Rainbow, Binary, Debt Friendship Bracelets

or, How one modern Brooklyn couple tracks expenses, fashionably and mathematically.

Like many modern couples, Ben and I like to split costs evenly: restaurants, groceries, drinks, cabs, and all the other mysterious ways Brooklyn regularly withdraws money from our wallets.

Unlike many modern couples, Ben and I keep track of expenses with rainbow, binary, debt friendship bracelets.

What’s that you say? Rainbow, Binary, Debt Friendship Bracelets?

We’ve devised a fun, mathy and fashionable system to keep track of how much we owe each other. It’s simple: We have bracelets that represent the first 6 positions in binary plus 1 more bracelet that you wear if you’re in debt. When we owe each other money, which is most of the time, we put on the bracelets that represent how much is owed.

Here’s how the system works.

Ben and I made bracelets for the values of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 32, which are the first 6 positions in binary. With these bracelets, we can have debt of up to $63. We’ve found that works well for our regular costs. (And for larger expenses, like Amtrak or airline tickets, we circumvent the bracelet world and just Paypal each other).

To help us remember which color corresponded with each number, we used the good ol’ ROY G BIV order of the rainbow. So Red = 1, Orange = 2, Yellow = 4, Green = 8, Blue = 16, Violet = 32. (We skipped Indigo, because what is Indigo, really? Does anyone know?)

We also have a white bracelet that one person wears when they are in debt to the other person.

We had considered a system with beads, but weren’t sure logistically how we’d hold onto the beads when they weren’t in use. This seemed like a nice compromise of form and function.

In addition to payments, we’ll sometimes make small bets. Recently, I bet Ben a red ($1) that my friend in labor would give birth to a boy. I lost. And speaking of red, if I’m ever just wearing a red bracelet, people sometimes ask if it’s a Kabbalah bracelet and “What’s the deal with Kabbalah bracelets?” I don’t know the answer, so instead, they end up learning about binary.

Here’s some binary practice!

1. In this case, we’re wearing a blue and a red, and I also have the white. What do I owe Ben?

On the cool antique table my Aunt Lois gave me

Red=1 and Blue=16. Add them together for 17!

2. Now Ben has the white, so he owes me a purple and a yellow. What does that mean?

36! You got it!

3. Advanced: I mentioned we could have debt up to $63. Why’s that?

That’s the sum of all the bracelets! Nice work, you’re learning binary.

The Perplexity We’ve Encountered

We’ve been explaining this system to people for nearly a year, and a few frequently asked questions have emerged. I’ll address them here.

Why don’t you…

…just have one person wear the bracelets when they owe the money? We like having matching bracelets. That’s the “friendship” part of it. It’s nice to look at my wrist and know Ben is wearing the same thing. And we have the white “debtor’s bracelet” to keep track of who owes who.
…just use Venmo or Splitwise? These are great products that also aim to take the drudgery of equitably sharing expenses and make it more fun. (So many sushi emojis sent to my coworkers for lunch.) But simple answer here: Ben doesn’t have a smart phone. And even if he does one day succumb, I like this system better for two people sharing many expenses.
…just split the check with credit cards? We do that when it’s available. We’re not unreasonable. But many of our favorite Brooklyn haunts, like Noodle Pudding and Sunny’s, are cash only. And if we’re at the bodega or grocery store, it just makes sense for one person to pay.
…just trade off paying and call it good? We tried that for awhile, but our nightly dinner can range from soba noodles in broth to a multi-course event at the aforementioned Noodle Pudding. There wasn’t an easy way to trade off and feel like we were actually coming out even close to even, without remembering a lot. This frees the mind.
…just count in base 10 like the rest of us? It would take a lot more bracelets.

…just stop being so Brooklyn-y / Nerdy / Crafty / etc.? Yeah, yeah we know. We like it this way.

Finished your questions? Want to use this system yourself? Here’s how to do it:

1. Find a partner who also is interested in a nerdy, crafty system of financial management.

2. Once that simple step is complete, head to your local craft store and grab yourself a multicolored pack of embroidery floss (friendship bracelet thread). Or order it from the internet.

3. Decide how much debt you want your system to support. (Ours goes up to $63. With just one more band, you can increase to $127.) Then choose a color scheme that is easy to remember. We found the rainbow pretty simple. And pick a color to represent the debtor bracelet.

4. Set aside about an hour to make your bracelets. We made simple braids, but if you want to do something more complicated, set aside more time.

Ben making bracelets on my floor.

5. Tie the bracelets onto each other. Play around with sizing on the first one. You’ll want to pick a size that will stay on, but you can also easily remove. (We’ve found it’s best to remove them before showering or doing dishes… otherwise they stay sort of gross and damp.) We found that a good size is the distance around your knuckles if you make a fist.

6. Entrust one person to be the keeper of the bracelets. One person should either keep them in their wallet, or in their pocket at all times.

We looped them around hair ties and keep them in Ben’s back pocket.

7. After one person pays for something, determine how much the other person owes and put on the bracelets.

Then you can wear them everywhere!

A recent wedding. Debt bracelets, on.

Tried it out? Made some modifications? We’d love to know how it went!

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)