By Julie Ann
Have you ever watched a crime drama on television and observed how the detectives find numerous subtle little clues which no one else would even notice? By carefully studying the scene of the crime, these detectives analyze the minutest pieces of evidence to determine “whodunit.”
Recently, I’ve taken up some “crime scene investigation” of sorts in order to help me analyze where my money is going and how I can save more. I call this “Receipt CSI.” Any time you buy groceries, eat dinner in a restaurant, or spend your entire paycheck on new fall boots, the cashier will hand you a receipt. If you are smart, you won’t use the receipt to wad up your chewing gum before throwing it into the trash, but you’ll keep your receipt (after all, that new dress might not look as good at home as it did in the dressing room) and take a few minutes to analyze it. Here is the best way you can engage in some receipt CSI.
1. Investigate Immediately: A few weeks ago, I bought a new top from a department store. When I got home, I looked over my receipt and realized the cashier had charged me twice. I was able to return to the store the next day and they removed one of the charges. If I had waited to check my receipt, it may have been a bigger hassle to remedy the situation; if I had not checked it at all, I would have paid for the item twice. Obviously, I should have been paying better attention at check out, but if you find yourself distracted like me, be sure to give your receipt a quick overview before leaving the parking lot.
2. Organize the Evidence: The wisest thing to do with your receipts is to keep them in a centralized location. The best method is a folder organized by month. When you come home after making some purchases, simply drop your receipts into the current month. If you are not a hyper-organized person, don’t feel too bad about dumping your receipts into an old shoebox – it will still work. It will just be more work to sort through them later. You should review your receipts for budget purposes on a monthly basis and then sort through them every few months to determine if they are still needed.
3. Submitting the Evidence: At the end of the month (or whenever you go over your budget), you should pull out the receipts from the evidence pile and begin adding up the damage. You should always have your budget defined so that you can easily add up your restaurant receipts and calculate the total expenditures into the dining out budget, your clothing receipts into the fashion category, the oil change receipt into your car maintenance tally, etc. After doing this for several months, you can see where your money is going and then adjust your budget accordingly. Are you always going over your coffee budget (those gourmet coffees add up fast) but under on your clothing budget? Then recalculate your spending plan since you now have a better handle on your spending habits. Spending too much on dining out? Then make a plan to go out less or spend less in another (nonessential) area.
4. The Details: One of my favorite parts of “Receipt CSI” is finding the little hidden clues about my spending habits. For example, most stores will include a savings total at the bottom of the receipt. In examining my last three grocery store receipts, I’ve saved $6.12 by using manufacturer and store coupons and my store rewards card. I also like to see the five cent per bag discount I receive at most stores by using reusable cloth grocery bags. It becomes a game to me to see how high I can get the dollar amount on the “savings” line. Many stores will also break down the type of product you purchased in a single trip such as grocery, health and beauty, or clothing items. This is very helpful in breaking down spending habits. If you are really serious, you can also use receipt time stamps to determine if you spend more on groceries at 1 p.m. (perhaps when you are full from lunch) verses 5 p.m. (when you are starving for dinner and buy more). Yes, a simple little receipt will provide a wealth of helpful clues to your spending habits if you will just take the time to investigate.
5. Discarding the Evidence: Once you no longer have practical use for the receipt and have analyzed it in accordance with your budget, you may be wondering how long you should keep it. The receipt for an item that has already been paid for and consumed (i.e. the frozen yogurt you paid for with cash) can probably be tossed as soon as you’ve reconciled it with your budget. If you’ve charged something on a credit card, it would be wise to keep the receipt for a few months after purchase to make sure there are no issues with the credit card company. For big ticket purchases (i.e. electronics, furniture, jewelry), you should keep the receipt for the life of the product in case you need it for warranty or insurance purposes. I would suggest creating a special file folder specifically for long-term receipt storage.
The clues to our spending habits surround us everywhere. You may not pay much attention to the humble little receipt; but as you can see, it just might be one of the biggest tools to help you stay on budget and bring in the savings.
By Julie Ann