Bird in the Hand

Lucinda Karter

WHEN IT CAME to money, I long had a slight degree of magical thinking—that there would always be enough, that some higher power would ensure that my checkbook was balanced and that I could be that super-generous person, even if I really couldn’t afford to be.

This sometimes landed me in trouble when, for some inexplicable reason, a check would bounce or I discovered I had less in my checking account than expected. To a great extent, I depended on intuition to manage my cash flow. This, I was always aware, was not a sensible way to live.

So it was a great relief when apps appeared that were designed to help folks manage their money. I tried many, including Clarity Money, Digit and Mint, and have come to rely on one that suits my personality. It’s called Dollarbird.

You don’t have to pay anything to use the basic version of Dollarbird’s app. It isn’t flashy or highly technical. You have to enter all data by hand and it hasn’t mutated over the years into anything more than a basic cash flow management system. At the beginning and in the middle of every month, I enter my paycheck and any upcoming costs I can think of. This includes everything from my younger daughter’s allowance to my older daughter’s college tuition payment. I also include my credit card as a cost. That’s where miscellaneous expenses inevitably go. For that entry, I use my average monthly credit card bill.

The app automatically calculates how much I will have left in my checking account at the end of the period. I immediately plug the total cash left into the next period, under a category I’ve named “saved from two weeks ago.” I begin from there, again entering all income and costs expected to fall between the start of the month and the 15th or between the 15th and month’s end. I often pre-fill two or three months at a time, so I can better predict what lies ahead.

You might imagine it’s tedious to enter everything manually, but I find it fun. I like being in charge of telling the app what my expenses are, choosing the different colors for each category and simply entering the amount. I had tried apps where data was pulled automatically from my bank account and credit cards, and I found them overwhelming. If the app didn’t know what category to put an expense in, it went into “miscellaneous” and then you had to manually categorize myriad transactions. Also, while these other apps told you where things stand, they don’t predict future cashflow—which is what I find so comforting about Dollarbird.

To be sure, those predictions aren’t always accurate. At the end of the period, I sometimes have to go back and enter an unexpected expense, like a haircut or a gift for a child’s birthday party, and then readjust the balances left for the weeks ahead.

Still, it’s a relief to go from guessing my cash flow to having a good idea of what will be left at the end of two weeks. I sleep better at night. I also know how generous a person I can be, which—alas—isn’t as generous as I once thought. I know when I can spring for that small luxury for myself or my family. I can anticipate how much I will be able to budget for Christmas gifts. I may not be as free as a (dollar) bird, but I am freer.

Lucinda Karter’s previous articles were Pillow Talk and Closet Saver. Follow her on Twitter @LucindaKarter.

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