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How to Track Your Spending: From Obsession to Reasonability

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When it comes to tracking my daily spending, I’m not as diligent as I used to be. That’s due in part to laziness and part to the lack of necessity. Let me explain.

First, this topic was inspired by a recent email I received from a Consumerism Commentary reader. Nat asked: How do you keep track of all minutiae of sending? Do you charge everything on your credit card? All the little daily things. And then review your bill periodically? Or do you keep receipts? Jot it down?

Flashback to the 20th century. I had played with programs like the Microsoft Money free trials before so I was familiar with the notion of tracking spending with the intention of finding opportunities for improving my financial management. I was also familiar with my personal need to do something; I had a job but nothing in the way of savings to show for it. I did, however, have increasing debt.

It wasn’t until 2002 when I was out of work for a short time did I finally knock some sense into myself. Without spare funds to buy Money or Quicken, I downloaded the free (at the time) Moneydance and began tracking my expenses. I didn’t get very far right away, however.

When my monthly reports showed “Cash Withdrawal” as one of my largest expenses, I knew I wasn’t getting the information from the software necessary to make decisions about my finances. I knew what I had to do — I had to track every expenditure, even if I used cash.

I changed my methodology moving forward. I created a tracking account in Moneydance called “Cash.” When I withdrew money at the ATM from my checking account, I recorded it in the software as a transfer rather than an expense. Then when I spent that cash, say at the cafeteria at my new job or at the movies, I could list the transactions as outflows of cash, categorized as “food:convenience” or “entertainment:movies.”

For this to be successful, I had to be very diligent, almost (but not quite) obsessive. It was actually a very simple process. I would ask for receipts for everything and save the receipts in my wallet. At night I would dump my wallet onto the table and enter the day’s expenses, whether paid by cash or credit card, one by one into the software.

I’m saying that this is “not quite” obsessive. If I had been obsessive, I would have written down every purchase for which I could not be provided a receipt. I relied on my memory for many expenses, and I was usually able to do so because I opened Moneydance every evening.

I used the knowledge gained from tracking the minutiae, as well as from discussion boards like The Motley Fool where I learned about cash-back credit cards among other financial tidbits, to make better-informed decisions about spending and saving.

This continued for a while. As the availability of cash back credit cards increase, more and more of my spending was electronic. Eventually, I switched from Moneydance to Microsoft Money and finally Quicken to take advantage of more features, such as the automatic reconciliation of credit card transactions with the bank’s information, but the process remained fairly the same.

As the next few years progressed, I was managing to net anywhere from one thousand to several thousand dollars each month. That’s mainly due to increased income from a variety of sources, but also due to smart spending. I went without anything but the basic cable television for a while, I kept my rent expense low even when I was living alone, and I made sure I had a reliable car that did not guzzle gas and required little maintenance. For much of that time, I had no car and made use of public transportation almost exclusively, and even in New Jersey, that wasn’t easy.

In a few short years, I went from spending more than I was earning to just the opposite. And for the most part, the difference between my income and expense was large enough I wasn’t in any immediate danger of increasing my debt to pay for necessities. At this point, tracking every single cash expense is not worth the effort. I still collect my receipts, particularly for anything that may be a business-related expense, purchases with the possibility of being returned if defective, or large expenses in general. The receipts generally get filed away.

Every few days, I open Quicken to enter transactions. Now I rely on my memory for a large portion of my cash expenditures. I don’t fret over whether I get something exactly correct or if I miss something. I generally round up when figuring my cash expenses, so that pay make up for forgotten transactions.

This does affect the accuracy of my monthly financial reports, but the purpose of these reports has changed over the past few years. At first, I needed to know with good accuracy where my money was going in order to find ways to chip away at it from different angles. Now, I look at the big picture: how are my investments performing, am I seeing a decline in business income, how big of a vacation will I be able to afford, etc. This information and the decisions based thereon are not affected by the $7.00 I spend at the office cafeteria. I still try to account for everything, but I’m past the point of pseudo-obsession.

Photo credit: PPDIGITAL

Updated December 20, 2011 and originally published May 26, 2008.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

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