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Organization and Productivity

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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As a child with an inquisitive mind, I was fascinated by calendars and how we organize and measure time. I tried to learn why, throughout history, culture accepted new calendars to replace the old. Much remained — and still remains — a mystery to me in this topic; my interest in calendars waned as I began to use them for business purposes rather than satisfying my curiosity and appetite for learning about interesting things.

Even I, a calendar geek, couldn’t get the hang of using a calendar to increase my own productivity. Part of the problem is with a decade of experience in the corporate or non-profit world — that is, working for some sort of employer — the concept of personal development through productivity has always been transparent to me.

The concept of “employee productivity” is simply a way for a corporation to get more from its employees with less. There’s no real personal development involved with productivity.

My perspective shifted slightly when I began working for myself. Suddenly, my level of productivity had a direct effect on my personal success, however that could be measured. I wanted to be more productive, but because I didn’t take to heart the tools and skills of typical corporate productivity, I was at a disadvantage. I know how to be super productive, and I can be at times, but I don’t often choose to motivate myself to achieve high levels of productivity.

The concept of productivity is only one benefit of using a calendar as more than just a date-keeping tool. A calendar, especially modern calendars like the Google Calendar application unlike your typical wall calendar with a photograph of a moose for each month (I love this calendar; thanks Donna Freedman!), can save money and build your wealth when used efficiently.

I can’t continue without a reminder about the concept of building wealth. This isn’t about a number on a bottom line, and it’s not about competition. Money is not a goal. The only reason to seek to build wealth is to achieve financial freedom — or at least financial flexibility.

I want to live my life the way I want to live it without being encumbered by financial roadblocks. My goal is simply the highest level in the pyramid visualization of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, self-actualization. You can only reach that point when other needs, like food, shelter, safety, and recognition are met.

I have big things I’d like to do with my life, and some of those might require money. Even those that don’t might require me to be free of financial constraints like debt. And to achieve that condition on the path to my goals, financial systems can push progress forward.

I’ve written about the system of automatic savings and the system of food planning; this system of using a calendar is just as important.

I’m calling the best use of a tool like Google Calendar “extreme calendaring.” Using a schedule to this extent goes far beyond the typical use of online calendars: to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to track when you’ll be on vacation, and scheduling meetings. These are all important, but to get to the point where a calendar becomes useful for long-term wealth, there has to be more.

Throughout this article I’ll use Google Calendar as the example. There may be other services that offer the same features, but I’m not as familiar with them as I am with this feature from Google I’ve been using since it was launched.

Schedule your bill payments on your calendar.

Even if you’ve already automated your bill payments, you should add your bill payment dates to your calendar. The more you progress through life, the more services you will likely take advantage of that require monthly payments. The calendar can help you keep track of all of it, reducing the likelihood of facing late fees or other penalties, like interest charges.

One trick is to not use the bill’s due date but the date you need to send the check in the mail or initiate the online transfer. In Google Calendar, you can configure an alert for each item you add to your schedule. For example, you can add a reminder a day in advance, to be delivered to you via email, so you have time to write the check and get to a mailbox.

If it helps, you can add your paydays to your calendar. This in combination with your bills can give you a visualization of your financial inflows and outflows and alert you to any future problems, such as a month where your paycheck doesn’t arrive until after your bills are due.

Because your list of bills tends to get longer rather than shorter, you can increase your organization factor, and thus maintain a lower risk of missing something important, by creating a calendar category for your bills and income (and categories for your other types of entries).

Google Calendar calls these categories separate calendars, but you can use them as categories and use the color coding to its best effect.

A note about calendar fatigue.

Whenever you take any type of activity to the extreme, there is a danger of growing immune to the activity’s effects. If you are bombarded with ten reminders in the form of alerts on your mobile phone each day, you will soon learn to ignore these alerts or give in to frustration by turning them off entirely.

I recommend using reminders sparingly and creatively.

If you have a smartphone, your calendar will always be with you. This can be good or bad; the calendar should not be a distraction but should be available at any instant you might need to remember something in the future.

Use your calendar in conjunction with your coupons or discounts.

I have a habit of forgetting that I have coupons for a certain product I’d be buying anyway until they’ve expired. You have a Bills calendar already; add a Savings calendar to track savings opportunities you don’t want to miss.

Keep in mind that it’s only saving money if you’re buying something you would be buying anyway. For example, if you’ve been planning a trip across the country that involves a flight, put a reminder on your calendar to search for the best prices Tuesday and Wednesday; studies show these are the best days of the week for finding deals on airline tickets.

If you have a coupon for Macy’s and you know you need to buy items that Macy’s has available, put an entry for the expiration date on your calendar. When you view the coming month, you’ll see this date and will be able to find time to go shopping before the coupon’s expiration.

If you’re very price-conscious in terms of shopping, you may be aware that certain months of the year offer, on average, better prices for specific products. If there’s something you know you’ll need but it is not a pressing need, put a reminder on your calendar in the month that is best for shopping for that type of product.

For me, this strategy may not pay off much, but if you do a lot of shopping for a large family, the small seasonal price adjustments can end up having a large effect on your household wealth.

