A ‘Not-Quite-A Budget’ Post. Or, How We Track Expenditures

This is either a post you’re going to linger over with a tall cup of hot coffee until it turns cold…or you’re going to fall asleep by the end of the second paragraph, amazed anyone is actually interested in reading this sort of thing.

So, if this isn’t your type of post, no hard feelings.

I’ve had a few questions about how our family keeps track of expenditures and if I recommend a particular accounting software, so I thought I’d tackle the subject today with a big ol’ roundup.

How do you budget?

Technically, I don’t think I’d call what we do budgeting. At this point, we don’t set aside specific amounts for different categories. We do, sometimes, make decisions with a cap in mind (this is a completely hypothetical example, but I could imagine us saying something like: “We’ll only buy a bathroom vanity that is under $350“). For the most part, I think our strategy would be better described as mindful tracking.

And, more generally, we just aim to be as frugal as possible. Boring perhaps, but true. The pandemic has impacted travel and adventuring but we typically aim to spend money on experiences and memories over “stuff”.

do you use accounting software to manage your finances?


Years and years ago I had to use Quickbooks as part of a job; it was fine, but certainly not my idea of fun. (Remember: my idea of fun is reorganizing sock drawers, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that an evening spent on Quickbooks wouldn’t strike a similar chord. Alas, it doesn’t.)

Then, about a decade ago, when working in a local business incubator, we were introduced to a free program called Wave which is what we/our accountant still use to manage corporate finances. (Note: there are some paid features that could apply to certain users but, for personal finances, the functionality of the free version should more than suffice and I find it easier to use than Quickbooks.)

Despite being very familiar with Wave, it felt like more detail than I needed for tracking personal finances.

*Note: I know lots of people swear by You Need a Budget (YNAB). I’ve never tried it – and don’t plan to – but it might be something to check out if you’re on the hunt for a budgeting software?

…so what do you do?

Great question, hypothetical reader – I’m so glad you asked.

I use a spreadsheet.

Shortly after month-end, I export all the transactions from our credit cards and chequing account as a .csv file. I then manually copy and paste the different expenditures into the relevant categories in a spreadsheet.

It’s very simple…

There are totals for each category at the bottom. There is a different tab for each month, along with a summary tab that collates data from all the months. This final tab is where I do basic calculations, including monthly averages for each category.

how do you break down “lumped” receipts?

I don’t, sigh. By this, I’m referring to a trip to the grocery store where I might buy croutons AND green onion AND bananas AND Gorilla Glue AND toilet paper (because that is life as an adult.)

There are two categories where this is most applicable: “Groceries” and “Misc”.

For example, I do a lot of shopping at a local pharmacy. They have most kitchen staples, usually at the lowest prices (and they have a fantastic rewards program to boot). So I go there to get butter, frozen fruit, milk, tea, eggs – anything aside from fresh produce, I can likely source from this store. BUT…I also end up buying sunscreen and sanitary/cleaning products and stuffed animals for birthday parties.

I do not separate this out. Ever.

So our spreadsheet definitely an art (albeit messy), not a science. And if we did have specific numeric values associated for a budget within each category, I’d really need to up my game in being more careful with allocation.

IS THERE ANYTHING YOU don’t you track?

We don’t track cash. If someone gave me $100 for looking cheerful as I walked down the street (wouldn’t that be nice), it would go straight in my wallet, never to show up in the spreadsheet.

If we bought a pair of used skis off Kijiji (like Craigslist) for $100, that would not show up in the spreadsheet.

Investments also don’t show up on the main pages, either. On that final summary spreadsheet, I have a running tally of what’s in various investment accounts – including retirement savings, the remaining balance on our mortgage, and the college/university savings program for the kids. So while we have a snapshot of this information, it doesn’t factor into the tracked expenditures. So, for example, if we had $200 getting deposited into a savings account each month, this wouldn’t show up in the monthly spreadsheets…but would be accounted for in the overall equity tracking on the final spreadsheet.

what categories do you track?

The screenshot above, from 2022, is slightly different from previous years. I’ve teased out a few new categories (for example, I added in “Gifts” since this was falling under the “Misc” heading which was feeling too broad). And I’m going to add in a Renovation tab as well – the reasoning behind that will be better explained below.

