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Frugal Tip: Write it Down





Once upon a time, I was as enthusiastic about health, nutrition, and working out as I am about personal finance today. During that time, I helped a bunch of people achieve their nutritional/weight goals in a realistic time frame. Out of all the tips and tricks that I gave people, there was one piece of advice that seemed to be the most effective which can be applied to personal finance as well. What was that advice?

Write it down.

In terms of weight loss, writing down what you ate during the day in a log book resulted in the realization of the actual number of calories consumed. From there, nutritional consumption could be tweaked based on their goals. The same principle applies for savings. For people who are looking to increase their savings, writing down what is spent during a typical day will reveal where expenses can be reduced.

If you want to give this a try, at the end of the day, take a moment and grab a pen and some paper. Briefly scribble down everything that you purchased along with the amount spent. Do this everyday for a week. Take a look at where you are spending your money. Buying Tim Hortons everyday? How about your lunches? Eating out much? Beers after work? For most people, just seeing everything on paper is a real eye opener.

Since we are in the digital age, instead of using ink, you can use a simple spreadsheet program or money management software like Ms Money or Quicken. If you like to do everything online, you can use Google’s online spreadsheet or web based spending trackers like Wesabe.

How many of you already track your spending? If so, what do you use?





31 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. 1. Ben

    I use Excel at the moment to track spending and assets. I like the flexibility of being able to track things the way I want. However, I’ve written it using pivot tables, and the file is over 11MB now and crashes a lot (not sure if it relates to the pivot tables though).
    I have been thinking about giving Quicken a try, but balk at paying the $100 or so it probably costs. Does anyone know if Quicken works well with President’s Choice accounts (ie. easy download)? Is there a trial version I can sample to see if I like it?

  2. 2. Cannon_fodder

    With certain types of phones (e.g. those with ‘full’ keyboards) it is even easy to track expenses while they happen. You are less likely to forget what you’ve purchased by the end of the day.

    My wife started to track all of her expenses for 3 months and she, too, was surprised at some of her expenses.

    She was a little hesitant to reveal to me some of the costs ($100+ for hair colouring every month, for example) but the exercise was not to justify our expenses. The purpose was to identify those expenses that could be reduced/eliminated once retired. The additional benefits of getting a clear picture of where the $ were flowing was just a byproduct.

    For myself, I don’t spend a lot in cash, preferring to use online purchasing and CC whenever I can. Thus, it is much easier for me to track my spending.

  3. 3. Julie

    My finances are pretty simple so I track in a little notebook. Like cannon, I try to put larger purchases on my CC so it’s easier to track.

  4. 4. David

    Are there any sites like Mint or Wasabee which work well with PC Financial. Quicken may or may not (post 1) but online would be great as I have a pc at work, mac at home, blackberry, etc.

  5. David, I have used Wesabe with my BlackBerry- it’s not perfect, but works well enough to use on your BB and clean up later, if necessary.

    My favourite way to plan my finances and record my spending is through a good ol’ spreadsheet on OpenOffice Calc (or Excel, for you MS Office folks). By designing my own system of recording, I have a lot more flexibility and get everything I want.

    One of the most useful features of writing down all financial info is not just tracking spending, but also tracking my savings towards certain goals (travel, big purchase, etc.). When I can look at both categories, it makes it much easier to pass up impulse spending and sink the money in to a savings account.

  6. 6. dc

    I have developed a fairly extensive model in excel for my finances. I use it to track my spending and budget my spending when events change. I find that I can easily copy and paste from online banking and categorize everything. I have it setup to accomodate bank accounts, credit card, etc. I have a clean version that I would be willing to email if anyone is interested.

    I used to use Quicken, and liked some aspects. However I found that I wanted to customize it a bit more and Quicken did not have the same level of flexibility.

    I definately find that tracking my spending regularly keeps me aware of where I am spending and helps me stay on track.

  7. Interesting concept. Do you also chart your income relative to your expenses? That might be a useful tool…

  8. 8. Cannon_fodder

    dc,

    Is your spreadsheet compatible with Google docs? If so, you could post it and let the community have at it, perhaps even enhancing it.

