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The Tools I Use to Manage Work, Money, and Life
Every year or two since I started The Simple Dollar, I’ve sat down and reviewed the wide variety of tools – both electronic and otherwise – that I use to manage my financial, professional, and personal life. These are the things that I use every single day – or nearly every single day – in order to keep track of our financial state, of the endless things that I need to do, of the ideas I have, of the appointments I need to keep, and so on.
Why is this important? What does it have to do with finances? There are a lot of reasons, so let’s walk through them a little bit.
First of all, the tools I use primarily exist so that I don’t forget things. I don’t want to forget when bills are due. I don’t want to forget when I need to review our investments. I don’t want to forget when my wife’s birthday is. I don’t want to forget that great article idea I had the other day.
I need to be able to store these things as efficiently as possible. It’s also just as important to me to have these things be immediately available to me when I need them and, in fact, even nudge me a little bit so that I’m aware of them when I need to be.
The financial stuff is obvious in terms of the impact on my financial life. Keeping up on my bills and my investments and my spending has an obvious positive impact on my account balances.
The professional stuff is similarly important, as it is those pieces of professional information – ideas, appointments, and so on – that enable me to efficiently complete the things I need to complete to earn an income. Plus, the more efficiently I complete them, the more time I have available for new professional endeavors or more personal time.
The personal stuff… well, it’s a huge part of why I care about the financial and professional stuff. I love my work, but in the end, I work to live. I don’t live to work. The center of my life is my family and my personal interests. Those things rank above all else in my life, and my financial and professional needs feed those things.
There’s another aspect to all of this that’s just as important as not forgetting these things. The fact is that if I try to keep a long to-do list and a calendar and a bunch of article ideas in my head, that’s going to eat up some of my focus. I’m not going to be able to
For me, using the best tools to manage these things is vital. These tools keep things out of my brain, but at the same time, they ensure that I don’t forget them, either. They’re really an extension of my brain, which enables me to take on more things than I ever would be able to do without them.
So, let’s take a look at these tools.
For taking freeform notes everywhere
I don’t like to go anywhere without a small pocket notebook jammed in my front pocket. I use it to quickly write down ideas, sketches, addresses, phone numbers, pieces of inspiration, things that need doing, lists – pretty much every piece of information that comes up suddenly.
About twice a day, I go through the last few pages of my notebook and make sure I’ve dealt with each item on those pages. Have I added any things that need doing to my to-do list manager (see below)? Have I properly stored any new contacts in my phone? Have I done something sensible with every item in that notebook so I can find them later?
I prefer to use Field Notes pocket notebooks for a couple of reasons. For one, they hold up really well in my pocket – I can get through an entire notebook without them falling apart. For another, they come in two formats I really like: gridded, which means that every page is full of grid lines, and dot grid, which means that every page is just full of rows of dots that you can connect to form a grid if you really want.
For taking notes while learning
I take copious notes whenever I’m taking a class (I take a lot of online classes and occasionally an offline class) or when I’m trying to extract key ideas from a book or an article. I’ve learned that doing this is the best way for me to actually learn what the article or book or lecture is about and extract many of the ideas and facts and actually incorporate them into my head and remember them later. If I take notes using a digital tool to type them in, it’s much faster to record the notes but my mental retention of those ideas is far worse.
So, I’ll sit down with a larger notebook, start a fresh page by titling and dating it, and write down every piece of information that I read that I’m trying to mentally process, as well as my own reflections and connections on those things. I find the process of writing these out by hand goes a long way toward making those ideas stick in my head.
I’m not too picky when it comes to notebooks – anything works. I do find that it takes a lot of time to completely fill up a notebook, so I don’t mind paying more to get a notebook that won’t fall apart over time. I’d rather be able to continue to reference it later on after the last page is filled. My favorite notebook is the Baron Fig Confidant, of which I’ve filled several; they basically still look new, even after every page is filled with writing and they lay flat when I’m writing in them. I’ve used – and still use – inexpensive notebooks of all kinds, though, as the Confidants aren’t something I buy regularly because they’re expensive.
For actually writing the notes
So, what do I actually take these notes with? For me, the ideal pen is one that writes with a very thin line, doesn’t leak in my pocket (meaning it has a very hard plastic case that won’t break and minimizes pen leak risk, and preferably has a clicking mechanism), and writes every time. I have a preference for black ink, but that’s not a deal breaker.
I have these needs because I’m pretty much always carrying a pen in my pocket alongside my pocket notebook and when I want that pen, it needs to work 99.99% of the time. I also want a thin line so that smudging is minimized and I can fit more words on a line while still being legible later.
For me, the best pen I’ve ever found to match these needs at a reasonable price is the Uniball Signo 207 Ultra Micro Point pen with black ink. I buy these pens in bulk whenever I find them on sale – and by bulk I mean 100 pens or more. These are the best inexpensive pens I’ve ever used – in fact, I’ve never found a “nice” pen that I like half as well as these. They’re just about perfect for my needs and I can often get them well below $1 apiece.
