My Expense Tracking Plan Of Attack! (Join Me?)

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I fell off the budgeting wagon months ago, and haven’t been back on since. I’m still saving a good chunk of money each month, but it’s high time that I drink my own Kool-Aid and start tracking my expenses.

I haven’t been overly impressed with either Money and Quicken in the past, so I needed to find an alternative. After browsing through my big list of free budgeting tools, I’ve decided to try the PearBudget spreadsheet out first. It seemed to be the best candidate for me because:

It’s free, and it won’t stop working after 2 years, either!
It’s offline, so no worrying about importing files or syncing problems.
It’s flexible; I can update every day or once a month, whatever works.
It’s simple. I’m only concerned about tracking expenses. I don’t need any other features to distract me or take up more time.

In fact, there are only 2 steps that require any effort:

PearBudget Steps Screenshot

I just finished the first step today, which is name the categories you want to track and give some rough estimates. It really did only take 10 minutes.

To help me with the second step, I went out and bought one of those restaurant receipt spindles from OfficeMax for $2. My plan is to get receipts for everything, and whenever I get home to spear them all on the spike. Every day or two, I’ll empty the spike and punch in a few quick numbers into PearBudget. All tax-deductible expenses will be stored in a folder for tax time. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? I plan to start tracking in February. I invite anyone interested to join me and discover exactly how our money is spent during any given month!

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  1. Thanks a lot for the idea, Jonathan!

    Just like yourself, I’m constantly on a look-out for a nice and easy to use solution. PearBudget does sound like it’s worth a try. Good thing they set your expectations right by providing time estimates! ๐Ÿ™‚

    We’ll see what grows out of this noble intention in February.

    All the best!

  2. I like the idea about the receipt spindle. I need to get one of those of my wife and me. We are constantly losing receipts (and we have no budget at all). Thanks for the (cheap) idea.

  3. Just to put some more budgeting tools out there. Joe Sangl is a financial counseler/advisor that works for my church. He applies a lot of techniques that Dave Ramsey promotes. He also has a tools section with a few premade Excel spreadsheets for budget, saving allocation, and a debt freedom date calculator. Keep in mind his budgets use the income – outgo = zero mentality. A sure fire way to make sure you are not spending more than you are making. Links below:


    P.S. If you consider this to be “self-promotional” you can remove. I just wanted to throw the budgeting tools that I use out there. Theya re very simple but get the job done if you take them time to use them. As Joe would say, spend your money on paper before the month begins.

  4. The Simple Dollar has a 30 Day Challenge similar to this. Starting Feb 1, I’m going to be tracking daily spending and posting it in a effort to see where I’m wasting money. I think it could open my eyes a little bit! Thanks for the link to PearBudget.

  5. Receipt spike great idea! Did not think of that earlier. Will get one myself. Have fallen off the wagon myself(darn christmas!) however, need desperately to get back on track. Thank you for this!!

  6. Jonathan – I loved Pear Budget when I used it, especially combined with Google Spreadsheets so I could access it from work. One downside was if I bought more than one thing on a given day, there was no way to differentiate the costs; they just had to be combined so that they fit into one cell. When I looked back over the month, it was sometimes hard to figure out what some random $17.37 cost was because there’s no description feature. Also, around Christmas time, I unfortunately ran out of room in the misc. expense section (though that may be an entirely different sort of budgeting problem…). The Analysis page makes it worth it though! Good luck and way to get back on the wagon!

  7. Very good! I’ve been tracking my expenses on and off for a year, and it’s really useful for a whole bunch of reasons, not just the “am I loosing $1000/year on lattes” kind of stuff.

    I’ve got a system which is the height of anality, but I really like it. I’ve got two of those receipt holders, those pouches. One is labeled with the months of the year, the other I added category labels to. The categories I use are: clothes, donations, household, travel, business expenses, gas. Business expenses and gas are both deductible for my business. Travel is so that I can confirm that my frequent flier miles were posted, or that I turned in my rental car etc. Household is for any household expenses I may need for insurance… I figure once a year, I’ll mail the receipts to my dad so I have proof of purchase (post-Katrina thinking). I buy a lot of hardcover books so those receipts go in there, DVD’s too, but mainly furniture and electronics. Clothes are kind of the same… if the mister goes on a business trip and the airline looses his suit, I got proof of it.

