Lines and Bars

Given the title of this post, I’m sure you thinking we’re going to be discussing how to get into the hottest night club in town.  How to avoid all the lines and cover charges and how to keep your tab under a reasonable number for an evening of boozing with you and all your friends.  Well… sorry to disappoint you.  Lines and bars mean something quite different to me.  See I’m a data analyst by day, a quant if you will.  I build charts and graphs to display information and allow people to make inferences to understand the complex world of data and number crunching.  We’ll get into how this is topical in a bit.

Line Chart

A line graph, or time series, is something that we have all seen and understand.  See an example here:

Super easy right?  It’s simple you follow the line from left to right across the page.  The beautiful part about a line chart is that it allows you to track how the same data is doing against itself.  That blue line represents the same data on the left side of the chart as on the right side of the chart, the only difference is a passage of time.  Ideally, net worth, time spent with family, happiness level, all should be going up and to the right.

Bar Chart

So what about a bar chart, or column chart, or histogram if you want to get really technical?  Well that looks like this:

Again, super easy, the yellow one is the tallest, followed by orange, followed by blue and lastly, red.  Again, this shows the same data but on an aggregate across categories.  This is something you would use to track expenses across various categories, race finish times, etc.  There is really no ideal direction for these things, only that you want the good stuff to be taller than the bad stuff.

So What?

So, now that we’re talking the same language, why does this matter and how does it apply here?  In the past, I’ve talked to people about savings rates, net worth, income and what ever else they are concerned about when it comes to finances.  One of the most popular discussion topics I’ve heard is “How should I calculate my savings rate? What’s included?”  I think a bit of this stems from the MMM article about the shockingly simple math to ER.  We had a whole hour long discussion about whether you should include your 401k contributions and how to calculate income, and whether you need to worry about taxes.  And the fact of the matter is, it make no difference.  At least as long as you are judging yourself by a line graph.  If you stick with the line, you’re comparing you today to you two months ago and as long as you keep the calculation the same, that’s what’s important.  It’s the idea that you picked a number, and you kept it consistent and you tracked it as you moved through time.  Does it really matter if its 30% or 50% as long as you can compare where you are now to where you stood in the past?

People get so wrapped up about the actual number, they miss the point.  If you are trying to build a bar chart, so that you can compare yourself to your friends, then yes, it matters how it’s calculated, because you all have to do it the same way.  But, if you want to make sure that you are making progress toward your goal, and you want to make sure that you are better off than you were last month or year, stick with a line graph.  You’ll ultimately be happier that way, you’re comparing you to you, and you’re watching your progress, and you can see it.  Just pick a way to measure what you’re looking for and keep it consistent.  Don’t worry about other people and what they are doing and how they are performing.  I know this is easier said than done, but it’s something that the Mrs and I have been working on, and it ultimately makes us that much happier.  I hope you stick with the line chart, ignore all of the noise and make it go up and to the right.  What do you think bars or lines?


For all the other non-data folks out there.  Don’t ever use a pie chart for anything, the only pies that are worth anything are pecan, apple and pizza.


  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach January 13, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    So can I put in a ticket to have you build me a chart to see how I do each month compared to last year? 🙂 I think if I could achieve that that could be cool! 🙂 I was just having a conversation the other day again with one of my friends who travels…a lot…with what money I don’t know. She is going snowboarding EVERYWHERE, include heli snowboarding in Alaska. I was telling her that at work some people have taken so much time off without even having the hours accrued, which is something I never really have done because Gen X? Anyway she was saying that she doesn’t to look back at her life with regrets about the things she didn’t do…the experiences. I have to admit getting the FOMO feeling, especially when it’s been hard even leaving the house with all the cat issues. Anyway, the point is the comparing thing, even though I think we all try to avoid it, is a powerful thing that can really affect how you feel about things. It can be a heavy influence both for good and for bad. I think it’s a muscle we could all learn to develop better, ya know? Or maybe that’s just me? 🙂

    • Mr WoW January 13, 2017 at 4:29 pm

      Yes, I can help you with that… You can also use PersonalCapital. They have a very nice area chart (basically a line chart with the area underneath colored in) at the top that tracks net worth. But as far as other things, weight loss, tv watching time, anything you are looking to track I would stick with a line.

      You’re right, it’s hard to stop comparing yourself to others, especially when you hear their stories and what they are doing. But it’s a matter of remembering they are on their path and you are on yours. It’s also just a matter of staying away from the comparison, again, easier said than done. Here’s an idea, it comes directly from Your Money or Your Life, put some graph paper on your fridge. And every month put a dot that shows your 4% of your Net Worth and your expenses and connect them to the previous month. You can watch those lines converge, and once the 4% line crosses the expense line, you’re set, the end. Then every time you’re out with friends and they talk about how the blew their entire pay check going skiing in Aspen and you feel horrible, you go home and grab a beer, and there it is… your lines, your progress, your dream staring you right in the face, and it’s a reminder that you are getting closer to your goal and you’re closer than you were last month/year. That’s not to say be a miser and live life as a hermit, but it is to say, make conscious decisions about what’s valuable to you.


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: