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Money Management


When I worked for a large corporation, I was around people who liked to operate their business responsibilities with a sense of urgency. Every little task was important, and they ran around the office like the company’s stock price depended on the speed at which they completed their tasks.

It’s not a terrible way to operate, but in reality, in the particular area of the company in which I worked, I felt it resulted in a lot of wasted energy. The company’s performance was completely unrelated to how quickly one would fast-walk from office to office. The tasks we performed, all internal to the company with no connection to the money-making business areas, were not critical. Much of the urgency was for show, and I wasn’t interested in playing that kind of game.

That’s probably why I never really fit in with the corporate world.

Real urgency, however, it was often prevents the important things from getting done. In business, constant interruptions, bad management, or disorganization all can create urgent matters, and when you address those urgent matters, you have to take time and effort away from important matters. For example, you may be working on next month’s financial report, a report that will be released to the public and has an impact to investors. You’re maintaining your concentration as much as possible on the numbers you need to analyze, when you receive a call from your boss who wants to analyze the company’s use of airline travel and needs information from one year’s worth of expense report, and he wants the details by the end of the day.

You break your concentration to focus on this urgent request although it is relatively unimportant compared to the financial report. And imagine you are often interrupted to deal with urgent requests like these, continually affecting your ability to work on the projects that are important in the long-term.

I’m not sure where I first saw this matrix, but it has come up in different areas of my working life. Projects, tasks, and goals can be plotted on a two dimensional plane where the two dimensions are urgency and importance. The same grid, and the need to take some time and think about your activities in relation to these two dimensions, comes in handy when dealing with life outside of work, including in personal finance.

Plotting your financial activities

Every household is faced with expenses that need to be paid on a monthly basis. You can even tie Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into this concept. You need shelter, food, and water. These are urgent needs, and they are important as well. The need to pay these bills falls in the “critical activities” quadrant.

If you can’t pay your rent, you could be evicted. If you can’t pay your mortgage, you bank could foreclose on your house. If you can’t buy food and water, you will die. These are critical. Look at the importance dimension as how something relates to your long-term goals. Obviously, you can’t reach your long term goals if you don’t have sustenance.

What happens when you find yourself dealing with a surprise hospital bill? This is an urgent matter, but when you aren’t covered by insurance, it creates an interruption in your life.

If your goal is to be a professional freelance photographer, you will have to deal with expenses pertaining to your business. Because photography expenses, which could involve the basic equipment you need, are tied directly to your goal, they rank high in importance, but lower in urgency than your basic survival needs. If you want to settle down with your partner and buy a house in a nice location, this would also rank relatively high in importance, and for the most part, low on urgency.

One thing people often forget is that an emergency fund needs to be ranked towards the top of both the importance and urgency scale.

Dealing with interruptions

On each dimension, there is more than just “high” and “low.” Every activity can be plotted anywhere on the spectrum. Here is a sample map based on on a quick evaluation on typical expenses a family might see. Your plot may be slightly different depending on your household’s expenses and how they may relate to your life goals and your needs, but as you can see, there is room for interpretation.

Expenses in the top right corner are your basic human needs, necessary to live and to be physically and mentally able to tackle your goals. The top left corner quadrant contains those expenses necessary to achieve your goals but that represent less immediate needs.

Those interruptions that affect your finances, often on a temporary basis and that have little to do with your personal and professional goals, are placed in the bottom right quadrant. These expenses are the reason development of an emergency fund is considered a critical activity; that will help you deal with urgent interruptions. The bottom left quadrant is reserved for anything remaining — expenses that are relatively meaningless towards your goals and have no critical need.

These are distractions — and there’s nothing wrong with having distractions. When you are in solid financial condition and have taken care of your critical activities, important goals, and interruptions, you can allow yourself to work with distractions.

Urgency trumps importance.

When a household has limited funds, as they might if the sole income-earner is working a minimum wage job, the importance dimension often becomes irrelevant. Living paycheck-to-paycheck or worse, a family may never see the left three-quarters of the map. There may be no money left of a weekly basis to tackle anything to the left transportation.

