Personal Finance

I manage my money using plain-text accounting (specifically, hledger; though the choice of tool is unimportant), following a YNABish approach. The four YNAB rules are:

Why track my finances at all?

This memo is concerned with my mechanism for implementing this approach. It could serve as a starting point for your financial planning; but working out what your savings categories are and how to allocate your income to them requires introspection.

Journal files

I log all my financial transactions for the current year in a file called current.journal. There are $YEAR.journal files for historic data. I also have two files which all my journals include:

Rather than importing transactions from my bank or something, I enter all data manually. This may sound tedious, but I feel that the awareness I get from doing so is worth it.

This is the template for a new journal file:

include commodities
include prices

* Starting balances
* Ledger
** January
** February
** March
** April
** May
** June
** July
** August
** September
** October
** November
** December

Financial institutions

For current accounts I use:

For savings accounts I use:

For investment accounts I use:

For credit cards I use:

Almost all of my spending goes on the Amex card, with that paid off every month from the Nationwide Flexdirect.

Chart of accounts

The set of accounts I use is fairly stable: sometimes I’ll add one, or one will cease to be useful, but that’s a rare event. Here are all the regular accounts, which are mostly self-explanatory:

An account name is the path to it through the tree, separated by colons. For example, assets:cash, or expenses:utilities:electricity.

Many of these accounts do not correspond to any real-world bank or brokerage account, they are used to track the flow of money in more detail than if I just recorded which bank accounts things came from or went to.

Money (and other commodities) is only stored in leaf accounts.

!-transactions

hledger allows transactions to be marked with a ! or a *. The traditional meaning of these is “pending” and “cleared”.

I use ! slightly differently. I use it for transactions which are just an artefact of the way I track my finances, which don’t involve any balance changes to a real-world account. For example, reallocating my savings:

2019-08-25 ! Allocation
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:gift                         -£14.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:tea                          -£20.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:discretionary
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:food

I use * as normal, although I usually only consider cash transactions “cleared” after I check that the cash in my wallet matches what hledger thinks it should be.

Modelling income

Income is recorded as the pre-tax amount coming from income:$source, and is split across assets:*, expenses:*, and liabilities:*. All amounts are included.

2019-08-30 * Cabinet Office
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:goal:move                          £500.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:cavendish                  £150.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:flexsaver                  £250.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:patreon             £3.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:protonmail          £5.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:roll20              £5.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:web                £45.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:discretionary                £101.42
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:food                         £200.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:gift                         £139.66
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:graze                         £15.16
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:health                         £0.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:household                     £75.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:insurance                     £11.49
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:phone                         £13.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:rent                        £1400.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:social                        £50.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:tea                           £41.40
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:travel                        £41.40
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:utilities                     £71.50
    expenses:tax:income                                                  £839.00
    expenses:tax:ni                                                      £431.83
    liabilities:loan:slc                                                 £314.00
    expenses:pension                                                     £367.50
    income:job                                                         -£5070.36
    expenses:pension                                                    £1395.00
    income:job                                                         -£1395.00

Some income transactions may not have anything to do with expenses or liabilities:

2019-07-31 * Nationwide
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:discretionary                  £8.89
    income:interest

Modelling investments

The @@ form is used to exactly specify the overall price. Trading fees, if any go to expenses:fees:$broker. Transferring the cash to the investment account and then investing it may be two separate steps:

2019-07-01 * Cavendish
    assets:investments:cavendish                                         £150.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:cavendish

2019-07-09 * Cavendish
    assets:investments:cavendish                                            0.65 VANEA @@ £150.00
    assets:investments:cavendish

A broker will typically charge a management fee:

2019-07-01 * Cavendish
    expenses:fees:cavendish                                                £0.06
    assets:investments:cavendish

If there isn’t enough cash in the account to pay for it, some other asset will be sold. That’s bad, so I always make sure there’s some cash.

Modelling expenses

There are three types of expenses: expenses from a bank account, expenses on a credit card, and cash expenses. The former are straightforward:

2019-07-01 * Graze
    expenses:food                                                          £3.79
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:graze

Foreign currency expenses are recorded like so:

2019-08-05 * Hetzner
    expenses:web                                                           19.08 EUR @@ £17.60
    assets:cash:starling:web

Sometimes I’ll add a transaction note, which comes after a vertical bar:

2019-01-06 * Steam | 1644277325735538856
    expenses:fun                                                           £9.29
    liabilities:creditcard:amex

Cash

Cash that can be withdrawn lives in starling:float. This is because it’s useful to have cash on hand without necessarily having decided up front what it’s for, but it’s also good to bound the amount of unallocated money I have.

