Going back into the archives, I came across a frugal tip that I always recommend to people who ask for advice about saving money, that is to simply “write it down“.  I noticed within that article that I didn’t get into the details of tracking spending, or the many ways to do it.   The right way is the easiest way for you.  That is, the way that can be implemented into your life easily and used effortlessly so that it will continue to be used for the long term.

If you are looking for ways to help stay on budget, here are some of the ways that I have used to track spending, but I’ll let you decide which one works best for your personal situation.

1. Use PC Software

When we first started our financial journey we were in big time debt.  To help get out of the hole, we decided to track our spending to the penny.  We then set budgets for various spending categories, gave ourselves allowances, and vowed to stay within budget.  At the time, we used software to track all of our expenses (Microsoft Money to be specific) which in turn helped calculate our cash flow going forward.  Microsoft Money has been discontinued, but Microsoft has released a Sunset version that is free to download.  Note that ongoing support is not available.  You can download it here.

2. Use a Spreadsheet

Perhaps one of the more common ways to track your spending and/or budget is via spreadsheet.  What I like most about using spreadsheets is that you can make it as simple or complex as you like.  A couple years back, a reader was kind enough to share his budgeting spreadsheet, you can download it here.

3. Use a Credit Card

As our spending has become more routine and under control, we have become less reliant on software.  As most of our expenses are funneled through a credit card (top cash back credit cards in Canada), not only do we get points for  regular spending,  we can check online to see spending details and/or if we are within our spending targets for the month.  Of course, this method is only feasible if the balance is paid off every month.

4. Use a Smartphone

With iPhones and other smartphones becoming mainstream, they can also be great financial tools.  As they are carried around everywhere, apps can be used to track spending as they occur.  Here are two free apps that found for both the iPhone OS and Android.

Disclaimer: I have never used the programs above, so I can’t give my opinion on how good or bad they are.   If you have used them, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

5. Use the Web

Instead of using PC software, there are websites that can pretty much do the same thing except have the advantage of being location independent.  The downside of course is that all your financial information would be on a  non-bank website, so it’s all about comfort levels.

The trick is finding web programs that actually work for Canadians.  From a little browse around the web, it seems that Mint, Yodlee and MoneyStrands will work for Canadians.  I have experimented with an account with Yodlee and it worked well with my MBNA SmartCash card.  It basically imported all my expenses and sorted them by categories, and displayed everything in a nice fancy chart.  I’m a little more hesitant to give out banking information though.  Here are the sites:

If you have accounts with the above mentioned, I encourage you to leave feedback in the comments for others.

If you are following a budget, what are your favorite ways to track your spending?

If you would like to read more articles like this, you can sign up for my free weekly money tips newsletter below (we will never spam you).


  1. Play the odds on September 27, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I use EasyMoney for Android.

    Prior to this, I used the web, though it was accurate for that account, it wasn’t precise and required more end of the month work. With my smarthpohone it requires only diligence when you spend. Semi-annually, I update my budgeted amounts to match the 12 month trend in spending.

    Great article!

  2. Echo on September 27, 2010 at 10:55 am

    I prefer to use a spreadsheet, I downloaded one from Google Docs and customized it for my own situation. I have one tab for a “year at a glance” where I can make a forecast of income and expenses for the year, and then I have individual monthly tabs to update the current month.

    I also use a credit card whenever possible, and use my statement to balance my monthly expenses.

  3. Peter Milne on September 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

    The problem with writing it down is…writing it down. With 2 (or more) people accessing the account and spending money it becomes a chore to reconcile and collect all the written down data. Our simple solution was to avoid using cash. Almost all of our purchases are through either a debit or credit card. Once a week (every Wednesday) we download our transactions into our spreadsheet and voila! everything is “written down”. If the “cash withdrawal” category of our spreadsheet begins to look too large – indicating more cash purchases – we address it and bring it down.

  4. allgood on September 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I like YNAB for PC based budgeting software – and I think there is an iPhone app, though I have the most basic cellphone in existance, so I’ve never tried it.

  5. andrewbpaterson on September 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    About 6 months back, my wife and I transitioned to a zero-based budgeting system (read: envelope system). Since this was done after tracking spending for several months, our envelope estimates were very accurate.

    Since implementing this system, though, I have found it almost meaningless to track spending. My life is now MUCH SIMPLER: once the envelope runs out of cash, you can’t spend any more! I don’t care about receipts, or maintaining loads of spending data.
    The downside is that we aren’t getting credit card points aymore =\

    Funny how Peter Milne stopped using cash to simplify his financial life, whereas we did so by transitioning to a cash only system…

  6. Dr Dale Rathgeber on September 27, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I’m with andre; when the cash is gone, it’s gone, and absent an emergency we are always “on budget”.

  7. Pat @ DNW on September 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Here are my experiences with tracking my spending:

    1. iphone app- Worked the best because every time I made I purchase I would just pull out my phone and punch the numbers in. The negative was that I started tracking literally every penny.

