Save. Spend. Splurge.

How to guess what you are spending before budgeting or tracking your expenses

When you first start budgeting and you have NEVER tracked your expenses, it can be hard to know what you are really spending on things like gas, food, and eating out.

Here are a few things I’ve observed over the years.


Think about what you think you are spending on food.

Got it?

Now double that number, and that’s probably closer to the reality of what you’re actually spending.

Some people think they only spend “$200 or so” on food, but the reality is more $400 – $500 on food.



You don’t know what you don’t know.

Enough said about that, I think.


For those of you who love to spend cash and not on debit or credit, then you have absolutely NO paper trail of where your money goes each month if you don’t track your expenses.

If you take out $500 a week, you are apt to spend it all without knowing where it went.

A lunch out here, a new DVD there, and before you know it, you’re trying to scrape by on $0.75 for a week’s of groceries before the month ends.



A lot of people go to the grocery store and buy food in addition to:

  • Flowers (I know a guy who does this for his wife once in a while, he’s really sweet)
  • Toiletries
  • Household Supplies
  • Clothing
  • Home Accessories (Towels and the like)

All of the above is all NON-FOOD related, but it’s grouped under “FOOD / GROCERY” in your budget when you just look at the store name, or if you track your spending online (they can’t separate out your line items).

So you have no clue what actually goes under “FOOD”, and into your belly each month in addition to eating out.

This is why if you really want to know what you spend each month in each category, you need either buy each category separately, or manually calculate and split the amounts for every bill.


This is where you throw everything you want to buy on the conveyor belt, and pay for all the Food items only, and then pay for all your Household items separately, and Toiletries separately.

PROS: You can just look at the final number on your receipt and put that as your amount in your budgeting spreadsheet.

CONS: People behind you, will hate you for having to buy all this stuff, and pay for each category SEPARATELY and hold up the line. You may also incur more banking costs if you are charged per transaction, or have a limited number of transactions.

This works best if you can self-checkout and you won’t incur any banking charges by doing each shopping trip separately.


This is what I do, because I don’t tend to buy a lot of stuff at once, all at the same store.

How it works, is you buy everything (hopefully grouped as much as possible into their categories while on the conveyor belt), and then you go home and do the calculations with taxes.

(Food generally has no tax applied to it, unless you’re buying “non-essential” food like snacks or pop).

PROS: You check out once, and you have everything on one receipt.

CONS: You have to do the math at home, manually. Think of it as brushing up on how to calculate taxes, and a lesson on what is taxable or not.

Just a few of my observations. They seem to ring true for most folks.


  • LAL

    I guessed when DH asked me in January, i’ve been lax for awhile and I was dead on. Not in categories but monthly average spending.

  • SarahN

    Alas, cash only works for me. I have a weekly allowance, and seeing it dip I notice, and track mentally where I’ve spent. Now groceries and toliteries are a shared cost from the ‘team’ account, and we track it. I put all my purchases from the grocery store in a spreadsheet with the receipt by category – so there’s a ‘house’ category as well as a ‘snack/convenience’ category which I try to make $0! Before living together, the cash allowance extended to groceries and eating out too, so I’ve scaled back ‘my’ allowance now. It works better for me that the constant dipping into the reserves on the card… End over every week, before pay day, what’s left on the ‘cash card’ gets put onto my savings goals/mortgage etc

  • Tania

    Great idea about splitting into more than one purchase for different categories. I self checkout at several places so it’d be more efficient than splitting on the tracking software.

    I have been also considering doing the envelope method and hadn’t thought about multiple category purchases.

  • Morgaine

    I pay mostly by debit and rarely have cash on hand as I do find I spend more easily when I have the cash and it is harder to keep track of since its usually on smaller purchases that I don’t always get a receipt for. For multiple item purchases I just keep the receipt and mark off what was food or home or personal care, etc. I post weekly spending journals on my blog so its become quite the habit for me now 🙂

  • Cindy

    I know for a fact I spend too much, which is always a struggle for me. I have my good months and then my bad months. I use to keep track of my expenses. Trying to turn a new leaf this year.

    • save. spend. splurge.

      @Cindy: Whatever works for you!

      I don’t like online / free budgeting software because they use your info to gain statistics on people, and then sell it to companies to turn a profit, or do something with the info of where people shop, why, when, etc.

      *shrug* Personal preference of mine to avoid being tracked, no matter how benign it might seem. I’d also rather be compensated if I am going to be scrutinized for my purchases 😉

      • Lila

        @save. spend. splurge.: I signed up for mint and used it for about a week or so and then went back and deleted all my info and deleted my account.

        My bank and actually a lot of banks now have their own built-in software on their websites so when you log in you can keep track of spending, make a budget, make goals, have a debt tracking tool, keep track of other bank accounts you have out there with other banks if you so choose to, my bank offers many features via their site that mint already offers. So there’s no need for me to use mint.

  • Mark Ross

    I think by using cash, one can easily track his or her expenses. Just looking at your empty wallet can say all the things that you need to know, right? :)Oh. Yeah. You should also know how much you have at first for you to know how much money did you lose.

  • jane savers @ solving the money puzzle

    I use debit for all fast food and junk food purchases because it keeps me honest with my spending. I don’t like to see the name McDonald’s on my online bank statement. It means I am getting off track.

    If a person tracking their spending organized the cart by category as they shopped things would go much faster, and annoy the other shoppers less, when they reached the cash register.

  • Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way

    You have a point in there,I’ve been using cash in all of my expenses because I’m trying to avoid using a credit card and I can say that money really goes faster if it’s in cash. And now, I am planning to get a credit card so that I can use it sometimes and can track my expenses.

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