How to Keep Track of Personal Finances

Keeping track of all your money these days can be a big headache. On average, we hold 15 different financial accounts, according to financial technology company Personal Capital.

Although many new products and services have sprouted up over the years promising to simplify the process, getting started can be daunting. So here are nine effective (and efficient) ways to accurately keep tabs on your finances.


1) Your Bank's Online Banking Service

Almost every bank and credit union offers online banking to help you keep track of your transactions and balances. More sophisticated banks will offer budgeting, alerting, and mapping tools to help you understand where you money is coming from and how you're spending it.

Using these money management tools can be a great place to start for most people. While some banks will allow you to pull in data from other financial institutions, these management tools are most effective if you hold all of your bank, loan and investment accounts at a single bank instead.

Bottom line, you're getting your financial data straight from the source, parsed and analyzed for your use.

Verdict: Good way to go if your bank offers robust tools Getting Started: Easy Effectiveness: Somewhat, depending on offering

2) Over-the-top Banking Services

Over the past few years, over-the-top banking services, like Simple, have sprung up on the banking scene. They offer very sophisticated transaction tracking, budging and spending management tools. You get a bank account, a debit card, a web dashboard and a mobile app at your disposal. Think of it as an Internet bank on steroids. They oftentimes have lower fees, 24-hour customer service and other benefits.

The downside is that you have to shift away from using a traditional bank and all of the benefits they offer, such as physical presence, cash transaction handling and local employees. And although your money is FDIC insured, these types of companies don't actually hold a bank charter. Instead, they have a silent partner bank that holds your money and takes care of the back-end operational requirements.

Verdict: Sign up with your eyes wide open Getting Started: Intermediate difficulty Effectiveness: Somewhat, depending on feature offerings

3) Prepaid Card (Banking) Services

There are tens of millions of Americans who cannot or choose not to hold a bank account, unflatteringly referred to as the unbanked or underbanked. If you're one of them, the service prepaid card services offer can sound enticing: low fees, easy reload convenience, money management tools (sometimes) and a plastic debit card you can use to shop in-store and online with.

However, these services are not a true replacement for a regular bank account. And if you're not careful, those fees can quickly add up.

The one saving grace to prepaid cards and the banking services attached to them is the idea that you can never truly overspend. You can only spend as much money as you decide to load on there.

Verdict: Stay away Getting Started: Easy Effectiveness: Not really

4) Online Financial Management Tools

There are dozens of financial management tools online that promise to simplify tracking your finances. The 800-pound gorilla on the web is Mint, although there are others out there. And not to mention a number of services that focus on certain aspects of personal finance, like bill pay and investment management.

Most of these tools are very effective in helping you manage your finances and charge you absolutely nothing to do so.

However, there's a caveat. The data you provide could be used to market products back to you. For example, if you carry a high cash balance in your checking account, the service may recommend that you open a savings account with a "trusted partner," from which they are earning a referral fee from. Additionally, some services may sell your data to marketers outright.

Verdict: Investigate before signing up Getting Started: Intermediate difficulty Effectiveness: High


5) Financial Management Software

There's really only one piece of desktop-based financial management software left on the market that's worth considering: Quicken. This product, made by Intuit, has been available for many years. But it was created for an era where online banking didn't exist.

Their tools to analyze your spending, savings and balances are robust. But you only get out what you put in. And putting data in can be a big hassle. In fact, some banks charge you a fee to directly connect Quicken to their back-end servers.

Verdict: Not worth your time investment to get started with, unless you shun online services Getting Started: Intermediate to extremely difficult Effectiveness: Average to high

6) Spreadsheets and Templates

If you're a numbers person, using a spreadsheet through Excel or Google Spreadsheets can be a brute-force way to track your money. You're solely responsible for inputting data, updating numbers, tracking changes and other tasks. There's little to no automation here, except when you download pre-made Excel templates with embedded macros.

Verdict: A big task to keep updated in the long run; avoid unless you know what you're doing Getting Started: Easy Effectiveness: Depends on how much work you put into it

7) Pen & Paper

Another brute-force way to track your money is by writing down your transactions and balances. Nothing says old school like punching away at a 10-key calculator and writing down your spending and earnings in a notebook.

Verdict: Doing it all on your own is easy, but so is making a mistake Getting Started: Easy Effectiveness: Depends on your savvy with numbers and finances

8) Checkbook Register

Going old school with a checkbook register doesn't mean you're actually old. There's a reason many generations of Americans relied on keeping track of debits and credits using this method: because it works.

Just search online for ways to balance a checkbook for an idea of how this works. Basically, physically having to reconcile your transactions on a monthly basis is a great way to keep tabs on your finances.

Verdict: Going old school takes time, but works Getting Started: Intermediate difficulty Effectiveness: High, as long as you put in the time and stick to a routine


9) Personal Budget

Nothing shows that you grasp the basic principles of financial management better than creating your own personal budget. A simple Google search will show you the basic instructions on getting started with one.

This method is great if you want to identify and control your spending. But not so great if you're looking for an all-in-one method of tracking your loans, credit cards and investment accounts. It's basically one tool in your overall financial toolbox.

Verdict: Simple to put together with lots of written guidance available Getting Started: Easy to intermediate difficulty Effectiveness: High, as long as you stick to it

No matter which method you choose, it's important to consider how much time you're willing to spend to get started and to maintain the tracking system. After all, being successful in keeping tabs on your finances depends on your level of commitment.

Bobby Lee is host and creator of 2 Minute Finance, a video blog dedicated to teaching personal finance skills through short videos. When he's not busy simplifying financial concepts into plain English, Bobby enjoys sampling the ever-changing San Francisco food scene and watching 1980s-era television game shows.