Connecting Stacks to your Dropbox Account

Stacks is pretty good. Eventually it will be great – I’m working on it.  One of the harder things to do is to diligently enter your transactions to keep it up to date. Entering them manually acts as a great reminder to stick to your budget. But not having your budget with you on the go makes it harder to follow and entering your transactions at the end of the day or week doesn’t give you the real-time feedback that will help you stay on budget.

So, Stacks will have a mobile app that you can use to enter transactions and check how much money you have left in each category for the month. The first step to using the mobile app is to save your budget in your Dropbox account (the second step is for me to finish the app but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Stacks uses the latest version of the Dropbox API to sync your budget.

When you link Stacks to your Dropbox account Stacks will only have access to its own folder within your Dropbox.  None of your financial information is ever transmitted anywhere except to your Dropbox – it all remains under your control.

The first step to linking Stacks is to have a Dropbox account. They’re free, easy to setup, and currently come with 2GB of space.  That’s enough for decades of transactions or hundreds of budgets or too many pictures of cats.

The next step is to click on Settings and select Dropbox.  You’ll be greeted with this dialog:

Clicking the link should open up a browser window where you can authorize Stacks to access a folder named dbdollar inside the Apps section of your Dropbox account.  Once you enter your Dropbox password then Dropbox should give you an authorization code that you can cut-n-paste into the field for Step 3.  Click Connect once you’re finished.

The next step is to initialize your budget in Dropbox.  Click File and select “Init Dropbox db” like this:

Another dialog box will appear where you can enter a name for your budget.  If you want to automatically load this budget every time you start Stacks then click the checkbox.

Click Save and you’re done.

Using Dropbox to store your budget also comes with an extra perk.  Namely, your budget is auto-saved while you work.  No more forgetting to Save before you exit.

Also, should the unthinkable happen and Stacks BETA doesn’t work precisely perfectly, linking your Dropbox has another benefit.  Each time Stacks starts and you load a budget from Dropbox using either the Auto-load feature or the “Load Dropbox db” under the File menu, there is a backup of your budget stored.  If you navigate to your Dropbox account in File Explorer you’ll see a directory structure like this when you click on the budget you created:

The Backups folder contains .db files that can be loaded into Stacks.  The date stamp is part of the filename – you’ll figure out which one you want to load.

If Stacks really messes up and won’t load the easiest way to reset it is to delete the file named “stacks_config.json” in your <Username>/Documents/Stacks directory.  This will reset the Dropbox connection completely.  You will need to re-link Dropbox and I suggest you open one of your backup budgets and initialize a new Dropbox budget.

WARNING: Altering with the files in the dbdollar folder inside your Dropbox or the DropboxOutage folder in your <Username>/Documents/Stacks folder will likely result in you having to reset Stacks as outlined above.

That’s all for now.  Email me at dbdollar.devel@gmail.com if you have problems with Dropbox support or any questions about Stacks.

UPDATE: Stacks v0.9.2 is now available with improved Dropbox performance (and a bugfix for the scenario where a user is switching between 2 different budgets stored in their Dropbox).  Grab it now.

 

Viewing Reports

The first three tutorials are all you need to look at to get started with Stacks. For this tutorial we’re going to look at the reporting options available within the program to help monitor your spending.  To that end, I’ve entered a set of example transactions to our example so that the reports are filled out a bit.

The first report is Spending by Category, in our example it looks like this:

Clicking on different wedges in the pie chart breaks out the spending for that category in the stacked bar chart to the right. There are filters at the top to select/deselect certain accounts, payees, and the line items and categories themselves. The date filter by default is selecting transactions from the current month but you can change that to any date range.

The second report is Spending Trends. This shows how your spending changes on a monthly basis. Our example only has a single month of transactions so far so it’s pretty uninteresting. Until you’ve used Stacks for a few months this report won’t be very useful but afterwards it’s helpful to see where your spending is creeping up or where you’re successfully reining it in. Initially it’ll look something like this after your first month:

By default the date range is looking back over the last 6 months. This is fully configurable and so are the accounts, payees and categories just as in the Spending by Category report.

The final report is your networth. This is basically a scorecard that tells how well your financials are going. There are more important things in life but it’s good to keep and eye on this to make sure it’s going up over time. In our example you can see that during the month of January we crossed over into positive networth territory.

You’ve now had a look at all the different tabs in Stacks. The next tutorial will guide you through linking your Dropbox account to Stacks so that you’re ready to start using the mobile app for entering transactions.  I promise I’ll make more progress on the mobile app once I’m done creating this website!

Entering Transactions

This tutorial builds upon the earlier two.  If you haven’t yet checked out the Intro to Stacks or Handling Credit Cards you should have a peek at those first.

This tutorial is about entering transactions and transferring money between accounts in Stacks.  Transactions come in two types: income and expense. Now that you’ve created your budget and allocated the incoming money from your accounts you should be in a position to use Stacks to track your expenses.  Let’s start with something simple like buying groceries.

