I’m a big fan of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Enough so that I actually modeled the name of my site after his book. The reason I did so was that I found many of his principles for personal productivity had a very real application in personal finances. I found that I wanted to achieve the same “stress-free” environment with my personal finances as with my personal productivity.
By applying David Allen’s personal productivity principles to personal finances I’ve been able to make some vital distinctions that have helped me manage my money more effectively. Some principles have a very general application like “use a trusted system” while others have a very direct application like “operate from a zero base.” Here is my take on how you can apply GTD principles to your personal finances. It’s ok if you don’t know anything about GTD. These principles will still make sense and are sound principles to follow.
GTD principle: You must have a trusted system to achieve a “mind like water”
To achieve stress-free productivity, you need to have a system you can trust 100%. If you have any unresolved items not in your system, you will never be able to trust it completely and always have some degree of worry, anxiety, or concern that you’re “missing something.” When you have a trusted system, you can achieve a “mind like water” in your personal productivity. You will respond in perfect proportion to the inputs in your life.
Personal finance application: You need a financial system you can trust
In order to achieve a “mind like water” in your personal finances, you must be able to totally trust your system. Every time you spend money, you need to know that you have it and won’t need it for something else. You need to know that you’re saving according to your priorities and values in relation to other possible goals.
People make false starts in managing their personal finances all the time. You start budgeting and tracking your spending in Quicken or MS Money. But if you don’t have a pre-defined plan, things can start getting complex and out of control. Before you know it, you’re not sure if you can trust the data in Quicken because you don’t have an accurate way of reconciling accounts. The data in Quicken just doesn’t seem to match what’s in your bank account. You’re not sure if your spreadsheets are accurate. You’re not sure if your budget reflects reality. As a result, you lose confidence and throw all your efforts out the window. You end up discouraged and pessimistic, feeling that you’ll never be able to get your finances figured out. You return to negative spending patterns and go deeper into debt.
Those who trust their financial management system, have a completely different outlook. They spend confidently knowing they have the money and that it’s set aside for that purchase or category. There are no holes in their budget. They are moving forward and are on track to reach their financial goals. They know from month to month that all their money is accounted for and being used exactly the way they want. There is no anxiety or nagging feeling in the back of their mind, fearing they might miss a bill payment or that they “missed something” in their finances.
This principle has implications throughout the other principles below. While this article won’t go into great detail about how to create a trusted system, some of the keys to trusting your system include creating an emergency fund, having an accurate way of reconciling your budget, using a zero based budget, keeping track of all your money in all your accounts, and reviewing your finances regularly (at least monthly).
GTD principle: Collect everything in your system
This principle ties directly into the first. In order to have a trusted system it must contain everything. In regard to personal productivity, all your open loops — anything that is an incomplete action or project — must be collected and organized into your system.
Personal finance application: Account for every dollar
To apply this principle to personal finances, we must determine what our “open loops” are. In this case, every dollar you own is considered an “open loop.” If there is any dollar unaccounted for, ignored, or forgotten, you will never have peace about your finances. There will always be questions in your mind as to whether you’ll meet your financial goals, or even if you’ll have enough to pay next month’s bills. I like the way Dave Ramsey puts it–you have to “give each dollar a name.”
There are two ways to track open loops and assign each dollar a purpose. First, use a zero-based budget. By definition, a zero-based budget requires you to allocate every single dollar of income so that income minus expenses equals zero. Doing so forces you to make conscious decisions about all your money, even if you have discretionary funds left after allocating your living expenses.
The second way to collect your open loops is what I call zero-based accounting. Zero-based accounting means that you assign every dollar in all of your financial accounts. If your checking account has $1,200 in it, write down what these funds are allocated for ($600 are for this months budget, $500 to pay the next credit card bill, $100 is part of my emergency fund, etc.). You can do this in a spreadsheet or even within Quicken (I’ll write about this in more detail in a later post). This is easy for IRA, Roth IRA, and 401K accounts since the purpose of those funds is clear. However, most people don’t clearly assign the funds in their checking or savings accounts and just whittle them away on unplanned purchases. By assigning those funds, you take a critical step that will allow you to consciously obtain your goals rather than just optimistically hope to achieve them.
Look at the funds in your checking account right now. Do you know exactly how they will be used? Are they there to pay your next credit card bill? Are they to be used as an emergency fund or cushion? Are you planning on spending them on a big-ticket purchase? By making and tracking decisions about how the funds will be used, you’ll ensure that they won’t be unintentionally wasted or spent in some other way.
GTD principle: If you’re feeling out of control, do a “mind sweep”
The “mind sweep” is a process David Allen suggests to ensure that everything is in your system. You essentially go through every possible aspect of your life (aided by a list of triggers) to see if there’s anything lurking in your subconscious mind. You gather any missed items and get them in your system. This ensures that your system is as complete as possible and helps give you peace of mind that you’re not missing anything.
