My day job has me thinking about automation for a living. And while I try not to bring the office home with me, these concepts tend to follow me around.
The art of personal finance has been a topic of interest for me for most of my adult life. Some people feel strongly about it, choosing all manner of tools, software, processes, etc.; while others employ no real system at all, opting for a more intuitive sense of financial decision-making. That’s a wide spectrum of fiscal personality, but make no mistake: family finance is a deeply personal experience. It’s no wonder that there tends to be a lot of emotion tied up in our financial lives.
My personality predisposes me to the former end of that spectrum above. I’m that annoying guy who finds it necessary to quantify every last detail of my expenditures and investments. I did so with a range of software products over the years. I cut my teeth on Microsoft Money, then switching to Quicken, then Quicken for Mac, then Moneydance.
As for processes, I had been keeping everything in perpetuity. We’re talking receipts, invoices, tax returns, mortgage statements, warranties… everything. At one point, I probably had up to 10 years of paper, documenting my entire financial life.
But then one gets married. And as your personalities meld and contrast, you find yourself taking on more of a mutually new set of financial preferences. The gist is this: there’s only so much time in the day to tabulate. Being married has taught me to start valuing more the bigger picture of things. What good is all the data, if I don’t do anything with it? Data is great. Goals are better.
And so that brings me to 2016. That was a landmark year for our married financial lives. My wife and I took a Dave Ramsey class and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it was life-changing. Establishing a system, exercising co-discipline, focusing together on the future, and openly communicating about finance without fear or anger… those are life-changing benefits!
Some takeaways I learned from our class experience and budget living:
- Balancing a check book (or any account) is reactive. Budgeting is proactive. The former is all about the past, what’s already been spent and gone. The latter is all about the future, what’s yet to be spent and where you plan to spend it.
- Getting away from credit was a vital step in our process.
- Forget those points you earn; it costs you more in stress, late fees, and hours of balancing than what you earn on the points. It’s far better to buy things with your own money, rather than take out micro-loans each month (which means you can’t actually afford stuff anyway).
- Seeing my expenditures draft within 24-48 hours at my bank (with a debit card) revolutionized my money-tracking. In the old days, when we bought everything on plastic, it would take ~31 days before that bill actually came due. But by then, we had long forgotten about the stuff we bought. Worse, we had mentally allocated new income toward other stuff, instead of paying off the old stuff. It’s far better to see the cash leave your bank account as close to immediately as possible. The purchases are more real that way, and this is vital to a healthy relationship with your money.
- When every last penny of your income is budgeted (which is to say, “told where it will be allocated”), I have unbelievably less stress in my life. It was like night and day. In the old days, it wasn’t always clear when auto-bills would draft (see #2 above). And then the nonlinear consumption of utilities would constantly throw us off. So there was always this undercurrent of instability, which invariably would lead to stressful arguments between us.
- We’re on the same team now. #3 above just doesn’t happen anymore, which is not to say that money isn’t tight or that life is without stress. It’s just that we don’t have money fights anymore.
- We know when we can we afford something. It was next to impossible in the old days to forecast when and how we’d afford some big expenditure. We just didn’t have the tools. But now, we use “sinking funds” to — radical thought here — save up for them. I know, pretty basic, yet totally revolutionizing for us. Deferred gratification is far more valuable to us now because the alternative is too costly in stress.
As for specific tools, my wife and I are using a combination of things that either are 3rd-party or privately developed (all of which are free). They are:
- Every Dollar. This is Dave’s website tool for maintaining your monthly budget. It’s an easy-to-use tool that my wife swears by (she’s the Budget Queen in our family).
- Google Docs (Sheets). Initially we had been using Evernote, which works just as well. In Sheets, we have an ever-updating list of expenditures that either of us has made with our debit card, all of which fall tightly into our monthly budget. Each line item has a Paid/Unpaid status that forces us to “settle up” or reconcile the expenses with actual cash later.
- Apple Numbers in iCloud. My wife has developed a number of spreadsheets using her Mac’s builtin editor. She uses them to track various budgeting goals, like vacation planning, Christmas funding, mortgage pay-down, etc. Then she has these files located in her iCloud account so that she can edit them on the move with her phone too.
