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The Surprising Ease of Plain Text Accounting (vincecima.com)
328 points by vincecima on July 19, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 237 comments

As a middle-aged, married man, my current view is:

1. I had kept personal accounts for a while, until I realized my expenses swayed month-to-month, but within a narrow band (+- 10%). This made the "insights" less interesting and approximations worked well enough for my use case. I suspect that this is so, for most people.

For who have not kept personal accounts, what I am describing is similar to when you got your Fitbit - The first 2-3 weeks are full of glorious insights and a month goes by and you do not really need a fitbit to tell you how many steps you walked. Approximation approaches real count. Same for personal ledgers.

2. I now focus my efforts on income expansion rather than cost control. Some of you may say, recording costs is not controlling it. In that case, I find accounting, even less useful (once I have arrived at approximate cash outflow). Income expansion, puts me in a different frame, which I find strangely empowering. Even more so than the satisfaction that comes from having controlled costs.

This was my experience as well. I used Mint and YNAB off and on through my 20's when I was less responsible with money. As I got older and was able to consistently reduce my expenses and my salary went way up I found that my spending was so far below my income that tracking just didn't make sense any more. Combined with a bunch of automated transfers for short- and long-term saving and keeping a large buffer of cash in my bank account, I don't really ever think about money any more.

Something that I haven't seen mentioned here is the benefit of budgeting for things that you want to spend money on but do irregularly enough that you might forget. I was never irresponsible with money, instead I just tended to save and save (and think I was saving a lot) and not really know what to do with it.

Now that I'm consistent with budgeting (YNAB), I'm confident I'm saving for the future AND for things like birthdays, xmas, charity, cycling, etc and spend more on those things. It's like a contract with myself.

I totally agree with a corollary you're implying to "you can't change what you don't track":

- "It's meaningless to track something that doesn't change"

I can see a future where I stop tracking incidental or recurring, automatic bills and just focus on those other things.

My wife and I have been using YNAB for almost four years, right after the most recent non-cloud version was released.

The biggest thing it has helped us with is accounting for regular but infrequent expenses, with respect to having reasonable expectations for the limits on our regular and frequent expenses.

Before, if we had a month where our bi-annual car insurance bill coincided with our quarterly pest control bill and a higher-than-normal utility bill (say a hotter or colder month than usual), then we would have a very thin month and need to really cut back on discretionary stuff.

Now, YNAB makes it super easy to set money aside each month for those infrequent expenses, such that there is always a just-the-right-size pot of money sitting there when the bill comes up. Now, for example, we never have to change our grocery buying routine in response to other expenses, as those other expenses are accounted for a piece at a time every month.

Even utilities, I average the last 12 months of utility bills, and set that amount aside every month. When we have a low bill, that pot grows, and when we have a high bill, that pot shrinks, but no other spending or saving is affected by those fluctuations. It's great.

I'm tempted to move to something like ledger/hledger or some other plain-text accounting tool when YNAB 4 goes out of support, but the thing I'm not sure how to implement in those systems is YNAB's categories, the "virtual envelopes". Does anyone have a better idea than this? https://gist.github.com/simonmichael/a1addcb652da4e78b183

There's a few options if you google "envelope budgeting ledger-cli".

"I don't really ever think about money any more"

I see myself in a similar situation, but in my case the thought is "I don't really ever worry about money any more", which is different. That large buffer cash can be invested, or (if it's significantly large to your interest) - hedged, at least. That requires thought.

Yeah I think that my key was automating the big pieces. By the time I automated retirement savings, short-term savings, long-term savings, and all my big expenses (really just rent since I don't have a car).

With all that automated, and my savings levels being very aggressive, I just need to make sure the buffer in my checking account doesn't go down each month. If it gets a little lower then maybe I skip a few meals out for a month.

But I will say, to get to this point took many years of trying to budget and "failing". Using those tools helped by letting me internalize my spending and re-baselining what "normal" spending felt like. I put "failing" in quotes because each time I went over budget or stopped tracking for a few months I felt like I had failed but in reality I was learning what worked for me.

Oddly, this does not end up true for dieting, as I've found out. I dieted, lost a lot of weight with a prescription pill and then more on Weight Watchers. I thought I knew what I was doing, and could "count calories" without actually tracking them.

What I found was that I might know certain things that I eat often, but anything even a little new ended up being badly estimated. If I want to continue losing weight, I need to track.

And my estimates went both ways, too. I discovered this one day when I was crazy hungry, and it turned out I'd massively under-eaten that day (or the day before? I forget), which can be as bad for dieting as over-eating thanks to the lowered metabolism and then compensatory over-eating that eventually happens.

"Oddly, this does not end up true for dieting, as I've found out."

I don't think yours is a proper analogy for the parents ...

In your case, the analog to income expansion would be exercise and "banked exercise" in the form of muscle added that has a baseline caloric upkeep just to keep it around.

I have no idea if that analogy works ... it's more complicated than his simple income behaviors ... this is just to say that your analogy is probably not a great one.

A gentle remark - I accumulate calories when I am irresponsible. I stop accumulating them when I am disciplined. Converse is true with money.

This sounds like the same thing, phrased differently. According to the grandparent, categorising something new into the 'responsible' and 'irresponsible' buckets is hard and not something that generally gets better with experience.

Counting calories is much harder than counting money. Also you have to count them while you are hungry - never a good time.

At the end of every month, you have a precise measure of your expenses estimation error. Just take a look, if it's too far from the expected, look for the reason and recalibrate your counting. But there's just no way you can do this with calories.

Interesting, because I've had the opposite experience. I learned how to count calories, and now I never need to look up anything specific, I can just make an educated guess. I never did pills or WW, so I wonder if that's related.

Some people just have a harder time with it, it seems. Some people routinely overestimate, or underestimate- or in my case, fail to think about it until 10PM at night, at which point I stop realize I'm 2,500 calories behind for the day.

> I now focus my efforts on income expansion rather than cost control.

This becomes all the more important when the real rate of inflation is in double digits. (Sounds unbelievable, it's not in certain economies.)

Unfortunately, the recurring expenses do not form even half of the total expenses. While it might not seem worthwhile to keep personal accounts, a cumulative view of the spends over an entire year does present useful insights.

The fitbit point is I found particularly true.

Similarly, I found it a huge improvement in my life to track every calorie I ate for 3 weeks or so. Now I have a much better understanding of my food. While I thought I understood where my calories were coming from, it turns out I really didn't.

After a month, I no long found calorie tracking not useful, I knew at the end of each day approximately how many I had eaten, without explicit tracking.

"Some of you may say, recording costs is not controlling it. In that case, I find accounting, even less useful (once I have arrived at approximate cash outflow)."

Accounting is supposed to be a practice that contributes to your financial discipline, among others. Is financial discipline extraneous to you?

Corporations have to make good use of practically all of their money as a responsibility to their shareholders.

People without major financial goals (or whose financial goals are predictable to be automated away in the case of the grandparent post's retirement) are free to run a surplus and do away with discipline as long as their behavior is regular.

I, like you, focus the majority of my energy on income expansion. I also find cashflow forecasting to be essential because capital is necessary for growth. Accounting serves me best as a feedback mechanism for estimating and planning for cash. Cost controls are secondary but important.

Cost control becomes truly important when for some reason you unpredictably lose a good chunk of revenue. Happened to me, twice. Having a framework in place within which I could enter damage control mode ASAP to face that double-step staircase was quite literally a lifesaver.

I don't really grok how income expansion and spending reduction are seen as mutually exclusive activities. Do both!

Accounting for personal finances is a waste of time, in my opinion, if you plan to be upwardly mobile. Instead of making the most of what you have, just make more. Spend all the time and resources you need to to make yourself better. In five years, I've gone from making $30K / year to over $100K. Accounting will not get you there. Removing all the barriers in the way of success will.

Businesses need accounting. Humans need nurturing and growth. Don't nurture your business and account for yourself. Account for the business and nurture yourself. Your business can't love you back.

Strongly disagree. That 30k or 100k or 200k can go a LOT farther if you pay attention to how you use it. And you can reduce your stress level tremendously.

When I picked up YNAB, I was already making 90k or so. At the end of every month it was tough to make rent, and we would live on rice and beans for a week. We lived in fear of the day that a larger or annual bill would show up. Health insurance? Panic. Tax bill? Drink and panic. Emergency needing some real cash on hand? Don't even think about it.

A budget lets you save in advance for those sudden shock bills. Now I don't even notice when the insurance bill comes due; I've been gradually putting aside money for it all year. What's more, we can afford way more important stuff. We were able to self fund two successful companies, we take extravagant vacations, and our quality of life is much better, just because we now set money aside in advance. And fwiw, those two companies more than doubled our income.

It's important to work on increasing your income through an improved skill set,better jobs, etc. But you can reap multiples of every dollar, and even new income sources, just by taking control of your expenses.

I strongly agree with vinceguidry. When there's a recession the advice I give and follow is invest in yourself. Learn new things, become better, heck, go to the gym seriously. In short, put yourself head and shoulders above the rest of the flock (them being your competition, for a gig, a job, etc).

That being said I really don't think budgeting will have the same effect... But my motto is "whatever works". Furthermore you're not advocating against improving oneself but saying that you should do that AND budget.

So I'll try that for the second half and 2016 and for 2017 and keep you posted at the end of 2016 and at the end of 2017.

I recently quit my job, so I'll be living off my savings for the next couple years, as I try to build up a lifestyle company (and hopefully eventually live off recurring revenue from this). Keeping my personal expenses low is exactly what can let me stretch this runway enough to make my professional goals a reality. And as we all know it's much easier to optimize something when you measure it. I'm not sure totally exact accounting is needed, but keeping track of recurring expenses and budgeting in general seems essential to make this work - it'll let me know if I actually have 2 or 4 years of runway, force me to consciously make the choice "is this expense worth what it does to my runway?"

That said, hopefully after the schlep I can go back to the state you describe, plus have much more freedom in how I spend my time than if I was working a full time job.

Tell that to my significant other with a straight face.

I know my financial position. For me when I was single, energy spent on personal finance was energy lost for other causes, like earning a lot more money for example, or doing something socially relevant or building a laser cutter.

But my signifciant other? Living hand to mouth on a tight income, and not mentally prepared to even think about budgeting.

So now as a couple, needing to nudge her into basic budgeting, it better be with as little friction as possible...

Something low tech that really helps with that by the way is day-by-day budgeting. Estimate your annual net income minus your fixed costs: mortgage, rent, utilities, insurance, savings, investment, ... Divide this disposable income by day/week/month/quarter/semester/year. You now have one number per timeframe not to exceed. Discuss everything exceeding this limit, and build sensible rules from that.

This is a great point - if you're married, budgeting is more essential because you can't do a defacto budget in your head. If anyone is interested, Dave Ramsey has some really great advice for how to sell your spouse on budgeting and how to keep things simple.

Thanks for this tip. I've been looking for info to assist coaxing the other half into budgeting better :)

Cannot recommend this approach. There are many people making $100k, $200k, $300k, etc, living paycheck to paycheck because they think 'accounting for personal finances is a waste of time'.