  9. 9. dc

    DGI – Yes I track income and expenses. The format is that for each month I track all income and expenses. I use the SUMIF function in excel and basically have a rolling continuity of my major accounts (chequing account and credit card). I have actually found this to be useful in ensuring that all amounts posted are ones that I know about (ie. no unauthorized credit card transactions/identity theft).

    Cannon – I am not familiar with google documents, but will check it out and see what I can do to post it. I have shared this with others and found that everyone has their own level of customization in mind. I am a bit of an excel geek, so I am always tweaking it.

  10. 10. CK

    I’ve got a great system that cost me nothing, actually makes me money and requires almost no work at all. I buy everything, EVERYTHING (even a pack of gum) on my credit card. At the end of every month the nice people at the credit card company will, for no charge, track and itimize my spending for the whole month. They’ll total it all up for me print it off, stuff it in the mail and send it right to my house, all free of charge. They even have a web site i can goto and review my spending and download my transactions. In addition to that, if you use a card like PC Financial they’ll actually pay you money for the privilage of letting them itimize, total, print and mail all this to you. They really are generious people.

    [Now if i could only convince them to sub-total my gas, food, and beer expenses...]

  11. 11. Kei

    I’ve been using a simple Excel spreadsheet to track all my income and expenses since February; group them by category such as “fixed”, “food”, “lottery” and “others”. It really helps me to cut down spending on the “other” group. Also if the item doesn’t worth the work for me to put a new line on the sheet I just don’t buy! At the end of the month I can easily tell how much I have saved vs how much I COULD have saved.

    I put them on the sheet as the purchase was made, not when the CC statements come in the mail. So the “buy now pay later” ads in the stores cannot trick me. I used the CC only to delay actual cash outflow while using the funds to earn some interest.

    My next step would be to build another spreadsheet to keep track of my net worth.

  12. Speaking of using credit cards to track your expenses, CIBC VISA cards actually sub categories your spending on their online system. For example, if you shop at a grocery store, they put a little grocery store icon next to the transaction which I believe can be sorted.

  13. 13. Chuck

    I’ve done away with 99% of my credit card usage and moved back to cash. I found it was too easy to say “I want that” and wave the plastic to get whatever i wanted.

    Each week I take $x out of my bank account and its my spend money. I find that now I’m asking myself the question – do I really need that. I’ve gone over my planned spend a couple of times – but have been able to handle it with my accumulated surplus.

    I track everything in excel on my Treo, and at the end of the week update Quicken with the actuals. Its really helped me get a better grip on where my money goes.

  14. 14. dc

    Cannon – I have created a google docs account and uploaded the model I have. Some of the formatting isn’t compatible, but I’d say it is pretty much there for the most part.

    Unless I am misunderstanding (keep in mind I am new to google docs) it appears I need email addresses to share the document.

    I am happy to do this, or email the original if anyone wants to muck around in it. Let me know if there is a way to share without inputting email addresses.

  15. 15. AndyBuck

    I use MS Money. Unfortunately it doesn’t interface as nicely into Canadian banks as Quicken does, but it generally works out fine. I just have to visit each site and download the transactions.

    The only thing that throws me off is that one of my CCs doesn’t have a download in ‘QIF’ format option (Damn you CITI!). I just tend to use the ‘Split Transaction’ function to properly categorize those transactions that go to this card.

  16. 16. Telly

    dc, I’d be very interested in checking out that document. Maybe FT can post it on his blog??

  17. dc, if you’re willing to share your excel document, please contact me and I will create a download link for everyone to view.

  18. 18. Telly

    Thanks FT! :)

  19. 19. Mikel

    Quicken works great with PC financial, TD and Desjardins. I still use the QFX method and not the “banking booster”. Where it comes up short for certain functions i simply export to excel and go from there. I have been using quicken for the past 4 years and although i hate the forced upgrades there is nothing else close to matching it for my purposes. I track rental property, personal spending and all investments with one tool.

