Back to the stone age: Low-tech expense tracking

As many of you know, before I was a GRS staff writer, I was a GRS reader and active commenter. I'd say the bulk of my early personal-finance education came from this website, and it's most definitely the resource I credit for spurring me to get serious about paying off debt and saving money.

So last year when J.D. started talking about falling off the tracking-every-penny wagon, I winced. I haven't been tracking my spending, either. Ever since our income went up last year, I've been satisfied that we're saving enough — more than 55% of our income. We have no debt, we have targeted accounts for irregular expenses, and we pay our credit card bill in full every month. We're definitely doing well, but the more J.D. wrote about getting Tracking for peace of mind
Like J.D., I don't like the “financial black box” of not knowing where our money is going. Did we spend more on groceries than usual this month? Approximately how much are we spending on gas? I have no idea!

I don't need to account for every penny, but I'd like a general idea of how we're doing. It's too easy to dismiss expenses because we're doing relatively well with our savings, or because we forgo a lot of extras like cable TV and eating out regularly.

Also, it's less fun to spend money when I don't track it. I believe that money is a tool, and that some of it should be saved for the future and some of it should be enjoyed now. But when I'm not exactly sure how much “fun money” we've been spending, it's harder to enjoy spending it. Last week, for example, I made a couple of purchases and felt a little buyer's remorse, but only because I worried that I was forgetting about other expenses. If I knew we'd allotted, say, $200 to freely spend, and I was within that limit, I wouldn't have given the purchase a second thought. I could have just enjoyed it.

Past Tracking Attempts

I've tried more than once to stay on the money-tracking bandwagon. I tried Quicken, but it did so much more than I needed it to do and categorizing each expense and reconciling accounts got tedious (maybe the newer versions are more user-friendly?).

I tried Mint, but some accounts wouldn't update, and there were major glitches that threw off my numbers in a big way. For example, my “personal items” category, which is under $50 each month, mysteriously showed more than $400, but when I tried to view the itemized expenses, the system would time out. When I added it up by hand, it was nowhere near $400. I contacted customer service, but after weeks of waiting, there was no fix and no help, so I quit using Mint. I tried again several months later, but one of my accounts updated so rarely that, again, it wasn't worthwhile.

I feel like I've spent far too much time downloading, uploading, troubleshooting, and e-mailing customer service reps. Tracking my money does not need to be this complicated (though I thought using technology would simplify the process). No wonder I keep dropping the habit — it's been tedious and time-consuming!

Keeping It Simple

Starting February 1st, I decided I'd track my expenses again, but this time, I'm keeping it simple. No software, no web, no syncing — just a small notebook tucked in my bag. In it, I have a page dedicated to each spending category (groceries, gas, bills, etc.) and on each page I record the following information about each purchase:

  • Date
  • What I bought
  • Cash, check, debit card, or credit card
  • Running total for the month

I plan to keep the spending categories broad, since all I'm after is a general idea of where our money is going, and since a complicated system doesn't seem to work for me in the long-term. I think that's the key: Experiment until you find a system that works for you. That's the only way you'll stick to it. I quit when I got tired of uploads and downloads or when I encountered a glitch. But finding the right system takes trial and error, and I gave up too soon on something as important as tracking my spending.

I'm feeling good about the new plan, and I'll report back after trying it out for awhile. Until then, what different methods have you used to track your expenses? What systems did you drop, which have you maintained, and why? And, more to the point, do you have any tips for low-tech expense tracking like I've been trying to do?

More about...Budgeting

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Since my wife and I have recently moved across the country, our tracking has been a bit lax too. It seems that we are going out to eat more, which means spending more on groceries, but we haven’t taken note because of the added expense of the move.

In March, hopefully things will be back to normal. Once we again have our regular expenses, I figure we’ll be tracking expenses better as well. Thanks for the reminder!

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

I don’t bother trying to break down the difference between the $5 I spend on shampoo and the $5 I spend on a treat at a cafe. I know that if I’m spending too much on either, it will negatively affect my budget, so rather than waste a lot of energy trying to track it down to the penny, I just keep my expenditures within a weekly budget. It takes me about 10 minutes weekly to stay on top of my budget, and it’s very low tech. I just have a notebook to track my monthly expenses. Bonus is that… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
9 years ago

I use a budget that I developed and customized on Excel. It’s practically real-time because as the week progresses, I adjust the itemized expense columns and the income fields(multiple sources). It’s quick, easy and gives me a snapshot of where I am at a glance. I don’t track the little items. I do have the following expense columns: Mortgage Utilities – Gas & Electric Water & Trash Alarm Service Health Insurance Life Insurance Auto Insurance Contributions Groceries Auto Fuel Fun Monies & Recreation I also have cummulative expense columns as well for Medical/Dental, vacations, annual expenditures, etc. That works well… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

