I got a Fitbit in January of 2013. The official “purpose” for it was because I was switching jobs, and my new company offered health insurance discounts for Fitbit users. In reality, I’m just a gadget geek and wanted a new toy. Anyway, I was super excited and immediately set all kinds of fitness goals for myself. I was going to go to the gym a couple days every week, I was going to trade my six-pack gut in for six-pack abs, and I was definitely going to run. And this little pinky-sized gizmo was going to get me there. It was my key to slimming down and toning up. You know what happened, don’t you? In the four years I’ve had this thing, I’ve gained five pounds. I’ve seen the inside of a gym maybe ten times. The only time I run is when I forget about my pizza rolls in the oven. So, what happened? Wasn’t the Fitbit supposed to make me healthier? Any time I want to, I can see exactly how many calories I eat, how many I burn, how far I walk, how well I sleep, and how many flights of stairs I, uh… pass on the way to the elevator. So why am I in worse shape than I was before I bought the stupid thing? Is it broken? No. The Fitbit is doing its job. I haven’t done mine.
Mint: The Financial Fitbit
In a similar vein, and again thanks to my obsession with technology, I started using Mint to track my money in November 2011. After getting over my initial fear about giving all my bank account passwords to some website I knew nothing about (let’s be honest, I was far more excited about fancy charts and categorizing transactions than I was smart about internet security), I plugged in every account I had. Almost immediately, I told myself I was going to set budgets, I was going to manage my credit cards, and I was going to be good with money. Because if you use a website like Mint, that means you’re good with money, right? Yeah. So, I made up a budget for everything I could possibly think of spending money on for that month. Gas, food, that infernal clearance section at Target, everything had its own little bar. As the days passed, each bar filled up as I swiped and spent. By about mid-month, many of the green bars had turned to red, telling me I’d overspent. “Oh, well,” I thought, “My account still has positive numbers in it, so I’m fine.” Invariably, I’d get to the next paycheck with my bank account gasping for a break like it had just run a marathon through the Sahara Desert.
The check would come in and then right back out that same weekend as I paid bills, bought food (some of it even for a future day), and filled my gas tank up hoping it’d last until the next relief package came two Fridays later. At the end of the month, my budget bars in Mint were so red they were almost purple. But wouldn’t you know it, come the first of the next month, they all reset again! Everything was good. So went the cycle for months, then years, with my financial status deteriorating little by little the entire time. I used my credit card to cover the gaps in what I had budgeted for and what I actually had in income, as well as emergencies, some even legitimate. The thing is, even with the legitimate emergencies, I had no way or plan to pay it off, so the circumstances of the emergency were now made even worse by the fact that I was going into debt to get them taken care of. The payments on the card kept increasing, I refused to adjust (or even pay attention to) my budget to accommodate them, and I stuck my head in the sand.
In order to move forward, I need to look back at where I went wrong. Just like with the Fitbit, Mint allowed me to see more detail than I ever thought possible. I can look at every transaction from every account all in one place. They’re all tagged, categorized, averaged, squished and stretched into fancy graphs, pie charts, trend lines, and every manner of financial report I can think of. So why was I slipping further and further away from financial stability with every passing month? Simple: having the tools to succeed is one thing. Using them is another. Even if you gave me a full set of industrial-grade power tools and unlimited access to the finest building materials, I’d still probably only be able to manage the fanciest square box of a house you’ve ever seen. No interior walls or anything, just a box. And I’d only use the wood, because I don’t really know anything about steel or brick or concrete or whatever post-1800s houses are made out of.
Swallowing My Pride
The ironic thing about using a fitness or financial tracker is that it will tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong. Well, maybe it’s not so ironic. That’s what we use them for, right? The real danger with using them is that it makes you feel like you’re doing something, even when you’re not. Just by having the Fitbit, I considered myself more active, even when I had it clipped to my sweatpants while I sat on the couch watching daytime talk shows. Because I had everything synced to Mint, I felt like I was on top of my finances, even though the only thing I was on top of was an ever-increasing pile of debt. Just having these things did me no good, because not having them was not the problem. I wasn’t out of shape because I didn’t have a fitness tracker. I wasn’t slipping into a lifetime of slavery to Discover because I couldn’t see a fancy chart at the end of the month. The problem was me. I needed to admit that real, actual work was the only way out, not using more toys that made me feel good about myself.
Information Into Action
I hope you don’t misunderstand me and think I’m saying we need to revert back to the days before computers, and I’m certainly not harping on just Fitbit or just Mint. All this technology that we have available to us is immensely powerful, and I still love it. What I’m saying is that we can’t just stop at the technology if we want to succeed. We’ve got computers that we can wear on our wrists that will measure our heart rate, distance ran, hours slept, calories eaten, water drank, laps swam, and jumps jacked. That’s craziness, isn’t it? Imagine going back in time and telling someone from 1917, or even 1967, what our world today looks like. But we can’t rely on what our stuff can do without doing something ourselves. We have to be the ones that take the endless streams of data that we pour into these things and do something meaningful with them. I could see week after week how many calories I was overeating, which meant the Fitbit did its job. My job was to maybe not eat so much, or at least to actually get off the couch, not worry about if some bozo was the father that afternoon, and go for a jog. I knew with almost surgical accuracy when my budgets would be overspent every month, which meant Mint was reporting correctly. My job was to find cheaper ways to do the things I wanted to do, or else admit that I just couldn’t afford to do those things anymore.
Now that we’re a few months down the road into our debt-free journey, I think I can say that the tracking apps are here to stay. Our bank uses digital envelopes that have been the key to making the progress that we’ve made in the time we’ve made it. Being able to see within our account what money needs to go where has been awesome. We still use Mint, though basically only as a mirror now, rather than a guide. I look at it to see where we spent more than we needed to last month so that next month can be better planned. And yes, I still have the Fitbit. I have spurts of energy with it here and there. Hopefully this financial progress will spur us on to make progress in other areas of our life as well, fitness being one of them. I suppose that’s for another post, though. These things are all very powerful assistants when used properly. They give us unprecedented access to all kinds of data about ourselves, and we’re free to use that data in any way we want! If you have a fitness tracker, or a smartphone, or a computer, or a financial planning app, or a smart dishwasher, that’s great; use it! But remember, at the end of the day, it’s not up to a computer program or a bracelet to steward the life we’ve been given. It’s up to us. Let’s do it, and do it well.