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3 easy ways you can track your expenses and stay on top of your money

Knowing how much you spend (and on what) is the first step in taking control of your finances.

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Keeping track of your expenses on a regular basis is an important part of managing your overall finances. Not only does it help you see where your money goes, but it can also reveal to you your spending patterns.

Luckily, there are various ways you can track your own expenses, depending on what works best for your lifestyle. Some consumers like a more hands-on approach in which you log each transaction as it happens, while others prefer creating a spreadsheet to capture a big-picture look at their monthly expenses overall. There are even budgeting apps that automate the process, making it easy to keep tabs on your cash.

Whatever your strategy may be, there is an expense tracking method out there for everyone. Below, CNBC Select outlines three easy ways to track your expenses and stay on top of your money.

1. Track as you spend

The most active approach: Carry around a notebook and pen wherever you go, writing each transaction as you spend.

Logging your spending in the moment helps you be attentive to how often your spend, and it may encourage you to think carefully about each purchase that you make.

If a notebook and pen are too much of a hassle to carry around, log each transaction in real-time into your phone through an app like Goodbudget. Users manually input each one of their transactions into digital "envelopes," each with a clearly-marked purpose.

CNBC Select rated Goodbudget the best budgeting app for beginners because logging each purchase, while a big commitment, helps you be in control, accountable and conscious when you spend.


Information about Goodbudget has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by Goodbudget prior to publication.
  • Cost

    Get 20 envelopes for free; for unlimited envelopes, you need to upgrade to Goodbudget Plus, which is $7 per month or $60 per year

  • Standout features

    Allows users to plan their household's spending using the "envelope method," where they allocate a certain amount of their income into categories like groceries, rent and debt payoff. Users are only supposed spend what's in their envelopes and if they go beyond their budget the envelope will show red to indicate that they overspent

  • Categorizes your expenses

    Yes, but users can customize

  • Links to accounts

    No, users manually create "envelopes" and input their transactions

  • Availability

    Has a web-based version, and also offered in both the App Store (for iOS) and on Google Play (for Android)

  • Security features

    256-bit bank grade encryption in a secure data center

Terms apply.

If you need a little flexibility, maybe start by tracking at night: YouTuber Aja Dang, who paid off $200,000 of debt in two years, made a before-bedtime routine of writing down her expenses from that day.

2. Track after the fact

Many people create their own Excel spreadsheets to track their expenses and stick to their budget each month. Choose a frequency (whether once-per-week or once-per month) of logging your expenses, income and savings goals.

A little more laissez-faire than the first approach, tracking every week or month still requires discipline. Look to free online resources, like downloadable budget templates, to get you started. As you get into the routine, make a calendar event or reminder to build the habit into your day.

Check out this "Make a Budget" PDF worksheet by the Federal Trade Commission, or Microsoft Office's suite of budget templates for everything from general monthly budgets to specific, customizable budgets for projects like home construction. Google Drive's Sheets app also offers a gallery of templates that you can access from anywhere when you sign into your account.

3. Automate the process

Unlike the Goodbudget app we mention above, most budgeting and expense tracker apps do all your logging for you.

If you you find yourself often forgetting to log your purchases or you feel comfortable letting go of the reins, consider using an app that syncs to your bank and credit card accounts. There may be a slight delay while the bank processes your transactions, but ultimately every purchase, savings transfer and bill payment will show up on your mobile/desktop app. Most programs also link to retirement and/or investment accounts so you can track your net worth.

Many apps also categorize your spending for you. This is helpful if you think you've accounted for everything in your budget, but forget about the one-off purchases from time to time. Automatic linking nudges you to include a category for every expense and take the whole picture into account (not just the transactions we're most conscious of).

The Mint app both links to users' accounts and automatically categorize their expenses. CNBC Select ranked Mint the best free budgeting app for tracking your money for offering basic budgeting features, plus bill payment reminders, customized alerts when you're over budget and a credit monitoring service.


Information about Mint has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by Mint prior to publication.
  • Cost


  • Standout features

    Shows income, expenses, savings goals, credit score, investments, net worth

  • Categorizes your expenses

    Yes, but users can modify

  • Links to accounts

    Yes, bank and credit cards

  • Availability

    Offered in both the App Store (for iOS) and on Google Play (for Android)

  • Security features

    Verisign scanning, multi-factor authentication and Touch ID mobile access

Terms apply.

Bottom line

How you manage your money is a personal decision that only you can make. While some may prefer logging each of their transactions manually, others may like an app that syncs to their accounts and tracks expenses for them.

No matter what route you choose, make sure you are setting aside routine time to check on your spending and evaluate your financial progress as you go.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.