How We Manage Our Finances

The Budget ProblemMoney 99

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.

Money 2006

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.

Sample Report

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.

The Catch

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.

Noticing more Dahlias

Since we named our daughter a less common name, Ken and I notice when we hear about another Dahlia. Ken actually googled “Dahlia Joy” last night and the first hit was a flower enthusiast. Aside from Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, the name seems to be pretty scarce in our area. Coincidentally, I accidentally stumbled across this article about another baby Dahlia in Slate today:

The Baby Primary

What a great idea! I have to admit candidate pictures with my Dahlia would have been cuter….

Making up for December

A dear friend whom we missed very much during the holidays poked me today: is this thing still on? Are we dead? I told her we were just busy, which is stupid: of course we’re busy — who isn’t busy?

The new year and holidays came and went mercifully well, though we honestly wondered if we were going to make it through this one. 2006, a year I thought couldn’t have come sooner on Dec 31, 2005, left as quietly as it arrived. The year was not without its heartaches, which often brought us to tears of grief and loss. But, it was also a year in which there were no murders on our street, no car accidents, no layoffs, no massive hurricanes cutting a swath through my mom’s backyard.

I took a new job, the city of Newark saw its first glimpse of hope in Cory Booker, and we saw Europe for the first time.

And, of course, we got knocked up.

***

Listening to back-episodes of the Gillmor Gang lately has got me wondering what this site would look like if it was more like an attention stream than a blog. There are a dozen web services that I use on a regular basis — all of which have RSS capability. Aggregating that content on this site, I think, would provide a more useful picture of what I’ve been paying attention to over the past several weeks.

I also wanted a web design that wouldn’t just look like I just cobbled together a bunch of text from disparate sites, and I wanted to use a metaphor that would fit in one screen, so you can literally see the stream of my diggs, pictures, blogs (here and elsewhere), and twittering in the context of time. Hence the timeline up top (a free AJAX widget provided by those bright guys at MIT). Ultimately, the timeline will show different colors for the varying web services, the current design is a start — what do you think?

***

I actually get paid to play with the web in my job. A large portion of my responsibilities lie with the team Intranet site, which our managing director wants to use as our main communication medium and platform for tools inside our organization. There’s a lot of room to breathe with this new gig, and I’ve been able to come up with some interesting and creative ideas, leveraging ajaxy web 2.0 goodness like MIT’s timeline. Did you know that the Yahoo Maps API lets you use their software inside a firewall? At a commercial organization? For FREE?

It also occurred to me the other day that we can use Microsoft Access as a content management system for the site — and not how you would think, either. We’re currently restricted by our web host to HTML, CSS and JavaScript (with some server side include capability), and /that’s it/: no ASP, no Java, and don’t even think about open-source. With daily pressure to get graphs, charts, figures, news, and documents on the intranet daily, what’s an overworked web-monkey to do?

Well, one might surmise that said monkey could build some tables inside of Access to accomodate news items; maybe design some sweet forms to do the data entry for the news “blog”. Writing code to export that content in the form of an SHTML include file in Visual Basic is trivial, and the monkey knows how to write a batch file that will FTP the exported file to the right location on the intranet. Done. Now any member of the team (technical or no), can log into this Access database, type in their stuff and click “Publish”. And the beautiful part is that it works just like Moveable Type. Sure, it’s not very web 2.0, but it’s agile, doesn’t require a bureaucratic change request process, and will be up and running by tomorrow (I started working on it today).

You can also import all sorts of data, analyze it with queries, and output HTML tables which, combined with the PlotKit JavaScript library, can be graphed and charted with ease, which I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

***

Sarah got me a few books on fatherhood for Christmas this year, which I’ve just started plodding through (I figure they’re due by March 27th!). Aside from adding a number of to-dos to my list of things to talk about during our “Family Meeting Night”, it’s been a welcome sanity-check on just what we’re getting ourselves into. I told Schmoo tonight: “did you realize that that baby has to come /through/ your pelvis?” To which she replied, “well, how else did you expect it to come out?” And, of course I knew this had to be so. Only, it was only /too/ clear when I saw a drawing of an inverted baby floating through a skeletal pelvis on page 51 of The Birth Partner.

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I mentioned the Gillmor Gang, which, if you check out my Digg profile, is one of my dugg podcasts (note in passing to the Digg crew: please make it easy to check for the latest podcasts in my digg profile, thanks). It’s actually defunct now as Steve’s funding or time or patience had run out with his podcast provider, the last “Thanksgiving Gang” having been recorded way back in November. Undaunted, I’ve been making my way through his past episodes, whiling away the hours hacking databases and spreadsheets at work, listening to the crew of marketers, journalists, and entrepreneurs talk about their work, their predictions for the industry, and generally b.s. about the personalities behind the press releases.

It’s a brilliant model for a podcast: six or seven industry insiders get on a conference line and talk about whatever they feel about talking about. I’d love to use it one day — it reminds me of the days back at Ironworks when we’d just hang out and talk about the world’s problems until the middle of the night.

