The Simple Envelope System for Keeping Financial Records

By Melissa Karnaze on August 3rd, 2010

Photo by ollily

Don’t fret about not having the time to tediously enter all your financial transactions into a complicated spreadsheet or program. The envelope system for keeping financial records is low-maintenance, cost-effective, and easy to implement in little time. All you need are some envelopes, a rubber band, a pen, a sharpie, a highlighter, a storage box, an hour at the end of the month, and all of the month’s receipts.

The envelope system is a simple and fun way to save, organize, and store your receipts and keep reliable financial records.

Step 1: Save All Your Receipts During the Month

Throughout the month, get a receipt for each purchase you make. If a cashier doesn’t give you your receipt, don’t forget to ask. When making online purchases, make sure to print out the receipts immediately. If you can, print them out on thin paper and format them so they’re similar in shape and size to normal receipts.

Keep your receipts in your wallet until they start to overflow, then dump them into a designated envelope at home. Be sure to label the envelope something like “Current Receipts,” and keep it in a safe an easy-to-access location.

Step 2: Organize Your Receipts at the End of the Month

Before you can store your records in an orderly fashion, you need to organize the receipts. And before you can organize them, you need to finalize each receipt individually.

Go through each one and highlight:

  • The date
  • The total amount spent (or refunded)
  • The type of transaction (e.g. cash, debit, check, gift card)

Make sure to use a light-colored highlighter so that the ink from the receipt still shows through. Some receipts have very light ink that fades away once highlighted over. In that case simply highlight underneath the information in a straight line so that it doesn’t bleed into the information.

After highlighting, write down notes directly onto the receipts as needed:

  • Make note of tax deductible expenses which may be business related or for charity
  • Note returns, why they were made, how much money was refunded, and the new net totals
  • Label any receipts where it’s not immediately obvious where the purchase was made, to whom it was made, or why it was made
  • Write down any miscellaneous notes that will help you keep better records, possibly make future returns, budget in the future, and be a better consumer (e.g. noting how using a certain coupon saved you half-off, when a big sale occurred, etc.)

If you find that there’s not enough space on a particular receipt for taking these notes, then write them on a small piece of paper and staple it to the back of the corresponding receipt. Make sure to write a reminder on the receipt itself to reference the extra notes on the next page.

Here’s what a finalized receipt should look like (note that it’s staple to other receipts beneath it):

Once you’re done taking notes, organize the batch in chronological order and staple it. Alternatively, you can use a paper clip. It doesn’t matter if you use reverse chronological order instead (with the most recent receipts on the top) but whatever you choose — keep it consistent. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time locating individual receipts later on when you have to switch between two different ordering systems.

Step 3: Store Your Receipts Using Envelopes and Boxes

Once you prepare the monthly batch of receipts, place it into an envelope. You may have to fold some receipts over so that the batch will fit. Consider color-coding an envelope for the season or month if that helps you stay organized.

Then fold the envelope closed (without sealing it) and flip it over. Use a black or dark-colored sharpie to label the envelope. Follow the example below, with the month and year in the upper left, or label in a way that’s easier for you to work with.

Once you have more than one month collected, stack the envelopes together in chronological order (keep it consistent with the order you have for the actual receipts). Put a rubber band around the bundle.

At the end of the year, you’ll have all your financial records bundled within twelve envelopes. Over multiple years, you’ll gather multiple bundles.

Keep your envelope bundles stored in a box. Keep the box someplace safe and easily accessible. Over time you may accumulate multiple boxes, which will be easy to stack and store. And any time you need to reference your financial records, they’ll be easy to find and access.

It’s ideal to use a visually appealing box that represents your financial goals. The box in the example below showcases comfortable chairs on a relaxing beach scene, as more vacation time is one measure of financial success.

With the easy-to-implement envelope system, you can keep all your financial records in one place with little hassle. And you can keep it fun by using colored pens, highlighters, and envelopes, and a visually appealing box that keeps you focused on financial success!

Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.

  • Published 08/3/10
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