Sunday, July 03, 2005

Quicken-Killing, or Money Meditations

I expect it was this post on the 43Folders Google Group that got me to thinking about Quicken, money management (surely one of my lifelong meditations), and folding all that into my daily life. The original poster was asking if there was a GTD-like approach to money management that would enable you to get money stuff "off your mind" yet still provide enough cohesion via a simple set of processes or habits.

The answers tended to software or to setting up multiple checking accounts. Some people seem to naturally get money management, but the vast majority of us don't.

As in so many cases, Liz leads the way. Her years in New York made frugality second-nature and in the last 10 years she had jobs that consistently paid very good wages. So she was able to sock a lot of that away.

My jobs have tended to the interesting but low-paying. For whatever reason--laziness, "I wanna," not enough money--I've never been able to save money consistently unless it's taken out of my paycheck automatically. And even then, I find my disposable cash has frittered away through too much eating out, too many books or CDs, and so on.

Liz uses a tape calculator and her checkbook to manage her finances. I was using the late, lamented Managing Your Money (with a great software manual written by Andrew Tobias) back in the late 1990s and when I moved to Windows, eventually clambered onto the Quicken bandwagon (I had a friend who worked at Intuit).

With Quicken, I found I could buy the previous version rather cheaply via Yahoo Shopping or Ebay, so I've consistently stayed several years behind the upgrade curve. Typically, I only upgrade in odd-numbered years (I'm using Quicken 2003 now) and only when forced.

I've bought and skimmed a few copies of Stephen Nelson's Quicken for Dummies series, and one of the most striking bits of advice he offers regarding Quicken's various features is to ask yourself: Do I really need it?

Do I really need to break out my paycheck deductions using Quicken's paycheck feature? After all, your stub breaks it out for you and keeps a running total as well. Why not just enter the net figure into Quicken and be done with it?

Do I really need to track my mutual funds in Quicken (or even subscribe to Quicken's various online services to do this)? After all, I get quarterly statements from them which have all the totals and enough history for me to gauge how they're doing. And besides--attempting to stay on top of how your investments are doing day-by-day, week-by-week, is crazy-making.

Now, Nelson dutifully tells you how to do all that if you want to do it, but I was grateful to him for that bit of wisdom. It simplified my money-tracking in Quicken enormously. (It reminded me, in fact, of David Allen's advice in his booklet on using Outlook to implement GTD. Allen's point there is to "dumb down" the busy Outlook interface so you can get useful work done.)

My use of Quicken became so simplified that I found myself using Quicken only for downloading my transactions from the bank, categorizing them, running the occasional report, and that was about it. I tried using the Savings Goals to approximate the "envelope system" of budgeting (more on that later), but it seemed too clumsy and I eventually deleted them. In fact, whenever I tried to get clever with Quicken, I always found Quicken to be cleverer--so clever that I decided it was best to give up before going any further. I reconciled myself to using maybe 10% of Quicken's firepower, but didn't feel too guilty about that. Still, that's an awful lot of program to be taking up space on my hard drive when I only use it for checkbook stuff.

A few years ago, with my beloved Psion 3mx's Sheet application, I devised my own variant of the envelope system, based on a book I was reading at the time, True Prosperity. Most people are familiar with the envelope system. It's explained very well here, though you may find the Christian wife deferring to "the wisdom of (her) husband" amusing. I certainly laughed; I'm the last person I'd ask for financial advice. (And I'm appalled by the site's name, but that's another topic.)

The envelope system is simple enough that a spreadsheet app is all you need to track and plan your spending. I filled all my envelopes with cash, and was impressed that it seemed to do what it promised. But of course, I had no hesitation to rob from an envelope if I really wanted to spend the money on something. After a while, going to the bank to retrieve the currency in all the specific denominations (mainly ones, fives, and tens) just struck me as too much trouble. There had to be a simpler way. In the meantime--back to Quicken.

So earlier this year I looked into other programs, saved into a bookmarks folder I called "Quicken Killers." I found myself intrigued by Mvelopes, which attempts to meld bookkeeping with the envelope system. I tried it and didn't like it. It's written in Java and ran horribly slow. I also disliked that you had to provide a credit card and sign up for 3 months service in order to simply try it out; and the ongoing monthly charges did not endear me to them.

In searching the Google groups, I also found some heated opinions against the envelope system: here (an especially good thread), here, here, and here. They boil down to the hassle of keeping money in envelopes or Quicken's Savings Goals, tying up your money when it could be used for some purpose, and the pointlessness of diddling with many separate goals instead of considering a single overall plan.

Their arguments are compelling and sensible. For them, the envelope system is a crutch that you really don't need and that is hazardous to people who are short of cash.

And yet...I needed something to help me think through how to manage my cash flow. As intelligent as I am, I'm not always smart enough to see what I have to do.

During my searches, I saw a Google ad for The B Word (the "B" word of course being "budgeting"). Although a lot of his system is described on his, um, rather loud, web pages, his actual implementation is described in a PDF that is included with the software. The software looks and behaves like a two-tabbed spreadsheet and is remarkably simple.

What he advocates pretty much resembles the envelope system. You average out what you pay to various line items over the year, and save enough per pay period to cover the monthly average. Using my Quicken reports, I did this pretty easily. It was disquieting to see that, at my current spending rate, I was going into the hole every month (thanks to our $800/mo. Cobra payments).

Yes, yes, I could have figured this out on my own. But the B Word gave me a simple set of tools and ideas that made it simple and obvious. Yes, all I needed was a spreadsheet that could quickly recalculate numbers and help me run planning models. But this was the sort of thinking I hoped Quicken could support with some simple tools in its arsenal. Unfortunately, it really can't. It's good at what it does (and I still use it to categorize transactions and run reports), but it couldn't help me plan.

While I'm sure I'm tying up extra money in my accounts, I really don't care. My goal is to save money and to have enough to cover both the expenses I'm expecting and the expenses that fly at my head from out of nowhere (like my car's water pump that died on my way in to work). For the first time in my life, I feel I can handle both types of expenses. And it rather painlessly enforces some much-needed discipline on my spending.

I also loved B Word's idea that you reserve your financial work for only 2 days of the month--updating my checking account, paying the bills, planning for the next budgeting period, etc. That simple idea (akin to the GTD Weekly Review, except this is the B Word Bimonthly Review) means I'm actually spending less time per month working on my accounts. My sessions are scheduled and focused.

Before, I was futzing with Quicken every weekend and spending an hour or two looking at reports that couldn't help me see what was happening to my money.

Now, twice a month, I work my plan, update my accounts in Quicken, adjust my B Word totals as needed, write the checks I need to write, and forget about the finances until the next B Word session. Any bills that come in get put in my tickler file for the next session.

I also am maintaining my discipline much better this time around than I did with the envelopes; I'm not shimmying money around from account to account to make up for shortfalls. Although the idea is the same, the implementation is different. And, to be fair, I'm 7 years older and have gone through a year when money was tight. I can look at my B Word sheets and see the implication of spending too much money on books or software or the latest shiny object from the Levenger catalog.

So far, so good. We'll see how it goes. I have hopes that I can now meditate on things other
than money.

Update 18-May-2006
  • I'm still using BWord, though I need to re-read the PDF; I find myself spending too much time on the financial stuff and I think it could go quicker.
  • I dumped Quicken and am using Moneydance, which is not without its quirks but is, to me, cleaner and more straightforward. It meets my needs very well. And it has a very active user base and mailing list.
  • Overall, I'm still doing very well managing my money using the BWord principles. I'll be taking on a car loan in the next few months, and BWord makes the shifting of priorities (as represented by my spending plan) easy and effortless.