For storing notes I’ll want to reference later
Evernote is kind of my “catch all” drawer for notes and ideas of all kinds. If it’s a note that I think I’ll want to find or reference in the future, I put it in there. I use it for arranging ideas for writing and for videos and for podcasts. I use it for personal gift idea lists. I use it for countless things.
I tend to store notes that I know I’m going to want to look at again really soon in a default “Miscellaneous” folder which I check all the time. Other notes get filed into a long series of appropriate folders so I can go to just those notes if I need them.
For a while, I used to take notes from classes and articles directly into Evernote, but I figured out after a while that my retention and reflection on those ideas was pretty low if I took them via typing. Thus, I moved away from taking electronic notes on subjects that I was trying to understand and process and evaluate.
Later, I moved to taking pictures of every page in every notebook and adding it to Evernote, but I stopped doing that with my larger notebooks that were just filled with notes from classes and books and articles. Instead, I just use my phone to take pictures of my pocket notebook pages. Evernote uses some pretty sweet technology to make those pages automatically searchable by text, so if I want to see all pages where I wrote “Dave Ramsey,” I can just type that into the search box. I can also look at pages by date.
For writing articles and other things
TextWrangler is the successor to BBEdit Lite, which was my text editor of choice back when I spent most of every day writing computer code. I also found that I really liked using it for writing blog posts and the first drafts of a lot of the papers and documentation that I needed to do. Eventually, I moved from BBEdit Lite to TextWrangler because BBEdit Lite stopped being updated or really supported much at all.
Why do I use it? Familiarity is a big part, but I really really like how it handles text replacement. I often have reason to go through pieces of text and replace certain words or phrases with alternatives and I just love how TextWrangler does that.
Almost every article ever written for The Simple Dollar was “second drafted” and edited in BBEdit Lite or TextWrangler, and that’s where many first drafts happened, too. That’s about the highest compliment I can give it.
For writing documents and sharing them
Sometimes, sending a plain text document doesn’t really work. I need to send a more “complete” document to people, one with headings and bold type and so on.
In those cases, I use Google Docs, which is a really nice free word processing program. Over the last few years, I’ve migrated completely away from Microsoft Word toward using Google Docs for everything, mostly for the platform cross-compatibility – you can use Google Docs on pretty much anything with a web browser.
It may not have every single feature of Word, but it has every single feature that I use.
For “running the numbers”
I could basically copy and paste the above block of text, except swap “Word” for “Excel” and “Docs” for “Sheets.” Most of the same reasons that I switched from Word to Docs apply to switching away from Excel and to Sheets.
It has every feature I really want from a spreadsheet program. I can use it virtually anywhere. I don’t have to worry about version compatibility. And it’s free.
So what do I use it for? Every article on The Simple Dollar where I seem to be “running the numbers” on something goes back to Google Sheets. I use that for calculating interest rates, payment plans, and many other things along those lines. It works like a charm.
For managing all of my tasks
Omnifocus is my to-do list manager of choice. Basically, if there’s a task I need to take care of, it goes into Todoist – even stuff that I intend to do at some vague point in the future.
Omnifocus just does everything I want a to-do list manager to do. It does all of the stuff that regular to-do list managers do – lets you group tasks together into “projects,” lets you set due dates for tasks, and so on – but it does other things I find really helpful, like letting you create some projects that have to be finished sequentially while others have steps that can be finished in any order. I also really really really like recurring projects, since each week of writing for The Simple Dollar is essentially a recurring weekly project. It’s absolutely perfect for my needs.
Omnifocus is a bit expensive (thank you again to the reader who gifted me a copy of it), so it might not be for everyone. A really good free alternative to Omnifocus is Todoist. It was actually the list manager I was using before switching to Omnifocus and it does most of the things Omnifocus does at a very nice price.
For managing my schedule and appointments
If I have an appointment of any kind, it goes into Google Calendar. If I want to block off a chunk of time for any reason, it goes into Google Calendar. Everything I need to do at a certain time goes into Google Calendar.
Doing that by default makes that calendar a very trusted resource for me. I absolutely trust it when I’m looking at the days ahead to see what needs to be done at certain times. I absolutely trust it when I want to block out an afternoon to do something fun or to bear down on a project.
It works on basically every device that I use. On most of them, I have all kinds of alarms and alerts already integrated and set up so that I’m notified a week in advance of upcoming birthdays and other such events that I might need to prep for and I get lots of reminders just prior to important appointments. It helps me with so much – and it’s free.
For keeping track of my spending
I still use the classic 4.0 version of You Need a Budget to keep track of my spending and my budgetary concerns (I haven’t “upgraded” to the new subscription-based version and don’t plan to).
It does everything I want from a personal finance software package. I can use it pretty much anywhere. I can easily enter my spending as it happens. I can enter spending later on, too. I can look at endless views and reports of that data once it’s in there. I’m not sharing that data with any third party service or leaving it on any server that I don’t have control over. It’s very easy and pleasant to use. It’s practically perfect for me.
