As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Jeff. Jeff is an aspiring advertising professional with goals to start his own business. He is a reformed saver who blogs regularly at Stretchy Dollar in addition to his weekly column at Consumerism Commentary.

Jeff

There are so many different ways to organize, prioritize, and classify your tasks and responsibilities. You’d probably need a couple years just to sort through all of them on your own. You can have an organizer on your computer, your phone, in your pocket, or a notebook. If you’re short of paper, you can just scribble on your hand.

Even with all of the new ways to get organized, the most effective tool for me is still the simple, classic “To Do” list. My to-do list is nothing fancy, just a list of things that I need to accomplish. For some reason, though, this list motivates me to be smart with my time and get things done.

One of the reasons these lists are so effective is because they help you define what needs to be done. One of my favorite things to put at the top of a to-do list is “start a to-do list” — that way I can cross something out right away! Nothing like building momentum right off the bat.

In fact, checklists are so powerful that they inspired an excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

This principle can be applied in any aspect of life. You can use a to-do list at work, at home, or even in relation to different goals you have. My wife and I even have a sort of ‘Financial To-Do List,’ covering our money goals. It has helped us get started and avoid wasting time.

A to-do list is particularly power when it comes to finances.

The Benefits of a Financial Checklist

Stay Organized

The list helps us know what bills need to be paid and when they’re due, what major tasks or purchases we might have coming up, and — perhaps most importantly — when we’re going to be paid. A well-defined to-do list answers all of the questions about what needs to be done and when. This helps you use your time more effectively.

Get More Done

Because we’re using our time more effectively, we can use time in more productive ways. For example, we might have spent hours poring over our budget or trying to find the electric bill. Instead, our newfound organization allows us to avoid these little time wasters and streamlines the process. We can get back to making money, fine-tuning our savings strategies, and looking for new ways to cut back. Or, we can quit thinking about money altogether and just go enjoy ourselves for a bit.

Meet Your Goals

We have all sorts of tasks on our list, both big and small. An easy way to design a strategy like this (if you’re using a word processing program or a notebook) is to use a list:

  • Big Goal 1
  • Little Goal A
  • Little Goal B
  • Big Goal 2

For example, if your big goal is to save $1,000 for your emergency fund, your To-Do list could look like this:

  • Save $1,000 Emergency Fund
  • Save $75 from each bi-weekly paycheck for 4 months ($600)
  • Take lunch to work 2/wk for 4 months and add savings ($25/wk) to emergency fund

See how easy that is? Now you’ve got a goal, and you know exactly what you need to do for it! Of course, you can substitute in anything you like.

The beauty of these lists is that they are completely scalable — that is, they grow with you. If you finish your emergency savings goal, you can just start your next goal: “Pay off car debt” or whatever it is on the next line. Figure out how you’re going to do it, and break the big “to-do” down into smaller tasks. Then, you’re well on your way to leveraging your simple list as an effective financial tool.

The Financial Checklist

Your specific to-do list will depend on your circumstances. That said, here are some Financial Checklist ideas to get you started:

Money Management Checklist

  • Create a budget
  • Compare your budget to actual spending
  • Balance your checkbook
  • Balance your credit card account
  • Conduct a spending audit

Credit & Debt Checklist

  • Check your credit score (here’s how)
  • Check your credit report for errors
  • Refinance credit card debt to 0% (here are current 0% offers)
  • Consider refinancing school loans
  • Consider refinancing a mortgage
  • Use the debt avalanche to pay down your debt

Banking & Credit Cards

  • Eliminate checking account fees
  • Confirm that your savings account offers a high yield (here are some options)
  • Set up direct deposit
  • Make sure your credit cards pay excellent rewards (here are our favorite cash back cards)

Investing

  • Check the fees of your investments
  • Confirm your asset allocation aligns with your investment goals
  • Rebalance your portfolio
  • Max out your 401k
  • Max out your IRA
  • Consider an HSA if you have a high deductible insurance plan

Tools

You don’t need anything special to start a to-do list. You can put it on a piece of paper in your wallet, a whiteboard in your kitchen, or keep it on your phone or computer. The “Financial To-Do” list is a completely customizable, easy-to-use money (and life) tool for anyone.

That being said, there is one free tool worth considering: Asana. Asana is a free online tool that tracks tasks. It allows you to create a team and assign tasks to team members. For couples, it can be a great way to share, save, delegate, and organize information on anything.

