3 tips on how to track cash expenses effectively

For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to track my expenses.  But my problem is, I haven’t found a nice way to track cash.  Yes, I use cash.  In this part of the world, cash is still king. 

I remember when I was assigned to the US for a 6-month stint.  While in the US, I rarely used cash.  I can count on my fingers how many times I had to reach out for my wallet and spend cash.  In most cases, I used my corporate credit card.  On other times, I used my ATM debit card.  Of course, when I buy online, I can only use paypal, or my credit card.  Once a month, I would receive my statement from both my savings account and my credit card.  If I want to check the transaction real-time, I can just login online and check my credit card and bank statements through their internet banking services.  Instantly, I would know where my money went.  Sweet.

But when I got back, I had to use cash again.  The problem in most of South East Asia is that people rarely use a credit card.  Unless I am buying a washing machine, or any other home appliance, I don’t want to use my credit card.  Besides, most stores have either a minimum order to accept your credit card, or they charge the same item for a little more when you pay using your credit card instead of cash.  So, cash it is!

Track each transaction.

I tried to track my expenses monthly through my bank statements.  But I can only see deposits, withdrawals and the occasional online internet banking transactions.  It doesn’t give me any idea how I spent the cash I withdrew the other day. Now, I’m trying to track each cash transaction I make.  How? By keeping the official receipt.  Keeping the receipt of each of my cash transactions helps me know where I am spending my money.  In my case, most of my receipts come from the office cafeteria, the local grocery or my favorite bookstore.  That’s when I realized, if I wanted to cut back on my expenses, I could probably eat my lunch in the cafeteria less often.  Perhaps, keep it to only 3 times a week instead of everyday.  In addition, I could buy a book only after I’ve completely read the last one.  Or maybe, I can buy only a few items in the grocery store, not a whole-month supply.

Write it. Picture it.

I thought of carrying a small notebook with me everyday so I can take note of each cash transaction on the spot.  But when I realized I would need to carry it with me down the office cafeteria where my officemates also are also having lunch, I hesitated.  Perhaps, I’ll just keep the receipts for now.  In the end, however, I still need to consolidate all these receipts and come up with some kind of a report.  For now, I’m using an excel spreadsheet.  I just list down the date in the receipt, the amount and a brief description.  Then I try to generate a pie chart out of this data.  In excel, this is pretty straightforward.  Just select the list of transactions, then click the Chart Wizard at the top menu.  This pie chart gives me a summary of my expenses. I can take a quick look and easily picture out where the bulk of my expenses are going.

Keep it.

The reason I wanted to track my expenses is because I didn’t know where my money is going.   If I don’t know where is it going, I wouldn’t know where to cut back.  After I found out which transactions are eating my budget, I started to cut back a little bit on them and saved a little cash.  I haven’t figured out what to do with the extra money. For now, I am just keeping it at the bank.  To my pleasant surprise, I’ve seen my savings grow month after month.  It’s one of the most liberating thing I’ve felt in some time.

It’s just 3 simple tips but it helped me gain back a little control over my money, even if only to save a few extra bucks.  How about you?  How are you tracking your cash expenses?