    It can be a bit buggy at times, but no worse than anything else i see being used here. The latest version has great budgeting and realtime spending tools that come in handy. I also like that it can take my current situation and extrapolate it forward to show how broke i’ll be in say 15 years. ;)

  20. 20. Chris

    I used to use a notebook, but I put it in a Excel spreadsheet. It’s nothing too complicated. Add some color for the headers.

    Basically just Date, Transaction, Credit and Debit.

  21. Hey guys, you can download DC’s spreadsheet here:

    DC’s Expense Tracking Excel Spreadsheet

  22. 22. David Cox

    Interestingly enough. I had 3 messages in my inbox with your article from Mint.com. A 100% web based financial tracking program that beats Quicken, MS Money, or Yodlee.

    One notice was for a ‘threshold balance’ in my savings account (so I know when to transfer money) and another was to tell me that I had exceeedd my dining costs for the week. It auto logs all the transactions, is a lot easier to set up naming rules etc than Quicken, and provides a ‘drill-down’ into each category.

    I still stick to Excel for long term projections etc.

  23. 23. davidm

    Has anyone checked out moneydance? http://moneydance.com/ It is a cross platform (Windows, Mac, Linux – it is written in Java) money manager that works with most banks, it costs $40.

  24. 24. Steve

    I have been using http://www.buxfer.com for the last couple of months. It seems fairly decent but I have never used anything else so I don’t have a comparison.

  25. 25. Maiku

    I use GnuCash which is free open-source, cross-platform accounting program (http://gnucash.org/). It is fairly easy to use but does have it’s limitations (I don’t like the way it tracks mutual funds / stocks). However, it works fine for tracking expenses and bank accounts.

    I buy most of my purchases using CC and my bank provides downloads of bank activity so at the end of the month I can download both and then match everything up to see where I’m at.

    My one problem is that technically I should do this every day to see where I’m at and then double check at the end of the month. However, I can’t seem to get motivated enough to do that because I only spend money sporadically on groceries and the occasional dinner out.

    This leads me to a question: I use “pay yourself first” but often have money left over at the end of the month. In this situation do you guys put this left over into investments or leave it as semi-emergency fund?

  26. 26. AndrewP

    I use an open source (FREE) program called GNUcash. There are LOTS of open source programs willing to take care of your finances for you.
    I track ALL expenses and income. At the end of each month, I print out an “Income Statement” showing how bad our Net Loss for the month was =(

    Moving seems to carry some pretty big expenses with it!

    http://www.gnucash.org/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Free_accounting_software

  27. 27. Gates VP

    Wow FT, you really lit a fire with this crowd here.

    Me, I used Quicken for 10 years and then stopped. No spreadsheets, no GNUCash or Mint or Wesabe, just done.

    Why?

    Time, technology and learning.

    It’s like your diet log-book. When you start writing down your diet and exercise routines, you learn a lot. You “see” calories and you start holding yourself accountable. You see fitnees progress, you want to track the changes and improvements.

    But then something happens.

    One day you wake up and realize that you’ve pretty much got the process down. Where maybe you would weigh everything you ate and count calories, now you just write down what you ate. You don’t need to weigh food or sum up calories anymore b/c you get a pretty good idea. You just scan the workout listing, the food listing and you know if you were over or under that day. You’ll stop analyzing your fitness plan and instead you’ll just print out your next set of workout plans and fill in the blanks.

    My wife and I found the same thing with Quicken. It’s not that we don’t write it down, it’s just that we’re reducing our overhead. Watching the details is great, but it’s attention-consuming. At some point, the spreadsheets just become a hobby instead of a tool.

    We got there.

    We figured out our monthly bills and food budget, pooled together our annual fees, gave ourselves entertainment allowances and the rest just works from there. Everything’s automatic, we already know our “budgets” so we basically just sit down once / month and decide on our purchases savings.

    Don’t get me wrong FT, your suggestion is excellent. But for the truly zealous, it’s worth noting that spreadsheets are hell for some people. If you get “normal” people asking for PF help, showing them the wrong tool can be as much a hindrance as a help.