There are several reasons why Asana is perfect for a financial checklist:

  • It’s free
  • It’s easy to use
  • Tasks can be scheduled to recur on a regular basis (e.g., rebalance your investments once a year)
  • You can attach spreadsheets and other files to a task
  • You can leave comments for each task, perfect for communicating with your significant other

However you approach a Financial Checklist, and whatever tools you use, it can be a great way to improve your finances over the next year.

{ 1 comment }

Learning and Saving

This article was written by in Family and Life. 11 comments.

There are a lot of things in the world I know nothing about. Not knowing about something can be very expensive. Allow me to illustrate…

The brake light came on in our car a couple of weeks ago, and we started looking around at different places we could have them checked. We were a bit confused, because just a month earlier, when the car had been in for a yearly inspection, the tech told us that the brakes “passed with flying colors”. The funny thing is, two months earlier a different tech at the same shop had told us to change them soon, since we only had about 10% left on the pad.

Needless to say, I was perplexed. It just so happens that the brakes on our car are one of the things I knew nothing about.

After calling around and comparing prices, we found out that we were looking at about $150 more than we were expecting. I was hesitantly thinking about taking it to one shop when I decided to call my father-in-law. He’s very handy and knows quite a bit about cars. He offered to take a look at the car when we were up at his house over the weekend.

He pulled off the tires, and was able not only to teach me how to tell if the brakes were wearing out, but how to change and care for them. I also learned about rotating tires and how to tell if the shop really rotated them like they told us they did (and they didn’t!)

This simple trip saved us about $200 this weekend, and will save us much more in the future. I feel comfortable changing the brakes on the car, and I also know quite a bit more about how it works and how to maintain it.

There are some of you who are reading this right now who could probably change the brakes on your car in your sleep. But what happens when your computer needs to be repaired, or your daughter needs braces, or you need to find a yoga class on Monday nights?

Far too often we trust what we’re told by companies and what we see in advertisements and think it’s our only option. Just like I learned to be proactive about my finances, I learned that I can do more than just blindly take the car to the shop down the road and get ripped off. It’s a simple and obvious lesson, but one that I think more people could learn from.

We each have a built-in network of advisors – family, friends, co-workers – who are experts in areas we are not. Their insights and advice can not only help us learn, but save money as well. Learning to turn to these people is something that isn’t always natural, but can be very beneficial. These people are often more than willing to share their advice and knowledge, and will do so because they want to help you.

What are some of the ways you use the people around you to learn and save money?

{ 11 comments }

Be Financially Proactive

This article was written by in Money Management. 6 comments.

Before I got married, I was never really vocal about problems I had with companies. If the food I ordered at a restaurant was the wrong order, I usually wouldn’t say anything. If I had extra fees in my checking account at the end of the month, I’d chalk it up to coincidence and think it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t like asking people for things I didn’t know for sure were mine.

After my wife and I married, and we became 100% responsible for our bills, somewhere inside me an internal light switch flipped on. Maybe it was because the money paying for these products and services was mine, or maybe I just got fed up with getting jerked around, but I started to find that there were a lot of things I could do to get rid of a fee, fix a problem, or simply lower my bill.

1. Ask productive questions. Don’t ask yes or no questions when you’re on the phone; find new ways to express what you want. Saying things like:

  • “I’d really appreciate it if you could do…”
  • “What can we do about…?”
  • “Please remove this fee/change this thing.”
  • “I’m considering switching services, what can you do to help me stay with (company)?”

It’s so easy, especially over the phone, to say no. Don’t give them that chance.

2. Be direct. Sometimes it can be intimidating to call someone and tell them you think they made a mistake or that you need something to change. I think this is the main reason I originally hated calling. However, I had a great experience with a company that helped me to realize it’s better to ask and be told no than to not ask at all.

My wife and I are involved in a start-up company and have been making more and more phone calls. Two months ago, we realized early on that we were going to run out of minutes on our cell phone plan, and we wanted to change our plan and buy more minutes. When I called, I told the person on the other end of the phone exactly what was going on. The customer service rep told me that I wouldn’t be able to change our plan until the end of the month, but that she could give us each 900 free bonus minutes. This saved us, as paying for minutes over our monthly amount would have been killer.

If you find you start running into problems when you’re asking for what you need, find something you can use as leverage. One of the best things (if it’s true) is your long history as a customer of the company. If you’ve done a good job of paying your bills on time and haven’t caused any major problems, they’ll be more likely to want to help you out. Be persistent and don’t let a simple ‘no’ deter you.

3. Know the situation. Paying attention to bills, letters from the companies you work with and deals offered by other companies can help you when negotiating. Because of the high cost of customer acquisition, many companies will be willing to cut you a deal to keep you as a loyal customer. It’s also much harder to dispute a fee you received a letter about two weeks earlier.

