Never Ask Again: Where Does All the Money Go?

PrintableSpendingChart

Experts are always telling us that to get a handle on our spending we must our record our expenses.  But who wants to fiddle with devising a system or learning complicated software?

With this low-tech but high-functioning chart, all you have to do is click print.

FM.2DAILYSPENDING.FORM

I created a version of this chart in my first months of marriage when it seemed as if our money was being sucked into a black hole. We’ve been using it every month since.

FrugalMamaDailyBudget1When we first started, I had to keep reminding my husband to write down anything he spent — from cappuccino to bus fare.  But he got used to it, and now he reminds me!

We have been tracking our daily spending for ten twelve years.  It’s fascinating to see our pennies roll into the little compartments, and it has changed the way we think and behave about spending.

How the Daily Spending Sheet Works

  • Print several sheets.
  • Hang one each month in a central place, like your fridge.
  • Every day when you get home, write down anything you’ve spent.
  • Figure out where you stand in the Summary table:  earnings – spending = balance. (Carry over last month’s balance if you want.)

Why Paper?

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It’s fun to fill in the boxes. I guess writing in those tiny numbers satisfies a craving for organization. Or the need to make life understandable. Even adding everything up with a calculator at the end of the month is an exciting little moment: how much did we spend?

You can buy software or subscribe to online budgeting programs, but I think there is a lot to love about this simple pencil-and-paper method:

  • Get started immediately, without having to wade through and learn a bunch of software options
  • No procrastinating — all you have to do is jot down a number or two
  • Reduce clutter, since you don’t have to go through receipts or get distracted by windows popping up on your computer
  • Remember to do it, because your chart is posted in a prominent place
  • See the whole month at a glance without scrolling through confusing screens of graphs and tables

Even personal finance experts, like Judy Lawrence of The Budget Kit, agree that the manual approach is part of the learning experience:

“As you physically write down the numbers and visually note them and the surrounding information, there is a special sensory awareness and understanding that occurs.”

Once you experience the overall concept and understand how day-to-day spending fits into the big picture, then transitioning to an electronic system is fine if you want to. But I’ve tried digital programs like the free Mint.com, and even though I like the colorful pie charts, categorizing expenses is clunky and onerous.  Paper is instant and simple.

How to Use the Chart, Category by Category

Chart printable for tracking expenses

This printable chart has enough categories to encompass most any expense, yet not too many to make it overwhelming.

When my husband and I need to get more specific about an expense, we just scribble a key word next to the cost like “school donation” or “new glasses.”  This helps us remember larger expenses at the end-of-the-month reckoning.

Here is how you can use the categories to record your expenses:

Savings:  At the top, because if you pay yourself first, you won’t be left at the end of the month with nothing for your long-term goals. Consider a monthly automatic transfer to a targeted savings account.

Mortgage/Rent:  Ours also includes homeowners/renters insurance as well as property taxes, but you could separate these out to Taxes and Insurance if you want.

Household: Anything you need for your house (from furniture to cleaning supplies to repairs).

Utilities:  Electric, gas, oil, water, garbage, sewer, etc. (Jot down the specific expense next to the number if you want.)

Grocery: If you’re really serious about this, you can separate out non-food items into other categories like Personal Care or Household.

Meals Out: Everything from Starbucks to the ice cream man.

Auto/Transit: Car expenses (gas, repairs, insurance) or public transportation costs.

Child/Eldercare: Babysitters, daycare, preschool, summer camp; or any costs associated with caring for elders.

Pets: Food, supplies, vets, daycare, kennel, walkers, etc.

Education: Classes, student loan debt, tuition, kids’ school, professional development, educational books, association dues.

Office: Office supplies, computer stuff, and postage. You could also include business expenses here.

Telecom: Internet access, landline, mobile phone. If you want to separate, you could include cable under Recreation.

Medical: Doctor and dentist visits, medications, healthcare insurance.

Personal Care:  Everyday stuff like toothpaste and soap to occasional expenses like hair, makeup, and spa visits.

Clothes: Plus shoes, coats, and accessories like jewelry, as well as dry cleaning and tailoring costs.

Toys/Gear:  Can also include hobbies and sports equipment.

Recreation: From zoo passes to movie tickets, magazine subscriptions to pool membership.

Trips: Vacations, business travel, airline tickets.

Gifts/Donations: Presents and cards, as well as charitable giving.

Insurance: Life and disability. Car, health, and home insurance can also go here if you want to separate them out.

Bank Fees: Interest charges and any other banking fees.

