Math and numbers have always been my Achilles’ heel. In college, I alone apparently discovered a loophole that if I took three science courses, with labs, they would substitute for the stated requirement of an undergrad completing one mathematics course in order to graduate. At senior checkout, I watched nervously as the admissions clerk cross-checked my curriculum record. She listened intently to my explanation and then consulted with her superior. “No one’s ever done that before. You did it solely to avoid taking a math course?,” she asked me.
I recall responding by self-deprecatingly paraphrasing Pippi Longstocking’s thoughts on “plutification” to pursed lips and silent judgment, as they grudgingly signed off on my paperwork. Graduated yes… but for all I know with an asterisk.
Honestly, I blame my junior high math teachers. I don’t recall much compassion in guiding me to understanding all of the important concepts. Rather, they endeavored to use shame under the hot glow of fluorescent lights and the silence of the classroom. One teacher in particular, whom I fondly recall now as the Castrating Denominatrix, was especially good at getting my pubescent sweat glands to work overtime. I was no budding Archimedes, but it was thankfully here that all those Groucho Marx imitations my dad had taught me came to the fore. I couldn’t for the life of me explain how integer sets are arranged from greatest to least, but I was still killing with my classmates.
During my work career, I naturally had to produce spending reports and maintain budgets, and I always did so with a degree of trepidation. I had taken those required training sessions on Lotus 1-2-3 back in the nineties, and unfortunately never really grasped it. Later, Microsoft thankfully took pity on people like me and created Excel, which allowed mere simpletons to finally be able to do some easy equations. In time I even get a bold enough to start linking different sets of data from related columns and sheets. I was still painfully a novice, but I was at least able to report procurement expenditures accurately without HQ alerting the audit teams.
Since retiring, I’ve created several simple household spending budgets. There was the initial pre-retirement, “Holy Sh__, Can We Actually Do This?” spreadsheet; the second year of retirement, “Olive Garden Every Other Wednesday, Baby!” estimate; and the lockdown-era, “We’re Freakin’ Rich Because We’re Not Going Anywhere or Doing Anything!” balance sheet. All had the same distinguishing characteristic: one column of line items and a total at the bottom. Gorgeous, who had never so much as even looked at a spreadsheet before our marriage is always impressed.
We do live to make a good impression with our significant others. Or at the very least not embarrass them.
Just a few weeks ago, however, all of my skills, such as they now are, were put to an extreme test. The entity which manages my retirement savings announced a contract to a third-party provider for the purposes of upgrading its IT architecture. An entirely new system and interface has been introduced, causing considerable consternation and hand-wringing among the plan’s participants, myself included.
Amidst all the new features to now learn, I discovered to my horror that a key hallmark of the previous system is no longer available: a user-generated date history to see one’s account performance for a specific period. I had grown accustomed to regularly checking my balance history for the previous week or ten day period. The new system allows for that, somehow. But it involves the use of a complicated report-creation feature, which after trying once, and noticing how many confusing screens it took to produce it, I decided I’d rather listen to endless plays of Charlene’s “Never Been to Me” than to ever try it again. Oh go on, I dare you. Click on the link. Yes, I’m telling you it’s that bad.
So I decided that I was on my own here. It meant I’d have create something of my own to track the performance of my retirement savings.
I know what you’re thinking at this point, dear reader. “There’s an app for that,” yes?
Indeed there are quite a few portfolio tracking apps available in the App Stores. But call me paranoid, the last thing I want is to share my personal financial information on some dodgy server in Silicon Valley, or one in a foreign country for that matter. No, this is something I need to make by my lonesome, under the soft lights of my home office — and no mean teachers browbeating me this time around.
I recall that my former HR officer, now also retired, has kept a spreadsheet of his 401(k) holdings for nearly 30 years (hi, J). He wrote recently that he still updates it after each market close to enter the daily valuations. I can’t imagine having anything that entailed. I just need something simple.
So I got to right to work. I spent hours googling spreadsheet calculations, particularly in how to arrive at a weekly percentage change compared to the previous balance entry. I was rusty at all of this. Without the pressure of any management entity demanding a date certain report, I also noticed that my attention span started to wane after several failed attempts. Did you know, for instance, that NPR’s Fresh Air is now available via a podcast? I didn’t either, but I learned that while goofing off and reading unrelated news (I might have listened to an old interview Terri Gross did with George Carlin, but I’m not admitting to it here).
Gorgeous looked in from time to time, mostly to see what I was eating.
Five hours later — which included pretty much all of the late morning and most of the afternoon, I completed my new spreadsheet. It ain’t very fancy, and it certainly won’t win any awards. But it works. I’ve tested it several times using practice data and nothing strange has happened. So I can now track my savings, which by the way is the most depressing thing any of us can do at the moment.
I plan on living off the fumes of this success for as long as possible. “Paint the bathroom? No, sorry, honey. I’m tired from figuring out that spreadsheet.”
Until next time…