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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 January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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