Should You Always Write Down What You Spend?

Today we welcome back our Tuesday contributor, Catherine Alford!

I’ve written before about using the envelope system and how I always try to write down what I spend. Although I’m usually really good about maintaining this system, sometimes I fall off the wagon, and I proved that a few nights ago.

Last Thursday night I went out to dinner, and I took cash out of my food envelope to do so. Normal enough, right? Except, after dinner I decided to stop and get gas. I committed the envelope system sin of using my leftover food cash to pay for gas, went home, and collapsed into bed. I don’t always take all of my envelopes with me wherever I go, but in this case, I should have because this is what happened the next day:

Did Someone Steal My Money?

The next day, I walked down to the convenience store near my work to buy my hubby a beer. He finally finished a very long semester of med school, and I wanted to meet him after the test with a beer in hand.

Surprise! Congrats! At least, that’s what I wanted to say.

However when I went to pay for it, I opened my food envelope, and it was empty! What! Literally the first thing that jumped to my mind was that someone stole my cash. This would make sense right since I’m a personal finance blogger incapable of making money mistakes (note: that was sarcasm).

It took me a few minutes to remember that I used the money to pay for gas the night before and that it was not stolen after all. Combine that with the fact that it was the end of June and the envelopes were dwindling anyway, and you can see why I couldn’t buy him that beer.

The Lesson To Learn

Had I written down what I spent and re-filled my food envelope to get organized for a new month, I would have been able to buy that beer for my husband. Yet, one tiny mistake caused me to get disorganized, and I couldn’t do something nice for him.

It wasn’t a huge deal, just a small reminder that money can slip through your hands so easily. Imagine if I did that every day or twice a day, never knowing whether someone took a $20 out of my wallet or if I actually spent it.

In sum, keeping track of our finances and writing down what we spend will help all of us to keep better budgets and to know where our money is going. The envelope system really is great for that. You just have to be really good about re-filling them and keeping the categories separated! I was tired and didn’t take the extra minute to get organized, but I should have.

Like I said, it wasn’t a huge mistake, but it did impact my day in a small way. From now on, I’m going to remember that lesson and do better from here on out!

Do you use the envelope system? Do you believe in writing down everything you spend? Or, are you a little more lax when it comes to your budget? Spill it.

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About Catherine Alford

Catherine Alford is a personal finance freelance writer who received a B.A. from The College of William and Mary and an M.A. from Virginia Tech. She enjoys sharing her adventures on her blog,


  1. Cash and envelopes don’t work for us for just that reason. Mr PoP is AWFUL at recording what gets spent (and I’m only marginally better…), so we use cards and mint to record it all automatically.

  2. They never really worked for me, because I switch bags all the time and know something would get misplaced. I carry some cash, but mostly use my debit card. And I fully admit to not every tracking all my expenses for a month…I mean writing down everything I spend money on. Hmmm, maybe it’s time…

  3. For me, I never use cash because it is so easy to lose track of what you spend. When I used to travel on business, I use to record every expense and put the receipts in an envelope. I avoided using cash, but keeping a good record was important for reimbursement. I think keeping a record of your expenses is similar to keeping a diet diary, it makes you aware of your spending.

  4. Kendal @HassleFreeSaver says:

    I haven’t tried the envelope method. In fact, I barely carry cash because it gets spent so quickly! I’d like to think not carrying cash helps me save but I have yet to test the theory. Perhaps a good first step is to write down what I spend money on. Again, I like to think I have a handle on this thanks to detailed statements from my bank and credit card company (which I check daily) but still, that’s a reactive approach to spending. Great post!

  5. I have never tried the envelope method, but there was a year where I wrote down every cent I spent. It was neat to look week after week at where we spent the most. I have tried to get back into it, but I usually fail out of laziness. I keep track of things by using my credit card and entering it into a spreadsheet, but when I use cash sometimes it falls through the cracks!

  6. I’m just impressed that you are rocking the envelope system! It’s the best system to keep yourself from overspending, and takes some discipline. WELL DONE!

    And yes, I obviously think that tracking spending is HUGELY important to financial success 🙂

  7. I know this wouldn’t work for some people, but I actually use my credit cards to track my spending. I buy everything with my credit card and pay it off in full at the end of the month. I like having the spending records and not having to worry about receipts.

  8. Stephen says:

    I track to a point. I actually hit a budget burn-out last year.

    I’m a spreadsheet user and used one to track everything I had spent, was spending, and would spend in months to come. It could tell me what I had in the bank last year and what I would have next year. I even started tracking individual item costs at different stores. I was organized! I was informed! I was on top of it all!

    An incorrect gas meter reading triggered the burn out. I had always been diligent with monitoring my checking account because since I had everything auto debit from the account I was cognoscente that one hiccup would have a domino effect in the account. With the meter reading came the reality of what was before only a concern. It started a complete flip in my approach. One of minimalism instead of dominance. I took everything off auto pay. I paid everything possible for one year. My Netflix, gas, internet, etc. The only thing I pay monthly now is my mortgage. The only budget things left on my spreadsheet are the annual cost of my bills (which I add manually rather than input it every month) and my loan payment calculator I use to meet my payoff goal. It adds those expenses and divides by 12 for a monthly average.

    My life is more relaxed. After all, money management is about improving life! I don’t have to write everything down. I don’t have to log into my account everyday to be sure nothing has gone wrong. Meltdown over.

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