I'm a habitual checkbook balancer. For as long as I've had a checking account, some forty years, every month I sit down with the bank statement, my checkbook, a pen, and a calculator.
I've never failed to balance the checkbook. But sometimes it takes me a while to find the error that is preventing me and the bank from being in perfect, to-the-penny agreement.
(Invariably, those errors have been caused by me or my wife. As this person says in retgard to checkbook balancing, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, "the bank is always right.")
Yesterday, though, was different.
I'd made a quick attempt at balancing the previous day, arrived at a significant disconnect between my ending balance and what the West Coast Bank statement said I have, and vowed to figure out the problem when I had more time.
Little did I know how much time I'd need. Like, four hours -- divided between a frustrating few hours yesterday and an equally irritating amount of time this morning.
I'd never experienced anything like this in my decades-long checkbook balancing history.
I wasn't a few pennies or a few dollars off. I was a whole freaking two hundred six dollars and ninety-six cents off. Unbelievable. And the unbelieving only grew worse as I checked, rechecked, and double/triple re-checked my calculations.
Looking back, I used just about every approach in the Killbuck Bank's excellent "Eight Simple Steps for Balancing Your Checkbook," a resource I found when looking for checkbook balancing info to share in this post (great name for a bank, by the way).
I confirmed the subtraction/addition arithmetic in my checkbook. I made sure that the amount of every withdrawal and deposit matched what was shown in the bank statement. I was careful to account for every outstanding check and deposit that hadn't cleared by the time the bank statement was issued.
Regarding the last item, quite a few years ago I came up with what I thought was a foolproof system for easily keeping track of uncleared items in my checkbook.
It's fairly easy to miss the lack of a mark in the "cleared" column of the check register. So I started to pen in a small circle in the bottom right corner of a register page if every check/deposit on that page has cleared the bank (meaning, appeared on a bank statement).
And if every check/deposit on preceding register pages also has cleared, I draw a line through the circle. This way, when I'm looking for uncleared checks to subtract from my ending balance I just thumb through the register until I come to a page that doesn't have a circle with a line through it.
Seemingly foolproof. Yet I hadn't taken into account that the fool I was trying to protect myself from could be me.
Which brings me to the philosophical side of this post -- what I've learned from spending four crazily frustrating hours going around and around the same calculating circles, trying to find the reason for the $206.96 checkbook balance discrepancy.
I kept trying, and re-trying, the same tricks that had worked for me before when I had trouble balancing my checkbook. However, either Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin is credited with this apt quote:
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
OK, the diagnosis fits: for four hours I went checkbook-balancing insane. I was convinced that if I kept doing what I'd done in the past to solve out-of-balance problems, eventually one of those techniques would work.
This morning I even went so far as to spend $1.99 on an iPhone app, Accounts, that lets you put your check register on the iPhone.
Even though I'd checked my addition/subtraction at least three times with a calculator, I was under the delusion that I still might have made an error (which is crazy, because my wife would need to have made the exact same error, since she also checked my entries and got the same results as me).
After spending half an hour or so entering a month's worth of checkbook data into the app, and finding that, yes, it came up with the same ending balance as I had, I finally realized that I'd hit a brick wall.
Belatedly, I started to try to think more outside the box than I had before. Now, my wife's idea of "think outside the box" was to tell me that I should head to West Coast Bank and seek help from an employee.
Being a man who hates to ask directions, this was the last thing I was going to try. No way was I going to sit down with someone at the bank, probably a woman, and admit that I was utterly unable to balance my checkbook, so could you help me, pretty please, to do what kids learned in high school back in my time-- or perhaps even Montessorri school these days.
No, I was determined to break out of my box by myself. Problem is, when you're inside a box of malfunctioning problem solving attempts, it's almost impossible to break out of it through an act of will.
After all, if I had the ability to figure out what was preventing my checkbook from balancing, I would have done it a long time ago. Spending four hours staring at bank statements and my hard-to-read checkbook register scribbles isn't my idea of fun.
So all I could do was pay attention to some vague sane-seeming intuitions that were starting to bubble up in the midst of the frothing of my temporarily insane brain.
An inner voice said, "go back, go back; what you seek isn't where you're looking." So I reviewed the previous month's statement, and re-examined the entries that had led to a successful balancing back in June.
I was on the right track, but for the wrong reason. I noticed that if I added together the two cleared checks on the current statement that were written in June, and subtracted that amount from the total of the uncleared checks on the July statement that I was wrestling with, I got $206.96.
Which didn't mean anything, in retrospect. However, I was encouraged that my mind was coming up with fresh theories of how to solve the balancing problem, because I was tired of treading the same checkbook balancing paths that weren't leading anywhere.
I decided to go back in time even further.
I dug up the previously-used check register that I'd assumed had no uncleared entries in it, since all the pages in my current register had the above-mentioned circle with a line through it on the initial pages -- which meant there weren't any uncleared entries prior.
