A personal budgeting story.
TL;DR — just visit the newest version of Halfdollar.
Becoming an Adult
In my early-to-mid twenties, I began managing many expenses like rent, utility bills, software subscriptions, etc. and multiple sources of income like a full-time job and freelance contracts. As a very organizational person, I needed a way to understand at any time how much money I might have left over any given month, since some months I might be in the negative, and others I would be in the positive. So it was important to be able to manage my finances so I felt comfortable each day with what I needed to spend.
Let me first recognize that the ability to have positive leftover amounts at the end of a month is a privilege, and I’m thankful for the moments I’ve had a job, and haven’t, for all the things I’ve learned that has helped me manage my finances.
In order to manage my incoming and outgoing transactions, I decided to create a simple Google spreadsheet that included a couple simple formulas for month to month management.
- Total Income — sum all income transactions
- Total Expenses — sum all outgoing transactions
- Leftover Amount — subtract Total Expenses from Total Income
Creating this spreadsheet enabled me to see what I had leftover to spend at any moment. I realized that just being able to visualize in written format, from logging a transaction myself, opened my eyes to how I was spending money, which in result allowed me to adjust my spending habits and save more money.
I would talk to my friends about this personal budgeting project that I was calling Halfdollar, which came from the idea of saving space and time with your money by folding it in half. They began asking me to help them build their own budget using the spreadsheet so they could save more money too.
Building a Product
Receiving affirmation from a few friends helped me to see the value that this tool had. I figured I should build this into a responsive web product so it could be presenting as a digital product that people could sign up for and use. I started sketching some ideas .
With the help of a couple friends, I built the first version of Halfdollar. It was a simple, responsive website which was just a glorified version of the spreadsheet, with the same formulas, but also with groups you could categorize your transactions into, and separate sections to input flexible or fixed transactions. People could see a demo of the budget without needing to sign up or even put in your email. This was intentional. Although it might’ve meant gathering less emails to blast later (which is not my M.O.), it meant giving people access to the product to see if it could work for them.
The mindset that if Halfdollar is the tool that helps you manage your finances best then great, use it, but if something else worked better for you, I encourage you to use that, has always been the mission. The goal with this project was never to just gain users or make money, but to help people gain financial stability.
Once the product was ready, I began testing it with a few friends, family, and first people I gathered their email addresses from a prelaunch website I put up to start gathering some traction. I used that beta version to test some simple interactions and gather feedback so I could iterate and prepare to release it to the public.
After a few revisions, I launched it on Product Hunt, before you could schedule your post, which meant waking up at 3am ET so it could be one of the first posts to be launched on the day. I launched it in the beginning of January, hoping people were thinking about starting to budget as a New Year resolution. It ended up being in the top five for the day, getting over 300 signups in the first day, which I felt quite proud of.
Since this was out in the world now, my next goal was to gather feedback from users so I could understand how to make it better. There were a couple ways I did this.
- I used Drift, an in app chat platform where users would message me for support, or with a feature request.
- For everyone that signed up, my email list grew much larger. I used Mailchimp to send everyone a Typeform survey that I created asking some simple questions about how they found Halfdollar, what features they were looking for, etc.
This survey was extremely helpful in learning what people were looking for out of Halfdollar, and what they liked about it that stood apart from other budgeting apps. Some feedback I heard, which honestly was just shocking, encouraging and completely humbling, was that some people used to use Mint, or YNAB, but preferred Halfdollar, even in this very simple form.
Using Typeform and sharing my positive thoughts about the process also landed me an interview with Typeform and an article about my story of Halfdollar on their blog.
The feedback results helped me understand some reasons why people enjoyed using Halfdollar. The main aspect people liked, was the manual input of transactions, since this helped them stay in tune with what was happening with their money. This also meant they didn’t have to connect a bank account. This led to the top feature request, currencies. Since many apps that require connection to a bank account, and most were based in the US using APIs like Plaid, it meant for most people, needing a US bank account. So I found that the majority of my user base was actually international.
Since nothing was connected to a bank, or an actual currency, and the amounts were just numbers representing a transaction, adding more currencies was a relatively easy addition. After adding in an input that users could type in their own currency symbol, and decide whether they want the symbol to appear on the left or right of the numeral, I started thinking about what was next.
Growing into a Startup
With all of the excitement of what I deemed success for the initial product, I thought it’s time to grow and move forward. I spoke with a good friend about the current product and the vision for Halfdollar, and he became my cofounder. We decided to bring Halfdollar to the next level, and the first step was becoming an actual startup.