If you don’t have hospital bills or home repairs to contend with, that might be enough to survive, but if you do find yourself with unexpected expenses, you have to make choices between these bills and keeping the power on in your house and taking the chance of being evicted for not paying rent or losing your house for neglecting your mortgage.

Financial planners and others giving away free advice often suggest shaving some percentage of income off each paycheck to begin the establishment of an emergency fund, which can help deal with urgent expenses that have little bearing on long-term goals, but they often don’t realize that this can be nearly impossible — if not completely impossible — when dealing with threats to shelter, health, and safety, brought on by being unable to deal with the expenses in the upper right quadrant.

As an article on CNN Money recently pointed out, many people assume that families don’t save — that includes saving for an emergency fund, for retirement, and for education — because they lack self-control. The assumption is that they are more likely to pay for distractions than fund their important goals. While there are certainly some cases where distractions are valued above goals that manifest in the future, but that’s often because they have to remain focused on urgent expenses, and when they aren’t, immediate satisfaction relieves some of the stress of urgency.

For the most part, the article argues, scarcity of attention in the culprit. Planning for the future — dealing with the important but less urgent expenses — takes away your attention. Activities that are more important require more attention. If a household gets to the point where it is thinking beyond the most urgent expenses, the attention that remains may only be enough for less important activities.

What keeps you from focusing on the areas of life that are important but not urgent? Would you draw your urgency/importance map differently?

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You can’t discuss financial systems without addressing the elephant in the room: the budget. As much as everyone hates the process of creating and adhering to a spending plan, the budget is simply the best money system for building wealth over the long term.

The underlying principle of a budget is the key to all financial improvement: spend less than you earn. On paper, it’s a simple concept based on arithmetic. If you want to have more wealth at the end of this month than you had at the end of last month, your outflows — all your spending — must remain less than your inflows — all your income.

A budget makes it easier to stick to this concept. After the system becomes ingrained, you don’t even have to think about it. Well, you can think less about your spending with the knowledge that as long as you stick to your budget, your wealth will continue to grow.

Designing a budget that fits and works

At the turn of the century, my financial situation was a disaster. When I finally hit my rock bottom — I lost a job, I lost my apartment, I lost my girlfriend — my situation shocked me into a reality check. I had been ignoring everything negative, living in some fantasy in which things I ignore would not exist. I was an adult — young, but an adult — and I knew what a budget was, but someone, and in this case my father, had to sit me down and figure out a budget.

We worked out the numbers on the back of an envelope or a piece of paper. I figured out how much I had to pay on my student loans each month — a bill I was ignoring. We determined my expenses precisely. Before long I got a new job and was on my way to living within that budget.

It was a quick and dirty budget, but perhaps because I understood the importance, especially at a critical financial time for me, I managed to shift my attitude towards my money management and stay within the budget.

Sometimes, budgets need to be quick and dirty like that. For me, the effectiveness comes from the fear of repeating a very difficult situation, not necessarily the budget system itself. Moving back in with my father, although he was gracious, was something I did not want to have to do again. I was motivated to stay on top of my finances.

Without fear’s strong motivation, the pressure to budget isn’t as strong. That’s where designing a good system comes in — you don’t have to rely on motivation as much as habitual behavior.

Base your budget on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Use the pyramid, with physiological needs like food, water, and shelter at the bottom, to prioritize your budget categories. Paying the rent and buying groceries comes first. Self-fulfillment, like hobbies, television, and the internet, comes last. If you have to reduce or eliminate a category from your budget, make sure it’s something from the top of the pyramid.

Use simple figures. Yes, you could use software like Quicken to monitor your budget. You can even use a system where you create email alerts to warn you when you’re getting close to your spending limit by linking your bank accounts to your financial applications. This can easily get overwhelming, and when you believe your can’t handle a system that’s too complicated, you won’t stick to it.

Rather than budgeting $200 for dining out each month, for example, limit yourself to four restaurant meals outside of the home. It’s easier to count the number of restaurant meals than to track the dollars you spend — but you should be tracking your expenses and income anyway.