The first thing I saw when I found the register where I'd stored it was a crossed out "All in" on the cover. Which meant, obviously, that all the entries weren't in/cleared.
The second thing I saw was a entry for a Qwest automatic deduction from our checking account with my notation: "not made"
That was strange, because automatic payments almost always are handled, well, automatically by the bank. I'd figured that the deduction for our phone, DSL, and DirecTV bill would appear next month.
But it didn't. And I'd mistakenly penned in my all previous entries have cleared symbol on the first pages of the new check register.
What was the amount of the uncleared Qwest automatic payment? Like we said in elementary school, three guesses, and the first two don't count.
I was ecstatic. I had my life back again. I wasn't insane any longer. I'd fought the checkbook balancing monster, and I'd won!
Of course, the battle was with myself, because I was the one who'd forgotten about the uncleared Qwest entry. Well, next time I want to feel good about getting over the doing of something stupid, I'll simply hit myself on the head with a hammer, then stop.
On the positive side, maybe one day this tale is going to be the first chapter in a best-selling book: "Adventures in Checkbook Balancing." If anyone has their own story to contribute to it, leave a comment.
One word: Quicken.
Posted by: Jack Bog | July 31, 2010 at 01:45 AM
Same word as Jack: Quicken. Of course, no software conquers the GIGO factor.
And since I've been using Quicken for 20+ years, it's hard to remember the transitional pain of learning the software and developing the new routine of entering the data (each check/deposit) on your computer. I'm quite certain learning the software took less than four hours, though. And ever after, checkbook reconciliation is so phenomenally accelerated, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.
Posted by: Trish Wareing | July 31, 2010 at 05:11 AM
Jack and Trish, I used Quicken for many years, but usually not for keeping track of my checkbook. This was before the era of online banking (at least at my West Coast Bank), so I'm sure checking entries can be downloaded from the bank now.
When I did use Quicken for this back in the old days, fairly soon I got tired of how much time it took to manually type in entries from my checkbook. It was nice to know how much we were spending on various categories (kind of scary also), but I was spending too much time figuring that out.
Anyway, good advice. However, most months it just takes me a few minutes to balance my checkbook. And I actually enjoy the mental exercise. It's sort of the same reason I do a lot of yardwork that could be hired out. It isn't actually fun, but the physical labor is satisfying and healthy.
For now I think I'll improve my balancing system rather than go with Quicken, but I might change my mind if this sort of frustration happens again.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | July 31, 2010 at 08:12 AM
I so wish I could balance my checkbook like you do Brian. I try so hard but to no avail i spend 3 plus hours every month TRYING to balance my checkbook. What I usually end up doing is finding my errors, correcting them and just write down in my register what the bank says I have and go on. I never get that sense of pride about a balanced checkbook I so desire. I need help if you hear my plea - please point me in the right direction so I too can have the "balanced checkbook feeling!"
Posted by: lisa atchison | August 21, 2012 at 10:18 AM
lisa... the link I included in this post has some good advice:
Here's my own Most Important TIps:
-- balance every month. EVERY month. Letting the check register get out of date complicates the process.
-- circle the checkbook entry which shows the ending balance which matches the bank's statement, once you have everything balanced. This tells you when everything was fine. If the next month isn't fine, you know where to stop looking for mistakes (at the circled entry).
-- assume the bank statement is right, because it almost always is. Look for errors in your check register. Have a systematic way of checking for those errors. Mine goes something like:
1. Have I made sure that I have every debit (check/withdrawal) and every credit (deposit) that the bank has on the statement? Put a mark in the check register to indicate this, in the column meant for that mark.
2. Make sure you account for every unchecked debit and credit. Meaning, adjust the ending balance on the bank statement for this. The statement should have a place to do this on the back of the statement.
3. I then check for subtraction/addition errors in my check register. I start back at the circled entry, when everything balanced. Then, using a calculator, I check to make sure that I subtracted or added correctly. Often this is where my mistake is.
4. I also double check to make sure that what I wrote down in the check register is what the bank has for the debit/credit. Sometimes there is a difference, such as when the bank reads what I wrote what my bad handwriting differently, and debits a few cents differently.
The key thing is to remember that the check register HAS to balance if you have added in all the deposits on the statement, and subtracted all the checks on the statement, accounting for the outstanding debits and credits.
Note in this post how I indicate that all items have been cleared in the check register -- with a mark at the bottom of a register page. But occasionally (rarely, really) I find that actually a check hasn't cleared, like when a relative doesn't depoit a Christmas check for a long time.
Anyway, hope these tips help. A key is being calm, systematic, not looking upon balancing as a struggle, or a battle between you and the check register. It can be fun (almost), if you approach it in the right frame of mind.
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 21, 2012 at 11:09 AM