Reader Mailbag: Notes and Some Questions on the “Getting Things Done” Series

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. GTD and privacy
2. Planning for a long trip
3. GTD and prioritizing
4. Overcoming jaded partner’s money attitudes
5. GTD and daily routines
6. Hopping into an IPO
7. Reporting a tiny income
8. Stagnant savings
9. GTD and “books to read”
10. Student loans and house savings

It’s strange – there haven’t been many comments on the posts, but I’ve had more reader comments and questions directly emailed to me about the Getting Things Done series than almost anything else I’ve ever done on The Simple Dollar.

This further mystifies me, because I have a hard time figuring out what ways to tell if a post is a hit or not. I usually rely on comments, but quite often the number of comments have little to do with whether the post actually provides valuable information or entertains readers.

In the end, sometimes I just have to guess what you’d like. In truth, that starts by just thinking about what I’d like to read. I very rarely post something that I wouldn’t enjoy as a reader.

So, today, I’m including a few of the better questions I’ve received over the course of the GTD series, along with plenty of non-GTD questions, too.

I´d like to ask you about GTD and what you do to keep your privacy, since you have your life, your wants and to-dos on one inbox, someone can see when entering your office or home, or when some friend ask you to see your cool new phone with your tasks in there.

Also on this issue, how do you keep your spouse/girlfriend from seeing your task/project about her surprise party or to buy some gift for her? Because I keep this out of GTD so she doesn’t see it but since it’s out of GTD I tend to forgot and would like to know how you deal with it? And since your series is finishing I thought that’s a good thing to talk on the GTD series.
– Marcio

I generally don’t keep what I would call private information in my inbox. Virtually everything in there is pretty mundane – I guess if snoops want to know about my desire to read Reality Hunger, they can know.

If you do have a lot of personal information in your inbox and it worries you, keep your inbox offline and in a locked drawer in your desk.

As for such surprises, I usually handle all of that in my calendar. I have most important birthdays in my calendar, as well as reminders two weeks in advance of really important birthdays. I don’t think it would spoil a surprise for my wife if she knew I was thinking of her birthday two weeks out (in fact, she’d probably be happy to know it). If I’m doing something complicated that requires secret planning, I just keep those plans in a project folder put in a private space where she’d never look.

I’m transferring from a nearby state college to a private college in the fall. I will be graduating in either two or three years after that, depending on how some of my credits transfer. I paid very little in tuition at the state school, and only had to take out a loan for $1500 with 6.8% interest. I paid the loan down to $700 over the last year, even though I don’t have to pay anything until after I graduate (though the interest still accumulates). At the school I am transferring to, I’ll owe almost $3000 on a subsidized loan (the government pays the interest until I graduate) and and another loan for $1000 at 6.8% (not subsidized). I’ll also have to pay another $4000, but it looks like my uncle is going to contribute the $4000 so all I’ll have left are the loans.

I have $5000 in a savings account earning between 1-2% interest, which I accumulated entirely from working two jobs last summer. I’m planning on traveling to Europe for a year or so the fall after I graduate, and will be doing so very cheaply (by couchsurfing, WWOOFing, and the like), and want to have $15,000 saved for the trip.

My question is what I should do about paying off the loans vs. saving for the trip. I haven’t touched the $5000 since I deposited it, and like having that money there as both an emergency fund and assurance that I’ll be able to take the trip. But I can’t help but feel that it makes more sense to pay off the loans, or at least the two I’m paying interest on. However, I’m nervous that if I put that money toward my loans, I’m going to have a hard time rebuilding to $15,000 plus paying off the other loans I’ll likely acquire within the next 2-3 years. I really don’t want to put off the trip any longer, it’s one of those things that has to be done before I actually settle down or I’ll never end up going. I’m hoping you’ll have some insight and the kick in the butt I’ll need to do the financially sound thing.
– Sarah

You don’t have what I would ever call life-stifling student loans. The $1,000 at 6.8% is a little high, but even that one isn’t bad at all. Your total debt (just shy of $5,000) is an amount you can pay off in a year when you start your professional career.

If you were in a truly bad student loan debt situation, I’d encourage you to rethink your Europe trip plans. But those aren’t bad student loans.