- Personal Capital. This is an all-encompassing aggregator tool that I’m using (not so much my wife) purely for viewing our wealth position across all bank accounts, investments, insurance, etc. It’s incredibly useful and heavily automated. Basically all the manual work I did for over 20 years with the various software tools listed above, I can now do simply by logging into my Personal Capital dashboard. That’s it.
Ever bore of the new tab screen in Chrome? It’s what you’re presented with after doing a CTRL + T.
Well, with the magic that is extensions, you’re free to change this. There are a host of replacements available on the Chrome Web Store. But I’ve always appreciated a low-tech, unobtrusive approach. I’ve used the Google Art Project screen, which puts a new great work of art on your new tab. For days that I feel overstimulated, I’ve opted for simply a blank tab.
But recently I found the Google Earth new tab, and I’m in love with it.
It’s mesmerizing, yet subtle somehow. It doesn’t take over my screen, it just invites me to take a moment before racing off to the next website, and simply gaze upon our planet’s beauty. That may only be one or two beats, but at least it’s a bit of pause in a busy online life.
Shockingly, over a year has elapsed since I last spoke about my digital life-hacking. That’s a pretty terrible commitment to the discipline of writing and contemplation. I can blame that on so many things: raising small, needy humans; steadily growing home-improvement lists; active social calendars; too many screens and not enough books. But the truth is, writing is hard. And everything else can be easy or more immediately fulfilling.
But here I am again, ready to get back into the work of expressing myself… and getting more organized. The upshot of the rather long hiatus in this series of articles on productivity management is that I have this nice big data-set from which to draw my conclusions. Which is rather rare for me. Typically, when I find some “new solution” to an old problem, I’m too quick to conclude that the new is better.
Well, this time I can pretty highly recommend my new take on the old way. And what is this new way?
Inbox by Gmail
Once again, I’m hardly cutting edge on this bit of software. It’s been around for a while now. It rather obviously back-engineered some of the coolest features of the competitor email app known as Mailbox. Inbox is a novel take on its existing email platform, Gmail. It re-imagines your email as possible “todos”, allowing you to set reminders to your email workflow. Each email can have an associated task date. If you add a reminder to an email, these will show up over on your Google Calendar as well, or in Google Now as a card (for mobile users). So there’s very good cross-product integration.
Marking an email “done” in Inbox translates to applying the Archive tag over in Gmail. The genius of Google’s approach here is that you don’t have to sacrifice your Gmail experience and commitment to use Inbox. You can fluidly go back and forth if you want to. Although what I found in the past 12 months is that by month 2 or so, I was fully using Inbox exclusively.
And of course, Google has baked in very good keyboard shortcuts so that your workflow can be as fast as you want it to be. On mobile devices, each email or Reminder can be swiped right for completion and left for rescheduling. It’s a powerful and fast workflow. And when you’ve conquered your tasks/emails — which is to say, addressed all the stuff that’s in your inbox — Inbox presents you with the most pleasing trophy you could want: virtual sunshine.
Obviously, having all these features integrated tightly into Inbox (and Calendar, and Keep, and Drive, etc.) makes for a great overall user experience. Gone are the days of buying 3rd party plugins to a Mac OS-only mail client just to set a reminder on an email. I couldn’t really be much happier with this solution, since it’s all right there at my various fingertips (whether on desktop or mobile). And the fact that such powerful software is essentially (troublingly?) free makes it all the more compelling.
Looking back, I’m amazed that I ever did email differently. I had a set of pretty good solutions, cobbled together with 3rd party tools and utilities. It all got infinitely better when switching to Gmail. But now with Inbox, I’m in organization nirvana.
Since recently switching from OS X on an iMac to Windows 10 on a laptop, I sorely miss file tagging. I’ll admit, this is one feature that I had not given much thought when I was preparing for the big leap to another operating system.
Though I’m happy with my switch, I’m also trying not to live in denial. This is still Microsoft we’re talking about. They have made incredible advancements as of late with their Windows 10 version. And yet, in some areas they are very much behind in innovation compared to Apple.