  28. 28. Ben

    GatesVP, very interesting comments. I think I might get there myself one day. In the meantime, I sit down once every couple of months for a couple of hours, tally everything up in Excel, and look to see by how much we’ve been in the black over that period. Look for a couple of trends, pass on the good word to my wife, and continue on with a fairly frugal lifestyle.
    Remember everyone that is far more important to exercise control over daily spending, than to agonize over how to track the spending. Control the spending, and the rest will take care of itself. Like Gates implies, the first step is to understand the spending through a recording process, this understanding feeds back into your spending habits, and once the spending habits are under control, recording loses some of its value. At this point, the spreadsheets just become a hobby instead of a tool.

  29. 29. dc

    Gates – great comments. Congratulations to you and your wife on getting to that point.

    My wife and I are not there yet – so we need a tool to help us.

    We used Quicken religiously for a number of years, and really all we were getting good at was entering the expenses. We did not really end up using it as a learning tool. That is why I ended up setting up my own spreadsheet – so I could customize it to what I needed to see. As it turns out, what I needed to see is that we were spending more than we made.

    By setting up a spreadsheet that worked for us, my wife and I can have discussions where we really look at our spending and where we could make cuts to move in the right direction. I hope that by doing this, we “get there” as well.

    I do find that our financial circumstances seem to change quite often. Over the past number of years, my wife and I have moved from two incomes to one (she now stays at home with the kids), I have changed jobs a few times, and we have had our mortgage come up for renewal. In all of these instances, having a tool (such as my handy spreadsheet) has been extremely valuable in helping us make the right decision and see what we needed to change about our spending in each of the above circumstances.

  30. 30. Gates VP

    @Maiku: but often have money left over at the end of the month

    This is actually a really good question, but my bigger question is why is there extra money?

    I would typically go through the usual plethora of questions:
    - Are you saving enough money for “eventualities”? Lots of people don’t sock money away for things like home repairs and car repairs. There’s kind of grey line between “emergency” fund and “eventuality” fund, but you get the idea. It’s one thing to money left at the end of the month, but a different thing to have money left at the end of the year.
    - Are you saving enough money to meet your long term goals?
    - Are you adequately insured? Do you enough money in an account to cover all of your deductibles?

    If the answer is “yes” to all, then honestly, do whatever the heck you want with the “extra” money. I mean that’s what it’s there for right?

    Take a trip, play with some “fun” investments, take some non-work related courses, take some unpaid time off to pursue a hobby, make a charitable donation (get your name on a plaque somewhere :), rent a hall and host a party for your friend “just because”, buy a great gift for a friend in need. Heck maybe it’s not that much money, and you just do small stuff: take a friend out for lunch/dinner every week (rotate for fairness), have an extra Starbucks or two (latte factor be damned), try a new food that you never bought b/c it cost too much, get a monthly 1-hour massage ($50-60), expand your musical horizons and buy one new CD every month (tons of on-line sites offer suggestions).

    You don’t get to take any of it with you. So “extra” money is there to be spent. If you don’t have any plans for it, sharing it seems to have maximal effect (whether that be treating friends / family or just giving it to charity).

    @Ben: no doubt that change wrecks the process. If we had a kid, I would likely be back to Quicken (or Mint.com here in the US) just to get a handle on the bills.

  31. 31. Maiku

    @GatesVP:

    Thank you, you make a really good point about spending money on oneself. I have often dealt with the problem of thinking I could save every last dime (and I managed to do it for awhile but at the cost of a relationship). Now I try to use my money a little more but it brings me back to the issue of how do I know when I should be saving that money and when I should let loose a little?

    In regards to your comments about saving for eventualities, I currently rent and I don’t own a car so that cuts down on 2 major expenses. And I should look into insurance but I’m generally of the mind that I could lose most of my stuff and still be ok (really the only things I could lose that would upset me would be stuff no amount of money could replace anyway).

    Lastly, I like your idea of a charitable donation. I have been kicking around the idea of starting up a small scholarship fund since I know how hard it is for those with little funds (although it’s a little strange since I have just started going back to school for part-time courses).
    Anyway, like Wealthy Barber and Automatic Millionaire authors both suggested, what goes around comes around.

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