But from 2018-2021 here are the categories we used:

  1. Household – includes: house insurance, mortgage payments, property taxes, renovations, hot water tank/propane tank rental, heating oil, electric/sewer bills. If we buy a plunger or a house plant, it goes here. Mattress, new sheets, lightbulbs, someone to mow the lawn or paint the living room? All under household.
  2. Charitable – includes: any donations that are tax deductible/we have a receipt for (see note on cash above; if I give $5 to someone bagging groceries to fund a band trip, this won’t show up in the spreadsheet).
  3. Auto – includes: fuel, insurance, repairs.
  4. Kids – includes: camp/school fees, kids clothing if it was very specifically just for them (if I spend $50 on second hand clothing but 1/2 of it’s mine, this will go under “Clothes;” if I spend $100 to buy the kids new sneakers for school, this will go under “Kids.” Again – these sheets are an art, not a science and I’m fine with that. Until 2020 we had preschool fees, so there was a big drop in 2020 when COVID + starting primary meant Levi was no longer in preschool. While I’m now hiring a babysitter every week or so, I pay her in cash so…you guessed it…that doesn’t show up in the spreadsheet.
  5. Groceries – includes: food from a grocery store (NO restaurants) + can also include miscellaneous household products that can be purchased at a grocery store (toilet paper, cleaning products will almost all show up here).
  6. Recurring – I’ve changed this for 2022, but it used to include: life insurance, telephone/internet (the latter is now covered by work, so not included in 2020 or 2021) and some monthly household expenses – like our hot-water tank rental (how boring is that? I love my hot showers but somehow I never envisioned adult life to be so practically uninspiring that a monthly line item is renting a hot-water tank) – which I’ve now moved over to “Household”.
  7. Travel – includes: any airfare, meals/entertainment etc. while travelling.
  8. Clothes – includes: clothes. This is a small category for us, and about 90% of all items are sourced second-hand.
  9. Meals/Entertainment – includes: trips to the movies/zoo etc., any restaurant or take-out meal, Spotify/Netflix/Disney+ subscriptions
  10. Health – includes: any medications, chiropractor/massage/dental work. Chances are, though, if I buy something like Advil at the pharmacy along with a grocery order, that will get lumped under “Groceries”.
  11. Misc – includes: gifts, trips to the DollarStore (could be craft supplies, prizes, decorations etc). Orders from online (Amazon, Aliexpress). Sometimes I’ll put a bigger order into the appropriate category (e.g. a pair of shoes off Amazon might go under clothes; hypothetical as I’m quite certain we’ve never ordered a pair of shoes off Amazon!). For 2022 I’ve teased out Gifts and VV (Value Village, one of our favourite places to thrift, but for very miscellaneous things, so I gave it a category of its own).

This is a lot of words. Do you have pictures?

Thank you, once again, hypothetical questioner extraordinaire. I do, in fact, have some pictures.

But first, a huge caveat. These numbers are quite distorted because I really should have had subcategories under the House designation. Things like mortgage payments and renovations (investments) versus utilities and property taxes (sunk costs) should ideally be kept separate. So the house category is a HUGE chunk of the expenditure pie, but this includes a lot of different inputs surrounding homeownership that don’t necessarily all belong together.

Wow. Household was big (55.8%) – this was the year we had to excavate all around the perimeter of our property to improve drainage. Ugh. Yet another very un-fun reality of being an adult. Health was very, very low (0.5%).

Kids would be almost exclusively preschool fees (7.7%); Meals and Entertainment is consistently between (2-3%). Household dropped to 41.3% (no major renovations or repairs in 2019, thank goodness).

It took me a while to sort out the Charitable tab for 2020. Why so high? Then I realized, charitable giving is always related to income, where other expenses aren’t (for example, if we make extra money, we don’t pay more for our telephone bill). So this reflects a bump in income, while expenses stayed the same. “Kids” expenses halved (down to 3.3%) because we only had preschool for a few months and, beyond that, there was NOTHING OUR CHILDREN COULD DO because we had just started living in a pandemic world.

2021 was all about the house and a lot of this was renovations. When we bought out 1970’s house we knew there was work to be done. A rotting exterior structure had to be removed (2021), windows needed to be replaced (2021), we wanted to add insulation since our walls are very thin and it gets very cold in the winter (2021), adding insulation meant we really should re-do the exterior (2021). You get the idea. So it was a very big year for the house. Again, though, it would be helpful if I had broken this down into fixed costs (utilities, home insurance etc.) vs investments (mortgage + renovations).

