Instead of choosing from the dizzying array of online budgeting tools, here’s a novel thought: The best solution to keeping track of your money may be writing everything down with pen and paper.
The bullet journal — or BuJo, for short — is an analog organizational system that can help you find the “calm in the chaos” (at least, according to the official bullet journal website).
What sets the bullet journal apart from other lookalikes is it’s completely customizable. Each page has tiny bullets to use as a guide to track whatever you want. You can set goals, write down to-do lists and track your finances all in one place.
Unlike with pre-designed planners, bullet journal money management allows you to create spreads for your particular financial goals and tasks, including the visuals that will most inspire you to reach them.
So if you want to buy a house, for instance, you can color each brick of a house as you save for a down payment.
And if you’ve ever missed a reminder amid the constant pings from the calendar on your phone, you’ll appreciate that bullet journals offer a physical, visually pleasing alternative for tracking your bills.
And you don’t have to be creative to get started.
How to Start a Bullet Journal Budget
Because the bullet journal is what you make it, there are an infinite amount of options for how it can help you manage your money.
To start with, you’ll need an index (aka table of contents) to avoid flipping through endless pages of your journal each time you want to look at your budget.
Depending on the type you use, your journal may come with a few pages at the front pre-designed for an index or you can simply create your own. Come up with a list of initial ideas — no worries if you’re not sure about everything you want to cover, as you can always add more pages or sections to the index later.
And because a bullet journal is so customizable, you can address your own specific problem areas or goals.
If you’re getting overwhelmed by ideas you see on Pinterest and Instagram, forget the embellishments and just track your expenses and goals in a format that is easy to follow and maintain.
Do you need to be better about sticking to a budget? Do you need to pay off debt? Do you have some big savings goals? Great! There’s a bullet journal “spread” (official lingo) for that.
Alicia Geigel teaches bullet journaling workshops at Whim So Doodle in St. Petersburg, Florida. She typically shares layout ideas to get people comfortable with tracking their lives both personally and professionally on paper. Now she’s finding people are interested in using the bullet journals for their personal finances.
She recently used her journal to save $2,500 for a trip to Italy.
“Since I do it every night and try to make it part of my routine, it just reminds me of the path I am trying to save on,” Geigel said.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or a bit stumped, we have some ideas to get you started.
1. Monthly Budget Tracker
A bullet journal can be used to track monthly expenses. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
Seeing where you plan to spend and where you actually spend your money each month is a good way to start your budgeting journey.
You can break down your budget into categories, starting with the unavoidables (bills, rent, gas and the like) and work forward from there. Include everything, right down to your Spotify subscription and the fact that once in a while you just need to order the more expensive pizza.
One option is making a monthly budget spread in bars. That way, you can visually gauge your budget based on the week of the month. Color in the bar each time you spend, and you’ll have a simple visual representation of how much you have left in that category.
At the end of the month, add up your total spending compared to your total budget. To create a little internal competition (because who doesn’t like wins?), write your total spending on next month’s budget page, then see if you can spend a little less.
Put the extra money saved toward bigger goals, like paying off student loan debt or saving up a down payment for a house.
Another option for the number lovers: Create a spread that looks just like a checkbook, then write down your scheduled bills on the left and record expenses on the right. Every time you spend money, deduct it from your balance. This method will hold you accountable and help prevent unwelcome surprises when you look at your bank account.
2. Bill Tracker
Create a simple grid to track your monthly bills. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder
This spread is perfect for the forgetful person.
If you’re constantly writing down reminders to yourself (think: All. Those. Sticky. Notes.), a bill tracker should be a must in your BuJo financial strategy.
One idea for a bill tracker is to create a big-picture spread that stretched from now through the next several months.
Start by going back through your bank and credit card statements to make sure you count every bill you pay each month. Then draw your grid, making sure to include a space for the amount, the due date and whether or not you’ve paid it yet.
Leave a few extra boxes at the bottom of my tracker in case you need to add an extra line item or two over the next several months.