2019-01-25 * Withdraw
    assets:cash:petty:hand:budgeted                                       £10.00
    assets:cash:starling:float

Cash can also be withdrawn in a foreign currency, which will have an exchange rate and may impose an additional fee:

2018-05-11 Withdraw
    assets:cash:petty:hand:budgeted                                        10000 JPY @@ £70.41
    expenses:fees:currency                                                 £1.99
    assets:cash:starling:float

Cash expenses require an adjustment to the appropriate budget category, transferring money back to the float to represent that that money has been allocated and spent:

2019-01-25 * Post Office
    expenses:other                                                         £1.01
    assets:cash:petty:hand:budgeted
2019-01-25 ! Bookkeeping
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:discretionary                 -£1.01
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:float

The money in pending will be transferred to the appropriate account at some point.

This could be done in one transaction, but I think it’s clearer with two. If I’m using cash I was gifted, the expense comes from hand:unbudgeted and there’s no transaction updating the float.

Foreign currency cash transactions require picking an appropriate exchange rate when removing the money from the budget category:

2018-05-08 * FamilyMart
    expenses:food                                                            548 JPY
    assets:cash:petty:hand:budgeted
2018-05-08 ! Bookkeeping
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:food                          -£4.60 ; -548 JPY
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:starling:float

The exchange rate is kind of arbitrary, as it’s only being used for budgeting purposes here. An @@ posting isn’t used, because the bank operates entirely in GBP.

Credit cards

When I pay for something on my credit card I add a transaction from liabilities to track the debt, and also remove the money from the budget category:

2019-08-04 * Morrisons
    expenses:food                                                          £4.65
    expenses:tea                                                          £11.70
    liabilities:creditcard:amex                                          -£16.35
2019-08-04 ! Bookkeeping
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:food                          -£4.65
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:tea                          -£11.70
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:amex

I pay off my credit card in full every month automatically via direct debit:

2019-08-05 * American Express
    liabilities:creditcard:amex                                          £378.34
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:amex

Every year, I get cashback. As the cashback goes to the balance on the card, rather than being paid into my bank account, I treat it as an pair of an income transaction and an allocation-style transaction:

2019-08-14 * American Express | cashback
    liabilities:creditcard:amex                                          £181.41
    income:amex

2019-08-14 ! Allocation | cashback
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:goal:move                          £100.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:saved:tea                           £80.00
    assets:cash:nationwide:flexdirect:pending:amex

Maintenance

In addition to simply recording transactions, there is some bookkeeping I do occasionally, to keep my records easy to process.

Weekly

Once a week (or more) I check my financial statements and reconcile transactions in the journal:

  1. For every transaction in the statement, find the corresponding journal transaction and mark it.
    • If there are transactions missing from the journal, add and mark them.
    • If there are transactions missing from the statement, the institution is being slow; reconcile as they come in over the next few days.
    • If all transactions have cleared but the balance is not what is expected, figure out what happened and fix it.
  2. Check the balance in my wallet and mark all hand transactions.
    • If the wallet balance is below the hand balance and I really can’t remember what I spent the cash on, add a transaction to expenses:adjustment.

Annually

  1. Reconcile transactions.
  2. Rename the current journal file from current.journal to $YEAR.journal.
  3. Create a new current.journal.
  4. Initialise all accounts on the first of January by transferring from equity.
  5. Identify financial goals for the upcoming year.

Here’s an example of a (4) transaction setting up the starting balances:

2019-01-01 ! Start of year
    assets:cash:petty:hand:budgeted                                        £2.56
    ;
    assets:cash:petty:home                                                  3.35 EUR
    assets:cash:petty:home                                               1853.00 JPY
    ;
    assets:cash:santander:current:float                                   £94.46
    assets:cash:santander:current:goal:passport                           £75.50
    assets:cash:santander:current:goal:thesis                            £300.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:overdraft                             £2000.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:pending:amex                          £1755.29
    assets:cash:santander:current:pending:starling:patreon                 £2.83
    assets:cash:santander:current:pending:starling:web                    £52.59
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:discretionary                    £100.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:food                             £200.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:graze                             £21.21
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:health                            £38.51
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:household                        £100.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:insurance                         £25.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:invest                           £100.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:phone                             £25.00
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:rent                            £1700.17
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:travel                            £38.50
    assets:cash:santander:current:saved:utilities                        £150.00
    ;
    assets:cash:starling:float                                           £100.00
    assets:cash:starling:patreon                                          £17.17
    assets:cash:starling:web                                             £135.85
    ;
    assets:investments:cavendish                                            3.29 VANEA
    assets:investments:cavendish                                          £46.95
    assets:investments:coinbase                                            10.00 EUR
    assets:investments:coinbase                                           0.0040 BTC
    assets:investments:coinbase                                           0.1000 ETH
    assets:investments:coinbase                                           0.2500 LTC
    assets:investments:fundingcircle                                    £1028.09
    ;
    assets:receivable:deposit                                           £1800.00
    ;
    liabilities:creditcard:amex                                        -£2740.00
    liabilities:loan:slc                                              -£26896.25
    liabilities:overdraft:santander:current                            -£2000.00
    ;
    equity