Spreadsheet Power Users Will Relate to Spreadsheet-itis

Spreadsheet Power Users Will Relate to Spreadsheet-itis

Is anyone else reading this suffering from over-spreadsheet-itis?

Over-spreadsheet-itis: a little-known medical term used to describe a clinical obsession with the creation and endless tweaking and improvement of an ever-growing number of financial reports and spreadsheets.

It’s a common symptom of Tiller addiction, so don’t feel alone! This is a safe space. Hopefully, this article will give you some much-needed reassurance that you aren’t the only one struggling with this problem, as well as provide some options for treatment.

A new epiphenomenon: the Spreadsheeter’s Dilemma

I’ve experimented with lots of financial tools since I first started earning money slinging food in a retirement home dining hallway back in the 8th grade. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve spent a large part of my “personal finance management” time searching for new tools and software that would help me do specific things, show me a particular report, or answer new questions about my finances.

I had always used spreadsheets for the odd calculation or budgeting exercise here and there, but without a feed of one’s transactions to work with, sophistication was lacking. Entering each one in manually was definitely not an option.

When software providing automatic transaction aggregation came along, that was a huge leap forward, but still left me wanting for customization.

Occasionally I would do an export from the aggregators, dump it into a spreadsheet, and use that to make a one-off report of my own design. Many are the times I built a template for myself, thinking I would continue that export-import process on a regular basis, and then fail to stick to the plan due to the headache involved in exporting and scrubbing the data.

Enter Tiller.

Hallelujah. Having one’s financial feed hooked into a spreadsheet instantly solves all of the problems above! But it introduces a new paradigm, which I for one have been (happily!) struggling to adapt to.

With Tiller, we’ve shifted from being the consumers of packaged financial reports to being our own designers of a limitless number of bespoke budgets, spending trackers, investment trackers, and more. And while this is a welcome shift for many of us who have felt restricted by other tools, it can also be a bit daunting.

Since I began using Tiller I have found myself repeating the following cycle:

  1. I pick a template that looks cool, or has some great built-in feature or report that I either can’t or won’t build myself.
  2. I start to use the template and notice there are some changes I’d like to make.
  3. I start to tweak the template. And tweak. And tweak. And tweak.

Several hours later, I’ve created a hideous beast of a spreadsheet that:

  • Uses the cool feature (yay!)
  • Has scads of new tabs for individual reports I’ve added because I didn’t do any planning as to where they should live (boo!)
  • Is massive, but doesn’t answer many questions or provide broad insight (boo!)
  • Has another tab in it with a set of written instructions for myself for how I should use my own spreadsheet in the future so I don’t forget how all of the lookups I added work (terrible!)
  • And I’m particularly guilty of this one – my shiny new report is littered with a bunch of tabs in the sheet containing scratch pads with one-off calculations related to a project or question I wanted to answer about my finances that month using the new report, but probably won’t ever need to see again (ugh!)

To compound the problem, even before you build an ugly Frankenstein report, you first need to determine where to start. Spending? Budgeting? Investment performance? What do I tackle today?

And finally, when you do manage to build a singularly beautiful report, then the intractable question of “When am I done?” enters the picture.

And therein lies the Spreadsheeter’s dilemma.

With so much freedom, it’s far too easy to spend far too much time building one’s financial reports, while simultaneously reaping little value from the process. And again, this can be either because you’re working on the wrong things, or working without a clear plan, or because you’re deep into diminishing returns territory without realizing it. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s spent an entire afternoon on color coding… please.)

Add to this conundrum a healthy dose of free time and good intention, and you’ve created the perfect conditions for developing a terminal case of over-spreadsheet-itis.

The road to recovery: a cure for what ails you

There are many facets to this disease. I’ll offer some remedies based on the various symptoms. You should be able to self-diagnose by identifying whether you’ve found yourself asking any of these questions upon firing up your Tiller account:

1. “Where the heck do I start?”

First, compile a list of the questions you want to answer about your finances. Do you want to track your spending by category, or the growth of your net worth? Do you want a report that helps you monitor how much you’re saving, or how you’re doing on paying down credit card debt? Do you like complex reports, but want to build a simpler one to share with your significant other?

By compiling a list of questions you need to answer, you should find it easier to limit your report building to things that answer those questions and keep from getting distracted adding further bells and whistles.

Additionally, if you aren’t sure how to build those features in yourself, it will help know what you’re looking for, to see if it already exists in one of Tiller’s templates. Which brings me to my next point…

Check out Tiller Money’s templates.

If like me, you’ve have eaten up an afternoon in hopes of building a better spreadsheet from scratch, take a look at Tiller’s templates. There is lots of power under the hood, saving you huge amounts of time writing lookups and formulas. They’ll also show you new ways to track and display transactions that you might not have thought about.

2. “I’ve created a monster!”

Plan before you start to build. Especially when hacking up an existing template, it’s easy to start customizing things and then end up with a cluttered mess of a spreadsheet.

If you have a list of questions that you want your reports to answer, the next step is to go through each of those and translate them into desired “features” for your spreadsheet.

For instance, let’s you want a spreadsheet to track credit card spending by category. Thinking through the requirements for this, one thing that should jump out is that you won’t need any of your other accounts hooked up to that sheet in Tiller. This means your transaction categorization page can be much simpler. You won’t need to categorize all of your bank transactions, just those from your credit card.

Don’t store your scratchpad inside your pretty new Tiller sheet. It seems easy to do those quick calculations for your summer vacation budget right there inside your spreadsheet, but come next fall you’ll have no idea what they meant.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be afraid to delete them “just in case”. Keep a separate area for those quick calculations to keep it tidy.

3. “Too many spreadsheets!”

Less is more. You will need to find what’s best for you: a small number of spreadsheets, with a greater number of tabs for specific reports, or more spreadsheets with very specific functions. If you find yourself running out of room in your Tiller account but still have lots of reports you want to build, revisit #1 and #2 above, and look for ways that you can combine multiple reports or answer the same question from a different report you already have lying around.

Consolidate your transaction categorization. Nothing is worse than having to categorize the same transactions more than once. You can solve for this by having a single spreadsheet with lots of tabs that reference the same transaction categorization, or by using the IMPORTRANGE function to maintain a single categorized sheet and share them across others. How to use IMPORTRANGE for this.

With respect to the above, I prefer the latter because it allows you to save time by categorizing just once, and at the same time easily build additional sheets where you might not want to see all of your accounts.

For instance, I don’t bother categorizing all of the transactions in and out of my checking and investment accounts, since it’s a mind-numbing exercise in marking things “transfer, transfer, transfer” ad infinitum.

Instead, I only bother categorizing the transactions on my credit card and checking accounts where I spend money, and use a separate sheet with all of my accounts connected to it for tracking balances and net worth.

4. “When am I done?”

Never, probably. So stop and test drive. Take a break from hammering on the same report. Stop making improvements and wait a month to see if you actually keep coming back to it and using the information there.

You’ll either realize it’s “finished” enough, or you’ll have a few more questions you want it to answer for you, and you can go through the planning steps above to define in discrete terms what else needs to be added.

Cosmetic tweaking is another animal altogether. I can’t help you if you’re an irrepressible neat freak or a hardcore color-coder. No one can.

In the end, remember what’s true in life is also true in spreadsheets: sometimes, less is truly more.

Be clear about what questions you need answered, and don’t allow yourself to get lost modifying templates that don’t start anywhere close to where you want to end up.

If the above tips don’t help with your over-spreadsheet-itis, look for a local Spreadsheeter’s Anonymous chapter near you and get help.