' expenses either, we just fill in the cell when it happens. Going Out, includes eating out, movies, bars with friends etc.

Like so:

Mortgage
Home Insurance
Property Taxes
Power
Gas
Water
Trash
Sewage
Groceries
Dogs
Phones
Baby
Household
Medical/Rx
Fuel
Car Maint/Reg.
GEICO/AAA
Internet
Netflix
Travel
Going Out
Clothing
Hobbies
Gifts/Charity
Home
Gym
Misc
« Last Edit: January 07, 2016, 05:15:09 PM by BackyarBQ »

SomedayStache

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #2 on: January 07, 2016, 02:42:43 PM »
You could do exactly what you just said:
Stuff: Necessary
Stuff: Discretionary
Experiences
(I'd separate out Medical as its own category)
....
What I actually do is probably overboard for you, but six years of YNAB can make one category CRAZY.  I just tallied up our 2015 spending.  You can take a look at the first post here if you want (It will make you feel better about your spending because ours is worse!): http://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/journals/family-and-finances-five-people-five-figures/msg920379/#msg920379
Browsing through other case studies might give you some ideas as well.

ETA: Regret my choice of 'ours is worse'.  Comparing to other families is folly.  This was the first time I've methodically tallied up a year's spending and I was floored at how much we spent.  It is so much more than 12x our monthly budget.  I've been beating myself up and dwelling on this.  It's time for me to forge ahead.  Best of luck to you as well!
« Last Edit: January 07, 2016, 04:48:58 PM by SomedayStache »

Genevieve

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #3 on: January 07, 2016, 05:46:09 PM »
I just started YNAB now that they have the automatic import feature and I think this could be a good fit for you. You could make ~10 categories or so you have more clarity but it isn't too much work.

La Bibliotecaria Feroz

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #4 on: January 07, 2016, 08:12:01 PM »
I just started YNAB now that they have the automatic import feature and I think this could be a good fit for you. You could make ~10 categories or so you have more clarity but it isn't too much work.

I did a trial of the old YNAB and I really liked it, but Mr. FP wasn't on board. I don't like the idea of taking on a new monthly bill when we've been overspending!

Thanks, guys--keep the suggestions coming! SomedayStache, totally right that it's not a contest :-). That way madness lies! I sometimes get a little discouraged when I see people whose annual savings are more than our gross income, but I LOVE librarian-ing.

Congrats on the upcoming baby (if I'm reading you right) BackyarBQ! I like the idea of laying out our bills in that kind of spreadsheet broken down by frequency--that's a good idea.

arebelspy

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #5 on: January 08, 2016, 05:05:26 AM »
I think people nitpick too much over categories, and get way too specific.

So I use more generic categories, and I also don't split out expenses when it's lumped under one.

For example, if we shopped at WalMart it went under "groceries," cause that was 90% of what we bought there.  Thus, if we bought pet food there, it was categorized as groceries, as was all household products (shampoo, toilet paper, etc.).  I didn't feel the need to break it out to more specific, it's good enough.

But then, I generally don't care about that stuff.  They, presumably, do.

The bottom line is do whatever works for you, and makes you happy.  If your thing is taking too much work, cut it back.  If you want more info, increase it.  :)
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GuitarStv

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #6 on: January 08, 2016, 06:30:37 AM »
We categorize things under 'essential' and 'everything else'.  Essential includes food and shelter (both of which are somewhat modifiable as well).  Everything else is icing on the cake . . . cutting expenses becomes easier when you realize that more than 80% of your spending is not essential.

andy85

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #7 on: January 08, 2016, 06:38:35 AM »
We categorize things under 'essential' and 'everything else'.  Essential includes food and shelter (both of which are somewhat modifiable as well).  Everything else is icing on the cake . . . cutting expenses becomes easier when you realize that more than 80% of your spending is not essential.
Pretty much this

I kind of have 4 main categories

-home related
-car related
-consumption related (grocery, dining out, alcohol)
-everything else

each category gets broken down from there. Once you realize that the first 3 categories are the most expensive, you cut the fat. Then, you realize you spend 40-60% in the first 3 categories and realize wtf you're doing wrong.

arebelspy

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #8 on: January 08, 2016, 06:57:42 AM »
We categorize things under 'essential' and 'everything else'.  Essential includes food and shelter (both of which are somewhat modifiable as well).  Everything else is icing on the cake . . . cutting expenses becomes easier when you realize that more than 80% of your spending is not essential.

Hah. I love that as a concept.

The problem with it is picturing how to implement it.  Almost all of my spending now (traveling, without a home base) is: what counts as essential?

And then do I have to split up expenses to allocate them partially?

Like, the lodging I'm staying in.. I need a place to stay, so is it essential?  I could find a cheaper place.  So is the minimum amount I could spend the essential part, and the rest not essential?

What about a plane ticket to go to the next place?  That's essential to this lifestyle, but not essential to living itself.

How about food? Is only grocery store essential, but eating out is not?  What about when eating out is as cheap, or cheaper, than groceries, so it's done half the time?  Then the grocery budget, labeled essential, appears smaller than it should.

Health insurance, I assume, is essential?  But what about gasoline?

It seems harder to me, to categorize things as essential or not, versus one of 5-6 basic categories.

Since I've been traveling, where everything is cash (and I hate cash, at home I used CCs 99% of the time, and autotracked with Mint), I've had to manually track.

The categories I've used, in the last 4.5 months are (in order of most to least frequent):
Groceries
Eating Out
Transportation
Entertainment
Lodging
Shopping
Charity
Medical

The top 4 are 90% of my use, and the top 2 probably 80%.  Once you've paid for a place to stay, what do you need besides some food?  Then you just go exploring.  That's free.  :)
We are two former teachers who accumulated a bunch of real estate, retired at 29, spent some time traveling the world full time and are now settled with two kids.
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gecko10x

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #9 on: January 08, 2016, 07:13:54 AM »
IMO, there are 2 reasons for a category:
1. Budgeting. It's easier for me to split out each utility bill into it's own category because it's easier to budget that way, rather than trying to lump them all together and add them up.
2. Control. If you want/need to control the spending, it should have it's own category. Personal fun money is usually a good example. Eating out. Groceries. Or anything else where you feel you need the control.

If you agree with both of these, and like lots of control like me, you may end up with 70+ categories :-)
If you disagree with the first, and don't need much control, then you may only want 3 or 4 categories.

arebelspy

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #10 on: January 08, 2016, 07:19:00 AM »
If you disagree with the first, and don't need much control, then you may only want 3 or 4 categories.

Yeah, I don't budget.  And I'm not trying to cut spending (what you refer to as "control").  I'm just tracking so I know how much we spend to:
1) See if our ER plans are viable, and, if so, how much we can up spending (as we travel to different more and less expensive parts of the world)
2) Report to others who are interested.

If I had, say, an extra 10MM but was still going to spend the same (which I would, in that case), I wouldn't bother to track at all.

People who need to work on budgeting and saving might need more precise data.  You're 100% right about that.
We are two former teachers who accumulated a bunch of real estate, retired at 29, spent some time traveling the world full time and are now settled with two kids.
If you want to know more about us, or how we did that, or see lots of pictures, this Business Insider profile tells our story pretty well.
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Lizzy B.

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #11 on: January 08, 2016, 07:41:50 AM »
I feel ya, FrugalParagon. Just finished our year-end review and was surprised by how much unbudgeted we'd spent. I'm in the process of identifying the new categories I need to track/budget too. We end up adding/removing a few categories each year to fit our new circumstances, spending habits, and tracking philosophy.

We have lots of categories because Quicken makes categorization easy, but like ARS, I don't split receipts unless it's a big number; I'm out for ballpark info, not super accurate.

We have:
Mortgage, property tax, hoa fees

Utilities (includes Internet and cell phones)

Food and dining (I budget at this level, but track it by subcategories of groceries vs eating out. That keeps the math simple, but lets us know if one part is getting out of hand)

Individual allowances
Clothing
Pet
Home improvement
Household (misc, covers air filters, towels, garden supplies, etc)

Auto costs (registration, repair, insurance)

Gas

Good luck!

