February 7, 2011

I’m starting to think I should have led the year off with an organization resolution.

I said in the last update that I’m already aware that I work pretty well within the confines of a schedule. Creating one is one of those things I’ve always said I’m going to do, but never get around to it. I just never felt like I had the time to sit down and make one up. Now that I actually don’t have much time for it (what with taking 3 classes and working full-time), it’s becoming a much larger hurdle to overcome.

I did take a few moments on Saturday to create a basic to-do list for the current week as well as outline the things I had scheduled that I could not play with. In between those, I put in a few ideas for things I could do in the meantime. It worked out pretty well, but wasn’t nearly as detailed as I was hoping. Must start somewhere though.

Considering that organizing myself should form the foundation of all resolutions to come, it really is a wonder that I didn’t go for it in January instead. In the long run it will work out fine because even though I didn’t end up creating a budget last month, the financial monitoring that I am doing now will give me a basis on which to create a much more coherent budget. All those charts and graphs really do help you understand your spending habits.

One thing I need to work hard on is that I always seem to get inspiration and energy at the most inopportune moments. Maybe walking down the hall at work, eating dinner at a restaurant, or when I’m about to go to bed. It’s during these times that I get ideas of things to do or get excited about working on those things. Exactly the times when I can’t do anything about it.

This is why I need a schedule. I need to force myself to sit down and focus on writing updates for the blog (for example), instead of waiting until the last minute before going to bed after a long day at classes and working on homework (seriously, I’ve done almost nothing else since 8:00 this morning).

Consciously, I know that I could fit 20 minutes here-and-there to work on some brainstorming or planning for the rest of the week. It’s very hard for me to get focused in that frame of mind though, which is really what this resolution is all about. Training myself to focus on what needs to get done and avoiding the procrastination that keeps me from doing it.

So while I haven’t managed to accomplish anything on my to-do list for this week, hey… at least it’s been made. Got to find satisfaction in the little things.

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February’s Resolution – Organization

(Or “How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Love Getting Things Done”)

What an apt topic for this month since I just spent the last two weeks putting off writing a blog update on January’s resolution!

One thing I learned last month is that it’s good to have a plan. Sure, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I’m going to track my spending and learn how to save money”, but that doesn’t really make for some interesting updates on a public forum that will be available for anyone who cares or has a minute to waste on checking out and that you’re hoping will create some pressure to hold you to some sort of standard that you don’t want to disappoint.

I’m uh… still tracking that spending. Yep… There it goes.

So the resolution is two-fold this month. First, start organizing and scheduling my life. Second, get a freakin’ plan already on what I want to accomplish with this resolution thing. Dang!

I already know that I work better within the constraints of a schedule. Give me any room and I’ll find a way to wait until the last possible moment to accomplish anything. The problem comes when it’s me setting the schedule, not meeting someone else’s. Think about it, you never really know how far you can push that research paper that was due last week. The deadline I set with myself? Don’t worry, he’s a reasonable guy and I’m sure he’ll understand the delay.

Research paper? I’ve got to stop writing these at 2:00 in the morning. An example is an example, I guess.

As for the next “area of concern”, a big challenge last month was how to measure success. At first, I didn’t really want to constrain myself to those sorts of terms. Maybe that was just my inner procrastinator understanding how best to sabotage my efforts in advance! Regardless, still doesn’t leave me much to write about here. I found that my updates seemed pretty small in the ways of advancement, even if several days occurred between postings.

Also, I’ve only got one more resolution in mind that is date-sensitive and won’t be coming up until closer to the end of the year. So time’s a wastin’…

I’m going to be using this month to schedule some things into my, er, schedule (frickin’ two o’clock, man). Not necessarily blocking hours off or anything. Biggest thing to tackle first is scheduling things-to-do by day. Meaning stuff around the house, mainly. That’ll be week ONE (See? Goals.). Week two will be narrowing in on those days and maybe getting those hours blocked off. Weeks three and four will be centered on focusing and maintaining the schedule already created.

The resolution brain-storming and scheduling will take place on the days and hours that happen to get blocked off for it during week one (A ha! Bringing it back around, you like that?). Also, with any luck blog updates will become more regular (and coherent, oh please God more coherent).

