Are you tracking?

June 13, 2011 · 32 comments

You know you’ve reached the upper echelon of financial geekdom when you take time each month to track your spending with personal finance software like Quicken, Mint, or an Excel spreadsheet. I personally am a Quicken user, but it hasn’t always been this way.

I began my financial make-over in early 2008. I had $28,000 in student loan debts and a $38,000 income. Money was by no means abundant, but I at least had something to work with. I started paying down my student loan, investing in a Roth IRA, contributing to retirement, and of course having some fun. I was doing all the things necessary to get my finances in order…or at least that’s what I thought.

I always knew personal finance software existed, but the thought of categorizing my purchases each month seemed pretty tedious. I was paying down debt and saving for my future. I didn’t care where the rest of my money went.

About a year in to my PF journey, Quicken was running a free trial for their basic personal finance software. I decided to sign up, and let me tell you, I was immediately hooked! I was fascinated, and by fascinated I mean absolutely horrified, that I was spending about $500/mo at restaurants. Can you believe that!?

Unfortunately numbers don’t lie. Seeing exactly how much I spent on food, entertainment, gas, insurance, rent, etc, forced me to rethink my priorities. What if I only spent $200 dining out and used the other $300 to pay down my loan faster? What if I reduce my 401K contributions and build up a more liquid safety cushion? I was now making conscious decisions on where I wanted my money to go.

I’ve been using Quicken’s personal finance software for a little over 2 years and have never looked back. With just a click of a few buttons, Quicken taught me more about myself than the Total Money Makeover (or other PF book) ever could. It really was a life changing experience.

Do you track exactly where all your money goes each month? If so which personal finance software do you use… Quicken? Mint? Excel? Did anything about your spending habits shock you?

p.s. No, I was not paid by Quicken (or anyone else) for this post. I would use Mint if I wasn’t freaked out about having all my financials in one central online location, and I would use Excel if I wasn’t so darn lazy.

1 Dorde

YNAB is best tool for that!

2 Kristin

I’ve been using Mint and Excel. I have been using Excel for long term budgets, and so I can track where my money is going for stuff that comes out of my paycheck like insurance that Mint doesn’t see, but I haven’t quite found a layout that I like yet. I know that you’ve mentioned Quicken before, but I don’t know much about it.

I live in Massachusetts, where we have a sales tax on certain items. You’re supposed to declare purchases that you’ve made out of state and intend to use within MA and either pay the difference in taxes or declare a “safe haven” amount based on your income. I know a lot of people don’t bother to do this, especially with internet purchases. But being the goody-two shoes I am, I tried to figure out what I owed when I did my taxes for the first time this year and whether I should go with the safe haven amount. Turned out all the furniture I bought from a store in another state with a higher sales tax rate (because my state’s store was out of stock and wouldn’t be in stock soon) wiped out any tax obligation on other purchases. However, this year I’m tracking those specific purchases in a spreadsheet so that I don’t need to try to sift through my memory to figure it out next year, which I log when I make an online purchase or come back from a trip to another state (happens a lot in New England!). Taxes are pretty simple when you don’t have itemized deductions, but I can imagine that tracking expenses and keeping receipts is particularly important if you’re trying to deduct local sales taxes or something when you do get a mortgage or make a lot of charitable donations and it makes sense to itemize.

Other things I log? My car’s gas mileage after every gas tank fillup with how many gallons of gas I bought and the price. It’s been interesting to watch the dramatic price swings over the last few months, and how my mileage changed when halved my commute distance. I use a spreadsheet my dad set up, but Excel spreadsheets are very personal things, so I haven’t ever gotten all his graphs working right. I’ve thought about logging food calories, and my roommate I think logs the steps she takes with her pedometer. Some women chart out their basal temperatures for the rhythm method. But at some point, all the tracking and logging gets exhausting and stress-inducing if you’re not making your marks or if the act of logging becomes too laborious, rather than reassuring from from having more information.

3 Margaret

I just charge everything I can to my discover card (don’t worry, I pay it off completely every month!!). Their online account management gives me a nice pie chart of where my money is going (it pretty much shows everything besides my rent and utilities), which is nice, and the card has a decent rewards program (which I mostly use to feed my caffeine addiction at Starbucks). The only downside to this system is that when I travel for work and get reimbursed, I have to mentally edit that out of my spending (since it wasn’t really my money). But I’m far too lazy to keep track of stuff in another program, so credit card tracking for the win!

When I started doing this the biggest shocker in terms of spending was definitely food related (both eating out and grocery shopping). I’ve been working on scaling back (somewhat successfully), especially on things like unnecessary trips to the coffee shop!

