The Verdict

Back in April, I asked 6 friends to pass rapid judgement on my latest attempt to define the Roundsheet application.  I asked them to give the document a quick scan and to provide answers to the questions below with either Yes or No, and to feel free to add comments or suggestions if they wished.

  1. Were you able to understand what was being described?
  2. Do the Roundsheet concepts make sense to you?
  3. Do you think a Roundsheet application would give users something they haven’t got already?
  4. Is it worth pursuing this idea any further?

I received 5 replies. Not everyone was able to answer either Yes or No to each question – some answers were ‘partly’ or ‘sort of’ or ‘don’t know’ or ‘possibly’; so, I’m going to classify all such in-between kind of responses as ‘not sure’. Applying this rule of thumb, the bare number results were:

Question Yes Not Sure No
Able to understand? 3 1 1
Concepts make sense? 3 1 1
Something user’s haven’t got? 2 3 0
Worth pursuing? 2 2 1

 Some of the comments were interesting:

“one would think that many spreadsheets have pie chart functionalities: your concept is really about how to use those functionalities”

“whether this could be a protected tool? I think you would have difficulty”

“still wondering why the roundsheet format is any better than the tabular format which apparently could be used instead?”

“may be of interest to those who get frustrated by the complexities of linking Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint applications – I have come across a few of those in my career!”

“I feel there is a core there that could be extremely useful”

However, overall, there’s no overwhelming consensus that this is a winning idea, and it’s probably unlikely that time spent trying to promote its development into a product would be rewarded; so I think this is the time to put this journey to bed. I have enjoyed the intellectual challenge it has given me; and have the satisfaction of knowing that I took the ideas as far as I could and finished the job. I could always bring the topic out of retirement should someone come along with a serious interest in taking it forward.

Thank you to all of you who, over the years, have taken the time to wade through and pass comment on the various specification documents.

Binding Sounds – Part 2

When I last wrote about creating the Sounds for Alexa book, I’d finished sewing the text block. The next step was to glue the mull (thin gauze) to the spine, then to glue some Kraft paper on down the spine on top of the mull, and finally to glue the blue and white end bands, as shown below.

Next, the colourful end papers I had selected were folded in two and glued with a thin, 3mm wide, line of PVA to the inside of the text block – one at the front and one at the back. Cardboard was then cut to the size of the text block plus a 4mm overlap all the way round, and glued to the mull and the tapes as shown in the picture below.

I’d elected to have a leather cover (as opposed to cloth) which is longer lasting and has a more luxurious appearance (see the picture below). However, the downside of leather is that it is thicker and less pliable and so it produces unsightly bulges when it is turned over the edges of the cardboard frame, and noticeable ridges at its edges. To solve this problem, the leather is pared down to a much reduced thickness at the points where it is to be turned and along its edges – in effect all but the central area as shown in the picture below .

Paring leather is a task easier said than done. Doing it manually involves using a very sharp blade and shaving off thin layers over and over again until the requisite thinness is achieved. This is a very messy process which produces lots of small fragments of leather which get everywhere. It took me a couple of hours to complete the task and the particular tool I was using caused me to lose the feeling in my thumbs and forefingers. No doubt it gets easier as one becomes more proficient, however, if I ever use leather again, I shall be investigating using a Paring Service which I’m told can be hired to do the same job much faster and to a better quality than I could hope to achieve, by using machines.

Once the paring was done, the leather was glued to the cardboard frame, the end papers were stuck down to the front and back boards, and the dust jacket was printed and cut to size and folded around the book. Finally a protective plastic cover was fitted to the dust jacket. The completed book is shown below.

Sounds for Alexa has now taken its place next to Alexa in our kitchen diner, as shown in the picture below. We will see whether it gets put to use as originally envisaged over the coming months.

Cover Art

The Sounds for Alexa book is nearly finished now with its leather cover on and only the end papers to stick down. I’ll describe these final stages in a subsequent entry when it’s completed. In the meantime, with the outside dimensions of the book fixed, I’ve been able to get on with the cover.

