Optimizing Stewardship Time with Technology

I used to be a die-hard pen and paper budgeter. Transactions were logged daily, mental math was done, and in each budget category I could see exactly what I had spent. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Tracking spending is incredibly valuable. Even if you’re habitually frugal, expenses have a way of moving up and down each month, and it’s helpful to know if you’re still on target. The trouble comes when you want to go from tracking spending for a month to compiling that information in a useful way.

My method of compilation used to be in custom spreadsheets I designed (and redesigned, and tweaked, and…) to give the information I needed. Tracking averages, seeing trends, etc. I thought spreadsheets were superior because I could design them to track whatever parameters I wanted.

Unfortunately, that takes a lot time.

I have no problem spending a little time touching base with money. I am, after all, the steward of the house. In looking to reduce time and simplify my tasks, I could have gone all the way to a more passive tracking solution like Mint to Personal Capital. Those would have reduced the time I spent budgeting, particular in spreadsheet vision, but in reducing that time they would not have solved the issue.

The reason I spent so much time futzing with spreadsheets was because I had a hard time translating past to future. Once the tracking habit is there, past is easy. But there’s a reason they say hindsight is 20/20. Knowing the past is not what the steward should be (so) concerned about. Their job is steering the household through the future. Future planning was always hard for me until I finally gave in to (numerous) recommendations and tried YNAB. $54 (via my link) might seem like a lot for a budgeting tool when there are so many free options about. I’m not even a person to use the “time is money” argument. But YNAB has saved me time; more importantly, it’s provided a great deal of sanity when attempting to pierce the veil of the future.

Obviously it’s not magic. Unexpected expenses crop up, but for me it’s an invaluable tool. And it’s finally given me the confidence to get a little more hands-off with money. Instead of logging receipts daily and paying (some) bills manually, I’ve automated nearly all of it.

  • Auto-Pay: every single recurring bill is automatically paid. I’ve used online payments for years but rarely put any of them on auto-pay. Nearly all debitors have a feature to do this via their website. For the last few stragglers, I used my bank’s online bill pay feature. Tomorrow will be the first time I’ve written a check in months (assuming our permit for chickens gets approved) because it is the only accepted payment method.
  • Importing statements and activity electronically: I still keep physical receipts around when necessary, especially for split categories, but instead of logging stuff into YNAB the day I got it, I’ve instituted “Money Fridays”, a once a week time I download the previous week’s credit card and bank activity, importing it into YNAB. I could do it less frequently, but for right now weekly works well, as there are many months I have to tweak categories or back off planned purchases because other things have cropped up.
  • Simpler finance date nights: with YNAB’s budget screen, our somewhat involved finance dates have gotten much faster. Sometimes the discussion is just as detailed as before, but I no longer have to spend time putting numbers into a presentable format. It’s right there on the screen.

Has it saved money? Yes and no. Our consumption decisions would have been much the same, but giving me extra clarity about the future has allowed me to be more aggressive about debt repayments and savings goals without needing to keep a large unallocated cash buffer.

How has technology optimized your ability to handle money and make stewardship decisions for your household (be a household of one, or of many)?


Goblin Hoard Report Card – April 2015

April has been a good month for us non-financially. Spring is always a great time (in years we actually get one). I’ve been busy in the garden, along with the goblins helping and asking questions. We’ve gotten some very nice hikes, been to the zoo, and I’ve tried to keep up with my writing despite it all (mixed results there the past week or so).

The Alchemist turned 32 this month. Her birthday weekend had weather that was as good as you can possibly ask for in Wisconsin during April. Just outstanding, and much fun was had by all.

May will be a large income month for us (triple pay period) but even with our normal income this month, I’ve been able to partially refill a few of our sink funds. Going forward, our big expenses are going to be evaluating whether to fix some nagging problems on our van or drive it into the ground and save for a replacement, and possible surgery for our youngest for a nagging issue that we thought had resolved itself a few years ago but has returned again – waiting on doctor’s visit(s) to know, but medical care in the U.S. is always a financially sobering experience.

Income: $3,456

Total Outflows: $3,233

Health and Wellness

  • Life Insurance: $39
  • Health: Maintenance: Net inflow of $93
  • Health: Sickness: $0 <– Funny story, none of my kids have been to a doctor for anything in over a year; When calling about my youngest’s issue, I realized (much to my chagrin) he hasn’t been seen in nearly 3 years. Yikes! Hopefully his vaccination schedule isn’t shot to hell.

Food Related

  • Master Category Trailing Average: $700
  • Groceries: $388 (Detailed spreadsheet viewable here)
  • Bulk Food: $0 (Forward balance: $0)
  • Garden: $394 (Forward balance: $50)<–Some (excellent) weeding/cultivation tools and rabbit fencing mostly. Also some replacement seeds.

