Updated on 06.18.09

The Personal Finance Chore List

Trent Hamm

When I sit back, take a breather, and evaluate the things I have on my plate, I often find that lots of little personal finance tasks have built up.

I’d like to finish my emergency information binder.

I’d like to spend some more time researching various Vanguard index funds.

I’d like to get caught up on my filing – I have a few months’ worth of papers just sitting in a box, unorganized.

I’d like to actually give Quicken for Mac a fair shake.

I’d like to sit down and run some serious numbers about our savings for our children’s college and see if it will be adequate for how much we want to help them.

The list goes on and on, actually.

With each of these tasks, I’d feel quite good if I was able to finish it up. Getting those papers to file out of the way would be very nice. Filling up my emergency information binder and getting it safely put away would provide some real peace of mind.

The problem is time. I look at each of these projects, think about them for a second, decide that I really don’t have time to tackle it right now, and move on to something else – writing an article (like this one), playing with my kids, working on a book draft, or something similar.

Yet, lately, I’ve actually been moving forward on each of these tasks. They’re not yet complete, but each one is seeing real forward progress. How? Here’s my method for digging through my personal finance chore list.

First, I just write down every such task that comes to mind. I don’t let them stay in my head at all – I get them down on paper. This is a basic tenet of the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, and I use it in almost every aspect of my life.

Second, when I have a nice long list, I break each item down into tiny bite-sized chunks of activity. An individual activity shouldn’t take more than five minutes at a time. So, for each task, I might have one activity that I’ll repeat a bunch of times, or a series of very simple steps. In either case, it guides me to the conclusion that I want.

Here’s examples from each of the five tasks I mention above.

For the emergency information binder, a simple action would be to simply fill out one item in the binder in detail. That’s it – just fill in one piece.

For the research, I just pledge to look up one fund and note the pieces of information I’m looking for for each one – just a handful of things.

For the filing, each action is simple – file five items out of my “to be filed” box.

For Quicken, the steps are easy – the first one is to simply run the installer program, then each action after that is to hook up a single account into the system.

The children’s savings issue is a bit more complicated, but it can still be broken down: get all the data I need for each account (the balance, the investments, the history of those investments), build a spreadsheet piece by piece to do the calculations I need, then run the numbers. Each piece of the spreadsheet could be a separate step.

When I have this giant list of easy five minute tasks, it’s a lot easier to convince myself to burn five minutes to do just one of them. Instead of sighing and thinking that I don’t have time to deal with three months’ worth of filing, I think “I have five minutes and I can make some progress right now!”

Then I jump up and get to work.

Why don’t you try the same thing? Make a big list of all of the personal finance tasks you’d like to get done, but haven’t. All of those tasks that you think about during idle moments but put them off because they seem overwhelming? Write them down.

For each one, come up with a few tasks you can do to move yourself forward – but make sure those tasks are quick. Tiny little things that you can do in five minutes are what you’re looking for.

Then, over time, use these little tasks to fill in the gaps. Do one during a commercial during Lost. Do another one while the rice is boiling on the stove. Do another one while your daughter is working on a math problem independently.

Before you know it, those big tasks will be done – and you’ll enjoy some real peace of mind knowing that another piece of your financial future is in place.

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  1. Michael says:

    Just think: if this post was an actual checklist, you might have had a very popular post on your hands! When I saw the title I thought I was going to read a home run, but the body did not deliver.

  2. Jaden says:

    I love the advice I’m finding here…. Just came across your blog last week and I am loving it!

  3. JoeK says:

    My sentiments echo Michael’s above. I thought this would be an outstanding post with some stuff I’ve been missing or neglecting. It would be nice to see what you consider a full checklist of all the “chores” needed to do on a monthly/weekly/yearly basis.

  4. Hannah says:

    I like this post as is because it is basically just an affirmation for those who already follow a lot of suggestions on your blog. Not every post needs to be step by step instructions for a beginner, because many of us are long time readers. This little reminder not to get lazy or fall behind resonated with me because I need to finish my emergency binder too.

    Also, please tell me your baby daughter isn’t doing math problems independently!

  5. Mario says:

    I love this post. Progress is progress is progress.

