Finding Motivation and Meaning in the Drudgery of Personal Finance

As passionate as I am about managing my own finances, I’ll be the first to admit that some of the tasks are rather dull to me. For example, filing away documents is about the last thing on earth I want to do, and I often put it off so long that there is a mountain of bills and statements that need to be sorted and filed when I finally get around to it.

The challenge is that it’s much easier to say “forget it” and do something fun than to do something you consider to be boring, especially in your free time. Sure, there are the essential things that you have to do to have a manageable house – like cleaning the kitchen – and other things like pumping gas, but when it comes down to inessential things like filing papers, the siren’s call is very tempting.

So how does one find meaning in such drudgery? Most of us have found it very affirming to see that our strong financial moves are paying off, but how can we make that positive feeling stretch to more boring tasks? While it’s not realistic to believe that filing is fun, here’s what I do to make boring personal finance tasks less so.

The biggest step is to make connections between the things you’re doing and the improved financial state you’re in. When you’re filing credit card statements, go back and look at the one with the highest balance and compare that to your newest one. It’s pretty hard to not feel good about positive progress when you can make such strong comparisons so easily. If you’re figuring up your net worth, compare that to where you were a year ago at this time and you’ll likely be feeling quite good about things.

Another method is to use drudgery to improve your financial state even more. If you’re filing away your cell phone bill, take some time to look it over and see if there’s anything you’re not using very much. If you’re checking up on your investment accounts, take a moment to see if you couldn’t dump a bit more into retirement or maybe change your allocation around a bit.

Alternately, you can use it as a stick instead of a carrot. Make an agreement with yourself to do the drudgery before doing something fun, or as “punishment” for making a really bad personal finance move. This is often a great way to make yourself get started, while the other suggestions can add meaning during the practice. I often do any filing I need to do before doing something purely fun, like playing a video game or chasing my son around the yard. This way, the boring task is linked to something else, something you can meditate on while doing the task. For instance, if you had seen me filing the last time I filed a bunch of papers, you would have heard me whistling the tune to Super Mario Bros. 3, which I downloaded and played on the Wii for $5 afterwards for a very nice retro experience.

I also find that, as a general rule of thumb, the philosophy of just getting it done now works very well for me for most tasks. When I notice a stack of things to file building up, I usually just realize that it needs to be done – and just do it. That way, it’s not sitting there reminding me of something that I need to do but I’m just too lazy to tackle, and it creates a very positive feeling when I’m finished, giving me a sense of accomplishment.

Adding these ideas together doesn’t make filing or account reviews or paperwork fun, but it does make them more manageable and quite often more fulfilling than before. Instead of utterly dreading it like I used to, I can now usually get started without much prodding and I usually find that I feel much better about the experience, both during and afterward. Plus, by doing such boring tasks regularly, I’m actually keeping up with things, which is the best feeling of all.

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  1. the baglady says:

    My hubby finds personal finance extremely dull, too. Whenever I talk about money he would sort of tune out. I think paying bills is boring, too, but the fun is really in trying to save money and pay a smaller bill. The good thing is that we are both subscribers to the “do it now” philosophy and try to spend very little time on the drudgery. Even though my hubby is a big gamer he always says to me, do your work first and then play.

  2. debtdieter says:

    I guess I’m ‘lucky’ as I’ve only just started my climb out of debt the tasks I’m doing don’t seem like drudgery yet.

    I actually just bought a groovy lime green expansion folder to file all my paperwork in!

  3. Hey Trent,

    You know what I like to do to more efficiently organize my archived paperwork documents such as phone bills and traffic tickets etc?

    I take my digital camera and I take high resolution photos of every document. Rather than retaining mounds and mounds of paper documents that clutter up and take up space, I only retain an online digital copy of each document that I store on my personal home computer, neatly organized into file directories.
    -Raymond

  4. leslie says:

    I used to be the WORST about filing stuff. One year it got so bad that I had one of those big purple storage bins FULL of things that needed to be filed. It took me weeks of working on it for a chunk of time every day to sort through it and file everything that needed to be filed and then shred all the stuff that I didn’t need. That whole horrible project convinced me to never let it get that bad again. Now I have a system where every piece of paper that comes in either goes in the “to be paid/delt with” file or “to be filed or shreded” file. Once a week I go through each of these files and pay bills, file insurance, fill out forms etc. (the paid/delt with” file) and file stuff or shred stuff. Because I do this every week (occasionally it slips to every two weeks because of travel or whatever) then it never gets unmanageable.

    Now I just need to come up with a system to deal with the HUGE amounts of paper that come home with my kindergardener every week.

  5. Jean says:

    My husband and I own a business and there are MOUNTAINS of paper I need to keep. Luckily, I am an organization freak.

    When we started the business, I started using Quickbooks. I also set up an envelope system. One envelope a month for receipts and check stubs (payments).

    My filing cabinet is set up using Smead Viewables. I love love love this product. It makes each hanging file folder it’s own folder — no more tab top folders inside folders with not very readable tabs. And these tabs are VERY easy to read, with a flat printed top so you can see it from the top — no more riffling through and bending the tabs back to read. Frankly, it’s my belief if the system is easy to use (and mine is even color coded!) you’re more likely to use it.

    I also came from a banking background — so each piece of paper I handle, I initial. Actually, I write my first name… so if I DON’T file it, I know that whatever has needed to be done with it, has been done with it and all it needs is to be filed. My receipts are stamped posted, after being posted. (I have to keep receipts because we charge those purchases to clients)

    At the end of the year, my file cabinet gets cleaned out. All statements and receipts and documents that pertain to the business are banded together and put into a large clasp envelope marked business, year and also included is a system backup disc for the year end. Personal statements get the same treatment — because sometimes the business and personal lines blur.

    The 18 monthly (and bi monthly for personal receipts) envelopes are banded together and placed in a clasp envelope and all three are stored away.

    When we were audited by the IRS, my accountant was stunned at the ease I brought all my records together. After they figured out my system, they were happy, and the audit went perfectly.

  6. sp says:

    I find that bringing things I like into the process makes a boring task more manageable.

    I used to dislike balancing my checkbook. So I started to play some music I love, fix my favourite drink, and perhaps burn some essential oil to make the environment more pleasant while I was doing the balancing. It really worked, and after doing this several times, I no longer dread balancing the checkbook and in fact no longer need the “props” of the music, tea, and oils.

    Now that I have online statements and Quicken, it goes even faster, and I no longer dread it. I balance as soon as a statement becomes available.

    I suppose I could do the same process with filing. And I appreciate the suggestions in the previous comments about the Smead files and the expanding file, and also the digital images.

    @the bag lady: My guy is bored by money talk, too. So I send him an email every month to tell him what I did with the finances during the month and where our savings stand. I insert funny photos (of silly piggy banks, animals, whatever) and joke about the things I didn’t do with the money. That keeps it fun but also keeps him informed about exactly what I am doing with the loot. I don’t go into a lot of detail, and I always tell him to ask me about things if he wants to know more.

  7. Amy says:

    Once a week I set a timer for 15 minutes and do what I can for that amount of time. When I start, I’m always sure the job will take a long time, but usually I’m done long before the timer goes off.

    PS Jean – I’d love to ask you more about your filing system!! Mine isn’t really a system at the moment… and I will need one eventually since I will be starting a business. If you’re willing to share more detail, please email my yahoo acct. at sandpiperhiker. (I know that’s awkward wording, but I’m hoping auto-phishers don’t read for e-mails in that order.)

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