My Dad and father-in-law were at both ends of the spectrum when it came to managing their checking accounts. Dad would spend hours, sometimes days, tracking down a two cent error in his checkbook register. It drove him bonkers when his checkbook didn’t balance to the penny with the account statement.
My father-in-law, on the other hand, didn’t even keep a checkbook register. He couldn’t be bothered with balancing his account. His philosophy was, “If I run out of money the bank will let me know.” That is a hands off approach that few of us can get away with, but, it worked for a person that was born and lived in a town of less than 800 people. The bank did, indeed, let my father-in-law know when he was overdrawn. They never, to my knowledge, charged him overdraft fees.
That approach can work in a small town in Northern Idaho. Most of us, however, do not have that kind of a relationship with our bank. In order for our personal finances to run smoothly, it is our responsibility to make the lifestyle choices, and do the work associated with managing our day-to-day finances. How we handle our checking account and credit card transactions is fundamental to keeping things running well.
My Approach Is Somewhere In The Middle
My approach to managing our family checkbook register is somewhere between the two parental extremes cited above. My wife, Lois, and I record all transactions in our register and, like clockwork, I balance our account every month. What I don’t do is spend an unnecessary amount of time trying to find errors when our account doesn’t balance with the statement. If the error is within comfortable limits, I adjust the account balance and then get on with my life. What’s a “comfortable limit?” That depends on the account balance. My error tolerance is directly proportional to how much money we have on hand when the error occurs. Balancing errors don’t happen very often. More often than not our checkbook balances to the penny. The accuracy can be attributed in some measure to the fact that I use personal finance management software.
The point is that personal finances do require some work, but, perfection may not be desirable. There are a lot of people involved in the processing of the various transactions each of us generates as part of our monetary lives. Those millions upon millions of transactions, large and small, are all subject to our own human error as well as the human errors that can be committed by all of those people behind the scenes who we rarely think about. It behooves us, therefore, to keep tabs on the pulse of our personal finances as recorded in our checkbook and credit card accounts. This ongoing monitoring can be psychotic or a normal, healthy part of our lives. It’s up to each one of us to decide where we stand on this issue. Will we adopt a fringe behavior like one of my parents? Or will we keep it sane and simple (K.I.S.S.)?
Using Tools Imposes Lifestyle Choices
Using a cash flow management tool forces you to make choices by imposing lifestyle traits that are required if the tool is going to work as intended. That may sound intimidating, but, for a well written, user friendly program, the required lifestyle traits are not an undue burden. For those of us who are sincerely interested in having “more money than month” instead of “more month than money,” developing a few, possibly new habits need not be a harsh adjustment. The payback in financial peace of mind is very well worth it.
Choices We Make Regardless
First, let’s take a look at those habits that will make your financial life easier regardless of whether or not you use personal finance software.
* Keep your checkbook register accurate. Your checking account is probably your primary money management tool. It just makes common sense, in my opinion, to keep your checkbook register up-to-date and accurate. If you are not used to writing every transaction (e.g. checks, ATM transactions, deposits) in your checkbook register, or balancing your checkbook every month, these are habits you may want to look at developing immediately. Should you decide to use a money management program, an accurate checkbook is imperative.
* Keep an accurate record of charge transactions. If you use charge cards, keeping an accurate record of your charges and returns is also vital to the success of your cash flow management efforts. In my opinion, not keeping track of charges is a main contributor to why many people get into trouble with charge card debt. I think it is vitally important that, starting today, you keep the receipts from all of your charge transactions for no other reason than for reconciling your monthly credit card statement. If you are using appropriate personal finance software, charge transactions are entered into the program as soon as convenient. The program will, with accurate charging information, keep you informed of where you stand on your charge card debt.
Choices Imposed By Software
The following issues are specific to the successful use of many personal finance programs.
* One checking account. How people manage their personal funds is very, well, personal. For a single person, the choices are simplified. Once a person takes on a partner, however, personal finances can become complicated depending on how much financial autonomy each partner requires. Regardless of how many savings and checking accounts each single or partnered person may have, at least one checking account is normally required for use with the software. This one checking account, coupled with the program, is used to plan for and pay bills; plan and pay for planned purchases; and to smooth out weekly living expenses. The intent is for the program and it’s associated checking account to encapsulate a person’s entire month-to-month financial records.
