Lady of Ledger

Why I bask in my financial records before bed.

A woman looks at her laptop while in bed. Money icons swirl around her.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

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Like so many of us, every night before bed—let’s be honest, in bed—I cycle through social media apps for a few (several) minutes, looking for that last little hit of stimulation. But when it’s time to calm down, I swipe those apps closed and start a different ritual. Poring over Capital One, Mint, Ace Budget 3—the apps that, in aggregate, hold my financial life.

First, I open the app where I log my personal spending, and calibrate my sense of luxury for the rest of the month. I drop in a placeholder for a manicure I want to get or a movie I want to see, or just gaze at a pleasant several-dollar surplus. I move on to the app that tracks my husband’s and my joint spending. If things are looking bad—an expensive vet bill threw things off at the start of the month—I fiddle with a few budget sliders, and things look a little less bad. Sometimes I’ll just open my banking app and look at my balances, feeling whatever those numbers make me feel. And then I’m ready for sleep.

To be clear, I don’t find playing with money apps relaxing because I have a mattress full of cash. There is rarely particularly good news in my budget. The best I can ever hope for is reassurance, but on most days, it’s more like looking fear in the face. Yet that’s where I find myself, dawdling on my phone, noodling on my computer. It’s not usually pretty, but I come away feeling calmer. At least I know.

For several years in my 20s, I didn’t know. I moved to New York City after college to work in theater—first at a small talent agency, then at an off-Broadway theater, and always where you didn’t work for the money but for your love of the art. (If you wanted to work for the money, there were a dozen people waiting for your job who’d do it for free.) I worked weekend jobs for a while, too, but maybe not long enough. I wasn’t extravagant, but I lived beyond my means. My credit card balance crept up and up.

After a few too many phone calls begging my bank to waive overdraft fees (and crying in the office hallway for a bit after), I got my shit together and made a budget. I’ve never been poor, but I was extremely broke. I’d been broke for a while, but finally I realized it, and finally I started living like it. My budget was my life raft. It was the only way out. It took years, but I sent my last backlogged credit card payment in the month before I started grad school (lol, R.I.P., me). I went to grad school. My boyfriend moved in with me. We moved to Brooklyn. We got married. Aside from six months around the wedding, I kept tracking my dollars. I stuck to my budget, whatever it was.

Today, the budget isn’t mine but ours. I have a spreadsheet in which I’ve plotted out our monthly joint expenses—rent, utilities, student loans, groceries—and a small bit of formula wizardry splits the remaining pooled income proportionately to what we individually bring in. Another bit of spreadsheet formula works out the most important figure: “spending check.” Money in minus money out. Fuss with the budget and that figure will change. Above all, keep it above zero.

There’s the spreadsheet, my personal budget (still housed in the now deprecated iPhone app I started using a decade ago), and a Mint account with several budget lines for tracking joint spending. There is my personal checking account and credit card, and a parallel pair of joint accounts. All told, six apps on my phone. And I lie in bed in the morning after scrolling through Instagram, or at night when I don’t want to look at Twitter anymore, cycling between them, checking in on this mess that I can at least look in the face.

This habit is, very clearly, a matter of control. I love control, to an extreme and a fault, and life is extremely uncontrollable. But if I have all my categories in all the little apps, I can feel, if not in control, then at least like I’ve got a grip on the wild beast I’m trying to ride. I check the weather so I know what to wear; I check my budgets so I know what I can spend.

To my mind, time-wasting should be soothing. I waste plenty of time on Twitter and playing Two Dots on my phone, but those activities only agitate or numb. Tinkering with my budget spreadsheet, though, is the real deal. Yes, as a freelance writer, I can change my financial situation by finding more work, but why do that when I could tweak the columns of my budget spreadsheet to find more money in what I already have. I update a value here (the lower winter average of our electrical bill) or tweak a calculation there (what if I saved a few percentages less for taxes?) and watch the numbers balance out.

There’s daydreaming, too—a raise or a windfall, the back-of-the-napkin math of what I’d save, what I’d spend, how life would feel different, how I could relax. But even working with the less sunny reality, it’s soothing. There’s always a solution, a cut, or a plan. And, on paper next to my laptop, the somehow most comforting calculation, which carries with it the vague memory of my fourth-grade classroom: percent/100 = part/whole. Why do I love to cross-multiply? I don’t know, but the numbers always work out, and in that certainty, I understand a small piece of my future a bit more.