Keeping Track of Your Finances: The Easy Way

SHORT STORY | The answer to all your finance tracking woes is Go there, now.

LONG STORY | One of the issues as a new teacher, I find, is dealt with completely outside of the classroom, and that’s finances. I’m just not used to keeping track of where I spend my money or documenting anything throughout the year so that when it comes to filing taxes, all that information is handy. My first shot at filing taxes took four hours, but half of that time was spent digging through my email to get relevant documents, not really because filing taxes should take that long.

So, in order to save you (and me) the pain of having to do the same thing next year, here are my suggestions for staying organized! The first section outlines my principles of personal finance tracking and the second gives you the tools to keep to those principles.

Principles of Personal Finance Tracking

  1. Organize in the moment. The last thing you want to do is be saddled with a huge amount of paperwork to deal with at the end of the year.
  2. Keep things simple. It should take no longer than 30 seconds to enter information, and then 30 seconds to search for the information. Also, use the simplest system that will give you the information you need, not the information you want.

Steps in Personal Finance Tracking

This past weekend, I traveled to San Francisco to attend the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) Conference. I needed to keep track of every financial transaction because they are reimbursable by my school’s professional development budget, and because the transactions that are not can be written off as an education related tax-deduction come Spring 2012.

When I arrived at the airport, the first thing I needed to do was to get a cab. After a harrowing ride through one way streets, I owed $35.00. I paid, credit card, and got a receipt back for my troubles. Now usually, at this point, people just jam the receipt into their wallet and let it pile up there until it’s time to make a dreaded expense report, but let me show you the enlightened way.

Instead of stuffing my receipt away, I opened up Fresh Xpense on my iPod Touch (go to Apple or Android for Xpenser on your mobile device). I entered in “Cab”, “35.00” for amount, tagged my expense “reimburseable” “tax-deductible” and “travel”, and chose to file the receipt under my NSTA report. Then I hit the receipt field, and, get this, Fresh Xpense opens up my camera app so that I can just snap a picture of my receipt. I hit “save”, and then all of a sudden I have a saved copy of my receipt, how much the item costs, and it’s tagged with metadata that helps me easily find it whenever I need to find all “tax-deductible” receipts in the future. Throughout the conference, as soon as I got a receipt, I immediately repeated this process.

After four days, I built up a total of 11 expenses, some for food, others for transportation. In order to get reimbursed, I needed to create an itemized report, by type, date, and cost, total up the costs, and submit this report along with all my receipts. Now usually, at this point, people dig the receipts out of their wallet/backpack/pocket, sit at their computer with the receipts strewn about, and painstakingly comb through them to input into an unwieldy reimbursement form all the required information. For people who hate paperwork (and who doesn’t hate paperwork), this process is excruciating. Me? I simply went to, clicked on my “NSTA” report, exported the file as an excel document, and five seconds later I had my expense report with no work from me. I had already given all the information it needed to generate an expense report. It even totals up the costs for you.

Cool, right?

Now the full power in Xpenser lies the fact that you can get expenses into Xpenser through as many ways as there are to communicate. You can text in your expenses on any SMS-capable phone, you can gchat with Xpenserbot, but most importantly, you can email your expenses with an attached receipt. This is super helpful for anyone who spends their own money on tax-deductible items.

Every time I get an email from with a receipt to the book I just purchased for my professional development, for example, I simply forward it to and in the subject line I write something like:

Book $19.25 Driven by Data #tax-deductible #education.

Xpenser automatically recognizes that I sent in a receipt for a Type: Book, cost: $19.25, Notes: Driven by Data, tags: tax-deductible education and then stores the body of the email as the receipt.

When I get an email receipt from a hotel that I will stay in because of moving cross-country, I again, forward it to, this time with subject line:

Hotel $63.24, Hyatt Place #tax-deductible #moving

Now, when it comes time to file taxes, I no longer need to manually search for every item that can be deductible, I’ve already got that report ready to go. In, I merely search for everything “tax-deductible” and suddenly every tax-deduction I need is on the screen. Even better, I can search for “tax-deductible” and another tag like “moving” so that on line 26 of the 1040, I can enter in exactly how much to deduct for “moving expenses”. Never again will doing taxes be difficult.

Xpenser Tax-Deductible Report

I suggest the following for tags so that when it comes time to do taxes, you have everything where you need it:

  • #tax-deductible
  • #reimbursable (if you ever need to file expense reports)
  • #moving (moving expenses, lodging and travel, are deductible)
  • #educator (educators who buy items for classrooms can deduct it from taxable income up to $250)
  • #education (membership in professional organizations, subscription to professional journals, and travel/lodging/food at professional conferences for the sake of improving at your job can be deducted from taxable income)
  • #charity (for tax-deductible donations)

And you can choose from there! For example, if you’re curious how much money you spend on a certain category (like #food, or #software), you can choose to tag those expenses, too! (I found out, for example, that I spend way too much money on software and gadgets… $1060 over the last year. Ouch.) But remember the second principle, keep it simple. Don’t let your tags get away from you.

What I’ve shared today is just a taste of what is possible when you organize in the moment and keep things simple. (For the most details, see Xpenser’s own online documentation at I strongly encourage everyone to check out today.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Dan Young says:

    Nice – I’ll probably be making use of xpenser on my trips! It seems neat and useful for taxes (Ahhh taxes!!)

    For a big-picture overview of all my accounts, I like to use Mint ( One feature I find useful is the alerts – it’ll warn me when I’m close to my budget for certain items like food, clothing, gas, etc. And it also notifies me when I’m low on any funds, if I’ve been charged extra fees (I’ve had a few currency exchanges happen through online websites that I never knew about) and any other surprises I might have.

    Now that I’m moving on with my life, starting to use their goal-setting tools to save up for different things!

    1. debryc says:

      I keep track of my accounts via Mint, too! I didn’t know there were alerts for budgets, I just set up a repeating task to review my Mint transactions every week so that I can see how my budgets are doing on my front page. Then again, I’m probably not as diligent about keeping within certain budgets as I should be (see software budget).

      I highly recommend setting up another savings account for goals, and high yield savings accounts are great for long-term ones. If you have any more tips, do let us know.

  2. Kat says:

    Deborah, I love you. This is amazing, but is unfortunately moving me that much closer to purchasing a smartphone…and 24/7 accessibility. Thanks so much for sharing, and in such detail!

  3. cory says:

    Xpenser is great. I just downloaded the iphone app.

    1. debryc says:


  4. Salman says:

    Awesome post and nicely illustrated.

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