4 cashflowmantra

I am starting to track since I want to build up an emergency fund. I was like you and would put away some money and spend the rest. Actually my wife would spend the rest (just kidding). Now I want to be able to save more so I need to know where to cut. I will use Excel.

5 Kate

No tracking here. We’ve set up automatic transfers for all the big stuff (retirement savings, general savings, travel, mortgage, property tax, etc.). Anything left is fair game for spending.

I tracked for a while and found it was of limited benefit to me while still managing to drive me crazy. So I tested both methods out and found that I spent pretty much the same tracking versus not tracking in nearly every category every month, but actually saved less without the auto-transfers (15% vs 30%).

Money management is so much more sane now.

6 Beckey & Jeff

We love love love Quicken. We have a written budget in Excel write now only because we haven’t had the time to setup the Budget in Quicken but we use Quicken for bill reminders, to connect and download from our creditors, to reconcile all our accounts, etc… It’s very easy to use and Beckey has been using it for 5+ years now. We also using the graphing feature to print out monthly “snapshots” of where our money went. Its quite handy. We’ve tried a few others (YNAB, Mint.com) but we are just so used to the ease of Quicken that we will more than likely just stick with it.

7 No Debt MBA

I use Mint to track spending but have been a little disappointed with their goals feature so I do a lot of that in Excel still.

8 spork

I’m addicted to Mint. I’d marry Mint and have little Mint babies if I legally could.

9 slug | sunkcostsareirrelevant.com

I find Yodlee superior to Mint in almost every aspect aside from the cute graphics.

10 Allison

I had no idea I was anywhere near “the upper echelon of finanacial geekdom,” but I track everything in Excel. I love it. I write formulas to tally everything up and I love using conditional formatting on the cells so that they light up in red if I’ve gone over budget in a category. I’m sure Quicken is much sexier, but I’m a stodgy Excel addict.

11 Austin

I use Quicken almost exclusively, and some Excel sheets for ad-hoc tracking like Savings plans and stuff. I recently upgraded to Quicken 2011 from 2008, it was AWESOME!

12 Fred

I have been using Quicken for over 10 years. I find that it does a very good job of keeping track of where the money is going. I use Excel for my budget and have a few categories in Cash Envelopes. This seems to work the best for me. I match up the budget and the check register every month and I also reconcile our cash account in Quicken much more often. Talk about ‘upper echelon’.

13 Happy Homeowner

I’m with Allison in the Excel addiction category. I’ve been using it for over 6 years now, and I have quite the sexy collection of worksheets, if I do say so myself. I keep a monthly tab, a miscellaneous spending tab for 2 months at a time, as well as other tabs for savings, net worth, mortgage, and student loans. I love plugging numbers into my formulas and the overall DIY aspect of this type of budget tracking–I find it keeps me much more accountable!

14 Crystal @ BFS

I use the Excel budget I created. Love it! Of course, it is a nasty shock during months where we’ve been naughty…like I spent way too much at the new self-serve frozen yogurt place that opened up less than a mile from my house last month…

15 Matt

@ Allison
Screw Quicken, few things are sexier than a well-crafted Excel spreadsheet.

And on that note, I use Excel to track. And like many the first shock was the amount spent on food. Mint comes in handy to get all of my transactions in one place, but Excel is the where the meat of the operation happens. I had MS Money for a while, but it got discontinued about a month after I purchased. Plus I spent too much time setting things up.

I haven’t been golden, but I’ve tracked expenses in twelve of the sixteen months I’ve had the spreadsheet going. I have a sheet with my net worth which I update once a month, where I track the value of my car & retirements accounts as well. It shows a potential that I will have a positive net worth not including retirement at the end of the month and five figures including retirement. In fact it would take a disaster for this not to happen. AMPED about this.

16 Matt

I use mint to track my spending and the rest of my financial history. It is nice to have one picture of your financial history. Whenever I am horrified by the spending on “Shopping” I typically scare my wife with the figures. I typically categorize every purchase on there so at the end of the year we know exactly where our money went even if it doesn’t look pretty.

17 krantcents

I use a spreadsheet, but I am also conscious of my spending. For example, we may go to dinner every weekend, but I generally spend less than fifty dollars for two meals.

18 Tara

Like the second poster, I also use Mint.com in conjunction with an Excel spreadsheet. I use Mint for budgeting and to keep an overall picture over the year of spending, etc. I use Excel to track future expenses and to ensure my decisions to transfer that “extra” $150 in my checking account to my savings account doesn’t bite me in the butt when my car insurance automatically debits out a few days later.