I ask all the students in my first time home buyer classes to track their expenses for the first week so they can see if their money is going where they think it is. Nearly everyone finds it worthwhile. To the folks who just hate it, I suggest they track expenses for a couple of weeks every year. Although not ideal, it provides a helpful snapshot. And an ideal system doesn’t help anyone if they don’t use it. I hand out a little card with some basic spending categories on it. It’s small enough to tuck in a wallet or… Read more »

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

My wife and I put as many purchases as possible during the month onto our Discover card so that we can get the cashback bonus. (We always pay the bill in full every month.) One of the side benefits of putting pretty much all of our purchases onto the same card is that most cards (and some bank accounts) have some sort of expense tracking system. For our broad overviews of where our money is going, I log into Discover and look at their spend analyzer, which gives me a good view of what we’ve been doing over the last… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

My body is still on Africa time, so I’m up early today. One of my tasks after I finish tomorrow’s post is to do my finances. My own return to expense tracking has worked well so far. I feel much more in control of my spending than I did at the end of 2010. (Again, I wasn’t spending beyond my means before, but I didn’t feel like I knew where everything was going.) I’d love to hear how people track spending while on vacation, though. I can’t do it very well. I end up just lumping everything together as “Vacation”,… Read more »

BB
BB
9 years ago

We use only checks or debit card tied to checking account for everyday spending. Just a glance online or at the check register tells us how much gas or groceries were.

John
John
9 years ago

I have tried Mint and a similar service offered through my credit union. I gave up on both of them because there was always a hassle with accounts not updating. I continue to use a combination of MS Money (used mainly for account registers) and a homemade spreadsheet in Open Office to track spending and savings. It works well for me. I am using MS Money 2004 and I hope it keeps working. I don’t use any of the automated online features, but I do download transactions and reconcile them in Money. I have looked at some of the open… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

The only tracking we do is looking at our credit card bills and check registers once a month. Almost all of our spending goes on the credit cards. Our utilities provide handy charts so I can compare our usage over time and I like that, even though it doesn’t actually change anything (it can indicate if there’s a leak somewhere). Back when we had no money, there was so little spending that I was pretty much able to keep it all in my head, though I also used check registers and cc receipts then too. With “vacations” I keep receipts… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

Putting everything on the credit card except for our adult allowance has worked wonders for us. We still can’t see where our cash spending money is going, but that’s kind of the point.

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
9 years ago

I’m tracking in notebook too – I’ve tried online systems & spreadsheets but I prefer doing it in a notebook, even if it means having to do the maths myself (probably a good brain exercise!). I track what I bought, where, when & categorise it – food, travel, clothes etc.

To start in a good, frugal way, I even reclaimed the notebook – an old half-used work expenses tracker. The old pages were ripped out & filed then I was good to go, for free! 😉

Jon
Jon
9 years ago

Check Fu! is a snappy way to track expenses and plan your spending. It uses flexible tagging rather than strict categories.

You can also allocate your money on the fly, so you’re not locked into a strict budget that breaks when, say, your car needs new shoes.

Check it out, grasshoppers: http://checkfu.com

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

JD – Welcome back! I just lump everything I spend on vacation under a “vacation” category. Really…why separate it out. Yes, you ate out or bought books or paid for entertainment of some sort. However, would you have done those specific things if you weren’t on your vacation? Since they aren’t part of your everyday expenditures then I consider them part of the vacation category. I am kind of a nut about tracking my expenses. I use YNAB and track pretty close to the penny. I used to be very strict about getting exact amounts but I have loosened up… Read more »

Meg
Meg
9 years ago

I agree that it is really frustrating when Mint doesn’t update. Luckily, my accounts have been working correctly for a few months now, so I think they have the bugs worked out, at least for the bank I use.

The only other problem with Mint is that it is easy to make a very complicated budget with too many categories – I had to work to get mine down to about ten.

Lauro Wolff Valente
Lauro Wolff Valente
9 years ago

Hi, I tried several times to track every penny I spent. The longest I could persist with it was eight months. But then I started to notice my expenses were really balanced, almost never going out of the average. And I knew excactly where I was spending money. After those eight months, I started to stop with this. I retook the strategy some months ago, but still did not see that this would aggregate value to my life, since my expenses are nearly the same every month. I pay everything with credit card and my monthly payment to it is… Read more »

ArandomPerson
ArandomPerson
9 years ago

I use paper and pencil tracking. I have tried a few computer programs (including simply spread sheets mimicing my paper ones) but always gave up on them. My sheets spreadsheets with each catagory having its own line and I enter date, method pay, and amount for each expense.