    Everything else goes in the months of the year pouch, and then when I get a year’s worth of receipts I’ll start throwing out the old ones to make room. That way I can go back in and fish out something if anything else comes up, generally if my credit card doesn’t match up with something, or I need to exchange something, who knows.

    Maybe I should be posting to some kinda OCD-anonymous blog. But seriously, it just makes sense that you’d want to keep the receipts that “matter”, and those pouches just make them easy to find.

  8. I had the same problem with tracking our expenses. I started in August but forgot about it in November, lasted only three months. Sometimes it just feels like tedious to record every penny and if I forgot to do the recording immediately, the my wallet is full of receipt and don’t even want to catch up any more :(. I guess I should also restart the process. I used to put all receipts in an envelop, but the spike seems to be a better choice.

  9. trish in omaha says

    Just downloaded the software. My husband and I were talking about this just this morning. I love the idea of the spindle as well. I’m with ya’ on this one!

  10. I’ve grown to be a big fan of the (free!) web site, where you can track whatever categories of spending you want based on any electronic records you have from your bank / credit card companies / etc. It puts these kinds of tracking into the “mostly done automatically so I can’t fall off the wagon” category – which, at least for me, helps a lot. Also, at least so far, I’ve been really impressed with the other users – every time I post a query or discussion topic, I get really useful comments back!

  11. There are so few places that require cash these days, why not just pay for everything on your debit card? That way, you can keep an exact total of all money spent by checking your account online.

  12. I use MS Money to track my expenses in a similar fashion. It has helped me get out of debt and start saving to buy my first home, as well as saving for retirement.

  13. To track expenses we use a debit card to make purchases in conjunction with the bank’s online statements where we can assign categories to each purchase, like income or expense. It is very helpful and efficient.

  14. with all of your wonderful ideas, i dont understand the meaning behind this post? I am sure you already do this, but why arent you just using a credit card for every purchase and then throwing your receipt in your wallet until you get home. then you put it in a box and at the end of the week you type everything into your computer and save your receipt in an expandable folder.

    maybe I missed the point of this post but the only way tracking your expenses would be difficult is if you had a ton of cash transactions, which shouldnt be the case with all of your 0% credit cards….

  15. I homeschool, and Charlie Park is the web master at the homeschooling message board I frequent. A lot of the people on the board have been using PearBudget and are quite happy with it. Thanks for the reminder!

  16. I appreciate the budgeting aspect of this product. Money and Quicken do well at tracking but are both lousy at the budgeting part. PearBudget underestimates the time it takes, however, unless you don’t have very many transactions. There is no way I could do mine in 20 minutes a month. Also, if you wait to long, you forget expenses that you can’t get receipts for.

    Secondly, to have an effective budget, tweaks will be needed every month for the first few months. Once you get a realistic budget perhaps 10 minutes for review is adequate. Once a year is too seldom for a person seriously trying to reign in spending, however. I suggest about every six months.

    I am currently using Mvelopes for budgeting and tracking. I like the way it automatically downloads all my transactions every day and that the spending plan is right in your face. You quickly know if you need to adjust something. There is a fee associated with using it, but it helps me save far more than the subscription costs. I would be happy to provide a guest review if Jonathon wants a day off sometime.

  17. InspectorFox says

    I am with you Chief… I think this is a great way to track expenses. I am downloading PearBudget right now and putting it to test.

  18. Mike Hostetler says

    The receipt spindle is an awesome idea. My wife and I simply put our receipts into an ‘inbox’, but our wonderful dog loves to chew them up (seriously).

  19. I am in the same boat as you’re using Quicken. I used Quicken Deluxe 2004. The amounts doesn’t match with my brokerage account (Etrade at that time), I had a problem updating my salary information when I got the salary hike. So, I stopped using it. Since then, I have been looking for some simple & easy to use software, just for expense tracking. My wife and myself both are conservative spenders.