I hear that Quicken (or maybe one of the other tools) had a tool to track future expenses but it was disposed of in the past year. That would definitely be a major benefit. But I love that I can view mint.com from anywhere — work, home, iphone, etc. if I need to.

19 Buck Inspire

I use Mint, but I should really use it more. I do some basic tracking. Perhaps I don’t want to see what I spend at the restaurants. Good reminder that I should. Thanks!

20 Momninja

I use Debt Ninja since he is living with us for now it is a great “tool” that always points out when it thinks we have spent to much on something!

Love ya DN!

21 Rafiki

A notepad, pencil and excel.

I wasn’t shocked as I had a pretty good idea where most of my money was going and I wasn’t to far off. I do sometimes allow my spending to get out of hand but I know when I am cause I see my accounts going down fast.

22 Meg

I use the PocketMoney app on my iPhone I’m surprised that I don’t see many other comments on PF blogs about it. I think it’s a lot like Mint, but not connected to any online component. It’s a great tracking tool. I update the app on my phone on the spot with any charges or deposits I make. Totally worth the few dollars to download it!

23 Lane

I use Mint for daily tracking, budgeting and viewing past history. Mint’s “Goals” feature sorely lacks any sort of snowballing/avalanching calculation, so an Excel spreadsheet from Vertex42.com makes up for that.

24 Bankruptcy Ben

I use expence tracker on my iphone, i have it everywere so it makes it easier to record the expenses at the time of purchase

25 czsea

Used to use Microsoft Money, which I still haven’t gotten over. Gave me such detailed investment information haven’t fully recovered. Now I’m mildly content with Mint, but again, still bitter about the loss of Microsoft Money…Anyone have any ideas or recommendations?

26 Rubee

Check out this site: http://www.microsoft.com/money/sunset.mspx. Microsoft released a free version of Microsoft Money for anyone to download to use. The only thing is you won’t be able to connect online with your banks to automatically update your transactions et al, which is fine with us as we’ve never used to do that anyway. Hope this helps!

27 Pigloo

Check out PocketSense for updating transactions with sunset Microsoft Money: http://sites.google.com/site/pocketsense/home/msmoneyfixp1 . (Though the process isn’t for casual users)

I switched to Quicken after Money called it quits. I’m still not fully in the groove yet with Quicken despite having been at it for a number of months now. The Quicken reports aren’t immediately as useful as Money’s default reports were and account updating is unreliable (the “update all” button randomly decides sometimes to not update anything) and I have to run Quicken as an administrator to even get my accounts to update.

However, even given those issues, Quicken is still far more flexible and powerful than sites like mint.com. You can play with your financial information in any manner you see fit (including exporting to programs like Excel) and it’s all offline so you “own” it– it’s not stored away on someone else’s server.

28 Quizshow

I’m a current PF idiot and have been using Mint for a couple of years now. Unfortunately, I’ve only recently started using it properly and revealed the ugly truth…$800.00 of clothes in just the month of April!!!! I didn’t believe it, checked all my transactions, and the truth was there kicking me in the face. I didn’t even think I made enough money to spend that much. Now I pay by card so everything gets tracked and I can keep a firm grip on myself. I have to be watched closely.

29 Kella

I use Google Docs, that way I can access my budget from work or home. Mint was too slow and complex for me, my budget is complicated Mint can’t deal with those complications. Plus, a biweekly salary varies in 2 months out of the year, and Mint couldn’t really handle that.

30 Sara

Excel! Although we use Mint for one shared account.

31 Project Management Tools That Work (Bruce)

I started using Quicken around 1990. It become one of those “how did I ever live without it” things. Some days I hate it and call it “Slowen” or other unpublishable names. I like to say my credit rating is directly related to how well Quicken (and the various bill paying and transaction downloading services I use) works. However, I can’t imagine not using it or something like it. It answers one question that too few people can answer, and that is how much does it cost me to live my life (i.e, how much do I spend and where do I spend it). Once I knew this, the rest of financial planning became almost (almost!) trivial.

It is also a great tool for learning financial management that is useful in business management (see: http://hubpages.com/hub/Quicken-Is-A-Great-Project-Management-Tool).

Bruce

32 Len Lipkin

Longtime Quicken user for windows. When I switched to Mac, I ran Parallels just for Quicken. No more. iBank for Mac is great. Great user interface, zippy performance. My only complaint is that they do not support imports of all of my financial institutions. Just one brokerage account not supported, easy enough to enter those few TX manually for the benefits iBank provides.

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