Common themes?

“Household” represents the majority of our expenditures. This makes sense; paying down our mortgage + a lot of home repairs. From extensive excavating work to fix drainage issues, to replacing windows and doors – there have been major expenses associated with owning a home.

We spend very little on: “Health,” “Meals and Entertainment,” and “Clothes” (for the latter our max spend rate was in 2020 when this was 1.0% of our expenditures for the year; the minimum was 0.6%).

Now that we have no regular childcare, the “Kids” category is also very low. This will likely pick up as both kids will do some sports this summer and, as pandemic restrictions ease, there will be more opportunities for camps and the like.

let’s talk groceries

Yes, please. Let’s talk groceries.

We love to eat. Like really, really love to eat. I’ve written about this before but we tend to eat simple meals. We don’t buy organic but do eat a lot of whole foods…which aren’t cheap. We have found a lot of great ways to save money at the grocery store (shopping sales and reduced produce being the biggest money-savers for us).

But groceries are more variable than expected.

Our monthly cost of groceries only went up by $3 from 2018 to 2019. Then it took a HUGE leap in 2020, going up by $229 extra PER MONTH! I puzzled and puzzled over this (until my puzzler was sore; thanks, Dr. Seuss) and then realized: John stopped traveling! He was away 50% of the time before COVID, and Levi’s preschool also shut down so we were suddenly doing a lot more eating at home. And while we didn’t eat out much before COVID, this completely dried up for months (and that food would have been shunted over to Meals and Entertainment).

This all makes complete sense now, but at first glance I was incredulous! Why the sudden spike? COVID, of course…

Last year, in 2021, we actually spent almost $50 less per month on groceries from 2020. That one I’ve not quite figured out? Maybe we spent less on household miscellany, as I don’t think we’re eating less!?

I am confident, though, that our grocery expenditures will go up significantly as food prices are starting to jump at alarming rates. I rang up a jug of milk last week and actually went back to the fridge compartment to check that the price was correct. It went up by $1.20 IN ONE WEEK. Milk. A subsidized, staple food (that I don’t drink, but my kids sure do)!

And there you have it. An overview of how we/I track expenditures. Nothing too exciting but, as Gretchen Rubin says, you monitor what you measure. And as we want to be wise stewards with our money, it feels prudent to monitor spending habits.

What about you? Do you love budgeting? Do you track things monthly and use software? Anyone else go old-school with Excel spreadsheets?

Header photo by Katie Harp on Unsplash

17 thoughts on “A ‘Not-Quite-A Budget’ Post. Or, How We Track Expenditures”

  1. I do not love budgeting. As a matter of fact, when I saw the title of this post my first thought was, “yet another blog post to make me feel bad about myself!” My husband and I have always struggled to successfully budget, partially because his income varies widely from month to month- it’s complicated. Of course we could definitely be better than we are. I like the idea of “mindful tracking.” I wish Target didn’t make it so difficult- yesterday at Target I bought groceries, shorts, a spatula, eye drops, cat food, and a tablecloth. I guess I could go through the receipt and itemize everything, but do I want to? Absolutely not. Still… maybe your post will inspire me to get a workable system going of my own.

    1. No pressure from me! There is no budget/tracking police out there, Jenny!
      I agree – having sources that tick a lot of boxes (food, kitchen, clothes, pets etc., as you describe) does complicate matters. As I mentioned, I DON’T break down receipts like this but would likely lump this into the Misc. category.
      I think my biggest plug for regular tracking is how it can help us spot trends (wow, I’m spending triple on morning coffees than I thought I was) and/or things that need action. Regarding this latter point: yesterday I noticed that my pay for one contract not been coming through properly since the beginning of January. It had been (erroneously) set to Dec 2021 when it actually runs to Dec 2022. One quick call to the payroll department and everything was sorted, but I could have gone a long time without noticing the error (because it is a merged pay cheque on another contract I have at the same university) and it would have been more complicated to fix. In the fall this monitoring helped us identify credit card fraud within a few days (what a nightmare that was but, again, noticing as quickly as we did really helped expedite a solution.

  2. I think you and I are a lot alike. I don’t really have a budget, either, although I talk a good talk about making one (it’s been a quarterly goal for more than a year and has never even come close to completion), but I do track everything and try to notice patterns. I also struggle with what to do with “lumped” receipts. Sometimes I disaggregate, like on our recent trip to Costco, but I don’t usually take the time to do it with groceries. I’m inconsistent, but I think I understand my own inconsistencies, so that’s probably all that matters.