It’s not free, however. The best free alternative I’ve found is the PearBudget spreadsheet, which works in pretty much any spreadsheet program I’ve ever tried. It does most of the work of You Need a Budget, though it’s not quite as slick in terms of all of the views you can generate.
For emails big and small
I’ve been using Gmail as my primary email tool for almost a decade now. It just does almost everything I want it to do. It works everywhere I go. It makes reading, replying, composing, and searching through email about as easy as can be. It lets me drag and drop attachments really easily. And it’s free.
As much as I like it, I do have a few nits to pick with it and it is possible that at some point in the future I might use something else. The biggest nit I have is that it doesn’t thread conversations with people very well. Often, I just want to see all of the email that I’ve exchanged with a single person over time but I can’t really view all of that at once with Gmail.
(I have been looking at Unibox as a possible alternative to Gmail. I have not tried it or attempted switching to it as of yet, but it does one thing I really like and that’s center everything around conversations with people rather than messages received. It essentially makes email look like text messaging, in other words, and I can really see how it’s useful. On the other hand, it’s expensive and Gmail is free and it would require me to get used to a different email workflow.)
For focusing on a specific writing task
When I want to bear down on a specific writing task, particularly a first draft of an article or a book chapter or something like that, I actually don’t like using TextWrangler (or any word processing program). It is very easy for me to get distracted in those programs because I’ll find myself searching for the perfect word, only to find that I end up distracted, looking at a website or something else.
Flowstate solves that perfectly. It’s a full screen text editor – you can’t even see anything else when you’re using it. When you start, you set a timer and that timer starts counting down when you begin typing. If you stop for a moment, the words that you’ve already written slowly begin to fade over a five second period (it’s slow at first, but then becomes more and more obvious) and if they fade to white you lose all of it.
Now, why would you want this? When I start Flowstate, the goal is to get words down on paper as rapidly as possible without being distracted. It doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be good enough to convey the idea. It also forces you to not be distracted because if you do get distracted, you lose everything you’ve been working on, so you have to stay on task. All of those things are very useful to me as a writer, and this tool has both enabled me to write first drafts faster than before but it’s also improved my ability to focus on the task at hand.
If you don’t want to buy the software, there’s a free web version of the app that does the same thing – The Most Dangerous Writing App. If you use this, I highly recommend using it in full screen mode to minimize distraction.
For visiting websites
The biggest reason I use Google Chrome is that I use many of Google’s other web services and I know that Google Chrome will display those services in the best way possible. Google is not going to make their web browser and their web services incompatible.
Honestly, however, most of the mainstream web browsers – Firefox, Safari, Chrome, even Microsoft’s more recent web offerings – are all really good. I don’t have a significant complaint about any of them.
I simply choose Chrome because of the implied guarantee of interoperability with Google’s web applications, of which I use many.
For managing recipes and grocery lists
Paprika is a little application that serves as a recipe database, a meal planning tool, and a grocery list manager. It does all of those things so well and in such a smart integrated fashion that it’s become a vital part of our meal planning routine. Even though I could do the bits and pieces that this app provides in other programs (like Evernote), Paprika just makes it all easy.
Our usual meal planning routine involves grabbing a grocery store flyer, finding recipes that match the ingredients that are on sale in that flyer, using those recipes to chart out a meal plan, and then building a grocery list from that meal plan. Paprika helps with everything in that workflow except for grabbing the store flyer.
Paprika stores all of the recipes our family has ever liked and integrates with lots of different online recipe sites to gather more recipes (and also makes it easy to enter new ones out of cookbooks, which I do manually when I’m reading a new cookbook). You can search those recipes by ingredient really easily. Then, you can pull the recipes into a meal plan with just a click and add all of the ingredients for that recipe to a shopping list with just another click (you can double or triple or halve the recipe sizes, too). I then check off things from the grocery list that I know we have on hand, as well as adding staples that we may need during the week, and then I’m off to the store.
I love this tool and consider it essential for our meal planning and grocery shopping. Our routine saves us significant money every single week versus just wandering the grocery store aisles.
For managing passwords
Given that I use a number of different services for my work and personal life and that I want these services to be as secure as I can make them, I use complex and unique passwords for each site. I manage all of those passwords in one tool – 1Password.
1Password helps me generate long random passwords for lots of different sites. The actual database for my passwords is encrypted and sits offline. It’s protected by one very long and very complicated password that I know by heart.
Thus, if I ever need to log into a service I consider important, I get into 1Password, copy my password for that service, and paste it in wherever I need it.
It takes a little bit of time, but it ensures that I have very hard to break passwords for my important stuff and if a hacker were able to get into one service, that hacker wouldn’t be able to access others because they all have different passwords. That’s well worth it for me.
This isn’t a complete list of the tools I use every day, but it covers most of the things I rely on for financial, professional, and personal activities in my life. They perform a bedrock of ensuring that I never lose an idea, a to-do list, or an appointment. They help me with brainstorming and calculating and sharing ideas. They help keep me safe and help me to not get distracted by having to keep ideas in my head.
They’re my tools, and I use them every day.