take control of your money for free

We read everywhere how important it is to track your spending, have a budget, and stick to it; and that is absolutely true: a budget makes your money go further and can help with debt payment, saving for a big life event or just feeling more in control.

However, from my experience, I have learnt that it’s better to track your spending for at least a month before setting up a budget, if possible. 

Budgeting, especially at the beginning, can be quite a stressful experience. Setting up the wrong budget can discourage you and push you back towards old habits: a £0 budget for takeaway when you normally get a couple per week (or three, or four – only me? ok.) might work in the first month but it is not sustainable in the long run. 

People think budgeting is all about numbers and money, but it is really about change – lifestyle changes.

Every time we decide to buy something, or not to buy it, we show who we are, our personality and the emotions we feel in that particular moment. Finances give us a very important insight into who we are and our values.

As Michael Taillard said in Introducing Personal Finance: A Practical Guide

“financial management is about taking control of your life”

(Go and get his book if you haven’t done so already, but before you do, read this blog post – no, seriously, there is some good stuff here)

That’s why we need to track our spend.

How are we supposed to take control of our lives and drive positive changes if we have no clue where our values are, and where our money goes?

Ways to track your spending

There are a few tracking methods I have come across over the years: the old school pen and paper, receipts periodic review, envelope system, spreadsheet, manual tracking app, open data and new budgeting apps, and dedicated bank account with tracking functionality.

Yeah but what works?

It really comes down to personal preference; it might take a few attempts to find what works for you. I have tested them all so you don’t have to!

Here is what worked for me in the past and what I am doing now.

Pen and paper

Despite being a massive fan of stationery, pen and paper never worked for me. There is no way I would carry the notebook in my bag or remember to keep my receipts. My memory has never been that good and I get distracted very easily (I blame technology and how it makes our lives so much easier and reduces our brain power) so I would pretty soon forget where the notebook was or would procrastinate until the notebook became a distant memory… and clutter. 

Envelope system

For similar reasons, the envelope system never appealed to me – too much stuff to carry around. I strive for simplicity and a life with less (‘less is more’ as the old saying goes).

Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets have always been my go-to choice for any tracking needs – be it money, to-do lists or life aspirations. And they worked brilliantly until the era of smartphones and apps. They are still an amazing choice for budgeting, but not to track your day-to-day spend.

They say there is an app for anything – and there are definitely plenty to choose from when you’re looking to track your expenses: most are free, but there are some with one-off or monthly costs. Whilst the paid options offer enhanced and ad-free experiences and functionality, I don’t believe in spending money on an expense tracking app. Unless you’re doing it for pure pleasure (no judgement here, but if that’s you, let’s talk), the purpose of tracking expenses is to set up a budget and eventually save money by reducing those expenses – so buying an app is a bit of a nonsense if you ask me!

Apps

The following free apps all do the job quite well and offer similar functionalities:

Money Lover – Available on Google Play, Apple Store and as web app. You can scan receipts, set saving goals and link it to your bank account.

Monefy – Available on Google Play and Apple Store. Easy to use and fully customisable, it only takes a second to add an expense. It also has a built-in calculator which is handy for split bills.

Money Manager – Available on Google Play, Apple Store and PC manager. You can save your receipts and memories, offers great stats and graphs, and it links to your bank account.

Wallet app

Wallet – Available on Google Play, Apple Store and as Web App. You can create budgets and assign emotions to each expense, to understand real priorities and focus on what makes you happy.

Open banking

Some of the apps above also connect to your bank account. I did briefly test this functionality, developed after the introduction of Open Banking. In very simple terms, and please read more on the official website, Open Banking ‘is the secure way to give providers access to your financial information’, which means you can see all the accounts you hold from multiple banks or providers in a single app. This is a relatively new service and I think there is still a lot of confusion and suspicion around it, but it is safe and absolutely legit, as set up by the Competition and Markets Authority on behalf of the UK Government.

It is a great solution if you have multiple accounts as you can have a holistic view of your finances. However, I quickly dismissed it in my quest to find the stress-free solution to my finance management: I blame it on not being able to exclude certain transactions from my tracking, as I tend to move small sums of money from my accounts quite often, although to be fair I didn’t really try hard enough. 

I do think it’s a great idea that can save loads of time if properly set up, so have promised myself to try again soon!

Disruptive banks

The banking system is evolving now more than ever thanks to the so-called ‘disruptive banks’ that proud themselves for listening and providing solutions to the customers’ needs. We see the high street banks catching up and slowly increasing their services and introducing spending tracking systems, budgeting advice and money saving tips. This could be a great solution if, like me, you never carry cash.

My high street bank unfortunately doesn’t offer this kind of functionality, so I have opened a Monzo account to make use of the insights and perks this bank offers.

Final thoughts on tracking your spending

A few weeks of tracking expenses provide a good understanding of the current financial situation and it’s the perfect starting point for a successful budget!

Looking for advice on how to budget? head to My three steps budgeting strategy

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