Shortcut: you can find the expenses tracker template here on Google Docs. (The link will be updated when Google publishes the template.)
The US Navy commissioned me into service as an officer in May of 2000. They then moved me to Washington, DC, and finances were tight. My annual salary was under $25,000 per year. (Side note: military pay raises were pretty good after September 11th. A newly commissioned officer in the Navy today, in DC, will make about $4800 per month, or $57,600 per year, including the housing allowance.)
I was living in an apartment on Columbia Pike with 2 other Navy officers who worked with me. This was the first time I was really out on my own, and I wanted to make sure that ends would meet. So a drew up a spreadsheet and dutifully recorded every penny that came in and every penny that came out. Every night I would open up the spreadsheet program and enter in what I had spent. Once per month I would enter in the money that Uncle Sam direct deposited in my account.
When moving to a new apartment ... when buying a boat to live aboard (and negotiating interest rates and monthly payments) ... when buying Christmas gifts ... it was great, because I always knew exactly where I stood. Sometimes I didn't like it, and in those cases, it motivated me to be patient or to change some habits to make it work.
I have been doing that faithfully for the past 13 years, and the spreadsheets (1 for each year) have evolved, to be a little simpler, a little more flexible, a little more concise. When Google Docs came around, it became very easy to access the file from anywhere and to share with my wife. (Second side note: she has been remarkably cooperative about also keeping track of expenses in my slightly-OCD-way.) I decided to give a (small) Christmas gift to the internet and publish my template for 2014 as a freely available Google Docs template. Here's the template for 2014.
The template has 12 tabs, one for each month. Each day is a row, and the days are numbered for 2014. The columns are various categories: Groceries, Meals, Gas, Tithe/Donations, Play, Medical, and Other. I've found those categories to be pretty good for the things I spend money on. (Hint: I didn't get it right for the first few years. Your mileage may vary.)
On the bottom are fixed expenses: mortgage, electricity, internet, insurance, etc. I also left rows for various activities that have regular, monthly expenses like gym memberships or day care. Then there's a column for "Random Income," because, well, sometimes money comes in randomly. Then there's a column for fixed income. Paychecks go in there. The nice thing is that this bottom section (except for Random Income) is nearly identical from month to month; fill in those values for January, then paste into the next 11 months.
The spreadsheet adds things up in a variety of ways: by day, by category, and sums everything up in the Red "Monthly Savings" cell. I have a target savings number for each month.
I hope this may be of use to some of you. It certainly won't work for everyone. In my case, the need to follow this rigor stemmed from fear: living in an expensive town on a relatively small income forced me to be diligent. And then it became habit. And it's stuck ever since.
And that's one thing I'm thankful for this season.