Productivity Bullet Journaling Is a Smart Way to Budget

by Anna Davies | May 25, 2023

Illustrated lettered to-do lists have been a popular organizational system the past few years, but there’s another, lesser-known use for bullet journaling: It can help you stay on track with spending and saving goals and transform your approach to personal finance.

Bullet journaling evangelists find that writing with pen and paper can make tasks feel more powerful than if they’re just stored on your phone. To help you level-up your own organizational game with this easy-to-use tool, we asked experts for their top tips and answers to our biggest bullet journaling questions.

How does bullet journaling work?

A bullet journal should be customized according to your own preferences, needs and goals, though most formats include an index up front that functions as both a table of contents and a list of lists (“movies to watch,” “books to read” and “financial goals,” for example). Another common section is the daily log, which shows whole days at a glance: to-do lists, notes, reminders. For efficiency, bullet journalers often create a key of shorthand symbols; a to-do list might use a circle to indicate a pending task, an x to signify it is complete or a dash for a random thought. Some also use directional symbols: < to mean an event that’s scheduled and > for an event or to-do you want to carry over for the next day.

You may have seen artistic layouts online or in your social feed that seem intimidating, but a bullet journal doesn’t have to be picture-perfect to be effective. You can also just buy a notebook specifically formatted for bullet journaling as an easy way to get started.

How can a bullet journal help you reach financial goals?

Unlike password-protected apps, a bullet journal isn’t about keeping track of account numbers or bank balances. It’s more of an all-in-one record of your financial goals, spending and observations.

If you’re a business owner, one way to use the system is to bullet-journal your expenses. Write down all the things you subscribe to, for example, and then evaluate the list to see if they’re still useful.

Being able to “see” your whole life on one page helps you spot any patterns and identify any benefits of your purchases to determine whether you’re using a smart spending strategy.

A woman writes a financial plan with the help of her computer

3 easy ways to use a bullet journal in your financial life

1. Track monthly expenses

"Spending money digitally or with credit cards never seemed fully ‘real’ to me, so I'd spend a lot more than what I probably would otherwise," says Jessica Chung, Minneapolis-based proprietor of @prettyprintsandpaper and dedicated bullet journaler. "I would use my paper planner as a way to make those habits more conscious, more real, by tracking the money I spent each day,” she explains. “As a visual person, it sometimes helped to have a bar graph of my discretionary money of the month, filling up as I spent more and more of it throughout time."

2. Pair it with a tech tool

Freelance writer, founder of The Wandering Rumpus and mother of three Sarah Wilson says she uses a combination of bullet journaling and a personal finance app to track expenses. “We have a monthly budget amount for everything — restaurants, entertainment, groceries, gifts, extracurricular — which includes school and after-school activities,” Wilson says, and if she overspends on a night out, she’s quickly aware of that thanks to her system. “If I go over, I'll note it in the journal and try to compensate the next month,” she says. “This isn't foolproof, but it does keep me focused.”

3. Plan for purchases

Another upside of a bullet journal is that it allows you to track sales, perks and bargains for an event far off in the future. “I'll make a list of events for the month or season where I need gifts,” says Wilson, who often refers to it when she’s at a store, flipping through the gift list to see if there are any well-priced picks to scoop up. “A few times, I’ve found a cool craft or product in clearance and have bought several,” she says, “so I have a gift on hand when my child is invited to a birthday party.”

— With additional reporting from Life and Money by Citi editors.

A man holds an envelope containing airplane tickets while waiting for a flight
Anna Davies

lives with her family in New York City, where her #BuJo is covered in very artistic toddler crayon marks. She has written for The New York Times, Glamour, Marie Claire, Men's Health and others.