File tagging is a glaring example.
If you’re at all interested in the Getting Things Done ethos, then you probably know all about this computer software feature. On an Apple computer, you can tag a file or folder with a color and/or keyword. These tags are then searchable. They can help your workflow dramatically.
For instance, in a folder of downloaded bank statements, it would be incredibly handy to know which ones I’ve balanced against my personal finance software, and which still need to be done. Tag the files accordingly!
But after my switch, I can’t do this on Windows 10. And I use Google Drive to be able to do my personal work anywhere, so a file-tagging solution that is platform independent is pretty necessary.
Hence, I began looking for a solution, 3rd party or homemade.
Allegedly, Microsoft pays lip service to file tags, but these aren’t compatible with all filetypes. So that’s a non-starter.
But then I found this 3rd party solution which sounds very promising. But it’s not platform universal, so apparently your tags get vaporized when you email them or open the files on some other OS. You can apparently export your tagging database as an XML file for importing on another computer, but that’s not very intrinsic a solution. I do like how this solution plugs itself into Windows Explorer and the context shell menu!
But ultimately, I think that this won’t be a future-proof solution for my needs.
So instead, I built my own workaround. And I did it with scripting: AHK to be exact. It’s a really fun, easy-to-use scripting language that runs exclusively on Windows. Don’t even get me started on my frustrations with the native scripting on OS X. I always intended on learning it one day… until the day I got out of the Mac world altogether.
- Platform independent. This means I could use the files that I tag both on Windows and OS X (I don’t happen to ever use Linux, so that wasn’t a priority for me). Their tags won’t become lost when opened on another platform, though the actual tagging process will only be conducted on a Windows computer.
- Transferable. This is a slightly different requirement than platform independence. The tags shouldn’t get lost when files are emailed, messaged, or synced across cloud services.
- Searchable. The tagging architecture must be plainly identifiable in some way, such that they can be searched easily.
- Non-destructible. The tags must not interfere with the files’ usability.
- Extensible. The tags and tokens should be configurable, such that the user can setup their own tagging schemes and change them over time.
I came up with the following:
It’s as inelegant a solution as I am old. But the longer I thought about it, it’s the easiest to implement, the quickest to set up, and meets all the above requirements. In the scheme that works for me, I have three tags:
- untagged files
- tagged with some sort of “todo” keyword
- tagged with a “done” keyword
tagged: bank_statement_07232015 @TODO.pdf
retagged: bank_statement_07232015 @Done.pdf
For this script to work as painlessly as possible, I used global shortcut keys to tag the files one way or the other. One or more files can be tagged or untagged simultaneously. Alternatively, you can bring up a GUI to do the tagging.
You can find the source code on my GitHub. Here is the source…
I suppose that the “Slippery Slope” phenomenon applies to me right now. A chink in my Apple armor developed some time ago. Then I got out of the iPhone world all together, which amazed me as much as it did my friends.
The recent maturity of Google’s cloud services (Photos, Drive, Music, etc.) had a considerable hand of this transition. It’s very hard to argue with free, no matter who you are.
But then you do pay for free. You pay with your time investment and commitment to the new platform. For me, that cost has been relatively low.
That brings me to the next big hurdle to topple: OS X and my iMac.
It just suddenly made sense to me to consider the possibility of changing that hardware platform too. Why not? When literally all of my documents are cloud-based, I’m free to experiment with any kind of computer.
I’ve been a faithful Apple guy for the better part of 2 decades. I’ve owned these machines in this order:
- PowerMac G4
- iMac 24″
- Mac Mini Duo
- MacBook Pro
- MacBook Air
They’ve all been pretty awesome. But times have changed for me, my interests morphed. And now? I changed to an Asus 15″ hybrid laptop. It’s a beautiful machine.
- i7 64-bit CPU
- 8GB RAM
- nVidia video
- 1TB hard drive
- Windows 10.
That last spec is what finally made this all possible. The Windows 8 debacle proved to be a non-starter for switching from the beautiful, consistent OS X. But Windows 10 was finally showing itself to be ready to handle my needs.
