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An Introduction to Expense Tracking

An Introduction to Expense Tracking

    Who doesn’t have a goal for the new year that involves money? Many of us have goals that involve making more money or managing the money we already have — but, no matter exactly what goal you might have for your money, you’ll probably need some baseline information about it. While understanding your expenses is basic, they make up some of the most important information you can gather about where your money goes. Tracking expenses can be a relatively simple matter and can provide you so much information about your spending habits.

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    Whether you’re working on creating a budget or you are trying to simplify the bookkeeping for a small business, tracking your expenses should be a first step. If most of your spending is done electronically (using a debit card or a credit card), you may be able to get away with just tracking your cash spending. Most money management software can automatically import those electronic expenses, further simplifying matters. You can also choose to use your own system, from the ground up, including setting up a spreadsheet and entering information by hand.

    Getting In The Habit of Tracking

    When it comes to tracking expenses, you can make your system as simple as collecting receipts and organizing them once a month. You might get a little more information from other expense tracking systems (listing them in a spreadsheet, using money management software or even choosing an online application), but all methods have one thing in common: you have to get in the habit of thinking about your expenses. It’s very easy to misplace a receipt or forget about any cash you spent. You may even think that a cup of coffee or a trip to the vending machine isn’t worth tracking — although those little expenses can add up amazingly fast. There are all sorts of opportunities to throw a kink into your plan to track expenses. You have to get in the habit of doing so, to reduce those lapses, and make sure that the data you’re basing financial decisions on is solid.

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    It’s also worthwhile to track your income in the same system that you track your expenses. This may seem like a no-brainer, because many people think that they only have one source of income: the salary that they receive from their job. In truth, however, most of us have additional sources of money, whether we hold a yearly garage sale, freelance or receive rebates. If you choose an application specifically created to track expenses, you’ll find that most have some sort of tool for inputting information about your income as well. If you decide to use a system of your own devising, such as a list of expenses in a spreadsheet, you’ll need to clearly separate income and expenses — place them in different columns, make one negative or denote the difference in another way.

    Using Your Information

    Once you’ve built up a lot of information about your expenses, you can use it to make a number of different financial decisions. You can easily broadcast your future spending — and plan out a budget. If you aren’t comfortable with the amount of spending you’re doing, you can also use all those expenses you’ve been tracking to help you set limits and finding places where you can reduce your spending. If, for instance, you notice a lot of lunches out, you could cut those expenses by committing to brown-bagging on a more regular basis. As long as you already have information on your expenses in hand, you can use it to make a long list of decisions much easier.

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    A Few Online Options

    While you could use a notebook or a spreadsheet to track your expenses, there are more than a few tools online that are able to handle all the details — and may have a few additional features thrown in:

    • Xpenser: If you’re always on the go, Xpenser can be a good option. It allows you to text your expenses in, helping you ensure that you don’t forget to track your spending between the store and home. In addition to SMS, you can email, Twitter, IM, call or manually add your expenses.
    • Moneytrackin’: For tracking expenses in multiple accounts — such as business and personal — Moneytrackin’ provides easy management of expenses between those accounts. You can also tag transactions and budget easily.
    • Mint: While Mint only tracks your expenses made through a bank account (checks, debit cards, credit cards), it does integrate expense tracking with a whole host of other features, including tools to help you analyze your spending and automatic expense categorization.
    • Buxfer: Another site that primarily tracks expenses made through bank accounts, Buxfer also has tools to help organize shared expenses — such as splitting the rent with a roommate.
    • Shoeboxed: You can add expenses by hand to Shoeboxed, but the site’s real value is that (for a price) they’ll scan in your receipts and upload them to your account on the site. If you do a lot of spending with cash, this site can truly simplify matters.

    No matter which option you decide to go with, I do think it’s worthwhile to pick a system that is as automatic as possible — writing down everything by hand and entering it into some sort of money management program just seems like a fast way to use up a lot of time. If you use another tool besides those listed above and really like it, please share it in the comments.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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