Encourage flexibility. One reason people avoid budgets is because spending plans are seen as strict. Budgets don’t have to strict; in fact, they’re often more effective when they are flexible.

  • Spent less than budgeted in one category? Put the excess into an online savings account or allow yourself more room to spend in that category in the next month.
  • Need more in your budget for a one-time event? Borrow from a category in which you’ll underspend this month.
  • Consider budgeting in some categories on a yearly basis rather than a monthly basis. Some categories might benefit from a weekly or even daily budget.

Sticking to the budget.

The perfect plan can be fantastic on paper, but it’s worthless if you don’t stick to it. The beauty of a good system is that it shouldn’t require motivation every day. It should be a natural part of your life. Part of that is turning the budget into a habit, and part is incorporating the budget into your overall philosophy of life.

Review daily. After you put your kids to sleep or when you’re otherwise relaxing after dinner, collect your receipts from the day and have a little discussion with yourself or your partner about your finances. Try to notice anything out of the ordinary. I used to spend this time every day entering receipts into Quicken, downloading transaction from my bank, and making sure all the information was correct. For many years, this was just a habit, and I could figure out right away if I was in danger of exceeding my budget.

Don’t spend a lot of time, but do it every weekday for a month. Even if you don’t like routines, and there was a time I avoided routine in my personal life as much as possible, make it happen.

Don’t be scared to talk about it. I’ve found that saying something out loud, or perhaps publishing a web site about progress, makes something real. You don’t have to share the details to help your approach to budgeting manifest. Because the budget is a convenient excuse, you have a reason to casually mention your approach to money. If a friend wants you to spend money you can’t, you can tell this friend, “It’s not in my budget.”

Just those five words can make you feel empowered about your financial choices while at the same time making your budget more real. If you keep the fact that you are paying attention to your spending to yourself, there is less pressure to abide by the guidelines you set for yourself. When you acknowledge out loud you have a plan and you’re motivated to stick to it, a fear of embarrassment or public failure can help compel you, or at least encourage you, to continue to make good decisions.

Once your budget becomes a money system ingrained in your approach to managing your money, it will help you build wealth over the long term without having to consciously think about spending less than you earn every day.

How has a budget helped you build your wealth?

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There are a number of excuses for ignoring the concept of budgeting for one’s own personal finances. Budgeting has a poor reputation. It’s not fun, it’s time-consuming, it’s depressing.

While budgeting can be one of the most important steps for beginning a journey towards financial independence, there’s a tendency to ignore this in favor of jumping into the stock market, saving for retirement, paying off debt, or even prescribing to the belief that owning a house is big positive step. These are certainly all good things to do, but understanding how much money you have coming in and where that money needs to go is basic knowledge that can help you better determine how you can invest, save, and pay off debt.

There is no way you can take on the responsibility of owning a home without a working knowledge of your income and expenses.

The ideas preventing people from starting a budgets are generally psychological or emotional, and not based on a lack of knowledge. Adults generally grasp the concept that you can only spend more than you have and that breaking this rule will have damaging long-term consequences. In shorter time frames, it’s harder to see these consequences. After all, you can sustain living on credit cards for some time, but eventually, you’ll have to pay the money back or face dire financial problems setting you back years. And just because someone can grasp the concept of additional and subtraction — the only necessary mathematics for budgeting — doesn’t mean they’re ready to consciously apply it to their own finances.

Getting over these psychological barriers is the first step, and that’s not going to come with more knowledge about a topic. There are some tricks to overcoming psychological barriers that I’ll write about in the future.

I often see budgets missing certain important categories, which indicates that even once people begin the process of tracking, predicting, and controlling their income and expenses, there are some holes in the plan that could end up damaging financial progress as much as neglecting the process of budgeting.

When is budgeting most important?

Budgeting is always important, but the benefits you gain from budgeting have more of an effect on your finances in certain situations.

