How to track your expenses

Tips on how to keep an eye on where your money goes



From the November 2015 issue of the magazine.


If you’re planning on tracking your spending for just a few months, a spreadsheet might do the trick. If all of your accounts reside at a single financial institution, its online money management tools might be adequate. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll want something that’s purpose-built—and preferably tailored for Canadians. You can find plenty of mobile apps, websites and desktop software for budgeting, many of them free. But many are thin on features and designed with Americans in mind, so choose carefully. Before settling on one, check which software your financial institutions support: if you can’t download and import your transactions, move on.

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If you manage every other aspect of your life from your mobile device, then make sure the product works with that, too. So only try products that have been consistently updated over several years, because discontinuance is a big risk with personal finance applications. Microsoft killed its relatively popular Money product, for instance, and a similar fate befell the web service Wesabe.

A better choice is Intuit’s Quicken, which has a Canadian version. Available for both PC and Mac, it has long been the industry standard, so virtually every Canadian bank lets you download transactions into it. Owing to Quicken’s popularity, there are quite a few tutorials available, and there’s also a stripped-down version called Quicken Cash Manager –a good option for beginners.

Other credible products include AceMoney and YNAB. Generally, these alternatives tend to be less expensive and sport a simpler interface, but the trade-off is that they have fewer features and are less tailored for Canadians. Apple users might consider iBank, which runs on Mac OSX, iPhones and iPads.

For those comfortable storing their intimate financial secrets in “the cloud,” there is a plethora of web-based services. Intuit offers Mint, a free online product that’s been praised for its simple design and ease of use. Competitors include MoneyStrands and PocketSmith. Despite assurances about modern encryption and other measures, security breaches pose an obvious risk. And according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, providing a web service with your user ID and passwords to aggregate your data may violate your financial institutions’ online user agreements.

Even desktop packages allow you to store data online, raising similar issues. Get ready to carefully wade through 20-page user agreements and privacy policies.

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8 comments on “How to track your expenses

  1. If any of the banks were truly serving their customers’ needs when it comes to expense tracking and asset planning, they would provide a read-only access account that would allow services such as Mint to aggregate data from multiple accounts/institutions, giving customers the high-level view required to make fully informed decisions quickly.


  2. Pro-tip: use one bank account for the bill paying, day-to-day banking, so you can tie it to something like Mint (the one I use), hence accounting for 95%+ of money transactions.

    Then, if you have investments or other places where you are holding money, you can simply enter them separately (manually) under ‘capital’. This way, you are still able to track your overall networth as part of your financial picture in Mint, while also reducing your online risks. Worst case scenario, if someone manages to hack into Mint (very unlikely) and use that info to gain access to your actual bank account (also very unlikely), then your losses/vulnerability would be limited to only the small amounts you keep in that bank account to take care of things day-to-day.


  3. I hand enter all my finanacial information from my one credit card and one bank account to Gail Vaz Oxlade’s spreadsheets. I found most of the free programs out there didn’t let me customize enough to suit our family’s unique categories, and using Gail’s spreadsheet (with my own personal twists) has worked best. Yes it takes me time each month, but I don’t find it onerous at all . When doing our pre-retirement consultation with a Financial Adviser, I was able to show him my current spending to the penny for several years. This made forecasting for our upcoming retirement much easier, since we know what we spend and where already.


  4. SEE Finance for Apple should not be neglected here, I found it to be very stable, and a great way to track everything (banking, loans, active investor, etc).


  5. GnuCash is another option for Mac / Windows / Linux. Similar to Quicken, transactions can be imported from your bank. It’s free.


  6. Great review. It is really helpful. I just had an epic fail with Quicken and am now trying out YNAB, it’s pretty sweet and user friendly. Thanks guys!


  7. I use Oaken Financial (Home Trust) for my savings. I cannot download into Quicken. They keep saying, years later, that they are working on it.


  8. Intuit has now changed Quicken to a subscription – only format that locks your data file if you don’t pay to extend your subscription.


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