Productivity Bullet Journaling Is a Pretty Smart Way to Budget

by Anna Davies | May 16, 2018

Do you #BuJo? It stands for bullet journaling.

Perhaps you’ve noticed gorgeously illustrated, intricately lettered to-do lists that show up in social media feeds once dominated by babies, puppies, epic meals and far-flung vacation landscapes.

The heavily inked pages can look like a secret form of communication, but bullet journaling is actually meant to give clarity. It’s an organizational system that can help journalers supercharge their to-do lists, stay on track with goals and even revolutionize their approach to personal finance.

“There’s something about writing with pen and paper that can make tasks feel more impactful than if they’re just stored on your phone,” says Alaia Williams, a Los Angeles-based business operations strategist, “community cultivator” and bullet journaling evangelist. Williams uses the technique in her own day-to-day and encourages clients to adopt bullet journaling as part of a holistic approach to raising their organizational game.

Here’s how to begin applying this powerful tool in your own life.

How does bullet journaling work?

Williams notes that a bullet journal can and should be customized according to your own preferences, needs and goals. That said, most formats include an index. Located in the front of the journal, the index is both a table of contents and a list of lists (“movies to watch,” “books to read,” “financial goals”) along with their corresponding page numbers. Another common section is the daily log, which shows whole days at a glance: to-do lists, notes, reminders.

In the spirit of efficiency — after all, you’re seeking to concentrate and synthesize, not elaborate — bullet journalers create a key of shorthand symbols to promote rapid logging.  A to-do list, for example, may 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 < to mean an event that’s scheduled and > for an event or to-do you want to carry over for the next day.

The artistic layouts you often see online may seem intimidating, but don’t get hung up on the idea that a bullet journal is only be effective if it’s picture-perfect. In reality, the technique is — at its core — simply a pen-and-paper system of organization. And you can now purchase notebooks specifically formatted for bullet journaling to help get you started.

Bullet journalers create a key of shorthand symbols to promote rapid logging.
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How could 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. Rather, it’s an all-in-one record of your financial goals, spending and observations.

As the owner of a small business, Williams has found it invaluable to bullet-journal her expenses. “One huge advantage for me has been writing down all the things that I subscribe to,” she says. “Each month, I’ll look over the list, and see if they’re still adding value to my life and business.”

Another advantage for Williams is being able to “see” her whole life on one page. “I’m going to San Francisco for a conference later this month, and know I need to budget spending money for that trip, so I’m being mindful of that now in the lead-up to the trip,” she explains.

“Seeing how my finances play out in my real life is really gratifying. I see a link between my spending and my plans in my bullet journal more than I may have with other systems, which is motivating.”

Desiree Wiercyski, a life coach and bullet journaler from Fort Wayne, IN, says, “Bullet journals are great observation tools — ideal for spotting patterns.” Wiercyski, who works with a lot of entrepreneurs, says that people often struggle to see a return on investment for certain decisions they make. Say you spend $150 to attend a workshop; you might gain new professional connections, new concepts to employ in their own life or business, or just added motivation. “With a bullet journal, you can really write out the intangible benefits you’ve had from that purchase to determine if it was a smart spending strategy.”

bullet journaling with budget

4 easy ways to use a bullet journal in your 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," notes Jessica Chung, the 29-year-old Minneapolis-based proprietor of the Pretty Prints and Paper blog and a 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. 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 with a tech tool

Family Backpack blog creator and mom of two 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.” If she overspends on a night out, Wilson is quickly aware thanks to her system. “If I go over, I'll note it in the journal and try to compensate the next month. This isn't foolproof, but it does keep me focused.”

3. Prepare and budget for a trip

Nicole Doane of Las Vegas, NV — whose bullet journal can be seen on Instagram at @written_intentions — uses a system in which she stashes cash in different envelopes to save up for a trip — and visually represents that on her bullet journal, crossing off the saved money so she can watch herself move closer to her financial goal, such as a vacation to San Francisco. This technique is especially helpful for Doane when she’s saving for multiple goals — for example, in this spread, she was saving for several upcoming trips in a short span of time. “Seeing” them all on one page helped her create a savings plan so she could save enough money to pay for all three expenses, including a trip to San Francisco and Seattle.

4. Plan for purchases

One advantage of the bullet journal is that it allows users 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, the operations strategist. “That way, if I’m at a store and notice the clearance section, I’ll look at our gift budget, then flip through to my gift list and see what we need. A few times, I’ve found a cool craft or product in clearance and have bought several, so I have a gift on hand when my child is invited to a birthday party.

notebook opened to trip planning graph

Finding the bullet journal right for you

Ready to start? The brilliance of bullet journaling is that you can build your journal to fit your needs. To that point, while any blank notebook can serve as a bullet journal, some people find specific journals helpful to easily build templates and grids. The Leuchtturn1917 is a popular model because the dot grids can make it easy to customize complex lists, calendars and other “spreads.”

Other common models you may see browsing online include Moleskine, Lenome Dotted Bullet Journal and the BuJo Notebook. And expect to see books with pre-made grids and prompts as bullet journaling become more popular.

Just remember, a bullet journal is what you make it, so don’t get too lost in how it “should” look and focus instead on how the habit can help streamline your life and finances.

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.