6 Ways to Track Monthly Expenses

When you start tracking your expenses each month, you can separate your spending into three categories: needs, wants and savings.
By NerdWallet 
Updated
Edited by Kathy Hinson
5 Steps for Tracking Your Monthly Expenses

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Tracking your expenses on a regular basis can give you an accurate picture of where your money is going — and where you’d like it to go instead.

Then, by using a budget, you can accurately account for all the bills you need to pay going forward. But before you start plugging numbers into a spreadsheet or app, take a minute to list out each of your expenses.

Here’s how to get started tracking your expenses.

1. Check your account statements

Pinpoint your money habits by taking inventory of all of your accounts, including your checking account and all credit cards you have. Looking at your accounts will help you identify your spending patterns.

Your spending will consist of both fixed expenses and variable expenses. Fixed expenses are less likely to change from month to month. They include mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance and debt payments. You'll have more room to adjust variable expenses like food, clothing and travel.

2. Categorize your expenses

Begin by grouping your expenses into different categories. Categorizing your expenses will help you not only track how much you’re spending, but also see where your money is going.

Some personal finance websites and credit cards automatically tag your purchases in categories like “department store” or “automotive” to help you identify themes. You might find that those impulse buys at Target are costing you a lot. Or maybe you’ll realize you’re paying for recurring subscription services that you could do without.

Another way to categorize your expenses is by breaking them down into needs, wants and savings/debts. This way of categorizing and tracking your expenses is known as the 50/30/20 budget, which you’ll learn more about in the next step.

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3. Build a budget that works for your expenses

After categorizing your expenses, the next step to consider is creating a budget. A budget can help you take steps to reduce your spending where necessary. At NerdWallet, we recommend using the 50/30/20 budget. However, there are other budgeting methods that might be a better fit for you, like the envelope system or zero-based budgeting.

For the 50/30/20 budget, divide your net income into three categories: 50% for needs, including minimum payments on debt; 30% for wants; and 20% for savings and debt paydown beyond minimums.

Sorting your expenses into needs and wants can help you and prioritize spending, especially if you need to trim costs to make room for savings or debt repayment. Here is a breakdown of each category in the 50/30/20 budget. We also have a calculator below to help you run the numbers.

Needs

These are the expenses you cannot avoid like monthly bills. If you use the 50/30/20 budget, these should account for 50% of your spending. Necessities often include the following:

  • Housing: Mortgage or rent; homeowners or renters insurance; property tax (if not already in the mortgage payment).

  • Transportation: Car payment, gas, maintenance and auto insurance; public transportation.

  • Health care: Health insurance; out-of-pocket medical costs.

  • Life insurance.

  • Utilities: electricity and natural gas; water; sanitation/garbage; internet; cell phone and/or landline.

  • Groceries, toiletries and haircuts, and other essentials.

  • Child care, child support or alimony.

  • Minimum payments on debt: credit cards, student loans and other loans.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you find your budget is way out of whack, look closely at those items you’ve classified as needs and consider negotiating, refinancing or downgrading.

Wants

These expenses, also called discretionary expenses, may be harder to account for in a budget, as they don’t always come with a set monthly fee. If you use the 50/30/20 budget, wants can account for up to 30% of your spending.

  • Clothing, jewelry, etc.

  • Dining out, special meals in (steaks for the grill, etc.).

  • Alcohol.

  • Movie, concert and event tickets.

  • Gym or club memberships.

  • Travel expenses (airline tickets, hotels, rental cars, etc.).

  • Cable or streaming packages.

  • Self-care treats like spa visits and pedicures.

  • Home decor.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Scan your spending for the past few months to get a sense of what your wants are and how much you tend to spend on them. Have each adult in your household do the same if you're creating a family budget. This exercise gives you a realistic baseline. You can use what you’ve learned to make small changes in your spending over time.

Savings and debt repayment

This is the money you’re putting toward your retirement, emergency fund and other savings, and using to pay down high-interest credit card and other "bad" debt like payday loans. It also includes anything over the minimum payment on your "good debts" such as your student loans and mortgage. In the 50/30/20 budget, this should account for 20% of your income:

  • Emergency fund.

  • Savings account.

  • 401(k).

  • Individual retirement account.

  • Other investments.

  • Extra debt payments on credit cards (see budget tip below), mortgage, student loans, etc.

🤓Nerdy Tip

If you pay off your credit cards in full each month, classify the expenses according to what you buy — groceries under needs, for example. However, if you maintain a balance and are accruing interest and fees, list payments beyond the minimum under debt repayment.

Every few months, revisit your budget and adjust as necessary. Consider using a budget app to track your expenses, saving time as you build momentum with your new budgeting habit. If you get stuck, try these budgeting tips.

The 50/30/20 budget calculator

4. Use budgeting or expense-tracking apps

Budgeting apps are designed for on-the-go money management, letting you allocate a certain amount of spendable income each month depending on what you’re taking in and what you’re paying out. These types of apps will work if you’re willing to log your purchases, put in the time and stick to your budget.

NerdWallet has also identified the best expense tracking apps based on ratings and popularity among users.

5. Explore other expense-tracking methods

Not a fan of apps? A spreadsheet is another valuable money-tracking tool. You can find a variety of free budget templates online, and NerdWallet also offers an online budget worksheet.

Or, if you have a more complex financial situation, such as investments or a business, you might consider Quicken, which lets you import bank transactions and monitor your investments. Quicken offers desktop software with extensive budgeting and tracking features. Subscriptions are billed annually and average monthly costs for the desktop software range from $4.99 to $9.99.

6. Look for ways to lower your expenses

As you track, be ready to make adjustments. Lowering the big fixed expenses in your life, like the cost of housing, vehicles and utilities, can make a significant impact on your budget.

Beyond that, check out additional ways to save money that can give you some breathing room.

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