Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Well, here I go!

(Skip to the TL;DR Version)

Today is the first day of the “letting apps run my life” challenge. I’m going to start things off slowly and pick up speed as I go. There won’t be much change for me in the first few days. In fact, it might be a little easier than I’m used to, since I scaled back a lot of my goals last week in anticipation.

I’m beginning with a combination of Mint and Beeminder. The reason for the pairing is that, for Beeminder to have a decent sting, any money that ends up coming out of derailments has to come from something else that I want to spend that money on—something that I want to spend it on *now*. Small, infrequent derailments can seem unnoticeable in a way that might reduce their effectiveness, especially after you've become used to the idea of Beeminder being in the background of your life for a while. “Oh well,” you wind up thinking, “it’s only about the price of a cup of coffee to skip out on doing such and such; I’ll let it derail and continue watching this rerun instead.” To avoid that, I want there to be an obvious and relatively immediate cost.

You could easily do something like this simply by having a prepaid credit card onto which you load all of your spending money each paycheck, and having that card connected to Beeminder, or by keeping your spending money in a separate bank account, and transferring the amount of any Beeminder derailment to your credit card out of that account as soon as each occurs.

I decided to use Mint and some strict budgeting to help keep this from happening. This is easy enough for me, since I’ve been using Mint for a couple of years, and have a fairly accurate budget now. (I began by over-budgeting for most things and then adjusting downwards several months later, once I had a better idea of the fluctuations. I learned the hard way that, whether we’re talking about a budget, a habit, or a goal, it’s better to start things off a little easier than I think they should be and to have to correct in the direction of making things harder, than to start things off unrealistically, and already have a failure before the first month is over. It’s far better to go in the direction of an epic success spiral than a demotivating, and often predictable, face-plant.[1])

There is one obvious, potential flaw here: I could end up ignoring my spending budget completely and never really feeling the sting. My solution: a Beeminder goal, of course. I’ve created a spending goal, into which I’ll enter the total spending for the current month every day. Should that amount ever go over the allocated amount, it will derail and I’ll be charged a $90! And if I don't enter a datapoint daily into this goal, the graph will derail automatically, so I can't just ignore it to make the threat go away.

I'm allowed to reallocate money from other areas, but I can't let any of my expenses remain over budget. Everything has to be reallocated so that I'm not just burying the expenses elsewhere.[2]

On top of keeping my Beeminder derailments feeling a lot more immediately consequential, since a number on a credit card bill doesn't always feel as tangible as it should, this will also function as a way to force me to pay a lot closer attention to my spending habits than is my tendency, and to stay on track with my budget, or face some expensive consequences.

Okay, maybe I'm not starting out all that slowly after all!

TL;DR Version
To stay on top of my spending and to keep Beeminder from losing its sting over time, I'm going to combine it with Mint, track my spending and other budget categories, have any derailments come out of my spending money, and enforce staying under budget using a $90 Beeminder goal. You could do something similar, but more simple, by using a prepaid credit card or a dedicated account for your derailments and spending.

[1] Read more about success spirals in Nick Winter’s book The Motivation Hacker.

[2] There are specifications in the fine print about unexpected spending for health-related expenses, and other very specific circumstances under which I’m allowed to go over my spending limit, but they make up a sparse group and have very specific instructions for how I need to deal with them when and after they come up. (And, frankly, after writing these out, I’ve come to believe that this is a generally good thing to have worked out in advance, in anticipation of those times when your budget takes a major hit, so that you already have a recovery plan.)