* Pay bills on a schedule. Instead of paying bills when you receive them or when you get paid, pay your bills on the same days each month. An appropriate schedule for most people would be on the 1st and 15th of each month. The mechanics of bill payment (e.g. check, cash, online, automatic withdrawal) are entirely up to you, but, sitting down twice a month and arranging for your bills to be paid on or before the date they are due will simplify and smooth the paying of your bills.
* Pay yourself on a schedule. “Paying” yourself a fixed amount of spending money the same day each week regardless of when you receive your income will smooth out your day-to-day expenses. How much weekly spending money you give yourself is entirely up to you as is the weekday on which you “pay” yourself. The trick is to find that amount of weekly spending money that is enough for day-to-day expenses, but not so much that you don’t leave yourself enough to pay bills. An appropriately written personal finance program will automatically include your personal “payday” in your month-to-month financial projection so you can easily see whether you have correctly set your weekly spending money amount.
* Keep accurate records. An appropriately written personal finance program gives you a “forward looking” projection of your month-to-month cash flow. When using such a tool, keeping your cash flow projection current is the key to giving you a continual picture of where you are and where you’re headed. You will, therefore, have to be consistent with keeping your month-to-month financial records current. With the right personal finance software, this does not have to be a big chore like keeping track of every penny you spend, or entering and categorizing every check you write. In an appropriately written personal finance program, most of your record keeping will consist of entering bills when you receive them, entering charges as you incur them, paying yourself once a week, reconciling bank and charge account statements, and paying bills. Typically, all of this financial activity will take two to four hours per month.
There are a couple of habits that Lois and I have d
eloped that simplify tasks like the keeping of accurate records. When any piece of paper is received on which is recorded a financial transaction, that piece of paper is placed in our “In” basket. While most of our financial transactions are handled electronically, there are still items like charge slips, magazine subscriptions and account statements that are printed. By placing all such printed items in one place, they get recorded in our computer records accurately and in a timely manner. It is unusual for one of our paper transactions to be forgotten.
Those pieces of paper that are needed for account reconciliation, like credit card receipts, are put into a “Hold” folder after having been recorded in our personal finance software. Those pieces of paper that are not needed after being recorded are shredded or burned. After reconciling credit card statements, all of the pieces of paper for transactions that have cleared are removed from the “Hold” folder and also destroyed.
It’s a simple system, but, it works for us. As long as everyone in a household knows the “paperwork flow,” and habitually uses that flow, the chances that transactions will be lost, resulting in potential financial errors, are greatly reduced.
Being Big Brother To Your Checking Account
Another habit that I have adopted is the close, online supervision of our checking account. I’m a big fan of online banking which gives me almost up to the minute information about the status of our checking account. As part of my computer startup procedure, I take a look at the activity in our checking account. This may sound a bit paranoid, but, I’ve been able to spot unexpected activity on several occasions. There has been nothing traumatic like identity theft, but, by keeping a close eye on checking account activity I’ve caught unexpected withdrawals shortly after they happened instead of being surprised on the next account statement. The most recent example involved automatic credit card payments that I thought I had cancelled. It took two months working with the credit card company’s customer service staff to straighten that one out. Had I not spotted the first unexpected payment when it happened, our checking account could have been short by $75.00 each of those two months. That may not be a large amount, but, it could have been enough to cause a potential, inconvenient problem if left undetected.
Financial Peace Of Mind
All of the discussed lifestyle habits are so firmly embedded in Lois and my everyday lives that we no longer even think about them. Consequently, our month-to-month finances are smooth with few interruptions. When we do have to discuss financial issues, it’s a discussion over known choices instead of fights over who is doing, or not doing what. Money is not a source of discord in our lives like it can be for couples. Lois and I have been enjoying financial peace of mind for most of the 40+ years of our marriage. This financial bliss can be attributed directly to the unique cash flow techniques upon which our personal finance management software is based.