{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Happiness and hoarding

Money is not to be wasted on things that bring you happiness and joy! Money is to be hoarded, until you have enough money that your money makes more money.

A recurring theme in the FIRE movement brutally distilled into two sentences of cartoon wisdom.

It was four in the morning. My younger son chuckled over a Teen Titans Go! episode. Acid wit and delicious irony combined with the occasional personal finance lesson.

He was unable to sleep. The holiday villa was hot. No breeze. Uncomfortable beds. Unfamiliar surroundings. In the spirit of “misery loves company”, that meant I was not destined to sleep either.

With our overseas summer travel plans cruelled by the pandemic, we found ourselves spending a long weekend at a holiday park somewhere in middle England. “Spending” was certainly the operative word! Between high season price gouging and randomly changing public health guidelines, the vacation cost roughly the same amount as our planned adventure around the Balkans, despite the much shorter distances and duration involved.

While my son watched cartoons, I reflected on just how “personal” the personal finance subject is.

The lessons are both few and simple. Often repeated yet seldom heard.

Only absorbed once we have reached a place and time in our lives that we are receptive to them.

They don’t resemble puzzle pieces, that must be correctly assembled in the right order to win the game. That would be easy.

Rather, they are more like random pieces of Lego without a set of instructions. Able to be assembled into infinite combinations. Limited only by the knowledge and imagination of the individual player.

Some combinations are world-beating. Others suboptimal.

Fun, when used correctly. Inconvenient if lost. Capable of self-harm if left neglected on the floor.

Many of the personal finance lessons I have learned can be attributed back to books I have read.

The Richest Man In Babylon taught me:

  • spend less than I earn
  • differentiate between needs and wants
  • pay myself first, not save what is leftover
  • maximise earning potential by investing in myself
  • the road to wealth is paved with recurring income streams, preferably passive ones

The Millionaire Next Door taught me:

  • save more by spending less, don’t buy stuff I don’t need
  • millionaires don’t live like “millionaires”, people who do generally aren’t
  • housing costs are our first or second-largest expense category, choose living location wisely
  • the Bank of Mum & Dad yields a lifestyle that cannot be supported by personal income alone
  • beware of survivorship bias, most subjects interviewed made their millions via small business ownership, yet in real life the majority of small businesses fail

Rich Dad Poor Dad taught me:

  • assets generate cash flow, anything that does not is a liability
  • aim to replace my salary with recurring investment income streams
  • employees are taxed on earnings, business owners only pay tax on profits
  • invest in wealth generation, savings used for anything else is just deferred spending
  • manage risk, don’t avoid it

From 0 to 130 Properties in 3.5 Years taught me:

  • assess the value of potential purchases in terms of hours effort expended to pay for them
  • successful businesses are cash flow positive, profitable, scalable, and sustainable
  • investment outcomes involve trading off anticipated rewards, potential risks, and timescales
  • wealth can be manufactured by creating more in perceived value than actual cost
  • focus on what will attract paying customers

The 4-Hour Workweek taught me:

  • identify the important things, then do them well
  • value is based on what was delivered, not how much time has been invested
  • assign a price to my time, then outsource tasks which create less value than they “cost” to perform
  • ideas are unproven until they generate income, actions speak louder than words
  • selling is hard, focus on high margin and high-quality to minimise the number of sales required

The Intelligent Investor taught me:

  • Mr Market”, the avatar of collective investors, is irrational, prone to overreaction, and stupid
  • doing the thinking ahead of time means I already know what to do during times of uncertainty
  • put a plan together, put it into action, and then stick with it
  • consistently achieving safe and steady returns is more reliable than swinging for the fences
  • reduce risk via diversification

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing taught me:

  • in the short term, being good is indistinguishable from being lucky
  • in the long term, being able to consistently pick winners is highly unlikely
  • slow and steady returns generated by passive index trackers have historically outperformed market timers in the long run
  • fees and taxes erode investment returns, so minimise them

Collectively, these lessons provided a framework of personal finance ideas and behaviours, that when combined with some good fortune, have helped me to achieve the semi-retired lifestyle I enjoy today.

The uncomfortable truth behind that cartoon quote is that personal finance does involve a spectrum.

At one end sits happiness and joy. Hoarding money and doing the work can be found at the other.

The elapsed time required to achieve our financial goals is largely determined by where we aim on that spectrum. The more leisurely the approach, the longer the journey will take. Anyone telling you different is trying to sell you something!

