How to Use Personal Accounting Software to Conduct an "Eco Audit"

piggy bank and coins

At the web services firm where I work, we track every penny. Most business do. We employ a great business accountant to help us, and we periodically review our spending and revenue to make sure we are on the right track. Lately, I’ve worked to apply this kind of attention to my personal finances (where I haven’t been nearly so fastidious!). As I’ve reviewed my personal expenditures on Mint.com, it occurred to me that I could use personal financial accounting as a great tool for auditing my environmental impact. Let me explain.

We’ve all heard the phrase “vote with your wallet” before, and it’s true: by choosing one product over another you are effectively participating in consumer sovereignty. You get to decide how to spend your money, and the decisions you make will play a role in what will continue to be produced and supplied in the global marketplace, as well as which companies will grow or stagnate.

Environmentally and socially conscious consumers have taken this idea to heart and empowered themselves to make global changes one purchase at a time. Whether it’s organic food, socially responsible clothing, products made in the USA, or alternative transportation, you can spend more on what you believe in and less on what you don’t.

Accounting for these choices is necessary to really keep track of where your money is going. Many people use personal accounting software to keep track of their personal spending, living expenses, and other spending. The power of these tools comes from their ability to not only record every purchase you make, but also to label your spending in a variety of meaningful ways. You can use it to see how much money you’re spending on socially and environmentally friendly products, transportation, renewable energy, and anything else.

Doing this will also show you where you can make improvements and cut costs. You might find that, for instance, you spend hundreds of dollars a month on junk food when you travel. This kind of “eco-audit” reveals the facts about your spending and its relationship to your values. In all likelihood, even if you’re a dedicated eco-shopper, only a small fraction of your total spending will reflect your ideals. This is good, though: it can inspire you to make more changes in the way you spend and set realistic goals for yourself.

Here are five ways you can use accounting software to do personal “eco-accounting”:

1. Food

Keep track of how much money you spend on local, organic, or fair-trade foods by labeling them as such in your accounting software. If you go to a restaurant that serves this kind of food, label it as an “ECO” purchase (or whatever label you choose). Grocery shopping can be more difficult, as you are only making one transaction but buying numerous goods. Look at your receipt and add up the total cost of all the eco-friendly purchases compared to the total price. Even without accounting software, this is a good practice.

2. Transportation

Use your accounting software to track the amount of money you spend on gasoline. You can take this number and compare it to the national average to get an idea of where you’re consumption is at. If you want to spend less, try something simple. Pick one day a week to ride a bicycle or use public transportation. You’ll be surprised at what you save in a year. Those savings will increase if you also include other expenses of car ownership, such as maintenance and insurance.

3. Clothing

Keep track of environmentally friendly or socially responsible clothing purchases as you do with  food. Label each purchase in your accounting software accordingly, look at where you’ve spent your money, and use the information to set spending goals for the future.

4. Utility Bills

Keep track of your utility bills online. Assuming constant utility prices, it is easy to graph your monthly usage, and then make a game of your utility spending by trying as best you can to lower it monthly or seasonally.

5. Incidentals

Keep track of all those incidental purchases. The Alf lunch box shipped across the country, the plastic gadgets and electronics, and the physical books all add up in terms of environmental impact. This can be a great time to see them all in one place, and resolve to use less, or choose more environmentally responsible options.

Got other tactics you use to account for your environmental impact? Share them with us in the comments.

Caitlin Owyang does online outreach for Profitwise accounting, a firm specializing in small business accounting. Caitlin is an eco-conscious individual who has saved hundreds of dollars by conducting annual eco audits of her spending.

Image credit: 401(K) 2012 at flickr/401kcalculator.org under a Creative Commons license

One comment
  1. Jon Smith

    I cam across mint.com recently – a must have for this kind of personal finance tracking.
    Absolutely superb free website/app for keeping track of your finances in an easy to understand way – lots of big progress bars and goal setting!

    Regards Jon
    Choose Your Accountant

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