The dimensions of a book cover pose a bit of a problem since they are much longer than the normal paper that you can buy to print on. This particular cover will need to be 21 cm high and some 53 cm long. I was able to solve that problem by remembering the roll of surplus wallpaper lining paper that I had stored away in a poster tube for our grandchildren to draw on at some point in the future. It turned out to be sufficiently strong for a book cover but pliable enough to go through the printer – a delicate balance I’d fallen foul of before when trying to print things for weddings. Setting up the printer wasn’t a problem – you just set a custom page length (of up to a maximum of 676 mm in the case of my printer) and the printer will chug away and print the length you desire.

I decided to create the cover in Powerpoint and started off by setting the page size to be about a centimetre each way larger than the actual dimensions I needed because the printer usually leaves a blank border area of at least half a centimetre around the edge of the page. I figured that if I made the picture a little bit bigger than I need I’d be able to cut off these blank edges to get the exact size required.

Ever since deciding on the book’s sub-title – ‘A listing of Su and Paul’s digitised LPs, Cassettes, Tapes and CDs for use in the marriage of Alexa to Aye Fon’ – I’d had a picture in my mind of a wedding ceremony between our Amazon Echo and my iPhone surrounded by the turntable, ghetto blaster, and laptop, and all the digitised LPs, singles, cassettes and CD’s which I now retain in the loft for proof of ownership purposes. I took a look around our house and decided our patio would be the place to take this photo, and took some experimental shots to see where things should go. This transpired to be very important because the title down the spine turned out to be in a part of the photo which had a brick wall in shade and consequently the black of the title was lost in the black of the shade.

I did some more experimentation and finally fixed upon an appropriate angle to take the shot, and waited for a sunny day. I knew it was going to be quite a big job laying out all the technology, LPS, cassettes and CDs on the patio and wanted to minimise the time they were left in the sun in case they got heatstroke, so I enlisted the help of my son and his wife to help in the photo-shoot and get things laid out and back inside as quickly as possible. We did the shoot on the 2nd July which turned out to be particularly hot so we really did need to work as quickly as possible. However we managed it and got several shots and got all the stuff back in the house and packed up in its boxes ready to go back in the loft.  Quite a palaver – too much of a palaver to have to do it again – so the pictures had to be right.

Well the pictures were OK and I did manage to get a cover – but, in the heat of the day and the moment, I made some errors which I guess a professional photographer would have picked up on straight away. I thought I would be able to enlarge and move the picture in powerpoint to get the exact position for the text for the spine. However, this proved to be very difficult without cutting off a substantial part of the key elements of the photo. What I should have done is taken the picture from further away. My experimentation had not been detailed enough and my photography had been inexperienced and rushed. Such are the differences between the amateur and the professional.

Nevertheless, I was able to choose a photo which minimised the problems and which I was able to get the spine title in what seemed to be a fairly readable position. For the inside flap texts I lifted some extracts from previous posts in this blog, and then I was all set to print out a copy and see how it looked and fitted. The result was OK but there were some issues with the position of the title down the spine (it still went into some shaded areas where the black text wasn’t as clear as I would have liked); and the text on the back flap was a little too far away from the edge of the flap. I made the spine text smaller and adjusted the position of the back flap accordingly. However, a more intractable problem was that the picture simply wasn’t high enough; there would have to be a few millimetres of white space at the top and bottom of the cover because the print had been produced with a border.  I started to explore the print options and eventually came to the conclusion that borderless printing – which is what I needed to get the height I required – is unavailable for anything other than smaller Photo Papers. My printer simply does not support Photo Papers of 220 x 570 mm  (which is what I required); and does not support Borderless printing for anything other than Photo papers.

I compromised. I abandoned the quest to enable borderless printing and elected instead to go for High Resolution Paper and High Quality. The result still had a few millimetres of white border at the top and bottom of the cover, but the title was now clear and the print quality was noticeably better. I decided to quit while I was ahead. So my final print settings were:

  • Media Type: High Resolution Paper
  • Print Quality: High
  • Page Size: Width 200mm, Height 570mm
  • Printer Paper Size: Width 215.9mm, Height 570mm
  • Orientation: Landscape

The image I printed is shown below.