  • If you’ve never created a budget before, budgeting has a high chance of being able to improve your finances. You will see things you never saw before regarding your spending. The little expenditures you may not notice on a day-to-day basis show up when you start to look at your spending in detail, and budgeting allows you to better control those money leaks.
  • If you don’t know if you’re getting richer each month, you have a budgeting problem. If you don’t know if your net worth is increasing each month, you need to start tracking your finances. That’s the purpose of the Naked With Cash series on Consumerism Commentary.
  • If you know you’re not getting richer each month, you are spending more than you’re earning. You’ll need to find a way to increase your income, decrease your expenses, or a mixture of both, and budgeting helps you figure that out. Keep in mind that growing your bank accounts is not the only goal in life. In fact, it’s not a real goal at all. But we are talking about growing your wealth, which should fit into a broader long-term strategy for your life.
  • If you are underpaid, you may be facing pressure to live a certain way that seems to be required within your community of peers, but you may not be able to afford that life as well as it appears others are affording it. If you work in an industry where image is important, you’re going to need to make sacrifices, and budgeting is the only way you can get started.
  • If your income is unpredictable, you should assume a very conservative starting point for your budget. If you work on commission or if your job is tied tightly to the state of the market of your industry or the economy as a whole, your income may be more at risk than someone with a steady salary in a recession-proof (or recession-resistant) job. Budgeting will make sure you’re setting aside money during the booms to help cover the lean times during the busts.
  • If you are going through a career change, you may be faced with a different income scenario. When I first started working out of college, I faced the problem of earning a salary for the first time. I didn’t really know what to do with it, and I didn’t really know how much I had for myself after taxes and required expenses. After I sold a business and could no longer count on the revenue, I faced a sharp reduction in my monthly cash flow. Both situations forced me to eventually evaluate or reevaluate my spending situations.
  • If you are going through a life change, you may have new concerns that require placement within your budget. If you’re getting married, getting divorced, having children, or sending your children off to college, you’ll be faced with new spending realities. You’ll have more or fewer mouths to feed, and more or less income to help meet your obligations.

The above situations make budgeting a priority, but budgeting is important for anyone in any situation. Whether you use a software program, mobile application, or a pen and paper, the visualization that’s possible once you start budgeting provides a fresh look at your finances, helps you plan your spending so you can smooth out any bumps in the path towards financial independence, and gives you greater control over an important part of your life.

What inspired you to start budgeting? Or if you don’t use a budget, why not?

Photo: Flickr

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This week should have been a vacation.

It has been, for the most part, but not entirely. While I’ve traveled occasionally over the past few years, and even chosen destinations meant for relaxation and time alone with loved ones, I haven’t had one of those fabled true vacations. My cell phone was still near by. I still took business-related calls. I still wrote for Consumerism Commentary every day, participated in discussions, and replied to emails, every day while not home.

Perhaps working for myself is a benefit and a curse — I make my own schedule but I feel compelled to take care of my responsibilities, at least some of them, even when I should b allowing myself to forget about work.

I had planned to change that this week. After visiting my family in southern California, a week-long detour to San Francisco with my girlfriend should be something to keep me away from working. We’re having a great time, but without enough planning in advance and with other business-related responsibilities requiring my attention, it hasn’t been the complete escape from reality I had in mind.

While my own vacation may not be a true escape, my financial attentiveness has seemed to have been more successful at leaving the world behind. In the past two days I discovered I made some annoying errors with the management of my accounts.

1. I didn’t verify Wells Fargo closed my old business accounts.

A year after I sold most of my business, I finished up accounting and began the process of closing my business bank accounts. At least, I thought I did. I visited my local Wells Fargo branch in January to close my old accounts and open new accounts for my new business. The banking representative at the branch transferred the residual balances out of the accounts, and I thought I had taken care of everything.

When I checked my account online this month, I noticed the old, supposedly-closed accounts were still listed, and I had been charged a monthly maintenance fee. By transferring my balances out, I was left with an account with a zero balance, below the minimum balance required to avoid monthly fees. Because the accounts were still in existence, for whatever reason, I was charged this small fee, and my account balance had dipped below zero.

I called the bank’s customer service department for business accounts late one night recently. They were able to see that the accounts should have been closed in January. The bank kindly reversed the monthly fee that should never had been charged, and we both verified that the accounts were now closed.