Taxes: Income, property, vehicle, and any weird taxes I haven’t thought of.

Other: You should rarely have anything that doesn’t fit in the above categories, but just in case.

A note on credit cards and debt:

If you use credit cards to pay for stuff, write down each purchase as you go along and record interest fees once a month.

If you have old credit card debt, you can record repayment in several ways:

  • change the “other” category to “debts” and enter it there;
  • enter it into the “bank fees” category (even though it’s not only interest); or
  • enter it into “savings” at the top of the chart.

I like this last option best because, even though debts are not savings, it is generally agreed that paying off debts is the first step toward saving and building wealth.

What Can You Learn?

PrintableSpendingChartTrackExpenses

Besides being able to explain how your paycheck flies out the door, you’ll also see if you are spending on what’s important to you. Or what’s just convenient or fun. Once you have figured out what you really want out of life (your long-term financial goals), then you’ll be able to make sure more money goes to that, and less to unimportant things.

Here are just a few of the benefits of keeping a daily budget:

Nothing Brushed Under the Rug. It’s not so easy to “forget” incidental spending or blow off small expenses when you know you’ll have to expose them to the florescent light of your kitchen when you get home.

Accountability & Teamwork. With a shared family budget, you can’t sneak a forbidden purchase (without having to lie about it).  Since your partner is held to the same standards, you increase the sense of being on the journey together.

Your Family’s Operating Costs. After three to six months, you’ll have an idea of what you spend on-average per month.  This is really useful if you are wondering about changing jobs, moving to a new city, or how much you need to save for an emergency fund.

Expect the Unexpected. We found that, even if we were doing well in day-to-day spending, we were hit by a large irregular expense almost every month:  a trip, a broken dishwasher, an after-school class.  It’s a bummer, but it’s life. Now we expect unusual expenses, instead of being surprised by them.

How Much to Cut Down. If you are in the red every month, you’ll know how much you need to reduce to break even.  If you are ready to put money toward a goal, you’ll know how much you can set aside and how long it will take you to reach your savings goal.

Where You Can Trim Fat. Knowing where your money goes makes it easier to pinpoint areas to streamline.  You can save huge amounts of money — and have fun doing it — if you treat saving money as a challenge. Keeping your long-term goals in mind, as well as not completely depriving yourself, will help you stay on track and enjoy the process.

What Next?

HowToTrackYearlySpendingExpenses

The beauty of budgeting is that, once you have started to cut down, you can see your savings in black and white.

Keep your completed monthly budgets in a file folder.  At the end of the year, total up your monthly spending to find out how much you spend per year, how much you earn, and how much your yearly expenses are by category.

We have a thick manila folder in our file cabinet called Budget, with ten years of stapled monthly sheets.

FreePrintableTablestoTrackSpending

I love seeing that fat folder: there’s something sentimental about it in a way that a computer file could never be. It’s a great economic history of our family –  and a window into where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Download the Daily Spending chart now, and let me know how you do!

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57 comments

  • Alicia October 8, 2014, 11:42 am

    Tks Amy for sharing this!!! I am so bad about managing expenses, and I will give this a try!! Hope this works, and wonder anyone tries to carry this with you everywhere? How to manage a piece of paper, and not let it turn really messy with the folding lines.. Any tips are appreciated! Tks!!!

    Reply
    • Amy October 17, 2014, 12:29 pm

      Hi Alicia,

      I personally don’t carry it around with me, but I save receipts and then write down amounts when I get home. If I’m buying something online, I use a post-it or a digital sticky note to remind me to write it down on the chart later.

      I think it’s important to keep the spending chart posted in the house, as opposed to being carried around, because it’s more visible and helps remind you of your goals.

      Hope this helps,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Karina September 5, 2014, 3:31 pm

    I’m new to budgeting; this chart will be my first “experiment”. I hope it works!

    Reply
  • Kathy August 13, 2014, 1:57 pm

    Thank you, Amy! I need this and I hope it works for me and my husband. We recently saw a financial planner for free (didn’t take him up on his services — would’ve cost $$) who pointed out that a considerable chunk of our money is unaccounted for each month. Your chart makes it seem like an easy task to keep track of our expenses and to possibly find out where this money has gone — Oh well, it isn’t GONE, I am (we are) just really awful at keeping track of these things. So, it is time to get real and get on the daily budget track.

    Reply
    • Amy August 26, 2014, 8:14 pm

      Hi Kathy,

      Great to hear from you. I hope the chart works as well for you as it does for us!