The Printing Solution was born 5 years ago and, as it has covered more topics and grown in size, the likelihood of being able to reconstitute it should some disaster occur, seems to becoming increasingly remote. So, when I started to systematically go through every entry in the blog to tease out OFC  insights, it occurred to me that I could, at the same time, copy the contents into a word document which could subsequently be printed and bound into a hardcopy book in just the same way as the Sounds for Alexa book has been produced. That’s what I did, and I now have a 227 page document containing the main contents of the site. I now need to add in the 40 Appendix documents which have links from the main text. The final book may well have around 400 pages or more – but that shouldn’t present a bookbinding problem.

I haven’t established yet whether there is a standard website archiving solution which makes it easy to reconstitute and access a site; however, even if there is one, I think I shall feel more comfortable knowing that I actually have all the content in a single backed-up file. I shall feel even more comfortable when I have the book of in my bookcase.

A Blog is a Fragile Beast

A blog is quite a fragile beast when compared to a physical notebook; it requires reliable storage for a whole suite of files as well as appropriate software and hardware to display its contents. As this OFC blog has grown in size, I have started to wonder what would happen if, for some reason, the backend files were destroyed, or if I simply stopped paying the hosting charges. Right now I have no way of being able to reconstitute the blog outside my hosting company’s infrastructure. This is what I shall be exploring in subsequent entries.
In many ways this is a digital preservation exercise. However, I’ve decided to address it as a topic in its own right because of the special characteristics of blogs; they are large integrated entities which have to be  accessed as a whole. This OFC blog is nothing special; it is built on the WordPress platform which enables text and images to be created directly without having to deal with HTML code; and it is hosted by a specialist company. I pay an annual fee for the domain name – – and for the hosting service; and as part of that service I can request the hosting company to take a backup of the site whenever I wish. WordPress is free and gets updated from time to time. In other words, this is a very standard configuration of the type probably used by millions of bloggers. I’m hoping, therefore, that a practical archiving solution which enables a site to be easily reconstituted, will be readily available. We will see.

Figuring out how to do it

What are the key components of Household Financial Management? Well, the example described in previous entries indicates that the following elements should be on the list:

  • A decision about where income should be placed (in the example, all income went into the joint account);
  • Information (in the example, this included the joint account and credit card statements, and the amounts previously spent on Items of Expenditure);
  • Actions (In the example, this included the creation of an annual budget, the allocation of statement line items to the budget items of expenditure, and the monthly update of the budget sheet and discussion between the partners);
  • Tools (In the example, an Excel spreadsheet was used to create and manage the budget, and to perform the allocations on the bank statement);
  • Discussion (in the example, all financial decisions were discussed by the couple – particularly during the monthly budget update session).

Of course, there are many different ways in which these can be addressed. A few of the myriad other possibilities are listed below:

  • A decision about where income should be placed (in the bank account of the individual that earned it; in a safe in the house);
  • Information (online check of account transactions; payment slips and receipts; personal memory of what was spent);
  • Actions (moving money to ensure the account doesn’t go into the red; giving one partner money to do the housekeeping; putting an amount every month into a savings account; planning how much to spend on next year’s holiday);
  • Tools (various software packages and apps; cloud-based budgeting services; paper and pencil);
  • Discussion (conversations when: a major spend is contemplated; when the account is about to go overdrawn; when a major loss of income is imminent; when income is received).

So, how should people setting up a household decide what approach to use? Well, the obvious thing to do these days is to check the net. A search on ‘Household Financial Management’ in May 2017 produced a whole range of web sites offering advice, insights and tools. At the top of the list was the very helpful and thorough ‘Beginner’s Guide to Managing Your Money’ from the UK’s Money Advice Service. As well as providing extensive guidance, this includes an online Budget Planner tool which goes through a very comprehensive list of types of expenditure.

Adding ‘Tools’ onto the end of the search term again produced a plethora of hits including PC Magazine’s ‘The best personal financial services 2017’. This highlights 7 applications including for spending analysis; Quicken and YNAB for budgeting; and Doxo for bill payment. Another site – Techradar – identifies the five best free personal finance software programmes 2017 as being: Money Manager Ex; Gnucash; Mvelopes; HomeBank; and AceMoney Lite.  No doubt there are many more software packages, apps, and cloud services out there.