How successful we are at achieving our financial goals is largely determined by how sustainable that targeted position is over the long term. Too little happiness and joy, and we will be miserable and quit long before the game is won. Too much, and we are unlikely to ever reach our desired destination.

The cartoon finished as the first hint of dawn crept over the horizon. A badger ambled past the villa’s patio window, then moments later ran back the other way, pursued by a protective deer.

Neither knew the slightest thing about personal finance wisdom.

Their blissful ignorance positioning them at the happiness and joy end of the spectrum. Where there is no safety net, and every day is a struggle for survival.

Style over substance

Our day was full of fun outdoor adventures. Archery. Cycling. Swimming. Waterslides. Late in the afternoon, my batteries were flat, so I lured the kids back to the villa with the promise of pizza.

As we sat around the outdoor table, feeding our faces and playing “Go Fish!”, a peacock strutted past.

Striking.

Magnificent.

Impractical. Unable to fly very far. Or for very long.

A triumph of style over substance.

By the time the sun set behind the trees, the empty pizza boxes had been replaced by screen time.

My Feedly contained a handful of summer filler posts. A lazy listicle with a clickbait headline promised to reveal the “best budgeting and personal finance apps for 2020”.

Suspecting I must be nearing the end of the infinite scroll, I skimmed the article. Each review consisted of a couple of screenshots and a hundred word summary of what each app did well.

I couldn’t help but notice how alike many of the apps looked.

Big colourful charts. Lists of account or category balances. Lots of white space.

Each seeking to solve a similar problem via a unique hook or dubious gimmick. Few were compelling.

Rapidly scrolling through the list of screenshots created a kaleidoscope of colours which mirrored the plumage of the peacock. Acorns. Mint. Personal Capital. Robinhood. You Need A Budget.

I couldn’t help wondering whether these too were a triumph of style over substance?

Few of the personal finance lessons I had learned were tangibly addressed by the apps.

Budgeting apps allow us to lie to ourselves about how good we are going to be with money.

After the fact, spending trackers then tell the story of where that wishful thinking went wrong.

All the apps attempt to use technology to solve what is fundamentally a people and process problem.

Few admitting the only way that approach can succeed is by removing fallible humans from the equation.

Benedict Evans once eloquently called bullshit on the line of thinking that “computers are for creating, mobile devices are for consuming”. His theory went that initially new tools are created to fit the old ways of working, but over time the nature of those new tools change the way in which the work is performed.

In some cases, the need for the work may be automated or eliminated entirely.

Manually entering bank transactions, foreign exchange rates, or stock prices. Classifying expenditure based upon merchant name, arbitrary judgement, or prior experience. Unitising investment portfolios.

Once the job of spreadsheets running on traditional computers with proper keyboards. Impractical and no fun at all to attempt on a mobile device.

In other cases, new technical capabilities lead to new features we quickly embrace and adopt.

Automated payments. Contactless. Notifications. Realtime fraud alerts. Rule-based decision making.

Handy and useful on a mobile device you carry around in your pocket.

Sometimes a changing competitive or regulatory landscape leads to new possibilities.

Comparison shopping engines. GDPR right to data portability. Open banking. Software as a Service.

All relying upon automation and interfaces that allow computers to seamlessly talk to one another.

The right tool for the job

I wondered why the current generation of personal finance apps were such a poor fit for those timeless lessons? And if that were the case, how had some of them become so successful?

Most successful apps are one-trick ponies.

Simple by design. Near zero learning curve. Involving no friction in their user experience. Require little time investment to use. Usable by both sugared-up toddlers and self-important CxOs.

The current generation apps resemble individual tools in a toolbox. Each purpose-built to solve only one problem well. Budgeting. Expenditure tracking. Saving. Investing. Wealth management.

Desktop personal finance applications of old, like Money and Quicken, were more like Swiss Army knives. A single tool that was capable of performing many functions. Doing few of them well.

While far from perfect, they offered the user one thing that the modern generation of mobile apps does not: a holistic view of their finances.

Which may be why in this era of “mobile first”, many people continue to use hand-rolled spreadsheets to manage their money.

Each app focuses on a narrow set of short term tactics and immediate gratification, that are essential to capturing and retaining a slice of the mobile user’s fleeting attention.

Yet looking through those lessons above, personal finance is really about developing and executing a strategy that will succeed over the long term. Creating a design that answers the questions of what jobs need doing? In which order? Using which tools to solve each problem?

The way the work gets performed has certainly evolved with the new tools. For the most part, these purpose built apps are better at their chosen task than the old Swiss Army knife applications ever were.