    2. Pen and paper. This worked for a bit. Then I started to get lazy and I eventually stopped tracking my spending.

    Credit card has worked best for me. At the end of the month I see where I spent my money and how I spent it.

    At the end of the day I think that we should try each method to find the one that works best for our unique styles.

  8. John Torrington on September 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I’ve used Quicken for 10 years. It had some rocky times but lately it has been rock solid. Downloads your cards and categorizes expenses (with a little help from you at first), downloads your bank accounts with categorization as well and also updates your securities and holdings.
    Very flexible. You can change the categories as you see fit.
    It also issues lots of reports (net worth, cash flow, expenses vs income, yearly comparisons, capital gains, etc. etc.)
    For $100sh cdn, I can’t see using any other method.
    I’ve looked at on-line programs, but most of them are pretty rough or not Canadianized. The last thing I need is for some website to go broke with all my info, never mind the security issues.
    Spreadsheets are OK if you can program them, but they will never be as informative as the Quicken reports with less input.
    So, it’s Quicken for me.

  9. captain hobs on September 27, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    The biggest factor for someone like me, who wants to track everything to the last penny, is trying to track expenses while using as little of my time as possible. With three kids and a house that constantly require my precious little free time, sometimes it is all too easy to fall behind in “writing it all down”.

    Initially, I used a simple excel spreadsheet broken down into 4 main categories and every receipt was saved and entered one by one into Excel with even little notes about what was purchased. Then we had kids (3). Now we use CC to buy most of everything, so that helps a lot in keeping track of expenditures, though it is not nearly as effective as tracking it all in Excel.

    Right now, rather than trying to record every single receipt, I try to use more of a general inflow vs. outflow of cash from month to month and this is working out alright as it incorporates the CC bill as well as any other expenses that don’t get processed via CC.

    I tried MS Money once and found that my bank wasn’t compatible with the software, so it was a frustrating waste of time to try and set up. No idea if quicken works seamlessly with a Manulife bank account and an MBNA credit card, but if so, then that software could be appealing.

  10. Steve R on September 27, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I just use a calendar on MS Word. Each time I spend, I put it on the date I spent in on. I have 3 categories: Groceries, Gas and Stuff.
    At the end of each month, I tally up the totals, make them into % and compare them to previous months.
    It’s cheap, easy and habit forming.

  11. Sarlock on September 27, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I use a spreadsheet to track our money that has grown more and more complex over the years (I started it in 2004). I converted the way I record my personal finances to something similar to an accounting model in 2008 using a double-sided entry system (debits and credits). This way I can compute a monthly/yearly income statement and balance sheet so that I can track my finances on a detailed level. I maintain a 1-year, 3-year and 10-year budget that I create so that I can make long-range financial decisions and reach set goals. Obviously the 10-year budget is cursory in nature, since there are so many unknowns. But it is important to look that far out in to the future and determine if you are on track for your longest-range goals (retirement being the biggest one, since I plan to retire in 10 years, before I reach age 50–goal is to be debt-free, $30,000/yr passive income and $1m+ in net worth excluding real estate).

  12. bob on September 27, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I’ll second YNAB and using credit cards for everything humanly possible. We take out $100 in cash on the first of the month as our “cash allowance” that we don’t bother too much about providing receipts for, and everything else is either Credit, Debit (rarely) or Cheque.

    Just hit the bank a couple times a month, download the transactions, and categorize them in YNAB. Takes 15 minutes or fewer.

    I also don’t bother splitting receipts. If it is from Walmart or Safeway or Costco, then it is “Groceries and Household Stuff”. If it’s from Home Depot, it’s “Home & Garden”, etc.

  13. SavingMentor on September 27, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    For just over a year I tracked everything in detail using Google Spreadsheets. However, the thing I realized after tracking every penny is that I don’t really need to track every penny. I live frugally enough and am good enough with my purchasing decision and money that there is always money left over. My wife is also good at keeping the spending in check.

    So in the end, it just saves time and frustration not having a budget and not tracking spending at all. We know where the money goes and that’s all that really matters for us.

  14. Future Money-Bags on September 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    1. CC for every purchase possible. This earns points or rewards as well as enabling you to see all the purchases on your account statement. Which brings me to #2..
    2. Track everything online. Since I do the majority of my banking online, I can track every debit and credit I have.
    3. Update all data into an Excel spreadsheet at the end of every month. It takes about 30-45 minutes to put every expense into their proper catagories, track all sources of income. I Make graphs to see my expense and income ratios.
    4. Ontop of the monthly Excel sheets to track my money, I have a yearly file as well. This has every total, from every month added in. It has a savings % ratio, net worth updates, average monthly income, yearly goals, etc.

    Being 24 and saving over half my income every month, you would think I don’t need to worry about tracking my money; Because I will save nontheless. Well, This was what I thought a couple years ago, that I was so great for being able to save money, but than I realized that every month there was 200-400$ that was going unaccounted for, and I would much rather be able to know where it was going.