So February’s resolution isn’t off to much of a good start (this here being the 2nd of February), but here’s to hoping to a more successful month than January.

Oh yeah, speaking of January… still using Mint, still working on weeding out those unnecessary purchases, and still planning on creating that Excel sheet to track grocery spending.

Watch out procrastination… here I come!

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On Spending Money

In my first post I made a comment that I’m pretty good at taking a critical look at how I spend my money. I went into a little detail, but in the context of January’s resolution I thought it may not make much sense. Why would a guy who claims to be good at controlling his spending need a resolution to track his spending habits? I figured I should go into a little detail here…

As I’ve said, I don’t own a lot of stuff. This isn’t because I don’t like owning stuff or because I don’t have the money… I just don’t buy much. This is really weird considering how cool I think certain things are. I like gadgets. A lot. But I don’t really have any. Last year I bought a Kindle, a laptop, and I got a GPS for Christmas. Before that… pretty much nothing. Hell, I’m still rocking a Razr (but only until February, thank you very much Verizon).

I also like entertainment. However, I spend approximately 0 dollars on DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs… I spend a little on books now (for the Kindle) and occasionally buy a game for the 360 (generally Used, with a trade-in for good measure), but we’re still talking very low volumes. Before the Kindle, I got most (if not all) of my books from Library sales. For movies, I stream Netflix. For music, there’s Pandora. Also, a surprising number of bands offer their stuff for free. As for those that don’t, that subject is better left undiscussed (which is too a word, Autocorrect!).

The reason for buying few things stems from a house fire some eight years ago. I was living in a condo with my mother when the lighting outside our neighbor’s door shorted and a pretty significant blaze ensued. The entire building didn’t burn down or anything, but the units burned out. For a day or so we thought we had lost everything (we had to wait for the fire department to deem it safe for us to enter and assess the damage).

This all happened mid-day, so the remainder of the day went by in a strange blur. Somewhere between devastation and panic, I started to look forward to starting over. Losing everything means you can rebuild however you want. The things we own define us through the timeline of our lives. We build ourselves upon what we were, so what we are can never stand alone. Unless you start again with nothing. I was excited by the idea and it helped dull the shock of the day’s events.

In a surprising twist of fate, it comes out that my room was virtually untouched by the flames. There was tons of water and smoke damage, and a fair amount of my belongings had to be trashed, but a lot was saved. This came to me as a mix of relief and disappointment. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t lose everything I owned. This is very hard to admit. I haven’t discussed it with many people, partly because my mother did lose a lot of things, and partly because I’m not sure who can understand that feeling. Also, I’m just that private (and now I share it all on the Internet. Ironical).

This was a turning point in my life. I started to take a hard look at the things I own and the question of “do I really need this?” became an all-encompassing part of my shopping habits. Given enough time, the answer is almost always “no”. Sometimes “but I really want it” wins out, but it wins substantially fewer times than it had in the past. Thanks to the fire, I started to see things for what they are, just things. Stuff became less important as I tried to find ways to enjoy life without owning so much. Should I buy this book? Nah, I can get it at the library. How about this movie? No, I’d probably only watch it a couple times anyway. That critical voice became standard whenever I considered a purchase.

However, this is not entirely a good thing. Sure, I can stop myself making frivolous purchases of things that will go unused or wasted, but I also have a hard time buying all the things I really do need. My girlfriend will tell you (she certainly tells me often enough – love you dear!) that we need a new couch. Now, we’ve got an old futon that’s quite literally falling apart, so she’s completely right of course. But this is where the questioning insidiously turns into “do I really need this, now?”. This leads to all sorts of delays where the bare functionality of an item keeps me from improving the quality of my (or our) life.

So now you know how and why it’s hard for me to spend money. Then what’s the problem? Why do I need a resolution? As previously explained, entertainment and food. I like going out, and I like eating out. Granted, we don’t go out a lot, but aside from bills that’s where the money generally goes. To the point that I don’t have much savings (really if it wasn’t for an employer 401k plan I wouldn’t have any savings at all). I’m one of those people whose budget matches their income, regardless of their income. I imagine at some level a disparity must occur between the two, but then again if that were the case we probably wouldn’t be going through such tough economic times now.

