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Organization and Productivity

Budgeting doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Some of us need a little assistance with tracking our income and spending. That’s where budgeting tools come in.

There are several front runners in this space. Many of them offer a wide range of features to help you manage your money better. Here are four of the best budgeting tools that we’ve found:

Personal Capital

Personal Capital is a money management tool that tracks your investments and other financial accounts. What’s great about Personal Capital is that it’s an all-in-one tool. Not only can you track things like your net worth and portfolio balances, but you can also get down to the nitty gritty details of your budget.

After you link your financial accounts by logging into them through the Personal Capital website, you’ll see different charts on the main dashboard. One of those is a cash flow chart. This chart shows you your income and spending for the last 30 days — a quick glance at your budget details.

Personal-capital-cash-flow-spending

Simply click the chart to be brought to another page. Here, it will show you the details of your budget. You’ll see where your income is coming from, and where you’re spending money.

Personal Capital is free to use, but it charges a fee for optional wealth management services for people with investment portfolios worth over $1 million.

Mint

Mint has long been considered the gold standard for budgeting tools. Between its website and mobile app, Mint gives users the ability to see their money activity in real time. Much like Personal Capital, Mint syncs all of your financial accounts into one dashboard. From there, you can see your spending categories, investment balances, and upcoming bills.

Mint-Review

What’s unique about Mint is that it also offers a free credit score. You’ll see the number on your dashboard every time you log in, and your score is updated every three months. Although there are plenty of websites offering free credit scores these days, Mint makes it easy to keep all your financial data in one place and avoid having to log in to multiple websites.

Mint is free to use. You’ll receive financial product recommendations for things like credit cards and savings accounts, based on your profile.

Learn More: Mint vs Personal Capital

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

You Need a Budget (YNAB) is a premium budgeting tool for the more involved users. The latest update included direct import, which allows users to sync their bank accounts with YNAB and have transactions imported automatically rather than manually. Despite this, users still have to manually categorize each expense, which can be a benefit to some because it creates more awareness of spending.

YNAB

What sets You Need A Budget apart from other budgeting tools is its comprehensive knowledge base. Users can sign up for free 30 minute online workshops on topics ranging from credit to debt. YNAB has a podcast with over 250 budgeting episodes and a YouTube channel that features weekly tutorial videos.

YNAB comes at a cost of $50 per year. This price tag may deter some users who aren’t looking to add another bill to their budget. However, YNAB’s website claims that new budgeters save on average $200 their first month, making the investment in the budgeting tool worth it. You can try out YNAB on a free trial for 34 days.

Good Ol’ Spreadsheet

Let’s not forget about the good ol’ spreadsheet for budgeting. Years ago, before online budgeting tools were popular, many people who budgeted simply tracked their income and spending in spreadsheets. It definitely takes more manual work and time than simply syncing your accounts on a financial aggregator. But the awareness you create when you update the budget spreadsheet yourself can be enough to get you out of bad spending habits and reach your savings goals.

You can grab a free budget template online with a simple Google search. If you have Microsoft Office, the program also includes free budget templates for Excel.

Stay On Track: 10 Guardrails to Help You Reach Financial Freedom

Final Thoughts

When choosing an online budgeting tool, it’s important to make sure the website is secure. The three online budgeting tools mentioned in this article (Personal Capital, Mint, and YNAB) have all been vetted for proper security protocols. Another benefit of using a spreadsheet for your budget is that you avoid giving external websites access to your financial accounts.

No matter how you choose to track your income and spending, the important thing is that you do it, especially if you are trying to save or get out of debt. Being aware of where your money goes, and knowing how to cut expenses, is a great first step toward financial freedom.

What’s your favorite way to budget?

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So, you’re thinking about adding some plastic to your wallet. You want to take advantage of as many bonuses and offers as possible, and you definitely want to earn cash back where you can. You may even be thinking about travel hacking, where you open a number of new accounts in order to reel in a number of introductory point, mile, and cash back offers. Where do you look first?

524 rule

Chase offers a wide variety of credit cards with different perks, including low-fee balance transfers, travel rewards, rotating cash back categories, and even 5% back at Amazon. They are one of the more prominent card issuers, and frequently issue large sign-up bonuses to encourage new customers. Chase, however, has an interesting rule that makes them stand out when it comes to travel hacking.