Focus on saving for the trip. Make the minimum payments on the debt. Enjoy this opportunity in your life. Come back refreshed and ready to take on the world.

Thank you for writing your series on GTD.
I have a dilemma that perhaps you and your readers can help with.
Here’s the scenario:
It’s 6pm. I’m not yet done with the task I’ve been working on but it’s my usual time to go home. I have 3 choices. Part of me wants to stay and keep working cause I know I’ll feel better when it’s done.
Part of me wants to go home and tackle my next actions list there.
Part of me wants to go to the gym.
How to pick which of these 3 to do?

– Julia

Allen spells out how to decide between such choices on page 92 of the book:

1 | Context
2 | Time available
3 | Energy available
4 | Priority

You’re currently at your desk with your supplies out, which means that the context of the current situation suggests that you finish the task.

I’m assuming that you have a healthy workplace, of course. If you have a draconian workspace with inflexible hours and a boss that is going to essentially punish you for stepping up to get things done, context really doesn’t matter. In that case, context doesn’t really matter and you move down to the next criteria – time available. If you don’t have anything scheduled for that evening, that criteria goes out the door and you move on to energy available.

Do you have the energy to go to the gym? If you do, I’d go to the gym. If you don’t, I’d go home and do household chores.

So, here’s how I’d do it. If you have a good workplace and a job you value, stick around and finish the task. If you’re in a worse position professionally, go to the gym if you have the energy for it. If you don’t, go home and handle what chores you have energy left to do.

Several years ago, his parents filed for bankruptcy – his dad lost his job, though found another briefly, but they also had a few years of back taxes and poor spending habits. During that time, my boyfriend would sometimes even pay for groceries and Christmas gifts from money he earned. Though he was skeptical, his parents encouraged him to go to college, telling him that he will be able to get by with jobs and loans, and if anything bad happened they would be there to support him. He’s been struggling financially for years, but it has finally hit him hard now. This is the third time he’s been unable to pay rent (He has been able to make payments in the past, they were just late). He offered to pay what he has now, a little less than half, and the landlord is generously okay with that for now. This only leaves him with $66.

In addition, he recently found out he doesn’t have a job anymore, as the test prep courses he was scheduled to teach were canceled due to low demand. Both parents are unemployed: his father has been for a while but has been attending school as well as getting by on odd jobs. His mother recently lost her job and is considering going to school so she can get by on loans. She often had to borrow money from him for necessary medications and other expenses she couldn’t afford at the time. So, they are both in no way able to support him. (He also has a teenaged sister living with his mother).

He’s been living off loans and what jobs he can get teaching and tutoring but those are meager. He has thousands in debt; some is credit card debt but most are student loans. He has thought about dropping out and finding a full time job, but that would also mean he would have to start paying those student loans, and he would need to find a well paying job quickly on just a high school diploma. Every now and then he gets slapped with something unexpected, such as a parking ticket. He also needs a new tire and new brakes. As you can imagine, he has no safety net.

Understandably, he is very jaded and very depressed, which makes it even harder. It is difficult for him to focus on school (as well as even get courses that he needs to graduate). I almost forgot to mention, he hardly has any extra expenses- just rent, food, utilities, etc. I think I covered everything. It seems like there isn’t anything he can do- he’s completely trapped.
– Ellen

First of all, sitting at home being jaded and depressed will absolutely not solve these problems. That is usually the worst possible response a person can make to a difficult situation. Everyone faces challenges in their lives – those that allow themselves to be jaded because of them tend to succeed much less often than those who do the best they can to overcome whatever hand life has dealt them.

The first thing he should do is go seek steady employment, even if he views the job as “beneath” him. There are lots of jobs out there if people are willing to work them, but in a world where almost every high school graduate goes on to college and then expects a college job with a college degree, a lot of jobs are seen as being “beneath” people. I see this all the time from people who write to me complaining about their unemployment in a career path where the entry-level wage is $30,000 a year. They’ve not looked outside of this path for work.