    I also track my credit score each month, and any institution trying to screw around with it. You would be surprised how many little credit checks you would have on there that you don’t know about. By getting them removed you can increase your credit score.
    Also paying off your credit card in full every month and not letting the balance get too high, as well as keeping money in all of my appropriate accounts. These are all the things I do to regularly check my finances.

    Good luck to all.

  15. Evan on September 27, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    My wife and I use a google docs spreadsheet, which is great for updating or checking from any computer we happen to be at. We use a zero-based budget, so we fill out everything at the beginning of the month and then just update to keep track as we go.

    It’s completely manual, which I’m sure turns most people off, but it forces us to keep looking at it otherwise it gets hard to track.

  16. Russ on September 28, 2010 at 7:30 am

    I use Yodlee. Like so many others I’m a little wary of the security, so what I’ve done is only added login details for my current account (my salary goes in here and my bills come out, but I don’t retain any significant balance from month to month as I transfer it to other accounts) and my primary credit card.

    I then use ‘manual’ accounts for all of my investments and savings accounts (where the vast bulk of my assets are). Once a month, just after my credit card billing cycle, I spend 20 minutes logging on to all of my investment accounts and updating the balance in Yodlee.

    This means that all my transactions (purchases, bills etc) are automatically categorised without any work from me and at relatively low risk, and every month my overall net worth is calculated. I then record it in a spreadsheet so I can see growth history, track against annual projections, etc.

  17. Marc Gagnon on September 28, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I use GNU Cash to record a high level overview of expenses to come in the next few weeks or month. I don’t try to track every penny, just enough precision to know if I’m on track or not.

    Google docs spreadsheet is also a tool I use often.
    With these tools, I can do all the “what if” I need.

    My advice would be: keep it simple! Do not try to record everything, don’t try to balance everything. All you need, most of the time, is to know you’re doing fine on an horizon of a few months.

  18. Joel on September 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    RBC has introduced a new feature on their website called Expense Analysis. It reads in all the purchases done through the checking accounts and the RBC Visa credit cards and summarizes them into categories. The categories are almost perfect – but they’re also easily configurable (ie – all purchases from Shoppers can go to Health/Fitness – or I can assign them to Books/Reading if all I do there is buy magazines).

    I picked up a credit card from RBC just to get all my purchases summarized in one place.

  19. Greg on September 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I also use YNAB. I liked both Quicken and MS Money, they are both great at showing you what you spent, but not so good a planning ahead. I also played with Yodlee, but it doesn’t handle all the accounts that I have. YNAB is great for setting up a budget and then tracking your adherence to it. I use cash back credit cards for all possible spending and then download the transactions. They also have an iPhone/iPod Touch app that you can take with you to see what you have available in your budget. you can use it to enter transactions in on the fly and then download into the desktop software. YNAB runs on PC, MAC and Linux. (I’m starting to sound like and ad for these guys).

    Anyway, I’ve tried many solutions over the years including my own spreadsheets and YNAB is the only one that I’ve been able to stick with.

  20. Akip on September 28, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    I’m a YNAB fan also; they have an IPhone App and I believe they have an Android App under-development.

  21. Uniball on September 28, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Mint is now working for Canadians.
    I am very impressed, but worry about security.
    It also has an iphone app that let’s you check your net worth
    on a minute by minute basis.

  22. Elbyron on September 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I’ve been using MoneyStrands since it was first released a year ago (I used thier Expensr product before that). It is now a strong competitor with Mint, and has support for more Canadian banks – though Mint is now working to extend their coverage.

    Many people, including myself, worry about the security issues of using an online site for tracking financial data. My solution is to avoid the automated accounts that require you to enter your login and password for banking, and choose to use the manual accounts instead. This does not mean entering transactions one-by-one (like I did many years ago with Excel), just downloading a range of transactions from my bank and credit card websites and uploading the data to MoneyStrands one file at a time. Because there is no real account info online, and even my online identity is fake, nothing can ever be traced back to me. The information I put on their website is completely anonymous, so even if hackers got into their servers I still have nothing to worry about.

    I haven’t used Mint yet, so I’m not sure how all their features compare, but MoneyStrands seems to provide all the features I need, and their development team continues to add more every couple months. It’s still a bit weak on the budgeting side, but it has some really nice tracking and analysis tools.

  23. bettyvee on September 29, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Mint may be “open” to Canadians but its been blocked by CIBC (i.e PC) which realli kills it..i miss quicken online :(

  24. Jeremy on October 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Don’t forget Bundle! They are new, but have a great spending/budgeting platform.

  25. billy on October 2, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Hi Ft,

    Any recommendations on how to track/display investment portfolios? I’m looking for something along the lines of how portfolios are displayed on Google finance, but with customizable columns. In particular I’d like to see current bid/ask amounts and prices.

    Is there a way to customize the view of the Google Finance portfolios to display such info, or some other sites where I could?


  26. FrugalTrader on October 2, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    @billy, i use msn online for my investment tracking. But if you want current bid/ask, you’re going to need real time quotes. May be best to stick with your discount broker for that info.

  27. A.Rajah on October 3, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I have used ms money and it is good but I bought a android phone recently. So I am going to try “hello expenses”

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