You spent $8 at the supermarket on dry beans, rice and cabbage or maybe it’s $100 on steaks, organic cheese and almond butter.  Either is fine as long as you’re keeping in mind what you’ve budgeted for groceries for the month.  In the end you’ll need to enter it into Stacks.  So go to the Accounts tab and click +New Transaction at the bottom and fill in the fields:

But what if you bought some toilet paper and household cleaners during your trip to Superstore.  That’s not really groceries so you’d like to track that in a different part of your budget.  Maybe you’ve got a Household or Miscellaneous line item and you’d like to use that.  The key is to use the Add Split Component button to breakdown your transaction.  Clicking that button will bring up another tab on the Details section where you can enter the rest of the transaction:

Now you have a transaction that’s $25 for groceries and $15 for miscellaneous items.  Click Add Transaction to add it to the ledger for the account you used. On your Budget tab you’ll see that you’ve spent $25 against your Groceries line item and $15 against the Miscellaneous line item.  Their balances for the month have been reduced accordingly:

Looking at that example you can see what happens when you overspend during the month.  The default behaviour is for Stacks to adjust the available funds for the next month to cover any overspending.  Here we didn’t budget anything for Miscellaneous so we overspent by $15 which puts us in the red for February.

The following is in bold because it’s important …

This brings us to the other type of transaction: income.  Income can be recorded in two ways:  Immediate and Deferred.  Immediate income is available for budgeting immediately in the month that it is recorded. Deferred income is available for budgeting in the next month.  Ideally you want to progress towards deferring all your income for the current month to the following one.  This breaks the paycheck to paycheck cycle and gives you a buffer of one month’s worth of income on hand at all times.  The way to do this is to spend a little less money than perhaps you’re accustomed to and let the money accumulate in the line items from month to month. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you won’t need to budget as much for one of your categories because you’ve built up a balance there already. This will allow you to defer your income to the following month.

Let’s enter an income transaction:

When you add that transaction you’ll see that your Budget screen is updated with the new money.  The Planning Tab still shows that Step 0 is green though since in this example we deferred the income to next month.

If you’re not quite at the stage of deferring all your income to the next month because you have a few items left to cover off for the current month then you can split your income between Immediate and Deferred.  You would create a split transaction like the earlier example at Superstore.

Next up: transfers.  Super simple.  Let’s update our ongoing example to add an On-budget savings account and an Off-budget TFSA (IRA for those of you to the south).  (Our new savings account had $500 in it already and our TFSA was empty).  The new Budget screen looks like this:

Notice the extra $500 available to budget with because of the addition of the new Savings account.  Let’s transfer $300 from My Checking to My Savings.  Go to the Accounts tab and click on “Make a Transfer” at the bottom:

Because these are two On-budget accounts there is no line item needed – no money ever leaves the “On-budget” area.  Now let’s make a transfer of $250 from My Savings to the TFSA account:

After these 2 transfers the Budget screen looks like this:

You can see the $250 overspend on the TFSA line item because we hadn’t budgeted that yet.  Also notice that all the balances on the left have been updated.

In this tutorial we’ve really ignored the Planning tab.  Transferring money into our retirement savings before having a small emergency fund and paying off our credit cards way out of order.  But just for fun let’s have a look at our Savings Rate that’s reported in Step 6 of Planning:

7.1%  … we’ve directed $250 to our retirement savings out of $3500 of income ($1500 starting balance of My Checking, $1500 of income from our job and $500 starting balance of My Savings).  Math checks out.

Next time we’ll fill out our month with transactions and have a look at the various reporting options available in Stacks.

Handling Credit Cards in Stacks

Check out the Tutorial: Intro to Stacks if you haven’t already looked at it.

Picking up where we left off at the end of the introduction, the next thing to do when creating your budget is to add the rest of your accounts.  Likely this will include one or more credit card accounts.  Add them just like you did for your checking account:

Once you create the account you’ll notice a new addition to your budget screen.  A new line item has been added to track your repayment of this pre-existing debt under the “Pre-Stacks Debt” category (you may need to scroll down to see it and click on the arrow next to the Pre-Stacks Debt category to expand the list).  It should look something like this:

If you click on the Planning Tab at the top you can see that Stacks is now tracking this new debt there as well.  Since it’s a credit card debt, Stacks assumes the interest rate is greater than 10% and the debt is going to be tackled at Step 3.  Clicking on Step 3 should show you this:

You can see that you still need to payoff the full balance of your pre-existing debt.  You’ll also notice that you’re probably still back at Step 0 of building your budget and allocating your income.  When using the Planning Tab you always want to start at the earliest Step that’s colored red and complete them in order.  You’re not ready to really start tackling your credit card debt until you’ve established a small emergency fund first.

Let’s go back to the Budget Tab now and finish allocating the rest of our income for the month.  Once you’ve allocated money for all your line items hopefully you’ve got a little bit left over to start your emergency fund.  But don’t forget to make the minimum payment on your credit card account(s)!