Groceries. Man, I’m the worst shopper at the grocery store. I have little to no understanding of what things cost, if it looks good and we could use it, in the shopping cart it goes. This doesn’t cause quite as much of a problem as it could, and I think more grocery shopping is actually what’s needed here. Because it’s eating out that causes the most pain. That’s a big part of this month’s experiment. Discover how much I really spend eating out, and then try to curb that by buying more groceries (while tracking how much I’m spending on those grocery items), thus bring down my total spending.

Anyway, that’s a fair bit on the how and why I spend money. A resolution later in the year will tackle the things I own, but for now I’ll continue to work on the things I buy. It’s all a very strange experience. I see people with nice things and I feel a bit of jealousy, but when I think about it I can’t really bring myself to deciding it’s a good idea to spend the money to actually get those sorts of things. Big purchases are always a struggle (buyer’s remorse is almost instantaneous, regardless of whether it was a good idea), yet it’s nothing to spend $40-$60 out on dinner. Put a handful of those together for a couple months and we could have had that couch.

This is what resolutions are for… right?

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January 13, 2011

Progress has begun to be made. Or, progress has begun to have been made… Has made progress begun? I’m too tired to make that make sense.

A couple of nights ago I made some real good progress on creating a spreadsheet in Excel to track my spending. I had everything down in a Word document, so it wasn’t too much effort to transfer that over. I started to add some snazzy colors and borders and shading… then I went ahead and did something that pretty much negated the whole process.

After hearing a friend’s input and (in a nice bit of synchronicity) hearing a mention on NPR’s Marketplace, I started an account on Mint.com. So far I’m fairly impressed. Luckily, the majority of my accounts were actually found by their system. “Majority” because I can’t remember my passwords to all of them…

I wasted a good bit of time mucking around with all the possible ways to view your charts. That seems to be the main point of the site, give you different ways of looking at your money and how you spend it. Oh, that and selling you financial services. But… that’s to be expected from a free, online service. It also seems easier to me to change and set categories for spending than Quicken did, which is a major plus.

There are a couple negatives that pop out to me. First, (and this may be nit-picky) since it’s pulling data directly from my bank, purchases don’t always show up on the same day as they’re actually made. So purchases I made in December are showing up for January. Bigger picture, this isn’t really an issue, but I like the idea of tracking week-to-week how I spend my money. Some purchases (like food from the cafeteria at my job) take several days to show up. If I wanted to track my weekly (or even monthly) food expenditures it might get a little confusing using this service.

Secondly, this gives me a good macro sense of how I spend my money, but I really need that micro picture as well. For example, I’m really bad at remembering (or even caring, really) how much I spend on different items in the grocery store. Normally my thinking goes… “I need bread. I like that bread.” And a purchase is made. I’m thinking the only way I’m going to be able to track that sort of spending is to do it myself.

So the Excel sheet I started isn’t a total wash. Next step is to start converting it over to track items I buy at the grocery store. I figure if I track what I buy, where I buy it, and for how much… I’ll start to a.) remember more easily how much things cost and b.) make smarter purchase decisions.

And hey, how about that? An update less than a week from the previous. Who’da thunk it?

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January 10, 2011

A little more than a week into my resolutions and it’s already a struggle. I continue to do just fine gathering receipts and putting all the information into a Word document. So far I haven’t missed anything, so that’s pretty positive. I’m no longer focusing too much on how I’m spending my money (that has more or less gone by the wayside); the hard part remains figuring out how to really track it all.

Last update I explained how I looked up several budget and spending trackers online. Since then, they’ve pretty much been sitting on my hard drive collecting digital dust. Every other day or so I take them off the shelf, blow off the cobwebs and ponder how to put them to good use. After an oh-so-brief moment, I figure I’ll be better served mulling it over a bit longer, and set them back carefully where I got them. Oh, the lies our brains tell us.

See, I figure the larger-perspective, bigger-picture goal of my year is going to be overcoming procrastination more than anything else.