The fundamental problem being, it's basically impossible to out-earn your ability to spend money.

I'm with you until your "because". They might be living paycheck to paycheck for some reason other than their not tracking where their money goes.

> In five years, I've gone from making $30K / year to over $100K

I was young once, too. We all were. It's fucking amazing, isn't it?

enjoy it while it lasts. But do know that your salary increases will almost certainly slow as you mature into your field.

I don't plan on staying in my field. I'm going to move into management, and then into business.

I think you're right that it's more productive to concentrate on increasing income rather than decreasing expenses. On the other hand, you will never be wealthy if your expenses rise faster than your income, and it's possible to easily spend any amount of income.

This is the bottom line I agree with. I too am currently a member of the school of thought "Expand instead of budget". To the extent that I never save any money, I always invest it (in my business, in productivity tools etc...), and I live on a rolling personal operating capital.

Yet I definitely feel that accounting might be useful. Not to save money in order to make money (this whole notion actually makes me uncomfortable), but to optimize my spending.

I find myself buying too much crap (around $100 in McDonalds a month, etc...)

I'm also considering putting a few thousands dollars aside in a saving account. It won't be more than 2 months of living expenses.

Mmh... Actually thinking about it, I think that I've been doing accounting for a very long time without naming it - and realizing it. For example, I have rules to manage my personal operating capital, and I can tell precisely at which income level and how I will start to work on growing my cash reserves.

My advice would be:

-Invest everything while you are netting less than 10k a month, and be hungry to expand as if the devil was after you. The younger you are, the more aggressive you have to be. If you are under 30, don't even think of taking vacations.

- at the 10k point, you need to mind your expenses, and build cash reserves because investments to reach the next level will require down payments. At the same time, you need to keep growing your revenue at a faster pace.

-When you reach the next stage, your finances have reached a point where no anonymous from the internet can help you.

Maybe it's my european prospective or something, but this "less than two months of expenses in savings, no vacations" approach strikes me as inexplicable and horrible. Do you think that you're really at your most productive while not taking vacations for years?

USA vacations tend to be pretty stressful to travel to and from and horribly overpriced "tourist trap" type stuff. Turn money into status signalling posts on social media meets bean counters trying to maximize their profit. Its a very old movie series but the "National Lampoon" vacation movies very thinly satirize the actual experience of an American style vacation... that's why they're considered funny.

Its possible to take a euro style vacation, but extremely rare. Also your friends and family will tear into you, lobsters in a bucket style grabbing one trying to escape, unless you do the selfies at the tourist trap thing. "What you relaxed and had fun instead of stood in line for three hours to take a low quality picture? You totally wasted that once in a lifetime vacation."

So don't take stressful vacations you don't enjoy? If you enjoy so called "tourist traps" go for them. If you enjoy going to a cabin in a national park, do that instead. If you hate traveling and hate leaving your hometown, then don't. Pretty simple.

I cannot understand for the life of me what you are talking about with friends and family. Basically hardly anybody cares about your vacation to begin with and nobody cares what you do and if anyone does why do you care? I mean, you don't have to tell your friends and family you are going on vacation if you believe they won't approve, your vacations aren't public information. I, personally, don't tell my mother when I go on vacation because she wants a play by play when I get home and I simply don't care to tell her how I spent every minute, so I just don't mention to her that I am going somewhere.

This is just an extremely bizarre comment.

> Also your friends and family will tear into you, lobsters in a bucket style grabbing one trying to escape, unless you do the selfies at the tourist trap thing. "What you relaxed and had fun instead of stood in line for three hours to take a low quality picture? You totally wasted that once in a lifetime vacation."

What a weird problem to have. Are you sure that's actually a thing that happens? It sounds unlikely.

Even if it does then just don't tell people that you are going on vacation? I meanyour vacation isn't public knowledge or anything.

I would think that the HN crowd of all people would know how easy it is to escape this trap. It's not _at all_ difficult to take a cheap, relaxing vacation in the US. In fact I'd say it's easier than many other places in the world.

Thanks for your honest feedback, what I really meant was : you don't need this 4 days vacation in a mansion in spain for 1200eu+ if you are under 30 and don't enjoy financial freedom yet.

One more thing is that the reason I say "30" is that I believe that you owe time to your wife and kids and while I think it is important to take the opportunity which is youth, I also think it is not good to be obsessed by making it big all your life. There's a time to try hard, and a time to try moderately.

And finally, I regularly do nothing for 2-5 days, sometimes up to 10-12 and just take some fresh air when I think I need some rest and wouldn't be productive enough in front of my screen.

So it is actually much more balanced than it seems - and perhaps than what I communicated. The bottom line of this balance is : take the hit now.

I love free time and recreation more than all those who told me that I worked too much, this is what they never understood. And this is why I prefered to take the hit a few months to free myself for the rest of my life.

> 4 days vacation in a mansion in spain for 1200eu+

I must say, you have a rather odd idea of what a "vacation" means.

> you don't need this 4 days vacation in a mansion in spain for 1200eu+ if you are under 30 and don't enjoy financial freedom yet.

Why would anyone do that? It sounds awful.

If you are under 30, don't even think of taking vacations

Don't waste all your youth on work.

Exactly my thought too. When are we supposed to indulge ourselves with vacations? When we'll loose the ability to enjoy anything?

Thats crazy! I'm a firm believer of finding something you love doing (that also can make money), and doing it as much as you can. But at the same time enjoy your life... Meet people, take vacations, travel!

As time goes on hopefully you have built up a unique arsenal of skills, knowledge, and connections. BUT please enjoy this process because it's your life...

> If you are under 30, don't even think of taking vacations

Terrible advice.

Please see my explanations in the thread above

I did read it, still awful advice (unless you don't like vacations, which many people don't)

When you're earning $30,000 sure. Once you've achieved resonable success, you're likely to have serious diminishing returns on earnings without associated risks.

I'm at a good point in my career, whilst not impossible, I doubt there's a lot of growth without changing my lifestyle in a way that I believe would be for the worse.

Yes and no. Accounting helps you decide what to optimize. Spending a lot on Uber? Maybe you can get a bike instead. Spending too much on groceries? Maybe you don't need to buy too much food every time.

Things like that.

Also this: http://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/money/a44086/four-men-four-...

Note that the higher the income, the tighter control of their finances the person has. At least in that story.

But fundamentally you have to do both: know how you spend and make more

Personally, I find everything related to personal finances among the least interesting and most repulsive things to waste my precious spare time.

My solution? My regular expenses are significantly smaller than my income, which lets me basically ignore my personal finances. (This does not mean I do not consider whether a gadget is worth the price. I just typically do not need to think whether I can afford it or not) How do I do that? By making relevant choices in the biggest expense classes, i.e. housing and car. My accommodation and car choices are _well_ below my typical peer standards. Easy? Depends on your character. Personally I enjoy the freedom and control I have on my own life much more than I dislike the laughs[1] I get from my old friends when I pop up into meeting them with a crappy old bicycle.

[1] Obviously this is much easier when both I and my friends know that I could "afford"[2] to buy a similar car than they, I just have chosen not to.

[2]In the normal sense of being able to finance it. My personal definition for affording something is that I do not have to care financially whether the purchase gets stolen the following day or not

> My regular expenses are significantly smaller than my income

How do you know this? By what method do you account for your spending?

> when I pop up into meeting them with a crappy old bicycle.

How much do you spend on repairing your bike (either time or cash)? Does that work out as being more cost effective than buying a new bike / taking the bus / etc?

If only there were a simple way to keep track of spending to see if it really were cost effective...

> How do you know this?

When I check my bank account, there typically is more money than before.

> Does that work out as being more cost effective than buying a new bike

I don't know and I don't care. I don't claim that I don't do _any_ budgeting/planning/accounting/whatever, I just try to minimize the mental effort needed for that. Obviously one effect is that my consumption bucket is not economically optimal. I have no clue, nor interest to find out, how expensive these choices are for me. For some people it is worth putting money to luxury items. For me it is a luxury that I can afford not to worry how optimized my consumption is.

(One more thing. I do have above average salary in my country. Obviously that makes things a bit easier.)

> (One more thing. I do have above average salary in my country. Obviously that makes things a bit easier.)

Most of us here can easily say the same thing. Most of us could also say that we are above average intelligence and we, too, could just as easily have a sense of our finances. However, we choose to keep track of everything a little more accurately than that.

> However, we choose to keep track of everything a little more accurately than that.

Precisely. And there is nothing wrong with that. I just have made a different choice based on my preferences, and I see nothing wrong with that, either.

This is accounting and personal finance.

Unless I am completely mistaken about what either of those terms mean.

Your approach follows amdahl's law by the way. Optimize for big wins instead of doing micro optimizations. Accounting is how you know which are which.

That's an interesting way of thinking about it. Accounting is the programming equivalent to profiling (money flows in this case instead of time/memory flows).

>...and most repulsive things to waste my precious spare time.

Really? Repulsive?

> [1] Obviously this is much easier when both I and my friends know that I could "afford"[2] to buy a similar car than they, I just have chosen not to.

So, you ... care ... what people think of you.

> Really? Repulsive?

Sorry, I am not a native English speaker, so there may be some connotation with the word repulsive that I am not aware of. What I tried to say is that I dislike very much planning, budgeting and figuring out exactly where and how much I have spent money.

> So, you ... care ... what people think of you.

But of course. Did I imply something else somewhere?

When I did do personal accounting, it didn't do diddly for me in that regard. Is accounting going to teach you how to negotiate a raise? Is accounting going to show you the best companies to apply to or how to represent yourself in an interview? Is accounting going to win you a lover or turn that lover into a significant other?

No. Emotions are the key to all of the previous things, either mastering them or expressing them. That's where one should focus their efforts.

Maybe I'm thinking about it differently then. Accounting has been absolutely instrumental on my path from $20k/year to 6 figures (in 4 years). Without it, I'd piss all my money away because I have no idea how to handle these kinds of sums mentally and emotionally.

Accounting keeps me in check so I can use my money in ways that make more money instead of fritting it away.

My current understanding is that my lifestyle costs a certain amount of money, these days around $50-60 per day. Rounded up that's $2K a month. My paycheck rounds out to $6K a month. So I have $4K surplus to play with.

In my estimation, cutting that $50-60 a day that I spend on eating out and such isn't really worth it. Dropping my $300 a month car payment for a new car isn't worth it. What is worth cutting out is the hundreds I can sometimes blow on things like unnecessary clothes or electronics purchases. These things add nothing to my life, I usually use them once and forget them.

Spending freely on eating out and buying drinks for my friends and pretty girls at the bar brings way more value to my life. And, paradoxically, it can be a more stable expense. Expensive restaurants just aren't as good as my favorite ethnic spots. My local haunt has cheap drinks and a more fun clientele than the high-falutin spots downtown.

There's a point of diminishing returns on everything you can possibly spend money on. Most of us blow way past that point without even thinking. But if you keep this point in mind, then you can get phenomenal bang-for-your-buck in places that nobody could ever think would be affordable. I took two two-month long trips to Colombia staying in hostels for not a whole lot.