Mrs. PoP

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #12 on: January 08, 2016, 07:47:21 AM »
You've seen our list of categories that we use on our monthly income statements - most of those categories come from Mint, although we tend to use Mint's higher level categorizations than more of their nitty gritty ones, but we almost never split transactions cross multiple categories.  I am not going through my grocery receipt to figure out what to split off for the cost of bath soap or whatever.  For example, "shopping" for us doesn't distinguish between toilet paper, a new suit, an iPhone, or a haircut.  But medical is useful for us to have pulled out separately since it makes it easy to tell how much we should be putting away in our use-it-or-lose-it health FSA every year. 

We have actually added our own lower level categorizations in a couple of instances for tracking purposes.  We added "pool" and "kitchen reno" as subcategories of home maintenance and "Work cafe" under eating out for the cafeteria at Mr PoP's work.  What I like about Mint is that it's largely set-it-and-forget-it.  Once you categorize a store one way, it'll stay that categorization for the most part.  There are occasional annoyances like when I pick up an Rx from Publix or Target.  I have to re-categorize that transaction, and switch it back on future trips if Mint then thinks those are medical. 

GuitarStv

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #13 on: January 08, 2016, 08:46:18 AM »
We categorize things under 'essential' and 'everything else'.  Essential includes food and shelter (both of which are somewhat modifiable as well).  Everything else is icing on the cake . . . cutting expenses becomes easier when you realize that more than 80% of your spending is not essential.

Hah. I love that as a concept.

The problem with it is picturing how to implement it.  Almost all of my spending now (traveling, without a home base) is: what counts as essential?

And then do I have to split up expenses to allocate them partially?

Like, the lodging I'm staying in.. I need a place to stay, so is it essential?  I could find a cheaper place.  So is the minimum amount I could spend the essential part, and the rest not essential?

What about a plane ticket to go to the next place?  That's essential to this lifestyle, but not essential to living itself.

How about food? Is only grocery store essential, but eating out is not?  What about when eating out is as cheap, or cheaper, than groceries, so it's done half the time?  Then the grocery budget, labeled essential, appears smaller than it should.

Health insurance, I assume, is essential?  But what about gasoline?

It seems harder to me, to categorize things as essential or not, versus one of 5-6 basic categories.

Since I've been traveling, where everything is cash (and I hate cash, at home I used CCs 99% of the time, and autotracked with Mint), I've had to manually track.

The categories I've used, in the last 4.5 months are (in order of most to least frequent):
Groceries
Eating Out
Transportation
Entertainment
Lodging
Shopping
Charity
Medical

The top 4 are 90% of my use, and the top 2 probably 80%.  Once you've paid for a place to stay, what do you need besides some food?  Then you just go exploring.  That's free.  :)

The real purpose of our categorization is to mentally free yourself of attachment to stuff.  If you dig right down to it, everything above a bag of rice, pot, and a tent near a stream is optional.  The fact that we are so much better off than that can become a constant source of happiness, and reduces stress of having to give up some frills now and again.

arebelspy

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #14 on: January 08, 2016, 09:20:43 AM »
The real purpose of our categorization is to mentally free yourself of attachment to stuff.  If you dig right down to it, everything above a bag of rice, pot, and a tent near a stream is optional.  The fact that we are so much better off than that can become a constant source of happiness, and reduces stress of having to give up some frills now and again.

Indeed.  Happy 5,000 posts.  Welcome to Walrus stache stage!
We are two former teachers who accumulated a bunch of real estate, retired at 29, spent some time traveling the world full time and are now settled with two kids.
If you want to know more about us, or how we did that, or see lots of pictures, this Business Insider profile tells our story pretty well.
We (rarely) blog at AdventuringAlong.com. Check out our Now page to see what we're up to currently.

KCM5

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #15 on: January 08, 2016, 09:33:12 AM »
So, I know this isn't quite what you asked, but I have a similar issue in that we spend our income. In theory I have a budget, but I don't really stick to it. And I'm not going to not buy my cat food because we've already spent our $300/mo discretionary budget on bike tires and whatever else (yes, I should have a pet budget. I don't.) We use Mint, which is great at catching all of our spending because we always use credit/debit cards to pay for things.

So, what we do is every year be more aggressive with savings. Get a $100/paycheck raise? Increase investments by $150/check. Child care costs $10/wk less? Increase investments by $20/wk. So I can still continue spending everything we earn, but more goes into investments. It works fine for us, we always make it work, but I know if we had better control of our spending we wouldn't have to do it this way.

Sailor Sam

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #16 on: January 08, 2016, 09:55:05 AM »
Every time I've tried to use Mint (or Quicken, just to show I'm <rawr> a dinosaur) to categorize, I slowly sink into a pit of rage. I just don't like other people's categorizations, and I particularly hate sub-categorizations. The strategy that works for me is to use broad categories, but make specific line items for stuff that needs more attention.

Charity
Auto
Coffee House
Eating Out
Fun
Groceries
Gym
Household
Misc
Others
Personal
Sin
Travel
Utilities

Here, my indulgence in stupid-expensive coffee has to be monitored outside of the 'eating out' category. The gym needed a special category when I was paying a personal trainer, but I'll probably absorb it back into 'Personal' sometime soon. The dog is becoming more expensive, and might need her own category soon. I like the rigidity, that can be flexed as necessary.
 
« Last Edit: January 08, 2016, 10:13:22 AM by Sailor Sam »

Thegoblinchief

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #17 on: January 08, 2016, 10:25:57 AM »
So is your primary goal spending reduction, particularly mindless spending reduction? Is a purely 'look back' tool like Personal Capital going to help?

Why was Mr FP opposed to YNAB?

Personally I feel like it works best to have one partner be the primary enterer of receipts, tracking budget, etc and the other's job is to touch base at a frequency that works for the team (whether weekly or monthly).

elaine amj

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #18 on: January 08, 2016, 10:40:40 AM »
I am working hard on controlling our spending as we get close to FIRE. We've managed for many years without tracking/budgeting but it's hard to plan without having any kind of real idea of how much we spent last year or even how much we saved last year. We only used to track net worth - and were pretty inaccurate about it anyway. I am using YNAB - and trying to have as few categories as possible.

I ended up breaking it down to 5 master categories, each with its own bunch of subcategories:
  • Living (groceries, fuel, household, cellphone, etc)
  • Living Sinking Funds (house taxes, insurance, home maintenance, vehicle replacement, etc)
  • Fun (spending money, restaurants, etc)
  • Fun Sinking Funds (vacations, birthdays, Christmas, etc)
  • Savings

I am still tweaking, but overall, my Master Categories are telling me what I want to know. And I find it useful to separate my Living Expenses (mostly necessary, although I continue to work on reducing this number) from my Fun categories (since these can be the first to be trimmed).
« Last Edit: January 08, 2016, 10:42:51 AM by elaine amj »

Altons Bobs

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #19 on: January 08, 2016, 10:45:24 AM »
You'd have to track everything that you spend in order to find out where the leaks are. We're in a different situation, we don't have a budget, we just want to live the same lifestyle in retirement as we do now, so we're only interested in a general idea on how much we spend per year, so I track based on how much we spend on each bill/credit card.

soupcxan

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #20 on: January 08, 2016, 11:52:19 AM »
These are the categories I use. Pretty much every credit card charge can go into one of these buckets. A few of the items I input manually from my pay stub or checking account.

Federal income tax
Social security tax
Medicare tax

House - mortgage (P&I only)
House - property tax
House - insurance
House - furnishings
House - maintenance
House - improvements
Electricity
Water/sewer
Natural gas
HOA dues
Internet
Streaming services
Cell phone

Student loans
Child care
Groceries/household supplies

Health insurance
Healthcare out of pocket/prescriptions
Dental insurance
Umbrella insurance

Auto - registration/inspection/tolls/maintenance
Auto - insurance
Auto - depreciation/replacement fund
Gasoline

Dry cleaning
Haircuts/personal care
Dining out
Clothing
Donations
Gifts
Entertainment/movies/theater/music/etc.
Hobbies/gym/crafts/etc.
Travel/vacation

RWD

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #21 on: January 08, 2016, 12:46:18 PM »
You can see my categories in my journal here. I started with a default set in GnuCash and modified it as needed.