There is clearly no shortage of practical advice and guidance available for those who want to seek it out; and there are a whole variety of digital tools that can be employed to plan and track household money. However, advice and tools on their own are not enough to make a success of household financial management. The critical element is down to the individuals concerned: they must have a determination to avoid financial difficulties and to change lifestyle if such difficulties are encountered.  Furthermore, the way that household finances are actually managed not only dictates a particular lifestyle, but also reflects the type of relationship that those in the household have. These two critical implications need to be born in mind by those who set out to establish how to run their own household finances.

In/Outs and Credit Cards

Two types of events that can complicate household financial management (HFM) are In-outs (where the money is not part of the budget but just passing through the account); and the use of credit cards. The way that these aspects are dealt with in the HFM example previously described, is outlined below.

In/outs occur when, for example, a purchase is made on behalf of someone else and that person pays the money into the account either before or after the payment is made. The example Budget Sheet deals with this by employing two line items: ‘In/out Spends’ and ‘In/out Balance’. The total of all In/out monies going out (negative amounts) and coming in (plus amounts) in a particular month is entered in the ‘In/out Spend’ cell. The In/out Balance cell is calculated by adding this month’s In/out spend amount to last month’s In/out Balance. To keep track of what each amount refers to, a comment is attached to the cell, recording each individual transaction that makes up the cell total.

It may be useful to give specific types of In/outs their own few lines on the spreadsheet. For instance, in the example Budget Sheet, separate lines were provided for the expenses of one of the partners because the employer paid expenses to the same account that the salary was paid to. Hence, train tickets and other travel expenses were paid out piecemeal from the joint account and the money was reimbursed as a total amount at the end of each month. The line items used for this were ‘Expenses Spend’ and ‘Expenses Balance’.  The same principle can be applied to any kind of In/out transaction.  To make it even clearer in the spreadsheet of what is coming in and going out, the In/Out spend line could be separated into two separate lines – one for ‘Incoming Money’ and one for ‘Outgoing Money’.

Credit card transactions are another potential complication for month by month Budgeting, though they do have one significant benefit; they provide a statement in advance of when payment has to be made, which gives time for the impact on the budget to be assessed, and for any necessary actions to be taken. However, they also bring with them two complications. One is that the statement is paid as a total amount, so that the individual actual amounts that the total is made up of have to be identified and then placed on the budget sheet separately. Secondly, refunds are often made in a different month to when a purchase was made; and sometimes – at least for the credit card used in the example – the refund amounts in line items on the statement are not reflected in the statement total – which can be very confusing.

In the HFM example, the Statement partner allocated each line item of the credit card statement to a particular Item of Expenditure on the budget sheet. Then, when the end of month budgeting was done, the actual credit card amounts were inserted into the relevant cells for the following month when the total credit card bill was to be paid. This meant that, at the monthly budgeting session, a quick review could be done of the following month’s expected expenditure and bank balance in the knowledge that some of the figures were actual outgoings from the credit card.

The way refunds are dealt with by the credit card in question, however, is not something that the couple concerned have been able to find a standard way of dealing with. Instead, the partner who manages statements makes sure that one way or another the refund amounts and associated purchase costs, are reflected somewhere on the budget sheet. Sometimes the In/out facility is used or else a manual note is made which can be referred to when the next statement comes through.

Annual Budgeting & Items of Expenditure

In the household financial management example described previously, annual budgeting is done around September/October/November each year. The initial setup is simple – the partner responsible for the budget sheet makes a copy of the current budget sheet and then reviews and modifies it. Generally speaking , a notional increase for inflation is applied to most annual charges such as Council Tax, Insurances, Subscriptions, etc.; and for the remaining items, the monthly figures are reviewed by considering a) the actual expenditure that has already occurred in the current year; b) any need to reduce expenditure, c) any particular activities or changes in the coming year that will impact the likely expenditure on that particular item. This exercise produces a draft which is printed out and given to the partner responsible for Statements who goes through and marks up suggested changes. Finally, any uncertain points are discussed by the couple, after which the partner responsible for the budget produces a final version.

It is worth noting at this point that the budget sheets are designed to be printed out on a single A4 page – any bigger would just not be very useful. To achieve this, the margins are set to ‘Narrow’ and the spreadsheet or printer setting ‘Fit to Page’ is selected. Although this reduces the size of the text, it should still be readable unless there are a very large number of rows. The current version of the example Budget Sheet we have been discussing has 97 rows and 15 columns and this is certainly readable when printed out on a single A4 page.