I’m about a month into this big switch. So far, I’m loving the choice. It’s different, but good. Not everything has been perfectly smooth, but no computer platforms are.
In particular, I really really miss filesystem tagging. If you use those on OS X, you’ll be sorely disappointed with its lack on NTFS and Windows. There are of course third party software solutions for this, but I don’t think they will work with Google Drive or Dropbox across other filesystems and operating systems. For instance, I still work sometimes on my wife’s MacBook, so I need file tagging / coloring to work across them both.
The only solution I can think of is to simply make subfolders for my files. The layout could look like this:
…and then inside here, I could put:
Then I get full syncing across platforms, and most importantly, visibility on where I left off.
Details aside, I’m the first to admit that there’s a certain polish lacking over here on this side of the computer and phone fences. I miss that homogeneous sheen that OS X and iOS seem to exude.
And yet, for sheer horsepower and agility, I’m really appreciating what Windows 10 and Android devices offer.
A few months ago, I did an overhaul of my digital life. Those posts were all about switching smartphone platforms from Apple iOS to Android. What was most revealing to me was not the hardware and software differences, but just how I get things done now.
In the end, I’m not unhappy with my switch. I tend to get things done better on Android. That’s not a light admission, as I’m a longtime Apple product user. So to begin the switch away from the Apple ecosystem is somewhat shocking to me.
The next target in my lifehacking experiment? Email. It’s a corner of my digital life that is kind of scary. There’s old chests full of dusty “hello”s and “newsletters” and “for sale”s that I haven’t been able to get rid of. I have email from my college days (when I first started emailing… when everyone first starting emailing).
And for just about as many moons, I’ve had this here domain name, ElectroLund.com. Along with it, I’ve been using self-hosted domain email (firstname.lastname@example.org). But the price of vanity email is quite high in this modern age of ubiquitous cloud communication. In other words, a self-hosted address isn’t exactly portable.
Not exactly. There is IMAP, which sort of worked for me for a time. But there are costly storage constraints when considering 10 years of email to keep on a server. And I’ve switched hosts many, many times. Relocation is exhausting, and simply takes away from what I really should be doing here: writing, soldering, and writing about soldering.
Yeah, so back to the whole thinking smarter and not harder… I’ve never been known for early adoption of technology, though I follow it obsessively. Case in point is this whole cloud revolution. So the next 600-700 words will sound positively adorable to all of you who are on the bleeding edge.
I just discovered gmail.
Not really, but kind of definitely. I mean, I’ve had a gmail account attached to my google login for, like, ever. But I hadn’t been utilizing its full potential at all. So as I further pondered how I get stuff done with my digital life (with regard to my phone, my music, my photo library), it made sense to reexamine how my email could benefit as well.
Enter gmail. It immediately made better sense to me to use one more product of Google’s. After some research, I discovered that they support downloading of external email accounts — like my electrolund.com account! This was a revelation. Because I could do 100% of my email management from one tool, rather than two.
But it doesn’t just stop there. It’s not that I simply needed a better email client. What I could benefit from even further was the extended power of Google’s ecosystem. Let’s dive in.
Google might very well be the most stable network of servers on the planet. They have server farm after farm, acres of redundant machines all keeping my content up at 99.999999999% of the time. That’s a metric that I’ll never be able to touch with my self-hosted email. So migrating my email through their servers just makes good sense. And that I did. All ~5,000 of them transferred up onto the cloud pretty painlessly.
Google is search. So it would make sense that searching your email inside Gmail is pretty fantastic. And fast! I’ve been amazed at the speed of the results. Also, there are a wealth of complex search tokens you can use, like AND and OR and others. I get consistently faster, better results from searching gmail that I have in any local email client on a computer.
For my self-hosted email, I was relying on a third-party filter product called MXGuarddog. It’s pretty awesome and they give you free filtering with an ad placed on your website. I was very happy with it.
But let’s face it, why not just let Google do it. They’re really good at the algorithm business. And besides, all that is integrated in the same tool (gmail), along with my gmail mail account. One stop shopping.
