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People who lose a lot of weight and keep it off have a lot in common with people who lose a lot of debt and keep it off: they pay attention to what is going in and what is going out.
My husband, Mr Thrifty, has always been naturally anal, and keeps a very exacting spreadsheet of all the financial inputs and outputs. I myself am more of a late bloomer, having in my younger days been one of those people who could never get a checkbook to balance quite right. Somehow it was always off by $1.41.
When I came across the Tightwad Gazette in my college library job, it introduced me to a world of planned budget and paper expense tracking. I dutifully filled a 3-prong binder with college ruled notebook paper and kept a penciled in ledger of my budget and expenses, and have pretty much done so until this year. Call me old-fashioned, I guess.
Knowing where every penny is going is insurance against mindless spending. It’s hard to stick to an intentionally low grocery budget or a tiny entertainment budget if you can’t remember about that trip to Wendy’s last week or the Amazon spending from the beginning of the month.
In the almost 20 years since I first started tracking everything I spent, our options for tracking have expanded immensely. They now include both the old-fashioned low-tech versions and newer high-tech versions that will let you check every dollar in every account from your smartphone.
Here are a few of the main contenders for your budget needs:
- Good Old Fashioned Pencil and Paper
- The cheapest version of this is a simple pocket notebook that you carry around with you, recording expenses as needed. Some people like to use free printable budget sheets (just google), or a budget-planner bought from an office supply store.
- This option is low-cost, but you will have to reconcile by hand. Be prepared to use a calculator.
2. Excel Spreadsheets
- This is our go-to system for recording expenditures. My husband has his own sheet with all kinds of exacting anal details. He made it up himself and has fancy formulas to get this number and that number. Me, I’m just plain vanilla. I write down everything I spend in a column and add it. There are thousands of pre-made Excel spreadsheet templates available, and I just picked one that I liked.
- If you don’t have a computer, this is not for you. Yes, I know a few people who do not have computers. If you’re reading this from the public library computer, good for you for being frugal!
- Mint syncs your information from all financial institutions (checking, saving, credit, etc) so you can see at a glance where you stand. It supports itself through ad revenue, so it’s free to you.
- We know quite a few friends who use Mint, and they are mostly positive about it. Mr Thrifty is a little leery about the security of all your accounts available at one location. He is a little extra paranoid than the average person, so that is why we continue to use our tried and true spreadsheets rather than a service like Mint.
- You Need A Budget is also a pretty popular budgeting software. If you have irregular income, live paycheck-to-paycheck, or are self-employed, this may be a good option for you, because it works on the premise that you will live on last month’s income. If you are new to the concept of budgeting, they also have a 9-day course to help get you started.
- The downside is that you will have to buy it- and it’s $60. I have seen this go on sale a few times, but you will still have to cough up some dough. If you are a student, like me, there is good news. You can get it for free, but only for a year at a time. Once you graduate, you’ll have to buy it for real.
- Now, not everyone has a smartphone, but if you do, there are quite a few budgeting apps out there to help you manage your money. This particular one syncs with your significant other’s phone, so you have a real-time view of how much money you have. If one of you is a spendthrift, this may help deter impulse spending. Will you really want to go through with that $200 cart of impulse purchases at Target if you knew you couldn’t hide it from your spouse?
- It’s free! This app earns its revenue through ads. If you want to use more than 10 “envelopes”, however, you’ll have to pay, according to reviewers.
- You can see with the push of a button how much you have left in your budget categories for the month.
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