I’ve been trying to figure out how to manage a budget for almost a decade. When I was working through college, I purchased a copy of Microsoft Money 99 to categorize my income and expenses. I used it religiously, keying in receipts and importing downloaded transaction files. It worked pretty well: I knew what I was making, and where I was spending it. Microsoft issued Money upgrades every year and I faithfully bought every other version.
Getting married introduced a new level of complexity, but Sarah was accommodating to my system and stacked ATM slips, grocery receipts, and bills in my inbox so I could key them into Money. Microsoft shipped a feature to categorize my downloaded transactions, but it was often wrong — meaning I’d have to spend time reconciling transactions with my bank statements at the end of the month. This was my least favorite exercise and I often let data entry go a month or two before I would find a spare weekend to download and correct the data.
From time to time, I’d try to print reports from Money to show Sarah where we were financially. I was able to generate things like pie and bar charts, but the information never felt actionable and we would leave conversations about finances little more assured then when we started. Worse, printing reports from Money took reams of paper. Charts were always fit to a whole page, and inefficient tables produced pages of empty whitespace around a few columns.
Later changes in Money got me seriously considering a break-up. Money 2006 had a complete GUI makeover, using the same uglystick Microsoft perfected with Hotmail: what was once a refined user interface suddenly felt like it was designed by Fischer Price. Database corruption was common and, though quickly fixed with the Restore feature, got me wondering about the danger of proprietary lock-in — if that database was hosed, we were screwed. On top of all that, a pet peeve of mine was never solved over my eight years’ experience with Money: there was no real helpful way to categorize credit card payments as an expense AND a transfer.
A New Sense of Urgency
Last year we had our first child, and I had a whole new sense of urgency to solve the household budget problem. My wife left work in January and I didn’t know if our lifestyle was sustainable on a single income. After more than a little prayer, I set out to find the One True Metric of any household budget: income vs. expenses. It’s a number — income minus expenses — that tells you whether you’re breaking even at the end of the month. If it’s positive, you’ve got money in the bank; if it’s negative, then you’re breaking out the credit cards.
So, inspired by a simple graph of donations in my church bulletin, I produced a bar graph to show income, expenses, and the balance on a month-over-month basis. The good news was that we were in the black. Further influenced by a coworker, I set out to create a one page dashboard of our entire financial story. Unlike Money, I took the approach of cramming as many data points into this page as possible while maintaining readability. The end result was a two-page document that describes our finances from both a high-level overview and a detailed expense report for the year. Every month, I update the spreadsheet and post it on the refrigerator so we can refer back to it from time to time.
The Budget Overview
The first page provides an overview of our entire financial situation: the first column contains a month-over-month snapshot of Income vs. Expenses, followed by Key Expenses, and then Investment values. That’s followed by the second column which shows a month-over-month view of Debt, Savings, and Retirement. Trends quickly become visible at a glance.
Another iteration of the spreadsheet added a third column which shows year-over-year forecasts for Debt, Savings and Retirement — all of which are dynamically calculated from values I plug in right on the page. Across the top, I’ve provided our short- and long-term goals to remind us where we’re going.
The Budget Detail
The second page provides a month-over-month breakout of how every dollar flows in and out of our checking account. To the left, I’ve grouped categories by Income (green for good!), fixed expenses (yellow: not likely to change), flexible spending (orange: might change unexpectedly) and out of budget (red for bad!); I can also tell when a bill is coming due by the Day column. In the following columns, I can compare monthly average expenditures against our budget to anticipate where we need to adjust.
Following to the right, I’ve provided a “heat map” for each expense per month: red for over budget, gray for on budget, green for below budget (vice-versa goes for income categories). On the right, a Year to Date running total and percentages that tell me what portion of our income or expenses are made up of each category.
Finally, at the top right is the One True Metric: a percentage of expenses vs. income. If that number is positive, then we’re living within our means. If red, then I know we need to control spending somewhere before it becomes debt.
Link to an example of the two-page printout, populated with fake data, below.
I’ll provide a link to the spreadsheet itself and a technical overview later on how this report is actually generated, but I do have to say that producing this document would have been a lot more difficult — maybe impossible — without Wesabe, my financial management tool of choice. Their simplicity and openness really enabled me to pull this information together into Microsoft Excel in a very straightforward manner. Setting up an account with Wesabe is step 0 in this whole process, because you need to get a handle on cash flow before you can start to analyze your overall budget.
I was very hesitant to share this spreadsheet. The more we used and refined it, the more excited I got about it. But, I’ve fallen victim to false hopes in software and process before (as any number of Palm devices I’ve owned could tell you). We’ve now been using the spreadsheet for a year, and I’m assured that it works. We get actionable, meaningful information about our finances that we can plan on and talk constructively about. My wife and I feel more confident in our finances than any other time in our marriage.
The problem is: it’s really wonky to use. You have to really know how to use Excel features like Conditional Formatting and Pivot Tables, and have a firm grasp on formulas. Adding new budget categories is simple, but not trivial; tweaking forecast charts requires fiddling with complicated amortization tables; and God help you if you want to plot new credit cards or savings accounts you don’t know how to use charts. I do this stuff for a living, so it’s straightforward, but still takes me a couple of hours at the end of every month to churn.
My hope is that I can invoke the lazyweb (or, better, the well-funded-capitalist-web or even the clearly-self-motivated-web) to take up making a real system of this idea. I want to be able to hand something to my family and friends and have them derive the same benefit with a tenth the technical learning curve it takes now. If you’re interested, getting in touch is good, but downloading, hacking, and posting your results on the web is better.
Getting this right could really change the lives of lots of people for the better.