So I update once a week, by hand, using different colored inks. It takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes depending on my spending.

For Vacation spending I tend to do as JD Roth: everything ends up in a few major classes like transport, lodging, food, and everything else.

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

We don’t break down vacation expenses. It’s just one giant category – food, activities, souvenirs, etc all lumped together. We keep a running tally so spending doesn’t get out of control and we don’t go too far past our agreed upon budget. We’ve never actually come in under budget on a vacation, but we’ve never really killed it either. This year, we’re much more conscious of our spending so this may be the year we finally beat the budget.

Josh S
Josh S
9 years ago

EEBA is the best! https://www.eebacanhelp.com We just set up a few important categories, and then we can enter our expenses on the computer or on our smartphones. It’s online, so it’s always up-to-date, but the smartphone app keeps a copy of your data too, so you can see where you’re at without a data connection. It’s a lot simpler than Mint or Quicken or other solutions with tons of options, and it does all the math for us so we don’t have to deal with the drawbacks of pencil-and-paper. And since my wife and I are working off of the… Read more »

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

I’m a little biased, but I track my expenses by entering them to my budget at http://www.recurtrack.com. The site allows me to add expenses and place them in categories that match the budget that I’ve created on there. It also helps me keep an eye on my spending room in each category. It is honestly the first time that I have stuck to keeping track of my finances after trying Quicken years ago and spreadsheets on Excel.

Dimitri
Dimitri
9 years ago

YNAB.

rb
rb
9 years ago

I tried Mint, Quicken, Doughhoung, and still couldn’t do a budget. What finally worked for me is one of the basic standard budgets that came with Excel. One column for anticipated amt for an expense and the next column for what I really did spend. I input data off and on throughout the week and it works, FINALLY.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Mint doesn’t work in our neck of the woods, and although our bank offers a sort of expense trackign system, I had the same problem with the “lumpig” of expenses. A trip to Costco (part food, part books, and part clothes) would show up as $150 of “Misc”, and all of my “Pay Yourself First” savings counted as spending since it was being transferred out of that account. I also tried pen and paper tracking for our food budget, split by “Meat”, “Fruits and Veggies”, etc. but after 6 months of consistent spending across all the categories, I elected to… Read more »

Maggie
Maggie
9 years ago

I use Excel, I have a running register account. For my groceries, I do a montlhy shop at Costco, then I put $100 on a Kroger gift card that give me back 5% to my son’s school. That combined with about $50 a week in cash is what I allot for perishable groceries. I’m not obsessive about my catagories, just my running balances. So since I mostly use my debit card, I can easily record the expenditure in my spreadsheet.

elena
elena
9 years ago

Also, we’re saving for cars. I transfer $ twice a month from our checking. Keeping track lets me know how exactly much the transfer will be and it’s like a game to me now. I am using simple paper and pen for any overages/irregular expenses to our plan.
Simple enough to do daily, enough info to work for our needs. I like online tracking, but haven’t found a system that works for me yet that I use consistently.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

I created my own Excel spread sheet. Nothing fancy just a few columns for how much I’ve budgeted, what I’ve actually spent (updated as we make purchases) and a column that Excel calculates out to show me what’s left for that category. I also have a column to make notes in – like an extra food expense b/c of visitors that I might not remember looking back. Each month has it’s own tab and I keep a years worth in each notebook. It’s not perfect and you do have to sit down and plug stuff in, but it truly doesn’t… Read more »

Panda
Panda
9 years ago

I used to attempt to track in Quicken. And every year I’d do really well until about May/June when it would fall apart. Come January the next year I’d vow to do better. Rinse, repeat.

Mint has actually worked really well for me. I tend to check first thing in the morning and correct any mislabeled transactions. With a few rules in plane to catch the one that it never got right, it’s generally pretty painless now.

And having 14+ months of accurate spending info is pretty cool.

monsterzero
monsterzero
9 years ago

I didn’t know there were templates for tracking personal finances, so I just started using Google spreadsheets to implement double-entry bookkeeping. I buy lunch with my debit card, I insert a new line, put -6.98 under Checking (account) and +6.98 under Restaurant (expense). I “close” my books every quarter by starting a new sheet with zeroed-out expense columns.