In the interest of actually accomplishing something however, I’ve finally broken past the “I’ll just update the blog once there’s something worth posting” block in my mind. It may not make for compelling content, but I’m not really that compelling of a person.

Generally speaking, January’s resolution isn’t really going that badly. I’m keeping receipts and recording my spending. I’m just not organizing it in a way that’ll allow for any good analysis. I still really want to create my own Excel workbook, because that’s the only way I can group everything the way I like it. This is just fine, as long as it happens.

I’m also still checking out some pre-made software solutions, the forefront of these being Mint.com. This appears to be a free, online budgeting tool that tracks your spending for you by connecting to your online accounts, sort of like Quicken. I know, I know… I said I didn’t like Quicken, and I don’t; mainly due to not being able to connect to a couple of my accounts and the awkwardness of manually submitting data. I also don’t entirely trust the “online” part of the deal. I’m going to do a bit more research into it first.

One thing I have noticed is that I spend a lot more on bills during the first half of the month than I had thought. I tried setting everything up where rent is paid with the first check of the month and miscellaneous bills are paid with the second check. Things apparently have gotten a bit out of whack and I need to realign all of that. So, you know… there’s that.

More frequent updates to come, I swear.

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January 3, 2011

Three days into my first resolution and I’m already starting to get a picture of the challenges ahead. It’s not the actual keeping track of my spending that’s the issue. My only purchases so far have been food, rent, and my driver’s license renewal, so gathering receipts has been pretty simple. It’s the pre-emptive planning that’s tripping me up. Already I’m judging my purchases on whether or not I really need them. This is the whole point of the resolution, but not this early!

Generally speaking, I’m already pretty good about controlling my spending on material goods. I just don’t own a lot of things. A lot of my discretionary spending goes towards entertainment and food (not stuff), which is a direct result of a probably-more-critical-than-absolutely-necessary questioning of “do I really need this?” When I first decided to tackle tracking my spending, I figured some time would pass before I’d start analyzing my spending.

Clearly the entirety of my consciousness wasn’t involved with this decision.

So I’m already trying to figure out if I should really shell out for that side of guacamole at Chipotle, or if just the queso would be enough. Again, this is before I even know if saving the extra buck or so would do me any good. If I were in a position where every dollar counted, this would be a no-brainer. Why the hell would I be eating out in the first place? Though, eating out is one of the things I’m aiming to reduce through this plan. I do tend to eat out… a lot… and I’m just going to have to learn to turn off my brain for a week or two until I can see the effect this has on my wallet.

While I’m gathering all my spending data, the next step is to choose how to track it. I’ve been doing a fair share of searching online for different “spending” or “budget” trackers, and ho boy are there a lot of them!  I’ve downloaded six different Excel sheets and PDFs, and I’m checking out a few free software solutions. More than likely I won’t use software for this because there’s just too much going on with those most of the time. As I alluded to in the previous post, my experiences with Quicken turned me off to this sort of thing.

I’m still torn between creating my own tracker and using a template; most likely I’ll modify a free template for my needs. As a nice plus to these searches, I’ve found websites with all sorts of different free Excel templates, like Spreadsheet123 and Vertex42 (apparently all the cool websites have numbers in the address, just like 12stepnewyear ;)). Admittedly, I’m probably not going to find much use for the Instant Qualifier for Hard Money Mortgage Spreadsheet Template, but it’s nice to know it’s there. Oh, and what’s this? A New Year’s Resolution Calendar? It’s like they knew I was coming.

In short, I haven’t really gotten into the nitty gritty, figuring-out-where-my-money’s-going action yet. However I’m pleased that I’ve been able to at least gather receipts as I get them instead of tossing them as soon as I pass a trash can. That should be enough to tell you from where I’m starting from on this. Next resolution update I’ll let you know which tracker I settle on and the success (or utter defeat) I’m experiencing with it.

