The budgeting app that finally gave me control of my finances

I remember skipping school in the 10th grade and spending my entire bank account at the mall. The big bucks I made dishing ice cream melted out of my hands like a scoop of rocky road in the hot Indiana sun on a weekly basis, and I haven’t gotten much better at self-control through the years.

I’ve never thought of myself as particularly bad at money. I bought a house at age 20, track my spending (kinda), and pay my bills. I’ve just never had the control over my money that I wish I did. My budget spreadsheet was more a record of past regrets than a tool for taking my life where I want to go.

I took the Dave Ramsey budgeting class TWICE and really do believe in the method, but no matter how much I try, I still have zero willpower.

Brittany’s gonna do what Brittany’s gonna do, apparently. And without any regard for Brittany’s long term goals.

It annoyed me, but I was getting by and managing to throw the money together to travel and enjoy life, so I just let it be for about 10 years.

I wasn’t doing badly, but “good enough” didn’t feel very good at all. I didn’t feel like I was winning. I was wasting the potential of my income. I spent a lot of time at my desk calculating what amazing things I could do if I just had some willpower.

I got a new job that boosted my income about 25% right about the time I moved in with my boyfriend. I sold my house and paid off the 10k in credit card debt that had accumulated while I was busy trying to build a business.

The money I saved on those credit card payments combined with my new salary and the money saved by sharing living expenses meant I was more in the black than I’d ever been before. Life was suddenly a lot easier than I ever thought it could be. I was pretty used to fighting with the bottom line, and I didn’t want to go back there. I flat out refused to allow myself to squander the good fortune and potential that laid before me. In my life I’ve found that things usually start to change about the time that I get fed up enough to say “ENOUGH!”

I’ve been experimenting with some ways to train my bad habits out and replace them with better ones. I have a chore chart in my journal, set the microwave timer to get myself to clean house, and use parental control apps on my phone to control my screen time. I wanted a way to force myself to behave financially. I reached adulthood with some bad habits and bad ideas, but I didn’t want to live like that forever. And I figured I know myself better than anyone. Who better to raise me, than me?

The first thing I did was update my direct deposit at work. I calculated how much my higher income and lower bills improved my financial situation, and I direct deposited it into an online savings account. If I could misbehave with $500 a month, I could REALLY misbehave with $1500. So I needed to get that money out of my hands. Each payday, one third of my take home pay goes directly into savings. My savings account at Barclays doesn’t have a debit card or a checkbook, and it isn’t connected to my regular checking account. Barclays is an online bank, so I can’t walk into a branch and make a withdraw. Getting money out would take me at least a week.

The next thing I did was start using a credit card for my everyday purchases. I figured I would pay it down to zero each payday, and I would be able to tell exactly how much I was spending because it would be separated from my regular account.

THIS WAS A VERY BAD IDEA.

I could easily tell I was spending more than I wanted to, but paying it in full on payday made me nervous because I had other bills to pay and was worried about overdrafting. I couldn’t keep the weeks separate because some charges didn’t clear until days later. My balance started growing and within 3 weeks I had about $900 in credit card debt. OUCH. I quit the card and paid the balance. It felt so good to be credit card debt free after I sold my house that I couldn’t bring myself to risk getting in a mess. Credit cards just aren’t for me anymore. Ever again.

I needed a system that allowed me to take regular spending money out of my budget before it was spent. I knew about the cash envelope system but cash was too cumbersome for me. I’d tried the envelope system several times and never stuck with it. As soon as I decided to pay at the pump, forgot my envelopes, or needed to buy something online, I was wrecked.

I started looking at prepaid debit cards and found two that I thought might work. I wanted to direct deposit $400 onto the card each payday and be able to track what I spent the money on by category.

The first card I tried was Chime. It’s a free prepaid debit card with a smart phone app. You can ACH transfer money from a bank account onto the card, but they don’t offer direct deposit. I scheduled transfers from my regular Chase checking account. The best feature of the app was the optional push notifications that tell you your balance everyday and notify you each time you make a purchase. It made up for my “worry about it later” attitude that ironically kept me always checking to see how much money I have left. Chime seemed like a good option but I wanted a card that felt like the envelope system, so I kept looking.

My next experiment was with a Greenlight card. It’s also a prepaid debit card with a smart phone app. It costs $5 per month which seemed like a great bargain if it could help me fix my spending. The card is intended for parents. The parents order a card in their child’s name and then transfer money into different categories that restrict how the card can be used. Placing money in the gasoline category means that a purchase at a gas station would come out of that category. The ATM category only allows for cash withdraws. I really liked the direction Greenlight was taking me, but I wanted even more restriction and flexibility with the categories so I kept looking.

Finally, I stumbled upon ProActive Budgeting. This debit card is the digital answer to cash envelopes. ProActive is designed for people who want to change their behavior and spend their income more intentionally. At $7 a month, it’s the most expensive of the three options I found, but I expect to recoup that money and much more by saving through better behavior.

Each ProActive debit card comes with a corresponding bank account that gets subdivided based on the categories you set up in the app. ProActive is totally customizable based on your life.

When you go to use the card, you are forced to open the app and choose which category to spend the money from. It’s the same as reaching into your purse for an envelope, but better, because the app keeps track of exactly how much you have left in each category. Your categories aren’t restricted by the merchant like they are in Greenlight. You are manually classifying each transaction before you spend, and you have a constant handle on how much money you have left.

The one drawback of ProActive is that you need your phone to use your card. Without choosing a category first, your card won’t work. This means if your phone goes dead or you don’t have a signal, you are broke. To head off those unusual situations, I carry $100 emergency cash tucked into my phone case. I consider it a small price to pay for the control and accountability that ProActive provides. This also means that if your card is lost or stolen, money is completely safe.

Finances are a balancing act between long term goals and short term fulfillment. The most important realization I’ve made while “re-parenting” myself is that my money is my money. I get to do whatever I want with it. I can blow it on massages and pedicures and that’s fine. Or I can give it to the animal shelter or save it for a boat.

The only thing that matters is that I feel peaceful about my decisions, and for me that requires intentional choices in advance, not impulse decisions with no planning. It’s my money, but there’s an finite amount of it. Deciding what to spend it on is the most important part of sound finances. I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t to suffer or be a victim, and now I have a system to extend that into my finances. ProActive is a tool for making those peaceful decisions stick easier to everyday life.

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