While a smartphone might be a very powerful avenue of distraction and temptation, it also offers a number of very powerful tools for getting your financial life straightened out and keeping you focused in surprisingly effective ways.
One of my favorite simple tools for doing this is the Reminders app that’s part of iOS on all newer iPhones. (There’s a very similar app available for Android phones called Google Now.)
Reminders is just a very simple to-do list app that’s heavily integrated into the iOS notifications system, meaning that it’s incredibly effective at alerting you of things you need to remember at key moments. It’s one of those tools that, when you start thinking about clever things you can do with it, good ideas just pop up all over.
I’m definitely a “to-do list” kind of guy, and for most of my personal and professional tasks, I use OmniFocus. However, Reminders just does some things so smoothly and effectively that I use it for certain types of things, particularly when I mostly just need a reminder at a certain time or a certain place.
It turns out that having a reminder pop up at a certain time or at a certain place has some extremely effective personal finance applications, and given the ease of use of the Reminders app, those are things that virtually anyone can set up with ease on their own phone.
All you really need to do to set up any of these things is fire up your Reminders app, type in what you want to be reminded of, then click the little icon to the right of that new reminder and set either a location or a time and date to be reminded (as well as whether you want that reminder to repeat). You should also make sure in your settings that Reminders can always access your location. That’s it – when a reminder is triggered, it’ll alert you right when you need it. (I have so many reminders that I actually have separate lists of reminders, something else you can easily do in the app.)
Here are four really effective personal finance uses for the Reminders app, even if you’re not a big to-do list kind of person.
Use Gift Cards
Many of us receive gift cards for the holidays or for other occasions. They can be a great gift, but the trick is remembering to actually use them. That’s where Reminders comes in handy.
Just set up a reminder to use a particular gift card whenever you happen to be near that particular retailer.
For example, let’s say that you have a gift card for Starbucks. Just create a reminder to “Use Starbucks gift card,” then tap on the little “i” icon to the right. Set it to remind you at a particular location, then identify the Starbucks that you’re near most often. You can even set two or three different reminders, each for a particular Starbucks location that you’re near.
Then, the next time you’re near that Starbucks, your phone will remind you that you have a gift card and you can go ahead and use it so it doesn’t go to waste. Once you’ve used up the gift cards, just go into Reminders and swipe away the reminders related to that gift card.
You can do this for literally any retailer or restaurant for which you have gift cards. I currently have a Chili’s gift card that I won in a drawing. I don’t think about eating at Chili’s on my own, so I have a reminder set up to remind me of the gift card whenever I’m within 1,000 feet of the three Chili’s closest to where I live, one reminder for each location.
Perform Regular Simple Maintenance
There are a few key home and auto maintenance tasks that I want to make sure I perform each month. These are typically on my ordinary to-do list, but I also want my phone to remind me of these tasks.
So, I just create a reminder for each one that pops up once a month at roughly the time of day I expect to be most likely in a situation to tackle that task. I have a couple that pop up on the first of each month, and then others that pop up throughout the month, here and there.
For example, as I was writing this post, I got a reminder to air up the tires on the van. It popped up in the early afternoon because this is a short errand, of the kind that I’ll often run in the afternoon before the kids get home from school on a weekday. Guess what? Now that it’s front and center in my mind, I’ll take care of it in an hour or so.
You can do this exact thing with any number of regular tasks, like changing the furnace filter or changing an under-the-sink water filter or cleaning out the gutters. Just add a reminder, set it to repeat once a month, and then your phone will bug you, right on time.
Set Your Mindset
Over the last year, one thing I’ve really been working on is improving some of my natural character traits. I want to be more outgoing and more thoughtful and kind to others, and I want to naturally tune down my desire to spend money on, well, anything. It’s hard to do these kinds of things as discrete tasks – it’s more of a mindset shift.
The best strategy I’ve found for doing this is from the book Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. In it, he encourages people to focus on effort in terms of improving character traits, and to ask yourself at the end of each day honestly whether you did your best to be more outgoing or whatever the trait is you’re working on. You really should read the details – it’s really powerful stuff.
Anyway, I’ve found that I’m way more effective at this if I remind myself occasionally throughout the day that I need to be doing my best to do certain things. So, what I do is that I have reminders that pop up throughout the day that remind me of a particular trait I’m working on.
Let’s say I’m wanting to curb my spending impulses. I’ll have a reminder pop up during the day saying, “Are you doing your best to keep your spending in check today?” I don’t have that reminder every single day – it would become routine. Instead, it pops up twice a week at a strange time, like 2 in the afternoon on Tuesday and 9 in the morning on Friday. That way, it doesn’t feel like a “routine” thing.
I do this by having two reminders that recur once a week that just pup up “Am I doing my best today to keep my spending in check?” They recur once a week, at different times and on different days. I read it and it drags the idea that I need to be more mindful of my spending into my consciousness, and the irregularity of the reminders keeps it from becoming something rote that I can safely ignore.
Add Desired Books as Location Reminders at the Library
This is perhaps my favorite tactic of the lot.
Whenever someone mentions an interesting book to me, or I read about one somewhere, I’ve been training myself to just add a reminder regarding that book to my Reminders app rather than buying it or putting it on my Amazon wishlist or something.
See, I’ve figured out that if I take some sort of action in relation to something I want, that desire fades away to virtually nothing very quickly. That’s a good step. However, adding it to another list, particularly an Amazon list, often ends with me seeing it again in a few months when I’m already on Amazon and deciding that, yes, indeed, I have enough in my hobby budget to buy that book and I click and it’s bought. Bad choice, Trent! Bad choice!
Over the last several months, I’ve found that using the Reminders app is a much better choice. I have a list of reminders called “Books to Read” and whenever someone mentions an interesting book, I add a reminder to that list with the book’s name and author.
Here’s the kicker, though: I set it up as a location reminder set to a tight radius around the local library that I visit every couple of weeks.
So, the next time I go to the library, I walk in the front door and my phone goes nuts, dumping out a half-dozen reminders about books I’m interested in. That’s great, though, because I’m at a location where the books are free. I walk over to a kiosk and start locating those books in the library. If they’re not available, I’ll put in a hold request for them. If the library doesn’t have the book, I’ll put in an interlibrary request for the book. It’s easy and it’s all free. If a reminder pops up about a book I’m no longer interested in, no big deal – I just ignore it.
This has saved me so much money in recent months. When I hear about a cool book, I can do something about it that doesn’t set me up to end up buying it from Amazon. Rather, I set myself up to grab it from the library for free.
The Reminders app (or the very similar Google Now app if you’re on Android) is an extremely effective tool at reminding you of things when and where you need to know them. It can be used to remind you of individual tasks, sure, but there are other tools that do that effectively.
Where it shines is nudging you gently in the right place at the right time, and if you set up reminders like these, you’ll find that your phone is somehow magically in sync with the tendencies of your mind and thus it nudges you in a progressively better direction.