Does this spreadsheet make me look anal?
Biggie said “mo’ money, mo’ problems,” but I say “mo’ money, earlier retirement” (unlike Jay-Z, I’m serious about retirement), so we started working with a financial planner several years ago. One of the first things he asked us to do was create a budget. At the time, he didn’t know the kind of behavior he was enabling.
(When I was younger I got a tee-shirt for my birthday that said “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”. Everyone at my party roared with laughter, but I wasn’t 100% sure what that term meant or how it applied to me. Didn’t sound good, so I looked it up (because, as it turns out, I am anal), and saw that the definition included the following helpful explanatory terms: meticulous, compulsive, and rigid. Yes, yes, and yet still more yes.)
You could say I’m compelled to document things. You never know when you might need information on things you did, food you ate, or money you spent several months or even years ago, right? Dave likes to tease me when I’m talking excitedly about some new idea by saying “I think you need a spreadsheet for that.” And I probably do.
Our financial planner wanted us to track our spending for a few months. But I created the following budget template and have entered every cent we spend into it since 2005.
This is admittedly old school and time consuming. For years, I entered transactions several times a month, sometimes during a Friday lunch break and often catching up on weekends. This worked for years, until it didn’t. Demands on my time increased and, I don’t know, maybe I got a life or something, because I just stopped feeling like spending significant chunks of my weekends catching up on this task.
Last year, I stuffed my expandable zip envelope with receipts until it no longer closed. The stack of monthly statements grew higher. At the end of each weekend without having made any progress, I moved the budget task to the next weekend in Good Todo. That is how I came to spend over 16 hours of my Christmas vacation entering our 2010 spending into the spreadsheet.
SIXTEEN HOURS. Merry Fucking Christmas.
Frustrating when I stopped to consider that’s only about 20 minutes a week if I’d just kept up with it throughout the year. But here’s the thing, it’s already April and I’ve entered only a handful of receipts and the January statements so far. So I have considered saying screw it, five years is enough, I know what we spend, we are OK, I quit. But I am compelled to keep tracking our spending, it gives us piece of mind. Our optional and incidental expenses are not very predictable, and even our regular spending sometimes surprises us, so keeping the spreadsheet helps us stay on track.
For example, did you know that although our household consists of two people and a dog, we spend a third of what the Duggars spend on food each month at the grocery store (assuming their restaurant budget is separate, otherwise we spend TWO-thirds what the Duggars spend on food each month)? Of course you didn’t know this and we didn’t either, until we tracked our spending. There is no way we would ever have guessed we spent that amount.
The key to saving money on groceries???
Which of course is the key ingredient of this…
Keeping the budget spreadsheet also helps us decide when we can splurge and how much. For example, a few weeks ago I happened upon the most adorable bag (see below, adorable right?). While it cost more than I usually spend on such a thing , we made an instant “connection” (if I were watching the Bachelor right now, Dave would tell me to take a drink). I loved it, I knew how I would use it, and I knew we could afford it. So I bought it and didn’t feel one bit guilty or anxious about it.
So I decided to continue to keep the budget spreadsheet, but do some research into options for making the task more efficient. Our financial advisor suggested that using an online system like Mint might make my life easier. I didn’t think that my budgeting needs were very demanding, but apparently they are because I haven’t found anything suitable.
What do I want in a budgeting service?
- Automatic updates for my key accounts (checking, credit cards)
- Customizability of budget categories
- Ability to retain ownership of my own data
I signed up for Mint and spent a little time setting up my key accounts and looking at the different features. I don’t need most of what they offer–fancy budgeting tools, colorful charts, or emails warning me that I spent more than usual on clothing last month (I know, I bought a purse, I was there!).
What I really want is for someone else to update my budget spreadsheet for me. In lieu of that (!), I would settle for being able to export my budget information in a way that allows me to easily recreate my spreadsheet or something close to it. But Mint is apparently the Apple of online budgeting and does not want you to be able to manipulate your own data. There isn’t an option for exporting your budget, only individual transactions. Organizing an export of transactions into a useful form (you know, by category and date) would take even longer than my current process.
Mint’s connection to my bank is also wonky. Mint wasn’t able to update my checking account transactions for over two months, but today it magically worked. So even if I were willing to give up on the exporting function, I would not be confident that Mint would have up to date bank transactions.
Unless I find a tool that meets all of my needs, I am stuck entering all of my transactions manually. Am I missing a great tool that offers all three of my critical features? What tools do you use to track your spending?