If you’ve been in the market for a budget app that will transform your financial life—let me save you the trouble. After spending time linking my bank accounts to several different finance-tracking or budgeting technologies (and a lot more time un-linking them), I’m still doing all my budgeting and finance tracking manually.
Let me tell you why:
1. The lack of flexibility is frustrating.
Apps that link directly to your bank account don’t allow users to break down categories within a particular transaction, even though I (admittedly) spend more on health and beauty at my local supermarket than on groceries. By the looks of my budget app, you’d think I was buying enough groceries to feed a small village, when really, I was stocking up on shampoo and razors and Covergirl mascara for friends who live abroad.
While you can move transactions between categories, I haven’t yet found a way to track this information accurately, and it’s important to me particularly because I work on a farm in exchange for much of my produce, so I shouldn’t be spending a lot at the grocery store. I’m sure you will also find exceptions like this in your budget, and when you’re really trying to get a handle on your finances, knowing where every dollar has gone isn’t as simple as breaking down by transaction type.
2. I’m an adult; I don’t need to be scolded or talked down to.
Yes, I’m the kind of “adult” that still has to Google “how to be an adult,” but when it comes to budgeting, I don’t want to be scolded or made to feel bad about my purchases. I bought a car a few months ago, and that giant transaction looms over my “monthly spending” in every budget app I tried. Every app told me that I’ve overspent my income by $4,000 every month, which of course isn’t the case—it’s just basing this information on an average that includes one large purchase made three months ago.
Using averages like this has completely skewed the technology’s understanding of my spending patterns, and while I could wait for that transaction to be far enough in the past, I don’t want to wait to start getting my finances on track; I need this information each and every month. Most of us are not buying a car every month—in fact, this was the first time I had bought one in more than eight years, and I don’t want to be patronized or scolded for that—I’m a millennial, I want to be lauded and praised and showered with compliments! Don’t talk down to me, Budget App. I’ve got a masters degree, and I’m smarter than you.
3. I want to break up with circle graphs.
This is a personal preference, but I just don’t visually connect to the very popular way of demonstrating a budget using a circle graph. Does it count the money I’ve put in savings as “spent”? Even when I overspend, the circle is still whole. In an ideal world, every dollar would have its place. But you and I know that there is always that little bit one way or another that isn’t accounted for or that carries over to the next month. What is the point of this graph? It means nothing to me.
4. The recommendations aren’t relevant.
I remember getting a lot of alerts, particularly from Mint, when I was carrying a balance of about $1,000 on my credit card. It was telling me to transfer the balance (even though I wasn’t paying any interest on it yet), and constantly giving me suggestions about how to pay it down.
Sure enough, these alerts guilted me into paying down my credit card to $0 because of a constant keeping-me-up-at-night fear (I’ve always been a rule-follower) that I’m a bad person for carrying this balance on my credit card. This, by the way, turned out to be terrible advice: credit cards are invented to allow you to have money up-front when you need it, and if you are responsible about paying them down, they can be an incredibly useful tool in your financial toolbox to help you build credit and budget well.
I’ve got a lot of problems, but a credit card balance isn’t really one of them. My hefty student loans, on the other hand, could stand to be addressed. But the app was only marketing certain products, ones that are paid for by its sponsors. And sure enough, even when I had a $0 credit card balance, I was still getting alerts about switching credit cards and paying down my balance—cue me throwing my phone across the room in frustration.
So go ahead, get intimate with your finances. When it’s time to do my monthly finance tracking, I take myself on a retreat. I budget for an outrageously expensive, gigantic latte and sit at the biggest table in the coffeeshop with printouts of all my bank account transactions and a pile of receipts (I only keep them if they’re relevant—refer to #1), and I get to work. I like to use Numbers on my iPad to keep track of my spreadsheets. I like the control, the satisfaction of deleting the circle graph, and the feeling of see everything in its place with categories that I choose and name flexibly.
I find that making this otherwise daunting task a little less painful by sitting in a place that makes me feel at ease, with something yummy, then I’m perfectly happy to do it. I can imagine that if you had a good friend who was open to sharing financial information and habits, this could be even more fun. Not everything needs to be fun; it’s true. But why not bring a little joy to this otherwise daunting task? I know you’ll find it takes less time and produces better, more relevant results. Plus, you’ll know your financial situation better, and you’ll feel more confident and free with your spending and saving habits.