After deciding that it’s time to get a handle on your finances, find a way to accurately track the way you handle everything involving money. Before deciding to take action, you may have estimated your income and expenses, but now the details matter. Here is how to get to the details.
Every cent is important at this point. That will change later on; as you grow as a master or mistress of your money, you can ease the pinch on the penny. But in the beginning of this journey, you should record everything. From the $5 check from your grandmother on your birthday to your $75,000 annual performance bonus, and from the $1.99 music download to the $28,150 car, you must write it all down in some form.
There is a purpose to this madness. By tracking every detail of your money, you get a real picture of how much you’re spending. Many people don’t know off the top of the head how much they spend on lunches with coworkers every month or how much they spend on cigarettes or coffee. This process can be very enlightening, and in some cases, it might provide motivation in itself. By tracking your finances accurately, you’ll be poised to make better decisions about where to spend your money.
You don’t need to start with fancy software. Sometimes, low tech can be most effective, especially when starting out. Pads and pencils are portable as well, and they are great tools for keeping track of your cash spending while you’re on the move. The first step is to choose the method that will work best for you.
Intuit Quicken is the king of financial tracking software. Unfortunately, the software is not cheap. Quicken 2009 Deluxe, the most basic version available this year, costs $45 through Consumerism Commentary. You can connect to banks to download your deposits and withdrawals and credit card companies to download your charges and payments. Microsoft Money Plus is another option offering similar features. Both of these programs cost money to use. For those who don’t use Windows-based computers, MoneyDance is a good choice, but this software is not free, either.
If you’re looking for software that is free to use, take a look at GnuCash. GnuCash also has a portable edition which allows you to take your financial data with you and access the program anywhere you can jump on a computer. (Thanks to Dave Stinner who reminded me about Gnu Cash.)
While web software offers seamless integration with online access to your banks, it has some limitations. These web applications are not designed to keep track of your cash spending, which may be the most important requirements for accurately tracking your expenses.
Keeping track of the money you spend while you’re out is a challenge, at least for me. It helps to ask for receipts for all transactions so you can collect them and record the amounts at night when you’re home. I’m experimenting with software for mobile phones that allows you to keep track of your spending. SplashMoney works with my BlackBerry as well as iPhones. For Quicken users who enter transactions while away from the computer and sync them to desktop Quicken later, Pocket Quicken may be a good option. This software runs on Palm and Windows Mobile devices.
For people who prefer old-fashioned methods and have unlimited filing space, paper accounting is an option. Download this ledger paper and print a few pages. Use a separate page for each account, and keep track of your transactions just like you would with software. If you don’t like my ledger paper, try these templates, available for free.
Tips for accurate accounting
- Collect receipts for all transactions, including the purchases using cash. “Cash” should be an account in your software or on paper. Your starting balance is amount of money you have in your wallet on the day you begin tracking.
- If possible, keep notes about your expenses while you’re away from your computer or desk. Carry a small pad or use mobile software like those listed above.
- Every month, or more often if you have online access or automatic transaction downloads, compare what you record with the activity your bank has recorded in their systems. This “reconciliation” ensures you have accurate records for your bank accounts, investments, and credit cards.
- The web software listed above usually download your bank activity automatically. In some cases, the application will try to categorize your spending based on the vendor name or similar transactions by other users of the software. This “artificial intelligence” will make errors, so review every transaction to categorize the expenses and income properly.
- ATM withdrawals should be recorded as a transfer between your savings account and your cash account, not an expense. Cash deposits should be transfers as well.
As time goes on and you become more familiar with your finances, you can afford to be less aggressive about recording every cent. I suggest following the above suggestions and keeping track of everything for at least several months to get an informative view of your money.
If you have any additional tips for tracking your money accurately, please share.
Image credit: Refracted Moments
Updated March 21, 2011 and originally published November 14, 2008. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.