Budgeting doesn't teach you this mindset.

That's good that you have that surplus. I think that's the real reason you can be as relaxed as you are about planning your finances.

I have a much smaller surplus, and of course you're welcome to argue that I should be behaving differently in order to increase it.

But really, spending an hour a week doing my finances (I use YNAB) does not affect my earning potential in any significant way. I don't think it makes any sense to argue that I should stop doing it, and spend that time trying to get a better job. I can do both! That time spent gives me the reassurance I need that I can carry on paying my mortgage, feeding and clothing my family and taking them on holiday, and also that I can very probably meet any unexpected expenses that arise. This is a great feeling, well worth an hour a week of my time.

>My current understanding is that my lifestyle costs a certain amount of money, these days around $50-60 per day. Rounded up that's $2K a month. My paycheck rounds out to $6K a month. So I have $4K surplus to play with.

First you say you don't believe in accounting, then a few posts down you decide to suddenly do some accounting. I'm confused.

I built an accounting app for personal use. My perspective draws from that experience. Of course I can do some rudimentary financial calculations and budgeting if I put my mind to it. The point is, I just don't. The figures I gave are the natural set points, not budget targets. If I just let go and do whatever, that's what I spend.

If I went from $100K to $300K, my personal spending would go up, but not dramatically. I've already found points of diminishing returns for most of the things in my life that I've found that's worth spending money on. I'm sure I could find ways to spend it, but the sort of mindless spending on stupid crap that most people do, I seem to be immune to it.

I suck at budgeting.

But accounting taught me this mindset. It helped me realize that I don't value some things as much as they cost. So I don't do them.


Those are exactly the types of things OP (rightly) thinks are a waste of time.

You can't change what you don't measure. Want to get rich? You need to have more money coming in than going out, it's as simple as that. If you don't keep track of how much is coming in and how much is going out, you'll never get there.

You're presenting a false dichotomy. Personal accounting does not preclude personal growth. It takes about an hour maybe to set up mint to track your account and maybe a few minutes every couple weeks or once a month to look at it and see where you are. There's plenty of time left to work on growth.

When you make $300k+ that's a lot of outlfow and potential for waste. I think you'd be surprised how quickly I can spend it. Accounting, and more importantly cash flow forecasting becomes a must.

It is true that you cannot reduce your costs to zero, and there is a point of diminishing returns for accounting, but the wealthiest people I know will take a vendor to task over pennies. I know that this mindset does not lead to wealth, but it does allow you to hold onto it.

At $300k the costs (ie: time) involved in tracking your spending in the way accountants do it, or how an app like YNAB [1] is set up, is much too expensive where the ROI is questionable.

It's important to have a money-guy to handle taxes, corporate paperwork, etc and have a basic budget. But as far as tracking all expenditures manually, I believe this is the wrong approach.

It's good to watch your money and sit down once a monthly to review where your money went and plan your next 30 days. Biweekly would be even better. This is a good balance between the two extremes while giving me more time to focus on building up my side businesses and other revenue drivers.

[1] https://www.youneedabudget.com/

Accounting is more about being in control. It's knowledge. It has very little to do with self-improvement, career advancement, etc.

You could have equally progressed by using an accounting tool all the way through.

There seem to be a common misconception here that when someone is using an accounting tool, he is hoarding by default focusing on growing his income by spending cuts. We all know that spending less can help you so much when your income is rather low :-)

If that's how you're defining accounting, then I'm "accounting" right now, even though I don't manually track anything anymore. To me accounting specifically refers to the act of tracking individual expenses. Budgeting means to control spending so that it fits into boxes. I do neither, I spend fairly freely and keep only rough tabs on what goes out. But am I in control despite that? I think so.

What I believe I have is insight into my own life enough to be able to subconsciously manage my financial life. Is that accounting? I guess if you want to play semantic games then sure.

I suspect that it is not a matter of insight but actually you just enough income not to worry about it too much. Good for you!

However if your expenses rise, e.g. you buy a house, have kids, etc. you might find you need to put a bit more effort into making sure your income covers it all.

Is it possible that building an accounting app + tracking for months improved your accounting intuition, such that your "living freely" approach is actually kept intuitively within certain budget limits?

Oh it generated a few insights, for sure. But mostly it just brought attention to the subconscious process I already had in place. I may have tweaked that process a bit, but making the app wasn't the genesis of that process.

The problem I find with earning more money than cutting costs, is that without realising it, my costs seem to creep upwards too. I find it's hard to plan for the future by saving money when this happens.

I'm definitely a bit biased as I'm working on a startup for financial planning but I agree with you completely.

Many people are not going to make big progress towards their longer term financial goals (getting out of debt, buying house, putting kids through college) without sitting down and creating a budget. "You can't change what you don't measure."

It's not how much you make, it's how much you keep. How much you keep is a function of how much you spend. How much you spend is influenced by intelligent analysis of needs v wants and budgets.

Your bubble mentality will serve you well until it doesn't.

So, at what point do you stop becoming upwardly mobile and plateau? Because it will happen eventually. At that point, shouldn't accounting be something worthwhile? Otherwise all your money will be gone before ya know it! So you might as well get into good habits and start managing finances early on.

I did something similar in pay terms a while back and I agree with a lot of what is said. Here is my "how to"

I am assuming you have a job, but this should work if not.

Put aside every lunch hour and scan the want ads and job sites for positions that match your skill sets. Don't go for things clearly you don't match - but stretch a little too.

Apply for them all. Make sure it is easy to send from your phone. Reduce the friction.

Call the agent / hiring manager. Make sure they know you exist and what your special skills / unique selling point is.

Keep pushing.

Once you get a new job, repeat till you are at 100k

its very simple - but you need to do it.

Extra hints: recognise you (as an HNer) have some valuable skills and need to fight the imposter syndrome. Start to collate the knowledge you have, in scripts, example apps etc.

Is it possible that by building and using your own program, and most likely learning a lot about accounting in the process of making said program, that you became better at managing your money even without using the program afterwards?

On one's path through upward mobility, if you spend all your money before you get to your goal, that might prevent you from reaching it. Even for people with high salaries, they need to control their spending. For some that might be a spreadsheet or an accounting app, for others they might be fine at managing it all in their head.

This is the most absurd thing I've read in the last couple months. If you're trying to troll, 10/10.

Wasn't trying to troll.

I was serious enough once about personal accounting that I built my own web app because I thought the standard double-entry system wasn't really suited to the task. After I got the basic system tweaked to my satisfaction, I used it for several months.

I started to take it to the next level, but had the curious realization that I cared more for the process of developing the app than I did for actually tracking my finances. Eventually I gave it up, and went out and got a better job where I'm more fulfilled professionally and way better paid. I learned then that working on the app was substituting for professional fulfillment and vowed never to let that happen again.

Tracking cash inflows and outflows is an essential business skill. But a business is a machine, and people are not. Personal productivity does not respond well to wringing unit economics out of daily activities. If your goal is to turn yourself into a machine, by all means use a mechanistic approach. But we are meant to build machines, not to be them.

Don't know why people are downvoting you, your comment was grey when I read it. I see nothing that makes your comment invalid and I think it contributes to the conversation.

Perhaps it's not the popular opinion, but in a lot of cases I agree with you. Watching over every penny meticulously can become a much too consuming habit that produces little net positive result. It's easy (at least for me) to get caught up in trying to never waste money, and it's really not worth it.

I guess people are downvoting him because of his assurance that instead of managing finances one simply has to earn more.

For most people earning more is not feasible, at least not while having some personal live, family matters and depends also on their education, upbringing and people they know.

Some people work a fuckton of hours for a measly pay, and so they can't get to earn more, because they have no time to improve themselves or even to go to interviews.

For these kind of people, that is the majority, some time of personal accounting will be easy and will bear lots of fruits, while they wouldn't be able to improve their jobs in the near future.

I didn't read it as "one simply has to earn more".

He's saying it's better to work on things that will lead to one earning more money, rather spending time monitoring how much one is spending. The first leads to an improved state, the second is just for ensuring one's state does not worsen. With one your increasing your 'cap', with the other you're just maximizing given a 'cap' (cap meaning the amount of money you can work with).

Its not an either or proposition though. It's frankly ridiculous to propose that I could give up actively managing my finances and use that extra time (an hour a week maybe) to significantly increase my income.

The post in question currently stands at 31 points. One quick downvote and all up from there. You are right that for most people earning more isn't feasible. But I wasn't speaking for everybody. Specifically for the upwardly mobile. If you aren't in the position to increase your income then you by definition aren't upwardly mobile.

It's a mix of different issues going on in that comment:

- Some kind of perfectionistic NIH accounting system is probably not what people have in mind when they talk about this personal finance accounting being useful

- The project details seemed to overcome the initial scope

- Rather than addressing the need for a more elegant framework for personal accounting, OP decided to just make more money, and for all we know has discarded personal financial accounting

- We know not what kind of blind spots this may have created (for real: You are absolutely discarding a level of granularity and the freedom to find a way to make use of it)

- While we can trust that OP will probably be fine, we are left to wonder if it's really so great to tell people not to do this kind of accounting when you kind of turned it into a hyperbolic mess when you implemented it yourself.

The project wasn't perfectionistic, I specifically designed it to be as easy to add and look at what I was spending as possible. Instead of putting spending into accounts, I used simple categories. I had a dashboard view that gave me exactly the window into my finances I was looking for.

It was good enough for my purposes. But I kept running into situations that called for extended customization. Sure I could have extended the app to account for temporary changes in how I wanted to do things. But it just kinda stopped making sense after awhile. It made me look into how I managed my finances before I ever did accounting more closely.

What I found was that I never really got into the sort of mindless spending habits that kill most people. Accounting was, in essence, a unnecessary addition to an app that was already working just fine. It didn't buy me much when I was doing it, and I didn't miss it when it went away. My life just isn't that complicated.

Similarly, I've never needed productivity software other than, on very rare occasions when I'm super busy, a pad of paper and a pen. And I was a GTD zealot 8 years ago.

My advice in my original comment was tailored towards people who plan on being upwardly mobile. If that's what you want to do, then personal finance is a waste of time. Ramit Sethi's advice is the best, chase big wins, automate your finances, and don't stress out over small repeated expenses.

If you've hit a career plateau and don't see yourself making more money anytime soon, then by all means make the most of what you have. But c'mon, this is Hacker News. We can all be upwardly mobile here if we want to be.

The foundation isn't the issue. You can write an intuitive interface around a double-entry accounting system, but you must keep to the fundamentals of money flowing through the system.

I just save (401K, HSA, etc.) a set amount from every paycheck, and view the rest as "spendable" and don't worry about accounting for it beyond that.

This is a form of personal budgeting, even if you don't view it like that.

Yes it's a simple budgeting technique but it's not accounting (particularly accounting as in the context of the article which we are debating).

I haven't downvoted him, but I can't see how he gets a better idea of his finances from a non-balancing financial system.

Then don't work on an app for budgeting, just budget.

You seem to think keeping a budget is some onerous, never ending task. In reality, probably spending about half an hour per paycheck is fine, once you have a system in place.

And it certainly does not require a ton of technology, either. People budgeted just fine long before personal computers (lookup "envelope budgeting").

You are conflating two unrelated things. Spending a lot of time writing a budget app may have been a mistake. But you don't have to write your own app in order to budget.

Yeah, when I hear "spend the time you spend on your budget to make more money instead", I can't imagine how I would meaningfully translate my one or two hours a month of relaxing low-energy financial planning into making more money, or why I would want to try.

Having spent a bunch of time with GnuCash, YNAB, and budgetsimple, I've given up trying to have a formal budget. Instead, my wife and I just spend 20 minutes every 2 weeks looking at our accounts and talking about any big expenses that we have coming up.

I don't know that you're asking for it, but I'll share my approach. I use GNUCash for transaction recording, and I have two levels of budgeting:

Level 1: next 30 days. I have a couple dozen recurring transactions, generated 90 days out. If, based on the current balance plus expenses 30 days out, my checking account is projected to go negative, I do something about it. Otherwise, I think about shifting some money into higher interest savings, since I don't need it in checking. And if savings exceeds my emergency fund definition, additional Roth IRA contributions may be in order. The end result is that reducing float in checking can end up with a pretty high return. Frequency: Once a month.

Level 2: Annual Budget. At a high level, I use a simple spreadsheet to budget all income for the year into savings and expenses. It's complexity has grown over the past six years to calculate things like income taxes, so I can compare job offers in other locations and states. I also use it to verify my very high retirement savings rates are viable. Because more savings contributions -> less taxes -> more contributions etc., a spreadsheet lets me "solve" for maximal savings. It also lets me target expensive areas, like rent, or dropping cable, phone plans, etc. Frequency: Once a year.

I can see being more lackadaisical about personal accounting on 30k/year, but when you make 15k/yr you need a budget and you need to track your expenses to survive. I think this is just something that varies from person to person, but it's nice to know that you spent X amount on groceries per week versus Y amount on gas so you can pinpoint what is hitting you most during times of dire financial stress to optimize.

When I made that much, I didn't bother with a budget or accounting either, I knew to the nearest $5 how much I had in my pocket and my bank account at all times. Writing down that which I already carefully tracked in my head wouldn't have accomplished anything.

What you're missing is that at that level, what you can get through spending money is going to be vastly dwarfed by what you can get through ingenuity. My response to a bigger electric bill in the winter wasn't to save money on food, it was to shut my heat off, build an enclosure around my desk and heat it with a small space heater.

It's awesome that worked for you. I'm not that smart so for me, budgeting and tracking my expenses by category helped me become comfortable enough to spend more time on freelancing and job seeking. I won't say your way doesn't work, because you are a testament that it does, but I don't think I could have taken this approach and gotten to where I am now.

You were effectively budgeting in your head. Good for you. Can everyone match your skill? Who knows. I guess no. I cannot budget this well. It is not that I do not know my level of cash, it is just that I cannot accurately estimate my spending rate and I almost always spend too much for the month.

Best of luck.

So because you are smart enough to do this in your head you think people who do the exact same thing as you just writing it down instead of doing it in their head are wasting their time? That's pretty silly.

This makes sense if you can move upward. Obviously not everyone can. For these people, this advice is toxic and life destroying.

The vast majority of people can improve their prospective in life. At the very least they can be more efficient so they can spend more time with their kids; That way the kids have a better life than their parents.

Though, to be fair, I think they should do both. Budgeting/finance is an incredibly important skill for all but the richest levels of society.

Quality of life seems to increase monotonically in the states. The relative social status does not, on average. Considering happiness seems more based on the latter, this seems to be intractable.

Happiness is based on how well you are off compared to others? I mean, this is incredibly sad. But it's true, for some, I guess.

This is why those who are making 15$/hour don't want the minimum wage to go to 15$/hour - even if they think they'll get a small bump to compensate.

You're comparing life as a bootstrapper to a paid job more than life with accounting support of some sort to without.

Further, there's no reason you can't do both. I don't account for my personal finances in any way, but I don't spend a lot on silly things. I do however use an app (http://streaksapp.com) to push me. Without that, I'd be more inclined to take the easier or lazier options. We can account for our time and progress even if we don't do it for finances.

I take the mechanistic approach to my personal finances, and treat them like business finances basically. It's a resource to be used, not a status symbol to be hoarded. Life has been wonderful as a result!

I do keep a budget and keep track of things.

You may have noticed that the article suggests using a tool, `hledger`, rather than creating your own accountancy software. Infact, based on your comment that you found the standard system isn't suited for the task, it's possible that your disdain for personal accounting comes from a lack of understanding of how to do it correctly.

Hacker news readers often live in a bubble that is well insulated from the outside world. A world where everyone is very smart and money and opportunities are a dime a dozen.

Overspending is very easy for the average person. I know someone making 80,000/yr who has basically no assets and are living paycheck to paycheck and always complaining how poor she is. If you are living paycheck to paycheck on $50k you tend to live paycheck to paycheck on $100k. Adding additional income does not help these people - also see The Two Income Trap.

Finding out where your money is going is good for everyone. Budgeting (even if informality) is good for everyone. Finding out where your money really goes is really eye opening for many. Realizing that a reduction in income probably requires a reduction in spending/lifestyle. Realizing you aren't "entitled" to the things you want by virtue of birth, you have to have the money to afford them. This may seem obvious to some but in the world of advertising and media it isn't to many.

The criticism of personal finance or "frugality" here and in general comes in where people become obsessed with not spending money in the long term+. When every choice is optimized for spending less and one cannot enjoy anything with becoming guilty they are spending money. They put too much effort into pinching every penny and lose sight of the bigger picture. It's easy to hate on these people. This group is the loudest, unfortunately.

Personal finance should be all about optimizing money for maximum enjoyment and financial stability. Realizing money is a scarce resource and optimizing it, which can include working on obtaining more depending on your situation. Budgeting in for the things you enjoy, within your means, and saying "no" to more things that won't bring you long term happiness. Realizing the difference between needs and wants. It's trivial to do this for many, and it is natural, but difficult for many as well. I think personal finance is just as much psychology as it is math.

+ Being obsessed with not spending money (OK, not obsessed but making it a priority) can be good in the short term for several month in some cases. Examples are taking a break from consumption or working to pay off high interest debt. Of course one should consider all their options in this situation - including, say, adding additional income short term if possible.

> Hacker news readers often live in a bubble that is well insulated from the outside world. A world where everyone is very smart and money and opportunities are a dime a dozen.

I think the main issue is having other mouths depend on you. I react favorably to his position because my personal finance strategy is having soft/fuzzy (as in "fuzzy set") targets, never spend more than I earn and set automatic transfers to a retirement account that look like expenses when I see the bottom number on my bank statement. But I see how that balance becomes disconnected from one's resolve and voluntary actions as your finances begin representing an entire (even if small) community.

> Overspending is very easy for the average person.

This is what I don't wholly get: doesn't the average person read the bottom number on their bank statement?

I mean, cutting back on expenses is painful, but it's not a matter of tracking pennies anymore. If you have a negative balance you're spending too much money, and most of your choices regarding that are personal to the point of being existential -- what should I sacrifice, my yoga classes or my kid's GameNetwork subscription?

You are forgetting about the easy access to credit. Most people not only live at their means but way over it because of credit card debt. I can't find the link but there was a survey recently where over 50% of respondents said they'd be hard pressed to come up with $500 for an emergency.

The thing about credit too - it can by manipulated to make someone feel like they can afford something when they really can't. If you stretch a car loan out for 8-10 years and only look at $200/month it looks like you can afford it, you don't think "I will be in car debt for the rest of my life." Repeat this a few times because each time it also appears affordable. Now you have no savings and are living paycheck to paycheck and can't get out of the debt cycle. You have some unexpected expense (furnace goes) and suddenly you are in massive financial trouble. This can sneak up on you if you aren't careful.

> Hacker news readers often live in a bubble that is well insulated from the outside world. A world where everyone is very smart and money and opportunities are a dime a dozen.

I was speaking specifically for that audience and not for the broader one. Of course my way of dealing with money only works for people like me. I refer specifically to the "upwardly mobile", which is generally taken to mean those who make more than the average and are still capable of climbing the social ladder.

When you are climbing the social ladder, you develop skills that make you more useful to people. When you learn accounting, you are learning a skill that will keep you from shooting yourself in the foot financially. It will not make you much more useful to others except in that regard. Sure you can get a job accounting, or use it to help run a business, but the benefits are too limited to justify doing it yourself. Hire somebody and use the time saved to learn something more useful.

I never intended to say that people should not have a handle on their spending. Accounting / budgeting is one mindset that will give you such a handle but not the only one.

The problem IMHO is that your advice seems very black and white to me. It sounds like you are saying either don't track anything at all and rely entirely on career path for your financial security, or go full-on into a time consuming accounting mode where every penny is measured and fretted on.

Tracking personal finance doesn't have to be terribly difficult. A simple spreadsheet with expenses and income often suffices. Maybe some simple divisions so that you know that x % of the paycheck will pay the mortgage and y % will be used for the insurance. Nothing too fancy or time consuming. Just enough to reveal patterns, and make sure you have enough "flex" in your bank account for things like personal emergencies.

Although I know you are saying your advice is for the upwardly mobile only, my impression is that a lot of people are very bad with their finances -- that includes even some of the "upwardly mobile". Maybe you're good with your personal finance and have no need to track, but I personally think the general rule should be that most people should do some rudimentary tracking.

Counting your pennies will not make your pennies grow. Only increasing your income will increase your income. This may seem like a radical idea at first, but look around you and you will find everyone understands this fundamental truth.

Teenagers take summer jobs to earn extra pocket money. Housewives run home-based businesses on eBay / Amazon / Etsy to supplement the household income. People with full time jobs work part-time jobs before or after their main gig. Some people buy property and get rental income out of it. Those who are an authority on a given subject write books and earn royalty on book sales. The ultra-wealthy get dividend income from their stock market investments. None of these people belong in the HN bubble.

Read any number of HN discussions on side-projects and you will see a wealth of ideas being put into action:


@vinceguidry is right. Invest in yourself and enjoy the payback in increased income.

Would you please explain why this is absurd?

You have to maintain the current, while pushing forward on the new. Accounting is important, because the incoming money has to pay for the outgoing money (food, clothing, rent). Calculating everything down to the dollar is pointless, however. Just be within 80% of the right number, build in a buffer, and push forward on the new.

The new is much more exciting than bean counting the current, but you still have to maintain the current. Just like how refactoring, testing, and debugging code are just as important as writing new code.

Once I started earning money, for a long time I had a simple budgeting rule: input > output (at least on a yearly basis). It served me well. But I kept feeling guilty (my mom kept meticulous accounts for decades - she had to when every penny counted). Then life got complicated and I used Quicken for a few years. Gave up on it when I finally threw out Windows (another waste of time). Tried a few alternatives on the Mac but didn't really like any of them. I even dabbled with writing my own s/w but soon got bored. And you know what,I don't really miss any accounting software. The old rule still serves me well.

