Calculator with PenIt seems like every personal finance book suggests tracking your expenses in order to figure out just where your money is going. It’s a tip that works pretty well: if you have a good idea of just what you’re spending your money on, you’re more likely to cut back on those items that you really don’t need. But tracking your expenses can be a lot of work. Not only do you have to write down where you leave each dollar, but you have to categorize your spending and decide where you’re really spending unnecessarily. There are a few techniques that can automate your expense tracking, though, and save you time as well as money.

1. Put It On Your Card

If you pay with your debit or credit card, you have an automatic record of your spending that you can examine at your leisure. With cash, though, you have to rely on your memory or writing down your purchases. Either method is prone to complications. With your card, though, you can check up on your spending online or on your statement. No matter which you choose, you have a written record of your spending without having to do anything special.

2. Use Money Management Software

Once you’ve made the switch to using your card, you can use money management software to automatically update your records. There are both software packages and online applications that automatically categorize your expenses, on the basis of your card statements. Instead of sorting through your spending on your own, you can immediately receive graphs and analysis on where you spend the most money. Some options, like Mint.com, can even help you plan a budget based on your expenses.

3. Request Receipts

Not everyone is comfortable doing most of their spending with plastic. Depending on how you think about money, it may be easier to control your spending habits by going cash only. If you do decide to go that route, you can still avoid having to write down every purchase you make. Instead, you collect your receipts with a little more care than you might otherwise. If you’re using your receipts for expense tracking, you pretty much need a receipt for everything — even that coffee you picked up on your way to work. You also have to have a system for sorting through your receipts, and the simpler your system the better.

4. Set Regular Review Times

If you don’t go through the expenses you’ve tracked on a regular basis, you’ll wind up with a huge pile of data to process. But if you at least glance through it often, you’ll get the full benefit of knowing where your money is going without having to stare down a pile of paperwork.

5. Outsource It

For those of us who absolutely can’t stand the idea of messing around with a pile of receipts or money management reports, there is always the option of hiring a bookkeeper. Depending on the services you need from your bookkeeper, outsourcing your expenses can be costly. If your time really is more important to you than worrying about tracking expenses, though, it’s an option to consider. Shoeboxed.com provides one of the simpler and cheaper outsourcing methods. If you bundle up your receipts and mail them to Shoeboxed, the company takes responsibility for scanning and categorizing all of them. You can then take a look at your receipts online — or export your information to Excel or Quicken.

Image credit: bluestocking / iStockphoto

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