He shouldn’t be afraid to look for minimum wage work. It will get him out of the house, interacting with people and earning some money with his time. Yes, the job might be boring or he might see it as demeaning or something like that. Here’s the thing: it’s not demeaning. It’s an opportunity to turn the ship around. When you’ve fallen to the ground, you don’t jump back on the ladder several rungs up. You grab on to the bottom rung and start climbing again, looking for every chance you have to pull yourself up.

He should take that money and stick it in a savings account and continue to live as cheaply as he can. Then, the next time when one of these emergencies hits, he can just handle it without blinking an eye. The first time a car failure or something like that happens and you can just handle it, the world seems a lot more manageable.

Just take it a step at a time.

How much detail do you put into your calendar and your to-do list? Do you list everything that you intend to do in a day, like taking a shower?
– Mark

I don’t include established habits – like bathing – on my calendar or my to-do list. These things are just part of my morning routine and come naturally without even really thinking about them.

What I do add is a reminder of any routines that I’m trying to build. For example, if I’m attempting to establish a habit of a daily three mile walk, I make sure this is constantly on my to-do list (and marked as important).

If something reaches the point where I’m just doing it anyway, then I eventually delete it from my to-do list.

Currently my only form of investing in the stock market is through a moderately aggressive 401k at work, and my wife similarly is investing in a 403b. Neither of us know much about the specific make-up of these allocations. I know very little about actually buying a specific stock through a brokerage, and I only keep up with news on the stock market as much as the mainstream news covers it. However, a company that I have been a customer of for about 8 years, and which I believe in very strongly, is about to go public. My wife and I have always thrown out the idea of buying stock in the company when it became available, and now that time is here. We could potentially feel comfortable investing $1000 to $3000 of our current savings into this company as a long-term investment and still leave us with over 3 months expenses in our emergency fund. We have alot of student loan debt, and although we arent paying it off aggressively, we do make our payments and contribute a bit extra here and there.

The question is not necessarily should we do this, although that could be up for debate. However, any advice or resources a beginner in this kind of investing could turn to? Aside from this strong inclination towards a certain company, I don’t think we’d ever feel inclined to gamble in the stock market, and I know little about the logistics of actually buying a stock. We’re not considering this in order to make a quick gain (I realize those type of expectations are foolish), but in reality would be in with this company for the long haul.
– Nick

Oh, come on, Nick! You’ve got to tell us what this IPO is! (I’m kidding. A little.)

If I were you, I wouldn’t really view this as an investment per se, because the risk involved in investing in an IPO is pretty stiff. However, if you truly believe in the company and have the discretionary income to invest, I encourage you to go for it.

In 2002, I knew a few people working at Google and was absolutely convinced that I should invest in their IPO, but I convinced myself (right or wrong) that I didn’t have the adequate funds to do it. I still regret it.

If you can swing an investment without upsetting the ship – and it certainly sounds like you can – give it a shot.

I am working in the US from last 3 years on a work visa and have a stock trading account with Scottrade with a portfolio of few stocks. I also get quarterly dividends on some of the stocks I own.

I wanted to check on how the US IRS Tax rules apply on these dividends once my work assignment completes and I return to my home country? In that scenario, I will have no income to report in the US but will have some dividend income (approx 500-600 USD per year) thru the stock portfolio I have with Scottrade. Does that qualify me to report and pay the taxes in the US as my income in US would be way below the tax bracket where income taxes are applicable.
– Sandeep

You are required to report it. You almost assuredly won’t have to pay any taxes on it.

Dividends are taxed as ordinary income. If you file a return on this income (which you should), your standard deduction will be significantly larger than the $500-600 a year you’re earning in dividends. End result? No taxes.

Yes, you should report that income to the IRS. No, you won’t have to pay taxes on it.

My mother and father are retired and they are selling their home. They will be walking away with a nice chunk of money which I have referred to as their NEST EGG. My mother is 63 and my dad will be 65. They are not huge money gurus and don’t really have any plans for the potential $250K-$300K they could walk away with from the selling of the house.

What should they do about reinvesting this money? I would love to see this money work for them and live off the interest.
I would hate to see it sit stagnant in a savings account and get taken away little by little by Uncle Sam.