So I kind of agree with the parent comment. Spend time on what you're passionate about and but not (much) on optimizing things of secondary importance - just do the necessary so that they don't take over your life.

Once you're up and running, it is not a waste of time at all. At that point, assuming you get there, you will only get the benefit. No one is saying that you have to account for every penny. That is minuscule and there are huge diminishing returns when it comes to personal finance.

I can't agree. I recently started to properly learn double-entry book keeping and in fact I tried to make as much as I could and let me tell you, I never knew how much I had - at least truly knew it. I only had an inkling how much I had spent, and I often got it wrong. This stressed the living day lights out of me, especially with a large mortgage.

So... This month - being the start of the financial new year, I started collecting all my receipts. Then I installed GnuCash and setup their basic chart of accounts. Everything started at a zero balance.

So then I started to really get how double entry book keeping. I suddenly realised the balancing equation made sense:

  Assets = Liabilities + Equity
So this is what I did to set it up:

1. I worked out all my current assets' balances. This included cash accounts, bank savings accounts and cheque accounts. I took the closing balances from 30 June and debited them to each of the accounts. To balance out the equation I credited the equity account called "Opening balances".

2. I then looked at all my fixed assets - cars, house, etc. - and debited the purchased amount of the asset to the relevant fixed asset accounts, then for each transaction I credited the opening balance equity accounts to balance the transactions.

So now my assets side of the equation equalled my equity side of the equation.

3. Then I took all my liabilities and did similar transactions, only in reverse. So I took my home loan and credited the balance from 30 June, then debited the same amount to the opening balance equity account.

So now my assets value is the same as my liabilities plus my equity.

4. So then I took all my reciepts and debited the appropriate accounts, and credited the appropriate current asset account or debited the appropriate current liability account (e.g. Credit card).

5. I take my income and then credit it to my income accounts, and debit the corresponding current asset accounts.

6. I take any loan repayments and credit the current asset accounts, and debit the loan accounts (liabilities) by equal amounts.

So now the equation is:

  Assets = Liabilities + Equity + Income - Expenses
At this point I realised: double entry book keeping is really just recording the flow of money through a system. Income flows into the system, increases the assets or decreases the liabilities, and then flows out of the system when expenses are incurred. The equity or capital is just the assets less your liabilities. You really want to avoid negative equity, but at least you can track income and expenses effectively.

You need both. If you don't have the skills for budgeting earning more money will just mean you spend more. Talking from experience here.

I started to work and barely got by. Now I earn double of that and just have a few bucks to save every month.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

> In five years, I've gone from making $30K / year to over $100K

Not so great argument I guess. Someone is making 50-100K/month because he managed well his personal finances and saved money to invest to his next venture.

Nobody is making 100k a month by managing their personal finances. (Anybody who does make 100k a month on investments employs professionals to manage their money.)

And if they make 100k a month by "saving up for their venture", their time would be vastly better spent actually executing on that venture rather than doing fastidious accounting on pennies at home.

I know a number of counterexamples.

Even if you are "upwardly mobile" your expenses will tend to increase with your salary. Being disciplined with your spending will allow you much more freedom in your life.

You seem to think the two concepts (financial accounting and upward mobility) are mutually exclusive.

LOL what a bunch of shit. Everyone needs a budget.

Most humans can't magically triple their income. Personal accounting and living frugally is their ticket to upward mobility.

People are accusing you of trolling (which is an ad hominem attack and should not be made on HN, and people should be downvoted if they do that).

- I agree with what I think your main statement is, and will put it into an alternative argument, so others here can understand.

There is a statement "a penny saved is a penny earned." This is true. But if you're spending a penny the most you can save is a penny: if you're trying to earn more, you can earn a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar. The most you can move up in lifestyle by living "frugally" is whatever you're saving. But if you put that same effort into earning more you can have a better quality of life more easily.

To put it into concrete terms: if you have someone who nets $1200 per month and are living within the budget that gives you, then the most that they can possibly "save" is up to $1200 per month. It is mathematically impossible to shave more than that off of your current spending, because by definition there is no more than that. So the theoretical maximum that you can possibly 'save' or reduce your spending by $1200/month. Try to reduce your rent, your food, your transportation, whatever, to fit within your $7/hour budget and you will spend a lot of time with very little to show for it, because the most that you can possibly show for it is... $7/hour. That's a theoretical ceiling on savings.

But by focusing on increasing your earnings, there is no wall. So through all of the work in the world, you have a theoretical maximum that you could save of 1200/month - however it's fair to say that by moving to $2400/month everything in your old lifestyle was "free", and you can now buy new things, or a few better things. It's the same as if you saved 100% of all of your former costs, without doing any shopping around or anything else to actively save - it's as if those costs magically dropped to $0 - you can buy them all, and still have $1200 left. And all by focusing on your earnings and ignoring all that savings stuff.

So what's easier, shopping around until you've shaved some percentage of your $1200 spending -- or moving from $1200 to $2400 in net wages?

The latter is considerably easier than the former. I would say it's not possible to do the former, you can just approach it. Through hard work "saving" you could shave off let's say 40% or even 50% -- it's still easier to move up in wages by the same amount instead.

EDIT: I got downvoted. Are people getting what I'm saying? Someone making $1200 (which is 14.4K/year) can never save more than 1200, even if they are so good at it that they're able to reduce their spending by 80%. The most that they can save even in theory is $1200. But they could have the same net effect by working on increasing their wage. There is no ceiling on the latter. It's far (far!!!) easier to move from $1200 to $2400 in earnings, than trying to save 80% off of your spend @ $1200. And even though it's easier, it has a bigger effect.

Let's put this into concrete terms: if you're a barrista making $10/hour in Silicon Valley, you are having a hard time making ends meet. You can try to absolutely cut out all of your costs, rent, transportation, food, etc, and you will still have a hard time. Or you can put the same effort into learning to design, putting a small portfolio together, and trying to get hired as a designer. While completely ignoring trying to save on those costs, and instead just, say, deferring some of your demand. It's easier to make money than to save money, other than possibly the easiest optimizations. (such as making sure that you're not drastically overpaying for anything by 3x or 5x). And it has a bigger impact on your life.

My issue is with the black and white approach that seems to be advocated. In a month there is plenty of time to set yourself up for better wages and account for that which you already have. Personally, I input every transaction at the point of sale (YNAB mobile app) and take a night every month to reconcile and allocate the next month's budget. This doesn't hinder me looking for better job opportunities though.

Instead of it being a decision of trying to save an increasing percent of $1200 or doubling to $2400, it's me trying to save an increasing percent of my current $1200 so that extra $1200 will go even farther later.

This is just a data point, but I'll just say I disagree with your approach.

So let's look at the comment I replied to. He ignored your advice/approach and instead did things my way: as a result he moved from $30K salary to over $100K in five years.

That doesn't happen without considerable investment of time and energy.

Based on the fact that you are religiously inputting every transaction at point of sale, into a mobile app, and based on your being a HN reader, I will go ahead and make the prediction that you are able to earn within the top 10% of wage-earners in your city. My prediction is that instead of doing so, you are working equally hard to earn less than 50% of that amount. Go ahead and look up statistics and get back to me about whether I'm correct.

In other words, I am actively predicting that you are close to or even below the medium earner in your city, rather than in the top 10% as you have the ability to do so.

You don't have to tell me what city you are living in or what your earnings are, but I would appreciate if you told me whether I was correct.

By the way I can't visit your site, because your SSL cert is out of date and chrome won't let me visit it.

In the time you spent saving or stretching your rent, or inputing your groceries at the point of sale, you could have fixed that and been hired by someone who instead chose to pass on you since you can't even run your own web server.

It's a zero-sum game: either you are spending 30 seconds to a minute inputing expenses into your mobile app and using 'shoe leather' to walk around from store to store and evaluate your options so that you can shave a few pennies, or you are getting home a few minutes earlier and fixing your SSL cert and sending out another five resumes. It's one or the other.

I'd love to know whether my prediction about your wage is correct.

>The certificate expired on Tuesday, June 07, 2016 1:59 AM. The current time is Tuesday, July 19, 2016 5:50 PM.

Yeah, I need to get on the letsencrypt train and automate cert updates, but I don't have any pressing need. My site is pretty low traffic unless I'm actively sending out resumes (1-10 uniques/month). Most leads come from github/linkedin. A few minutes saved won't fix that however, I'll need a good weekend to get back into that mindset of server administration.

That said, I would gain as much time by parking closer to the entrance of the store as I would by not putting in transactions. It really is negligible time spent at this point. The largest time sink is the one night/month to reconcile all accounts and allocate for next month. The better I am at putting in my transactions at point of sale, the quicker that process goes too! In theory I still have 29 days a month to send out resumes.

Edit: Within the top 10% by household income according to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/15/business/one-p...

Just to make this formal, my prediction about jfowles income was false. I made a wrong prediction.

You might still increase your income more than the time you spend saving money, though :) I was able to read your resume after adding an exception in Firefox, but I don't think employers would do that. It's a question of mentality, and I consider likely that you could increase your wage if you wanted to. But of course only you know that - for all I know you're exceptionally well-paid and kind of lucky to have scored your current wage at all. In my experience this is not commonly combined with tracking every expense.

But what do I know? John D. Rockefeller wrote every expense from when he was a teen through a billionaire. So who knows.

> You might still increase your income more than the time you spend saving money, though :)

Possible! It's more of a pesky human thing that I track my money anymore, having gone through a period where I was tiptoeing overdrawing my bank account every day. I feel much more comfortable (less stressed) about making moderate to large purchases knowing that every cent is already accounted for and previously allotted to those purchases.

As for my place in the wage distribution it is a freak circumstance of well paying job and low COL area. Not that I'm dissatisfied with the area (yet..), but it also makes it hard to justify moving for a 2x salary when housing will be 3-4x.

Seriously, spreadsheets are born for these tasks.

I tried but didn't like accounting apps because they force you to do too much work and just aren't that easy to find the functions I need. In the end I designed an excel file tailored to my needs (and it's giving me more fun than writing code), which gives monthly view of my financial activities, with support for currency conversion. So at the end of every month I would spend about half an hour logging all the numbers and get a nice overview. I can also put in spending and earning projections so I can easily see how I will be at the end of year.

Indeed. Only last week I imported a year's bank statement (one single file downloaded manually) into Google Sheets (worked perfectly first time). Then I spent an hour scanning it by eye and constructing dirt-simple regexes to extract outgoings into categories. As a check I compared total outgoings vs total regex-extracted outgoings; it was out by £400 for the whole year, which I can tolerate.

It told me exactly what to needed to know: I spend a surprising amount on eating out, and a surprisingly small amount on holidays. Budget for the year: spend 50% less on eating out.

Two hours work total. Not perfect, but a piece of cake, and very valuable.

Devils Advocate: Ah! but now you have a budget, you need to track it to make sure you're sticking to it - how do you know if you're spending 50% less on eating out this month if the data arn't there in-front of you to check?

I felt like the parent comment didn't meant 50% exactly, just an approximation. So, if it were me, I'd just keep that in mind when deciding to go out to eat.. After 1 or 2 months it's easy to see if I'm on track to the ~50% or not and adjust accordingly.

I guess he'll find out next year when he repeats the exercise :)

True. My pragmatic approach: 50% of the times I have the urge to eat out, don't do it :)

Spreadsheets are indeed suited for this very task. But on the other hand, they remain very user-hostile.

I couldn't keep my accounts up-to-date if it wasn't for ledger, vim, and the command-line interfaces. Projects like sc or ses aren't as versatile as Excel or LibreOffice Calc.

> Spreadsheets are indeed suited for this very task. But on the other hand, they remain very user-hostile.

Well, I disagree, at least for myself. I always have trouble memorizing commands. Even after at least a decade of using vim, I have to admit with a blush, if I want to turn on the syntax highlight for vim or to show the line numbers, I have to go google for it.

I can easily imagine that if I don't use ledger for two weeks, I will most likely have to relearn it.

Oh yes this. Accounting apps (home and small business) are horrible for cashflow forecasting. I really have no idea how most people accomplish this task without a complex spreadsheet like the one I've built for myself and my small business.

Perhaps most people don't appreciate the importance of cashflow forecasting and just think as long as they have a budget for this month and make a deposit to savings each month they're fine. If that's the case I would say they're probably misallocating.


I bought a copy of Quicken on sale a few years ago. Once everything was set up, it's been pretty darn minimal effort. I spend 5 minutes downloading & categorizing transactions every couple weeks. (needs to be fresh in my mind to categorize, and some banks only let you download 3 months back). Overview is continually available on a running basis.

A spreadsheet might work better, if I didn't have 20-30 accounts, and money constantly flowing around them.

A few years ago I volunteered to be treasurer of a small non-profit. They had been keeping their books on paper. I looked at QuickBooks, and it frankly baffled me. Being an old hand at command line and plain-text computing, I found ledger and immediately loved it. I used the emacs ledger mode to manage the ledger file. I kept the ledger file version controlled in mercurial, so I could easily see diffs between various points in time which was sometimes helpful.

When I turned the books over to the next treasurer, I helped him import into QuickBooks, which he was already familiar with. That's the one shortcoming of the tool, that you are unlikely to find anyone else (e.g. professional accountants) who's willing to work with it.

These accounting apps never worked for me. I think I'm missing something, but how do you actually use them?

Do you really put every cent you spend into it? How is it possible? How do you remember all that. for example, during a weekend trip?

Next step: ok, assume we put every cent spent into the app. How does it help?

Even more: I already have all my transactions listed in my bank's mobile app. How to use it?

> Do you really put every cent you spend into it?


> How is it possible? How do you remember all that.

I don't, but my bank does. As much goes on cards as possible.

> for example, during a weekend trip?

On the rare occasion I end up spending cash, keep a receipt or take a note on your phone. Still, a fair chunk ends up in "Cash from wallet expenses." But since I know how much used to be in my wallet, I know how much was spent.

> ok, assume we put every cent spent into the app. How does it help?

First, Double entry apps help because they prompt you to think about whether things are an expense or an asset, and secondly whether your assets are properly allocated. Few tangible assets earn a return, and even cost money to store; a full accounting makes it easy to not only rebalance a portfolio of stocks and bonds, but your portfolio of crap in your house to investments and debts.

Why stop at only the past? Good apps allow you to record future dated transactions, so I can see whether I need to transfer money out of savings to cover a large purchase / family loan. Scheduled transactions help, and there've been points in my life where cash flow mattered, and having an app track what comes and goes when was useful for stress relieving by building confidence that the plan was viable.

Finally, a monthly habit of data reconciliation makes it easy to find fraudulent charges on your bills -- if your app has never seen a charge before, it can't autoclassify it to an appropriate expense account, and prompts you for advice.

> I already have all my transactions listed in my bank's mobile app. How to use it?

Good accounting tools can import qix/qfx/ofx. Sometimes you can even configure the app to download directly from the bank.

I'm on board with living frugally, investing, living below my means, and all that. But I can't do expense tracking like these guys are describing. I simply can't keep track of all the details to my satisfaction - whenever I try I get the same feeling that I used to get from trying to keep my iTunes library straight while Apple systematically destroyed my organization with each update. It's impossible, so I gave up.

I go with the "pay yourself first" method. The first thousand dollars I get goes directly to long term savings. The next thousand pays the bills (rent, hydro, internet, food, gas, insurance). The next thousand is for whatever I feel like buying. In practice, I keep my impulse buying to a minimum, and that last thousand ends up paying for vacations, motorcycles, and replacements for expensive items that I ruin due to carelessness. (Hearing aids, laptops, cell phones, work pants, etc).

It's not a perfect system by any means, and there's lots of inefficiency and room for improvement. But in terms of practical results, I'm far ahead of most of my peers, and I'm not wasting any brain cycles on it.

You can easily summarize transactions with ledger. Just put a transaction where you move $X to cash when you make a withdrawal. Then at the end of the week add another where you report that your cash balance is $Y. Since transactions always balance to $0, it knows how much you must have spent.

All you lose is the ability to later find out what you spent your cash on, but that's a trade-off most people are willing to make; rent and utilities and groceries are both easier and more important to track.

Yeah, I get it. Ok, so I put all my transactions (or group them) into the app. In N months I have a huge list of transactions (actually, I'll just spend time and energy on duplicating bank statements which I can get for free).

How to use that data?

It's double entry accounting, so when you spend money, you have to give an "account" that you spent from and an "account" that you spent to. For example, if you wanted to track somethings but not others, you can keep your ATM slips. When you withdraw money you simple add a transaction from your "bank account" to your "cash account". Then let's say you wanted to keep track of your spending at restaurants, but didn't care about anything else. In that case you keep your restaurant receipts. You make a transaction from your "cash account" to your "restaurant expense account". At the end of the week, you look at how much money you have left in your pocket. You can enter a transaction saying you have that much left and (with ledger anyway) can tell it to put the difference in your "miscellaneous spending account".

Later your can run a report which shows how much money you spent. It will tell you how much you spent on restaurants and how much you spent on "miscellaneous spending". If you think that you want to explore what you are spending on "miscellaneous", then you can keep receipts for those things and start an account for it.

Remember the point is simply to let you measure things. It's up to you to decide what's important to measure. If you don't think it is important to measure anything, then the accounting package is very accommodating. You just don't use it ;-)

No one gave you a specific analysis oriented answer.

Assuming conditions are mostly static which they are for most people you now have an engineering theory or model with some predictive ability. Capable of answering simple questions about the future.

I'd like to go to the HOPE conference in NYC this weekend. (I can't for familial scheduling reasons but for the sake of the argument...) Given historical entertainment budget how many months ahead do I have to start saving up to pay for transport and hotel? A month? A year? Is is even in the cards for petty cash at all or am I going to have to save up to attend? At our current rate of savings when does my wife get a new car, this year, next year, later?

If you don't have questions like that there's no point gathering the data. Much like I ignore my fitbit and my mint data, I'd ignore this data in general.

Its also an old people filter. 20 years ago you got one checking statement per month mailed to you in physical mail. You'd have a whole month's financial transactions uncleared just hanging out there and then you'd balance your checkbook by whatever method so you could keep a running guess of your current balance. Now a days I have live bank account access and at most only a handful of online payments outstanding at any given moment so I don't keep a paper register or the equivalent anymore. So old people tend to have a "thing" for elaborate home accounting. It took me 30 or so seconds to determine that right now I could write a check for $2356.50 if I wanted to and it would clear, but not a penny more. In the old days it would have required some elaborate accounting OR I'd have to guess I probably have over $2K in checking and hope for the best.

Most likely you would import most of your transactions from your bank, then enter cash transactions by hand, and edit transactions that just show check numbers and wire transfers. Data entry can and should be automated.

Once you have the data in a bookkeeping system (ledger or otherwise), you use it to answer specific questions.

Use it to find out where your money has gone (I spent how much on coffee?!), how much more or less you spent this month vs last, or vs this month last year, how much your liabilities are (debts, like credit cards), how much you've earned but not yet received (from your consulting clients, for example), etc, etc.

Ledger can print out simple text reports, or CSV that you can graph (most people will just paste that into a spreadsheet, but perhaps you prefer gnuplot or whatever).

One thing you can do is reconcile your transactions with the bank's. They are not infallible.

But I'm mostly in your camp. I don't use accounting software for my personal finances. I don't know anyone who does. I think it's more useful for businesses or other organizations that have to be able to report where the money goes.

I do enter everything manually right now. The hledger add command mentioned in the article speeds up entry.

Also, there are ways of importing CSVs from your bank data: http://hledger.org/how-to-read-csv-files.html

ok, assume we put every cent spent into the app. How does it help?

Most people use it to figure out what their spending looks like. A common realization is "holy cow, I spend a ton of my income on [eating out|smokes|alcohol]"

You can use it to project future balances with greater accuracy, you can plan bills, etc.

I think the value goes up (rapidly) the closer your expenses are to your income. If, by chance, you spend 5% of what you make, tracking your spending is probably utterly uninteresting- it'd be smarter to worry about tracking your investments. But if you spend 90%, 100%, 120% of your take-home, you really really need to track your spending.

It can also be handy at tax time if you have more complicated taxes.

In my case it gives me a clearer picture of my loans & repayment.

As some have mentioned, it makes fraud detection easy.

> Do you really put every cent you spend into it? How is it possible? How do you remember all that. for example, during a weekend trip?

The same way people who have had to account for things because of expense accounts, etc., always have: receipts.

Of course, these days its a lot easier; you don't usually have to keep paper around until you are ready to log everything, you can use your phone to photograph receipts or take notes as transactions occur.

> Next step: ok, assume we put every cent spent into the app. How does it help?

Same as profiling a program: it provides an important input to let you know where its useful to spend effort on improvements.

> But how do you actually use them?

The key concept you need to understand is the concept of the balances. A transaction is always a transfer between two accounts. Buying a beer with cash is a transaction from assets:cash to expenses:beer. Getting cash from an ATM is a transaction from assets:bank to assets:cash.

> Do you really put every cent you spend into it?

Mostly. I started doing personal accounting together with my wife about a year ago (currently in Gnucash). I enter the payments into the software every 1-2 months. Usually my cash amount is off by 20-100$. I simply book that on the "unknown" account.

> How is it possible? How do you remember all that. for example, during a weekend trip?

Bank transactions are easy, I simply download the transaction statement. For cash, I either write it into a "accounting" Telegram chat that my wife and I share, or I keep the receipt and put it in my drawer.

It takes quite some time to do, but I think after 1-2 years I know enough about our expense behavior to be able to adjust it properly and to stop doing the accounting part.

Another welcome side effect: If I lend someone money, I never forget about it anymore ;)

I track every cent. I used to just carry a small notebook with me and write in it every time I bought something. Now I share a budget with my girlfriend though so we keep a notebook at the house to track things. I just keep receipts in my wallet then every few days I take them out, record the amounts, and throw them away.

