I'm am about to re-enter real life after 7 years as a Ph.D. student, and I want to manage my money better this time. My understanding is that controlling your expenses using a budget is the gold standard for doing this (note I'm frugal, but I think this could still help me save more).

I have three problems, one of which is general and two of which are peculiar to me:

  1. I tend to be time-starved. (A separate issue I am working on.)

  2. I have some neck problems that mean that I can't write on anything without using a desk, and I can't really use my smart phone (Android) without pain either, especially when standing up. (I've been working on this with some physicians for quite some time.) Writing at a desk for a while is a problem also.

  3. Due to some related issues, I can't really use a computer at home for significant periods of time. So I can't code all my individual transactions by type, even if I shelled out for the latest Quicken and possibly a monthly fee for near-real-time transaction download.

Ordinarily the advice would be to do the envelopes trick and apportion cash money into envelopes for different categories for each month. But I really don't think as a guy I can manage to carry around several different envelopes most of the time, and I also think dates and prospective dates would be quite unimpressed. Also coin change is virtually useless to me, and my pockets are full already.

So what are some good ways (or in your opinion the best way) for me to actually control my spending with a budget despite my constraints?

Someone advised me to just do tracking via pushing all expenses through a rewards card, but that seems like just reporting, and I really want controlling.

I haven't used a site like Mint extensively, but I would be willing to try it, despite the computer problem and my instinctive paranoia of allowing it access to my account credentials (I'm a computer security expert btw), if it truly sounds like the best solution.

I am aware there is some subjectivity here, but I think it is a valid question and I really need a good answer. If there is somewhere better to post this, please let me know.

  • Being frugal, do you have an idea of what you expect to buy in a day? Lunch, groceries, office supplies; of course there are unexpected things, but I mean by and large.
    – MrChrister
    Mar 5, 2011 at 5:08
  • In a typical day I don't expect to shell out much money. Maybe $5 for lunch at the cafeteria, or maybe not. It's expenses like $1000 for rent (until I buy a house), $200 for groceries, $100 for electricity, and $100 if I decide to have cable/DVR that really add up after a while. I do have a small amount of grad school debt also. And I'll be commuting, so my biggest daily expense will actually be gas, I figure ~3 gallons per day bought once a week. Probably $10 at restaurants a few times a week with friends.
    – Paul
    Mar 5, 2011 at 21:19

5 Answers 5


I would question whether your stated goal (of strictly controlling your expenses) is really the problem you should be tackling. In my opinion, unless you're under financial hardship where you can barely make ends meet, you're much better off using a budget as a high-level, descriptive tool rather than a low-level, prescriptive tool.

This is what I would do in your situation:

  • Buy everything on your credit card (and pay it off every month - the point is to have a nice report each month)
  • Once a month, tally up the purchases on your card by category. I use categories like Groceries, Restaurants, Gas, Clothing, Toys, Education, Entertainment, Travel, etc.
  • Just spend like you normally would for the first 2-3 months. After that time, look at the averages in each category, and evaluate how you feel about those amounts.

After the first few months, you can start to think about high-level changes that you can make to your spending habits to get the most bang for your buck. I wouldn't worry about the little expenses, unless they're really adding up to a sizable chunk of your total expenses. Instead, I would look at things like: eating out too often, buying too many movies, too many impulse buys over $100, etc.

Identifying patterns like that will help you make lifestyle changes that will allow you to spend less money without having to micromanage every single expense. I have tried the micromanaged approach in the past, and it simply doesn't work for me. There's too much overhead, and eventually I start to feel that it's just not worth it. Think about it - is it really worth the extra time and energy required to worry about where every dollar goes all month long just to save an additional hundred bucks over what you can do with this passive approach?

I think that by focusing on the big picture, you can get within a couple percentage points of the same amount of savings as if you had micro-managed your expenses, but with much less work and mental strain.

Let's put some numbers on this and see what the hourly returns are with each approach, always being optimistic about the micromanaged approach and conservative on the passive approach.

Let's assume you earn $50,000/year. Let's also assume that if you micromanage all of your expenses, you could manage to save $5000/year beyond what you do now. And let's say that with the passive approach, you can get within 20 percentage points instead of the 2 I stated earlier, for a savings of $4000/year. Now what will your hourly returns look like? The following are based on how I would personally use both systems, so your numbers may vary a bit.

Micromanaged Budgeting

Savings = $5000 per year = $416.67 per month
Time spent = 15-30 minutes per day = 7.5 - 15 hours per month
Hourly return = $27.78 - $55.56

Passive Budgeting

Savings = $4000 per year = $333.33 per month
Time spent = 1 - 2 hours per month
Hourly return = $166.67 - $333.33

So clearly the passive approach gives a substantially higher hourly return, even though it gives a lower absolute return. Maybe more importantly though, if passive budgeting opens up an extra 10 hours a month, you could potentially put those hours into your job and make an extra (10 hours * $25/hour) = $250 a month, or $3000 per year, assuming no extra pay for overtime. So that means that the passive budgeting approach would actually allow you to save ($4000 + $3000 * .75) = $6250 per year, compared to the $5000 you would save by micromanaging.

