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Archive for December, 2007

Of Memory Banks and Banking Memories

December 19th, 2007 at 02:57 pm

I've been a Quicken enthusiast for 15 years, but I'm getting very close to giving up on it. Working on this blog entry has been a way to think it through...

128 MB. That's how much memory my computer has--and that was supposed to be the minimum requirement for running Quicken 2008 Deluxe. Well, actually running turned out to be an exaggeration--limping, crawling, or stumbling maybe. (FYI--I started using Quicken on my first computer, back in 1992. That old Quicken version had all the features I needed and worked just fine on 4 MB.)

I decided I was willing to live with the slowness and the quirks because I really wanted to play with the Savings Goal feature. But after installing a security update, it got even worse--now it won't open up and run at all.

I've put in many hours of troubleshooting already, and have another list of things to try from my new email friend, seemingly located in India. Why did I start using it in the first place, what problems did it solve, and do I still need it now? Is it worth putting in even more time trying to get it to work?

Era # 1 - No need for Quicken. Or even a calculator!

In high school and college, my finances were simple. I used a passbook savings account, a Christmas Club, and cash. With passbook savings accounts, you could see exactly what was in your account at any time by looking in the book. With the Christmas Club, you also knew exactly where you stood at all times. You could tell the balance by the number of coupons that were already taken out. And the bank always had a little display out showing what week the Club was on. If it was Week 10 and you were only paid up to Week 8, you knew you had some catching up to do.

Note, the bank provided the only tracking tools I needed.


Era # 2 - Chaos

For roughly 15 years, maybe 1977 to 1992, I could have used something like Quicken if it had existed and if I'd had a computer. I started to keep a checking account, started opening charge accounts and credit cards, and bought some savings bonds. The passbook savings accounts started to disappear, replaced by Statement Savings. The Christmas Club books started to disappear, and now worked like Statement Savings. Note the key here is the word Statement. Without the passbooks and coupon books, I now had to keep track on my own, between statements.

My tracking tools were a paper check register, deposit receipts, a pencil, and a calculator. Eventually I added two more tools--duplicate checks, and teller-provided printouts of recent transactions. They both helped me catch things I forgot to record in the register. My writing is rather large, and I've always had trouble writing in check registers. And even with a calculator I had a terrible time balancing the checkbook when the statement came. I really had no system at all for keeping track of credit card balances.

The first years DH and I were married, we lurched from one financial crisis to the next. It got so bad I was getting cash advances on one credit card to pay the minimum payment on another one. Low income, overspending, and chaotic record keeping all contributed. If payday loans had been invented yet, we might have been sucked into that. My best AND my worst purchase back then might have been that first computer I bought--for $2,000, financed on our Sears card.


Erica # 3 - Golden Age of Quicken

For the next 15 years, 1992 to 2007, I really came to rely on Quicken. It came on that first computer, so I gave it a try. It was intimidating, but the first time I went through the checkbook balancing process with it, I was sold. SO much better than doing it on paper. It seemed like a miracle. I really got into setting up categories and classes and fiddling with the budget feature.

Our financial life got more complicated. Credit union account with several subaccounts, IRAs, stock DRIP plans, more savings bonds. I opened even more credit cards for bonuses and 0% offers. I bought gift cards at a discount and had to track the remaining balances. I started selling books online, and tracked all the business income and expenses in Quicken, too.

But even with all that tracking, we've still had more unpleasant financial surprises than I would have liked--mostly due to counting on Quicken's budget feature. As I've written before, it doesn't take into account the timing of paychecks and bills. It will indicate a surplus for an upcoming month overall, without warning you that you'll go negative for a day because a big bill is due just before a paycheck. It gave me a false sense of security about spending money. So I'm no longer using it for budgeting, and I've spent a lot of time entering expected transactions months in advance, just so I can make sure we won't be going into the red at any point.

And I think our finances got so complicated partly BECAUSE of Quicken. If I'd had to deal with it all on paper, I would have kept things simpler. It seemed so easy to just keep adding accounts and categories in Quicken, til it suddenly became overwhelming.

Lately I've streamlined things. I don't have the bookselling business anymore. We don't own stocks outside of our IRAs. I'm not doing the gift card thing. Practically every transaction in and out of our accounts is predictible, if not automated. Direct deposit of paychecks, automatic transfers to savings, automatic bill payment. We still have two credit cards, but hardly ever use them. I'm trying to use cash instead of the debit card whenever possible.

There just isn't as much to track. And once again, the bank is providing the main tool I need--not in the form of passbooks and coupon books, but through online banking. Maintaining a complete written or Quicken register on my own between monthly statements just isn't as important. The headache of reconciling the account once a month when the statement comes isn't really necessary if I've been keeping up with things online.

The way I'm feeling now is, the computer is a great tool for managing finances. I wouldn't want to go back to pencil and paper. But maybe Quicken was only necessary during that period where banks were pretty much leaving us on our own, without the tools to track thngs between statements. Now with online banking, maybe the Quicken era is ending. I'm pretty sure it is for me.

Christmas Club blast from the past- Pix!

December 19th, 2007 at 03:48 am

The old school Christmas Clubs must be alive and well somewhere, because I came across a banknote printer who's still selling the books. And the graphics look about the same as I remember them from the 70's!




You can see their whole product line here:
www.kbnc.com/christmasclub.htm

Full Plate Part 2 - Family Stuff

December 12th, 2007 at 02:28 pm

It started about 4 weeks ago.

DMom finally decided to have the bathroom redone in one of her houses, so that one house was completely livable and she could sell the other one. She's been driving between the two houses almost every day for over 20 years. Did I mention she's 90 years old???

DH and I attended meetings with the remodeler with her, moved furniture and breakable stuff so they could get in and work, made phone calls, made sure there was food and coffee in the house, etc. DH also got a shed torn down and some yard work done while it was going on.

For 3 weeks, we took turns being at the house at 8 a.m. to let the remodelers in. DMom couldn't sleep there because there was no bathroom, and she couldn't drive down herself to meet them because she doesn't get that early a start in the mornings. We'd wait til she got there, then tried to get on with our own days.

We thought it was only going to be 2 weeks, so we scheduled our own roofing job for week 3. But as it turned out, I was at DMom's with her remodelers while DH was home dealing with our roofers.

At the end of the job, we discovered the toilet they gave DMom was not nearly powerful enough...you don't want to know! I ended up working a split day, managing a toilet changeover for her during my afternoon off.

It was getting to be very stressful because while sitting at DMom's house, we were holed up in her living room which is crammed with old, crumbling dirty stuff she doesn't want to get rid of. We saw tons of things that need to be thrown out, given away, cleaned, or stored. We could have gotten a lot more done while we were there anyway--but she just kept saying No, No, No. She couldn't deal with that much change all at once. Very frustrating.

Finally at the end of the projects, DH and I sat down after dinner to relax, but it wasn't meant to be.

My BIL, who lives with my MIL (also 90) has had bipolar disorder for many years, which has been pretty well controlled with lithium except during extra stressful periods. Well, it was starting to have medical side effects and they changed his medication.

I won't go into detail, but we've spent many hours on the phone with family, the security guard in my MIL's development, the mental health crisis people. The police and crisis folks were at the house 6+ hours before he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He'd been holding MIL practically hostage, pulled out the phone lines so she couldn't communicate with the outside world. He was suicidal, and there's a good chance there's still an old gun on the property that he hid somewhere. The police looked for it, and couldn't find it.

We are all very apprehensive about how long the hospital will keep him, how he'll be when he gets out, and how to keep my MIL safe. I called the social worker's office at the hospital but only got an answering machine and no call back yet. I emailed the Red Cross's Lifeline service (the I've fallen and I can't get up thing) but it bounced back as a bad address. More frustrations I really don't need.

We've also got DMom's car at our mechanic because lots of repairs have been adding up and we felt it wasn't safe for her to drive. It looked like she hadn't gotten an oil change for over a year! She's just developed a bladder infection and since her car's in the shop, I'm driving her to doctor appointments and the drugstore this week.

I've been spending money like a drunken sailor--can't even tell you what on. I had to raid the Bills checking account for stuff that should be coming out of the Groceries checking account, but I don't see how it could be helped. I can't see my financial life getting back under control until things start to calm down. I've been lurking on a Debtor's Anonymous email list, and know I would be taken to task for Vagueness (not writing down everything spent, not spending within a budget). My mental reply to the DA folks right now is, "Get Real!"

My plate is full

December 9th, 2007 at 04:43 pm

Since DH left his job, all heck has broken loose. Not due to him--on the contrary, if he didn't have the time and energy to help with this stuff, I don't see how I could have managed. As it is, we are both feeling pretty stressed, and at times physically shaky.

In this entry, the financial front.

Just before DH left his job, he decided to get a tooth fixed. Looking back on it, I think he wanted to look better for job interviews, but it didn't occur to me at the time. That cost $1500.

I managed to pick up some extra hours at work, which covers our COBRA insurance almost exactly. My boss knows I'm ready to go full time and get benefits, and she'd like to give it to me, but it's not in the budget right now.

Still, the cheapest COBRA option (keeping the high deductible insurance and the HSA account) is $645 a month and it's kind of painful to pay. It's more than our mortgage! And we still have to find money to put into the HSA.

We had to start paying on life insurance for DH, because the only policy he had was at work. $94 a quarter.

In October, our dog had a swelling on her cheek that we thought might be a tumor. It was relatively good news--an abscessed tooth that needed to be removed. The vet visits, surgery and medicine totalled $605.

One of the little additions on our house had a much older roof than the main part, and it started to leak once in a while. It kept getting worse and in November we decided we'd better get it replaced before snow season started. Even I could see it was beyond repair, unless we just wanted to lay a tarp over it for the winter! $1125.

We rarely have flea problems, but our dog and cat both got them recently. I didn't have the stuff on hand, so I ordered it online for the best price I could find--just under $100.

It was our balance month for natural gas, and we owed $48 extra. We needed a new faucet cartridge, $22. DH worked on hedges at DMom's house, sliced the extension cord. New cord, $25. MIL needed her phone card re-upped due to a family emergency, $25. We've been very involved with DMom and MIL lately, which has made it harder to do things the cheap way. We've been indulging in some fast food and I'm just happy to get out shopping when I can, let alone following sales and using coupons.

Amazingly, we are still afloat financially so far. I had to charge a few things only because the emergency money I had to spend wasn't in the account with the debit card. As soon as I pay that bill, we'll be debt-free again except for the mortgage.

Oh, and all that subprime mortgage news that's been coming out has made me very, very nervous about our ARM, due to adjust in 3 years. So I set up an automatic extra payment to principal for $50 a month--don't know how much it will help in the long run, but it makes me feel better.

Next time, the family crises. (Oh, joy!)