While we may not all be personal finance pros, we're all familiar with the money rules that kick in when we're adults: Don't charge over your credit
limit, never co-sign a loan for a friend, and don't forget to balance your checkbook.
That last one is about as natural a guideline to financial health as breathing oxygen is to living. But as we move further into the 21st century, people are writing fewer and fewer checks. While It's still possible to keep your cash and debit card purchases logged in a checkbook register, if you aren't carrying about a checkbook -- and if most of your purchases are made with your debit card or through ATM cash withdrawals -- it's a harder rule to follow.
I admit it: I gave up balancing my checkbook long ago, in part because my wife and I share one checking account, and with two debit cards each and one checkbook, we were never quite able to keep track of what money was coming in and what was going out. Instead, I religiously check my bank account's Web site daily, sometimes two or three times a day, and make notes on a computer spreadsheet to account for any information the bank Web site doesn't show. It isn't a perfect system by any means, but it seems to work well enough.
Lately, however, I've been wondering how other people keep track of their money. So I cast a net, asking numerous financial experts and professionals how they do it, and they offered some pretty good ideas. If you're still balancing your checkbook, and it's working for you, keep doing it. But if you're not and you're looking for a better way to keep track of your money, here are some other ideas.
There's an app for that.
Christine Harmel, owner of CleanTech PR Agency. says that she's been using a "Spending Lite" app on her iPhone for the past few months. "You can quickly input expenses, literally while you're standing at the cashier," she explains. "I downloaded it as an experiment to see if I could keep track of spending day by day instead of monthly, and it's working really well so far. It gives a pie chart of your expenditures (personal, medical, car, food, etc), reports and history. It helps me compare where I am in the month with income and expenses in a simple, visual way. It's so simple to input, for Quicken-averse people like me, that there's no excuse not to keep track."
Jason Peck, social media manager at eWayDirect Inc.. an Internet-focused marketing service provider, says his main tool is his American Express Rewards Plus Gold card. "I put every expense I can on there because they have a great rewards program, and it's nice to only have to look at one [statement] to see what I'm spending money on. And there's only one bill to pay at the end of the month. I occasionally have other things -- car insurance. for example -- that are linked to my main bank account, but it's nice to not have to worry about balancing it often, as would be the case if I were using a debit card for a lot of purchases."
Like Harmel, Peck enjoys apps, too. He uses a Mint.com app for his iPhone "to track money in credit cards, bank accounts and investments each month. It's
a simple way to keep a pulse on what's happening with your finances."
Just use cash.
Sarah Sbordone. a public relations specialist in Tempe, Ariz. says that when money is tight, "I'll often take out an allotted amount of cash and know that I'm only allowed to spend that cash throughout the week. It's a well publicized trick, but I truly find myself spending less if I have to watch each dollar bill leaving my hand. All of a sudden, $20 for dinner, or $5 for coffee, seems like a lot of money.
"I find that this system works better than just reviewing my online billing [for my debit card]," she adds. "So often, restaurant charges show up days later, or my charge for gas will be only $1 while it's in pending. Or the worst, bars will put anywhere from a $25 to $100 hold charge on the card, in addition to how much I end up spending." The hold drops off eventually, concedes Sbordone, but it always seems to remain on the debit card for "what seems to be forever."
Some people excel with Excel.
Mandy Minor, a St. Petersburg, Fla. resident who co-owns J. Allan Writing and Design Studios with her husband, says she uses the Excel program on her computer. "We have columns for rent, dining, groceries, insurance. etc. with monthly targets. As I input our expenses, they get added up, so we can see in a second if we were over, under or on budget. Each month is a new sheet in the workbook, so it has years' worth of data that's easy to get to."
Balance your checkbook online.
Ornella Grosz, author of the blog Moneylicious. is a fan of Mint.com (which, I'm guessing just about everyone has heard of) and ClearCheckbook.com (which, I'm guessing, just about nobody has heard of). ClearCheckbook.com is a free Web site that aims to help you balance your checkbook online. Here's how they explain it on their site: "Let us take your checkbook register to the next level. With our online checkbook register, you can mark transactions as cleared/balanced so you always know exactly how much money you have and what transactions have been cleared with your bank."
Keep two checking accounts.
Karyn Hodgens, the co-founder of Kidnexions Kids' Personal Finance Educator. which teaches children all about saving money. recalls that in college she had a roommate "who kept two checking accounts. One month, she wrote all her bills from one account. The next month, she switched. When the statements came in, she had a relatively good idea of what her balance was in each account." While Hodgens wouldn't actually recommend this strategy, she remembers, "It seemed to work for her."
These options are just some of the ways people keep track of their money. It'll be interesting to see what happens as the years go by, if, say, 20 to 40 years from now, people will still be balancing checkbooks made out of actual paper, or if we'll be balancing something completely different, like an Excel spreadsheet or a ledger that's actually a 3D hologram.
How do you keep track of what you spend? If you've got a system that works, let us know about it.
Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop and the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit ."