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.