La Bibliotecaria Feroz

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #22 on: January 08, 2016, 03:24:22 PM »
So is your primary goal spending reduction, particularly mindless spending reduction? Is a purely 'look back' tool like Personal Capital going to help?

Why was Mr FP opposed to YNAB?

Personally I feel like it works best to have one partner be the primary enterer of receipts, tracking budget, etc and the other's job is to touch base at a frequency that works for the team (whether weekly or monthly).

Yes, the goal is spending reduction. How on God's green earth did we blow sixty-five thousand dollars in 9 months? (That's including mortgage and daycare; subtract those and we're still well over 40K for nine months.)

We are terrible, terrible, terrible at adjusting our spending during the month. We can see that we've spent X dollars, and then we still buy y. I'm not sure that we would use the information from YNAB enough to make it worthwhile, but I did really like the interface. Mr. FP found it cumbersome to enter his purchases; we did it together like once and then he never touched it again. He devised our Google Sheet himself and likes it.

TGC, does the Alchemist just give you her receipts to enter? Back when we did Mint, I kept having to ask him what he'd bought and he found that understandably annoying. I guess my idea was that we would both keep using the spreadsheet, but that I would also crunch imported credit card data using something like PC (or maybe I should try YNAB again).

I feel like there's an accountability that might be missing for Mr. FP if I was entering/importing/adjusting/whatever all his receipts. On the other hand... I see no signs that he is moderating his purchases* based on having to enter them on the spreadsheet.

*I don't mean to imply that he is a huge spender. But as an example, when I wanted to start learning Spanish, I checked out some library books and started Duolingo. When he decided to learn Spanish, he spent $76 on books and $20 for online resources... and that's just the first week.

The category suggestions are all really helpful! Thanks, everyone!

Thegoblinchief

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #23 on: January 08, 2016, 03:32:08 PM »
TGC, does the Alchemist just give you her receipts to enter? Back when we did Mint, I kept having to ask him what he'd bought and he found that understandably annoying. I guess my idea was that we would both keep using the spreadsheet, but that I would also crunch imported credit card data using something like PC (or maybe I should try YNAB again).

She does very little spending, mainly gas or the occasional errand I ask her to take care of on the way home but yeah. I just have her put the receipt on my desk and I enter it that evening or the next morning while the kids are waking up. Occasionally she forgets or gives me the receipt a few days later but it's no biggie.

The online purchases are a bit more annoying since there's no physical receipt but most of the time it's easy to tell just by the vendor that it's for her. With the exception of Amazon, there's very few places both of us spend money online. With Amazon I have my account permanently logged in on Chrome so I can look at past orders to double-check what the charge was, and her account logged in on Edge so it's just a simple alt-tab to figure out whose Amazon purchase was whose, and which category it should be for.

La Bibliotecaria Feroz

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Re: Talk to Me About Categorizing Expenses
« Reply #24 on: January 08, 2016, 03:42:52 PM »
Here are my tentative categories. You'll see there are certain categories that I want a better idea of!

HOUSE
mortgage
household supplies and furnishings
house maintenance

BILLS
XCel (electricity)
Ting
Comcast
Water/sewer
Life insurance

TRANSPORTATION
Gas
Maintenance
Taxes and insurance
Parking, public transit, misc.

KIDS
Clothes/shoes
Enrichment and supplies
Tuition
Misc.

HEALTH
Adults
Kids

ENTERTAINMENT
Babysitting
Home entertainment (eg, Netflix, music downloads, etc.)
“Out” entertainment
Coffee and snacks
Eating out

SHOPPING
Adult clothes
Books
Outdoorsy stuff
Misc.
Gifts

FOOD
Groceries
Alcohol and treats

BIKES

ACTIVITY FEES (Adults)

TRAVEL

CAT

MISC. SERVICES (eg, haircuts)

CHARITY