Ask any child learning an instrument if practicing scales is fun. The answer will come swiftly and pointedly. There is nothing more boring than playing scales. Up and down, backward and forward, key after key, note after note, arpeggios be damned! But any serious player will tell you that learning scales is the backbone of music.  After awhile, you know a C scale from a G scale from an F scale and understand what notes are included in each key. When it comes to understanding music, the scales are the beginning of music knowledge and regular mindful practice leads to mastery.

If you cannot say that your money habits are well-developed and fluent, perhaps it's time to think of reimagining your habits and creating a practice routine that will help hone your skills. So let's begin with the basics by learning the Money Trail exercise:

  1. Gather your financial information from the prior month.
  2. Begin with the balance in your checking account from last month.
  3. Review the amounts deposited, where they came from and at what frequency.
  4. Analyze where that money was spent or invested over the last month. Get down to the details and classify each expenditure. How much was spent on mortgage or rent, utilities, credit cards, food, etc.?
  5. Of your outflows, how much are you spending on fixed costs (auto loans, credit cards, mortgage, etc.) versus how much is spent on controllable or discretionary spending?
  6. To complete the exercise take the prior month's account balance, add the deposits and subtract the outflows. This will give you your new month's balance. Note: You might need to adjust for bank charges or miscellaneous credits or debits.
iStock with permission
Source: iStock with permission

You have now successfully completed your first Money Trail exercise. To get really good at it, you need to do this over and over each month.  You might make it easier on yourself by using a program like Mint.com or Quicken to help you with category classifications.

Here's another basic exercise that can help. Create a list of your investments, insurance policies and other sources of income and then do the following:

  1. If you have a 401(k), make sure you rebalance it to the original allocation at least annually.
  2. Review your insurance policies annually.
  3. Check your Social Security statement annually.
  4. Set up automatic investment accounts for savings, 529 accounts and other accumulation accounts.
  5. Notch up your savings when you get a bonus or raise, remember, inflation is the long term enemy.
  6. Check your investment choices regularly to make sure you are not taking more risk than is appropriate. (Note: You cannot go by the name of the fund to know; you actually have to do some research).

There. These two money exercises are necessary, important, and, yes, they can be boring. But by practicing them and making them part of your routine, you will find yourself growing in capability, knowledge, and confidence.

Have you heard the one about the pedestrian on 57th Street who sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the artist replies wearily, “Practice.” When it comes to your money life, is there any better choice? 

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