A Passive Tracking Experiment
In case you can’t tell from my title, this article is a follow-on to my previous two “Tracking Your Money” posts. In the first article, I reviewed my historical use of various software applications to track my money over the past 20 years or so. In the second, my brother (Grumpus Brotherus the Younger) reviewed the software application called You Need A Budget (YNAB).
If you did not read the first post in this series, you probably should. I don’t just say that because my brother’s post sucked (it did), and I think mine is much better (it was), or I want the extra site traffic (I do). No, I say that because I actually made a few worthwhile points in the post … if I do say so myself. However, if you’re unwilling or unable to go to the post, let me provide you a re-cap.
In the first article, I pointed out that tracking your money is the most important step towards saving and planning for retirement that a person, couple, or family can take. I also stated that tracking money is far more important than building a budget. My opinion on those issues hasn’t changed. I still believe that a person, couple, and/or family can’t effectively plan for retirement until they know how much they are spending prior to retirement. Nor can they effectively save and invest for retirement if they don’t know where their money is going and what it is doing.
Despite that belief though, at the start of 2017, I started an experiment to track my money less aggressively. This experiment coincided with a switch from Quicken as my primary money tracking tool to Mint.com’s online software. While I still updated my Quicken file on my computer by downloading transactions throughout 2017, I stopped actively modifying the transactions, or splitting them into categories.
As for Mint.com, after I modified the software to correctly track most of my major transactions, I began to monitor it less and less on a daily basis. In May 2017 I added Personal Capital’s online money tracking application to my arsenal to provide the fidelity that Mint.com lacks in the area of tracking investments. Once I built up a level of comfort in June, I stopped using these apps on any sort of routine weekly basis. I would still check them from time to time throughout the month, but the only routine monitoring I did was at the end of the month to check net income and spending. I wanted to ensure we were hitting our monthly saving goals.
Now before you start yelling at me about sending mixed signals over the importance of tracking your money, let me explain why I switched to passive tracking. To be honest, part of me was curious. I’d spent the latter part of 2016 building and testing a retirement plan using three years of minutely detailed spending data. The plan itself provided an extremely clear savings goal for me and my family prior to my retirement from the military. Broken down into annual amounts, those savings goals appeared easily achievable for a family who’d disciplined its spending for over a decade.
As a result of the plan, I had a clear grasp on precisely what I needed to do with the money we saved, and what it would be used for. Thus, aside from tracking our monthly and annual savings, I no longer felt compelled to track every single dollar that came and went. I was curious to see if we could achieve our goals without the added time and stress it takes me to track our money aggressively.
Curiosity aside, I also saw an opportunity to create some precious free time in my busy weekly and monthly schedule. Tracking almost every dollar both my wife and/or I spent for the past 18+ years through either Microsoft Money and/or Quicken took a lot of time. I mean A LOT OF TIME!
Don’t get me wrong though, it came with obvious benefits like the decade-plus of disciplined spending I just mentioned above. The ultimate benefit this effort provided was the ability to create and test a retirement plan in a matter of nights with a high level of confidence in the numbers I used. In other words, I wasn’t fudging it. I had 18 years worth of detailed spending data to tell me the numbers I used were not only reasonable but accurate. Once I achieved that ultimate benefit though, I no longer felt compelled to track our money aggressively. In fact, I felt I could use the time more effectively doing other things.
What could be more important than ensuring we were hitting our savings goals for retirement down to the last dollar? Well, how about spending more time with the family? Or getting in better shape? Sleeping more? Getting in touch with old friends? Or writing this blog? That’s right, my new found free time opened up a myriad of opportunities including the re-stoking an old friendship which prompted the creation of this blog. As a matter of fact, the blog taking flight and finding its readership coincided precisely with the month I stopped actively tracking my money altogether.
Full disclosure, I also made a few other lifestyle changes at the same I started my passive money tracking experiment. This includes completely cutting the (cable) cord at our house, which led me to stop watching sports altogether. Thus, I don’t want to oversell the amount of time that can be saved by switching from active to passive money tracking. Nor do I want to undercut the importance of actively tracking your money by overstating the amount of work it took. In truth, the switch from active to passive tracking is only for people like me who are at a certain point in their relationship with money. Let’s call it the cruise control years.
For me, this period isn’t infinite. In fact, it’s probably finite. Therefore, I don’t see this decision as irreversible. Rather it’s more of an iterative process where I will bounce back and forth between actively and passively tracking our money based on the circumstances at the time. Most importantly, if our spending blows up or starts to run out of control, I can and will switch back to active tracking. If the result of the experiment shows promise though, I can see cruising until a year prior to my retirement … or maybe retirement itself. Woohoo!