The creation of the new budget is also an opportunity to review and modify the items  of expenditure. Some of these, such as Housekeeping, have appeared on every  one of the 27 yearly budget sheets. However, others, such as Childminder for example, appeared only on the earliest four budget sheets, and in the final year of its appearance there was no actual expenditure recorded. This illustrates how the items of expenditure often stay in place until they no longer have any actual expenditure for a year or two at which point they are removed when a new annual budget is drawn up. An analysis of  all the items of expenditure that have ever appeared in any of the 27 years of budget sheets, and the number of years that each one has been present, shows that there have been  about 80 items of expenditure of which about a quarter have appeared in every year. In summary, while some items of expenditure are generic and will probably apply to most households, others will reflect the immediate circumstances of an individual household. It is an important aspect of annual budgeting to ensure that such new categories are identified and included on the budget sheet as early as possible before the expenditure actually occurs.

To provide a guide to Items of Expenditure and to the overall structure of a budget sheet, the items on the example Budget Sheet have been generalised to eliminate specific products, services, subscriptions etc. This has produced a list of 65 Items of Expenditure of which 38 (about 65%) are deemed to be ‘core’ i.e. likely to be of use in a large number of households.

One way of doing it

This entry describes one way in which household finances can be managed with the support of digital technology. The story starts in 1981 when two newly-weds decided to direct all their incomes into a joint account and to move monthly allowances for personal expenditure from the joint account into their respective personal accounts. For the next ten years they developed an approach to budgeting for the year ahead and monitoring it on a monthly basis. This was before the era of on-line bank accounts, and money management involved scrutinising paper bank and credit card statements. So, most of the work was done on paper, by hand, and, initially at least, in a piecemeal fashion without any standard layouts.

One of the partners had gained experience of spreadsheets at work; so, after acquiring an Atari computer around 1987, they obtained a copy of the EZ-Calc spreadsheet software for Atari and started using it to create and manage their yearly budgets. The experience they had already gained in managing their accounts enabled them to list their standard items of expenditure down the side of the spreadsheet, with the months of a single year along the top.

Of course, the line items in bank and credit card statements did not necessarily align to the standard items of expenditure in the budget spreadsheet; so, in order to update the spreadsheet with actual expenditure, it was necessary to identify which items in the budget sheet each of the statement lines were referring to. This is something that the couple had already been doing to a degree; however, the use of the spreadsheet introduced a need for a greater level of rigour in this exercise. For, in order  to ensure that the end of month figure on the bank statement matched the end of month figure on the spreadsheet, all the amounts on the bank and credit card statements had to be correctly allocated to one or more expenditure categories in the spreadsheet.

During this initial foray into spreadsheets, the couple’s responsibilities became more delineated. One took responsibility for looking after the budget sheet, and the other took responsibility for the statements and for allocating the line items in the statements to the items of expenditure listed in the budget. By about 1992, they had established a regular routine whereby each month, after the partner responsible for allocating the statement line items had completed the work, the two would sit down together in their joint study where the Atari was located, and one would call out the total expenditure in a particular budget category and the other would replace the budget figure with the actual figure in the relevant spreadsheet cell. At the end of this exercise a check would be made to ensure that the end of month figure in the bank account statement and in the spreadsheet were the same. If they did not tally, then further checks were made to establish the error and fix it. Finally, the couple reviewed the month-end figures for the remainder of the year, discussed any expenditure cuts or additions, and made any agreed changes to the future budget. Afterwards, a copy of the updated budget spreadsheet was printed out for the partner responsible for the statements.

In 1993, the partner responsible for the budget spreadsheet changed his computer at work from a Macintosh SE to a Compaq PC laptop. In the same year the couple moved to a bigger house in which they each had their own study and the Atari was moved into one of the children’s bedrooms.  These two events – conversion to a PC and the move of the Atari – prompted a change from using EZ-Calc for the budget spreadsheet to using Excel on the PC laptop. The portability of the laptop enabled the couple to conduct their monthly discussion in the study of the partner responsible for the statements.