General Spending

  • Discretionary: $36 (Forward balance: $64) <–First restaurant visit of the year, for the Alchemist’s birthday. Probably last until vacation.
  • Kids/Education: $51 (Forward balance: $83) <–Mainly spending from their savings/allowances.
  • Personal – Chief: $11 (Forward balance: -$100)
  • Personal – Alchemist: $16 (Forward balance: $0)
  • Travel: $0 (Forward balance: $883)

House

  • Mortgage PITI: $1,061
  • Chief cell phone: $30 (trailing average: $11.50)
  • Internet: $59
  • Gas/Electric: $174
  • Water: $163
  • Netflix: $9.49
  • House Savings: $38 (Forward balance: $342)

Transportation

  • Insurance: Net inflow of $23, as we get a percentage of our policy returned on having no claims.
  • Fuel: 110.77
  • Capital Fund: $163 (Forward balance: $915)

Student Loan Debt

  • Required Payments: $724
  • Extra Payments: $0

[Einar] #6 – A Name Shouted Into the Abyss

Note: for more about my fiction, see this page.

The east road from Tashi was one leg of an ancient trading road out of Mindseye. From the city of Revealers it travelled east along the northern coast of the Grey Steppe, then to Shadowsbane, and finally Xia, the easternmost city in Nelara before one met the Worldspine. Roughly every ten pok, or ten thousand strides, were strung campsites called waygroves. On the wind-blown steppe, the waygroves were often the only visible trees across the entire horizon. Here, the groves were planted on the borders between farms, only loosely distinguishable from the tree cropping visible as far as the eye could see.

When the Lyrians had first standardized the footpaths used by locals, they marked the waygroves with small stone obelisks standing waist-high. Einar had seen many cracked, crumbled to dust, or carted off. The waygrove they stopped at for the night had lost its original one long ago, but he’d helped his father find and carve a suitable replacement. It stood on the trail, the chiseled ‘WAYGROVE’ sharp and unweathered. In smaller letters they’d carefully added ‘by authority of Tashi.’ The actual grove was accessible up a small path, a windscreen of evergreens planted atop a hill.

Maera looked up the path. “Do you think anyone else is up there?” From the road, all they could see was a shadowed portal through the dense grove.

Einar peered up, shading his face against the intense sunset. “No smoke. But why do you ask, anyways? The whole point of this trip is to talk with strangers, isn’t it?”

She laughed. “I know. We just need privacy for the spell I am hoping to cast tonight, that’s all.” Read the rest of this entry »


Skyrim Belongs to the Nords

This is partly a test post to see how well Flickr image sharing works. My data allotment with WP is evaporating quickly with our photo-intensive posts, and I don’t care to spend $$ on storage when there are free sources and workarounds.

When resuscitating my ancient Flickr account I found all of the cool screenshots I spent hours playing games like Skyrim to get. I’m cherry picking a few to share here – let me know if the Flickr embedding doesn’t work well or if there are issues.

A Harsh Northern Dawn #2

A Witcher's Work

A Molten Star

Snowblind

Twin Moons

A Glimpse of Winterhold

TESV 2013-07-25 21-38-14-29

That last one has often been an image I’ve used when thinking about the Tree of Life in my fiction series.


April 2015 Garden Tour

I figured it was time for a photo tour of the garden. It’s all pretty brown right now, but we just got a nice soaking rain, so thing should speed up quickly, even with cool temperatures forecasted much of this next week.

This is the view looking at the front of the house from the street. Not pictured (would have been in the immediate foreground) is a bed between sidewalk and street – which all my neighbors seem to think is illegal – planted to snap peas. The bed in the foreground has one rhubarb crown in it and will be planted with the gooseberries and raspberries when they arrive.

DSC_0943 Read the rest of this entry »


Hiking the Monches segment of the Ice Age Trail

For those not familiar with it, the Ice Age Trail, it is one of the longer hiking trails in the United States, though it is not yet finished. The total 1200 mile route (yes, Wisconsin is that big!) runs up and down many of the best geological features from the last Ice Age (hence the name), so there’s a lot of going in and out of glacial-formed hills, valleys, and whatnot. The marked sections currently stand at 600 miles, so most people refer to the trail by its segments.

In the past we’ve done most of our hikes at the Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which includes a section of the Ice Age Trail, but the Alchemist (rightly so!) wanted to hike somewhere different. A friend of ours, who’s hiked a goodly portion of the marked segments, recommended the Monches segment.

Like many of the segments we’ve done, the glacial features let you see many distinct biomes in just a few short miles. The goblins only lasted 1.8 miles (a bit disappointing, as I know they can do longer) before we turned around, but in that short span we went from a hardwood forest (predominately oak, with some aspen and beech) into a lovely riparian zone, followed by a wetland that featured some insanely loud frogs even in the mid-afternoon.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking:


April 2015 Zoo Trip

Last Thursday was the Alchemist’s birthday. Originally she’d had an important meeting at work scheduled that day that got cancelled last-minute, so she took a half day and we surprised the kids with a trip to the zoo. We have a zoo pass, so we get there often, but the weather that day was particularly fantastic – especially for April!

I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking, however.


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