Your Mac And Your Money

Welcome to the first installment of Your Mac and Your Money, a regular examination of two subjects near and dear to us all: money and Macs.

Money may be the root of all evil, but better the devil you know than the devil you don't, to mix a couple of aphorisms. How well you manage your money -- whether you're saving it, spending it, or just trying to keep track of where the heck it went -- will influence your quality of life than just about anything this side of good personal hygiene.

Fortunately, your Mac (which probably entered your life as an expense) is a great tool for saving and managing money. OK, it's probably not as useful as a little common sense, but it's definitely more useful than an ATM machine, which is the primary personal-finance appliance for way too many people. (The ATM method of budgeting goes like this: If there's money in my checking account, then I can spend it! Needless to say, this is not wise.)

As a rule, I'll cover a wide range of subjects. Nevertheless, you can count on a few things:

  • It's a Quicken world. Because it's the de facto standard for Macintosh personal-finance software, Intuit's Quicken personal-finance program will be one of the main topics of this column. (It's amazing how easy it is to become a de facto standard when you don't have any competitors.)
  • We're in it for the long run. For the most part, I'll be looking at bread-and-butter long-term personal-finance strategies - the kind of stuff that makes the difference between a comfortable retirement and decades of scraping by on a fixed income. So don't expect to see tips on day-trading or on how to speculate with yen futures.
  • You can't work without a Net. The Internet is an invaluable tool for managing money - provided you use it judiciously. I'll be pointing out sites that I think Mac users could use to their profit.
  • And Now, On To Today's Topic: Excel

    This month, I'm going to discuss a relatively easy thing you can do to protect one of your biggest investments and avoid some of the most common surprise expenses - track your car's maintenance and associated costs using Microsoft Excel.

    Believe it or not, if you add up all the costs of operating a car for five years, the total expense will equal, if not surpass, the original purchase price of the car. So reducing those costs seems like a reasonable goal. Most late model cars, after all, are designed to run for at least 200,000 miles if properly maintained. Even if you're planning to ditch your car before the end of its useful life, you'll get more for your vehicle if you can show that it's been properly maintained.

    Personally, I used a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the servicing of a car for nearly ten years. I didn't quite make it to 200,000 miles, but I knew all along how much the car was costing to operate, and when the time came to replace it I was able to get a price for it that made the costs of maintenance worth my while.

    To do this, enter all the scheduled maintenance milestones from your car's owner's manual (making sure to include an oil change every 2,000 miles). By setting up a few simple Excel formulas (nothing more complicated than addition and division, you can see what they look like in this sample spreadsheet), you can not only track your maintenance data (what the mechanics did, when they did it, how much it cost, and what the mileage was at the time) but also see your average daily mileage during each period between servicings. It's even possible to track exactly how much per mile the car costs you to maintain. When those costs start rising, it may be time to think about replacing your vehicle.

    Although it would definitely be useful to know your car's fuel mileage (a decline in miles per gallon is a good indicator of potential problems), I'm not dedicated enough to enter every single gasoline purchase. This way, the only time I have to enter any data into the spreadsheet is when I actually take the car in for servicing. Each time I do so, I make a note of the data for the next scheduled service and enter it in my Quicken calendar (see how hard it is to keep Quicken out of the picture?) and set a reminder.

    Here's a sample of the first couple of years so you can see how the spreadsheet works.

    As an added bonus to this column, I've also included an Excel template of my tracking spreadsheet for download below. It should help you get started in building your own vehicle maintainance tracking sheet.

    If you don't want to use Excel (and you don't really care whether you can determine your average daily mileage between trips to the mechanic), you've got a couple of other options. One is a $5 shareware application from Pacific Cargo Co. called CarCare. As with my spreadsheet method, CarCare is based on the notion that you're willing to enter data into your Mac about as often as you take the car in to be serviced. It's actually a FileMaker runtime template with fields for repair costs, dates, mileage, and so on, but you'll still need to set your own reminders for when your next service is due.

    The other option, and the most convenient, is to go to www.cars.com (a Web site associated with the Car Talk guys from National Public Radio). Their "MyCarSite" feature lets you enter your car's year and model number and then automatically provides you with a service schedule as well as notification of any recalls or service bulletins. Of course, all your data will reside on their servers not on your Mac, but it's extremely convenient.

    Regardless of how you choose to track your auto expenses, the knowledge you get from doing so will put you in the driver's seat when it comes to figuring out how much your vehicle is costing you to operate and documenting its value when it's time to get rid of it. This may seem like a fairly insignificant step toward saving money, but the principle behind it isn't. Becoming mindful of how money moves out of (and into) your pockets is the key to keeping your finances under control and is the foundation for budgeting, but that's a topic for another column.

    To download the Microsoft Excel template for tracking your car's maintenance, click here.

    You can call the shots (or some of them)

    While I have a list of topics I plan to cover, I'm open to suggestions. If there's a personal-finance and Mac related subject that you'd like to see me write about, let me know in the forum below. I can't necessarily answer every post personally, but I will read them all.

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