1. What's the point of it? 2. How much hours/week does it cost?

The main point of accounting is planning for the future. If you know how much money flow you have over given time periods then you can plan ahead for large upcoming purchases, or possibly paying yourself if you wish to bootstrap a business, etc.

I honestly don't do much with the data, in fact I rarely look at it. I do use it to determine sane budgets for various categories of my life, and I sum the entries every few days so I can tell at a glance how close I am to exhausting those budgets. I also find that there's a psychological benefit--when I have to track every purchase I spend less money.

I spend considerably less than an hour a week making these entries, perhaps around 15 minutes. If I was interested in having a more nuanced view of my finances with graphs, &c I'd probably leverage software to save me time.

>How do you remember all that.

I ask for receipt for everything (mind, here every cashier is legally mandated to offer you one without asking, so I decided to take advantage of that).

I neither use a fancy app, but old LibreOffice Calc thing I started a couple of years ago. I can now reliably predict my grocery expenses for each year; I also have a fairly good idea exactly how much I can afford to spend on unnecessary things like entertainment (books, Spotify etc) each year, so I now pay the mental effort to actually prioritize how much I want different things. I no longer pay things without planning it beforehand.

Maybe some people can do that kind of mental accounting without help of writing that all down on a paper or using software, but I've found it helpful.

You can do whatever you are comfortable with.

For example, for the trip, if you like cash you could just make an entry that moved whatever amount of your savings to an expense account associated with leisure travel. Done. It's less useful to do that for non cash spending (Because having the accounting system balance spending transactions against the bank records is one of the things it is good for).

As far as what other uses, analyzing your finances over time. Once the information is machine readable and you have categorized the spending to some extent, you can see where money is really going. Most accounting systems will make it trivial to generate time based reports.

(I say this having used ledger for a while and then stopped...)

I buy stuff with debit card linked to my bank account. My bank website lets me download a CSV dump of all transactions in the account in a given timespan (it automatically sets it to after the last time I did the download). I have a script to sanitize the CSV and a hledger ruleset that parses the CSV entries to hledger log and tags common receiver names like grocery stores or utility bill companies with the appropriate spending categories.

Work needed from me: Downloading the CSV once or twice a year, running the script, checking the output for anything that didn't get tagged by the existing rules and needs extra annotation.

For a while I just wrote down every single expense in an Excel sheet. I didn't bother with doing any kind of analysis on the data. Just the act of writing things down and was incredibly enlightning. It made me look at all the expenses I had, confronted me with silly little purchases like a chocolate bar (that's another annoying cell in the spreadsheet) and highlighted days where I spent no money at all. You can do it without quantifying your life or submitting to a stifling plan.

I use "aAccounting plus" app by iSchule.ch double entry system.

I enter everything as it happens.

it is not perfect but it is the best app I have found so far that aligns with my various philosophy's.

it can generate XL spreadsheet and PDF reports.

easy way to see where one spends one's money

We are actually using this in our company and couldn't be happier. We're using Emacs ledger-mode and git to keep track of everything.

Ledger is also tied into our billing system. A couple of shell scripts and Latex easily beats everything that I have seen in the last 10 years in the market. That is, of course, a subjective statement and is meant to be such.

It sounds like you are try to build your own home-brew accounting system. That is absolutely insane. How do you ship this off to your accountant during tax season? How do you deal with accrual-based accounting concepts like invoices, accounts recevable, accounts payable, long term and short term debt, assets, etc?

Do you even know what accrual based accounting is and why you want to use it?

Ledger easily handles accounts receivable/payable, though it doesn't actually generate the invoices for you. Personally, I use org-mode for time tracking and invoice generation (invoices aren't even PDFs ATM, though I have had clients that insisted on them), then I add a corresponding transaction in a ledger file when I send the invoice or receive a payment.

This is basically the old EMACS/Vim vs Sublime/Atom debate that developers have battled for years, moved across to the accounting world, isn't it?

Having been involved in accounting system implementation for > 30 years, I understand that people are usually used to doing things one way and find it hard to adapt to change, but even after all my years in the industry, command line accounting fills me with unease - and this is coming from someone who still loves working in the DOS prompt!

I am sure for a simple expense/budget ledger it will work OK, but when it comes to recurring journals, multiple reconciliation accounts, inter company transfers, control account tracing etc., give me a nice GUI any day...

Storing the data in a simple text format doesn't stop you from using graphics to understand it. What it does do is let you use tools you already know (your favorite text editor, version-control system, command shell, etc) for editing, queries, backups, graphs, and so on. These are all tools that you've already learned how to use, and which you use every day for other tasks involving text.

Whereas with some slick GUI you're probably trapped in that vendor's proprietary file format.

On the other hand, it's pretty obvious that plain-text files don't scale to a multinational, with hundreds of accountants of various types all trying to work with the same files. Even with proper use of Git I bet that would get old fast. You would instead want a real database, with a schema, and some data validation and some programs/webpages to smooth out the data entry and querying and whatnot. All of that can be done without any kind of lock-in to one data format, or one particular vendor's tools, but it's way too much overhead for a small business, let alone a single person.

I understand the speed of the command line when it comes to entering data, and honestly, I've never even considered using something like Git to handle accounting data, but I think it sounds like a neat concept (after all, who of us wishes we could completely undo a set of journals that were accidentally entered into the wrong period).

But my experience is mainly in medium to large businesses with multiple users working on the information in real time, and with strict audit policies around them. I would imagine that would be a nightmare to try and handle using a distributed version control repository, let alone having situations such as one user uncommit their nefarious journals funnelling payments into their own bank account etc. I can imagine the face of the auditors having to run commands like `git compare` on the ledgers to trace transaction history... :)

I imagine the biggest difficulty in these situations is dealing with other people: just like LaTeX might be better for certain kinds of documents, but the world still wants MS Word.

But if we look narrowly at functionality, it seems that plain-text and git might be better for strict audit situations.

In a Git history every thing you do has to has a "paper trail" in the form of a hash chain (admittedly using an outdated hash function). People can only "uncommit their nefarious <anything>" is along as those transactions never found their way to someone else' hard disk.

Honestly, I really don't mean to be rude, but if you're literally referring to the command line as the DOS prompt, you're reference point is one of the worst surviving command line interfaces.

UNIX/Linux command line shells are actually made to be productive and your investment in using them is paid off almost everyday.

It's a common misapprehension that all CLIs are the same, but to be honest, that's from the perspective of the GUI user.

Perhaps you simply missignalled in your comment, and you're a *nix shell power user, in which case I'm preaching to the choir, and accept my apologies.

If you didn't misspeak, give Bash, Zsh or FiSh a serious try (Windows 10, MacOs and Linux all support these shells now.)

I use them all, but started on CP/M then MS-DOS back in the early 80's (plus a little bit of Vax PDP-8). Currently use OS X terminal or the various Unix flavours on our virtual servers. I mentioned 'DOS prompt' by default because I guess that is the one I've used the longest.

This article mirrors much of my own experiences with using ledger. I wrote about my setup here http://nibrahim.net.in/2015/11/07/ledger_and_personal_financ...

Slight correction, if I may. Interest is piqued, not peaked.

On plain text accounting, you should check out Beancount (I am unaffiliated, but know the author): http://furius.ca/beancount/

Is there a comparison somewhere to help someone decide between ledger, hledger, and beancount? I can't determine from the website what sets it apart (or even how it really works...ledger and hledger both have lots of screenshots, examples, etc.

Oh, nevermind. The ledger website includes it in their list of "ports to other languages". Beancount is a Python implementation of the same basic system.

This extensive thread has some in-depth discussion of the subtler differences: https://groups.google.com/d/msg/ledger-cli/__yuMVjrOH0/mgBYL...

I'm right on the verge of going with the new YNAB (first serious attempt to organize finances and budget outside my wife's use of Mint), but maybe I'll give Ledger a shot first.

The power of ynab isn't the tool, but the philosophy. The UI works well because it changes how you think of your budget. I'm a little disappointed the author didn't comment on how ledger compares with the budgeting side, as tracking expenses is only half (or less) of the battle. I'd recommend ynab because it forces you to plan instead of react. I think as far as software goes, that's the fundamental advantage- you think differently. It's kind of like how editing in vim you start to think in terms of verb-object.

I'm stuck on ynab4 for as long as possible, but you can try out the nYNAB (the SaaS offering) for free for a little more than a month. If you get it, be sure to watch the instructional videos.

+1 philosophy, that's been the biggest change for me compared to trying (and failing) to use other systems.

I don't see why YNAB4 would stop working -- certainly I intend to keep using it as long as I can.

I also noticed that you can still buy a license on Steam, at least in the UK, and having run the application once through Steam you apparently get a license key that works standalone.

And v4 runs well on Linux using wine :).

That help section on budgeting only talks about periodic transactions. Is there also some notion of "estimated future, one-off, transaction"? I suppose you could implement that using ordinary transactions.

It's just that after fighting with gnucash, I got the impressions that budgeting and accounting are very different things and that I should not try to use the same tool for both jobs.

Yea, I thought that was a pretty incomplete part of the documentation when I looked through it recently. I haven't done any budgeting in ledger, but the section on virtual accounts seemed like it presented a better way to do a budget: http://ledger-cli.org/3.0/doc/ledger3.html#Introduction-to-L....

I think you could just use a "yearly" period for that. When I used ledger, I started a new file every year.

I have a few friends who try and champion both YNAB and Ledger but Mint works super well for me by keeping my thinking Macro level. If you are someone who just needs a broad budget, Mint can be great. But if you think you need super fine grained control to the point that it will re-enforce changing your spending happens Ledger/YNAB will for sure help with that. I just find that I stop using them, and that was worse.

Just be aware that they solve very different problems. I'm actually very confused about how the author of the article jumped from a budgeting tool to a double entry bookkeeping application and they somehow solved the same problem. I guess if you just need some method of recording all of your income and expenditures, they overlap in that area.

YNAB was/is a great tool and would have continued to use them if not prompted to change. I was not using the budgeting part however.

If you don't use the budgeting part then there are many better solutions out there.

I might try this out. Right now, I'm using a combo of mint and my own google spreadsheet. Mint.com with the mojito plugin for chrome:


The mojito google spreadsheets look amazing, but I couldn't get things to work, and ran into a lot of errors.

The plethora of budget tracking software is frustrating. It seems no one tool is a clear winner. To me, this still looks painful. Mint is closest there, IMO. However, it's pretty much abandonware at this point.

I still remember cringing the day I finally had to move my parents business off CA Simply Accounting for DOS. There was definately a learning curve for the text based app but it took far fewer steps to actually input the data and print off cheques, etc. 15 years of accounting easily fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk. Now, it's a monster database with a terrible UI. In subsequent years Simply has become anything but simple and I cringe at the thought of giving in and moving to the cloud. Ledger doesn't look like a great fit for business though, and accountants want data from accounting packages they know. Quite a racket.

Related mini Show HN: Accounting is a small Java double-entry bookkeeping component.

Accounting is supposed to be integrated in applications that can make use of an accounting feature. It is not a stand-alone application. Accounting makes as few assumptions as possible about the used technologies which enables it to be used very flexibly. On the other hand, this means you will likely have to write glue code to integrate accounting into your application landscape.

Check out accounting on GitHub: https://github.com/Nick-Triller/accounting

Here is a short dscription of how I do this: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12085755

(It also works for repeating or future expenses - I often "initialize" future files with stuff like rent or an average monthly expense for stuff like groceries, then I update it with receipts I have collected on the last few days)

I love the use of asciinema in this. It's handy for me all the time when I want to show a friend something.

I am using Spacemacs so I like the idea of using plain text files. But until there is way to input new transactions via my smartphone easily, I will probably stick with classic YNAB for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, I might have to learn Android programming to create my own app to do so.

You could keep your ledger on Nextcloud, and tell the Android app to keep it available offline. Then edit in an Android text editor. Obviously a fancy Android app that reads/writes the text files would be great, though.

And there is the `finance` layer for it with support for ledger :-)

> I had tried similar services before (Mint, Buxfer, PocketSmith, etc) and never found the sacrifice of privacy worth it. ... > With YNAB 4 now unsupported, I started looking for alternatives. Would I finally surrender to Intuit and start using Quicken? Was a Google Docs spreadsheet enough to get me through?

So OP has privacy concerns with accounting services, but not with Google? Interesting.

Can anyone comment on experiences with Quicken? I had been planning to set up accounting with Xero, but I don't like cloud services for something that requires focus. It can be more difficult to concentrate on something in the browser.

Quicken is the only desktop app that works for Canada and Quebec, I think. How is it?

I'm on Mac, but I can run it on a VM.

Since September 2009, I have maintained a Google sheet outlining my net worth. Twice a month, I add a new column then list the balances of my bank accounts and credit cards and brokerages. Very easy to maintain and useful. I can see changes in my net worth at a glance over the last seven years.

So what is this sacrifice of privacy the author mentions? I mean is this a legitimate statement? While I can sympathize with the author's mindset this seems like a loaded statement based on nothing. If I'm wrong and Mint is leaking my info like a sieve please tell me now.

I do feel slightly uneasy when I use Mint. Primarily because Mint is essentially just a web scraper. They take the account credentials you give them (and presumably encrypt them) and periodically login your bank's web portal, scrape the .html file that contains all of your transactions, works some magic to parse through it, and then displays all of your transactions.

I'm not entirely sure if Mint sells your financial information (i.e., what you spend money on, how much you have, etc.) to outside companies (namely, financial institutions). But, they for sure analyze your transactions to show you paid "recommendations" of what financial products you should use. I've browsed through some of their recommendations before. The majority of them are middling or good, but a significant portion (<15%) are incredible awful.

Actually, I worked at Mint for a little while when my previous startup was acquired into the Intuit fold.

Surprisingly, Intuit actually never sold any Mint user data (including anonymized or batched data). The Mint data set isn't actually that valuable when compared to what Intuit makes from its 'trustworthy' brand.

And sorry for the recommendations. We tried to target intelligently and scientifically, but sometimes awkward-ly targeted recommendations performed too well for us to not run them.

Huh, that's cool. I would've fully expected Intuit to sell user data.

It's not so much that the recommendation aren't relevant (they are actually incredibly relevant; I found the cashback estimator for a given credit card based upon my actual transaction history to be very useful), but rather some of the products are just outrageously awful. (quick side note: I just checked my Mint recommendation and I'm going to recant what I said about a "significant portion" of my recommendations being awful; there's just one awful product). That one awful product is "WebsterOne® Relationship Checking". That account has a ~$15/month account fee (waived if you keep a $4,000 average balance).

This makes me feel a lot better about using Mint as well. Thanks for replying man!

All financial institutions sell your information, electronic or not. In my company we use services that allow us to pull tax data on every resident in the state (of CA) and we get their social, phone numbers, owned/rented properties, outstanding loans, etc. While I totally get the uneasiness of giving info to a third party, we all do that anyway in the analog world as well.

and yes, this means Mint probably sells your info, though they cover it in the privacy statement they have. [guess not actually (see reply from georgeglue1)]

EDIT: If your first statement is true, that tbh is a bit more of an alarming thing to know... oO

Actually, Intuit is one of those mega-companies that could run a successful hedge fund (or sell data/access to one), but has too much to lose in their core businesses to allow them to sell data.

The Mint data set might be worth, say, 8 figures a year, but if you risk a user revolt on Quickbooks, it's not worth it.

The data you describe is a standard credit report and public records, not personal consumption data.

This is very true. Keeping this in mind it's easier yet to get into why someone would want to shy away from 3rd party online services.

Wait what? It's possible to pull up random people's social, loans, etc.?

As in data with PII and not anonymized data?

Pretty much, yea (they usually look you up by SSN though).

Its supposed to only yo the "right" people (some kind of accreditation process), but there was that story recently where a credits reporting agency was selling the data directly to some identity thieves...

Mint is a third party to whom you give not just the list of every transaction you make, but also the passwords for all of your accounts. That seems like a legitimate loss of privacy to me.

Ah okay yes I understand. I understood that statement in a different way. Yeah to be honest I'm okay with all of that. Unless it gets leaked negligently or maliciously that is, hence my honest question.

the repeated usage of the phrase "my net worth" stings. i presume it's just a turn of phrase and does not really mean much, but it's ugly. you're worth more than any dollar amount! ;)

hledger author and plain text accounting fan here! Thanks for this nice blog post and interesting discussion. There are some great questions raised here, perhaps I can steal them for a FAQ ? Here are some answers:

Isn't personal accounting a waste of time ?

People have very different needs and practise personal accounting for many different reasons. There is of course a point of diminishing returns; tailor your accounting practices to your needs. Needs change over time. Some of us would benefit from doing more (or better) accounting, some less (I would guess this second group is smaller).

In [The Millionaire Next Door](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Millionaire_Next_Door) (highly recommended), one research finding was that above-average wealth accumulators spend more time on financial planning, which for many of us requires accounting as a foundation. "Minimal time dedicated to financial planning is a leading indicator of a UAW [Under Accumulator of Wealth]".

Isn't a command-line tool too limited for real-world accounting needs ?

"I am sure for a simple expense/budget ledger it will work OK, but when it comes to recurring journals, multiple reconciliation accounts, inter company transfers, control account tracing etc., give me a nice GUI any day..."

Understandable. The current plain text accounting tools provide a very generic double entry accounting system with which you can model such things, and script them.

There are a number of generic GUIs available (hledger has curses and web interfaces, and there are web/curses/GTK interfaces for Ledger and beancount). But there are not yet a lot of rich task-specific GUIs. There's no reason they can't be built, though.

Isn't a plain text format too limited for large organizations ?

"it's pretty obvious that plain-text files don't scale to a multinational, with hundreds of accountants of various types all trying to work with the same files. Even with proper use of Git I bet that would get old fast. You would instead want a real database, with a schema, and some data validation and some programs/webpages to smooth out the data entry and querying and whatnot."

I'm not sure. Current plain text accounting tools can do some schema definition and data validation, and will do more in future. The plain text storage format is open, human-readable, future-proof (useful even without the software), scales smoothly from simple to complex needs, and taps a huge ecosystem of highly useful tooling, such as version control systems. And, despite the name, there's no reason these tools can't support other kinds of storage, such as a database. (hledger has four storage formats and is designed to accept more).

Do you really enter every little transaction ?

Yes! Many folks in our community do it. Mahatma Gandhi reconciled to the penny every night. J.D. Rockefeller was famous for his ledgers.

It's not required. I started doing it as a temporary learning exercise, and still like it. It makes troubleshooting and reconciling easier.

How is that possible ?

Practice, and a process/toolset that suits you. Some folks import most of the data from their banks, so little manual data entry is required. A few prefer to manually enter everything, for the increased awareness and insight. "Manual" data entry is usually assisted in some way: interactive console tools (hledger add and similar), web-based tools (hledger-web and similar), GUI tools (ledgerhelpers), smart editors (eg emacs & ledger-mode), recurring transaction scripts. I currently use a mixture of bank CSV import and rapid copy/paste in emacs. I spend 15 minutes a day on average, and for me that's currently a good investment.

How do I use the transaction data in my bank's web or mobile app ?

If you can export it as CSV, you can import it and run queries against it. There are also some tools for converting OFX, QIF etc.

So I've got a huge list of transactions recorded, duplicating my bank statements. How does that help ?

Accounting is modelling flows of money (or other value). Such a model aggregates information from many sources, in one trusted place. With it you can efficiently generate reports, forecast things (cashflow!), answer questions, try experiments.

Some people need a very simple model, others benefit from a more detailed one, and we don't know up front what we might need in future. The most fundamental accounting data is a simple list of transactions (the journal). Once you have captured this, you can mine it for anything you may want later on.

Plain text accounting provides nice open data format(s), tools and practices for doing this, and could be a good foundation for more powerful tools.

Where can I see a comparison of hledger, Ledger, beancount, and the rest ?

Glad you asked! http://plaintextaccounting.org gives an overview of these tools and practices. In particular see "Ledger-likes" and "comparisons" under "read more". hledger's FAQ discusses differences from Ledger. Beancount docs probably do too.

How do you do budgeting ?

Some notes are [here](http://plaintextaccounting.org/#budgeting). I emulate YNAB-ish envelope budgetting (see third link).

Double entry accounting ? Where are the debits and credits ?

Most (not all) plain text accounting implementations use signed amounts instead of debits and credits. This makes them "double entry light" perhaps, but it has been a rather successful simplification, intuitive to most newcomers.

Great additional info, thanks!

Cool. Now add those on fly on a mobile device. YNAB app does it in couple taps.

Also YNAB 4 won't just suddenly stop working.

As a YNAB user, I would be concerned that the mobile app cloud sync would stop working in the future and not get updated.

The only cloud sync in YNAB 4 is the one via Dropbox, where it shares the budget file with the desktop app. So the only issue is the DB API being updated.

Agreed, at some point SDKs will break it.

Yes, would love to build something like `hledger add` for mobile.


Personal attacks, which this crosses into, are not allowed on Hacker News. We ban accounts that do this, so please don't do it.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12119693 and marked it off-topic.

Should probably update my profile. I'm now working on an app for CNN. Great Big Story.


Astral Health and Beauty is a $40MM / year cosmetics and skincare company that I am proud to have been a part of. The beauty business gets shit on quite a bit, but it offers something priceless to the disadvantaged that is in short supply; the ability to feel good about oneself.

Realism helps most people feel better about themselves, advertising and mass media is causing the problem in the first place. The skincare and cosmetics industry is a large part of the problem in the first place.

Icelandic public baths for example show young people that most humans are just not that attractive and it's ok. Consider TV uses highly attractive people to pretend to be less than attractive which is horribly damaging.

Cosmetics much older than advertising.

Advertising is thousands of years old, so it's hard to say. My point is the industry has become toxic over time.

So you're saying "it was already broken when I got here, who cares if I make it worse"? Sounds like a really selfish and unenlightened attitude.

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