The 5/24 Rule

You may have heard about their 5/24 Rule, especially if you’ve spent any time researching card hacking.

Simply put, if you’ve opened up 5 new accounts in the last 24 months, you’ll be denied for most Chase credit cards. This rule is all but inflexible, even with calls to customer service to beg them to reconsider. This is unfortunate, as it could lead to you missing out on some of the largest sign-up bonuses seen on credit cards to-date.

One important note: there are numerous reports that being pre-approved in a Chase branch for these cards leads to approval for the card. Anecdotally, I traveled to New York City last November and was approved in-branch for the Chase Sapphire Reserve at 12/24 accounts. So, this work-around could be a possibility if you live near a Chase branch.

Check Out Its Brother Card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred

If you’re considering taking on the travel hacking game (beware: it requires strong organization skills and a lot of attention to detail!), Chase should be high up on the list of issuers to pursue. You’ll be applying for credit cards regularly, so you’ll quickly exceed the limitations for the 5/24 rule. For example, in the last 24 months, I’ve applied and been approved for 15 cards. In the world of travel hackers, that’s not even on the high side of new accounts.

Cards Not Under 5/24

The following cards are reportedly not under Chase’s 5/24 rule:

  • Amazon Prime Rewards Visa (I was approved last month at 13/24)
  • British Airways
  • Fairmont
  • Hyatt
  • IHG
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • Disney (both Rewards and Premier)
  • AARP
  • Marriott Business (note: there are conflicting reports on this but I was approved last October at 11/24)

Note that these credit cards will still result in a hard pull and the opening of a new account. So, if you’re interested in them, you should prioritize them after you’ve put yourself past the 5/24 threshold.

Which Card First?

First of all, a disclaimer: if you’re getting into travel hacking, here’s the criteria you need to meet:

  • Have an excellent credit score (I would put this at 720+, if not 740+)
  • Pay off your credit card statement balances in full each month
  • Be disciplined and organized with your money
  • Be able to meet the minimum spend on a new credit card without being financially irresponsible
  • Be unafraid of spending time doing research — there are no shortcuts here!

I would prioritize Chase cards as follows:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Chase Sapphire Reserve
  3. Chase Ink Preferred
  4. Chase United MileagePlus Explorer
  5. Chase Marriott Rewards
  6. Chase Freedom
  7. Chase Freedom Unlimited
  8. Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier

Note that there are more than 5 on this list, so you’ll have to do some research as to which card is right for you. The Chase Sapphire and Ink lines earn Ultimate Rewards points. These offer flexible and valuable redemptions across a number of airlines and other travel partners. The Chase Freedom line offers cash back perks as statement credits. The other branded cards like United and Marriott offer brand-specific points and miles.

I’ve prioritized the United and Marriott cards ahead of the Freedom cards for a few reasons. First, it’s possible to change your credit card to the no-fee Freedom cards after some time. So, if you’re a Sapphire Preferred cardholder and you’d like to discontinue paying the fee, it’s possible to change that card over to a Freedom.

Second, the bonuses for those two branded cards are relatively valuable at the moment. The United offer at 50,000 miles is higher than it was in 2016. The Marriott points are now eligible to transfer to Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express at a good rate (3:1).

If I were just getting into travel hacking, I would be going straight down this list. You may be put off by the Ink Preferred being a business card, but applying for a business card isn’t as daunting as it might seem. Many people run small self-owned business through eBay selling or Etsy shops, and it’s perfectly reasonable to have a business line of credit for those expenses. The process is nearly exactly the same as a personal application; you’ll just need to provide some information about the type of business you operate.

To 5/24-ers and Beyond

My advice to the unfortunate folks who are past 5/24: don’t worry about it. While some of these bonuses are stellar (the previous Chase Sapphire Reserve bonus at 100,000 points was great while it lasted), the sheer number of other card issuers and bonuses means that there’s no shortage of great perks to be had.

Lately I’ve been focusing my efforts on airlines like Delta and American, as well as Membership Rewards points through American Express. New cards are constantly being rotated in and out. So, it’s more important to be able to jump on the higher bonuses when available, than to worry about getting back under 5/24.

