My approach to tracking my spending has traditionally been to wait for credit card bills to come, then (hopefully) pay them off. Three new online services promise to help you do a better job of tracking as you buy.
All three services scan electronic receipts you get by email for details such as products, merchant and price. Two of them even handle paper receipts sent in by camera phone.
Once the receipts are in the system, you can visit the service's website and pull details on a particular purchase. Copies of email and paper receipts are kept, so you can chuck the originals. In some cases, you can filter purchases, so you can choose to see only the ones from Best Buy or fast-food restaurants, for instance.
Each service has good features, but none of them offer a complete solution. Which one is right for you? That will depend on your shopping habits and your needs.
This free service automatically sifts through your Gmail or Yahoo account and looks for email receipts. It's familiar with those from more than 1,000 merchants. It'll tell you whether an item has been delivered yet, and it'll give you a link to that merchant's return policy. In some cases, it'll even tell you the last day you can return an item.
Slice tries to be complete by including digital downloads, phone apps and Netflix DVD shipments. But it failed to account for the use of a gift certificate and a free shipping promotion through Amazon. It also missed bus tickets, groceries and an order from Macy's.
If Slice misses something, you can forward email receipts for processing, though it doesn't always know what to do.
Changes promised in the next month or so should address some of my gripes. Now, you have to forward a receipt to your Gmail or Yahoo account first, then forward it to Slice from there. Not only is that awkward, it also means you need a Gmail or Yahoo account. Slice will soon let you forward from any account.
If you bought something at a physical store, you're out of luck. There's no way to manually add items or scan paper receipts.
Once everything's in Slice, you can review what you bought at a glance. By clicking on boxes to the left, you can filter your purchases based on attributes such as where you bought it or whether you've returned it. You can use that to find out what movie tickets you bought through Fandango and how much you spent on them. By typing "Harry Potter" into a search box, you get all the Harry Potter books, DVDs, movie tickets and digital downloads regardless of the merchant.
Coming soon will be the ability to edit price and other details.
Slice also finds tracking numbers in your email and checks FedEx and other websites to tell you when to expect your package. For merchants with price guarantees, Slice will also alert you to price drops so you can make a claim. Slice is alone among the three services I tested in offering this.
Slice is a record of your digital commerce and is a good option if you rarely buy things in person.
This service tracks email receipts just as Slice does, except you must forward everything to a Lemon.com address you are assigned. It won't automatically scan your Gmail or Yahoo account for you. Then again, it won't require one, either.
Lemon improves on Slice in is its ability to scan paper receipts. Just snap a photo of the receipt using a free app available for most smartphones. Lemon takes the images and pulls key transaction details automatically.
Within minutes, for instance, it figured out I spent $5.44 at Subway on Nov. 25 even though the only reference to Subway was its Web address. Smart. It properly recognized local restaurants along with faded and crumpled receipts.
The free version of Lemon gives you only the total amounts paid for purchases. You'll need to pay $1 per receipt or $9 a month for Lemon's premium account, which pulls details such as individual items purchased, taxes and tips, when applicable, from paper receipts.
Lemon didn't recognize some of my email receipts, including a few from large merchants such as Amazon. Lemon says Amazon alone has about 200 different receipt formats, and the service hasn't learned them all yet. That should improve over time. Meanwhile, you can manually add items, unlike with Slice.
You can give your assigned Lemon address to online merchants for order confirmations. That way, you can avoid having to forward receipts and spare your email account of newsletters and other junk from that merchant. Unfortunately, you can't send from the Lemon account, should you need to contact the merchant about a problem or forward your flight details to a friend. Lemon says that capability should be available by the end of March.
Lemon tries to categorize purchases, such as "food and dining" and "fast food" for Subway. That lets you analyze how you've been spending your money.
Lemon is good for tracking your spending online and off. You can do more with it than with Slice, though you'll need to do more work to keep it clean. It's good if you do a lot of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores.
Think of this service as a hybrid. Like Slice, OneReceipt scans your Gmail or Yahoo account for receipts. Like Lemon, you can forward receipts from any email account to an assigned address at OneReceipt.com. You can also send photos of paper receipts. OneReceipt categorizes your spending and gives you reports to analyze, just like Lemon.
OneReceipt was the most comprehensive of the three. Unfortunately, it doesn't execute as well as the others.
The comparison isn't entirely fair, as the other two services had several weeks' head start and much larger staffs than OneReceipt's four employees. Promised upgrades coming "soon" could help close the gap. I can't recommend OneReceipt yet, but I can't dismiss it entirely either.
For now, whether Slice or Lemon is better for you depends on whether you're mostly an online or an offline shopper. Or go with both, at least until OneReceipt can catch up.
Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology editor for The Associated Press, can be reached at njesdanun(at)ap.org.