Mr. Micawber, Mr. Marner, and the Slow Quickening of my Monthly Budget

 It’s not what you earn, I said to myself. It’s what you don’t spend. That was in the late 60s, early 70s, when I lived in San Francisco and made a point of spending less than my paycheck allowed. I lived on what I liked to call the slum side of Nob Hill, in a neighborhood populated mostly by young singles. My furnished studio apartment cost about $95 a month. It had a bay window on one side and a wall bed on the other, with a kitchen and bathroom small enough to be hardly noticed. I didn’t make much money, but I lived cheap.

My budget tool at the time was a packet of manila coin envelopes. I would stash money in the envelopes, seal them, write the date on which each was to be opened, and hide them in various pockets of off-season garments. I never forgot where the money was hidden, and I never opened an envelope before the appointed date. I was good at budgeting. I had read David Copperfield at a young age and taken to heart Mr. Micawber’s advice to David “that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable.” Made sense to me.

After some pay raises, some rent increases, a job change, and a move back to the East Coast, I decided I needed to do some long-range planning. Also, I guessed that paying for a never-ending supply of manila coin envelopes was not cost effective, although I liked the simplicity of the system and the feel of the envelopes in my hand. (I still have nine of them in my desk drawer, left over from my last packet.) But the world was no longer simple. Suddenly I had credit cards and used them more frequently than cash; I wasn’t about to hide my MasterCard in the pocket of an old raincoat. And the check register might be a good enough place to record the checks I had written, but in essence it was a spending tool. Even if I hadn’t hated the sight of my own handwriting, I was at a point in my life when I needed to think seriously about saving.

I don’t think I would have become acquisitive if I hadn’t read Silas Marner in high school. I loved best those passages in the book that described Silas’s relationship with his gold and silver coins. What George Eliot had written was money porn, and it stayed in my head:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver—the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Luckily, technology came to my rescue. First there were spreadsheets and integrated programs; for the Macintosh, Lotus Jazz and Wingz come to mind. At work, where we had a Kaypro in the basement, I used Perfect Writer to churn out contracts. We also had Perfect Calc for spreadsheets, but my job didn’t involve spreadsheets. Whatever there was, there was always something better the next year, but nothing was ever good enough. At some point I bought myself an IBM PC, which was compatible with the computer I was using at work. (The university press I worked for had ditched the Kaypro by then, and nobody was weeping over it.) I was using spreadsheets and databases all the time now. I enjoyed them, but not as much as Silas Marner enjoyed his piles of guineas.

What I knew I needed, although I didn’t know it existed, was money-management software. Luckily, my first laptop computer, an IBM that ran on DOS like its predecessor, came preloaded with Andrew Tobias’s Managing Your Money, a program that did everything I wanted it to do, including computing my debt-to-equity ratio whenever I asked it to, which was daily. I loved Managing Your Money. According to his website, Andrew Tobias, who is currently Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, still uses the last DOS version, even though the rest of the world has closed that door and opened its Windows.

When I switched to a series of Windows computers, none of which I especially liked, I said good-bye to MYM and hello to Quicken. I liked Quicken. If I told it when I wanted to retire, it would tell me whether I could afford to do so. And although it refused to calculate my debt-to-equity ratio, it gave me enough information so that I could do the arithmetic myself. With each new version, Quicken for Windows became more sophisticated. What I liked best were the budgeting features. I could have as many income and expense categories as I wanted, and I could budget a different amount in each category for each month of the year. I could be as obsessively precise as I wanted to be, and Quicken would cheer me on.

The story could have ended happily right there, except that I really wasn’t happy with my string of Windows computers–not in the way I had loved my DOS computers and my manila envelopes. I finally made the decision to switch platforms, and for me it was the right decision. In most cases, transitioning to software designed for the Mac was easy. The Mac version of my genealogy program, the one I worried most about, worked just fine. The same is true for my word-processing and spreadsheet programs. I was almost happy.

However, I soon learned that Quicken software for the Macintosh was greatly inferior to the Windows product. Quicken Essentials, the version that was available when I made the switch, was so bad that I have blocked it out of my mind completely. I bought Quicken 2015 for Mac as soon as it became available, and it was an improvement, but nowhere near what I had gotten used to. What was missing–well, many things were missing, but what I missed the most–was 12-month budgeting. Quicken 2015 for Mac worked on the assumption that one’s income and expenses were exactly the same from one month to the next. It would have been a good program for a young single living in a $95-a-month studio with a wall bed in San Francisco, someone who spent exactly $120 a month each month at Cala Foods, someone whose monthly PG&E bill came in consistently at under $4. It was not a good program for a retired homeowner with property taxes, school taxes, and estimated taxes to worry about. My Quicken budget was a caricature of my financial life, and I was almost ready to go back to those envelopes.

 Now for the happy ending: Earlier this month Quicken 2016, which I hadn’t bothered to buy since it seemed to offer nothing new that I wanted, finally got around to adding 12-month budgeting to its other features. No, I told myself, they’re just trying to suck me in. It won’t work. Don’t believe them. I held my breath and downloaded the new version. I held by breath and transferred all of my data. I held my breath and looked at my budget. Yes, it was true. I could fine-tune my budget as much as I liked. I could assign guineas to a leather bag under the floorboards if I wanted to. (I do, in fact, have a Quicken account called “Stash,” but I don’t keep it under the floorboards.) I spent several hours editing my budget, and during those several hours I was ecstatically, hilariously happy.

There’s an element of uncertainty to all this happiness, however. Intuit has sold the Quicken line to a private equity firm, and, while the new owners have promised to double the number of engineers working on the Mac version, probably nothing will happen during the transition period. So I’m happy for now and can recommend the product, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. And I’ll hold on to those nine manila coin envelopes just in case. Hey, you never know.

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