A Really Cheap Solution to Overspending


How do you stay frugal without being miserly?  I don’t want to feel guilty every time I need to make a purchase.  At the same time, without a budget and limits, my bank account would soon be empty.  My solution to prevent overspending is sitting right next to my wallet.

In my wallet I keep several index cards.  Whenever I buy anything, I write down the date, what I purchased and how much it cost on the card.  It’s not an original idea by any means, but I’ve found it is incredibly useful both for avoiding post-purchase guilt and overspending.

Writing Down Expenses Keeps You Sane

My bank account keeps perfect records of every one of my transactions.  Any purchases with debit, credit or checks will be measured automatically by my bank.  Although there is merit to keeping a second set of records, I don’t bother writing down every purchase just to prevent a typo.

The real reason I started writing down all my expenses is that it makes me aware of how much money I am spending.  It’s easy to forget about expenses until you look at your monthly bank statement.  By forcing yourself to write down any purchases, you are always aware of the outflow from your bank account.

What is Measured, Will Improve

I think a lot of post-purchase uneasiness (for those of us not blessed with a carefree spending philosophy) comes from being unsure whether we are spending too much.  If you have a snapshot of the last several days expenses in your wallet, you have a lot more clarity.  You can avoid unnecessary expenses when your list is getting large and relax a bit if you’re under budget.

Each week, I transfer the items on my index card to a computer document storing my records for the entire month.  Although I don’t look at this list every day, it also helps me get a snapshot of what I have spent money on.

This will give a better picture than bank/credit card statements because you write your own descriptions.  You won’t wonder what a purchase was for, just because you don’t recognize the store name.

If you’re trying to be frugal and work within a budget, I think keeping a set of index cards is a must.  Even if you can’t control some expenses, writing down your purchases puts your finger on the pulse of your financial health.

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  • Avani-Mehta

    Hey … I do the same. Have a excel sheet filled with detailed spendings. One of the best benefit I got from this is to figure out where is money going – a big help while trying to form budgets.

  • Brice

    I don’t think such a strategy has any lasting value. I liken such a habit to counting calories. Simply put, it’s not a viable lifestyle decision. Yes, writing down one’s purchases may make one more aware, but the solution to one’s troubles will not be found in a reductionist attitude toward “that one (or two or three) purchases that put me over the top this month. I won’t do it again next month.”

    It’s not the purchases that ruin someone. It’s an attitude and that attitude will never be recorded on such a ledger.

  • david

    Brice: If you want to know how you’re doing, monitoring helps, whether it be calories or expenses. While it might not solve the fundamental problems by itself, it’s sure a good thing to know how you’re doing.

  • The Conscious Snob

    I spent the least when I actually had a written budget I could visually see. After I stopped doing the budget, assuming that I had spending on track, I noticed my checking account was getting smaller. So I went back to budgeting =)

  • Katie

    I have a weekly budget for my normal expenses, go to the bank once a week, take out the money and can start the week. Usually, there is some left at the end of the week. That helps budgeting as well as keeping my account statements easy (only rent, taking out the weekly budget and other larger monthly things being printed).

  • Heather

    I used to save every receipt and then input them all into Quickbooks. I wanted to track my spending to eventually set a budget. Two years later, I was still JUST entering my receipts. All stowed away knowledge, no review. A coworker heard of my plight and tuned me in to mint.com. I would never have had the time to make a budget without it. Whatever your system, make sure you eventually move from a system of sitting-knowledge to a system of working-knowledge.

    Thanks for such a great site Scott!