Help my track my dollars and cents!
June 13, 2011 3:44 PM   Subscribe

How do I track daily spending, when I mostly use cash?

I've been trying to track my spending for the last year or so, and I kind of suck at it. The biggest problem I have is remembering to add spending into my PearBudget, because I use cash. I often spend small amounts of money on food/flowers/stamps/parking etc., and often those retailers don't provide receipts. I also use my debit card fairly regularly for larger purchases (say, over $20), and my credit card infrequently (basically just for sit-down restaurants). I am intuitively inclined to let small amounts of cash spending go untracked, but then what's the point of tracking at all? Also, I know I spend a fair amount of money, a couple dollars at a time.

Some considerations:
-I don't have a smartphone of any sort, so I can't use an app
-I suspect I'd have the same trouble writing down my spending in a notebook as I have with inputting it into my spreadsheet - I'll just forget. Also, the idea of whipping out a notebook right after I purchase anything sounds tedious to me.
-I really like using cash. I have had my debit card number skimmed previously, and I also don't like using debit/credit for small purchases, so I'm inclined to keep using cash. I do use debit for larger purchases.
-I want to know what I spend my money on, in addition to how much I'm spending
-I'm in Canada - doesn't work for me. And I'm happy-ish with PearBudget.
-I have seen this recent AskMe, but found it focused primarily on software, which I am not sure will solve my problem

So, my question is, how do I wrangle all my smallish cash purchases into my budget? Is there some idea I haven't thought of, or am I a hopeless case?
posted by just_ducky to Work & Money (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Even if you don't have a smartphone, does your phone have a camera? Can you take snapshots of all the items and receipts and process them in bulk later?
posted by procrastination at 3:47 PM on June 13, 2011

budget a small, round amount of money per month to be spent on these sorts of purchases, then only pull from that fund for your stamp/burrito/bagel/make-a-wish shamrock/what-have-you.

it'll be budgeted and trackable, but you won't have to micromanage it.
posted by radiosilents at 3:49 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Can you take notes on your phone? Every time you buy something, just type a little note, i.e., 6/13, $2.50, coffee.
posted by AlliKat75 at 3:52 PM on June 13, 2011

Save all your receipts. Total them up weekly. I use Perk Street debit/credit card for everything because I like the points back.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:58 PM on June 13, 2011

Best answer: often those retailers don't provide receipts.

Have you tried asking, though? A lot of places will provide a receipt upon request even if they normally never offer. And it won't be viewed as odd in any way. (If you're worried, just claim it's a business expense -- very common.)
posted by matlock expressway at 3:59 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do you get the cash? ATM or bank teller, or paycheck (what is 1967?)?

Save those receipts in your wallet. As soon as you spend cash...write it on the back of the receipt. When you have no cash left, you should be able to add up all the $$ on the back of the receipt and it should be identical to the amount you withdrew from the atm/bank teller, etc.

posted by hal_c_on at 4:08 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

-I suspect I'd have the same trouble writing down my spending in a notebook as I have with inputting it into my spreadsheet - I'll just forget.

If you can make it a habit, it will become a habit you won't forget. Because it's a habit. This is one of those things that's going to be hard to make technology "solve" for you, because the lack of technology is not the problem. My grandmother kept a teeny notebook and pencil on her (in a pocket if she wasn't carrying a purse) and wrote down every dime she spent. She also lived through the Depression, so I'm sure that, um, helped.
posted by rtha at 4:12 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Life is too short to keep and sort receipts on $2 purchases. Get a stack of narrow-ruled index cards and a pen; every Monday morning start a new index card and keep track of your cash spending in round numbers: round down if the part after the decimal is under $.50, round up if over. Then total up the last 4 index cards at the end of each month.

Or, use radiosilents' idea and just allocate, say, $100 per month (or whatever you can afford) to "stuff" and just don't worry about it as long as it's under that level.
posted by rkent at 4:13 PM on June 13, 2011

Put an envelope in your wallet or bag, ask for receipts for everything, and stuff them in there. I ended up just having my money and receipts in the same envelope for awhile, easier to just stuff it all in there.

Tally them up later. Doesn't really take any longer, because you can group the receipts and mentally add small ones before typing/writing them in anywhere. And though you might throw out ones under a couple of dollars rather than type them in, it's good practice to just keep every single receipt in there for a while, so it becomes effortless habit.

I have done this, it worked well.
posted by Elysum at 4:21 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite] does work in Canada these days, but if you don't enter things in spreadsheets, you won't enter them there, either.

Would a voice memo to your cell phone, or a text message, seem less tedious than a notebook? (I'd find the notebook more convenient but other people who are constantly using their cell phones might find the phone better.)
posted by jacquilynne at 4:35 PM on June 13, 2011

Put money into several envelopes (entertainment, travel, food etc.). Basically this allows you to track by your own categories. Also helps you avoid overspending in any category.
posted by PickeringPete at 5:38 PM on June 13, 2011

For quite a while, I did this by always getting and pocketing a receipt. If I was somewhere that couldn't give me one (say, a hot dog vendor or a parking meter), I'd write the amount I spent on the back of one of the other receipts and put it back in my pocket. I found that most places could give a receipt if asked.

At the end of every day, I emptied my pocket and went through the receipts (in my case, I transferred the amounts to a notebook, but a spreadsheet would work fine) -- it just became part of my routine after I was in for the night. Also, by doing it nightly, I found that I didn't have any trouble remembering which receipt (or amount scrawled on the back of another one) belonged to which purchase... I could just write "$2", rather than "$2 - Chili Dog w/kraut", and still correctly identify it as a lunch purchase when I copied it to my notebook.

