A question I receive nearly every day goes something like this: I’m ready to get started taking back control of my finances. But how do I get started? It’s like I’m stuck.

Don’t think you are alone if you find yourself wanting to do all the steps at once. But that could be a big mistake. In the same way when building a house you wouldn’t pour the foundation, raise the walls and put on the roof all at the same time, with your money makeover, you need to take things one step at a time.

First you need to lay the foundation. I call this initial step “tracking.” You cannot manage what you cannot measure.

Tracking means to write down exactly where every penny goes. If you bring home $793.42 this week, next week you should be able to account for every single cent. Where did that money go?

I suggest that you track on a daily basis. Every morning start with a fresh sheet of paper. Throughout the day, as you spend any amount of money, write it down. How much did you spend and what did you spend it for? Do this for at least 30 days (longer may be necessary if you are really in a financial fog). Ideally both you and your partner should keep record.

At the end of a month pull out all of those daily records. Categorize your spending. You will begin to see patterns. Perhaps you spend $3.49 a day on lattes. Of course there are no right or wrong answers here. But you might want to point out to yourself that if you keep this up for a year, you will shell out $1,273 on coffee drinks. Apply this multiplication to all of your spending categories. Where are things really out of line? Can you see why you are spending more than you earn? How much of your spending was done with cash? Debit cards? Checkbook? Credit cards? What might you have done differently to come out with a more favorable end?

It is not going to take the assessment of a professional financial planner to point out problems in your spending. You will see that instinctively. Putting things in black and white has a way of clearing the fog.

You may find this to be the activity that keeps you going in the right direction month after month. Some people find they need to do this for the rest of their lives as a normal part of their personal finance management. It can’t hurt.

Cutting expenses in every way possible is the next logical step. The goal is to get your outgo to be less than your income by trimming expenses. The best way to trim is to do a little bit in every area. Little things really add up when it comes to trimming just as they do when it comes to foolish and unaccounted spending.

Just think: If you had your lattes just three days a week rather than seven, you would trim more than $700 from your annual spending. It takes time, but little by little you will be amazed how well you can do.

OK, there’s your jumpstart. I would love to know how this is working for you.

Mary Hunt

Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at tips.everydaycheapskate.com/ . This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

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