Monday, November 29, 2010

Money management

As I wrote yesterday, money management on the phone is an important must-have for me. I think I have to explain how I manage money to even explain why, and that makes me wonder, what do other people do?

Why does there have to be a part on my phone? Because maybe half of the time I'm spending money, it's in places where my computer isn't. Gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants, etc. In the bad old days I collected receipts and then entered them into my PC software (Microsoft Money) when I got home, a process that was tedious and prone to error. Nowadays, I enter them into my phone, and then they synchronize into Money when I get home.

Once the data is in Money, it knows both my past transactions and, more importantly, my forecasted future ones (and those are fairly robust at being repeating, with exceptions, so I can easily keep up with having an accurate forecast). It can thus make me a graph showing me my future balance of any account for any future time period. I can scan it for low points, especially those that drop below zero, and then figure out ways to fix those by delaying purchases, decreasing spending, moving money between accounts, deferring things via the one-month credit card no-cost float technique (pay balance in full within the month and there's no interest, if your card offers that, and I make sure mine do), or other techniques.

Right now, using Ultrasoft Money on the Windows Mobile phone gets most of the work done. But there are a few annoying limitations. The first is that the Windows Mobile version of Ultrasoft Money lacks any support for the "Bills and Deposits" function in Money -- which is what Money calls all future transactions. In the old Palm version, you could bring up your list of future transactions, and "Enter" one -- that is, turn it from a future transaction into a real one, changing the amount if necessary, and thus removing it from the future transactions list if it was one-time, or advancing it to its next iteration if it was repeating. That's just what you do in Money, too.

But the Windows Mobile version doesn't know about future transactions. So if I have a future transaction for grocery shopping, when I enter the actual amount in Ultrasoft Money and then sync, I have to later go into Money on the PC and manually skip the future transaction that already happened. Which is not just a pain, but kind of defeats the purpose of capturing the transaction on the phone at the moment it happens. Since Ultrasoft already implemented support for future transactions on the Palm many years ago, we all hoped they'd get it into the Windows Mobile version too, and they hinted it was coming, and then cut off support for the product entirely.

The other problem is that Money on the PC is a very feature-rich program that does everything I need it to, but it is amazingly slow. Mind-numbingly stupidly slow. It takes about 2-3 minutes just to open it, and then for the first 20 minutes or so, it pegs my CPU and takes upwards of a minute just to repaint the screen with a list of deposits. Later versions are actually worse about this, and Microsoft has deprecated the product line in favor of their cloud approach, so that'll never be fixed. There's no viable way to archive old transactions to make one's database smaller, also stupidly, but even if one does archive stuff it doesn't seem to help.

I can live with these problems, and have for a few years, but I wouldn't mind a chance to break out of them. And if I move away from Windows Mobile, I might have to; I don't know if there's an iPhone app that does what Ultrasoft Money does. Maybe there's a better one, but more likely there's less, since compatability with little-used Microsoft software is hardly the strong suit of Apple products.

What I wonder is, what does everyone else do? The cynic in me worries the answer is that many people don't even balance checkbooks but just check their balance once in a while, and even those who do, most of them don't forecast future balances at all, let alone as rigorously and effortlessly (apart from that inexplicable slowness) as I do in Money. So maybe I won't find an answer because even managing your money like this is too oddball to attract developers. Or are people doing something in the cloud and don't need software on their phones? They must be doing something somewhere, at least some of them. I suppose I'll have to either figure out before moving to a new phone, or just go back to having to record things on paper or in a note and then manually process them in Money when I get home.


litlfrog said...

The inability to use one piece of software to synchronize future transactions and completed transactions is what made me give up on the entire idea years ago. I haven't balanced a checkbook in years; actual errors by modern banks are very rare, though I do check my balance every day in case I see something I don't recognize. If I found software that could recognize and consolidate the transactions I enter in ($61.08 at Shaw's, for example), those transactions once they get processed, and even budgeted items for the future (I've spent $61.08 out of my grocery budget for the month), I'd give it the old college try. Until then, keeping accounts in that level of detail is wasted effort for me.

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

Those are exactly what Money does for me, though. I can tell precisely how much I spent at any payee (like Shaws), or in any category (like Groceries), or from any account, or any combination of those things. I can use that to track how much I have allocated to my budget and update my future transactions, and then I can tell what my balance is going to be, approximately, and deal with problems before they come up. Money does that exceedingly well, albeit very slowly.

The "problem" I have is simply that there's an extra step when I use my phone. I have a transaction at Shaws this coming Saturday. If I had my PC with me at the supermarket, or brought the receipt home and did it there, I would simply click on that transaction, click Enter, key in the actual amount, and I'm done. The transaction reseeds itself for two weeks later, my budget for Groceries and for Shaws are updated so I can see my spending habits, and my accounts are updated.

But if I enter the amount on my phone, that's a standalone transaction. When I get home and sync my phone, it shows up in my accounts, in my Groceries budget, in my Shaws payee account; but it doesn't tie back to that scheduled transaction. I have to click on that and click Skip, so it will reseed itself for two weeks later.

What I'm wondering is whether using Money to do this is even the current way to do it. Do people do it all on their smartphones? Do they do it through a website? Or do they just not do it at all?