Remind yourself to follow up with others.

The activity of networking is often overwhelming for me. I may be quite capable in front of large crowds, but when I’m in the midst of a large group, my introversion tendencies kick in. I’m more comfortable in small groups.

Last night I attended a dinner (well, drinks and tapas) in New York City sponsored by Ramit Sethi (of I Will Teach You to Be Rich and Michael Fishman (a consultant). There were about 40 entrepreneurs in attendance, and I only knew a few from previous meetings.

I managed to talk one-on-one to about a dozen of these participants while partaking in the beverages and food. Several of the discussions offered some kind of a personal connection, with a possibility for developing further in some sort of business relationship.

I took a number of business cards, but now comes the process of remaining in touch. I can use my calendar to note who I plan to reach out to when, in order to keep myself from being overwhelmed by the extraverted nature of outward communication.

The reason why I, as someone who is taking charge of my financial life through my own business endeavors, would find this important is that some of these individuals might be able to provide great insight on the future of my businesses; thus, keeping myself focused in these personal/business relationships can lead to long-term growth of wealth.

Besides the above, there are several more specific types of events that are enhanced by the use of your calendar.

  • Use your calendar to track family events.
  • Use Google Calendar’s sharing feature to create schedules for items that affect other members of your household.
  • Create reminders to obtain your free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com three times a year, once from each reporting bureau.
  • Set a quarterly reminder to rebalance your investment portfolio.

How do you use your calendar to save money and grow your wealth?

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For almost two months, I’ve been paying a maid service. After the initial cleaning, I waited a few weeks, and then set up a recurring appointment for a cleaning once every two weeks. For years leading up to this arrangement, I’ve balked at hiring a cleaning service. Cleaning is not a particularly difficult task, and this is not by any means a necessary expense. Furthermore, I live only with my cat. I do not have a family to look after. When first thinking about bringing in professionals, it seemed excessive.

Several months ago, I decided it was time to bring in the professionals. I had two full-time jobs that left little time for tasks like vacuuming and scrubbing the bathroom. I asked friends and co-workers living in the area for cleaning service recommendations, but this yielded no results. I turned to the internet for suggestions, and I decided to give Maids.com a try. There is a relatively local office. I called, the company provided an estimate based on my description of my apartment, and we arranged an initial visit.

The initial visit consisted of a deeper cleaning and allows the maids to determine the scope of the job. The cleaning is deeper than usual based on the assumption that this might be the first time the location was professionally cleaned, and regular upkeep would help reduce future cleaning needs. A team of four spent an hour and a half during that initial visit handling the dirty work. They did a good job, particularly in the bathroom and kitchen. However, living with a cat, the apartment never feels fully clean without cleaning the carpets. I quickly steamed some of the more troubling spots after the maids left and was pleasantly satisfied with the apartment’s appearance.

I waited several weeks before inviting the maids back, but when I did, I agreed to a reduced price by arranging a visit every two weeks. The knowledge that the maids will be arriving within days motivates me to keep the apartment tidier throughout the week. If there is no need to clean, I could still cancel a cleaning without increasing the price. At the same time, if I found myself in the position of needing to reduce my expenses, this would be one of the first luxuries to be eliminated.

There’s often a psychological barrier that stops someone from paying for a service one could do on one’s own. Some people refuse to pay for financial advice, some don’t think it makes sense to pay someone to clean a house, and some don’t want to call the plumber when there’s a problem with the pipes. It’s not always psychological, either. Hiring a professional costs money that might not be immediately available. Some people prefer taking a do-it-yourself approach to their lives, and that’s an admirable attitude. The psychological barrier comes in the thought that it isn’t worthwhile to pay someone to do something you could do yourself.

In my case, my time is valuable, and I’m sure most people have the same opinion of their time, as well. My effort is better spent working on a project or enjoying my life than scrubbing toilets. I’m not completely averse to this type of labor; I’ll do it, but I have found that it’s worthwhile for me to hire professionals who do it better and more efficiently, while my time is free to concentrate on other aspects of my life and business.

On Twitter, @27andfrugal asked how I was able to fit this expense into my budget. This cleaning service adds up to about $250 on a monthly basis. I understand that this is a price many people would not be able to pay for a service they could theoretically manage without hiring professionals. I consider myself fortunate that I can handle this expense without much detrimental effect on my finances. The $250 comes out of my net savings. This is $250 less each month I won’t have in savings, which, depending on interest rates, could add up to tens or even a hundred thousand dollars over the next thirty years. Of course, looking at that view, it’s harder to make the argument that the expense is worthwhile, but these are the caveats:

  • I can make up some of that theoretical loss with increased productivity.
  • My quality of life increases, and that has a value that’s hard to pin down with financial terms.

Cleaning is one task of several I hope to outsource. My next step is to find a virtual assistant to help keep me organized from a business perspective.

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How to Find (and Keep) Your Money

by Sasha

Lost and found has been one of the big themes in my life lately. After finding bonds I’d forgotten about for years, I realized that I’d misplaced some very sentimental and irreplaceable valuables and spent an entire day searching. It was a very bad day until about 6 p.m. when I finally located the items. […]

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