6 Old School Tools to Help You Stay on Budget


Because I am a visual thinker, low-fi tools like datebooks and check registers help me keep my finances better organized than when I use digital tools like Quicken and Excel. Surprisingly, these olde time-y office supplies also keep me from overspending. 

1. A Receipt Spindle

I actually hate bookkeeping. As a result, my desktop used to be a mess of receipts at the end of every month — until I started using a cheap spindle to organize my paper receipts. Every night I pull the receipts out of my tiny wallet and stick them onto the prong. At the end of the month, I pull the receipts off as one stack, flip the stack, and voila — receipts in chronological order ready to be reconciled with Mint.com. After double checking the receipts against my bank records, I then put the receipts into an accordion file in the odd event I need hard, tangible evidence at tax time. While my system might sound fiddly, it actually takes less than 20 minutes a month to manage my receipts this way.

2. Paper Checks

No pain, no gain. There have been, conservatively, 55,321 studies in the last two decades that show that people are willing to spend up to twice as much for the same item when they pay with a credit card instead of cash.

Coupling is the psychological term for that negative feeling you get when you shell out cold hard cash for purchases. I double down on the discomfort by paying with checks. When I use a check, I am forced to write out the cost of a purchase, twice. The evidence of my consumption is right there in my own handwriting. While the moment it takes for me to pull out my checkbook and write a check might be annoying to anyone standing behind me in the checkout line, that moment gives me one last chance to think to myself, "Do I really need to spend money on this?" More often than not, that answer is no.

There are several other reasons why I refuse to kick my check writing habit:

When Digital Banking Technology Fails You, Paper Won't

My neighbor's debit card was just spoofed. Although her bank caught the theft within hours, she has to wait 10 days before her new ATM card arrives. She's currently living off the $200 the bank allowed her to draw down without her card. If she had checks, she wouldn't have to live off $20 a day.

Also, ATM machines and credit card machines require phone lines and electricity. During disasters like Hurricane Sandy, when the utilities go down, a paper check might be the only way to pay for emergency supplies.

Some Businesses Charge Extra Fees for Credit Cards

Many restaurants and small businesses charge an extra fee for credit card payments, or have a minimum amount for credit card purchases.

Utility Companies and Government Agencies Might Not Take Plastic

I thought I was going to just rack up the frequent flyer points by paying for all my utilities with my credit card. Alas, many of my utilities don't accept credit payments.

Use Checks to Create a Paper Trail

Not only do I use checks, I use duplicate checks. They make it easy to keep track of expenditures because they act like additional receipts.

3. A Spending Book

A spending book is a diet journal for your bank account. If you want to create a budget and save more money, you first have to know how you are spending all your filthy lucre. Most people don't blow through cash at the craps table in Las Vegas. Instead, they fritter away huge sums of money every year on super boring purchases and experiences. This is the reason why financial writers are constantly harping about why you shouldn't buy bottled water or to-go coffee. Those little impulse purchases are death by a thousand cuts to a budget.

A spending book helps save money in two ways. First, it gives you a detailed, down to the penny, view of your spending habits. Secondly, like writing a check, it makes parting with your earnings that much more painful.

4. A Record of Financial Triumphs

In addition to tracking my spending in the week-at-at-glance section of my Moleskine datebook, I use the month-at-a-glance section of my datebook to track my income. And by income, I mean the dime I picked up off the street, my garage sale earnings, and the money I made by selling old textbooks. All those teeny weenie income streams can add up to serious money over the course of one year. My husband didn't think we would be able to afford to fly East to visit friends and family over Christmas, but we handily paid for our 10-day vacation to NYC and Washington, D.C. with the money we'd earned from these little transactions.

5. The Envelope System

My grandmother taught me how to budget using the envelope system when I was a child and too young to open a savings account of my own. Yes, this budget hack is so simple, that even a nine-year-old can use it.

In brief, the envelope system uses cash to help visualize a budget and control spending. For example, three main spending categories for my household are groceries, records, and gas. Say my average monthly grocery budget is $200, my record budget is $100, and my gas budget is $200. To cover these three categories, I will withdraw $500 in cash from my paycheck and put the cash amount for each bill/budget category into their respectively named envelopes. This method prevents me from spending money out of pocket or my checking account because money has already been earmarked for every bill.

This type of budgeting is also called zero based budgeting because 100% of the spending money for each month is allocated to envelopes and zeroed out at the end of each month.

Personally, I like to have money left over in my envelopes each month. This little visual incentive is another reason why the envelope system helps me save money. I have tangible evidence of my good behavior!

6. A Portable Filing Cabinet

I think the main reason why old-fashioned bookkeeping tools have fallen out of favor is that many people have a hard time keeping track of paperwork. After years of trial and error, I finally found a solution that keeps my house free of loose papers.

I use eight plastic accordion files to keep track of my tax documents. One for this year's bills and paperwork, and one for each of the seven previous tax years. Although I have gone the "paperless" route with many of my bills, I still use this type of file to manage the hard copies of everything (real estate paperwork, recipes, knitting patterns) in my life.

I also like envelope closure accordion files because I am a klutz who is constantly dropping her paperwork. These files keep my records neatly separated by category, even if I accidentally put them into my bag upside down. These files are also great for people like me who live in small houses with no storage space.

What low-tech tricks do you use to manage your money? Share your skills with your fellow Wise Bread readers so we can all stay on budget when our Robot Overlords take control of the Matrix.

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Guest's picture

RE the friend with the debit card problem. She should have been able to use a bank check to write herself a check for cash. Then she could have used cash for her expenses until she received her new debit card. Of course, she would have had to have enough cash in her checking account to do so. Also, just as a reminder, the protections on debit cards are not as robust as they are with credit cards. Debit cards should be taken out only when needed, stored carefully in an RFID blocked case. And remember, credit card balances can be paid off every month. I am 65 and have never/ever paid interest on a credit card. I have, however, received rather large cash back bonuses with my main credit card. Use the tools, but use them wisely.

Max Wong's picture

Hi guest!

I bow down to your credit card abilities! You are 65 and have NEVER paid interest? That is an excellent achievement.

Guest's picture
Lady in the Black

I am glad to see you mention the envelope system. I'm just starting to take control of my personal finances and I'm currently collecting as much information about different techniques as possible, knowing that so many have failed me in the past.

I look forward to trying the envelope trick soon!

Great article!