This Addictive Tool Is Helping Me Take Control of My Life and My Finances

a girl walking with a journal
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Usually, when a new trend or fad comes around, it gains steam, sticks around for a month or two and then disappears.

But last year, I heard about something that has changed my life (no, really) for the better — and it seems to be here to stay.

I started bullet journaling in August of 2016. Since then, I’ve built up good habits, squashed bad ones, created routines, learned how to follow a schedule, gotten organized, become more focused and, as if that’s not enough, I’ve finally put my finances in order.

Wait, wait, wait. Journal? Finances? How do those go together?

Not Your Average Journal

The bullet journal isn’t necessarily a journal per se.

It’s actually somewhere between a planner, a journal, a notepad, an organizer and a captain’s log (it’s just that you’re the captain, and your life is the ship — don’t wreck it).

You know that moment when you order a new planner, wait a few days, tear into the packaging, crack the spine and realize that while yeah, this layout will probably work, it’s just not quite what you need it to be?

Not so with the bullet journal.

The bullet journal is a completely customizable organizational system that allows you to create tracking, planning, note-taking and record-keeping tools that work for your specific lifestyle. You create your own “pages,” “spreads” and “trackers” (you can learn more on the official bullet journal website) and are never bound by a system that doesn’t completely and totally work for you.

In short, the bullet journal is whatever you need or want it to be.

Right now, though, I really want to talk about how I’ve been using finance tracking tools and spreads to revamp the way I handle, track, spend and save my money.

How a Bullet Journal Can Help You Fix Your Finances

First, set up the base of your bullet journal with the instructions and guides found here. Then, because a bullet journal is so customizable, you can look at your own problem areas.

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.

Let’s start where any solid financial plan starts: with a budget.

How to Use Your Bullet Journal as a Budget Tracker

hands writing in a journal
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Because the bullet journal is what you make it, there are an infinite amount of options for setting up your budget spread.

I broke down my budget into categories, starting with the unavoidables (bills, rent, gas and the like) and working forward from there. I included everything, right down to my Spotify subscription and the fact that once in a while I just need to order the more expensive pizza.  

When I start drawing out a new spread in my BuJo (that’s the pretentious bullet journaling way to avoid typing bullet journal every time) I like to do a little search on Google or Instagram to see what kinds of spreads other people are having success with. I use these as a jumping off point, adding a few personalized tweaks of my own along the way.

I drew out my budget spread in bars. This is a monthly spread, so I can visually gauge my budget based on which week of the month I’m in. As I color in the bar each time I spend, I’ll have a visual representation of how much I have left in that category.

At the end of the month, I’ll add up my total spending compared to my total budget, write that down on next month’s budget page, and turn it into a little competition with myself where I try to spend a little less. If I succeed, the extra goes toward paying off my student loans.

How to Track Your Bills in Your Bullet Journal

a topdown view of an open bullet journal
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

I’m a forgetful person.

If something isn’t written down in front of my face, on the wall next to my bed when I wake up, tattooed across my forehead when I look in the mirror or noted in my bullet journal, there’s a good chance it just isn’t ever going to get done.

But paying bills on time is an important part of adult life; I’m on a quest to actually feel like a real grown-up someday, so a bill tracker was a must in my financial strategy.

For my bill tracker, I wanted to create a big-picture spread that stretched from now through the next several months. I drew inspiration from a BuJo blogger (it’s a lifestyle, y’all) I follow and went to work.

I went back through my bank statement to make sure I counted every bill I pay each month. Then I drew my grid, making sure to include a space for the amount, the due date and whether or not I had paid it yet. I decided to leave a few extra boxes at the bottom of my tracker in case I need to add an extra line item or two over the next several months.

I put my monthly bills in one spread, and I’ll put my quarterly and annual bills together in a separate tracker. As I pay each bill, I’ll check the box so I can see at a glance which ones still need to be addressed.

How to Track Your Spending in Your Bullet Journal

an overtop view of an open bullet journal
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

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, I like to add a spending tracker into my weekly or monthly section for a financial reboot of sorts. If I ever feel like my finances are getting a little out of control, it helps to see exactly when and how I’m spending every dollar. It’s seriously an eye-opening experience each time I try it.

This one has a lot of flexibility in how you choose to set it up, but the main things I like to include are a space to write the item/food/experience I purchased, the store/venue I purchased it from, the date, the cost, whether I used debit or credit and whether it was a want or a need.

After a month — or even a week — of tracking your spending, you start to see patterns and problem areas that you otherwise might not be aware of.

How to Track Your Savings In Your Bullet Journal

a topdown view of an open bullet journal
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

This one is the most exciting of the financial trackers (in my 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.

For my savings tracker, I like to give each goal its own horizontal or vertical bar. As I move money to my savings, I color in the appropriate amount of the bar for the savings goal I’m 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.

I’m a visual and tactile person, so being able to see my savings goals and fill them in a little at a time gives me a nerdy little rush of adrenaline.

How to Track Your Debt Payoff in Your Bullet Journal

OK, so this one’s pretty fun, too.

I mean, I know I’m not the only one who gets a little thrill every time I go above and beyond my usual debt payments — and this spread always makes me want to race to the top of the bar.

For my student loans, I make one large bar so I can see exactly how far I have to go. Then, I make several smaller bars so I can break down the total into more manageable — and less discouraging — pieces.

I also like to mark time-oriented goalposts along the sides of the bars so that I have a little self-imposed incentive to pay off a certain amount by a certain time. If I’m trying to reach a debt-payoff goal by a predetermined date, I’m more inclined to allocate my extra dollars and cents there whenever there’s money left over.

BuJo is Life

Once you start bullet journaling, it’s really, really easy to get hooked.

I’ve given it up once or twice when life got crazy (which is when I should have been using it the most, honestly) but I always come back to it after realizing that I have six different notepads, four different spreadsheets and eight different phone apps all doing the work that one single bullet journal could do.

With the bullet journal, I can keep my budget, my spending habits, my savings and my debts all in one place.

Besides, there’s just something special about putting pen to paper, ya know?

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s still hunting for the perfect pen, so hit her up on Twitter @Schweizer_Grace if you have any good suggestions.