Personal finance application: Conduct a “reality review”
Sometimes even the most refined systems have hiccups. Human error or complex software can cause situations in which you’re not sure your system is accurate or comprehensive. The personal finance equivalent to the “mind sweep” is what I call the “reality review.” Every personal finance system needs to have a way to quickly do a reality check to ensure the mass of spreadsheets and financial software actually match reality.
There have been many times when I simply haven’t trusted Quicken. Despite the slick syncing functionality, I just don’t always trust that what I see in Quicken will equal what is actually in my bank account. In minor instances, a simple trip to my bank’s website is all I need to confirm or deny my suspicions. The problem is that an updated Quicken account will show all transactions up to today, whereas my online account may lag a few days. In such instances, you can simply look at the date of the last transaction online and refer in Quicken to the entries for that date. The running balance in Quicken for that date should match your online balance.
Some cases require a more in-depth review. You may need to compare your savings account balance with a spreadsheet of how the funds are allocated. It’s hard to give a specific process for a “reality review” since situations and ways of managing finances vary so widely. But everyone should have a documented procedure they can go through to compare what’s really in your accounts to what your accounting systems say. You should be able to go through your “reality procedure” quickly, so keep it as simple as possible. You’re looking for the shortest most efficient way to achieve the desired result.
Perform a mind sweep on your finances
There’s actually an obvious second application of this principle and that is to do a mind sweep for finances. Brainstorm all of the possible financial issues you need to address and make sure you have plans to deal with them. Make sure you’ve allocated all your funds (did you miss that old savings account you never closed?). Do you need to review your investments or insurance? What are your long-term savings goals? What are your short-term savings goals (purchases, vacations). Do you have all your goals properly documented for regular review and adjustments?
You might want to have David Allen’s system in place before doing this so you can deal with all the open loops it creates.
GTD principle: Don’t keep open loops in mental RAM. Keep them in your system.
Mental RAM is like the memory in your computer. Just as the RAM in your computer can only hold a limited amount of information for short-term retrieval, so your mind can only hold so much in its sub-conscious before it overloads. Rather than keeping everything in mental RAM and being constantly distracted and overwhelmed, keep everything in your system. That way you can trust that you’re not missing anything. You can “load” only the project you’re working on into your conscious awareness.
Personal finance application: Don’t keep track of your spending in your mind. Use cash or a spending notebook
Don’t keep track of your spending in your mind. Not only is it next to impossible to keep track of all your purchases throughout the month, but if you have a spouse, you won’t have an accurate accounting anyway since he or she may have spent funds in that category as well. Instead, use cash or carry a spending notebook (or some other way to track your spending on paper).
The most common financial anxiety I hear about is that people are not sure if they have the money they are about to spend. Or they’re not sure if they have spent over their budget for that category. This uncertainty results in that pit-in-the-stomach feeling and is one of the leading disruptors of financial peace.
Credit cards don’t help you track real-time spending
Many people mistakenly think that spending with credit cards alone solves this problem because they can download their transactions at the end of the month. But having data after the fact does not help you control your spending in the moment. You need real-time data. In fact, credit cards can exacerbate the problem because you’re spending money that won’t actually be paid until next month. This time-shifting effect can muddy the question “do I really have the money to buy this?”
Use cash in your budget to track spending where needed
My preferred method for tracking day-to-day spending in problem categories is cash. It has an advanced instant feedback mechanism that is always accurate, requires no batteries, and I don’t even have to carry a pen. I never think twice about if I have the money or not because I always know. I never worry about spending outside my budget.
Use a spending notebook for debit card, credit card, or check spending
A spending notebook is slightly less convenient since you have to take the time to record your transactions but is equally effective. Just make sure that you and your spouse decide how much you each can spend in the same category so you don’t go over. If you insist on using a credit card, you can also track those expenses with a spending notebook.
GTD principle: The weekly review
One of the most important parts of David Allen’s system is the weekly review in which you review your whole system. Empty your inbox, review your lists, review your open loops, update your projects. This process is critical in keeping your system up to date and in helping you trust its accuracy.
Personal finance principle: Regular budget meetings
Reviewing your finances on a regular basis is crucial to maintaining your system. The typical review period is monthly, but if you’re just starting to budget or are in a tight financial situation, you may want to review your finances daily or weekly. Your periodic review should include:
- entering receipts into financial software
- reconciling your financial software with your paper statements
- reconciling last month’s budget
- creating next month’s budget
- determining how much cash to withdraw for the period (if you use cash)
- ensuring all automatic payments were made as planned
- ensuring all automatic payments for the next period are set up properly
- reviewing your short-term savings goals
About once a quarter you should also:
- review your long-term savings goals
- update your net worth statement to see your overall financial progress
- plan for upcoming vacations or major purchases
Becuase finances are so in flux, it’s impossible to maintain a working, accurate financial system without a regular review. Schedule a time every month to sit down and review your finances.
GTD principles for personal finances part 2
Ready for more? Check out GTD principles for personal finances part 2.
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