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Feature Articles: Budgeting & Saving


Ways to track spending

Adapted from MU Office for Financial Success Finance Tip of the Week blog post by Lucy Schrader, former HES Associate State Specialist and Building Strong Families Program Coordinator, University of Missouri Extension


Simple budget written in notebookSpending money is easy. Keeping track of it takes more time. The time, however, is very well worth it as it will help you manage your finances, your stress level and your life. In this fast-paced world of automatic withdrawals, credit cards, debit cards, quick buys and online 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 how you spend your money and helps you decide what you want and how you can reach your financial goals. It is the first step in creating a financial plan for you and your family. It is so important to involve kids and teens to teach them to track their money, too!


After tracking your spending, 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 more clearly what is important to you and what is not. You will be empowered to make better decisions, to avoid impulse buys and to save so that 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 and create a system that works for you, you are more likely to follow through.


When you track, account for all of your income sources and expenses. Make notes of when you get money and when you spend or save it. You have many different options for tracking this information. 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 ideas for ways to keep track of your expenses:
(this is not an endorsement for specific companies or products, just some examples)


  • Paper or a notebook
  • Spreadsheets
    • Microsoft has free templates to download
  • Templates
  • Accounting programs that track and do more
    • Quicken or QuickBooks
  • Free online programs — note: sites might have ads from lenders and other vendors
  • Paid money management systems
  • Texting services — tied to your checking account(s), you text your expenses and get your updated bank balance; these services may charge a fee
  • Banks, lending institutions and credit card providers may have budget systems to help you track your expenses
  • Or just make up a system that works for you


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


For a simple system, use four categories as a starting point. This is all it takes to start tracking where your money is going and how/where you can make changes. Here are four basic categories:


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


Tracking your expenses isn’t about cutting out all of your fun, so it’s important to include the fun/entertainment category in your system. Tracking and budgeting is just to help you decide what is important to you and what will help you meet your financial goals. When these goals are clear to you and your family, it will reduce financial stress and family stress.


Tracking your spending is an important step towards taking charge of your money and helping you reach your goals!


For financial programs in your area, check with your local MU Extension Center.


Link to original blog:
Ways to track spending, posted September 13, 2012
(Note: Original blog was split into two articles — this article, Ways to track spending, and Involve youth and teens in family budgeting)


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