  6. kev says:

    Have you tried The Hit List for Mac? It’s handy for making to do lists and then making sublists within each item; you can tag items to make them searchable, etc. And it makes an awesome bing noise when you check the “completed” box.
    I’ve been getting a lot of use out of it. It is a bit pricey though; I’m not sure I would have bought it if it wasn’t part of the MacHeist bundle this year. I guess it depends on how badly you want your to-do list on your computer. But as list applications go, it’s pretty good.

  7. CaGirl says:

    Thanks for this post! It served as a great reminder that all of the projects I have been putting off don’t have to be done all at once. My papers are sky-high, my photos unorganized, and the household inventory isn’t done yet – but breaking these tasks into smaller pieces will let me make more progress than I’ve been making when I get overwhelmed by the entire project and don’t work on it!

  8. Kim says:

    My grandmother introduced me to the “what can you do in 5 minutes” approach to chores, especially housework. I had forgotten about this. Thanks for the reminder that small steps are still steps forward.

  9. Tony says:

    This really could be useful for me. I use numerous text files and rememberthemilk.com to make to do lists, but too often the tasks simply stay listed/postponed endlessly b/c I know many of them are too big to accomplish in one sitting. I break down some but obviously not enough as I still make little headway. I’ll have to give this 5-minute (sometimes repeatable) task limit a try. Thanks, Trent!

  10. Anne KD says:

    I’m going to take 5 minutes a day to take pictures of each room for insurance purposes. And that should lead to another 5 minutes learning more about how to use the camera for taking good pictures of other stuff, too, like using the macro feature. Five minutes to do something functional, another five to learn something new. Thanks.

  11. jc says:

    David Pogue has an interesting post up on his blog @ NYTimes right now about how he manages his time.

  12. You have a personal life and you publish a blog.

    How an there be time for anything else? (grin)


  13. cv says:

    One of the big things I got out of Getting Things Done is that planning how to do something is part of the work. The time you spend to break down a project into little bits is virtually always worthwhile.

    Sometimes my to-do list will include things like “Plan next steps for project”, instead of “Do project”. This is an acknowledgment that the process of deciding what the small next steps are is important and a step in itself. Mapping out what the little pieces are is a little 5-minute step in itself.

  14. brooke says:

    nice list, but in my five minutes, I would rather just check up on my blogs!

  15. JEvans says:

    Discovered this little trick from author Don Aslett in “Clutter’s Last Stand”. . .

    helped me realize it was ok to go from one thing on my list to another. . .as long as I was accomplishing something. . .

    love your blog. . .on my daily “to read” list. . .


  16. Shaun Tarves says:

    I can tell you right now, you should cross off “give Quicken for Mac” a fair shake. I gave it a fair shake for the last 5 years and finally got fed up with its bugginess and general lack of development from Quicken. Stick with Mint or Wesabe if you have a Mac.

  17. Prashanth says:

    This is very good post about how to approach the problem of putting things off for later. I believe its a little unfair for Trent to come up with a checklist. I think he gives a good example by highlighting how he would get things done. Each individual is different and so are his/her needs.

    The big takeaway from this post for me is just GET IT DONE! Period. :) Taking motivation from this post, I will be getting started with a new money-management software program that I purchased months ago but am yet to use.

    Thanks Trent for a nice post!

  18. Jim says:

    Trent – I am a longtime Quicken for Mac user and have always been unimpressed. Though they are working on a new version, I am very close to pitching it for something like Moneywell, which I picked up from a recent Macupdate promo offer. It lets you track transactions and budget in a modified version of the envelope budgeting system. You should check it out.

  19. jana says:

    I keep a family binder with all our family information in it….including insurance information, phone lists, prescription copies, gift certificates, air filter size, invitations, budget….etc.

    Then I have a plastic folio with an emergency atm card to a $1000 account, and copies of all our insurance and banking information. I was prompted to pull all this together a few years ago when we had the big fires near our home.

    As for college educations…can we ever have enough? We are looking into a rotc scholarship right now…I’d love to see what you would have to say about the value of a 4 year rotc scholarship.

  20. Caroline says:

    Love this tactic. It makes cleaning so easy. I’ve been trying to extend it to reading non-fiction because, other than blogs, I read mostly fiction. I’m going to try it on some finanical stuff and my binder tonight!

  21. Patrick says:

    You know, you do have to be careful about doing your quick task during the commercial break, or even worse while the rice is boiling, because you may find yourself excited at your progress and you move on, only to find that the rice for dinner is burning on the stove! :)
    Really, though, this is great advice. Write it down, break it down, and then work one line at a time.

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