    I DO track cash, but I’m not great about exact amounts, so I’ll regularly just write something like “$5 coffee,” even though it was probably $3.58 and I tipped $1. Like you, I think of it as an art, not a science!

    1. I’m inconsistent, but I think I understand my own inconsistencies, so that’s probably all that matters.
      I couldn’t agree more!
      I know some people budget with cash (as in have set amounts of cash available for different categories). For example, A gets a small monthly allowance. It really would make sense to put this under the “Kid” heading, but I know what we spend cash on – it’s not much. A coffee shop occasionally, buy/sell sites for various purchases, a monthly allowance, the babysitter. Almost everything, though, flows through plastic these days and so since I understand where the cash comes in/goes out, I’ve just let it slide!

  3. I definitely do not budget. I haven’t done that since some leaner years when I changed jobs and my income dropped significantly. When that happened, I had a system nearly identical to what Stephany described recently where I’d plan what came out of every paycheck. Luckily I was back to my previous pay within 8 months or so at a new job so that was a short-lived experience. Now I would say I track our spending and look at it out of interest/curiosity but don’t necessarily change any behaviors based on what I see. We use mint.com which I find to be very easy to use. It took until mid-2020 to get all of Phil’s accounts on there so this coming year will be the first time I can look at year-over-year trends. We are very fortunate to work in well-compensated industries, although our job security is much lower than other industries, hence the higher pay. So we are huge savers and basically have planned for one or both of us to lose our jobs in the next 10 years. My husband lost his job during the great financial crisis when the hedge fund he worked for blew up and then I had to do a forced relocation in 2013 because I didn’t have the savings to take the risk of not relocating and potentially not finding a job for quite awhile (there are not a lot of jobs in our industry here either so that factors into our job security). We are both frugal by nature but my husband is ESPECIALLY frugal. We met with a financial advisor about 1.5 years ago and he commented on how little we spend and I was like ‘SEE I TOLD YOU SO!’ He is more apt to find ways to cut spending and I am more apt to throw money at a problem, like hiring a house cleaner. But in general, we aren’t big spenders. Our biggest expense is certainly childcare but I just accept it as a necessary expense whereas he can kind of obsess over it and I think he even put together a spreadsheet that forecasts what we’ll spend and how it will decline over time when Paul starts Kindergarten. I just look at the expense and think – they are more than earning this and I hope the teachers are well compensated!

    1. Ha! A spreadsheet to forecast childcare costs – how’s that for sobering reading. I couldn’t agree more though, about wanting to make sure the teachers are well-compensated. I won’t lie – it was nice to write the last preschool cheque, but I feel like every single dollar was worth it.
      I do “throw money at the problem” sometimes and that can feel really good to do (especially since, typically, that problem could be getting in the way of working for pay or, at the very least, leisure time which ultimately makes you a more productive worker). Or allowing myself the “luxury” of pre-shredded cheese. That said, we’re a frugal family! I love that we’re both on the same page, because I think it would be so hard to be a saver married to a spender and vice versa! We both prefer to get as many goods second-hand as possible (both to save money AND to save things from landfills) – it’s almost like a game in our family and our kids have bought in too and love to source things second-hand.
      From what I’ve read you are VERY frugal (and aggressive with paying down a mortgage) and knowing that you are adding lots of buffer in case of an eventual job loss sounds very long-sighted and likely gives you great peace of mind!

  4. I feel so fortunate to have an online bank account that does all this for us. We have had it for 19 years and it seemed so ahead of its time back then. We have a mortgage and current account that are a combined account. The balance of our current account is offset against the balance to pay on the mortgage and we pay the interest on the difference. Our current account balance is more than what we owe so in theory we own our house and pay no interest but we have kept the account as it is a very cheap way of getting a loan very quickly. We can sort all payments and income into different categories and see all the data for each of those categories at a glance. We have many categories, each car (we have two) has its own we have sold a car in the past when the cost of running it got very high. My husband does all the tracking. We only had one income for ten years when we made the decision for me to give up work we used the account to work out if we could afford that. I now earn a very very small salary for the few hours I work each year. Like you we are very frugal and have spent less than our household income for the last 19 years even with only one salary.