  20. Hi Jonathan,
    I use Quicken and find it to be the best tool for me as it downloads all credit card transactions and bank transactions etc.
    Is there a reason you dont like quicken?
    I do virtually no typing of any receipts at all. I almost never pay cash for anything and every transaction can be downloaded via the credit cards.

  21. I recently also started using PearBudget at the beginning of this year after browsing through your list (I had limited choices cause I use a Mac). So far so good! I think the hardest part for me is remembering to get a receipt every time! One thing I wish it had (or maybe I haven’t found how to do it) is to carry over some credits over to the next month, such as emergency fund contributions.

  22. I love the restaurant spindles idea to spear your receipts. I have been just putting them in a shoe box (how original…haha). The thing is – I am not very good in asking for receipts all the time. If I want an accurate tracking number system, I want to include every receipts…even the little ones that I spent at Starbucks for Mocha. Am I over doing it?

    Oh, this is my first posting. Since I learned of your site in Business Weekly, I have been enjoyed reading your site. There are so many practical ideas and good suggestions here which go so well with my profile as the “cheap & practical Asian woman” (so that’s what my friends call me). It’s one stereotyping that I am okay with.


  23. I do use credit cards for most things, but not all. Then there are some bills that don’t take credit cards, like water/gas/electric/rent, on top of checks I write for gifts or the food/drinks at small mom/pop shops.

    With Money/Quicken, to account for all those I need to sync bank transactions, which simply don’t work for certain banks I use. Others don’t sync so I have to wait until the end of the month, which leaves too much work at the end. My main problem might simply be having too many different accounts from smaller banks. But overall, it’s just overkill for my needs and I don’t feel like doing all the workarounds. Again, it’s just my personal opinion, everyone is different. I truly think using a simple spreadsheet might be faster for me. But we’ll see.

    Also, this way I am getting in the habit of keeping receipts and offloading them daily. Receipts are really useful as I need to keep track of all potential business expenses, as well as healthcare expenses or job-search expenses as they are all tax-deductible.

    I’m glad people like the spindle idea! If you’re looking for it online, search for “wire spindle”. It’s never listed as “receipt spike” like you’d think… Also, remove that rubber cap, it’s just for safety in the store. Really tough to spear otherwise ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. I like this spreadsheet, comparable to the one I was using (Neil Rothman’s budget spread), but I like the features (analysis, etc) much better.

    The spindle is an awesome idea, and maybe one I can even get my wife to accept. Much better option than reconciling after the transaction posts to my online banking account.

    As for the comment of The Financista, you can right click and insert comment for the popup comment box where you can describe the entries in detail.

  25. From the volume of comments, looks like you touched a nerve there Jonathan. Good on you! Way back when, I used one of those spikes but I got out of the habit and began stuffing receipts in a pocket of whatever I wore at the time of purchase. A really dumb idea & so easy to mislay the evidence. So now I’ll invest $5 in a coupla spikes. Before IBM revolutionized offices every self-respecting establishment had a bunch of them, I believe. Good luck with the budgeting & house-hunting. The bottoming out pricewise Realtors claim has already happened surely missed my neighborhood. Our prices (both sales & rentals) remain in the stratosphere. Last time I was in Portland (great city BTW & one I’m sure you hate to have to leave) I thought real estate was fairly valued. Alas, no more, I suppose.

  26. Peter Charles says

    I just use excell it is the easiest

  27. Defending receipts:

    One reason I don’t use credit cards for flexible expenses (I don’t count groceries as flexible) is that then I won’t know how much I spent until the credit card bill comes. But if I use cash for flexible expenses, and I get the same amount from the bank each week, then I know always know how much “play money” I have spent.

    Also, I think the IRS wants to see real receipts for deductions and not credit card statements. And with budgeting off of receipts, you can figure out how much you spend on certain categories e.g. medicines, which is useful if you ever want to know how much to put into those health care savings accounts at work.

  28. That’s a good reminder on one thing I forgot – the ability to break down a receipt into the correct categories.

    For example, when I shop at Costco or Target it could span several categories – groceries, household items, clothes, gifts, medicine, even car repair. You can break it down in Money/Quicken, but you would still need the receipt and not just the statement.

