Stanford graduate Ramit Sethi's personal finance blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, is one of Lifehacker's most-quoted sources of financial advice, so I was honored when Sethi asked me to contribute a bit to his new book, also entitled I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Sethi's direct, authoritative style (evidenced by the blog and book title) may put you off at first glance. But on closer inspection you'll find he's an approachable, sensible guy, not some jerk trying to sell you a "foolproof" make-a-million-dollars-a-month system.
In fact, the I Will Teach You To Be Rich book, which went on sale today, is an excellent graduation gift for the college students in your life who are venturing out into a horrible economy steeped in student debt. To get a taste of what it's like, download the introduction PDF for free.
When you do get the book, you can find my contribution on page 134, a short piece on how I automate my week-to-week transactions in order to set and track long-term goals. Here's a full reprint.
Set It and Forget It: Automate Your Finances to Focus on Long-term Goals
Tech-savvy folks who want to get more done in less time don't want to fuss with tedious money tasks like writing checks and transferring funds, so financial automation is very popular among the Lifehacker readership. Personally, I'm right there: "Set it and forget it" is my guiding personal finance system principle. Well, not exactly "forget it", but I set up my accounts to run themselves to the extent they can, and check in on things monthly to make sure all the gears are turning as I intend.
I'm a busy person who doesn't want to think about money matters any more than I need to, so I rely heavily on automated transfers, deposits, and email notifications to keep my dollars and cents where they need to be. Most good banks these days offer electronic bill pay, direct deposit, recurring savings account transfers, and some even offer email notifications if an account balance goes above or below a certain threshold. I use all these tools. My income goes in, bill payments go out, and my credit card gets paid in full with minimal intervention. If my credit card debt in a given month goes above a certain threshold--like $3,000--I get an email letting me know so I can make sure I've got that cash ready in my checking account. For week-to-week money tasks this all works like a charm.
For a longer, birds-eye view of my finances, I use a desktop copy of Quicken to suck in all my account transactions and make me pretty charts. Using Quicken I check in on my net worth over time and see if there are any expenses that I can cut down. This kind of overview work is where I spend the most amount of time--deciding on my savings goals, tracking them, seeing where I was same time last year, plotting where I want to be same time next year. Being a personal productivity obsessive, I'm big on having goals and using checkpoints along the way to get there. I use my Google Calendar to set 12 savings goals throughout the year, with an email reminder for each one. At the end of each month I get an email from my calendar saying something like, "It's October! Should be $X in the nest egg account by now!" That really keeps me on track when life has swept me away and I'm thinking about other things.
As a freelancer things get tricky around tax time--and tax time happens 4 times a year for self-employed folks. I use automated monthly transfers into an income tax holding account so I can pay my quarterly estimated taxes without feeling like I just lost my shirt. (That's not a good feeling, ever--so do whatever you have to do to avoid it. In fact, having your mind right about your money, and keeping an attitude of confidence and prosperity is one of the best financial moves you can make, regardless of what your account balance is.) I use a simple spreadsheet to track deductions, and a big manila envelope to keep original receipts--one envelope per year.
Some of the best debt reduction strategies we've gotten from Lifehacker readers involve tricking yourself into putting money aside, and making it hard to spend. Many endorse the old-fashioned way: cut up the credit cards, and pay down the ones with the highest interest rates most aggressively. One of the wackier suggestions is freezing your credit card into a block of ice, so that you literally enforce a "cooling off" period (or in this case, a melting period) for any credit card purchase. Another strategy to avoid impulse buying is filling up online shopping carts or wishlists and then making yourself wait a week or two before you pull the trigger and hit the "Check out" button. I use this method a lot: usually, impulse buys make much less sense when you've had some time to think about it.
In the end, managing your finances well is a lot like developing a strong personal productivity system: you keep track of everything without making it your full-time job, you set goals, you break them down into small bite-sized tasks, you save yourself time by automating manual work, and spend your time and brainpower focusing on the big picture. That's what I try to do with my time AND money.