Make sure to keep track of who you talk to, when you talked to them, and exactly what they told you. This information will be very useful if you have to call in about the same situation again. Sometimes companies make honest mistakes, and usually they’re happy to change them.

4. Be realistic. Don’t chew out the person on the other end of the phone. They didn’t cause your problem. Even though fees or a company mistake might have you frustrated, yelling at the customer service rep makes them want to help you even less.

Having worked in customer service before, I can say that I worked so much harder to help people who were frustrated but reasonable, rather than the people who just called and yelled into the phone.

In today’s economy, there are few things that aren’t negotiable in some way. Doing some research and then making a phone call could save you quite a bit of money. Don’t let these huge companies jerk you around. It might be easier to just sit tight and pay the fees you don’t understand and eat the food you didn’t order, but it sure is cheaper to do something about it.

How about you? Has there been a time when you’ve been able to get a problem solved or a fee reversed?

{ 6 comments }

Almost everyone has an story about the annoyance of overdraft fees.

We all had cause to rejoice after reading Smithee’s recent post about banks backing off of overdraft fees. However, banks, being the business that they are, are already scheming for new ways to wring money out of us.

An AP article on a local news site about new ‘business ideas’ banks are considering caught my attention. Obviously, banks exist to make money, and the quickly-fading overdraft fees are an easy source of income for these businesses. The AP article I read highlighted the fact that now that some banks are becoming more lenient and allowing for a bit more wiggle-room when it comes to overdrafts, they might be trying to stick it to you in other ways.

Banks may begin adding fees or minimum balances to checking accounts, or may charge for other services they offer. One way banks may look to make the best of this situation is to offer a variety of new products, all very similar but with different fees and charges built in.

Interestingly enough, the recent credit card legislation may have paved the way for new regulations on debit cards, as well.

The days of automatically enrolling every customer in overdraft protection may be at an end.

“Such changes could help offset the steep losses banks face as they overhaul their overdraft programs, which have come under intensifying scrutiny in the past year. Critics say automatic enrollment in overdraft programs, which has become an industry standard, is deceptive because most people assume they can only spend money they have when using debit cards.”

While banks will begin placing a whole new emphasis on attracting new customers and driving them to their more ‘lucrative’ products, it’s important to monitor your accounts and statements carefully over the next few months to be aware of any new charges or requirements placed on your accounts.

Being aware will help you save money and will avoid any of those annoying fees.

Source: Where Will Banks Make Up Lost Overdraft Fees?

{ 2 comments }

Outlet Malls – Great Buy or Money Drain?

by Jeff

When I was younger, my family and I would make the annual back-to-school pilgrimage to the outlet malls located in a city about 20 minutes from where we lived. As kids, we were always excited to go, because we knew the deals would make it much easier to persuade our parents to let us get […]

7 comments Read the full article →

Wedding Donations, Smart or Tacky?

by Jeff

The recession has forced almost everyone to make a change in one way or another. For one Atlanta couple, their wedding has turned into more than they had anticipated. Vanessa Caldwell and Cole Parker are getting married on November 11, and needed a way to cover their expenses. They decided to turn to their friends and […]

41 comments Read the full article →

MyIDScore.com: What’s an ID Score?

by Jeff

If you’re a frequent reader of this (or any other personal finance blog) you’re familiar with credit scores and credit reports, and the advice to check them often. These resources detail your financial history and provide a measure of your supposed financial risk. They’re also useful tools to determine the safety of your identity. However, […]

1 comment Read the full article →

Are You Sure Your Credit Card Still Works?

by Jeff

After we got married, my wife and I combined our finances. We moved most of our money from a local brick and mortar bank to a bank that we primarily access online and over the phone. This arrangement has worked out well for us, but it does mean some accounts that were previously utilized many […]

2 comments Read the full article →

Is Buying a Foreclosed Property Realistic?

by Jeff

My wife and I enjoy our apartment, but we’re preparing for the day when we can make the jump to a house. We could use the extra space, and we’re ready to get away from some of the ticky-tack regulations and rules that landlords love to use. Financially, however, our preparation is lacking. It isn’t […]

11 comments Read the full article →

Alumni Association Perks

by Jeff

As you’re reading this, I’ll probably be standing in a line somewhere or sitting listening to a speaker at my graduation ceremony. Yes, my long journey to a bachelor’s degree is finally at an end. Since I’m graduating at the end of summer, instead of in the spring, it kind of feels like I’m sneaking […]

2 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 212