Budgeting apps are plentiful, but it can take some trial and error to find one you love. And if you’re someone who’s trying to spend less time in front of a screen, sometimes the last thing you want to do is open your budgeting app for a checkup.
Might I offer you this paper and pen? It might be the best budget-tracking solution you’ve ever tried.
How to track your purchases
I’ve tried two types of ledgering:
1. The month-long audit. I write down every purchase I make during the course of a month. That includes my rent check, the auto-debit for my internet bill, groceries and everything else down to a pack of gum. At the end of the month, I move all those expenses into a spreadsheet by category (analogue meets digital, y’all) to check if my budget matched up with my true spending.
2. The always audit. It needs a better name, but this is the method I use when I just want to keep a close eye on my spending. I carry a paper planner most days, so I jot down purchases as I go. If I want to analyse my spending later, I have a daily breakdown; if not, it’s just a diary.
I’ve found this method especially useful when I’m scrolling through my credit or debit statement and see a line item I just can’t place. Don’t you hate when businesses have a merchant code that’s nowhere close to the name of the business on the sign out front? Your ledger knows exactly where you’ve been, whether you were out and about or cruising the world wide web.
No art skills required, promise
Do not get hung up on beauty when you keep this ledger. The important parts are the date, place, and purchase amount. If you want to add flourishes, colour coding, or aspects of bullet journaling, that’s fine. But the ledger is meant to be quick and easy, so don’t let style hold you back from keeping simple records.
Use a dedicated pocket notebook if you like, or jot your purchases down in your paper planner, like I typically do.
My handwriting is atrocious, but I can quickly scan back over my planner to see when and where I spent what.
When I did my month-long audit last year, I used a legal tablet. At the end of each day, I’d rustle up all my receipts
The log is a no judgement zone. Some days you need margaritas and chips with your coworkers. That is fine, as long as you write it down, regardless of whether you used cash, credit or Venmo.
What you can learn from tracking expenses by hand
The biggest benefit I’ve found from keeping an expense ledger is that it provides a reality check for my budget. You may feel confident in your budget when you create it, but find yourself feeling uncertain it’s actually meeting your needs.
One area where keeping a log helped me adjust my budget was pet expenses. Last time I tweaked my budget (I give it a good once-over every year), I estimated what it cost for food, litter, flea prevention treatment, and yearly vet visits for my two cats. But my recent paper log helped drive home how much it really costs to keep these critters living a lavish small-town life: I needed to make a lot more room in my budget for this category.
Sometimes I look back and say, “Wow, I can’t believe I spent that much at XYZ store. Maybe I won’t do that again.” But more often, looking back makes me consider the routine purchases I make and how to better plan my budget to accommodate them.
An app could do this work for me. But when I take the time to do it myself, I find that I’m more thoughtful about my finances overall, instead of just checking items off my money to-do list.