So I gained time and quelled my curiosity by running this experiment, but what were some of the potential pitfalls? The obvious drawback would be over-spending running unabated. Certainly, the passive tracking strategy isn’t meant for those living paycheck to paycheck, or even those trying to pay off a serious amount of debt. When every dollar counts, I will continue to emphasize that you track your money aggressively!
However, as just discussed, that’s not my family’s situation at this point. I don’t care so much that we are saving every single dollar. I just care that we are saving the amount I calculated as a part of my retirement plan. Which means I can get away with checking my spending monthly and risking a month of overspending, as long as my annual numbers come in as expected. Others may not be so lucky, and this strategy isn’t for them.
Honestly, I’d say the loss of fidelity that passive tracking causes by not sub-categorizing or splitting transactions concerns me more than overspending during any given month. In other words, if Mrs. Grumpus goes to Costco (where we do a lot of grocery shopping) and buys a pair of jeans; passive tracking would mean I don’t itemize the receipt and split out the clothing transactions from groceries. I simply allow everything to show up as groceries in Mint because that’s what I programmed it do when it sees a Costco transaction. This will play havoc with my annual spending review with Mrs. Grumpus because we won’t be able to tell how much of our $10,000 annual Costco bill (no that’s not the real amount) is actually clothing, or cleaning supplies, or toilet paper versus groceries.
Just as importantly, at least for 2017, lack of fidelity may bite me on the ass during tax time if we have to itemize. Fortunately, though, we don’t often itemize. Nothing major changed this year either, so I’m not expecting a need to itemize on our 2017 tax forms. Moving into 2018 and beyond, the new tax reforms lessen the likelihood we would need to itemize in the future. This obviously works in favor of my passive tracking strategy. However, if you are a big itemizer, the passive tracking method is probably not for you.
With all that said, people are probably more interested in the findings and results of my experiment than the pros and cons associated with the experiment itself. So without further ado let’s get the results!
Context and Results
In order to set the stage and manage expectations let me say that my savings goal for 2017 was approximately $66,500 (post-tax). This is separate from our equity payments on our mortgage as well. If I truly intend to retire in 2020 from the military and execute my retirement plan, then my family needs to save $66.5K annually from 2017 through 2020. We need to do this in order to either pay off the remainder of our current mortgage or sell our current place and purchase our forever home in cash. As I explained in my post about testing your retirement plan, that’s the only way my retirement plan works in our ideal retirement location (SoCal).
While I knew that $66.5K was an aggressive goal for 2017, I believed it was obtainable. When I built my retirement plan in the Fall of 2016, my 2013 to 2015 data showed an average annual savings of $48.4K. Admittedly, my net savings for 2016 only ended up at $42K. However, a major SNAFU with my pay during my extended transfer from Europe to Hawaii in the latter half of 2016 meant a small but meaningful percentage of my 2016 pay was actually deferred until 2017. Thus, I’d have no excuse if I didn’t hit my goal since my 2017 earnings were larger than they otherwise would’ve been.
So how much did we save in 2017, the year of the passive tracking experiment? Drum roll please …. $70.5K!
Not bad (again, if I do say so myself) for not really trying. I’m doubly stoked by the fact that we achieved this while living in high cost of living Oahu, Hawaii where a gallon of milk is over $6. Not to mention my (mis)adventures with E-biking to work this year, and the sunk costs associated with my decision to persevere in that arena! I might even point out that my savings number only reflects 11 months worth of data, since Mint won’t show me the data for December 2017 until January 2018. However, this December will be a wash since we pre-purchased several vacations for 2018. As a result, we will call this experiment complete.
I’ll talk to you later …
“Not so fast, my friend!”
Yes, in the immortal words of ESPN College Game Day’s Lee Corso, there’s more to this story than meet’s the eye. In true Grumpus Maximus form, I’m intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of resting on my laurels, I’d rather dissect this experiment eight ways til Sunday in order to determine if these results hold up under scrutiny. Who knows? There might be some valuable lessons to learn while flagellating myself.
First things first, as already mentioned, 2017 saw my pay temporarily inflated by a small but significant portion of unintentional deferred pay from 2016. So “congratu-FREAKIN-lations!” to me on my easy 2017 victory. Let’s see if 2018 proves harder now that my pay is normalized. I bet it will, which means I had better get side-hustling.
More importantly, I don’t entirely trust the numbers I’m looking at in Mint.com. Why? Well, neither Mint.com nor Personal Capital (PC) does everything as well as Quicken, nor do they operate glitch free. While they are both much easier to operate than Quicken, the glitches worry me. At multiple points this year both PC and Mint.com started to track some of my individual accounts multiple times.