At the same time, I forfeited the six cents of interest that had accumulated in my business savings account during the month of January. Had I wanted to transfer that remaining balance to my personal account, it would have taken another day and another phone call. I quickly decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

I wasn’t able to avoid all fees. After I took care of the above problem, I realized that I had been charged a small monthly maintenance fee in my new business account. When I created the new accounts for the business, I discussed with the representative in the branch the requirements for avoiding monthly service charges. The account I chose requires either a $150 recurring automatic transfer or a minimum average daily balance of $500. This is where my memory becomes hazy: I thought the representative set up the recurring transfer for me.

My mistake was mot verifying this after the fact. When I noticed my mistake, I transferred cash into the business account to cover the minimum average daily balance requirement, but not without incurring one monthly service charge.

2. I didn’t have a large enough balance in my Capital One 360 checking account to cover my credit card payment!

My finances used to be simple: my income was deposited from various sources into a business checking account, an amount was transferred to a personal account to represent my paycheck, and this amount would cover my expenses each month, most of which are paid on a credit card that earns miles.

My financial situation has changed, and I use different accounts now. That means I have to remember to fund my personal checking account with the right amount each month. And I’ve allowed myself to keep my finances automated for so long that I might forget these tasks. Chase, as one would expect as the credit issuer, makes things difficult.

  • My automatic credit card payment bounced, which I knew before Chase “knew.” It took a day or two for Chase to recognize that the automated payment would not go through.
  • In that interim period, I wanted to make the full payment from a different account — a checking account held at Chase, which had already been linked to my credit card for use as a payment method. Chase would not permit me to make the full payment because if the first, automated payment had gone through, the remaining balance on my credit card would only include charges since the last bill, and Chase doesn’t let credit card users “overpay” their bills. In my case, it wouldn’t be an overpayment because I knew the automated payment would not go through, but Chase didn’t “know” that yet.
  • Once Chase recognized the response from Capital One 360 rejecting the automated payment request, I was able to schedule a new payment. I had already scheduled a smaller payment to cover the charges since the last bill, but I wanted to make sure my card balance was paid in full as soon as possible. Chase, for an unknown reason, does not allow two payments within three days of each other. I say the reason is unknown, but I know there is a purpose — to ensure that situations like these don’t happen without Chase earning some money in interest or late fees.

While these recent events haven’t cost me much money in the long run, it has been a wake-up call. In my attempts to simplify my finances, and due to the reduction of my need to look at my accounts on a daily basis, I’ve let certain things slip. I’ve taken too much of a vacation from managing my finances in a responsible manner.

Years ago I warned about the dangers of automating your finances. I set up a good system, and it worked for me well until my circumstances changed and I began throwing wrenches into the works without making sure everything was still working properly, like a well-oiled machine. The damage wasn’t excessive, but it was annoying, so now it’s time to re-evaluate my financial system, make changes and enhancements to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and begin, once again, monitoring my money a little more closely.

Mistakes happen to everyone. It could be worse; a small-time writer like myself who pays a few extra fees is nothing compared to a financial planner, popular author, and columnist for The New York Times who lost a his house. At the risk of seeping into alliterative reductionism, the best approach to take when facing unfavorable outcomes is to accept, analyze, and adjust.

With these financial fires extinguished, I can get back to enjoying my vacation in San Francisco despite the occasional turn to a focus on business while everyone else is asleep.

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Three Must-Have Money Talks for Kids – and How to Start Them

by Beth Kobliner
Money As You Grow

This is a guest article by personal finance expert, Beth Kobliner. Beth is a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability and the author of Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties. Drinking, smoking, bullying… talking about them with your kids is hard enough. But a new survey shows ... Continue reading this article…

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The Emergency Fund in 1939

by Luke Landes

In the Berkshire Hathaway 2010 Annual Report, Warren Buffett shared a letter from his grandfather to his uncle’s family in 1939, and the advice contained within the letter formed the basis of Berkshire Hathaway’s commitment to weathering any financial storm. I can’t say if the idea of an emergency fund was novel in 1939, but ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances

by Luke Landes

This series explorers the concrete steps anyone can follow to take control of your finances. Many years ago, I felt like I was a victim of circumstances. Bad things, like job losses, apartment losses, and debt — even my girlfriend leaving me — were other people’s fault, a result of the world around me. I ... Continue reading this article…

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Unexpected Income: What Should You Do With a Windfall?

