Saturday, December 23, 2006

Do I use Quicken or Money?

The answer to the title question is: "No." I use a spreadsheet to track my finances.

I started out when much younger by tracking my finances with paper, pencil, and calculator. I divided my income into categories in sort of an envelope system. Each payday, I added the budgeted amount and then tracked spending in each category. When Visicalc came out, I switched to using that. For those of you too young to remember, this is one of the first spreadsheet programs.

Later on, I stopped tracking many of the minor expenses such as groceries and food but continued to track major expenses such as mortgage payments and tracked to ensure that savings goals were being met. Having previously developed good spending habits while closely tracking expenses, I was able to manage without the effort of tracking details.

Instead, I began using spreadsheets to look at other aspects of my finances, such as tracking my mortgage balance and estimating my retirement. Tracking my mortgage paid off, because I discovered that the mortgage company was charging interest for an additional month on extra payments I was making against the principal.

I also use spreadsheets to calculate my taxes. My taxes aren't that complicated, but I do fill out more than the short form. I find tax calculation spreadsheets simple to set up, and the flow goes in this order:

  1. Schedule B
  2. 1040 side 1
  3. Schedule A
  4. 1040 side 2

My system includes tracking savings for goals of different time frames. Near term goals for me include making sure that I have enough set aside to make insurance and property tax payments as they come due in the next year -- since I've paid off the mortgage I have to do that myself. Long term goals are adequate retirement savings. Intermediate goals are setting aside money to buy the next car and setting aside money for major repairs to the house.

I have tried out both Quicken and Money. I didn't have the patience to go through all their questionnaires. I prefer to use the system I have -- the engineer in me likes to understand how some of the projections are done, and I disagree with some of the calculators I run into on the 'net.

I would not recommend my approach for someone who is having financial difficulty and/or is not setting enough aside for the future. That person needs to closely track their expenses so s/he can figure out how to get spending below income. Nor would I recommend it for someone who has trouble with math, or setting up a spreadsheet.