      Wishing you success,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Steffi May 22, 2014, 6:40 am

    Thank you so much! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! My Husband and I know all to well about the black money hole. Maybe now we’ll finally figure out where its all going :D Just to note, We live over seas so this works for anyone anywhere. Awesome!

    Reply
    • Amy May 24, 2014, 9:39 pm

      So glad to hear it, Steffi!

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Teresa May 10, 2014, 11:34 am

    I really like this idea! I have a question for you. How do you track when you have to take out of your emergency fund? Thanks! :)

    Reply
    • Amy May 21, 2014, 10:04 am

      Dear Teresa,

      Good question! You can use a minus sign in the savings category next to the amount that you withdrew. Then you might want to keep a separate chart or graph for building up the emergency fund again. Like the pie chart or thermometer chart on my Printables page.

      Wishing you the best,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Nessa Jay April 30, 2014, 1:28 pm

    Great chart! It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ll be editing some of the labels so I can use this to track the monthly spending on my online business. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • Amy April 4, 2014, 12:51 am

    Hi! I’m a recent college graduate, and I’m trying to get into the habit of tracking my spending before I start my job. I love your method! But my categories and habits are a little different. Is there a way we can download a version of this sheet that we can edit to change the categories? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Amy April 11, 2014, 10:58 am

      Hi Amy,

      I wish I could help you, but this form was only created in PDF format, and therefore, not editable. You could print it out, make some changes by hand, and then photocopy it. It might not look as nice, but it would still be functional.

      These categories, by the way, are pretty standard. I surveyed a bunch of spending charts and tried to make this version more generic than my original. It should provide a space for almost any expense you have, even if the wording is not yours.

      Hope this helps a little,
      Amy

      Reply
      • George Anderson April 23, 2014, 8:53 am

        Re-create the chart in Excel. You can set it to auto total the columns for you. You can also carry forward from month to month and have an yearly total auto calculate.

        Reply
        • Amy April 23, 2014, 10:21 am

          Hi George,

          That is definitely an option. I do think that writing things down manually is more powerful psychologically. It helps us remember and consciously realize how much we are spending, whereas automating lets us gloss over stuff. Since one reason for keeping these kinds of charts is to help control spending, I encourage pencil and paper.

          Thank you for your input,
          Amy

          Reply
  • Sarah April 3, 2014, 9:50 pm

    this is PERFECT! my boyfriend and i are on a tight budget, we’re both getting started in our careers. thank you very much, about to hang these on the fridge now!

    Reply
    • Amy April 11, 2014, 10:59 am

      I’m so glad, Sarah! Thanks for getting in touch to tell me. We are still using it every day!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Katie Petrovich October 2, 2013, 9:34 am

    Thanks so much!! This is wonderful!!

    Katie

    Reply
    • Amy October 2, 2013, 10:24 am

      I’m so glad, Katie!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Mary September 20, 2013, 11:31 am

    Hi Amy,
    I found your daily spending chart and am adapting it to our income.
    I am in Australia and we are pensioners, so need to watch our pennies – or cents! We get paid fortnightly and usually I track my spending on an old envelope and total at the end of the 2 weeks.
    I have divided my big bills I pay online with credit card, and deposit an amount each fortnight on my credit card and don’t touch it – only emergency and it is there when my bills come.
    However I am wondering how I should enter it on the chart – maybe savings? I also have written my bank balances on the chart so I can compare each month.
    Hope you can understand this and maybe have some suggestions.
    Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Amy September 20, 2013, 11:36 am

      Hi Mary,

      I’m so glad you like my spending chart. We love it too, although I realize that everyone has different situations. You seem extremely organized, frugal, and conscientious.

      I think I have understood what you are asking. If you are using these weekly deposits into savings to pay off your credit card bill, you should only record the credit card charges. For example, if you have charged $50 for gas and $100 for food, you should put those amounts in those categories. It doesn’t really matter where the money is stored until paying off the credit card bill.

      However, if you are saving money for another reason — for an emergency fund or retirement or some other savings goal — then those amounts should be recorded under “savings” on the chart. Then if you should spend that money on something — like a trip or a house repair — you would record the money spent under those categories.

      Is this what you were asking?

      All the best to you,
      Amy

      Reply
  • PALANISAMY September 11, 2013, 2:33 am

    VERY VERY CUTE IDEA EASY TO CALCULATE .MY FRIENDS ALSO LIKE THIS I TAKE NEARLY 100 COPIES TO SHARE THEM .PLS THIS IDEA TO SOCIAL WEBSITE LIKE FACEBOOK ..IT TOOK OVER RESPONSES…….

