Old problem, new trick

I went on a business trip to upstate New York this week and tried out a new system for keeping track of my expenses. It’s simple enough that I might actually stick with it.

There are a bunch of expense tracking apps for the iPhone. Most of them either require you to open some sort of web-based account, which I didn’t want for privacy reasons, or ask you to enter a bunch of information on your phone, which I didn’t want for tedium reasons. After looking things over, I decided to combine a few things I use already: JotNot Scanner Pro, email, and a Numbers expense report template.

I wrote about JotNot back in October. It’s a simple app that uses your iPhone camera as a scanner. What makes it different from the standard Camera app is that it crops, straightens, corrects for perspective, and equalizes the tone of your photos.


It turns out that this, combined with its ability to email the adjusted image, is all I really need.

In the past, I’d collect receipts during my trip and staple them to my expense report, which I’d make out when I got back to the office. This was pretty simple and hard to beat for efficiency, although I did have to be careful to keep my receipts together until the trip was over. If a client wanted a copy of my receipts, I’d lay them out on our scanner and turn them into a PDF that I could email along with the invoice. This was the part I hated. My company’s scanner, although networked, can’t be run from my Mac. I have to save the scans to a Windows machine and then log on to that computer from mine to get at them. If the scanner messes up—OK, if I mess up in using the scanner—I have to go back and forth between offices to redo it.

Scanning receipts in JotNot and mailing them to myself turns out to be really convenient. By default, JotNot puts its name in the text of the email, so when I get back to the office, I just search for “JotNot” in my inbox and drag the various receipts out of their mail messages and into my Numbers expense report.

There’s not much to my expense report. It’s just a simple Numbers template, a single sheet with two tables on it—one for the date of the report and one for the expenses themselves. I’m not a big fan of Numbers, but the ability to lay out separate tables on the same sheet works nicely for this kind of document. The date of the report doesn’t have to be regimented into the same grid structure as the expense details.

Numbers expense template

As I said, I drag the emailed receipts out of Mail and into Numbers, putting them on separate pages so they don’t block the table. The Show Print View command from the View menu is handy for making sure the edges of the receipts don’t leak over onto other pages. I print out a copy for our bookkeeper to use when comes in to cut our expense checks and “print” another copy as a PDF to email to the client along with the invoice.

Numbers allows you to rotate and resize images, so it’s easy to squeeze several receipts onto a single page. One thing I don’t like, and don’t understand, is that images dragged into Number always appear initially at the upper left corner of the first page, not where I “let go” of them. So after dragging them into Numbers, I have to drag them around within Numbers to get them where I want. This could be improved.1

There is, obviously, not much to my expense report template, but if you want to use it as a starting point to make one of your own, you can download a zip file of it. After expanding it, just double-click on the file to open it in Numbers. Make the changes you need, then choose Save As Template… from the File menu. It’ll available to choose from the template picker whenever you want to make a new spreadsheet.

Numbers template picker

  1. It’s possible that it has been improved. I’m using Numbers ’08, which is one behind the latest version. I’d be happy to upgrade, but the current version is ’09, and I refuse to upgrade to something that’s already 3 years old. Like David Sparks, I feel certain the whole iWorks suite is on the verge of getting a new version. The problem is we’ve both been certain about it for months and Apple still hasn’t come through.