When I first started using a spending plan (yes, I am avoiding the word “Budget”, because it seems to scare most people!), it seemed like it didn’t work, so I stopped using it. “I wrote down a spending plan and I still don’t have the money for things I need!” It took a few years before I realized exactly why my plan didn’t work—I wasn’t keeping track of what I actually spent my money on! Those numbers you wrote down are not meaningless numbers. They are just the start of controlling your money.
Your spending plan WILL fail if you don’t take the crucial step of making sure you are sticking to it.
There are many ways to track your spending and there is no possible way I can list them all here. However, I will list a few for you to try out. As I have mentioned in another article, one size does not fit all. Figure out what works best for you and stick to it.
Carry a small notebook around with you. Each page can be a different category. List the planned amount from your spending plan, add in any remaining (aka “rollover”) amount from the previous month, and this gives your beginning balance. Right after you spend money, record it in your notebook, subtract it from your balance and show your new balance. Do this before you leave the parking lot so you can keep up with your spending and always know what your remaining balance is.
You can also use a binder you keep at home. Have separate pages in it for each category. At the end of each day take 5 minutes to record all the money you spent that day.
You should also record any credit card purchases you made. Subtract them from the balance also. To help you keep track of which spending was done with a credit card, circle it, put a box around it, use a different colored pen—whatever it takes to make it look different. Then, when you pay it off, put a checkmark by it to show that credit card expense has been paid.
Manually type in or download your transactions from your bank and assign them to categories. You can split transactions, which works well, for example, if you bought a gift card for a birthday gift when you were at the store buying groceries. Take the time to update this every evening before you go to bed. Or at least a few times a week.
3. Online Banking
Some banks allow you to assign categories online. However, they may only allow you to assign one category per transaction.
4. Envelope System
One way to really control spending is to pay cash for everything. It’s harder to let go of that hard earned cash then it is to swipe a debit card. In this system, every envelope is labeled with a different category and you put the cash in the envelope at the beginning of each month or pay period. Make sure you get receipts when you buy things, and then record what you spend on the back of the envelope, putting the receipt inside for reference. Use bill pay to pay your monthly bills like mortage/rent or utilities. But for most of your day to day expenses, such as groceries, household goods, haircuts, etc., this works well.
There are quite a few apps available to keep track of your spending. Mint.com is probably the best known and most used one. It helps you track, budget and manage your money. Cash too. It is now owned by the same company who owns Quicken.
Since the list of apps is constantly changing as ones come and go, I’m not going to list other apps here. Check out what is available and be sure to find one that lets you create your own categories, lets you rollover the unused amounts from month to month, doesn’t limit the number of transactions (as a way to force you to buy their full version after you have started to use their free one), syncs between devices, and most importantly is an app you will actually use.
Whatever method you choose to track your spending, make sure you keep it up to date and that it is accurate. Find a method that works for you. I use a combination of a few of the above methods and it has worked for me for years. Find one you will stick to and that will help you control your money.
UPDATE: Forbes had a list of top apps for tracking spending in June 2015. You can find an article about it here.