Although I found it humorous that both applications reported my net worth as almost $2 million several times throughout the year (it’s nowhere close to that in real life!), I wasn’t laughing over the several weeks it took me to pick those glitches apart. In PC’s case, I only just resolved the latest issue. To say I am a bit frustrated with both apps is an understatement. One of the many reasons I switched from Quicken was interface issues. The online apps were supposedly a more nimble and reliable alternative to Quicken, right? Yeah, not so much.
I don’t want to turn this into a Mint vs. PC vs. Quicken review since there are plenty on the internet already. In fact, if you’re looking for a great one I highly recommend Battle of the Budget Apps: Quicken vs. Mint vs. Personal Capital over at Wallethacks.com. However, my final lesson learned deals with the limitations of Mint, and one of the cons I identified with this experiment up above: a lack of fidelity.
As opposed to describing this conceptually, let me use an example. I honestly can’t tell if the $70.5K saved in Mint includes or excludes our $11K in annual Roth IRA contributions. Obviously there’s a big difference. My $66.5K cash savings goal was separate from my desire to save our annual Roth IRA contributions. In other words, if I were to combine the two savings goals, I would’ve needed to save a total of $77.5K between Roth IRAs and Cash accounts.
Now, if I were using Quicken, I could’ve set up my annual net savings report to either account for, or exclude, the Roth contributions easily enough. Unfortunately, since I was only passively downloading the data into Quicken this year (vice actively manipulating it), I can’t analyze this issue without some serious work. What can I say? When you take your hands off the wheels, the car is going to drift along with the grooves in the road! Uggghhh.
A Money Tracking Nerd’s Explanation of What Went Wrong
Warning, the next few paragraphs are nerd-tastic. If you’re not really THAT into your money tracking software, you may want to skip to the final section.
The main problem is that Mint’s reporting features are not as powerful as Quicken’s (even though Intuit developed both programs originally!). As a result, it’s unclear from Mint’s reporting feature whether my $11K in Roth contributions counted as expenditures. I would like to think they counted. Therefore I hit my cash savings goal while still having contributed to our Roths. In that scenario, I overshot my goal by $4K. Go, team!
I suspect though, the Roth IRA contributions were not counted as expenditures. They don’t show up in the annual expenditures report. Most likely that is because they were tagged as “transfers” vice “expenses”. Thus, I might actually be short of my cash savings goal by $7K. If you’re confused, the math looks like this:
- $70.5K – $11K = $59.5K which is $7K less than my goal of $66.5.
If that’s the case, I not only missed the mark this year but am totally screwed next year! Frustratingly, I can’t answer this conundrum using PC since I only started using PC in May. These transactions took place in April. I guess it’s over to Quicken and a few hours of work if I really want the answer.
Since my entire 2020 retirement plan hinges on saving $66.5K annually for four years, I’ll probably just ignore it and hope for the best …. much like my approach to Global Warming and the prospects of nuclear war with North Korea. I’m kidding of course. I totally take the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea seriously. It’s why I’m out on our Hawaiian hillside each evening building a fallout shelter with pick-ax and shovel. Go get your own, dude!
Seriously though, you can queue me banging my head against the keyboard now.
Did my passive tracking experiment work? I guess that depends on the answer I get when I run the numbers in Quicken. It turns out that there is no real substitute for the insight that actively tracking your money provides. As previously mentioned, passive tracking isn’t for everyone. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t for me. Hitting cruise control during our first year in a high cost of living duty station may not have worked in my favor. Reluctantly, I may need to start tracking our spending more closely in 2018. Damn, I really liked the free time too.
Alternatively, could I monetize the blog sooner than I originally intended? It’s worth a look. I’d rather take that free-time and monetize it, than go backwards and start tracking every dollar again.
Another option is to stop contributing to our Roth IRAs. My retirement plan actually works without contributions for the next four years. I ran the numbers when I first built and tested the plan. Continued contributions to the Roths were not crucial to the success of the plan. I just wanted the extra cushion since I tend to err on the side of caution in all my financial planning. On the other hand, amassing enough cash to either pay off the current mortgage or buy a new place outright (in conjunction with selling the old one), is crucial to the retirement plan. Priorities, Grumpus, priorities!
As an aside, this experiment reinforced the need to continue the search for the perfect replacement for Microsoft Money. As I explained in Part 1 of this series, I believe it’s important for a person, couple, or family to find the right program, application, or method to track their money. If they can’t stick with it, it’s useless. Whatever they use must match their lifestyle and appeal to their idiosyncrasies. MMoney did that for me. It possessed the perfect mix: ease of use and powerful insights. I’ve yet to find anything that comes close to replicating it. This includes Quicken, Mint, and Personal Capital.
Which brings me to the parting words for this article:
Dear Bill Gates,
If you’re reading this please take a leave of absence from your life-saving charitable foundation, return to Microsoft, and design a new MMoney for the 21st Century!
Your Avid Fan,
P.S. – I don’t ask too much do I?