We incorporated as a Delaware company through the Stripe Atlas program and hit the ground running. We created a handful of lists and documents to help us scope the future of the product. What features we would have, focused on many that other companies didn’t have, like sharing for example. What pricing plans we would create to help supplement the cost of Plaid, since we also wanted to be able to connect to banks now. At that time, it didn’t feel right having a budgeting app that didn’t allow you connect to a bank to get automatic transactions, even if the manual transactions feature was our bread and butter.
After many sketches and design trials, considering analytics and the different ways to input a transaction, categorize transactions, or switch budgets, we landed on a direction.
We developed this version of the product which included features like:
- Manual transactions
- Connect to a bank account/automatic transactions
- Share with anyone
- Organize using folders
- Create multiple budgets
- Search for transactions
- Custom currencies
- Custom budget timeframes
The page below shows the dashboard of the new application. It was simple, highlighting what you had leftover based on what was coming in and what was going out. Both the In and Out sections could be expanded into their own pages.
We began working with partners, like Shrinkabill, to generate some revenue, since the only other way we were going to pay our Plaid and database bills were either from paying users, partners, or from our own pockets. This project, though an incorporated businesses, remained a side project. My business partner and I had full-time jobs and did not want to take funding and be responsible to anyone else. We wanted to bootstrap the entire thing ourselves.
Inside the In and Out pages, users could create plans for their budget, view the difference between recurring transactions, and categorize them into groups.
The settings page was broken out into things you could change according to your budgets, your accounts, your groups, and personal.
The home page was kept minimally simple, to resemble the simplicity of the product. I started using Smallchat to manage message support, since it could integrate directly into Slack, where we kept the rest of our communications. We also used Mailchimp now to run email campaigns for helping to guide users on getting started after they would sign up. We started to gain some small amounts of traction with paying users, but we weren’t able to sustain it.
At the end of our journey, I was playing around with light and dark modes of a new interface.
The whole not taking funding thing really caught up to us. Though we had some paying users and partnerships in the works, our expenses were just way too much to compete in an ever-saturated market that was moving quicker than we were able. It was a tough decision, but we notified our users and shut the web app down. With that came the legalities of communicating to users, stopping all AWS and hosting systems, and closing down an incorporation, which was all a learning process.
Despite all of this, I still needed a way to manage my money.
So I audited everything that worked well, features we built or were planning to build, and went back to the basics. I recreated Halfdollar into a Google spreadsheet. With much less time and effort, I was able to accomplish building the Halfdollar with all of the ideal functionality using some simple and some complicated formulas, all on my own and inside an easily shareable and accessible by many spreadsheet. I thought to myself, well, maybe there’s something here.
I began testing the budget template out on myself, as well as consulting with friends and colleagues again. Through a lot of feedback and realization for different functionality, and working out bugs in the formulas over many months, I landed on a version I was happy with, that worked quite well.
Then came a simple website I could build myself to advertise the new and improved Halfdollar. I included a link to a how-to video, a way to access and request different currencies, illustrations by the amazing Gloria Wan who went to the same college I did, and a simple FAQ section. I also created a Slack community that people could join to request to features, ask any questions, or just chat about budgeting.
I learned that if you change the end of a shared Google Sheet, from /edit or /view to /copy, it would prompt an invitation to create a copy of the document, which made the ability for people to start their own template right away very easy. The first thing you land on when you create your copy is an instructional page to help educate on the different terms to use and things to pay attention to.
Also included is an example month to guide users on how to build their own budget. They can refer back to this to remember how everything works.
After working hard to create all of these different assets, I launched Halfdollar 2.0 on Product Hunt, this time ranking 3rd of the day. I received a lot of great feedback and will continue to update the budget template once a year with new features, released at the end of each year. So far I’ve created currencies for people who have requested theirs everywhere from South Africa to Brazil, Malaysia to Switzerland, Qatar to Norway. The Slack community has over 50 people.
Building for the Future
People have asked if this will continue to remain free, will it become an app, what we do with user information. First of all, since the product is simply a Google spreadsheet that users create a copy of, I never collect user information. The goal of this project to help people manage their money, not to make money of my own. The spreadsheet version of Halfdollar will always be free, to be accessed by as many people as possible. I do have ideas to build a web and mobile version of the app that could be something that is paid for, but remains a manual input application focused on reaching as many people internationally as possible.
I’m not sure if or when I would create that, but it could look something like…