If you're in a situation where you can't put those hours into more work and you really need that extra $83.34 per month to help make ends meet, then by all means micromanage your expenses and try to save as much as possible. But if either of the previous conditions are not true for you, you're much better off, in my opinion, using a passive budget.

  • This is a very good question. Assuming an income of $50,000 per year, and more importantly assuming that the difference is only two percentage points, controlling versus reporting would save $1000 / year = $83/month = 3.5 hours at $25 / hour (25/hour = 50k/year). So if it takes 4 hours per month, which it might well for me, then it would be considered a net loss if one thinks solely in terms of a conversion rate. So some people would consider that a win and some a loss. I'd be curious what other people think here.
    – Paul
    Mar 5, 2011 at 21:07
  • @Paul, see my updated answer for my estimates on how much you save with each approach.
    – Saeed
    Mar 5, 2011 at 23:20
  • Micromanaging means you don't value your time well enough, but on the other hand can you convert that time into money otherwise? If you're an hourly contractor, presumably you can do that easily. Otherwise, there will be significant overhead to find some gig to pay a few hundred bucks. Oct 3, 2014 at 8:45

A few ideas:

  1. If you can find cards that don't have fees, you could use re-loadable debit/gift cards as your "envelopes". You can write the purpose for each card on its face. Carrying around more than a few cards will get unwieldy fast -- how many categories do you need?

  2. Use the rewards card strategy that was recommended to you. Put all of your spending on this. Carry a slip of paper in your wallet for each of your categories of spending. When you charge against a category, punch/mark/tear off a piece of the paper according to some scheme that will allow you to track the amount.

  3. You don't have to carry the envelopes around with you all the time. You wouldn't carry around the grocery envelope all the time -- unless you often just randomly decide to go grocery shopping while you're out and about. When you are going out and know you need to have cash for a certain purpose, pull some money from your envelope, put a paper clip around it with maybe a slip of paper, and put it into your wallet. You could carry around a few different categories of money this way without too much hassle. This requires planning your spending for the day. (The best way to avoid spending money is to not have it.)

  • Watch those fees o the reloadable cards. A large amount of your money could disappear.
    – MrChrister
    Mar 5, 2011 at 5:00

You are making this far more complex than it needs to be. Direct deposit your savings directly into a savings account. To track spending, invest in a small notebook, and keep a tally of what you spend every day.

Also, it seems odd to me that you want to track your budget in minute detail, but coins are "useless" to you.

  • One of the constraints is a physical disability that precludes writing in a notebook.
    – bstpierre
    Mar 7, 2011 at 13:06
  • @duffbear703: Lol. Candid feedback, that's great! I love candid feedback. At least, if it's reasonable and after I calm back down. :) (@bstpierre is right, though, I cannot use a physical notebook to log more than few transactions a week, and that only off line.) Yes, I have difficulty with not making things overly complex. (The "uselessness" of change, which has been true my entire adult life, is partly disorganization (which I'm working on), partly a problem with having my pockets full, and partly a problem with my physical health stuff.)
    – Paul
    Mar 7, 2011 at 17:05
  • I wasn't trying to be mean or insensitive, my intention is to simplify :) How about this... keep a whiteboard or a calendar in your house, hang it on the wall and plan your purchases in advance. Keep a certain amount of "petty cash" -- say $20-100, and replenish that every month. Saeed had a great point... don't be overly prescriptive, keep things at a high enough level so that you can keep track your daily affairs in your head. You've managed to earn a PhD with physical challenges, think of ways to apply your study habits to money -- don't be intimidated. Mar 7, 2011 at 19:45
  • Also, you don't need to be an accountant. Don't focus on the transactions (ie $15 at Wal-Mart, $30 and butcher, $20 at farmers market) think of the category ($65 for food this week) Mar 7, 2011 at 19:47

So far I am doing mint.com for a few minutes a couple of times a week, despite my security concerns, and that's working fairly well as practice until my job starts. I'm hoping to get my bank to allow up to date transaction download, and then I'm considering using YNAB once I start my job. I will update this as I go along.


I ended up with YNAB. It worked quite well, and I highly recommend it. It does cost money, but I found it saved me far more than its cost in the first month alone, since I saved between $500 and $1000. And it's flexible; when you overspend on something you can flex your budget, rather than it breaking and you give up in frustration. Dropbox support has recently been added, "cloudifying" it and making it where the smartphone apps can be really useful. I use the iPhone app occasionally, having recently transitioned to an iPhone.

  • My Amazon review of YNAB (hope it's ok to post the link): amazon.com/review/RRWYO7QXPDDUL
    – Paul
    Nov 15, 2012 at 0:17
  • Full disclosure: I do not receive nor ever expect to receive financial or other compensation from YNAB, nor do I have any financial interest in it (beyond managing my own money with it :) ).
    – Paul
    Nov 15, 2012 at 0:18

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