I’m restating the obvious here. “Clouds” are so ubiquitous now that we take them for granted. But not until I began to use Google’s cloud for actually getting stuff done in my life that I saw how truly awesome it was. To have access to all of my email, dating back to ~1999, is pretty amazing. I’m no longer hamstrung by size limitations. Only the limitation of my free Google account, which currently weighs in at 17GB. Gigabytes! That’s incredible.
Connected cloud applications
Here’s where you begin to see some GTD power coming through.
- Google Photos
- Google Drive
Being able to compose a new email, or reply to a received email, and attach any photo I’ve ever taken on my phone, by simply clicking the Photos attachment is mind boggling to me. Gmail is inherently connected to the Photos product, which lately has been making waves for its intelligence. That’s power. Keep in mind that I’m at no time ever connecting a cable to my phone to get these photos up into the cloud. They just magically appear there within seconds, at the ready for later use in other products like gmail.
Now onto Google Drive. Here’s a little gem of a connected feature. When you receive email with attachments, let’s say a bill or invoice PDF, you have some interesting options. In my case, I have various family records in my Google Drive.
Now in the old days of my antiquated email workflow, I would need to be at my desktop computer, download the attachment, and then place the attachment in some local hard drive (from which I did all manual periodic backups).
But now… Drive. In gmail, there is an option to save any attachment to your Drive. Did you get that? Here’s what’s happening behind the digital scenes: an email attachment’s link in Gmail can be relocated to a new reference in the Drive product. In so doing, Google’s bread and butter (extremely intelligent indexing) gets you free storage, in that you don’t have this file in two locations. You now only have it in one: where you want it, filed away in your Drive. Back in Gmail, in the original email message, is only a reference to the Drive location. Genius.
So far, I haven’t quite completed the transition for my GTD uses.
For instance, I’ve been a longtime paid user of the wonderful products Mail Act On and MailTags by Indev Software, both tools that plug into Mac OS X’s mail client. They extend the functionality of Mail by allowing you to tag your mail, and to sort the mail with shortcut keys.
Now in switching my mail to Gmail, the above tools don’t get obsoleted. They simply change a little. I use them differently. Obviously, they can only be used from Mac computers. So when I’m on my work Windows machine or my Android phone, I don’t have access to them.
There are other oddities between platforms that are annoying, but not deal breakers. In Gmail, the concept of “stars” and “importance” isn’t compatible with OS X’s Mail client. That’s been frustrating, as I relied on both for my GTD workflow when I was working exclusively on my Mac.
So some of those details aren’t quite ironed out yet. But I think I’m nearly in the 21st century now… along with nearly the rest of the civilized world.
When my washing machine breaks down, do I call a plumber? No! I text my wife.
Continue reading “DIY mamma”
Here’s a triumphant update to the last post on switching cell phone carriers. It’s been a long road, but we finally got there. As of now, we are now truly paying $80 per month for two cell phones (with about $10 tacked on for taxes).
If you too want to try to make the switch, here are a few things I learned that might help you too.
- Getting approval for unlocking from AT&T can be tricky. I got approval right away for the main phone line. For the second phone (mine), it was considerably harder. After about a half dozen phone calls to support, we finally got it. Make certain that if you have multiple lines, that all IMEI numbers are “attached to the account” (whatever that actually means is anyone’s guess).
- This bit is for iPhones owners. To properly unlock the phone from AT&T, follow their instructions to the letter; don’t cheat like I did and restore a backup of the phone. The iPhone will still be locked! Instead, you must restore first. Then restore your recent backup. You can’t just skip the blank restore directly to backup.
- After you pay your last remaining balance, don’t forget to request approval for refunding your deposit (if you had to prepay one month). For us, this was about 7 years ago; but hey, it’s worth getting back every penny you’ve loaned to a multi-billion dollar company!
The only remaining uncertainty is coverage area comparison. It’s still too soon to tell, but so far the data coverage quality is much better in my experience. At my office, I have far better 3G data connection. We also have excellent voice coverage in our house.
