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Musings and Meanderings of Robert Kuropkat Posts

A History of Budgeting

Or at least my part in it…

So in my previous post, I set the stage for my lifelong indebtedness, my desire to get out of it, and my general incompetence in doing so. Today we track a short history of my attempt to understand money.

Notice , I said I needed to “understand” money not “manage” it. This is a personal quirk of mine. I have never been particularly good about remembering things (ask my wife). Instead, I understand things and then simply recreate in my mind how to deal with them. Failing to understand the issue at hand leaves me at the mercy of a faulty and disinterested memory.

My first attempts to understand money revolved around a hand written check register. Looking again at one, it begs the question why double entry accounting isn’t fundamentally obvious to everyone who has ever had a check account. After all, a checkbook register is arranged EXACTLY like a double entry accounting journal. It has columns for date, transaction id, payee, payment (debit), deposit (credit) and a running balance. Yet, making practical use of this for family money management continues to baffle me (and most people).

Thinking I needed something more, I began using Quicken by Intuit. I was a HUGE fan of Quicken for a great many years. It really upped my game on financial tracking and accuracy. Of course, this does not mean it improved my money management. I remember once taking a trip to California with friends. Every time we stopped for gas, I quickly produced my deck of credit cards, representing nearly every gas station and department store known at the time and charged our gas. I then collected cash from my friends for their part. Only a complete fool would think I saved that money to pay my bill with later.

No, all I did was get better at tracking where my went, not where I needed it to go.

It did however lay the foundation I needed to decide I needed to do something and dive right in. My first attempt at proactive money management was to use the budgeting tools built right into Quicken. I examined my transactions, made my categories, set my limits and was stunned when Quicken told me I had a monthly surplus of a thousand dollars! I can tell you I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when I saw that. I was getting desperate and realized with this kind of surplus, I would wipe out my credit debt in no time at all.

Equally stunning to me was when I got to the end of the month and no thousand dollars. What the hell? I reviewed, reviewed and reviewed again. I spent months trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was reasonably good at sticking within the boundaries of my budget, but at the end of every month, no leftover money to throw at my credit cards.

In desperation, I went to the internet. In those days, that meant UseNet News and the AltaVista search engine. Eventually I found the answer. Quicken’s budgeting was fundamentally broken. Well crap. Now what…?

Now I’m sure there are some who have successfully used Quicken budgets to manage their money, but it did not work for me and it turns out it was simply due to the fact Quicken’s budgeting did not use proper, double entry accounting. Because of this, you could only use Quicken budgeting to mange your money in a somewhat backhanded manner, but it would never properly “add up.” I won’t bother you with the detailed description, because I could barely understand it. All I knew was it would not work.

In fact, the entire approach is wrong as it is generally reactive, rather than proactive. In essence, Quicken budgets were nothing more than a pretty report on what I already knew, which is where my money went, not where it should go.

At this point, I started looking at other tools. For various reasons, GNUCash was top of my list. At the time, there were very few, personal software packages using double entry accounting. Most followed the Quicken model and were generally feature-for feature comparable. In other words, they would work no better for me than did Quicken. I would make several attempts to use GNU Cash, but the very double entry accounting I knew I needed continued to be a barrier to my usage.

I continued using Quicken to a least track my data. I knew I wanted to keep it if I could and at the very least, I would need it to create a budget when I finally found some way to do it. Eventually, I had probably a decade or more of data.

Eventually, I stumbled onto the Envelope method for budgeting. Some form of this is all the rage in personal debt management seminars, books, webinars, etc today. The basics are remarkably simple. Cash your check, divvy it up between envelopes marked with categories, take your envelope when you go shopping. When the envelope is empty, you are done shopping until you put more cash in.

The drawback is obvious. Who uses cash anymore? Even those who try, find it impractical at some point and that point is where it breaks.