However, today those single-function apps do not support the seamless exchange of data required to provide that holistic view.

This is unsurprising, as there is no commercial incentive for them to do so. A budgeting app doesn’t care which shares I invest in, any more than a wealth management app cares how much I spend on holidays.

And yet their users absolutely do care about all those things.

That overarching perspective is vital for making well-informed decisions. Something not easily accomplished when information is scattered across a multitude of disparate and inconsistent siloes.

A case of misaligned commercials. Inconsistent goals.

Like happiness and hoarding.

How do you manage your personal finances? What apps do you use? What gaps and shortcomings do you find yourself manually working around?


Update: This post is generating some interesting reader feedback, so I’ve included a quick chart summarising the responses.


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31 Comments

  1. [HCF] 24 August 2020

    I have to admit that I don’t use anything. Initially I tried the pen&paper, then the spreadsheet way. Also had a look on many apps and I got pissed off because of this same reason. None of them were a perfect fit, would need multiple of them to fulfill some of the needs. Additionally in our country the automated data transfer is unlikely or clearly was not supported.

    What I ended up with is simplicity. Paint a financial picture which is so simple that you can keep an eye on it easily all the time. I pick one or two goals a time and every now and then I sketch up a back of a napkin spreadsheet to project how will I reach it/them. Then handle the actions manually at the start of every month. Rinse and repeat. I understand that this is not a good fit for most of the people but it works for us in our current financial situation and wealth level.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 24 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks HCF.

      There’s no one right way to manage our finances, that is part of what makes them personal.

      That said, there are plenty of wrong ways to do it, so choosing simplicity is a good way to reduce risk and keep focussed on the prize.

  2. GentlemansFamilyFinances 24 August 2020

    I’m so glad that you posted this – it’s been on my mind for sometime now.
    By the way, our hols in Istria are postponed until next year (and just in time too!)

    My own system is to use a spreadsheet which records all income, outgoings, differences (like cash flow) and asset values (a tab for every type). IODA I call it.
    Extra tabs for things like tax planning, to do list, fee calculation, FIRE calculations, other calculations, graphs/calculations and all that.

    The values are all updated at the end of the month and all done manually (as in no number grabbing from apps/accounts.
    Each month has values in it giving historical data and also future calculated data for expected asset values/dividends.
    It’s my own system and I’ve built it, I know it and it’s useless for anyone else. I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach but then again, I have a lot of baggage in that spreadsheet – so I’d think that way wouldn’t I?

    It would it be easier to just have a single app on the phone to use but I don’t think I’ll ever change. I don’t think that I’d be 100% comfortable with it.
    There’s also 4 of us, many accounts and all that – just too complicated really.

    The trend to have all your money in one place is obviously what FinTech are fighting to be the best at. I don’t know how it’ll turn out in a few years because change is happening. The only problem is that the youngsters out there have less wealth than the oldiewonks (and given that I’m 38 and not lumbered by student loan debt and broke, I’m old!)

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

      Sounds like you’re a dinosaur masquerading in a millennial’s body there GFF!

      Having a hand-rolled spreadsheet tailored to your exact preferences and thinking patterns is a winner for many people.

      The risk is that it reinforces what we already know, yet potentially creates a barrier for trying/adopting new ideas. Part of that is sunk cost fallacy. Part is fear of breaking what already works. Part is having our existing approach being found wanting by the challenges issued by something new/different.

      One thing I’ve found the apps are good for is shining a spotlight on existing behaviours. Most people are good at tracking, but lazy/reluctant when it comes to analysing the story that tracked information has to tell. The better apps do that for you automatically, leaving nowhere to hide behind.

      • GentlemansFamilyFinances 25 August 2020

        The last point that you make is particularly relevant to spending apps that track where you’ve been spending money (latte factor style).
        I am not sure how it works for assets – given that we choose our assets/mix and later find out we should have gone all in on Tesla or the next flavour of the month

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

          I am not sure how it works for assets

          It can work in a similar way. Highlighting exposure to a given currency, market, asset class, or risk exposure. So in a typical case, a simple asset allocation chart might tell the user that they are more exposed to real estate than they realised (e.g. own home + REIT exposure via pension + REIT exposure via ISA + property developer exposure via a P2P lending platform).

  3. Harmlos 25 August 2020

    I use GnuCash. I learned basic double-entry bookkeeping by using it. It shows me our cashflow and our assets. It is open source and it gets regular updates.

