Tracking Every Receipt For A Year

A full-time autistic traveler’s experiment.

By Rose Ernst

Photo by Sereja Ris on Unsplash

“I usually notice car number plates or similar strings of information.” — Question from the Autism Spectrum Quotient Test

This is the question that made me doubt whether I was autistic.

Math was a joy until sixth grade, and I’d certainly never been that interested in numbers (or cars, for that matter). 

Over the years, I’d occasionally taken the ASQ test and always came out borderline. Because I’m autistic, I read the question literally. It didn’t occur to me that it was actually about pattern-spotting and tracking.

But now, as a late-identified autist, I realize why I love expense tracking: it’s a game of focus and helps me let go of money worries.

Tracking can calm our autistic fears about uncertainty while also playing to our strengths around pattern spotting. 

Tracking Expenses Versus Budgeting

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Auntie Google offers one-thousand-and-one articles on the differences between budgeting and expenses. I’m sure both are valuable, but my brain prefers expense tracking.

Budgets? Not only is the word stuffy, but it implies deprivation, almost akin to the word ‘diet.’ That means we’re not good friends already.

While I love the imagining required for budgets, it takes me out of the present and makes me try to control the future.

You can see where this leads: into the dreaded pit of anxiety and uncertainty.

So I step back from trying to predict the unpredictable. Instead, I look into my past to see what I actually did before.

Pattern Spotting My 2021 Annual Nomad Expenses

Photo by Syed F Hashemi on Unsplash

Tracking your expenses is just that. It allows you to see exactly how much you’ve spent this year so you can see your spending patterns.

Here’s my total spending for 2022 as a full-time nomad without a permanent home (here’s my 2021 spending):

Groceries (including household items): $2623

Accommodation (combo housesitting and rentals): $1619

Major Transport: $1410

Health and Health Insurance: $1370

Gifts/Donations: $412

Eating Out: $403

Clothing: $359

Annual Fees: $353

Miscellaneous: $162

Toiletries: $110

Local Transport: $81

Visa fees: $27

Communication: $24

Entertainment: $8

Tech: $5


Note: This is all-inclusive, minus expenses for business and self-employment taxes. Your mileage will vary. I spent $10,612 total in 2021. Here are the countries we traveled to during 2022: Croatia, Finland, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. 

I can check my spending periodically with this as a general guide (accounting for inflation and currency fluctuation). This allows me to: (1) slam on the brakes in areas where I have control (e.g., eating out), or (2) I can coast by renting a place for a month, for example, instead of housesitting.

Because full-time travel spending is so variable (though staying put often has just as many surprises), tracking allows you to create a sense of certainty because you know you can keep the same patterns

Beyond money uncertainties, the act of expense tracking itself is soothing.

If I’ve just arrived in a new town oozing with that shiny new promise of things to see and experience, simply writing the $1.50 spent on a delicious loaf of bread makes me feel grounded instead of scattered or overwhelmed by everything else in front of me.

Dangers of Tracking

Watch out for these two areas:

1. Scarcity

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Once you track expenses, slipping into all-or-nothing mode is easy. “Ack! If I spend $9 on this meal, I’ll never achieve my annual goal!”

Soon, you’re sliding down that slope of scarcity. You avoid all activities for fear you’ll overspend. Even worse (I’ve done this), you question your partner’s purchases!

If this happens, look back at the year’s expenses so far. Look at your eating-out expenses. Remember how great they were? That inexpensive meal with those delectable noodles? It was worth it.

2. Rigidity

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Similarly, expense tracking can take on a life of its own by dictating your plans or making you obsess over the slightest deviations from your plan. While I love my orderly, routinized thinking, it can sometimes be too much.

This happens to me when I’m nearing a shutdown or meltdown, and I don’t know if it’s contributing to it or part of the root cause. Either way, it’s not a pretty mental state.

Try coaching yourself with this timeless question: “Is this working for me?”

If that doesn’t work, take a deep breath. Your increased rigidity is telling you something. Too much happening? Too much masking? In my experience, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention and make some changes — usually by letting go of activities or other people’s expectations of me.

The Bottom Line

The more I track my spending, the more confident I become that this life works for me. With rising inflation and economic uncertainty, tracking is a tangible result of what you’ve done and what you can do in the future.

What about you? Are you a tracker or a budgeter? Or both?

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