Low-tech alternatives to using an online budget-tracking service


I admit that when you’re new to something, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know where to start. “Just tell me what to do” is a common refrain in this situation (which explains diet books, and I’m not saying this in a bad way).

I recommend everyone track their spending (specifically their Expenses, which is everything that doesn’t come in the form of a monthly bill). This isn’t because I like to inflict pain, but merely because I think it’s the easiest way to achieve your financial goals. Track or you will fail.

How do I recommend doing this? Well, there are a few ways. And, awesomely, none of them require signing up to any online service!

Use a spreadsheet

Let’s start with what I use, which is a spreadsheet. I make a sheet with days of the month down the side, categories (food, transportation, clothes, fun, etc) across the top. Each month I copy the sheet and start again.

Now, there is absolutely nothing sexy about this, and that’s one the reasons why I like it. Also:

  • It’s free. Microsoft Excel is available online for free now, and Google Sheets is also an option. So even if you don’t have office software on a computer, you’re still in luck.

    How did I go so long without learning about Excel Online? Looks way better than Google Sheets.
    How did I go so long without learning about Excel Online? Looks way more functional than Google Sheets.
  • It’s simple. No Fisher-Price-style application to annoy you with its “responsive” user experience. If you’re working locally, no passwords to remember. Just type in numbers. This will never crash or steal your personal information.
  • It’s self-directed. You know who creates this plan? You do. You determine the categories you want to track, and how much you want to spend on them each month. If you’re not motivated enough to type some numbers in on a spreadsheet, you’re not ready to take control of your finances. In which case, come back when you’re ready.
  • It does math for you. As you could probably guess from all my posts that mention math in it (such as this one or this one), I love math. But that said, I don’t feel any specific desire to add up scores of numbers. Luckily, we have these neat things called computers! It can calculate what you’ve spent and what you have remaining to spend. All you need to do is check in.

For all you mobile fans, this doesn’t exclude you. Presumably, you could do any of this on the go. And in truth, that would be simpler than my own setup, where I have to remember what I spend throughout the day, and enter it in at night. (Which, granted, isn’t too onerous, but still.)

Go even simpler

If you’re willing to forgo bullet point #4 above, you could simplify things even further by just going with a simple text file or notepad. This is a good option if spreadsheets intimidate you or rub you the wrong way.

This couldn’t be simpler. Say you go to Starbucks and pay $5 for a Whatever-ccino. Under the heading of “Food/Drink” (or “Coffee” if you spend a lot on that) you would type write the number “5”. And/or, take your total number for that category for the month and subtract it by 5. Done. Elapsed time, 27 seconds on a slow day.

Go 19th century

What if a pad of paper and a pen is too much work? You could go totally hardcore and use an envelope system. Under this system, you’d have an envelope full of money for a specific category. When you’re at Starbucks, you’d take $5 out of the envelope and use it. Here the advantage is that there’s nothing to write down. The only rub is that when the money is out of the envelope, you’re done spending in that category for the month. That’s all you get.

I like paying with cash, but this feels a bit intense for me. That said, I haven’t actually tried it, and so I’ll be testing it out in an upcoming month, just so I can compare and contrast.

Find the system that works for you

Try different things to see what works! One of these may resonate. And yes, if spending $15 per month to have a service to add things for you helps you get motivated, then by all means do it! Just don’t be under the misunderstanding that such a service is required. There are alternatives.

But enough about me. Have you tried any of these options above? What was your experience?

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