Fortunately, most debt management gurus have developed systems and software to help you create virtual envelopes that manage credit cards, etc. This is important, not only because of today’s world, but because this is ultimately why all my Quicken Budgets failed. I did not properly track the cash flow of the credit card. These virtual envelope systems generally have pseudo accounts that hold your money until it is time to pay your credit card bill.

Still, certain problems remain. The first is in how this whole process works. It works by using double entry accounting! Well, mostly. And therein lies the second problem. To get anywhere with these virtual envelopes, you have to suck in the salt water of double entry accounting, already the bane of my financial existence. However, because that tends to hurt people’s heads, most of these systems try to obscure a certain amount of the process. Which means even if you start to feel like you are understanding the process, every now and then it goes pear shaped and it is not obvious (to the novice such as me), why. At least it did for me.

The leader at the time was Mvelopes and I jumped into a life long subscription. Over the years though, their attempts to simplify the process kept throwing me for a loop. Like I said, I never truly grasped double entry accounting. So when the UI changed, and certain accounts disappeared to be handled magically by the system, the cash flow vision I had got muddled.

It did not help that the product suffered technical problems as well. First and foremost, the change from a desktop application to a web based one is a shift I’ll never forgive them for. I understand the business reasons for doing so, but as a Software Professional, I have maintained from the beginning, and still do, that the Web Browser is the single, most horrific application deployment platform possible. I’ll save the details of that rant for another day, but the change from HTML/Javascript, to Flash, to HTML5 continued to prove the app was just to big to fit inside the resource constraints of a browser.

In addition to the UI, the back end was plagued with problems. Mvelopes never seemed to get the same level of cooperation from banks as Intuit. Grabbing your transaction data was a web scrapping process that broke constantly (as one would expect given how often web sites change) and the worst offender was American Express. For me, this was particularly destructive, as one of my other, backhanded approaches to budgeting was to use my AmX card as my primary credit card, for the simple reason that I HAD to pay it off monthly. Mvelopes’ continued problems with American Express meant I was constantly, manually, dedupping records, adding missing records, etc.

Then they went out of business. Bringing us to where we are today.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, where I craft my latest solution/attempt/folly…

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

By which I mean, it’s time to take another wack at budgeting…

Once, long ago, I set off for college. Before I went, my mother took me down to the bank and opened a checking account for me. Through this, I would learn to take care of my own finances as well as provide an easy conduit for my parents to funnel money to me as needed. One thing extra she did though was include what was then called “Overdraft Protection.” It was not a line of credit per se, nor was it a credit card. It was just a small amount ($500) intended to cover those moments when the bank decided to clear the checks I wrote, before the checks I deposited. For some reason, banks always prefer to do things in this order and I guess my mom knew full well who she was putting in charge of this account.

Mysterious Movements chapter 0


Once upon a time there lived a young codeslinger. From the technological backwater of Tucson, he dreamed of coding challenges that would test his wits and determination. Coding challenges that make most coders cower in fear. Coding challenges that would make him a legend.

Tucson was not devoid of technology, but it was mostly technology that once was. The big gangs had pulled out long ago. The others were mostly lone codesligners; IDEs for hire. The important thing though, was none of them had time for a young upstart.

So, he packed his meager belongings and headed further West, the golden hills of California singing a siren song of wealth and challenges for anyone brave enough. He didn’t even bring his IDE (Integrated Development Environment), choosing instead to leave it behind for whomever should take up residence here next. Yes, he’d buy himself a set of shiny new IDEs when he arrived in San Francisco, the .COM capital of the world.

Truth be told…

How often do you have to hear something before you decide it must be true? As I recall from my High School English class, you need to back up any claim with at least three credible sources. Ideally, these three sources should have different pedigrees for their research. Their conclusions should derive from different sources. In other words, they should not all just be repeating the same rumor. In today’s world, that means three re-tweets do not make a truth. Neither does three Facebook shares or re-posts.

Paradise Lost

I am sure if we looked hard enough, we would find someone, somewhere who has not been “affected” by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the purpose of discussion however, let’s just go with “everyone.”