  4. bsdb3 25 August 2020

    I’m another GnuCash user since 2012, I manually enter transactions and share/fund prices. I did write an integration to yahoo finance but they pulled the plug on their api so back to entering it by hand. It is time consuming updating it a couple of times a week, but I think there’s some value as it makes you monitor what’s going on, which might be lost with automation. It also makes you consider how to classify things, forecast and see cause and effect.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks bsdb3.

      It was a sad day when Yahoo! Finance ended their price API, that broke quite a number of personal finance products that had been sold offering a feature it turned out the vendors neither owned nor controlled. Talk about having pants pulled down in public!

      A quick suggestion to ease the data entry burden if it gets too tedious. Setup a Google Sheet with automated price updates via the GoogleFinance function, then write a simple flat file/spreadsheet importer into GNUCash. Not a technically difficult exercise, and might help improve data quality if you have lots of prices to key in.

      • bsdb3 25 August 2020

        Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll give that go – I’ll probably write it next time the markets fall because it’s always less painful inputting the price data when you you’re seeing the valuations going up, it’ll be more clinical running a macro when I have to take a hit. I’ve created a spreadsheet that connects to the GnuCash database that works out my asset allocations taking into account the proportion of bonds, shares etc held in the tracker funds I hold. The accountant at work said I’d probably only keep it going for a few weeks, but 8 years of data to hand now.

        I’m going to be interested to see if lockdown will affect peoples discretionary spending going forwards. Anecdotally I’ve heard of quite a few people suprising themselves saving money not being able to go out to the pub or restaurants. It’ll be interested if many switch to being savers.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

          I’m going to be interested to see if lockdown will affect peoples discretionary spending going forwards.

          Another variant of this is people realising how much it actually costs them to go to work. Season tickets + Pret breakfast/lunch + coffee shop habit + dry cleaning + overpriced City gym membership + etc.

          Previously few people would have given that any thought, just a cost of doing business. Now I think people are starting to realise that a job which pays £10k less but is located an hour closer to home may actually leave them better off from both a quality of life perspective and potentially financially as well.

          Mileage may vary, but this aspect of the pandemic has been eye opening for many.

  5. John Smith 25 August 2020

    I use libreoffice calc (the MS Excel equivalent in Linux) spreadsheets. Mobile appl are useless because I use concurrently multiple plastic cards. Therefore, their partial summary/categories have no meanings for me. I introduce data manually because I do not allow any bank to communicate with another one; even more: NO country to country exchange of info, as much as possible. (they do it anyway, partialy even without my cooperation).

    In principle, I could live without any spreadsheet, as my 50 years in advance (month by month) balances were very near as my predictions. I can export it as PDF and glue it on the wall (I joke, of course) but I like the power of what-if scenarios, graphics.

    Covid will change the world, so for now I stay aside of investment (shares) or house purchases (climate change). Life is simple, but good, no stress.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks John Smith.

      I hear you on the reticence to trust the open banking gods with your internet banking/brokerage credentials. 20+ years working in and around corporate IT departments has taught me that reluctance is well founded!

      • David Andrews 25 August 2020

        I used to work for a well known credit rating company. They were pushing open banking as a way to assist customers analyse their finances and look for better deals. Or rather a way for our company to nudge them towards deals that were beneficial / affiliated to our partners and not always the best on the market. I’m not signed up to open banking and suspect I never will. I recall

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

          The conflict of interest is certainly one aspect, but what I was referring to was the historical need to persist a customer’s internet banking/brokerage credentials so that a third party service could impersonate the customer and perform screen scraping activities on the bank/broker’s website.

          Persisting passwords in a clear text or a decryptable form has long been a security anti-pattern. The recommendation being to store them as a one-way hash so that when (not if) the provider suffers a data breach the passwords themselves are not compromised.

          Unfortunately, the screen scraping approach required third party services to log in using the customer’s unencrypted password to the bank/broker.

          The good news is that practice is being replaced by APIs and trusted identity providers.

  6. David Andrews 25 August 2020

    My son (6 years old) also watches Teen Titans Go! (it drives me barmy) – I vaguely recall Robin was the Titan with the personal finance knowledge. My son used to call Cyborg – Sideboard and Beast Boy – Beach Boy. I generally just use my trusty spreadsheet to manage my not too complicate finances.

    The low interest climate has motivated to simplify my accounts as stoozing into interest bearing accounts is not really worth it anymore.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks David.

