We have most areas of our Christmas budget down to a science. Saving is pretty easy. We estimate our spending, divide by twelve, and set aside an equal amount each month. That works out great. Sticking to the budget works, for the most part. But there is one area that we still can't get right. Tracking our spending is the one area where the Christmas budget fails.
I Can Track Just About Anything
Every year, when Christmas shopping starts, I start off filled with hope. For what, you ask? Well, hope that I can finally get the tracking down to a science.
This should be pretty reasonable, after all, considering I have a pretty solid tracking system. I have a spreadsheet where I track all spending. Want to know how much we paid for electrical service in 2011? I can find that out. Curious about what our new roof cost back in 2013? I can track it to the penny.
But what did we spend for Christmas last year? Well…..that all depends.
Why The Christmas Budget Fails
See, tracking Christmas spending is just a failure. It starts off good, but usually by 10am on Black Friday, it's done. Why?
- Multiple People on the same bill – We budget our spending by person that we have to shop for. This sounds easy but when we have multiple people show up on the same shopping trip, it's difficult.
- Shopping within the household – You'd think that we could just go line by line and break things up. In theory, this works. But, in practice it doesn't. If my wife buys something for me on any other bill, I can't see it. In fact, she puts those purchases on a credit card that I'm not allowed to track. Therefore, I can't even match an actual charge to the budget.
- Returns – My wife loves to buy that perfect gift for someone. And, then she finds something even more perfect. So the original perfect item goes back. Of course, when she returns the item at the store, she'll sometimes buy something else for someone else. Confused yet? Yeah, me too!
- Non holiday spending – Unfortunately, we don't just buy Christmas gifts every time we go out. If we buy a gift for someone at Target, chances are good that we also bought something we need for someone in our family. It's not like we can just add up the receipt totals. Nope, that'd be too easy!
- Amazon Purchases – We buy stuff from Amazon all the time. This includes holiday gifts. So, not only to do we sometimes have gift and non-gift purchases on the same order, sometimes we'll have a bunch of orders that are charged that have nothing to do with Christmas. And, since they bill as they ship, it's not as easy as just checking against your orders list.
What We Do
In the end, I try. Every year, I try for a couple of days. Honestly, though, usually by Cyber Monday I'm done. By then, things are already off the rails. I try my best try. But, in the end, here's how it works:
- Estimate – We keep running estimates of what we spent on each person
- Total It Up – We total up these estimates, and track them against our credit card statements.
- Give It The Sniff Test – If our credit card totals and our estimates line up within reason, we call it good.
- Pay the bill – We apply the Christmas Budget savings toward the credit card bill.
- Call it done!
In the end, this isn't the best system. But it is what we have come up with, and it works. We always feel we've spent within our budget. It's just that we can't exactly say how we did it.
I suppose that if we tried hard enough, we could get to the bottom of it and get that detail. But, I'm just not sure it's worth it to be truthful. I'd say we're probably 90% accurate, which I would have to chalk up as good enough. As maddening as it can be the moment I ‘give up' tracking, it ends up being OK.
And, honestly, having the money available is what gives us the luxury to be a little bit lax and feel OK with it. Another reason I'm glad we save money throughout the year for Christmas.
Readers, how do you track your spending? Do you track to the penny? If so, how do you do it?