If you do not use Intuit Quicken or Microsoft Money (or a similar program) to track your finances, you should start. I take about 30 minutes each week to update my bank accounts, as well as 5 minutes each trading day to update my brokerage accounts. If you just hold index funds and ETFs or long-term investments in individual stock you would not have to update your transactions very often, maybe only once a month.
Most credit cards offer downloading into Quicken. I like using my Discover card because it will download the most easily into Quicken. Most other cards (such as those by Chase) require a visit to the website to download transactions.
A number of brokerages offer automatic downloading into Quicken of transactions, including E*trade, Scottrade, and Ameritrade. My main broker, Interactive Brokers, requires a visit to its website to download trades to Quicken. Of course, buy-and-hold investors should not use IB; the only reason I use it is because it has a good platform for short selling.
A few hints:
- Track depreciation of assets such as cars. I track all my large assets in Quicken. Each year I have depreciated my car, a 2003 Mazda Protege, using a straight-line 8-year depreciation schedule. This tracks the real loss of value of the car.
- Use mark-to-market accounting. I own a rental property, a house, and a chunk of land. I anticipate selling the rental property sooner rather than later and have reduced its value in Quicken by the 6% commission I will likely pay. I have also reduced its value by an extra $10,000 in market-value losses I have suffered. I have likewise reduced the value of my house by about $30,000 in market value that it has lost since I bought in 2003. I have increased the value of the land by a couple percent a year. I am still carrying it at a price below what I could get by selling it.
- Capitalize home improvements. Home improvements (not repairs) increase the value of your home. Capitalize them by transferring the money you pay (in the program) to the asset account of your house. Do not do this for improvements that will not increase the value of the house.
- Track your net worth. This can be a good motivator. My financial goal is to grow my net worth by over 10% per year. For those with significant debt, seeing a large negative net worth can be a good incentive to save.
Doing all the above lets me track my net worth very closely so that I can see if I am making progress towards my financial goals. If you wish to improve your financial performance it pays to track it. Tracking your finances closely will help you know how you are doing and it will motivate you to do better.