Unfortunately, we are not yet to the point we can talk about what effects the pandemic had on everyone because we are still having them. The whole thing has been going on long enough even the ripples are making news. Even the most pessimistic of doom-sayers are scratching their heads wondering just how much longer this will go on. When, everyone is wondering, will we return to normal? When will we finally get a break and be able to heave that much needed sigh of relief?


That’s “Tex” as in “blecch,” not “Tex” as in “Mex” or so the TeX User Group site says.

I have long been interested in Dr. Knuth’s TeX typesetting system. The idea of being able to do my Math homework electronically has intrigued me ever since I got a home work problem wrong because I added 2 and -2 and got 4. You see, I had erased that part of the problem several times and on the final work through, I did not see the negative sign.

Lifelong Learning

I mentioned in a previous post that a career in Software Development or any part of Information Technology is a career of lifelong learning. This would be true even if technology did not change so rapidly for the simple reason the more we solve with computers, the more problems we are able to solve. Computers allow us to do things not only faster, but smarter. This leaves us humans able to turn our attention to more and more opportunities.

After 35 years in software and IT I have become pretty confident in my ability to learn and take on new tasks. This is not because I know more than when I was younger, but because for 35 years I have refused to sit still. Instead, I continue to branch out and try new things. I have never been the “go to guy” for a specific technology. I am not the expert on all things SpiffySoft. Nor am I the local expert of the FrogSnot programming language. For 35 years I have worked in the cracks, seams and edges of the project life cycle. Where algorithms fail and best practices fall short; where others have abandoned all hope; any problems that makes others say “huh?”; these are the tasks I excel at.

As impressed as I am with myself, I was none the less reminded of the danger of over confidence. Fortunately, this was not for work. No client or schedule suffered due to this learning moment. All the same, there is nothing like a good intellectual ass-kicking to restore some humility to my life.

ToDo: Learn to Think Small…

Everyone says “it will take longer than you think it will” and I certainly would not argue this. However, in my case, I’d swear this problem has super-sized itself. I just never seem to have goals with due dates like “next Friday.” To wit:

After a decade or more of what might be termed a “Professional Walk-About,” I decided it was time to return to my primary career as a Software Developer. However, in the time during my meanderings, the industry changed; or more precisely, the hiring process changed. You see, once upon a time, programmers learned new things by taking a job involving things they did not know and were not qualified for. You learned on the job. One did not become a PERL Programmer by going to PERL Programming School. When presented with a task requiring PERL knowledge, you learned PERL. Likewise, one did not go to Financial Programming School to become a Financial Programmer. You got a job with a financial company and learned.

Because of this, nearly anyone in the IT field, programmer or not, will tell you, embarking on a career in IT is to embark on a lifelong journey of learning. So imagine my surprise when dusting off my resume and being advised to remove or summarize the early part of my career to downplay my age. Imagine my surprise when applying for a job and receiving an automated email with a link to a skills test before ever talking to a human.

Math Homework

I’ve always planned to go back to school and finish my degree. I still plan to, but I do have a bit of a conundrum… I’ve already taken my first couple of years of Math classes two or three times. Unfortunately, Calculus is not the sort of thing that sticks with you unless you are using it. So like it or not, I’m pretty much looking at taking everything once again.

This time however, I am thinking to do it differently. This time I’m just going to pull the books from my own shelves and start working through them myself. The plan is, once I am able to actually get back to school, I will already have reviewed everything and still have it rattling around in my brain.

Winds of Change

All things change. We know this inherently, even though we try to deny it. Sometimes these winds are gentle breezes stirring our hair and cooling our skin. Other times it seems there is no wind at all. Things are changing, but only under the surface. Then there are times when the wind comes in like a hurricane.

Generally speaking though, these changes are not very interesting. After all, if a tree falls in the forest and you are not there to hear it, will it make the Starbuck’s Drive-Thru line move any faster?