Up until the year 2000, the bank used by the couple had no online banking service and all statements were sent out in paper form. The allocation work was all done on these physical documents. However, a few years into the new millennia the couple started to use the bank’s online banking service and eventually chose not to receive paper statements in favour of downloading them.  Having got used to this approach, the couple devised a spreadsheet to facilitate the allocation process; the statement information was copied and pasted into the extreme left columns of the spreadsheet and all the budget items of expenditure were placed into the subsequent columns along the top of the spreadsheet. In that way the cash amount of a line in the bank statement could be allocated to one or more columns of expenditure categories. A checking column was included next to the column showing the cash amount, and this was programmed to say OK if the total amount in a particular row in the expenditure columns was the same as the cash amount of that line in the bank statement. If the amount was different the checking cell would say ERROR. At the bottom of the spreadsheet the sum of all the values in each expenditure column was automatically added up, and it was these figures that the partner owning the statements was able to call out to the partner owning the budget spreadsheet.

This was the last major change that the couple has implemented. There have been a few developments since then but they have not made a material difference to the way they manage their finances. For example, the credit card statement is now also available electronically, however the allocations for that are still undertaken by hand on paper; and, since about 2015, both partners have been accessing the joint bank account via an app on their phones and iPads – but this has only afforded a more immediate awareness of particular transactions and the overall position of the account.

In 2015 the couple moved again, and in their current house have established the practice of conducting their monthly update sessions in the more comfortable setting of the lounge. They both have their laptops on their knees, and continue to operate their well-practiced routine. The Excel spreadsheet now has 26 worksheets – one for each of the last 26 years. It works for them for the moment, but, as past experience has shown, it may have to change to adapt to changes in technology or circumstances.

More details about the mechanics of the arrangements described above are provided in subsequent entries. These will cover: annual budgeting and items of expenditure, credit card expenditure, and in-outs and other exceptions.

The backdrop to Household Finances

Before exploring digital support for household finances, it is important to understand the environment in which today’s household finances are managed. First, the vast majority of households in the UK have access to some sort of bank account according to the University of Birmingham’s Financial Inclusion Annual Monitoring Report 2015. Second, the monies that flow in and out of households today are generally digital monies; pay is delivered by electronic funds transfer; regular bills are paid by direct debits; and much expenditure is made using debit or credit card. Thirdly, people manage their money using on-line bank accounts and bank account apps on their mobile phones. In essence, most households are already brushing up against digital technology in some form or another when managing their money.

The final key aspect that critically affects household money management has nothing to do with digital technology, and everything to do with the relationship between the householders. When a couple set up a household, one of the most significant choices that they make is to decide which account(s) their income is to be banked. This simple decision not only reflects their attitude towards money but also has significant ramifications for the way they will communicate and work together to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of household living. This was item a) of six household management activities that were listed In the previous entry, and the decision impacts all the other five activities – b) checking the monies coming in; c) deciding what to spend the money on; d) deciding who is responsible for what element of spending; e) checking what has been spent; f) assessing future levels of cash and deciding on any actions required to change those future levels.

The broad options for deciding where income is to be banked are straightforward:

  • each individual’s income goes into that individuals bank account and stays there;
  • each individual’s income goes into that individuals bank account and a portion of it is automatically transferred to a joint bank account;
  • each individual’s income goes directly into a joint bank account.

In the first case, when the monies go into an individual’s account, the other person may have no visibility of the amounts going in nor how it is spent; and this can make discussions about household spending a little less open and free-ranging. At the other extreme, if both individual’s income goes into a joint account, both parties are likely to have much more knowledge about income levels and to have a greater sense of ownership of the combined monies. The middle option, when part of an individual’s income goes into a joint account, is a half way house whereby individuals will have knowledge and ownership for part of the monies.

These three approaches are huge simplifications of what actually goes on. I haven’t been able to come across research data on this, but conversations with family, friends and colleagues over the years, and things I’ve read in books and articles and have seen on TV, indicate that there are many different ways in which each of these options can be performed in practice. For example, just because income goes into an individual’s account doesn’t necessarily mean that the other partner doesn’t know how much it is, or can’t access the account. There are also many different reasons why a couple may choose one of the three options; for example, they may decide to put income into an individual’s account because the other partner may have a poor credit history. Despite these uncertainties, however, the three different options will usually have some impact of the sort described; and will almost certainly affect what digital tools are chosen to assist the management of household finances .