“Jason Calacanis”:http://www.calacanis.com, one of the resident entrepreneurs on the show, has been downright inspiring. His narrative of growing up a poor kid in the Burroughs and covering the tech scene in New York during the bubble before he launched his own blog network resonates with me. Between him and web 2.0 wonder-boy Mike Arrington and totally random (emergent?) Christian cartoon ex-Silicon Valley blogger Hugh MacLeod, I sometimes find them grasping towards the intersection of art and business — that place you get to when you find you’re doing great work, what you later will consider your life’s work. These guys love what they do, and I think for many of them, the day-to-day job — of writing, of deal-making, of building, of whatever — has transcended getting a paycheck into a craft. It’s always encouraging to those of us in the trenches to hear that it doesn’t always have to be this way: that there’s more important and interesting work out there waiting to be found.

***

I discovered Wesabe the other day: it’s like Microsoft Money for the web, with half the features. If it hasn’t been said before, let me be the first: CONSUMER BANKS (ESPECIALLY THE BIG ONES) NEED TO PROVIDE THIS KIND OF SERVICE IN THE NEXT 18 MONTHS OR DIE OF IRRELEVANCE. It’s actually offensive to me now that my bank doesn’t automatically provide me with analysis tools to track my spending and investment habits.

I actually did receive a year-end statement from my Credit Union last year that attempted to break out my spending into various categories for the first time ever, which I very much appreciated. But the first thing I did when they asked me to fill out a survey was to tell them: great job with the year-end spending breakout, now please do it every month, and put it online within a year.

Microsoft Money is a tragedy of an accident of a failure of a software product. I’ve been using it since 1998 and, much like the rest of Office, have come to loathe it in the last two or three years. They’ve added features I don’t use, they’ve left reporting bugs that drive me crazy, they’ve attempted every bit of lock-in they could think of to prevent me from getting my own personal financial data, and they’ve screwed with the user interface — which once looked like I was logging into a sophisticated, stately banking application — so that it now looks like a bad imitation of a Fischer-Price toy.

Wesabe is the first salvo of web 2.0 coming to banking apps, and I fully expect this trend to continue as the privacy issues are hashed out. I’ve already switched completely: how could I pass on instant financial analysis available anywhere I have a secure web connection? Now I’m just trying to figure out how to get five years of data out of Money to load into Wesabe.

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Well, if you made it this far through the brain-dump that is this blog, I wanted to thank you, dear readers, for sticking around through these past nearing-five years of Our Story. That some people with whom I’ve had passing encounters (such as “Nikkiana”:http://everytomorrow.org, “Sean”:http://semanticbible.org and “Dale”:http://wp.theoblogical.org/) continue to read this blog just amazes and humbles me. Thanks for reading.

***

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

— ??Steve Jobs??

So Emo

Having an Emo day? I am. Loving the new job, but those first couple defining weeks — you know, where you’re either identified as MVP or fumble the ball — are killer. Pandora has “some relief from the emo”:http://www.pandora.com/?sc=sh82150324808506612.

Things are good, really, though. I like working hard. I like showing up at the office, dressed sharp and ready to take names and…well, “you know the rest”:http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&lr=&q=%22taking+names+and+kicking+*%22&btnG=Search. It’s a nice change from hating my job and being stuck in spreadsheet hell.

I’ve been writing at the Newark blog again, which I’ve been calling the “Daily Newarker”:http://blog.newarker.info/, of late. The “K2 theme”:http://getk2.com has been pretty stable, so I’ve been able to add some features. I recently was annoyed when I couldn’t get Google Ads working on the site. It took me 30 minutes, but eventually I figured out that my “ad blocker”:http://adblockplus.org/en/ was preventing my from seeing them. Lol and all the rest.

Europe feels like it was 6 months ago, but I’ve been working on the next blog entry about our trip. Sorry to leave y’all hanging there. We’re alive and well, and better for having gone. I spent what must have been five hours this past weekend trying to grind out another story, and I have a newfound respect for trilogy authors: part II is always tough.

More pictures will be going up soon of our trip to Europe. The hard drive on the laptop is stuffed to the rafters, though, so I can’t post new stuff until I can get it off the camera. I had this problem in Europe, too, and spent not a few hours paring and slicing and thinning out the content on the drive to make room.

I religiously rate my iTunes music so every once in a while I can dump the crap (songs rated 2 *’s are not long for this world). I’ve started the same habit with photos, too, which makes a lot of sense: why keep 20 photos of the same sunset trying to catch just the right shot when you can keep the one photo that tells the story and clear 30 MB of disk space by deleting the other 19? I might blog about our photo workflow at some point, but that’s it in a nutshell.

I got an email today telling me that “Festivus is upon us”:http://flickr.com/photos/matthewkrautheim/76472941/. I can’t wait.