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On Resolutions

Ah, New Year’s Day… No other day seems to fill us with such hope for the future. With so much ceremony surrounding the ending of one year and the beginning of a new, it’s natural that we’d take the opportunity to reflect on our lives. Looking back over what we have and haven’t accomplished is what leads us to the New Year’s Resolution. The New Year brings us the perfect opportunity to start again. Now is the time I’ll stop smoking… Now is the time I’ll lose weight. We can start the year assured that we can do it; we can finally accomplish what we’ve been putting off for years. Yet, rare is the phrase that’s so full of hope and optimism, that’s equally derided by so many people, as “New Year’s Resolution”.

The opinions on New Year’s Resolutions seem pretty well divided among people who take them seriously, people who don’t take them seriously yet still make them, and people who sneer at the very idea. Regardless of your opinion on resolutions, there’s no denying that they’ve become a collective joke in our culture. I’ve heard countless cracks about taking up a resolution that’ll last a week, or even a day. So why do we do it? Do we honestly believe we’ll keep these resolutions? The odds appear to be against us… a quick Google search of “broken new year’s resolutions” yields an amazing 6 million hits!

However, obviously the idea of a fresh start appeals to a lot of people. Who doesn’t desire to start over sometimes? Maybe you can’t actually have a do-over, but a resolution gives you a chance to buckle down and seriously work at your flaws. Even with the awareness that resolutions are a big joke, we still make them… with all sincerity. Yet time after time we break them until it becomes such a joke even the mention of a New Year’s Resolution in the right context can get a snicker.

Personally, I’ve had my fair share of broken resolutions. I’ve also been in the sneering camp. For several years, my only resolution would be to have a better year than the previous. A clear cop-out and one that was still broken on occasion (I’m looking at you, 2008). Then last year, I started to become more serious about resolutions and I thought about why they were so hard to keep. How can something that starts with such genuine intentions be so easily broken? Are we not making rational resolutions? Are we just not ready for the resolutions we make?

When I break a resolution, it’s usually because I become distracted. I’ve got (or I think I’ve got) so many things going on, that it just falls by the wayside. If I stop once, it becomes easier to find excuses to keep putting it aside. I decided that for me, failure has much to do with the time-frame. A year is a long time to keep up a resolution. These are usually life-altering changes we’re attempting to make, and we’re trying to dedicate ourselves to an entire year. When you’re sitting in February, looking at December… it can seem a huge undertaking. That’s when I came up with the idea of monthly resolutions.

It makes sense… It seems to be common knowledge that to form a good habit you need to repeat an activity for 30 days. So why not do the same with a resolution? Instead of resolving to eat healthy for a year, try to do it for 30 days. Hopefully by the end of 30 days it becomes a habit, and at that point easier to keep up for the remainder of the year. This brings us to the crux of this post and, more specifically, this entire blog.

I’m going to create 12 resolutions for this year, and I’m going to track my progress (publicly) on this here blog. I’ve dabbled with the concept of a 12 Step New Year a couple times, but never with too much success past the first few months. I’m hoping that having an audience (or even the illusion of an audience) will help pressure me to keep to my resolutions for the entire year. At the beginning of each month I’ll post my new resolution and follow up with (at least) weekly posts on my progress. During the year I’ll create resolutions to address some of my faults, gain new knowledge and skills, and experience life in new ways. The plan currently includes random other postings and musings, but I’ve never tried this before so we’ll see how much success I can muster.

For January I’m tackling keeping track of my finances. About 8 years ago, I created an Excel workbook where I listed all of my daily purchases week-to-week in order to see where I could save some money. At the time I was working a close-to-minimum wage job and every cent was sacred. This lasted for a good half-year until a house fire took out my computer and I lost all my data, but while it lasted it was a very good experience. I discovered all sorts of ways to save money, delay spending, and cut corners. Times have changed and I’m no longer in a position where penny-pinching is necessary, but I’ve lost all connection to where my money goes each month. I’ve considered many times over the years to start keeping track again, but as with so many things this got pushed aside with the ever present excuse of “oh, I’ll get to that later”. Now it’s time to start again.

So I extend an invitation to join me on this journey to see if it’s possible to make a resolution stick. Strangely enough, the whole idea of tracking my resolutions through blog postings is a resolution in itself; I don’t typically have the attention span required for this sort of thing. In any case, to those who make resolutions each year and to those who despise the very thought, I wish you a very happy New Year. May this one be better than the last.

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