When I first discovered the world of personal finance blogging, I dove in head first. I spent over 2 years tracking every cent I spent, earned, or found on the ground in a master spreadsheet.
I lived alone at the time, so it was easy to do and easy to control.
When I moved in with my now husband, however, tracking “our money” became a lot more difficult than it was to track “my money”. And to be honest, my obsessiveness to do so wasn’t healthy for our relationship. But I didn’t want to abandon tracking entirely.
Knowing how and where you spend your money is a critical life skill to have.
Especially when you’re in debt, living paycheck to paycheck and/or have a variable income. (Or maybe you’re like us and all 3 things apply.)
Which is why I started tracking our bills instead of trying to track every single penny.
Although this doesn’t capture the variable spending we do, it does give me a clear picture of what our fixed expenses are. Most of which are things we need to spend money on in order to survive, but some are things that we have no choice but to pay (I’m looking at you, student loan debt!).
We were overwhelmed by the state of our financial life.
When our situation was at its worst, knowing the minimum amount of money we needed in order to keep a roof over our head and food on our table was all that mattered.
The truth is, most months we don’t have that much variable income left over to spend. When we do, we try to get ahead by restocking our pantry or freezer, or occasionally purchase things that fell somewhere between a need and a want.
Things like our grocery budget and gas for the car are consistent within about $100 per month. We are creatures of habit, and thankfully that works to keep our spending in line!
Now that we no longer have to rely on our credit cards, we’ve simplified our spending and use one debit card for almost everything. While this isn’t exactly the same as tracking our spending in a spreadsheet, I can always access my bank statements which
In just a few minutes, I can easily calculate if we overspent (or are about to overspend) on groceries this month, for example. And I can easily identify if any bad spending habits are creeping up on us.
The Many Bill Tracking Options
There are tons of free and paid bill tracking apps out there. They have various features like colorful graphs, reminder notifications, and options to share or split the bills with someone else.
There are also tons of bill tracker spreadsheets and printables out there, too. Spreadsheets are my favorite and worked perfectly when it was just me. But a budget spreadsheet doesn’t work for keeping my husband in the loop, too.
The full-page print-outs work great if you are super organized and have something like a bill binder, a command center, or a filing system where you can keep these documents. I’m a pretty organized person, but I’m not quite that organized. I also didn’t want any more piles of paper clutter and important documents to keep track of.
Where these bill trackers fall short is that a lot of them use a recurring, static bill amount. This doesn’t really work for the bills that vary in amount from month to month. Or for those times that we’ve purposely had to skip making a bill payment.
Between the apps store and Pinterest, I have wasted far too much time trying to find a bill tracker that worked for me, without any luck.
So I made my own!
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My Super Simple Bill Checklist Tracking System
My bill tracking system is extremely simple and straightforward.
It is much smaller than a bill binder, with a footprint of only 5 x 3 inches. It fits right in my pocket or purse for the times that I need to take it with me. The rest of the time, it simply hangs on our fridge with a magnetic clip.
Since I get most of our bills online directly to my email inbox, this system helps to keep things easy and allows my husband to also always be aware of where every bill stands.
It cost less than $1 and has already lasted me 2 years. There are enough pages that it should last another 2 years before it needs to be replaced.
Here’s How My Bill Organization Works:
1. Use One Page Per Month or Per Pay-Period
At first, I separated our bill payment by paydays. My husband and I had the same payday at the time, so it made sense for us. But when I got a new job, our paydays fell on alternating weeks. I really love having a payday each week, but it made the way I was tracking our bills more complicated than it needed to be. So I switched to one page for every month.
At or near the beginning of each month, I take a few
2. List the Details
In 3 columns, I write down the bill type, the bill due date, and the total amount due.
Our bills are generally due in the same order, so that’s how I list them.
If the month is a little more complicated, I’ll also include the bank account that it’ll come out for the bills that are automatically withdrawn – just to be sure the money is in the right checking account at the right time.
3. Cross It Off
Once the bill is paid and the money has been cleared out of our bank accounts, I simply cross it off with a single line. At a glance, I can quickly and easily the bills paid and those to be paid.
If we missed paying bills (which we sometimes have no choice but to do), I would make note of this by putting that line in brackets. This way I know if we are behind, how much we are behind, and know why the monthly bill amount is higher the following month.
|BILL||DUE DATE||AMOUNT DUE||BANK ACCOUNT|
|Car Insurance||April 15||$132||Tangerine|
In this example above: rent and the credit card payment have been paid (so it’s crossed off) and the hydro bill was not paid (so it’s in brackets).
Since I’ve been using this system for 2 years, I can also quickly look back and compare how much our utility bills were last December, for example, which is really helpful for planning ahead.
And that’s it!
I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, and normally I
As a bonus, organizing in this way is paperless or cuts down on the paperwork needed to organize.
To Automate Or Not
A lot of financial advice suggests that you set yourself up to pay bills automatically online. Moving everything online means you don’t have to worry about forgetting to pay your bills on time and therefore avoid late payments and late fees. An automatic online bill payment is one less thing you need to worry about, which is helpful if you have a busy life or tend to be forgetful.
But on the other hand, if you are living paycheck to paycheck, this leaves you with less control over your money. It’s much easier to go into overdraft if your not careful or on top of things. Or you could be left in a situation where your cell phone bill is paid up, but now you can’t afford your rent.
Personally, I prefer not to automate my bills for that very reason. But not every company gives you
It Your Own
This is by no means a be-all, end-all system to keep track and keep your bills organized. It’s a place to start that’s simple and straightforward.
If you want to be successful with managing your
Maybe this is it. Maybe it isn’t.
Try it out. Make it your own. Make it a daily habit.
Once you are used to it, try adding something else. Start tracking your food spending, too. Or an area of your finances that you’d like to get better under control – like your debt, perhaps?
Make a budget. Have a weekly no-spend day. Open an emergency fund.
Do whatever it is you need to make managing your money easier for yourself.
YOUR TURN: How do you track and organize your bills your bills? Do you use an app or a spreadsheet to get organized? Do you track your spending or none at all? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Amanda Kay, an Employment Specialist and founder of My Life, I Guess, strives to keep the "person" in personal finance by writing about money, mistakes, and making a living. She focuses on what it’s like being in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and surviving unemployment while also offering advice and support for others in similar situations - including a FREE library of career & job search resources.