Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Don't mistake the means for the goal

Last weekend my wife was balancing her checkbook. Not that we have a problem making ends meet, but after an embarrassing situation at an ATM she really wanted to figure out why these things sometimes happen to her. I agreed to help her, as long as she would do the actual work herself and draw her own conclusions.

As it quickly turned out, she had no idea where her salary is going. So I suggested she'd categorize her spendings based on what she could find in the tele-banking application. She went to work on it. I knew that something was going wrong when I entered her room three hours later and found her still busy categorizing.

It turned out that she had found this online checkbook application, which could show all kinds of charts based on your spendings. All you had to do was upload a dump of the tele-banking information and categorize it using their "super friendly" web interface. Three hours later and she still wasn't done categorizing just a few months worth of spendings.

I asked my wife whether this was really worth the time. After all, categorizing spendings was not the goal. It was just supposed to be a means to quickly figure out where her money was going. She assured me that it was worth it; she was almost done and then she would know.

An hour and a half later she was indeed done and proudly called me in. "See. I spent this much on our Holidays. And that much on gas." Very interesting information I'm sure, but not what I was interested in. "I'm pretty sure I also paid part of those Holidays", I said. "Does this mean that I didn't pay my fair share?" She started clicking on the charts frantically. "It must be in there?" She couldn't find it and had to go back to the tele-banking application to look it up through a quick search.

Forty-five minutes later we had pretty much figured out where her money is going. And although the online checkbook gave some nice charts, we frequently had to go back to the "source" (the tele-banking application) for additional details. The online checkbook seemed like a nice, quick way of doing the categorizing. But when it turned out it wasn't very fast, she should have stopped entering data into it. Categorizing the spendings was just a means to figure out what type of things her money was being spent on, it wasn't the goal.

It turned out that I indeed didn't pay my fair share of the Holidays and that she was paying for some insurances that really should come from our shared account. With that and a solid resolution to determine where all the cash withdrawals are going she's pretty sure that those embarrassing ATM incidents should not occur anymore. Or at least not too frequently...

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