Put your monthly bills in one spread, and your quarterly and annual bills together in a separate tracker. As you pay each bill, check the box so you can see at a glance which ones still need to be addressed.
3. Spending Tracker
If you’re pretty good about sticking to your budget and paying off your debt (or if you have no debt!), you may decide not to use a spending tracker every month.
Sometimes, though, you might want to add a spending tracker into your weekly or monthly section for a financial reboot of sorts. If you feel like your finances are getting a little out of control in any given month, it helps to see exactly when and how you’re spending every dollar. It can be quite an eye-opening experience.
If you see you’ve spent too much half way through the month, don’t give up. Create a mini spending tracker that incorporates the remaining budget for the remainder of the month.
The spending tracker has a lot of flexibility in how you choose to set it up, but the main things to include are a space to write the item/food/experience purchased, the store/venue where you purchased it from, the date, the cost, what type of payment you used and whether it was a want or a need.
After a month — or even a week — of tracking your spending, you may start to see patterns and problem areas that you otherwise might not be aware of.
4. Savings Tracker
Simple methods like a jar can be used to track a savings goal. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
This one is the most exciting of the financial trackers (in our opinion, anyway).
While all of the other BuJo trackers help you watch your paycheck dwindle away each month, the savings goal tracker gets you amped each and every time you get to fill in a little more of that bar because you know you’re one step closer to that dream vacation or that new, extra-deep couch you can’t wait to curl up on.
One idea for a savings tracker: Give each goal its own horizontal or vertical bar. As you move money to your savings, color in the appropriate amount of the bar for the savings goal you’re working toward. Some goals might be small, and some might be huge — but you can move the bigger, unfinished goals from journal to journal as you fill each book.
Need a little more visual enticement? Determine an object that motivates you to save money. Is it a jar? A piggy bank?
Design a savings goal you can track visually. Each time you put money in your savings account, shade in a portion of the object. It’s quite satisfying to complete the picture as you reach your goal.
5. Debt Payoff Tracker
Line graphs are a simple but visual method for tracking debt. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
OK, so this one’s pretty fun, too.
Who doesn’t get a little thrill every time you go above and beyond your usual debt payments?
To track student loans, for instance, create a spread with one large bar so you can see exactly how far you have to go. Then, make several smaller bars so you can break down the total into more manageable — and less discouraging — pieces.
Need more motivation? Mark time-oriented goalposts along the sides of the bars so that you have a little self-imposed incentive to pay off a certain amount by a certain time. The goalposts also serve as a reminder to allocate extra dollars and cents to your debt payoff whenever there’s money left over at the end of the month.
If you’re managing multiple debts, consider drawing a line graph to chart your debt payoff. Create a line for your credit cards, mortgage or car loan — as you pay them down, mark your progress on the graph.
Seeing the line go down can give you an extra push to pay it off faster.
6. More Ideas for Your Bullet Journal Budget
Nelani Palomino tracks the number of times she uses her Disney Silver annual pass with her bullet journal. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
As you can see, there are multiple ways to track your finances. But don’t stop at the traditional budgets. Check out how these three women’s bullet journal budget ideas helped them reach their money goals.
Try a no-spend challenge by creating a calendar. Check off the days you didn’t spend money. Even if you have a setback, by seeing your successes on paper, you’ll want to do it more often!
Or use a habit tracker to better gauge how your routines affect your finances. Let’s say you want to pay bills on time. Acknowledge when you do it by filling in a box. The more boxes you see, the more it encourages the habit.
One of the great benefits of using a habit tracker in your bullet journal is that you can start to see patterns you might have missed before (like those budget-breaking happy hours that sneak in around mid-week).
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to use a bullet journal. Figure out what works best for you. Before you know it, you’ll see how much fun managing your money can be.
Grace Schweizer is a staff writer and Christie Post is a former supervising producer at The Penny Hoarder. Staff writer/editor Tiffany Wendeln Connors contributed to this story.