Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Automated Life

I was reading a post by new Twitter friends oXYGen Financial (@oXYGenFinancial) about the pros and cons of putting bills on autopay, and I thought I'd contribute my two cents.

Our money takes us on a journey. Some parts of that journey are interesting and worthy of exploration, other parts are simply scenery that we pass by on our way to somewhere else. Putting bills on autopay puts them in the scenery. Which has advantages - do you really want to be examining every tree and mile marker? Not only could that get pretty dull, but it could also take energy and focus away from other parts of your financial life that would benefit much more from getting your attention.

When coaching people on developing financially healthy behaviors, I tend to start with a thorough examination of all expenses. Each expenditure tells us something (my mantra is "All financial behavior has meaning," and what you spend money on reveals a tremendous amount about you). So yes, I want to know why you chose that cable plan, or why you live in that apartment. I've been known to get lost in the story of when you stop for coffee. When you're at the beginning of the financial wellness journey it's not just every tree and mile marker, but even the blades of grass get at least a cursory glance.

However, there is competition for your attention, just like there's competition for your money. So after we get a sense of which budget elements need attention and which ones do not, tools like autopay can be immensely helpful. Not only does this feature have the benefits listed by oXYGen, but I would add that you can also avoid late fees and the anxiety of wondering if you've paid something on time. Creating a greater sense of safety around your daily finances frees you up to start working on deeper-level issues.

Automating a spending activity de-prioritizes it in your consciousness. That's fine (again, given the potential drawbacks so excellently listed by oXYGen), but it's not fine if that spending behavior becomes completely unconscious. A routine review of charges helps you keep perspective on what your choices cost. It also gives you the opportunity for a quick check-in that this expenditure is something you continue to value. I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars I've helped people save when they discover a mountain of subscriptions, dues, and other fees they didn't even know they were still paying, or when they pause to notice their Netflix payment despite the fact that they've been holding on to the same three DVDs for six months.

A huge part of financial wellness is learning how to pay attention to money. But attention is a precious resource, and figuring out the best places to apply it is an art. How does autopay work (or not work) for you?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Katie, You're Doing it Right

I was thrilled to read Katie Karlson's DailyWorth piece today about jump-starting her savings account using her tax refund. For those of you who struggle to put money aside out of your paycheck, a tax refund, birthday gift, or other such windfall can be just the ticket to help turn you into a super saver.
Successful saving is a habit, and all good habits need a reward if they're to continue. The huge rush that we get from seeing a four-digit increase in our savings balance can trigger a desire to do more. In Katie's case, she doubled her monthly auto-transfer to meet her savings goal even faster.

The other smart thing Katie did was to have a specific savings goal. She's moving this summer, and wants to make sure she's financially prepared.

In order to reinforce her new saving behavior, I would recommend that Katie keep close tabs on exactly how each dollar saved contributes to her progress. For example, if she knows that renting a U-Haul truck will be $1,000 and she needs $2,000 to cover deposits and fees on her new apartment, she should regularly look at her account balance and say to herself,"I've got the truck covered now and I'm almost halfway there on fees and deposits. In x weeks I'll have enough saved to cover all of those costs, and if I really work hard and save an extra $75 in the month before I move, then I can afford to buy some pizzas and wine for my friends to bribe them into helping me unpack!"

Katie, here is what you're doing right:
  • You have your goal in place even before you've figured out all the details of how to make it happen (the order goes values -> goals -> tactics);
  • Your goal is specific, positive, and actionable;
  • You maximized your dollars AND reinforced a good financial habit all in one fell swoop;
  • You protected yourself from going into debt due to a foreseeable event;
  • You paid it forward and helped improve your own positive support network by inspiring your co-worker to save more, too.

Way to go, Katie!