    Oh, and please post new free budgeting tools in that post, not here. It’s easier for me to remember to add them into the list.

  29. Jonathan, I’m shocked! I thought you had been doing this all along!

    I’m a huge advocate of tracking expenses, however to date all it has really done is further reinforce the fact that my wife and I have little self-control with regards to spending sprees. The daily expenses are easy (try not to eat out at expensive restaurants, etc.) – it’s the plane tickets, birthday gifts, and other miscellaneous things that weren’t previously planned that just “have” to be purchased for one reason or another. Sigh… Some day I’ll get a handle on it.

  30. Background: I started using excel for this purpose 3 years back.
    I just need to enter where i spend, what i spend and what category and the excel takes care of everything else and tells me ho wmuch i spent per category – it gives nice pie charts like Ms money etc. some rudimentary Budgeting is also setup in my excel – Bottomline – I do get what I want

    Reality: In the beginning I was very regular , but lately it has been tough finding time to enter info. with life becoming busier, I dont want to be spending time checking each of our (my wife’s and mine) 4 credit card accounts, and 6 bank accounts and 4 – brokerage- mutual fund accounts to figure what our state of affairs is.

    Latest: I am on the MS money free trail – which automatically downloads the info. I love that. However some brokerage accounts dont transfer info automatically. But most of my banking accounts do link fine and everyday , I know what my state of finances is.
    Ms money costs around 30$ for 2 years, after which u may have to upgrade and also some banks charge 3$ per month.

    Analysis: For 30$ on the software and 3$ per month for the MS Money info that Wells fargo charges – I think its a good deal for me and I am able to sleep better. Compared to atleast 1 hours per week that I was spending to enter info earlier and when I forgot to enter info for months it almost never got down and i had gaps in my yearly tracking.
    If you earn around 50$ per hour at work you might as well use that time to earn more and delegate this work to software.

    What would be best is to have a software that takes a cut and paste from th evarious bank accounts and transfers into excel format.
    I thought of writing that but that will take more time too.

    Conclusion: I am trying the MS money and probably will go with it.

  31. I use Money, and have been doing so last few years. I feel thats the easiest way to track the expenses. I needs one time setup, but after that life is easier. In one click it pulls data from most of my bank and CC, and all I need to do is assign categories to each transaction.

    At the end on the month I pull report from money to see how I did in spending and in what category. I can compare the report with previous month or my budgeted value and find it very easy.

  32. Thanks Jonathan for this great idea. I really like the appearance of PearBudget because it’s Excel based which means I can basically customize it in any way that I want. I’m gonna start tracking my budget from now on.

  33. Office Max is going to see a surge in sales in receipt spike and raise their price to $2.25 Better hurry up folks.

    Good idea jonathan.

  34. I’m really not bashing Money or Quicken. They are very powerful software and many people love them. It just didn’t work for *me*.

    I use both in 2005 and I didn’t like either one. Some of the accounts would sync, others wouldn’t, and all my interbank transfers would screw up the income/expense reports. I may try again later.

  35. Saving receipts has never worked for us. Instead we put everything on our Citi Dividend Card. The only cash we ever carry is on some Monday’s when we split $10 left over from getting a roll of quarters for weekend laundry. Tracking our expenses has been a cinch ever since!

  36. I use MS Money, and like it even thought I do have to manually sync some of the bank accounts at the end of the month. I was having the same problem as you Jonathan, with the interbank transfers, so I created a catagory labeled “Funds Transfer” and then customized all my reports to exclude this catagory. That way, my bank to bank transfers don’t affect any of my income/expense reports.

  37. I hate it when Quicken automatically increases my net worth when I invoice someone! Then when the person pays me and I deposit that check in the bank, Quicken inflates my net worth again, unless I manually go in to the invoice and link it to the check that was deposited. Its a pain!!

  38. I’m with Ryan. I’ve been using MS Money and mostly non-cash transactions for years and it works fine for me.

  39. Mike, I’m SO with you! I got in so much trouble this year overspending for a friend’s “destination” wedding. It’s funny, when you have no money, this isn’t a problem. But magically when you get a real job, these huge expenses pop up. I’m not talking about iPods and TVs, but like you said, but weddings and family and all kinds of obligations. Anyways, when you figure out how to handle the big “misc” expenses, let me know!!