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer, who hosts a weekly internet show called the ¢entsible show. Unexpected income is a problem many people would love to have, but it happens more frequently than people realize. Whether it’s a $20 birthday check from your eighty-something grandmother or a raise, there are ... Continue reading this article…

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Be Financially Proactive

by Jeff

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 ... Continue reading this article…

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CNN Will Grade Your Financial Health

by Luke Landes

CNN is featuring a short survey to help you determine your level of financial health. The result is presented in a form of a grade from F to A+. My result was an A; I lost points for not having any life insurance. The survey does not ask if there are any dependents. Right now, ... Continue reading this article…

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Helping Your Parents With Their Finances

by Luke Landes

About the author: Jeff Rose is a Certified Financial Planner™ and co-founder of Alliance Investment Planning Group. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, having served in the National Guard. His blog, Good Financial Cents, covers financial planning and investment related topics. As a kid, there’s no greater comfort in having your parents there ... Continue reading this article…

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Your Recession Budget

by Smithee

Many of us are going to be faced with tough decisions this year, and probably next year. We might even have to grapple with “how do I get these creditors to stop calling me?” or “well, where do I live now?” If owning a home is the American Dream, then being homeless is surely the ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 8: Set Savings Targets

by Luke Landes

Last week, I wrote about the importance of setting real life goals in order to take and maintain control of one’s own financial condition. It’s important to break past the idea that a life goal is based on money. For example, entering retirement with $4,000,000 is a good target, but it’s not a major goal. ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 5: Build a Better Budget

by Luke Landes

This is the next installment in a series at Consumerism Commentary about taking control of your finances. Please consider subscribing to the Consumerism Commentary RSS feed for updates. It’s no secret that budgeting is a chore. Although this piece of personal finance carries an ugly reputation, even a simple form of budgeting will help you ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 4: Use High-Yield Savings Accounts

by Luke Landes

This is the next installment in a series at Consumerism Commentary about taking control of your finances. Please consider subscribing to the Consumerism Commentary RSS feed for updates. If you’re on your way to spending less than you earn, then you’re going to need a good place to put your excess income. Even before setting ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 3: Spend Less Than You Earn

by Luke Landes

This should come as no surprise to Consumerism Commentary readers or anyone who has spent time reading anything relating to basic money management advice. Once you’ve decided to improve your financial condition and spent some time tracking your spending, you may have come to the conclusion that your situation declines each month because you’re allowing ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 2: Track Your Money

by Luke Landes

After deciding that it’s time to get a handle on your finances, find a way to accurately track the way you handle everything involving money. Before deciding to take action, you may have estimated your income and expenses, but now the details matter. Here is how to get to the details. Every cent is important ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 1-D: Decide to Take Action

by Luke Landes

After viewing yesterday’s income and expense report for an imaginary person, Dan observed astutely: … The one area that I don’t see is for a persons IRA, 401K, or ESPP. When is that money taken out or where/how is it assigned? It isn’t like you can say that you had a net income so you ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 1-C: Make Accurate Predictions

by Luke Landes

Now that you’ve taken an inventory of your finances and determined your net worth, I can tell you that the number is meaningless. Well, there is a point to your net worth, but it’s not the most important number to your finances. Your net worth tells a very small part of the story that defines ... Continue reading this article…

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Take Control of Your Finances Part 1-B: Take an Inventory

by Luke Landes

An acquaintance of mine formerly owned a store that sells “country” products like hand-crafted wood furniture, candles, and decor inspired by rural living. Twice a year, she recruited family members and friends to help take an inventory of the entire store. This process involved many hours of walking throughout the building and counting items on ... Continue reading this article…

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