It’s surprisingly simple and quick; I’ve been tracking every penny for more than three years.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

Mint’s not perfect. I really, really wish it was. But it’s good enough for me to not give up on, yet… although I do think about it. My wife and I went on a 5.5 week trip through SE Asia over xmas. To track spending, I bought a tiny book and just jotted down everything we spent each day. You know what? It was really easy. Since we just had a daily budget for everything beyond lodging, it was easy to track a daily deviation and a weekly deviation. TBH, pen and paper was so easy that if Mint doesn’t… Read more »

Jay
Jay
9 years ago

I like this… this is all my dad does. He has REAL spread sheets (you know, those things that people used before Excel?). They are huge! 10 of them could wallpaper a room!
He showed me his about 10 years ago for the first time. It was the basis for the excel spreadsheet my wife and I have been using for about 9 years now. If you wanted to know, I could tell you what we bought on December 4th 2003 🙂 I have it all!

Frugal Mama
Frugal Mama
9 years ago

Hi April, I agree — low-tech is better for me too. Computer programs can be more trouble than they are worth. Our low tech method is a chart I made up in Word and that I print out and post on our fridge every month. Hubbie and I write down purchases on the chart when we get home. Here is a link to it: http://www.frugal-mama.com/2009/10/never-ask-again-where-does-all-the-money-go/ Re J.D.’s question: I would prefer dividing out vacation expenses but my husband just lumps it all together into “vacation.” It’s a toss-up: I like being on vacation from my tracking spending, but on the… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

I started keeping track of my budget in January (after falling off the wagon). I use EXCEL.

Diane
Diane
9 years ago

I am with April on this. There is still something to be said about physically writing down what you are spending. The hardest part is making it a habit. Many years ago (before all the online choices were available) I made the decision to leave the steady corporate job. I needed to know exactly what I was spending and what I was willing to give up. The only way to really know what you are spending is to track all of your spending. I kept a small notebook and wrote down every expense over a $1. Then I put it… Read more »

cathleen
cathleen
9 years ago

I use Quicken for Mac. I love the charts and breakdowns. We use auto payment for all of our standard bills out of checking account. We use the debit card for all expenses. I download from the credit union once a week, takes about 30 seconds. It categorizes automatically based on previous categorizations. I can easily override or enter new categories. I print out a report to show my husband, it’s very clear when one category goes over budget, easy to get back on track. I also keep a simple document with all upcoming, 1-time expenses for the month (this… Read more »

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

@JD, perhaps I’m weird, but vacations are the one time I have no problem tracking *every* expense. I typically budget a set amount for a vacay (say, I can spend $2,000 on my three week trip). Then, I write down every little thing I spend. I use broad categories (transportation/lodging/postal stuff/ food/museums/sightseeing). I split out museums because I keep track of all the museums I’ve seen worldwide and how much I spent to see them. I do a running daily total and work out where I am in relation to my overall budget. I generally overestimate my budget so that… Read more »

Canadian
Canadian
9 years ago

I use an app on my iPad. It is just a simple way of logging spending by category — no connection to my bank accounts or anything like that. Very simple and I use it religiously.

Woodstock
Woodstock
9 years ago

I deleted my Mint account several months ago and created myself a moneycenter.yodlee.com account. I like it better, have had no issues with updates, and find the reporting to be very useful.

As the months go by and more data gets into the system, I believe I will find the service even more valuable, especially from a charting point of view — nothing like color pie charts to let you know of spending going astray.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

We use an Excel sheet that we look over every Sunday night. We have a column for a budgeted amount in each category, which we put into an envelope. As the month progresses, we update another column documenting how much we actually spent. It was hard at first to saty within budget, but now that we’ve been doing it for a few months, we’re often underbudget! We each have a weekly allowance for transportation, meals and extras, plus a combined weekend budget for fun stuff. By tracking every penny of my personal weekly expenses, I have cut them from $80… Read more »

Holly B
Holly B
9 years ago

I tried Mint, too, and was frustrated for a couple reasons. It doesn’t track cash expenditures, so I couldn’t know what my cash was going to, only that I withdrew $100 from the bank. It also included credit card payments – even when I wasn’t paying interest, just shuffling money around between accounts – so this looked like double counting any purchases made on the credit card. Now I use the Expense Tracker iPhone app. It’s pretty similar to just writing things down, since you must enter each item manually, but then you have an electronic record. It’s really easy… Read more »

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

I’m trying to track but it is hard. I miss days and I spend too much on the kids. I feel guilty writing it down. Like a weight journal you have to admit you ate the cupcake. But I need to learn to master this money thing. I find
that a small notebook works for me. I have tried this system for over 20 years off and on and it works the best. Now what do I do with these figures? The money is spent.