  40. Thanks, Lance, for the recommendation about the comments for Pearbudget. Unfortunately, when using the program in conjunction with Google Spreadsheets in order to gain online accessibility, it lost that function in the process. Luckily, Charlie, the PearBudget developer has alluded on his blog to the fact that the web version might be available sometime soon, so I hope to gain that function back. The description feature is key. My memory is just not what it used to be!

  41. I think you would like a book I’ve read called Yankee Magazine’s Living Well on a Shoestring. It actually suggests doing exactly what you are describing here, using a “receipt spike” (of course they make one from a jar lid and nail). 1501 ways to save money.

    ISBN 0-965-18894-9

  42. I even used to get frustrated with the transfer transactions in the Money Reports, but atleast now in latest 2006 version, they have added a checkbox to include or exclude transfer transaction, and now the reports are very clean and meaningful.

  43. sfmoneymusings says

    I’m going to try Pear Budget because tracking expenses in google spreadsheets isn’t enough. and i still haven’t quite figured out how to use Quicken or Money. i dont know why it’s so hard. most people like either software for its graphs.

    thanks for the reminder!

  44. I finally broke down and started using a small pocket notebook. So far so good. I have three days of cash expenses in there. Damn you Cash Account in Quicken! Forever you are wrong!

  45. Has anyone heard of Neat Receipts?
    It’s a portable scanner with software that lets you scan all your receipts and invoices and it will save it in a searchable database.

  46. Great idea … I decided to take up the One Month Challenge myself. Wish me luck!

  47. Savvy Steward says

    I’ve been tracking all my spendings for the past couple of years. It was tough at first but now its become a helpful habit. I can always see where my money is going and whether I need to change things up to stay within budget.

    Since I update my spreadsheet at home and work, I actually use a Excel spreadsheet I create myself that I keep on a USB drive. Here’s a sample of it if you’re interested: link

  48. does anyone have a product number for the receipt spike from office max or staples?

  49. Hey Jonathan ๐Ÿ™‚ I thought I’d mention that you can load pearbudget into Google’s docs & spreadsheets service for those without Excel. For that matter, since Google can import .xls, most Excel budgeting tools can be used in this manner. Excel can be a pretty pricey application for those that don’t have access through work (and a lot of Mac users don’t have Microsoft Office) and Google is free. Also I like that I can access it from home or work…and that it’s backed up for me ๐Ÿ™‚ The downside is the spreadsheet functions are pretty basic, there are no pretty graphs here…sigh.

  50. Hey Caitlin, good to hear from you again ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for the tips – I also use Zohosheet and OpenOffice. I know, I’m hoping I never have to upgrade my Office2000.

  51. I didnt know about Zoho Sheet…neato. They have graphs…i love pretty pictures ๐Ÿ˜‰ thanks!

  52. Staples Wire Spindle Link

  53. I love your idea of the restaurant receipt spindle to keep track of your receipts!! My wife and I are currently on a budget and I have found the hardest part is keeping track of our receipts! Currently we just compile them on or near our laptop until one of us record them. This process would work ok if you had no small children, but we have a wonderful 2yr old little girl who loves to scatter our unrecorded receipts everywhere. So I can’t wait to try your receipt spindle idea.

    P.S. – Crazy Q? Do you think it would make a difference with returning items to (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.) if your receipts have spike holes in them??

  54. I want to restore a file backed-up with an older version of My Money. The 2007 version will not restore it and I do not have the older version any more.

    Any suggestions as to how I can get my files opened up?

  55. I want to track my daily spending and am having little luck finding a (preferably free) excel downloadable template. Any suggestions.

  56. I only began to track all of our spendings since early this year and so far I think this is a great habit to see where exactly the money goes and if any lifestyle change is necessary to avoid over-spending.

  57. anyone?

    Better than the alternatives in that its free if you do it yourself, only a small fee if you want them scanning and digitzing your receipts and docs for you

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