      I was curious about “stoozing” but, as with matched betting, when I looked into it I couldn’t make the numbers work. As soon as I factored in the premium on my time, the ever more burdensome compliance/KYC hoops that applicants must jump through negated the paltry financial rewards in a low interest environment.

  7. weenie 26 August 2020

    I use spreadsheets for my personal finance – my main one has over 20 tabs/worksheets covering my investments, FIRE plans (including different scenarios etc). I’ve also got notebooks with some bits in as sometimes I enjoy putting pen to paper for my thoughts and anything good gets translated into spreadsheet!

    Like @GFF, they’re probably all useless to anyone else but they’re personal and work for me.

    Not sure I’d be comfortable using one app which controls everything – still too old school I guess.

    I don’t use any money managing apps but do use 3 investing apps and 4 banking apps.

    Anyway, some great principles you’ve quoted there from the books you’ve read.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 26 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks weenie.

      I like your “design before build” approach, I wish some of my developers would think more like you do!

      Do you use the investing apps for portfolio management and research, or just for executing trades?

      • weenie 27 August 2020

        The investing apps are mostly just for executing trades, although I sometimes use the HL app for research (I prefer using the website).

  8. Pendle Witch 29 August 2020

    Hey Indeedably! Congrats on passing the 2-year mark, and on the summer interlude.

    Sounds like C***er (sic) P**cs to me! Tried it once but it seemed more like a money-extraction juggernaut than a holiday camp. In the same way that an airport is now a shopping mall with a couple of runways attached. And maybe those financial apps also have ulterior motives.

    Spreadsheet for me, updated monthly with basic numbers. I’ve been running it for 3 years; upon setting it up I discovered we were FI inadvertently. (The joy of an unassuming lifestyle! —and not going to CP more than once.) But, yes, we shouldn’t hoard.

    All the best in navigating the remainder of 2020.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 August 2020 — Post author

      Thanks Pendle Witch.

      This time around it was a case of just swallowing my pride and paying what it cost to drag the kids out of the city, (mostly) away from the screens, and have a good time out of the house where they’ve spent the last six months. I viewed it as a bit like a trip to Disneyland (similar wallet shock, but without the queues).

      • Pendle Witch 29 August 2020

        I’ll forgive you just this once 😉 Hope you all had a great time. Gotta be cheaper than a trip to Oz!

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 29 August 2020 — Post author

          Gotta be cheaper than a trip to Oz!

          True, in the pre-COVID days I could have bought a decent second hand car for the price of the annual school holidays trip to Oz.

          The price is academic now though, as inbound passenger numbers are capped to whatever the quarantine hotels can cope with (~350 people per day in Sydney for example). That means the few airlines still servicing Australia are arriving with a Boeing/Airbus containing only ~60 passengers, while seat scarcity means they can charge those passengers whatever they like.

  9. Steveark 29 August 2020

    There is really nothing to manage. We spend less than we generate and I just keep track of net worth for fun. Its gone up by $400K in the five years we’ve both been retired. Personal Capital links seamlessly with all 18 of our investment and savings accounts and with our credit card, so its almost too easy to see the change in net worth from day to day, or minute to minute for that matter.

  10. Damian 5 September 2020

    Well written as always. Happy to hear you managed to get away for the holidays, even though it wasn’t as far as you would have liked. We followed through on our trip to Spain – the quarantine was a pain but thankfully now over!

    I like to think I am pretty good with new technology but in PF matters, I still use the good old spreadsheet.

    File our expenses once every two or three months. Usually no big surprises there.

    Update net worth a few times a year. Takes about an hour, so quite manageable.

    Neither activity generates wealth by itself, hence usually drops to the bottom of the to do list.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 5 September 2020 — Post author

      Thanks Damian. I agree, once we have established good financial habits and have our finances under control then most things can be left to run on autopilot. The occasional check should suffice to ensure we’re not being robbed or materially deviating from our plans.

      Fortunately the return quarantine in Britain is served at home, that makes it tolerable. I’m sure it would have been a different proposition entirely if you’d been locked up in an airport hotel room with the little kids and not much to keep them entertained!

  11. fatbritabroad 9 September 2020

    I seem to buck the trend here as I use money hub along with a separate spreadsheet for including other areas like child savings that I don’t want in my net worth.

    I’ve found money hub to be brilliant. Linked to nearly all my accounts automatically with a couple of manual entries for things like Saye schemes at work. It tracks all my transactions in one place allows me to easily spot fraud and categorises all my spending so I can see what’s gone where. The future is here and long may it continue

What say you?

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