Recording every damned thing

September 2, 2008

A few years ago I was contracting rather than working for a salary, and I started keeping basic books. I used Gnucash to do it. Gnucash is a very sophisticated double-entry accounting package, but reasonably easy to learn to drive.

Ever since, I’ve been tracking my expenses in a rough and ready sort of way. I can tell you what our power bill was last winter, and for several years before; how much I spend on coffee; and all the money Infratil has ripped off me through parking at Wellington Airport. This has been easy because Gnucash can import my online banking statements, and if I assign a transaction to a category, it’s smart enough to remember who the payee was and automatically put all subsequent payments to them in the right place.

However, there is a hole in my system: cash withdrawals. Some things are easier or cheaper with cash, so I regularly withdraw $50 or $100 (big withdrawals minimise ATM fees). But up until now, I haven’t anything but vague intuitions about where it goes. This bugs the hell out of me, to tell the truth: where did that $50 go? What do I have to show for it? I don’t know.

A couple of weeks ago I got a book out of the public library*, Your Money Or Your Life. I’m going to be writing about it more in coming weeks, but for now, I just want to mention one practice from the book: diligently recording every purchase. Every one. For the last two weeks, I have been noting all cash purchases, no matter how small, down to the cent, in my cellphone. This is not as hard as I thought. I almost always have my phone on me, and it’s already become a habit. $2.90 cheese puff, $15.40 taxi, and so on.

The funny thing is, judging by my cash withdrawal rate, I’m already spending less, purely because I have become more conscious of the money leaving my wallet.

The authors of Your Money Or Your Life want you to account for all your spending for more elevated reasons than just reducing your expenses. The idea is that after a month, you categorise all your spending and then rate the categories of expense, thinking about how much satisfaction you have derived from each category. You can then make decisions about whether to rebalance or reallocate your spending, based on your new understanding. Most of us spend the biggest part of our adult lives working to obtain money; that money represents stored time; the book wants us to consider whether we are getting enough happiness in exchange for it. I have yet to complete that part of the exercise, but I will, and when I do, I’ll post about it.

BONUS LIBRARY TIP: thanks to my friend Sue, I’ve become a convert to Library Elf. You can hook Library Elf up to your library card, and then it will email you before your books are due back, thus helping you to avoid a fine. Every frugal person should use the library instead of buying books, and avoiding fines is definitely frugal. The Wellington Public Library has no reminder service at all; I’ve always wondered whether this was a revenue gathering strategy…


  1. I think it’s more likely institutional inertia than revenue-gathering. When we got back from the UK – Good Lord, nearly three years ago now I was pretty surprised to find that the Wgtn libraries didn’t do email reminders for due books, reserves etc as this was the system in the Cambridgeshire libraries and it worked pretty well. Ending up filling in a generic WCC comment form suggesting they set up something similar. Weeks later got a letter back saying that they were looking into it. Haven’t heard anything since. So who knows. Thanks for the tip though – am continually stumping up hefty fines, mostly for children’s books that work their way down the back of sofas and beds and are never seen again.

  2. Oh and thank you Sue. Have just now signed my and Becca’s cards up with Library Elf.

  3. One useful thing to note: they now email receipts (at least from the new self check machines). This can be used to accumulate a browsing history, which will be useful for me, as I’m forever forgetting what the author was of, y’know, that book I borrowed three months ago.

  4. I wrote a post about the Wellington library’s fine habits in October last year.

    I have no problem with fines for overdue books. There needs to be some incentive to get people to return books. But the fines are now so steep, especially for children’s books, that they seem more like a punishment than just an incentive. And if they are going to be so very expensive, then could the library at least make a bigger effort to contact people earlier to remind them that their books are overdue? Perhaps they could even consider calling people a few days before the books are due, if it’s so important to get books back on time that they need to charge 30c per day, per item.

  5. It isn’t hard for them to do (remind users of overdue books). Manukau Libraries has an auto-dialer which phones you and tells you “one or more members of your household has an item that is now overdue. Please return it to avoid further fines”, or something quite similar. Much less bother than realising you owe quite large amounts of money. My university library of course emails me when something is due (and a few days before in the case of items with large charges on them). Not rocket science!

    Perhaps it’s time someone talked to them and asked them to implement the same system.

    A great post, and I’ll try Gnucash after I reinstall Ubuntu tonight.

  6. I imagine that it would cost the library to notify of overdue books, even using an autodialer. Manukau must be one of the last libraries in the country that still considers itself a public service rather than a business branch of the council.

  7. Obsessively recording every last thing – that’s the A, B and C of budgeting, much as it makes one’s life somewhat sadder. I draw the line at accounting for petty cash, though. What I do is take the same amount out every week, and spend it wherever I happen to spend it. Whatever’s leftover at the end of week goes in a little drawer (not telling you which one) and gets used periodically to buy books. I supposed it’s money that is not accumulating interest in the bank (I could write down the amount instead of physically stashing it away) but it’s much more fun this way.

  8. If you have given the Wellington Central your appropriate contact details, they will phone or email you and tell you that you have an overdue item. I believe it’s 3-4 days after it becomes overdue, which is normally too late, though.

  9. […] public links >> frugal Recording every damned thing Saved by NDark on Fri 24-10-2008 Festival of Frugality #140: The Frugal Quotes Edition Saved by […]

  10. Hi
    Does Gnucash handle GST okay?

  11. Depends how you want to treat it. For my sole-trader purposes, I didn’t bother making splits – I paid GST on everything, and charged GST on everything, and figured it out by hand. But it does have support for what it calls “sales tax” as a split transaction if you want to do it that way.

  12. Late to this I know, but have you been able to use GNU for other Money or Your Life Reports i.e.Monthly Tabulation/Balance Sheets. I’m still new to the book and have given up on those, as they take me a lot of time to create/alter in Excel. The basic recording I’m doing pretty much religiously.

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