I conduct financial literacy workshops at several undergraduate summer programs annually throughout the country and one of the key exercises I have students do is track their expenses for a week prior to my arrival.
Invariably, students will arrive at several “ah ha” moments by analyzing their tracked expenses. From the student who realizes they are spending a significant amount on convenience food (can be expensive and unhealthy), especially when they have food provided as part of the program and campus housing contract. Or, the student who realizes that their love for ice cream can be an expensive habit, especially if they are purchasing the ice cream from a local ice cream vendor often inviting friends along and picking up their tab as well. After all, ice cream isn’t all that expensive, right?
Tracking expenses for a week or more can be convincing, for a month can be revealing. I recommend that everyone do this, track what you spend for a month and face the reality. There are many free apps for your phone that you can use to accomplish this or you can simply track the expenses the old way on a spreadsheet or journal. It is important to write down each purchase, what the purchase cost you and how you paid for the purchase (cash, credit card, other). Add up and write down the total amount you spent each day. On the last day of the expense journal, add it all up to come up with a grand total.
Here are a few free apps I would recommend that can be helpful.
Expensify – www.Expensify.com
Toshl Finance – https://toshl.com/
Mint.com – www.mint.com
So, here is how you can approach tracking your expenses:
- Keep it simple. You don’t need to micro analyze your spending. We just suggest you look at your overall situation.
- Determine when you will begin and when you will stop. Typically, a calendar month works out great.
- Determine how you will track what you spend. Simplistically, you can use a debit card or credit card for everything. I used a credit card and to this day I still use a credit card for all of my expenditures. It gives you an online trail. If you do have out-of-pocket expenses, carry a small notebook or write a note to yourself using your phone. Medical students have their short white coat where they can use an index card and note any cash expenditures on them. The important thing is creating a record of the expense.
- Determine how you will collect and sort your transactions. Banks offer downloadable statements thus the credit card and debit card method works out great. Most also allow you to sort online and pull down a specific date range. Bring everything into one spreadsheet like Quicken or some other bookkeeping program. Just don’t forget to add your cash transactions in by hand.
- Set up your categories and subcategories. It’s helpful to get somewhat granular here, but don’t knock yourself out. It is not that deep. The Food category, for instance, could include subcategories for food purchased at the grocery store, from restaurants, from campus food service, and from miscellaneous sources. The exact methodology you employ will be determined by how much latitude you have in setting up the reports pulled from your bank or credit card companies and whether you use an official bookkeeping program or design your own spreadsheet using EXCEL. Either will work, just remember to keep it simple. The easier it is to do, the more likely you are to stick with it.
- Record your spending during the period without trying to change anything. You want a true picture. Any changes needed will be duly noted and enlisted later. For now, you only want to get at the truth of the matter: how much are you spending and where is it going?
- Once your tracking period has ended, pull down the data, clean it up and confirm it, then be prepared to get your eyes opened a bit wider. If you’ve never taken a financial snapshot, you’re sure to be in for some surprises.
Those who take good care of a little now may soon find themselves in possession of a lot more later.
Good luck and have fun doing it.