5 easy ways to track your card spending
By Matt Alderton
January 13, 2016
There's no doubt credit and debit cards are more convenient than cash. For many, however, their biggest perk is also their greatest pitfall. It's hard to keep track of all those swipes, dips and clicks online, at the supermarket, the coffee shop or the convenience store.
Here are five easy ways to get a handle on your expenses:
1. Use a spreadsheet
Phil Mackie was a lot like the 8 in 10 people surveyed by credit card processor TSYS who prefer paying with debit or credit card over paper money — until three years ago when he had a moment of reckoning with the cards in his wallet.
“I would often spend money and not have any accountability or understand why I came up short when bills were due,” says Mackie, a digital analyst and content marketer in McAllen, Texas, for hotelmarketingWorks. “My bank account wasn't just emaciated; it was in the red too often. I realized I had zero spending discipline and no way of tracking my spending.”
To change his ways, he decided, he needed to create a paper trail. Using a spreadsheet he designed, he records every dime he spends — cash, credit or otherwise — in categories such as “grocery,” “gas,” “personal care” and “snacks.”
I would often spend money and not have any accountability or understand why I came up short when bills were due. My bank account wasn't just emaciated; it was in the red too often. I realized I had zero spending discipline and no way of tracking my spending.”
— Phil Mackie, a digital analyst
and content marketer
“The only real downside to this method is that I have to manually enter the receipts at the end of the day or do the entry immediately after making a purchase.”
2. Write it down
Personal finance and life coach Debbi King agrees with Mackie's approach. “Not paying attention is the main reason people lose control of their finances. This has just gotten worse as technology has advanced,” says King, Philadelphia-based author of “The ABCs of Personal Finance: 26 Essential Keys to Winning with Your Money.”
“The step that I always recommend and will continue to encourage no matter how ‘techy' we get is to keep a spending journal that is not automated.
“You can go super old school and use a pen and notebook or you can use software or programs like Excel. Just don't automate the entry,” she says.
“When it comes to spending, when everything is automated you dont see it and you can't feel the pain. The result is looking up at the end of the month and wondering where the money went,” she says. “I know millionaires who still log every expense.”
3. Use an app
Although King advises against automation, financial tracking apps can be an effective and efficient solution, says financial adviser Andy Branter, a certified financial planner who runs the website StartInvestingOnline.com.
“In my opinion, the two best tools available right now are Mint and Personal Capital,” he says. Mint “allows you to connect all your bank accounts, tracks your spending, sort transactions and allows you to create a budget.”
You can go super old school and use a pen and notebook or you can use software or programs like Excel. … The result is looking up at the end of the month and wondering where the money went. I know millionaires who still log every expense.”
— Debbi King, author of
“The ABCs of Personal Finance:
26 Essential Keys to Winning
with Your Money”
Personal Capital is lesser known, but growing in popularity. It links all your financial accounts — checking, savings and investments — “and you can set spending targets,” Branter says. “So in one dashboard, you not only get a look at your cash flow, but you also get to see how that IRA is doing and get a look at your net worth.”
Another app, GoodBudget, helps you track spending by mimicking the traditional “envelope” budgeting system.
“With an envelope budgeting system, you place cash into envelopes at the start of each month to cover expenses like groceries, gasoline and dining out. You are cut off from spending when the envelope is empty,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations at Freedom Financial Network.
“GoodBudget allows you to set up virtual envelopes of money. The app subtracts money from the appropriate envelope as you make purchases with a debit or credit card,” he says. “The program even can be accessed and shared among other smartphone users in the family so everyone is on the same page when it comes to budgeting and purchases.”
4. Create a budget
Speaking of budgeting, it's one of the most important tools an individual can use to track spending.
“What's behind someone tracking their spending? Almost always, it is with some goal in mind,” Gallegos says. “And if you have any kind of goal, a budget will help you achieve that goal. Just as in driving, it's much easier and faster to get where you want to go with some kind of map or direction.”
To make budgeting useful for tracking card expenditures, take a cue from Mackie: Categorize your expenses, decide how much you can afford to spend on meals (for instance), then periodically review your receipts and credit card statements to determine whether you're overspending.
What's behind someone tracking their spending? Almost always, it is with some goal in mind. And if you have any kind of goal, a budget will help you achieve that goal.”
— Kevin Gallegos, vice president
of Phoenix operations
at Freedom Financial Network
“Take a close look at expenses once you've tracked your actual expenses to the budget for a few months,” Gallegos says. “You'll find out where your money goes and can then take a hard look at where you can cut back.”
5. Set up alerts
Banks and card issuers also can help you keep track of what you spend via text or email alerts, notes consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch.
“You may set an alert for when you reach a certain limit, for when your billing is due or for recent credits and debits,” she says. “Seeing such alerts pop up on your phone via text or through email keeps you accountable for those purchases and aware of the growing balance before it becomes too much to manage or pay off.”
Whatever method you choose, tracking your debit or credit card spending will yield results if you do it consistently and continuously, says Mackie.
“For almost a year I didn't take action on what I did; I simply tracked everything. With that data I was able to see where my biggest opportunities were and focused on ridding myself of those problems,” he says.
“I am finally reaching my financial goals. I've established saving goals, which I am working toward. Also, I am looking at being 100 percent debt-free by the end of June 2016. Then I will have money to save for the vacations I've always dreamed of.”