My Financial Spreadsheet: 5 Metrics to Track for Financial Independence

Rather than relying on others to create tools to track your finances – create your own! Here’s a look at what I track in my financial spreadsheet that’s been the most useful.
Adam

Written by Adam on 2021-03-21. Blog, Financial Independence, Investing, Personal. 24 comments. Find out how I make money.

Creating your own system to track progress towards financial independence is a rite of passage. If you want to understand how to get there, there’s no better way than understanding your own spending and investment habits over time.

There are a bunch of services that can do this for you – The Mad Fientist has a website for tracking your progress to FI. Mint and Personal Capital both connect to your bank account to pull in your spending and investments. For many, this will be enough. But if you want to fully understand your finances, the only way is to do it yourself.

drafting instruments on a table
Your spreadsheet is your best tool to understand your numbers.

I’ve been tracking my finances in a Google Sheet since January 2015. I used Mint for years before that to understand my spending. I kept having unanswered questions that Mint couldn’t help with. This is the common reason why so many people switch to tracking on their own: they have questions they want answers to.

That’s the greatest strength about having your numbers in a spreadsheet – you can get those answers whenever you want!

Over the years I’ve dialed in my spreadsheet one row and column at a time. It’s to the point where I barely touch it anymore, yet can answer any question I have. I’ve found these five metrics to be the most useful over the years.

Now, I’d LOVE to share the entire spreadsheet, but it’s unfortunately not possible. The actual sheet is linked to my Tiller account, which means that it contains pretty much every bit of financial. If you haven’t used Tiller before, it’s kind of like Mint or Personal Capital. It pulls in all your transactions and balances from your bank account. Unlike its competitors, Tiller will save all of that data to a spreadsheet (either Google Sheets or Excel). From there you can categorize the transactions.

What I love most about Tiller is how much control you have. You can create your own sheets, charts and metrics from the data they provide. They offer a number of pre-built spreadsheets – which are possibly magic. You also have the ability to run one-off reports to generate insights.

Here are some of my most used sheets from my own financial spreadsheet. The ones marked “Tiller” were created by Tiller (you’ll also see their logo).

The Tiller-managed sheets are all controlled through the Tiller Money Labs Google Sheets Add-on. You can see it in the “Category Rollup Report” sidebar. Tiller has so many add-ons that I haven’t even tried them all. They even have a FIRE-focused “Retirement Planner” template. They describe that one as:

The Retirement Planner template from Tiller Money Labs estimates the total value of your investments into the future. You can experiment with different growth rate scenarios and project outcomes in real time.

Retirement Planner template explanation

In other words, these screenshots are just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start using Tiller you’ll have no shortage of tools to explore your finances.

Although I’m using Tiller, these recommendations would work with any spreadsheet setup. You could even track everything through Mint/Personal Capital and copy your monthly totals over to a spreadsheet (which I did for a few years). Whatever process works best for you – so long as you’re getting value from it.

1. Spending Over Time

How much did you spend last year? How about the year before that? Are you spending more? Or less? Can you predict how much you’ll spend this year?

Understanding your spending over time is essential to figuring out when you’ll reach financial independence. If you’re spending more each year, how do you know when (or if) your spending will level out? There’s a risk that it won’t and then your spending will rise to outpace your savings.

If you don’t know how much money you need to spend, it’s impossible to plan for it. If your salary increases over time, it’s also likely that your spending will due to some amount of lifestyle inflation.

If you’re used to spending more each year, then you’ll never have enough. At some point, your spending will need to level out. If you’ve tracked your spending year by year, you may see a line like one of these:

Which would you rather be? Fluctuating spending that’s reached a relative max, or climbing spending that hasn’t yet peaked?

For my own numbers, our spending peaked back in 2017 and has been declining ever since – mostly due to all the expenses needed to fix up a house and sell it.

Seeing your spending climb each year should be a red flag. It’s a sign that you don’t yet know how much you’ll need to reach financial independence.

I use Tiller to track my expenses over time and absolutely love it. It imports all of my transactions into my Google Sheet where I categorize them. I used to do this on Personal Capital and copy the numbers to my sheet, which took a lot more time. Having everything in one place saves me so much time!

If you can predict your spending, you can predict how much you’ll need to retire. If your spending fluctuates then that’s impossible. By tracking your spending over time, you’ll very quickly realize if you’re in control of your spending or not.

2. Savings Rate Over Time

Besides spending, the next most important metric to track while on your journey to financial independence is your savings rate. Your savings rate is the clearest indicator of how many years you’ll need to continue working.

Savings rate is simple: savings divided by total earnings. If you save $20,000 and have $100,000 in total earnings, then your savings rate is 20% for the year. At that pace, and starting from $0, you’ll reach financial independence in 37 years (!).

If you can raise that up to 30%, that lowers to 28 years. That’s 9 fewer years working by increasing your savings rate by just 10%!