    Reply
  • Georgene August 12, 2013, 1:08 am

    This is exactly the kind of chart I was hoping to find. The only problem is that when I printed it the font is very small and the colors are too light. I wondered if anyone else had this problem and have a solution. I looks like the perfect chart, otherwise.

    Reply
    • Amy August 14, 2013, 10:04 pm

      Hi Georgene,

      Another reader had the same problem, but when she used a different printer, it worked. The chart is in color, so it won’t come out like a regular black and white image. Also the fonts are small so that the whole chart fits on the page. Is your chart filling the page?

      Amy

      Reply
      • Georgene August 15, 2013, 1:37 am

        Problem solved! A friend darkened it for me and now it’s perfect! I can’t wait to use this chart. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. Thank you so much for sharing it!

        Reply
  • Michelle August 9, 2013, 10:41 pm

    Sometimes I think I make things too difficult. I’ve downloaded apps, set up involved spreadsheets, subscribed to fancy shmancy programs and geez louise, a simple paper system might actually work. Thanks for the reminder that simple is good.

    Reply
    • Amy August 10, 2013, 3:49 am

      Totally agree that simple is sometimes better. I hope you like our paper chart as much as we do.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Annie September 8, 2012, 9:54 pm

    I have a very similar chart, in the format of a flexible 10″ x 7″ spiral bound book. I purchased it because it tucks neatly into my car glove compartment. I found it was far easier for me to establish the habit of pulling it out as soon as I return to the car, and make my entries before moving on to the next destination. All bets are off for me to keep track of receipts etc, once I am home and rushing to the next chores. When my husband was alive I used a small pocket sized ledger notebook with one column. Also kept in the car, coat pocket or purse the list can be made throughout the day in single column Date, “dry cleaning” “lunch”, groceries, haircut etc. and posted to the main chart in the proper categories at home. A good way not to forget anything, or what date it was. (Why do they always print those receipts with dates so small and hard to locate??)

    My question is what is the easiest way to handle listing credit card payments/the things charged? There are a few things I do like to use the card for – all taxable medical expenses, gas & office visit parking, for instance are on one card. I receive an annual printout each January which is very handy at tax time. I pay utilities online so those are easy to add to chart as I pay them.

    I like your rounding off of entries!! I have often considered doing that , but I am too much of a control freak, I guess. It looks so nice and simple your way!

    I am glad to see you are getting young couples to follow a system of keeping track of expenses. Kudos! Annie

    Reply
    • Amy September 8, 2012, 10:10 pm

      Hi Annie,

      I like your idea of a portable notebook to record purchases when out and about. I record each credit card purchase as I make it — not when the bill comes in. But I supposed you could retro-actively record the purchases according to category once you got the bill, but then the month might be past. I find that having to record purchases made — instead of waiting for the bill — helps keep me on my toes and mindful of my spending.

      Since the IRS allows, even encourages, rounding up, I think it’s fine for me to do it too. Especially since I round up (cents to the next dollar), I don’t feel like I’m cheating. :-)

      Thanks for sharing some of your strategies,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Farah May 24, 2012, 11:54 am

    Thank you so much, Amy! :)

    Reply
  • Chemistry Projects November 16, 2011, 2:45 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    Reply
  • officePROhub September 14, 2011, 8:03 pm

    There is a lot of useful information here, good article, thanks for your knowledge.

    Reply
  • Australia July 14, 2011, 1:14 am

    Budgeting is so important and many people forget about it and simply roll along from month to month until they get into trouble. The they find out that they should actually save up and buy things rather than using credit and then paying it off later.

    Reply
  • Heather September 22, 2010, 4:25 pm

    I just wanted to share that as a busy mom I use e-mealz.com to help me plan and budget for groceries. Check it out! It give you a weekly meal plan and grocery list and there are multiple plans to choose from. I have easily saved the $15/qtr that I would have wasted in groceries due to poor planning.

    Reply
    • Amy September 24, 2010, 11:12 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, Heather! I believe that planning ahead is the most important prerequisite for saving money.

      Reply
  • Amy August 27, 2010, 11:08 am

    Hi Cash Saving Mum,

    I’m glad you find the budget sheet helpful. It should be a fast and easy process to print out, post and start recording.

    Good luck!

    Amy

    Reply
  • Misty January 6, 2010, 12:08 pm

    This is going to be so helpful in my home! We really lose a lot of money of useless spending on ridiculous things. We just bought our first home and really need to be smart about our spending. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    Reply
  • EBDS December 1, 2009, 1:50 pm

    Hi A! I’ve used your fantastic budget for a month now. I thought it would be tedious and cumbersome to record the information daily; it’s not. It’s really kind of fun. Posting the info on our fridge makes it easy to remember too. I’ve made a 180 degree shift in attitude in less than a month.

