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)?


2 Comments on “Optimizing Stewardship Time with Technology”

  1. longwaytogo says:

    Sounds like it’s worked out well for you! Guess part of my resistance has been the unknown of my monthly pay. Some months I’ll make $2,000, some zero. How do I base my budget on that? I could just use an average from last year?

    I guess it could help smooth out the slow months over time just seems difficult to get it started. My wife teaching payroll is also a 20 pay period system from mid Sept to end of June.

    • David says:

      Do you need any part of your income to meet minimum necessary spending, cc debt payments, etc?

      If yes, then build a buffer category that you build up in good income months and draw down in bad months. We have a category in our budget that’s a combined emergency fund/cash buffer for unexpected expenses that exceed the month’s cashflow.

      If no, keep your spending as much as possible below your wife’s 12-month amortized salary (I know she’s a teacher, but I get the impression she’s only paid on a 10-month schedule so you need to bank a certain amount in the 10 months she’s paid to cover the two she is not.) YNAB is very useful because it’s super easy to earmark funds into categories. Any optional spending should only come if you have extra funds “available to budget”. If you can live on her salary alone, than your income becomes gravy and can go straight to debt – or, if there’s been a rough month or two – straight into the cash buffer/e-fund.

      When I worked, my income was irregular, but it was never zero. I knew what the minimum range would be (straight wage, no commission) and never planned any spending over that amount unless I had it in the buffer.

      A friend of mine has a husband who’s the sole earner and is paid as a sole proprietor – so, again, very irregular income, some months being zero. She builds buffers but also, when they receive large payments from jobs she constructs her budgets so they can go 1-2 months or more without any income.

      I poo-poo’ed YNAB for a while until I actually downloaded the free trial. It’s a bit overwhelming at first but it gives me so much clarity on how we’re doing both in the current month (tracking spending) but much more importantly in planning out and saving for the next few months.

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