How to keep track of your expenses while traveling

Adventure silhouette

Another question that was asked after a recent meeting of the Portland Integrative Finance Community was regarding expense tracking and traveling, namely:

“How do you overcome the challenges of tracking expenses while traveling?”

Ooh, another great question! Gosh, if the PIFC keeps growing, I’ll never need to think of post ideas again!

Breaking some habits (but not others)

Tracking expenses, like everything, is a habit. At first it’ll feel awkward and cumbersome, but once it becomes a habit (a lifestyle change even), it’ll be as natural as getting dressed or commuting to work; just something you do as part of your daily ritual.

But when you travel, all your habits are upended. That’s one of the benefits of traveling.

That said, travel doesn’t give you a pass on tracking your expenses. After all, you don’t want to bring debt home as a souvenir.

So here are some strategies for handling when your life gets upended by travel.

Change your category targets

When you travel, you will generally spend money on the same types of things you do when you’re at home, but the specific amounts will change.

For example, unless you’re staying in an apartment and have the ability to cook for yourself (which I’d recommend, as foreign grocery stores are awesome), you’re not going to be buying much in the way of groceries. Meanwhile, your “Restaurants” category is likely to expand commensurately.

Japanese grocery store
Sometimes it’s fun to not quite know what anything is. Photo courtesy of Jose M. Lopez

Similarly, you’re not likely to be spending anything in your “Home” category when you’re not home. So you could put less in that category and more in another one.

A category like “Transportation” might be a little more complex, because if you own a car at home, you may not have one where you’re traveling to. Instead, you might have taxi, train, or bus expenses.

It can get complex to match categories from home and travel. Which is why I tend to do something different.

Choose your own Adventure

Your life on the road is different enough that you may wish to track it differently.

If you want to think of your travels as its own thing, separate from your regular life, you may wish to create an “Adventure” category. And everything that happens on your travels falls into this category.

The biggest benefit to this strategy is that it vastly simplifies tracking. No need to think about what category you’re putting your spending in while on the road. Hotels, restaurants, whatever: everything counts as “Adventure”.

This doesn’t absolve you of some planning, though. You’ll need to adjust your other categories to allocate you enough of an “Adventure” category. And you’ll also want to think about what your spending targets are for your trip.

Think daily

When planning a trip, I take some time to figure out what my daily spending targets are. These are related to categories, but aren’t as concrete. For example, consider the following (simplified) daily spending plan:

  • $40/day: lodging
  • $30/day: food
  • $20/day: transit
  • $10/day: events/tickets/happenings

In this case, I have a daily spending target of $100. So if my travels are a week long, that’s $100 × 7 = $700.

So guess what my target is for my “Adventure” category? You guessed it: $700.

(As for fixed costs such as airfare, I’d treat those as Bills, not Expenses, so they wouldn’t fall under the “Adventure” category, and instead would count just like your phone bill, internet bill, car insurance, etc.)

Go low-tech

I track my expenses at the end of the day, when my purchases are fresh in my mind. I’d recommend this too, even when on the road.

If you’re used to tracking via electronic means, you might find it more challenging to keep that up.

In this case, the lowest technology means will probably serve you best. There is nothing more effective than carrying around a little notebook and jotting down your purchases there. No need to get crafty.

Receipts and ATM withdrawals

If you pay for purchases with a card, you’ll likely get a receipt, just like you do at home. In which case, you can use those receipts when you write down what you spent at the end of the day.

Cash doesn’t work as well for this, obviously.

But when using a single “Adventure” category, then you can benefit from a simplification trick: use an ATM to get cash, and treat the ATM receipt as the expense itself. Remember, everything is going into the same category, so it won’t matter what you spend the cash on. You’ve already tracked it as part of the withdrawal.

Currency conversions

It’s not a surprise to learn that other countries use different currencies. (Actually, it’s more of a surprise to find that some countries don’t use different currencies!)

Trying to do currency conversion in your head is a losing proposition, even for a math nerd like me. So you’ll want to track in the local currency.

At the time of writing, $1 equates to €0.89.

Did you know that you can do currency conversions through Google searches? It’s super useful.

So if you’re traveling in a Euro country, you’ll track in Euros, not dollars.

This means that your targets need to be converted as well. That $100 daily target? That’s now €89. Actually, due to fees involved in conversions, I’d probably round down by about 3% to be on the safe side, so I’d put it at €85.

Crossing months

If your travel is particularly long or fortunately situated, it might happen partially during one month and partially during another.

If so, you can split your expenses between the budgets. This can give you a lot more flexibility in determining category targets, and if you have sufficient float, you can “decide” how much of your expenses “count” in one month and how many “count” another.

Pick some rules and go

As you can see, there are a number of factors that go into tracking expenses while traveling. But just like tracking when at home, it need not be a large effort. Just pick some rules and stick with them. And happy travels!

But enough about me. How do you track expenses while traveling?

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