    1. Wow! That sounds like a great setup; to have the budgeting capabilities built right in. Genius…
      I wonder why more banking systems don’t do this? Every bank I know requires you to link your accounts with a secondary software. But doing it all in one place would be a lot more efficient.

      1. It is genius. Now that you have pointed out to me that not many bank accounts do this I feel even more blessed. I guess I kind of assumed that they all would now especially as so few banks did online banking when we opened our account so I thought newer online accounts would be the same as ours. Our bank has no branches anywhere in the country so everything is done online and by post.

  5. I used to use the YNAB app but stopped it when we moved to Manila. Now I do track budget through excel at the end of the month to track expenses rather than budget for each categories. It gives me a review of how we are spending our money whether it’s in line with our values. Groceries and travel are the categories that I don’t mind blowing up as one is important for physical health and the other it’s our family hobbies.
    lately we are eating out more and that’s part of the experience too.

  6. As you know, I love a good budget post and I’m a spreadsheet tracker through and through. I have to do it weekly, though, because I need to be able to separate out what I spent at certain stores (like Target, the grocery store, etc). I like seeing my budget broken out per category so I know how much I’m really spending on supplies, food, and such.

  7. I’ve been budgeting with YNAB for 7 years now and I love it. I know I could easily do this in Excel (I am savvy enough), but I really enjoy the software and having the app for on the go. We literally track every penny though and it makes things a lot easier.
    It sounds like you’re more a “tracker” than a budgeter, which I was for years. I think it works when you are frugal and live below your means. Since we’re a one-income household, I keep a much tighter grip on where our money goes. Rising grocery prices do not help. We spend a lot on groceries (not just because we are “foodies” and love to cook/eat, but also because we live in CA where everything is just a tad more expensive – or so it feels like).

    1. Groceries (and gas/oil) prices are shocking right now. Milk went up $1.29, literally overnight. Having a staple product leaping in price like that blew my mind.

  8. I am definitely one of the people who really enjoyed this post, cup of coffee in hand (and letting it go cold wasn’t even an issue because I actually already drink it cold!). In fact, when I saw the title of it, I actually saved it up for the next relaxing Sunday morning I would get, and here we are. I have no idea why I enjoy posts about people’s budgets and daily lives so much… I think I find them soothing in the same way as pictures of people’s tidy bookshelves or things organized in rainbow order. Anyway, this one was no exception and I really enjoyed it! What’s more, I track my/our expenditures in almost exactly the same way as you do, using a spreadsheet rather than any specific software, although formatted slightly differently. (Very boring aside: I got annoyed when I had it set up in columns for the categories because I think I made too many categories initially. For example, “rent/now mortgage” was a category that just had one entry per month but took up a whole column, so I made it into one single long column with a drop-down list at the end of each row that shunts amounts into the various categories. Still tinkering with it, though… and as yours shows, once you own a home, lots more things than the mortgage actually go into a “house” category!)

    Anyway, though, one thing I don’t have yet is snazzy pie charts like yours so there’s a good chance that that is also about to become part of my relaxing Sunday morning! 🙂 Love a good pie chart! Thank you for this delightful peek into your system!

    1. I’ll admit I only did the pie charts for the blog (it took a couple of minutes to generate at most).
      I agree, daily life posts are just…relatable, while also feeling slightly like an out-of-body experience. People mention all sorts of things we do to – eating, exercise, work routines but they’re almost guaranteed to be varied from our own routines in those same categories.
      And you drink cold coffee? I shouldn’t be amazed because cold brew is beloved by many…but I heat up my tea/coffee 2-3 times every time I drink a cup because I get distracted and end up microwaving it…then get distracted again.

  9. Thank you so much for posting this! This is more like what I do – right now, I am not allocating specific amounts or percentages to certain things. For me, it’s more important to know where I am spending my money, and on what. My goal is always to limit frivolous purchases – and, if I make one, to have a solid reason why I indulged. (Note: This is relatively new, and I do think it stems, at least partly, from my recent return to single status… something interesting to contemplate…).

    Random thought, though – I suspect the “healthcare” proportion would be much higher for someone living in the US. Sigh.

    Anyway – thank you! I appreciate your openness and willingness to share.

    1. Yes. Our healthcare costs are relatively low and, since we don’t have private insurance, some people’s would be even lower (I pay out of pocket for dental work, for example…though kids are free until they’re 12 – covered under our medical system!).

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