In other words, the higher the saving rate, the fewer years you’ll need to work:

Tracking your savings rate over time can also be a canary for lifestyle inflation. If you see your savings rate drop, that’s an immediate sign that you’re falling off track.

During my earning years, this was one of the most important metrics I used. While you can track this on a monthly basis, I found it more useful to use a rolling 12-month time frame. My rate during any given month could fluctuate by leaps and bounds, but over a year it’s hard to hide.

For example, take a look at this chart of savings rate of a given month vs the previous 12-month moving average.

These are my actual numbers from 2018. In 2017 we fixed up and sold our house, which threw my SR way out of whack in the previous 12 months. It took a full year to raise it back up to where it was before.

If I was only looking at my monthly saving rate, I’d be thrilled to see these numbers! By looking at my 12-month moving average I got a more sobering view.

Seeing these numbers helped push me to save more during this time. That paid off and my 12-month savings rate climbed thanks to this reminder.

3. Withdrawal Rate Over Time

Once you start withdrawing money from your portfolio rather than adding to it you’ll switch from tracking your savings rate to tracking your withdrawal rate.

Your withdrawal rate is a measure of what percentage of your portfolio you withdraw each year. The formula is also simple: total spending / total cash & stock investments. Your withdrawal rate doesn’t take into account your home, car, or other assets.

Early Retirement Now has a 43+ part series about what withdrawal rate is, how your asset allocation impacts it, and just about every other thing you can think of.

The tl;dr of the series comes down to:

  • A 4% withdrawal rate per year will likely last you forever.
  • A 3.5% withdrawal rate or less will almost surely last you forever.

There are no guarantees, but by planning based on historical bounds you can at least be close. For our spending, we’re aiming for somewhere between 3.5% and 4% for our yearly spending. If we’re under that, then even better!

Fortunately, you can use the same setup to track this as savings rate. I track these each month, but also the rolling 12-month average. Seeing your WR for any given year provides more insight than just seeing your WR for a calendar year. It’s 11 more data points! If it peaks above 4%, that’s a red flag for me to make a change.

Here’s a look at my withdrawal rate for my first 26 months of retirement. For the first 12 months, my wife continued to work – complete with healthcare. In January 2020 she left her job and we started paying for insurance on our own.

At first glance this would look like a red flag. My WR was climbing, but during the first 12 months there wasn’t enough back data to know what a 12-month average would be.

Now that we’ve had no income coming in for 12 months, our 12-month AVG WR line becomes the most important metric for us. If it’s over 4% then that’s a red flag.

4. Asset Allocation vs Target Asset Allocation

Not everything you track needs to have a graph associated with it. They’re fun and exciting, but sometimes a table is all you need to answer a question.

An important question when investing that I found myself constantly asking was:

Is my asset allocation in line with my target asset allocation? Should I change anything?

Let’s say you’re aiming to have 50% of your portfolio in US Stocks, 30% in International stocks, and 20% in bonds (a classic three-fund portfolio). Over time your portfolio will drift away from this allocation due to fluctuations in the stock market.

In lesson 9 of my free Minimal Investor Course, I go over how and when to rebalance your portfolio. The first step to rebalancing is understanding when your portfolio is off target! I do this by comparing my actual investments with my target asset allocation.

Target Asset Allocation vs Actual Asset Allocation

By using a bit of conditional formatting with Google Sheets, I change the color based on how out of sync each asset is. I can quickly see that I could sell some bonds and buy some international funds and US funds to get back on track – or change where dividends are reinvested.

If you’re investing using M1 Finance, Betterment or Wealthfront they’ll do this all for you. Likewise, if you’re using a target-date retirement fund. If you’re managing your investments on your own then tracking this compared to your target will be your responsibility.

While I invest at Vanguard, any of these are great options if you’d rather let someone else handle the details.

5. Your FIRE Path

The last graph, the FIRE Path, puts all of these together: your spending, your savings rate, and your withdrawal rate.

What I love about this chart is that it shows where you were at every given year and allows you to appreciate your progress. If you had to dig yourself out of debt, your chart may start below zero too!

My FIRE Path

This assumes that a negative savings rate is a withdrawal rate. In my chart, a savings rate of -100% is equivalent to a withdrawal rate of 4%. This chart makes it clear that I’m aiming to have a withdrawal rate of 2% – something that would only be possible by making a little side income (one of my goals for 2021).

For more info on this chart, check out my post focused just on this topic: Where Are You On the Financial Independence + Retirement Matrix?

Why Track At All?

There’s a famous business-y quote that companies like to say: what gets measured gets managed. The same is true for your own numbers! By understanding your spending – the good and the bad – you can make changes. Seeing that growth can inspire you to keep going, or to correct course when you’re falling off track.

What about you? What metrics have been the most useful for you to track? Are there any numbers you look at on a repeating basis?

Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

24 Comments

Why not add to the conversation below? Your voice is welcome!

Adam,

I really enjoyed reading your post – well done!

Given my current age and risk tolerance, my target asset allocation is right around 95% to 100% equity exposure, but my current asset allocation is a bit lower than my target, so I certainly need to keep making small adjustments to my portfolio to reach my target allocation.