Andrew
Andrew
9 years ago

I too use an Excel spreadsheet–actually, I use multiple spreadsheets. One that just shows broad categories, such as “food” or “entertainment”, and others which break those down into smaller sub-categories. A bit much–I know.
One good thing about Excel is that you can waste time creating bar charts, pie charts, etc. in all sorts of colors–really, totally useless but they give you the illusion of having accomplished something!

mariane
mariane
9 years ago

For purchases: I simply make sure the receits are given to me for every thing I buy or spend on and then sit down to enter them in a spreadsheet whenever I have a moment… they always state method of payment… so no need to worry abt that.
When I travel I use an envelope or a small plastic ziplock bag and unload / same at home I just simply empty my wallet from time to time… works for me!

abby
abby
9 years ago

I’ve recently started carrying an envelope in my purse to hold all receipts. I made a simple little spreadsheet that I printed out and attached to the front of it that lists the basic categories and what my budget is per paycheck for those categories. I write every receipt into its category before I put it in the envelope – this way I can see at a glance how I’m doing in each category. I may switch to per month at some point, but right now it’s per paycheck (every two weeks). Which brings me to my next point –… Read more »

Will
Will
9 years ago

Have used many things over the years. Envelopes worked especially well during a really tight period. Would get cash once a month, fill the envelopes and only carry enough cash in the wallet to purchase what was going to buy. Many bills paid by check and they were tracked on paper or Excel. Now everything pd online or by CCard and tracking different. This is an Excel SS I found on DIY Planner. Quite good and you can modify. http://www.diyplanner.com/node/4675 Currently using iPhone/iPad Apps. Kashbook Free worked well for my needs but this year am trying Ace Budget for normal… Read more »

akajb
akajb
9 years ago

I also use Excel. But I don’t use it as a budget, just as a way to track expenses. I have a sheet for each account (chequeing, cash, savings, visa, etc). Each sheet has 5 columns – date, for, debit, credit, total. I rarely look it over to see what the trends are, but all the data is there if I ever need to. The only accounts I don’t track are my investment type accounts: RRSP and TFSA. Since I list expenses by account and not what they’re for, vacationing is easy to keep track of. It’s no different –… Read more »

Claire at Saving Money Plan
Claire at Saving Money Plan
9 years ago

I agree with the “old-school” bookkeeping method, and I use what I call a “Money Book”…It sounds similar to what you do…

Here’s how I set it up weekly so that I have an ongoing list of spent AND earned…and how I plug that into my ongoing Net Worth doc:

http://bit.ly/5zN3ky

Stella
Stella
9 years ago

I use a free iPhone/iTouch app, Spend, to track spending on things like groceries, entertainment, etc. It’s not dependent on being connected and is very easy to use. I think you can export data in different formats, but I haven’t tried that out yet.
There is a paid version of the app, but I’ve found the free version to be just fine!

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

I haven’t found my perfect system yet. I use Quicken as my check register and I balance it every month. However, we use the Costco Amex card for a lot of things. I like to ‘debit’ them out of my register right away so I know how much I’ve spent. The problem is, when the bill comes in, I have to write one big check for the bill. So I delete all my little charges and write one check. Then the expense show up on the wrong month. And if I run a report, for the current month, I am… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

You’ll never stick with pen and pad. It’s too painful.
I use the credit card statement and put it on my blog. That way I know I spent $98 on gas and oil change in January.

http://retireby40.org/2011/02/january-2011-credit-card-bill/

For the little discretionary spending, I do not religiously keep track. I have a $100/week allowance and as long as I don’t go over that, it’s fine.

I use Mint to keep track of Net Worth, it’s pretty good for that.

Suba
Suba
9 years ago

We took a longer than most people (I think) to get control of our expenses. We tried to have a perfect budget and tried to bring everything down. Fail. After a few more failed attempts, we tried a different approach, we didn’t try to control, we just tracked. Tracked meticulously for 6 months. The tracking itself gave us very good control. As we didn’t realize how frequently we were doing things that we thought were once a week/month. And then we started control 1 category at a time. The least favorite one. So it was easy for us not to… Read more »

Jennifer Lissette
Jennifer Lissette
9 years ago

I use an excel spreadsheet that my husband and I created together. It’s still a manual entry, but it has some added benefits. For one, I can type at 103 wpm but believe me when I say my handwriting is not nearly as fast. It also allows me to separate one transaction into several different categories… a must for those Costco trips where I might buy food, gasoline, trash bags, shampoo, a gift item and a $2 lunch, all in one transaction. The biggest advantage over pen and paper is the fact that I can sort my data and represent… Read more »

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