Best of luck out there, and happy travels!

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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.

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Last week, I walked into a hip coffee shop nestled between Ann Taylor Loft and Urban Outfitters. Located in a family-friendly Chicago neighborhood on a cheerful, bustling street, the cafe didn’t appear to be anything other than typical. However, I soon learned that Next Door Cafe was offering a lot more than your run-of-the-mill espresso.

ndcWalking in, I saw a long wooden bar flanked with a case of fancy pastries. The 25-year-old hipster barista casually asked if I wanted to open a tab, assuming that I was going to stay for more than one latte. I took out my laptop and settled into a picnic table on wheels (all the furniture is on wheels so that the layout can change week to week).

The wall behind me showcased paintings by local artists, all of which appeared to be on sale. Other whiteboard-covered walls were everywhere, filled with inspirational quotes and goals for a community winter coat drive. Everything in the store was temporary and configurable; perhaps as a reminder that ndc2we should always be evolving.

A hostess sat near the front door like a hotel concierge. Her job was to greet guests and coordinate walk-in appointments. Wait… appointments? At a coffee shop? You bet — Next Door Cafe is doing something really unique to help Chicagoans with their money.

Two full-time, on-site financial planners hold office hours during the week, as well as a few weekends a month. Appointments are held in pods, or giant cubes outfitted with two couches and a table (also on wheels). In the privacy of a pod, anyone can discuss personal financial goals such as budgeting, understanding car loans, paying off debt, and saving for retirement. Some topics are handled in a single session, while others take multiple visits. Everything is tailored to an individual, and unlike a traditional advising appointment, every session is free. It’s approachable and it’s inclusive.

More than just money

It’s not just for people seeking financial help, either. A woman sitting at my table was sketching in her journal while she waited for the How to Self-Publish a Book lecture to start. She comes to many events because she likes networking with other authors. Do so has shown her new ways to make her business more efficient; “Artists and entrepreneurs like me need help,” she explained.

Several days out of the week, the café holds lectures about money. Aside from that, local volunteers teach about entrepreneurship, social media, and self-development. I heard there has even been a yoga class. The classes are diverse because they are led by local professionals. These volunteers submit their ideas and agree to share their expertise for free.

Those who prefer more personalized attention can schedule appointments online for one-on-one advice. They can cover any topic in which they have a need, including setting up businesses, writing resumes, configuring WordPress, and even life-coaching — just to name a few. The café seems to understand that personal finance is more than just budgeting. Being financially successful encompasses knowledge, business skills, and the ability to manage stress.

People of varying ages and industries come together to learn from one another. For example, the coffee shop is also a pitstop for students. I spoke with a young PhD candidate who has been coming to the cafe several days a week, simply because she enjoys the staff and the atmosphere. She explained, “Most of the time, I just study. But, sometimes I reserve the conference rooms in the back for group meetings and study marathons. It’s really convenient.” Like everything else, the rooms are free and temporary walls can adapt from one large room to two smaller ones.

The café also uses this space to hold group sessions. Here, groups meet regularly to learn and support each other in reaching their individual financial goals, such as debt reduction and combining finances. The store manager told me that attendees often become good friends. They tend to have a lot in common, so they continue to hang out after the classes meet.

The café seems to believe that support is a foundation of success. They embrace the sharing economy and have found a way to create self-sustaining communities that continue outside of the café.

What’s the catch?

By now, you may be wondering how this is all possible. How can everything — except the coffee — be free? Well, Next Door Café is a marketing and research experiment funded by State Farm. In exchange for the space, baristas, and financial coaches, they collect endless insights about future customer needs and have an environment to float concepts and ideas.

While there is only one location and no public plans for expansion, the financial industry should take notice. For mainstream financial education and support, this model is working. Next Door Café is speaking to Millennials in a way that resonates with their values and appeals to their norms. They have made financial wellness approachable, holistic, and community-driven. I suspect that more companies will replicate the fundamentals of this model as a way to develop deeper relationships with their customers.

What do you think about the Next Door Cafe? If you’re in the Chicago area, have you visited yet?

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