Once you get in the habit, it's actually pretty easy to do.
posted by toxic at 5:51 PM on June 13, 2011

Perhaps a two-prong approach? I've done something like the following. Track your cash as an expense at the source (i.e. an entry for "Cash withdrawal" every time you hit the ATM). This should be fairly easy, only a few transactions a month, I'd reckon -- and they're recorded in the bank statement. Once cash hits your wallet, you spend it at some point in the not-too-distant future anyways. So this prevents you from having a big blind spot where you're leaking money.

Then track the cash from your wallet to actual spending with the dreaded notebook. Buy a little notebook and a pen, write the date and "Notebook and pen, $x.xx" inside it, and then write down every penny you spend. But only for like a month or two. That will be enough for you to get a general sense of what your cash is being spent on, say 20% parking or 15% Tim Horton's. Then don't bother tracking it for a while (maybe track every fifth or tenth month).

You'll know over time if you are radically changing your overall cash outlay because you're tracking the withdrawals, and you have a general idea of where it's going.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 6:27 PM on June 13, 2011

I have the same problem. For the longest time, I tried not to carry cash because it's gone & I'll have no idea where it went.

The best system I found was to keep a post-it note & pen in my wallet right where I keep my cash. While they're ringing up my purchase, I'll write down '$3/tea' or whatever and add it all up later. Using a single post-it instead of a notebook helps because I don't have anything extra to carry, and it's right in front of my face when I get my money so I remember to use it. Maybe that will help?
posted by Space Kitty at 7:35 PM on June 13, 2011

Why not switch to using a credit card (and paying off the balance of course)? My Amex and Visa give me online details of expenditures in categories, an easily accessible record and POINTS. I almost never pay cash for anything, as virtually every retailer takes cc.
posted by Neiltupper at 8:03 PM on June 13, 2011

I had the same problem. I ended up resolving it by using my debit card for everything I could - the only regular expense that I don't put on it is my haircut, and that's only because they won't let me. I had my card # stolen a bunch of times, mostly online purchases, but the bank (B of A, suprisingly enough) has been good about either contacting me with a "hey, that card fraud you heard about on the news the other night? Guess who was one of the numbers in it!" kind of message, or replacing the card on the spot when I reported a suspicious transaction in Miami while I was in Massachusetts.

One I did that, it's really whatever e-tracking system you want. I use Mint, but I don't know how well that is supported in Canada.
posted by neilbert at 8:32 PM on June 13, 2011

Best answer: When I was tracking every single dollar, and doing it using Pear Budget, I made sure I did it every day. I had it on a USB stick and would open it in the morning when I got to work - did I spend any money before getting to work? Then would leave it open through the day to add the morning coffee, the lunch down the street, the online bill pay in the afternoon. If I didn't do it again when I got home, then the morning routine would also be thinking through the spending I'd done since I left work the previous day. On the weekend, I'd make sure to open it at least once to fill in what was happening so far.

Make sure that you have set up the categories of spending in Pear Budget so that looking at the categories triggers you to think through the usual things you spend money on.

For me the variable expenses were: alcohol, groceries, work day lunches, eating out/takeaway, coffee/snacks, public transport, fuel, other transport (taxis, parking), entertainment, other (this is where I put the newspaper and the flowers).

See how there are lots of categories for food and transport - I would think 'did I have a coffee out today? Did I buy my lunch at work today? Did I get a snack from a vending machine? did I put money in a parking meter?' etc etc.

The irregular ones were: car expenses, medical, savings, gifts, personal care, cds/dvds, clothes, books/magazines, household and misc - these expenses tend to be bigger, but looking through the categories would help me remember. You might spend money on other things - structure your tracking sheet to remind you of the things you do spend money on often.

It is worth tracking all the small amounts - they do add up to a lot!
posted by AnnaRat at 1:22 AM on June 14, 2011

Why not switch to using a credit card (and paying off the balance of course)?
Not everyone can get a credit card, and not every retailer takes them (at least, not without a minimum spend limit or a surcharge in some outlets).
posted by mippy at 3:46 AM on June 14, 2011

While you may not have a smartphone, see if your phone have a voice recorder function. Also see if you can access through a shortcut key. After each purchase record the date, purchase and amount.

At the end of the day/week, play back the spending and record it in your ledger or wherever.

Worked for me.
posted by therubettes at 5:41 AM on June 14, 2011

-I suspect I'd have the same trouble writing down my spending in a notebook as I have with inputting it into my spreadsheet - I'll just forget. Also, the idea of whipping out a notebook right after I purchase anything sounds tedious to me.

I think this is the nub of your problem, and if that's the case, you really ought to be asking "how do I make myself do stuff?"

I tracked every penny I spent for a few months to get a handle on where it was all going. Mostly by saving receipts when I got them, writing notes on random slips of paper when I didn't, and entering everything into a spreadsheet at night. I think this cost me an extra 5 minutes per day, if that. It's not hard. You just need to commit to doing that thing you don't want to do.

The suggestion that you give yourself a flat petty-cash budget is an interesting one, and might be useful in other ways, but doesn't really answer the question of "where's all that money going?" You might have a single expense category (in my case, it was "coffee") that would get covered under petty cash but by itself amounts to a larger number than you'd expect.
posted by adamrice at 7:47 AM on June 14, 2011

« Older Whether or not to claim stolen, damaged, and...   |   Help me solve my dog's embarring personal... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.