    In college, I paid a student an astounding $10/hr. to tutor me in physics. Once in the middle of a study session, she let out a small gasp. She confessed she forgot to record in her budget a recent candy bar purchase. I inquired further, clearly intrigued, and she kindly offered to show me how it works. I declined. She was not a cynical person and didn’t realize that my intrigue only masked my real feeling: horror. At that moment, I hoped I’d never have to attend to such mundane and minuscule matters.

    Two decades later, I realize all the stress my attitude about money caused me. If you didn’t think about it, it would burn a hole in your pocket and then, when you needed it…hmmm, hey, where did it go?! And so, I’d sob when I received my quarterly tuition statements.

    Taking charge of finances is an emotional issue, to be sure, but that’s another story…thanks for the eye-opener!

    Reply
  • Cornelia November 4, 2009, 2:51 pm

    nice chart, I’ll try to use it this month! The only problem is that my monthly mortgage payment is too big to fit in the space…:-)
    .-= Cornelia´s last blog ..No thanks, I only sleep on 37,000 thread count sheets. =-.

    Reply
  • Stephanie November 3, 2009, 11:36 am

    This is great. I printed out a whole stack of these sheets. I was one of the suckers who bought the expensive software programs to keep track of our budget. After months (literally) of fiddling with it and trying to get all of our accounts to sync, we finally gave up. Paper and pen is always less complicated and easier to manage. I wish I could get my $50 back!

    Reply
  • Sharon Whitt November 2, 2009, 2:47 pm

    Fabulous site Amy! I’ve just printed out the monthly and annual budget sheets. Look forward to having a more accurate sense of the money going out the door. With that info in hand, I’ll be back to get more ideas on how to trim the fat!!!

    Reply
  • Al November 2, 2009, 12:39 pm

    This is a simple, workable budget plan. The hardest thing is to get into the habit of recording all your expenses. That just requires self-discipline. But it is well worth it because without a budget, it’s so easy to piddle the money away and at the end of the month, you have no idea where it went. Personally, I’m still trying to get into that habit, though I do live frugally.

    For me, the cable TV/internet/phone bundle pack didn’t make good financial sense. TV is a time-waster and I have a cell phone that’s always with me, so instead of spending $99 a month on the bundle pack, I spend about $33 a month on high-speed internet.

    I also use my bike (or walk) for errands around town that don’t require hauling loads of stuff around. So that way I get a little exercise in the fresh air (sorry, New Yorkers!) and save on gas.

    And when I realized that I could save almost $13 a week (over $55 a month!) by giving up my daily Starbucks solo espresso, it was easy to bid it arriverderci! (Besides, those cretins always tried to serve it to me in a paper cup! I miss Italy!)

    So, with a little effort, it’s easy to find painless ways to save money. One last thing: I never buy prepared foods, unless it’s something healthy that I’ll actually use like those peeled baby carrots. See Frugal Mama’s Coupon article for healthy alternatives.

    Reply
  • EBDS November 2, 2009, 1:57 am

    Congrats on the launch, Amy! Impressive site. Daily recording sounds far too regimented for me, but heck, I record daily if my little one wet the bed or if I did my yoga, so why not one more daily jot?!

    I generally ONLY keep track of all grocery receipts….monthly I grab them out of their home in a vase and calculate. It’s interesting to see how food expenses grow/shrink per month. BUT, it bothers me too, as Jenny notes above, that you don’t get receipts for all food purchases.

    Plus, I concede it’s easier to ‘remember’ on a daily basis, than monthly. Also, this captures other expenses, like gasoline, etc…so, I’m going to give this a try. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Jenny October 25, 2009, 9:29 pm

    I have tried the system you describe and I love it! My husband asks me why don’t we just “do it on the computer”. The truth is it takes me too long to open the computer program up every day, enter everything in save it etc. When it is right there on paper, I just jot it down and it is done. Also I don’t like the system of saving all my receipts in a pile and entering them every month because I don’t get receipts for everything (like for buying veggies on the street), and I spend to much time sorting through them, looking for the dates and totals. I have used a similar system to this for two years and love it. It is so simple and effective.

    Reply
    • Amy October 25, 2009, 11:26 pm

      Hi Jenny,

      I’m so glad you like this system too. Sometimes analog just feels better. I still love my wall calendar and newspaper, for example.

      Reply

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