Another observation, less related to service quality: T-Mobile’s website is far superior. AT&T’s was cluttered and hard to navigate. T-Mobile seems to have taken a web design note from Google’s latest “card” esthetic. I like it. It’s part of the whole clean, unobtrusive design principle.
So if you are looking to lower your bill, T-Mobile seems to be the real deal right now. Count us as two of the recent millions of switchers from AT&T to T-Mobile.
I am nothing, if not occasionally obsessive. I get fixated with certain projects, plans, or life goals Well lately (as in the last 6-9 months), I’ve been rather preoccupied with finding the perfect, affordable cell phone plan.
The last time I was this worked up about hacking my status as a cell phone user, it was all about the iPhone. This time, it isn’t the hardware, it’s the carrier.
I have this long-standing disdain for how my data gets to my head. Whether it be of the internet variety, or the texting and talking variety, it’s all really just chunks of data. But so that we’re all on the same page, let’s confine our terms to the industry convention:
- data = internet access. Think web. Think email. Think Facebook. That’s data.
- voice = cellular phone calls. Self explanatory.
- text = text messages sent via SMS. This is old-school texting here, long before there were smart phones. But don’t believe for a second that they are as valuable as those cell carriers say they are. Profit margins for text messages are astronomical. And the value of said SMS messages are plummeting with the advent of other, freer platform messaging (like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.).
Now the sweet spot in a smart cell phone (i.e., iPhones or any Android branded phone) plan, as I see it, would be to leverage more data heavy offerings in lieu of the more expensive voice/text services. Why? Well, that’s the whole point of a smart phone. These things are internet-gobbling dynamos. That’s arguably what they do best anyway: present the internet in amazing, fascinating, startling new ways to us consumers. Classic voice and text are two mediums that are nearly archaic, simply because they are nearly throwaway offerings in the data world.
All of these reasons have led me to often call cable TV and cell phone companies merely dumb pipes. I stand by that. The intelligence in our data consumption has moved downstream — into our little mobile internet gizmos. The value of the service isn’t in the pipe itself. And knowing that their product value was losing ground, those big dumb pipes did the only thing they could to retain customers: force us. The CEO of T-Mobile (!) summarizes it best:
“Carriers figured out a long time ago that they could make money – a lot of money – by forcing customers into restrictive, overpriced data plans. We changed it for smartphones and we’re changing it for tablets.”
I was floored when I read this from one of the big pipes! Speaking directly to the core problem in the cell phone market right now. As I dug more into his company’s offerings, I was even more impressed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On average, with AT&T, we are paying $135 per month for two cell phones, both iPhones. That’s a chunk of change. And how much service were we consuming? Take a look:
As you can see, our usage was quite low overall. So I began to look for alternatives. And there are many, many options. But it helps to realize a couple of key facts:
- If you have a GSM phone, there are only two infrastructure games in town: T-Mobile and AT&T. All the other smaller mobile companies are renting their antennae.
- When you sign up for a “cheap” phone upgrade, you are getting a reduced price because the hardware is subsidized by the carrier. It’s like a lease. You get the privilege of using this great phone, but you must stay with the carrier for 2 years. By the time the contract is up, you would have paid twice over for the retail cost of the phone. Early termination fees? Those exist to “recoup” the cost of the hardware.
- The above typical cell phone plan is what’s known as a post-paid plan. It is paid in full after contract maturation. A “pre-paid” or “pay as you go” plan is the non-contract alternative.
So contracts are bad, all agreed. But I found that the pre-paid alternatives were harder to get right too. And there are many:
But in the end, all of a sudden, that little T-Mobile CEO quote popped into my radar. And I was floored. The more I looked into it, the better it sounded. For a 2-smartphone plan, the first line is $50 / mo. The second is $30. This is their baseline rate, for 500MB of 4G speed data per month. But there is never an overage penalty. Instead, they just throttle you down from 4G to 3G. That’s very reasonable. Meanwhile, text and voice are rightfully “thrown in” at unlimited. Their coverage map is roughly equivalent to AT&T’s.
So we’ll be looking at a 40% reduction in our monthly bill! But the switch is only on paper right now. The SIM cards are in the mail. I’ll post an update when they arrive. Happy bill-slashing!