Europe – Week 1: London and Berlin

Update: We’re back to the grind, but writing takes time. In the meantime: photos! “London”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594313249803/, “Berlin”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594329081504/, “Frankfurt Day Trips”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594322198201/, “Munich”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594329065327/, “Austrian Alps”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594329053756/, “Florence”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594346417126/, “Rome”:http://flickr.com/photos/kennsarah/sets/72157594346422642/.

Our first week in Europe has been harrowing and exhilirating. The first two stops — London and Berlin — were vibrant cities rich with history that Sarah and I can relate to and even remember.

London is a bustling center of fashion and high finance, and we found ourselves right at home with the pace of the city that was very much like New York. While the only Londoners we met were people trying to sell us stuff (again, not too unlike NYC), many of the people we interacted with were kind. Our favorite person by far was Alan, our double-decker bus tour guide. With his microtirades on the “Gherkin” building and the Fergie’s pop video “London Bridge”, he was like Ricky Gervais on a bus — his occasionally sarcastic Tour Guide role played very much like David from the BBC comedy, The Office.

I have to admit that it took a while for London’s charms to set in, but it finally happened while we were standing in Trafalgar Square at dusk. Standing in front of the National Gallery as Big Ben lit up in the distance — just breathtaking. That same afternoon, we’d had a delicious High Tea at the historically frou-frou Fortnam & Mason hotel. Even the photos of our food makes me hungry for scones and Earl Grey.

We left London after a break-neck tour of the National Museum, seeing _the_ Rosetta Stone — used by archeologists to translate hieroglyphs and unlock 4000 years of ancient written culture — Assyrian stone tablets and gates, and the greek Elgin Marbles, which the Apostle Paul likely saw in the Acropolis when he arrived in Rome.

We’d run out of cash on the last of our three days in London, so I went to use the ATM. I should have known there was a problem with our card when I had tried to download an album from iTunes just the night before and the transaction was rejected. Sure enough, the ATM gobbled up our card, with no way of getting it back. We had a whole 20 GBP left to make it through the day in crazy-expensive London while we waited for an opportune time to call the bank.

After the museum, we grabbed a cheap lunch from a nearby supermarket, caught the tube to the airport and took a flight to Berlin.

Getting to Berlin is a story in itself as we flew into town at 10:30 PM — apparently past closing time for the ticket counter. With our Eurail pass yet to be validated, we risked having the pass confiscated or facing a 40 Euro fine. With 92 pence left in my pocket, we prayed as we rode the S-Bahn into town that we would be able to avoid either of these dire consequences. No one ever checked our pass.

Berlin is an amazing city with a short and dramatic history. Once the home of Hitler’s totalitarian regime only to become the site of American/USSR tensions during the Cold War, the city is now rebounding under unified Germany. Our efforts to get a new ATM card sent to our next stop killed half a day, sending me trolling around the city for free Wi-Fi. Later that afternoon, though, we were able to take in the sights as we walked through Rick Steves’ do-it-yourself tour on Bus #100. The bombed-out Wilhelm Memorial Church near Bahnhof Zoo and the shelling damage in the marble Victory Column in Tiergarten were not-so-subtle reminders of Berlin’s recent past, and it was eerie to stand there and imagine the sounds of air raid sirens and tanks as American forces bombarded the city during World War II.

Stranger still were the sights of Nazi sculptures nestled in the trees around the Victory Column — which was moved to the “Central Park” of Berlin by Hitler himself in anticipation of the victory marches following the defeat of the Allied forces. Further uptown we found the impressively large Reichstag parlimentary building. The proud hulk of a building stands as reminder of the hope of a unified Germany. Outside the building is the memorial to the early senators who were persecuted and killed because they opposed Hitler as he rose to power. We walked south of the Reichstag to find Brandenburg Gate and, beyond it, Pariser Square. The Berlin Wall once cut right past this gate and, as we crossed into what used to be East Berlin, we were astonished to find a Starbucks. We sat and had a latté from one of the most capitalist of institutions inside of what, only 40 years ago, was one of the most fortified communist strongholds.

From there, we toured Unter den Linden and strolled past fancy car dealerships, embassies, and historic landmarks (including the Hotel Adlom, where Michael Jackson dangled his child from the balcony). We took in the sights and made our way to what used to be known as Checkpoint Charlie, where a replica of the original gate stands alongside a new and bewildering museum remembering the stories of those daring enough to escape into West Berlin.

The next day, still strapped for cash, we stopped short of entering the Pergamon museum to see the Gates of Ischtar — an ancient Assyrian structure which we’d seen pieces of in the Metropolitan Museum of Art just the week before. Not able to pay the 10 Euro admittance for each of us, we settled instead on buying a small cardboard cut-out for our pastor, who is now preaching through the Book of Daniel.

Afterwards, we boarded a train for our next stop, Frankfurt, with a handful of small bills and cheese sandwiches we’d created from our hotel’s breakfast buffet.