Do you have any advice/suggestions?
– Alex

For starters, it’s not going to be taken away little by little by Uncle Sam. Let’s say they have $250,000 in a savings account that earns 1% interest. That means they’ll be taking in $2,500 in interest each year. They will only be taxed on that interest earned. Depending on their tax bracket, Uncle Sam would take somewhere around 15% of it. In the end, they’d still earn about $2,100 a year from that money after taxes and the balance wouldn’t be touched.

If you want better returns than that, you’re going to have to take on some risk in some form or another. They could use that money to buy a very long term treasury note that would return about 3% on their money – $7,500 a year. The risk there is that the rates on treasury notes will probably go up in the next five years or so, so one option would be to wait with the money in savings for a few years and hop in later on.

Another option is to put it in a riskier investment, like a stock index fund at a brokerage. What happens there is that you’re at the mercy of the stock market. If the stock market has a good year, it will probably make about 15% a year and sometimes more. If it has a bad year, it could lose 15%. If it has a disastrous year (like 2008), it could lose 40%. Over the very, very long term, Warren Buffett has publicly estimated that a person should average out to about 7% a year going forward, but that’s a prediction (albeit one from one of the best investors on earth). The problem is, though, that some of those years are going to be +18% and others are going to be -18%.

You could also mix the investments. If you put half of it in savings earning 1% and the other half in the stock market, a good stock market year would earn you 9% overall and a bad stock market year would send you down 10%.

The problem with the risk is if your parents are relying on this money to support them. If they are and the money’s in the stock market, a swoon at the wrong time would be devastating. If they at least have a healthy Social Security check coming in, then they can feel at least a bit better about it.

You mentioned that whenever you have a book you want to read, you make a note of it and toss it in your inbox, then you keep a list of them? How does that work? I don’t get it.
– Erica

I do keep a list of books I want to read, films I want to watch, and games I want to play.

My “films I want to watch” list is actually my Netflix queue. If I see a note about a film, I just add it to our queue (we’re thinking strongly of going cable-free and are seeing if Netflix streaming and 1 disc at a time for $9 a month works for us).

For my books and games, I usually just add them to my Amazon wish list (with a comment if I wish) and/or to my library queue. In the past, I kept these in a Word document. The advantage of using a wish list is that if a family member is stymied as to a gift to get me, my wish list usually has a giant bundle of things on it.

I am 24, two years out of college, and have pretty good job security making $52.5K per year. Including rent, car payments, student loans, and everything else, my monthly fixed expenses are about $1570. I put gas, food, and weekend expenses on my credit card, and pay it off each month. That ends up being around $700 or so per month. I end up saving around $500 per month after all expenses, including my 6% 401k contribution which is the max my company matches.

Now, here is the issue: my loans. I have a little over $50K in student loans, and about $11K in car loans. Half of the student loans are at 2.8% interest, while the other half is at 6.5%. My car loan is at 5.74%. I would like to have enough money to put a down payment on a house in the next five or so years. So, should I continue making the minimum payments on my loans and putting that $500/month into a savings account for a house, or should I use it to put a little extra into my loan payments? Right now I am just putting that money into a savings account. Basically, what should I be doing different in order to better prepare myself for the future?
– Kevin

The interest rates on your loans are low enough that if you’re considering buying a home in the next five years, you’re better off just making the minimum payments on your loans and saving for a down payment.

Here’s why. As the money sits in your savings account, it’s earning about 1% return. Then, when you go to make that down payment, you’re reducing the amount of your mortgage by some significant amount, which means that the money you invest at that time will essentially earn a return for you equal to your mortgage interest rate. The absolute lowest amount you’ll likely get for a mortgage rate is 3.75% (on a 15 year) – and in five years, I’ll almost guarantee it’ll be more than that, probably significantly more. If you don’t have the 20% down, you’re likely going to be taking on an extra loan at a higher rate or paying PMI, which means an interest rate higher than your base rate because you didn’t save.

In other words, you’re better off saving for that down payment now and paying minimum on those loans. Even if your plans do change, it’s still not an enormous loss if you choose to channel that saved money into debts later on.

Obviously, the best choice in terms of maximizing every dollar would be to live in the cheapest apartment possible, pay down your debts ASAP in order of interest rate, and then start saving, but that plan may exceed your time frame depending on what else is going on in your life.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag. However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.