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Ways to Track Spending

by Lucy Schrader

Spending money is easy.  Keeping track of it takes more time.  The time, however, is very well worth it to help you manage your finances, stress and life.  In this fast world of automatic withdrawals, credit cards, debit cards, quick buys and on-line purchasing, people do not always realize where their money is going.   This holds true for adults, teens and youth.

Tracking your expenses gives you a better picture of what you buy, helps you decide what you want and helps make a financial plan for you and your family.  It is so important to involve kids and teens and help teach them to track their money, too!

From here, you can make a budget for how you want to spend and save your money.  When you know what you want to do (get out of debt, save for a trip, save for college, buy day-to-day items), you see what is important to you and what is not.   You can decide to save on things that are not as important to you, so you can have and do the things that are important to you.

Where to start?

The hardest part is getting started.  Don’t worry… the first few months may not be completely accurate.  That’s all right!  As you get going, you’ll get a better idea of what works and what does not work.  If you keep it simple, you are more likely to follow through.  I use a system that would make an accountant faint.  But it works for my family and I understand it.

When you track, you account for all of your income sources and your expenses.  You make notes of when you get money and when you spend or save it.  You have several different options.  If you don’t know where to begin, start simple like making columns on paper or a spreadsheet.  You can expand as you understand your finances better.

Here are a few examples of how to track your expenses (note: These are just a few ideas. This is not an endorsement for specific companies and their products, but just some examples.):

Before you sign up for a money management system, find out the following:

  • Where is your personal information going and how is it used?
  • Can you enter your information safely over public Wi-Fi (what kind of security does the system have)?
  • Do you want a system that you download to your computer or do you want to be able to enter information from wherever you are (using your phone, laptop, tablet, computer, etc)?
  • What is the cost?
  • If it is free, will you get ads or other obligations?
  • Can more than one person enter expenses from different places (if you need this as a family)?  (For example, one of the fee-based texting services lets more than one person enter amounts from different phones, so a family with a joint account can stay current with their balances.)

Remember that it can take several weeks or months to get into the full swing of tracking your expenses.

  • Start somewhere (even in the middle of the month)
  • Small steps make a big difference
  • Time upfront can save you time and money later
  • Simple is often better—you’re more likely to use the system.

One person decided he would start with just four categories on a spreadsheet.  These four categories gave him a starting point and helped him see where his money was going and how he could make changes.  Here are his four categories:

  • Income
  • Necessities (food, rent/mortgage, transportation, medical, some clothes, etc)
  • Fun and entertainment
  • Investments and savings

Again, tracking your expenses isn’t about cutting out all of your fun.  It’s to help you decide what is important to you and what you can do later.  Budgeting can help reduce financial and family stress.

Involve youth and teens

Youth and teens have a wide range of income levels.  Some get small allowances, some get large amounts, others work and some have no money for themselves.  It’s very important for them to understand finances and how to stay within their means.  Setting a good example and involving them early is a great place to start.

Because I recently started tracking expenses, I’m paying more attention to our kids’ habits, too.  I am very aware that my son likes to spend his money, so we’re starting a system on paper with columns for him.  Pokémon does not grow on trees.  For now, I am going to pay him $1-2 per month to track.  I want him to get into the habit of it and see how important balance and living within his means are.

You can use books to help get conversations going about money and how to track spending.    Here are just a couple of examples:

For youth:

Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz

For teens:

Budgeting Smarts: How to Set Goals, Save Money, Spend Wisely, and More  by Sandra Donovan

By tracking your spending you’re making a great step in taking charge of your money and helping you reach your goals!

For Extension financial programs in your area, check with your local Extension Center.  In Missouri, you can find Extension Specialists and office contact information at