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If you want to rein in your spending, there's a way to make the process easier: Check your values.
"For a lot of people, there's a disconnect between what they say is important and how they're spending their money," said certified financial planner Tammy Wener, co-founder of RW Financial Planning.
It's a phenomenon that a growing number of financial advisors are homing in on as clients need more guidance when it comes to managing their income. Part of the problem, say pros, is that people typically are uninterested in the details of their spending habits until a boiling point is reached.
This lack of focus has partly contributed to more than $1 trillion in credit card debt now carried by U.S. consumers, according to recent data from the Federal Reserve. It marks the highest it's been since 2008, leading up to the Great Recession.
Additionally, various research shows that most Americans' efforts to track their expenditures fall short of ideal. A 2103 Gallup poll showed that just 32 percent prepare a "detailed written or computerized household budget" every month.
A Bankrate.com report from 2015 suggested things had improved, with just 18 percent of those surveyed having no budget. Yet most of the responders who said they had one were either using pen and paper or keeping track of it in their head. Just 26 percent used a computer program or phone app.
CFP Robert Wander said that over the last five years or so, his clients increasingly have sought help with the spending piece of their financial life. When he helps them put it in the context of their goals, any changes they make to their budgets become more meaningful.
"Once people … are ready to face the good, bad and ugly, going through the process is helpful and eye-opening," said Wander, owner of Wander Financial Services. "It also helps people get clarity on what's important to them and what they care about."
While the specifics of how each advisor implements a values-based approach differs, the general process is part introspection, part data analysis.
At Wealth By Design, CFP and principal Danielle Howard either gives clients a list of common values (i.e., family, helping others, creativity, etc.) or directs them to Values.com, a website from the nonprofit Foundation for a Better Life that offers a menu of suggestions.
Once their values are identified, Howard ask questions to find out exactly what it means specifically to them. For instance, a client might say freedom means the ability to travel. Yet when they review where their money goes, they discover nothing that puts them on a path toward that goal.
That's when tallying up all those coffeehouse or restaurant receipts can lead to changes in behavior.
"We discuss how to spend with intention and within boundaries," Howard said, explaining that instead of making a budget, her clients create what she calls an intentional spending plan.
Mitch Anthony, a financial services industry consultant, is among those who thinks advisors and individuals should be paying more attention to managing cash flow. His company even offers an app to advisors that lets you plug in a handful of numbers and visually see the spending slice of your financial pie.
"People are often surprised at the percentage of their income that goes to spending, and some are surprised at their level of debt and low level of [savings] growth and [charitable] giving," said Anthony, founder and president of Advisor Insights.
Websites such as Mint.com and Learnvest.com offer free tools to help you budget and figure out where your money is spent. Advisors say if using a program is not your cup of tea, at a minimum you should consistently look at your bank and credit card statements.
"I can't tell you how many clients are paying monthly fees for a service they don't use and they didn't even know it," said Wener of RW Financial Planning.
Advisors also commonly see clients unknowingly overspend on groceries, dining out, clothes and items for the home.
Wander of Wander Financial Services said it's helpful to think about pulling back on spending as a means to an end rather than as a deprivation.
"Ultimately, it's about putting your resources toward what's important to you," Wander said.