The Proper Care and Feeding of a Pocket Expense Notebook

For almost a year, I have carried around a small pocket expense notebook. Well, actually, I’m on my third one – the first two fell apart after about three months of living in my hip pocket, which is where I liked to store mine.

Hold on… what’s a pocket expense notebook? Basically, it’s a place to keep receipts and notes for the expenses you might incur during a day or over a short trip. Using this, you can keep track of what you’re spending over a larger timeframe, such as a month or a quarter. It works very well hand-in-hand with personal finance software such as Quicken.

Okay, I get it… so what should I look for? The best way to describe this is to walk through the things that didn’t work for me and move on to my most recent one, which does work well.

My first attempt at using a pocket expense notebook was a simple Mead top spiral pocket notebook. This item was very cheap (about a quarter) and had quite a bit of space for noting the items I was buying and their cost. Unfortunately, two problems showed up very quickly: it was almost impossible to keep receipts with it (I would just jam them in my pocket) and the notebook itself began to fall apart with regular use and the wear and tear of keeping it in my hip pocket.

My second attempt was even simpler: I kept a daily envelope in my pocket. Each day, I’d just grab an envelope and toss it in my pocket (along with a pen – more on that later) and throughout the day gather receipts on it. On the outside of the envelope, I would just loosely jot down all expenses. This worked great for a while, especially in conjunction with GTD (just toss the envelope in your inbox), and I actually stuck with it for about five months until I discovered two problems with it. First, I realized it was easy to lose the envelope. I would lose, on average, about two envelopes a month, which made the system less than perfectly reliable. Second, it was so free-form that I occasionally couldn’t figure out what was going on. I would try to piece together the outside-of-the-envelope jottings and the mess of receipts inside and, well, just shrug my shoulders.

Thus, I moved on to pocket expense notebook v. 3.0, which I am still using. It’s a pocket Moleskine – basically just a very sturdy notebook with a pocket in the back that fits nicely in my hip pocket. My scheme is simple: I just draw a line and write the date when I begin a new day, jot down a note and the cost of the expense, and stow away any receipts in the back pocket. When the pocket gets overstuffed (about a week usually does it for me), I process it all into Microsoft Excel (you might use Quicken or something like it). It has handled everything for me just fine for about six months.

What about a pen? Obviously, you want something sturdy and something that won’t leak in your pocket. You also don’t want something monstrous, either. My choice is a Fisher Bullet Space Pen, which I dearly love. It writes immediately every time, is incredibly sturdy, and slides into my pocket right next to the Moleskine and is barely noticeable.

I highly recommend starting a personal expense system of some sort like this. The envelope one works very well if you don’t lose the envelope – but apparently I’m just flaky enough to lose them on occasion.

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  1. TC says:

    You mention that you use MS Excel instead of Quicken. Might I ask what kind of spreadsheet you have built for yourself, or what template of someone else’s you’re using? I have built a fairly decent spreadsheet, used in conjunction with Quicken, and it is constantly evolving due to by budget changes and things of that nature. I’m always looking for new ideas…

  2. I tend to enter each day’s receipts that day, and even if I get behind a few days, the information on the receipts have always been sufficient for me to enter the necessary data into my Excel spreadsheet.

    I love both the notebook and the pen you recommend, but wouldn’t it be easier and more economical to just enter the receipts on a quasi-daily basis?

  3. lorax says:

    For simple stuff, especially stuff that doesn’t require downloading, I like spreadsheets too.

    For more complex stuff, I like Moneydance. Quicken has more features, but is rather buggy.

  4. Rick says:

    Here’s what I do. I use my credit card for 98% of all purchases (of course I pay it off each month). That way, I have an automatic log of all my purchases, simply by looking at my credit card statement. I do still track my expenses in Excel, but I don’t have to religiously keep all my receipts. And if I go several days or weeks without entering my expenses into Excel, I can just log onto my credit card account online and get those expenses there.

  5. I normally just keep a notebook and tuck any errant receipts in my wallet. The problem is that sometimes I forget to empty my wallet, and it can get quite thick. I already have a notebook around with me to keep track of my ToDo lists, and manage my ever-increasing commitment to GTD.

  6. Susan S. says:

    I recommend using just one credit card (or ATM card) for nearly all your expenses, including the $5 ones. Then, download your transactions into Quicken. Quicken is so smart that once you’ve assigned a source to a category it will remember to assign the source to that category from there forward. For example, Starbucks goes in ‘dining out’ the first time you download. Next time Quiken automatically assigns Starbucks to ‘dining out’. So, each time you download there are fewer and fewer transaction to categorize.

    And, you don’t have to enter the transactions – few people are disciplined enough or care enough to invest the time to do that.

    And, at any time you can get a spending report that tells you how the money is being used. A few years ago, when I started downloading, I discovered that I’m Trent’s kin in buying books… to the tune of $1,000 that year. So, I too strengthened my link with the library and became more discriminating in what books I buy.

    Trent – how ’bout a series on using Quicken for basic finance? (I can help)

  7. Susan S. says:

    Quicken – buggy? Maybe but not on the basics of tracking expense, writing checks, making electronic payments – the key practicies for the simple dollar. I’ve used it for a decade successfully – and encountered no bugs (tho’ I do have one in QuickBooks).

    I know it’s primarily techno-oriented people who read blogs so download would be a snap – especially compared to typing in 200 transactions per month… accuarately.

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