Going paperless

Good-bye, check registers. Good-bye, printed bank statements.

At least two years ago, I signed up to “go paperless” with the bank (actually it’s a credit union, but it functions the same as a bank as far as I’m concerned) that I use for most of my payments. I was never waiting until the paper statement came anyway – I’d go online occasionally to check my account balance and add any transactions I had missed to my checkbook register. So by the time the statement came, all I did with it was add it to a stack of papers to eventually store in a box somewhere.

It worked fine as long as I made most of my payments by check. But as I made more and more payments online or using my debit card, the job of keeping my check register up-to-date became increasingly tedious. Having the bank data all online was great. Having to writing it all on a paper register, just so I could do the bank reconciliation (where the errors were always mine, or else too small to spend time tracking down when they were most likely mine anyway), was a pain.

Now and then I thought about the possibility of getting a computer program to record all my finances. That way I’d not only take care of the bank records, I’d also be able to run reports showing me what I was spending my money on. For a while I had tried to track details of my spending in a spreadsheet, but it was a pain to do all that data entry. I don’t know if I’d dislike the chore as much if I had lots of money, but looking at the numbers is always an unpleasant reminder that I wish I were in much better shape financially – but don’t see that happening anytime in the near future.

Paying money for a program to do what I could do manually didn’t appeal to me, though, even if I didn’t like doing it manually. And while there may be freeware out there for that purpose, I wasn’t keen on relying on a program without customer support. (I did decide to pay for money a program to do my taxes this year, but that was because I was pretty sure it would save me money by making sure I didn’t miss any deductions.)

I finally have a solution I’m happy with, however. In recent weeks I’ve been working on using Visual Basic for Applications, together with Microsoft Access, to simplify keeping track of software licenses for my company. I really enjoyed the project, and I started looking for other ways to use my VBA skills. What about making myself a nice little application to record income and expenses and track my bank balances, I thought. Since I would be dealing mostly with numbers rather than names, I decided this time I would work in Excel instead of Access.

It didn’t take me long to decide that using VBA with Access is much nicer than using it with Excel. The language works the same way, but the way things show up in the code editor is much less user-friendly in VBA/Excel. With Access, I could look around and figure out how things work. Using the code editor in Excel, I couldn’t find things that I knew had to be there, from having done them in Access.

You see, I’m the sort of person who would rather jump into a project and figure out, step by step, how to do it, than take a training course first to prepare me. Training courses tell me how to do something I might want to do, but usually give little idea why I might want to do it. Working on a real application, I start by knowing what I want and why, and I’m far more attuned to the details of figuring out how to do it.

Between a book (from the department “library”) on programming with Access, and the abundance of websites devoted to the topic, I could find examples of everything I needed for my software license project. By the time I decided to look for a step-by-step tutorial on the subject, I discovered that the first ten (out of 56) lessons covered little that I hadn’t just finished teaching myself.

Now I’m found the same kind of online help with VBA and Excel, including hints on how to find the stuff that wasn’t obvious (and had been obvious when doing the same thing with Access). The specific applications are different (I haven’t come across anyone trying to track either software licenses or bank transactions), but I can always find an example of the programming task I’m working on, from populating combo boxes in a dialog boxes to making sure I create unique ID’s for the software license records I’m creating.

I went “live” with my new income/expense/bank account/bill tracker last Thursday (my husband and I both get paid on Thursdays). Now, instead of hating the chore of recording the money spent on every trip to the grocery store (I go almost daily, mostly for milk and cheese, which my family goes through very quickly but would probably go through even more quickly if I stocked up more), I am enjoying it. It’s so satisfying to have a screen pop up with boxes to enter the details of how I spent my money, then watch as my program adds it to both the Expenses tab and the appropriate bank tab. My bank balances are current, and I don’t have to touch my check registers. (I still use them to record the very few checks that I write.)

I even found an answer to one of my other big problems – finding an effective way to organize myself to get bills paid on time. I tried keeping statements in order by due date, but then I kept missing the ones that use coupon books. And even if I didn’t miss paying a bill, I’d forget to record one on auto-pay and the next payment would result in an overdraft.

Now I click a button that says “Create Reminders” and the program looks through my list of recurring payments and identifies the ones that are within five days of the due date. If it’s on auto-pay, a reminder pops up to record the payment amount. If I need to make a payment, it actually generates a reminder in Microsoft Outlook (my email program), which will stay out there until I make the payment and dismiss the reminder. Once I’m sure I have the thing working smoothly (probably after one full month’s worth of payments), I’ll automate the process so I don’t have to remember to even click a button.

I suppose that over time the delight of having developed this application for myself will wear off, and recording payments may seem like a chore again. But at least I’ll have all the info in one place, and I’ll be able to easily summarize my expenses by category over a period of time.

Too bad I can’t think of a way to use programming to make it easier to keep up with the laundry.

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