I check my portfolio once a week and make small but consistent adjustments. Hopefully, I’ll be there soon 🙂

Keep up the great work!

Fiona

Thanks Fiona! It’s nice having something to check on asset allocation for sure. With that kind of risk tolerance at least you probably don’t need to make too many changes either.

Tracking all of these!

I also now track capital gains and taxes, since that is a large part of my income at least for 2020 and 2021.

I do track earned income, but now my earned income is minimal, so that’s a once a year activity.

The most important to me is expense management. After tracking for 5 years I have a good idea of where we will land and use Personal Capital to keep tabs month to month.

Good point! We also started tracking capital gains and dividends starting last year. Mostly so to know our taxable income for ACA purposes.

S&M

S&M

March 21, 2021

Hi,
Nice explanation! Do you also share a google sheet for this tracking? I didn’t notice the link to it. I’d love to save a copy for myself. TY

Yeah, I’d be interested in seeing and possibly using your spreadsheet. Would you be willing to share it?

Since there’s some interest in this, I’ll see what I can do!

I actually took a deep dive into Tiller Money after reading this article… I have been playing around with their spreadsheets all morning. A very powerful tool. If there are any good templates from Tiller that you use or would recommend, that may be helpful. Thanks Adam!

+1!! Would be great to have!!

Good point! I didn’t actually link it or show it. I’ll see about adding that to this post too. It might need a YouTube video walkthrough to make sense out of it though. 😅

Gourish

Gourish

March 22, 2021

What a fantastic post!!
Like others have expressed, would you be willing to share your spreadsheets?
Thanks

I’m down to share it! I’ll plan to have something in the next few days.

What s/w do you use to make your graphs?

It feels like each one uses a different thing at this point. 😅

For my personal charts, I use Google Sheets charts to keep it simple.

For some of the charts in this post, I used Chart.xkcd (https://timqian.com/chart.xkcd/) a small library for charting using the Xkcd style.

Some others in this post use D3.js from scratch.

The FIRE Matrix graph was created in Tableau, then I screenshotted the graph and added the arrows in Keynote (the presentation software).

My savings rate fluctuated over the years. My highest savings rate was when I was single. My lowest is now after marriage and kids approaching an age when they will go to college.

This was a great write up and makes me want to do something similar.

I already have Tiller (largely based on your recommendation) so while I understand you can’t share your spreadsheet I’d love to see some examples of how you can create your own sheets that reference the data that Tiller imports. I’m pretty comfortable with spreadsheets, but understanding how to reference the Tiller data without messing it up would be incredibly useful.

Thanks for the idea Chris! With how many people asked for follow-ups to this post, I plan to expand on this one soon.

I am in a quasi-forced early retirement as a result of staff reductions in response to the economic losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. I turn 65 this week and my wife will retire next February. I am now trying to create a spreadsheet to plot our future income to see how we can best prepare for retirement. Anything you would be willing to share so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel would be appreciated.

Thanks Frank! I already want to do a follow-up to this post focusing on “how” rather than “what”. I have a few topics in mind for it, but I’m looking for more! If you have any specific questions let me know.

MamaBear

MamaBear

April 2, 2021

My son (in tech) makes 300k+/year in his late 20s. His net worth is “only” 500k at this point.

He is single and has a modest luxury lifestyle – nice apartment downtown, but no car. Food deliveries, but no fancy restaurants. Phone & internet covered by work, free health care through work…

His expenses are < 50k/year, but he hasn’t bought a house, gotten married, had kids (all optional, I know). Do you have any recommendations for steering him in the right direction? We could say he needs 1.25M with the 4% rule, but this doesn’t seem right.

Thanks! Just found your website today and love it!

Hey there! I’m glad you found me (and FI in general)!

The math of your son’s situation isn’t adding up for me. If he’s making $300k a year and not saving too much of it, I’d think his expenses are quite a bit higher than $50k. That extra $250k a year has to be going somewhere. Maybe $100k of it could be going to takes, but I’d wonder where the rest is going.

If you’re going to send him one article that might help shift his mindset, I’d recommend this one: https://minafi.com/interactive-guide-early-retirement-financial-independence It goes over everything without being too preachy about a specific path. There might be something in there that resonates with him. Since he’s in tech too, he might like the interactivity of it. I hope it helps!

MamaBear

MamaBear

April 3, 2021

He worked on barely compensated passion projects early on and built skills so that when he was finally hired by a recognizable company, he came in above the typical starting salary. But he has only been working a couple of years.

Thanks for the link. I love the friendly FI community.

I think he is like you, and will always have projects going on, even if he takes the early retirement path. 🙂

He definitely sounds like someone I’d get along with. 🙂

this is a great template to track your money and have a reason for everything, I have a template before because I’m struggling in my financial aspect, I cant save my money well because of my lifestyle and I don’t know why. Can I have a copy of your template? This is very recommended, well organized. thank you for sharing this

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