As we move into 2011, I’m spending some time looking back at my actual spending over the past year and how closely it adhered to my plans.
As I’ve mentioned before, I set a monthly budget  for categories like food, clothing and entertainment. I also set an annual budget for travel and gift giving, and save a fixed amount  for those items each paycheck.
Finally, I use SmartyPig  to help me save for very specific goals – in 2010 those included flights home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Christmas gifts, and the costs associated with two separate friends’ weddings .
I use a combination of Bank of America’s My Portfolio tool (which itself appears to use some version of Yodlee ) and my own Excel spreadsheet  to track my spending and current account balances. As 2010 wound down, I spent some time examining where I came out ahead of my plans and where I fell short.
To start, I calculated a simple average of my spending in each of my major budget categories. I had budgeted a certain amount for each budget category, and hoped that my monthly spending in each category would fall at or below that amount.
I also compared numbers at the start of 2010 versus the end of 2010 for my student loan  balance, my savings account balance, my retirement account  balances and my total net worth. I had budgeted set payments/contributions to these accounts but did my best to contribute more when possible. My hope was that the account balances would increase (or decrease for my student loan) by an amount greater than I had planned.
My 2010 Lessons Learned
Here is what my brief analysis of my 2010 spending/savings taught me:
- I underestimated travel costs: Every time I budgeted for a specific trip, I came up just a little short. Things happen – you take a few more cabs than planned, you realize your clothes just won’t fit in a carryon and you have to pay checked luggage fees (if you aren’t flying an airline with a bags fly free credit card ), etc.
- Life happens: When I moved  into my cheaper-but-much-less-nice apartment, I saved a ton of money in rent – and spent a ton of money adjusting to my new space. When you go through a major change that will impact your budget, you might need a little breathing room before your spending returns to normal.
- The market matters: Partway through the year I had made my planned contributions to both my 401(k)  and my Roth IRA  – but my 401(k) was ahead of where I wanted it to be while my Roth IRA was lagging. Now, things have reversed – my Roth IRA has rebounded while my 401(k) has fallen a little short. These accounts are invested differently for a variety of reasons, and so it makes sense that the market would have a major effect on their account balances. Since I’m years away  from retirement, I decided to be content with the fact that I was meeting my planned contributions, and ignore the account balances for now.
- Small gifts add up: I have always lumped charitable giving and actual gifts (birthday, wedding, etc.) into one budget category. I realized that $10 and $20 donations here and there add up, bringing my total charitable giving  much higher than I realized, and sometimes forcing me to pull from other areas when a planned birthday or other gift came up.
2011 Budget Strategies
Going forward, I’m going to employ the following to help me keep a better hold on my finances:
- Set a charitable budget: I realize that the time has come to separate gifts to families and friends and gifts to non-profit organizations. Someday I’ll itemize deductions , and it will be good to be in the habit of tracking donations!
- Inflate travel budgets: I’m going to try to do a better job of estimating trip costs, and then save an amount 5-10% over the total. If I end up with money left over, I can always throw it into savings.
- Budget month-to-month: I tend to use a pretty static budget each month, but the reality is that my spending is not smooth over the course of the year. I spend more on clothes at the start of each season, spend more on entertainment in the summer, and spend more on eating out around the holidays. In 2011, I’m going to try to create a new budget each month to allow myself more flexibility and account for spending fluctuations.
- Use automated tools: Since I really like to have a handle on my spending, I track everything in my own Excel spreadsheet. But I want to use either Bank of America’s My Portfolio or my dormant Mint.com  account to track my spending at a lower level – rather than know what I spent on food, I want to separate it to restaurants, fast food, and grocery stores so that I can see where I might need to cut back.
2011 and You
You can do the same thing I did by calculating your actual progress towards your 2010 goals versus your planned progress. Use your lessons learned to help create/adjust  your 2011 budget.
If you’ve never had a budget, there are tons  of resources  online to help you find the method that works the best for you. Use your 2011 budget to help set goals for the end of 2011, or use your goals  as inputs to your budget.
If you plan to contribute $100/month to your savings account, your balance should increase by at least $1200 by the end of the year. Conversely, if you want to max out a Roth IRA ($5,000 in 2011), you need to contribute just over $416 each month.
And don’t forget to add the extra money you’ll get from the payroll tax cut  into your budget.
What new financial strategies are you employing for 2011? Tell us in the comments and we’ll check back next year to see how everybody did!