For example if you have $100 left over after budgeting your planning Step 0 would look like this:

If your minimum payment on your credit card is $25 you need to add that to the line item for the pre-existing credit card debt in your budget.  It should look like this:

Now you have $75 left to budget with.  Going back to Step 0 in the Planning Tab will show this as well.  Since this is last bit of money for you to allocate it goes towards Step 1: building the small emergency fund.  You would allocate the $75 to the budget line item that’s tracking your emergency fund (by default Stacks assumes this line item is called “Emergency Fund” but you can configure it to be any line item in your budget by clicking the blue Configure button).  Your budget should screen should then look like this:

Your Step 0 Planning screen should look like this:

You can see that the Step 0 box has turned green signifying that you’ve allocated all your available money and you’ve started down the road of building your small emergency fund.  Clicking on Step 1 shows this:

Of course the bad thing about carrying a balance on a credit card are the interest charges.  If you click on Step 3 right now it looks like you’re in great shape because your minimum payment on your credit card paid down $25 of debt:

But that credit card statement that laid out your minimum payment also had an interest charge.  For example purposes let’s say it was $15.  You need to account for this new charge.  New transactions are added on the Accounts Tab.  Change to the Accounts Tab and click “+New Transaction” at the bottom.  When filling in the fields it’s important to know that credit card interest charges for pre-existing debt are recorded against line item for that debt.  In our example, it’s like this:

Click on Add Transaction and you will see the interest charge show up in the Accounts ledger.  In the ledger you can right click on a transaction to delete or edit it if you made a mistake.  If you look at your budget now you will see the line item for your pre-existing debt has been updated with the new interest charge and will look like this:

If you look at your Planning Tab under Step 3 you can see the real progress you’ve made on your debt after interest is accounted for:

The final thing to do is to actually make the credit card payment, ie: transfer the money from your checking account to the credit card account.  This is done with the “Make a Transfer” button on the Accounts Tab:

When transferring money between On-budget accounts a line item is not required.  Only transactions where money enters or leaves the On-budget account list as a whole require a line item.  After clicking Transfer, your Account ledger will show the transaction and the account pane on the left will show the correct balances for your accounts.  You can click on your credit card account to filter the ledger to only show transactions for that account (click on “All Accounts” in the lower left to revert back to viewing transactions for all accounts).  Your credit card balance will match the balance remaining on Step 3 of the Planning Tab:

And that’s credit card debt in Stacks.  Eventually your emergency fund will be established and you can devote more money to paying off your debts.  Once that happens your credit card payment becomes the minimum plus whatever extra amount you have to budget with.  In the example above, if the Emergency Fund was already at $1000 you could budget the full $100 to debt repayment.  When you’ve finally paid off the last of the Pre-Stacks Debt items then you won’t need to worry about calculating credit card payments ever again.  You’ll simply pay the full statement balance each month.

We covered a lot of concepts in this tutorial: using the Planning Tab, Pre-Stacks Debt, transactions and transfers.  Next we’ll take a more in-depth look at transactions and the Accounts Tab.

Intro to Stacks Budgeting App

Stacks is super easy to use … says the guy who wrote it.  But hopefully everyone should be able to pick it up in a few minutes and start budgeting.  First things first, download the program.  You can grab it here.

UPDATED for new Windows Installer:
Unzip the file you’ve downloaded.  Double click the stacks.msi file within and agree to install it.  With that done you’ll find Stacks in your Start menu.  Start the program and you’ll be greeted by a pretty bare slate that should look like this:

Click on the Budget tab at the top to the left of center.  That will bring you to a bare budget page like this:

At this point you can use the +Category and +Line Item buttons to create a fully customized budget for yourself.  However most of us have many of the same expenses (rent/mortgage, groceries, cell phone, etc.) so it’s easier to start off with a default budget and then make modifications from there.  So click File in the top left and then “Load db”.  Select the “default.db” file in the same directory as Stacks. Your budget screen should now look like this:

So now you’ve got some Categories and Line Items in your budget but no money to budget with ($0.00 Available to Budget).  You need to add some accounts, so click the Add Account button in the bottom left.

Add your checking account, create a name for it and fill in your current balance.  You can click on the drop-down box to see all the different types of accounts in Stacks but fundamentally they boil down to two types: On-budget and off-budget.  On-budget accounts are any account that you would use to pay your expenses such as your checking/savings accounts or your credit cards.  Off-budget accounts are really there for tracking your networth – they could be your mortgage or investments.  Now that the fields are filled in click Create Account.  You’ll see your budget page now looks like this:

Whatever balance you entered for your checking account you’ll now have that much money to budget with for the current month.  Whatever money you don’t allocate is carried over to the following month.  Let’s budget the grocery money.

Simply double click the “Budgeted” column for the current month corresponding to the Groceries line item and enter the value.  Should look something like this:

You’re on your way to creating your budget.  You’ll want to add all of your accounts before going too far with the budgeting process that way you’ll have an accurate number to budget with.

The next tutorial will be about credit card accounts, the Pre-Stacks Debt line items that get auto-generated and calculating your credit card payments as you pay them off.  With Stacks you’ll never carry a balance again!