One of our more popular episodes recently was about a better way to use spreadsheets in your budgeting, so we thought we’d share a written version of the highlights. Peter Polson and Tim Johns from Tiller, tillerhq.com, come down to the basement to share how Tiller sets themselves apart from their competition and security of their product.
What does Tiller do that other sites such as Mint don’t do?
Peter: There are some great tools out there, and Mint especially is fascinating. I was excited about it when it came out in 2007 because it pulled a lot of the value from Quicken (personal finance software) and put it on the web. Intuit acquired Quicken a couple years later, so up until Mint there hadn’t been much feature evolution since then.
We think about things differently than Mint. The first is we think a lot about categories. We believe users need to define their own categories. We suggest a few, but ultimately it would be best for users to delete our categories and build their own. A lot of competitor tools will pre-populate with a 100 or more categories. You can add more, but you can’t delete them. Fewer categories are better and should reflect the life of each user.
We do not auto-categorize expenses for our users, either. This was an important decision for us. We don’t believe we can actually guess the intent of each purchase. That is what we think about in categories. For example, I may go to the hardware store and buy a sled for my cousin. That is a gift. I may go there the next day and buy gardening supplies for our home. That is a household expense. There is no way for a computer to easily see the difference between those two buying decisions. We don’t think of a category as a way to define a merchant. We think of it as your intent when you make that purchase. By categorizing by hand, there is a way we built our templates inherent in Google Sheets that let users quickly categorize by hand…15 different things in 20 or so seconds.
Lots of studies have shown that people aren’t in touch with their spending. Many transactions are a swipe, click, or auto pay, which take the tactile feeling of spending away. With the simple act of categorizing, users are pulled in and we’re required to look at each transaction and stay aware.
Lastly, the way we built our templates…our reports are all based on a weekly time frame. The science around behavior change is that we need quick feedback to make change. Lots of existing programs use a monthly view, which is simply too long of a time horizon to help with decision making around behavior change.
When creating the spreadsheet can I add in target data? Can I set goals that I want to achieve?
Tim: Absolutely. One of the advantages of using a sheet is, if you were to follow a particular framework, for example, and you already know what kind of categories you want to use because of that, you can create the charts and categories you need and manipulate the spreadsheet in a way that fits that framework that you have chosen to follow. The advantage of using a sheet is that you can fit it to what you want.
How often does my data update on the sheet?
Tim: Right now it updates daily in the morning. The way the global markets work it’s the best we can do right now. Eventually, as we get information faster, we will increase that.
With cloud computing and storage now the normal thing, I have to ask….what is your security like? Can you see all my trips to the Olive Garden?
Peter: Security is a really important tenet for Tiller because of the user data. It is also important because a lot of our earliest users were friends so we wanted to make sure the solution was secure. Finally, we did not want to intentionally or mistakenly see others data. Tim and I don’t even see each other’s data and we are both in the system.
Our product is subscription based so it is the user’s data, not ours. We do not sell, share, nor see it.
Tim: I want to separate security from privacy; we live and die by both of those. They are incredibly important to us. Security in finance is important to everyone. Peter and I both have experience working with wireless carriers. We were dealing with millions of people’s sensitive information….not just their financial information, but other important information, as well. From a security perspective, we protect that. The main idea is that we protect everything by encrypting it at rest (where we store it) and on the wire (receiving from a financial institution or sending it out to Google). We use SSL. We follow industry best practices there.
With privacy–for example Peter mentioned we can’t look at each others data–in addition to following the industry’s best practices of encrypting the data at rest, it’s also anatomized. We sub encrypted some fields. For example, I cannot run a database query and look at transactions for a particular merchant. Looking at sheets is also something we do not do. However, if you want to share a sheet with us for tips we would be happy to take a look at it, but we don’t go in proactively and do that. You would have to give us permission to look at your sheet.
What is the breadth of data that you pull from? Is it just my bank or do you pull from all the assists that I have?
Tim: We pull from all of those. The solution is really around your savings and transaction accounts. There is one tab on the spreadsheet that has all of your transactions. Everyday as you have those transactions (credit cards and debt cards) we add in new rows for each transaction.
We have a separate tab with your balances. If you’ve added accounts, like an investment account, you could see transactions in that account. It is not designed, as of today, to track your portfolio.
Peter: Ha! I haven’t wanted much awareness at a day-to-day level with what is going on with my investments. That just causes stress.
Want more? Listen to the podcast episode for further investigation of Joe’s attempt at “Dad humor” and the role reversal where Peter and Tim ask Joe questions. Learn about Peter and Tim’s history with Microsoft money and the Quicken spreadsheet along with their inspirations for creating Tiller. Go to www.tillerhq.com/stackingbenjamins to set yourself up with Tiller.
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