The Rewards of Routine Maintenance

I had a great weekend. In fact, it was probably one of the best weekends I've had in years. I spent all day Saturday and Sunday doing chores. (Well, I watched the World Cup a little, too.) I spent nearly 16 hours doing yardwork, and I loved every minute of it.

This passion for pruning may seem strange to you, but it seems even stranger to me. I generally don't like yardwork. But here's the thing: When we bought this house in 2004, I was fairly diligent about performing routine maintenance. I pruned the hedges, mowed the lawn, cleaned the gutters, and did dozens of other little things to make sure the house and yard remained at peak form.

For several years, I stayed on top of things around Rosings Park (which is what we call our two-thirds of an acre). But about two years ago — just as Get Rich Slowly began to take over my life — I let things slide. I stopped pruning the hedges. I left tools outside to rust. I just stopped caring about the routine maintenance that had kept our home looking great.

I'm sure you can guess the results. Over the past two years, the yard has gone feral. The neighbor's kiwi has mated with our oak. The filberts have developed shaggy manes. Blackberries are sending thorny shoots through every nook and cranny. And the laurels — well, the laurels have been jubilant in their self expression, exploding with twigs and leaves.

Though I'd known it in theory, the past two years have taught me that if you don't keep up with routine maintenance, your home and yard can get away from you.

Fiscal maintenance
Ah, but this is a personal finance blog, isn't it? So what's the connection? Most of you have probably already guessed where I'm going with this. Taking care of your finances is very much like taking care of a yard. A few routine chores performed diligently are enough to help you keep things in line. But the moment you get lazy or distracted, things fall apart.

I'm ashamed to admit that over the past few months, my personal finances have come to resemble my yard. No, I'm not spending more than I earn, and I'm not abusing credit, but I am allowing financial weeds to grow where once I would have pulled them on sight.

Last week, I got a call from a collection agency. It wasn't a wrong number; they were calling for me. Worse, they were trying to collect on a legitimate debt. They wanted to know why I hadn't paid the $23.23 I owed the local hospital for services rendered in February. Ouch!

Now, let me be clear: I'm not intentionally evading this bill. In fact, I have enough money in the bank to pay the bill several hundred times over. But somehow over the past few months, this bill — along with about a dozen other pieces of my financial life — got shoved aside and ignored. I thought I had other more important things to worry about, like PR for my book.

Back to basics
One thing I've always prided myself on is the fact that I've never missed a payment on anything. Even when I had over $35,000 in debt, I always paid my monthly obligations. (Sure, I was making minimum payments, but I was making them!)

When I decided to get out of debt, one of the key habits I developed was tracking every penny I spent. It didn't matter how small the purchase (or the income) — if I earned it or spent it, I put it in Quicken. But over the past year, I've come to believe that I don't need to track every penny I spend. My habits are great. My income exceeds my expenses by a wide margin. I'm making smart choices, so why should I track my spending?

But there have been unexpected side-effects to giving up my weekly Quicken ritual.

  • I don't have the data to track long-term trends. (It feels like Kris and I haven't been going out to eat very much since I started focusing on fitness, but is that really true?)
  • I no longer have a prompt to remind me to transfer money to savings. (I used to use my weekly finance sessions to move money to my savings account or to fund my Roth IRA or 401(k).)
  • And, most of all, I'm not paying my bills.

I know this is stupid stupid stupid, but my former habit of putting everything into Quicken once a week forced me to pay my bills when they were due. Without this trigger, I just forget to pay the hospital bill and rent on my office. The bills sit on my desk, buried under magazines and notes and comic books.

Note: I used to make fun of my cousin, Nick, for this. Nick has tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, yet he's always getting late fees for things like the electric bill. “What the heck?” I asked him once. “How can this be possible?” He shrugged. “I don't know,” he said. “I get the bills in the mail, put them on the table, and then I forget about them. They get buried under other mail. It's only three or four months later that I find them again.” This used to baffle me, but now I understand.

 

There are some simple solutions to this of course. Once great way to handle the problem is to simply pay the bills as they arrive. I've advocated this many times in the past, and I still think it's a smart way to operate. But I have a tough time deciphering what is a hospital bill and what it is an insurance statement. (Seriously: There are times I have no idea.)

Another solution — and the one I plan to adopt — is to simply do what I used to do. I'm going to resume tracking every penny I spend. I'm going to set up the new version of Quicken (Intuit gave me a free copy), and then do what I've done for the past six years. Scheduled start date: July 1st. I'm gathering all of the data now.

Final section
Last night, my pal Nickel tweeted the following:

In the middle of a marathon Quicken-updating session. Feels so good whenever I get caught up.

I knew exactly what he meant. Despite my marathon yard-work session over the weekend, I'm not even a quarter of the way done with all of the pruning and trimming that I need to do. But I cannot help but admire the work I have done. Last night, as the light began to fade, I stood for several minutes just looking at the driveway and the garage and the workshop. I felt great. (In fact, I felt so great that I'll probably spend most of today pruning laurel and filbert instead of writing about money.)

And I've made a vow: In the coming years, I will not allow the yard to revert to jungle again. I'll stay up-to-date on my chores. After all, there's a sweet sense of satisfaction that comes from performing routine maintenance on anything. It's nice to know that through constant low-intensity effort you're able to keep things looking and running smoothly.

For myself, I'm just as excited about resuming my weekly finance sessions as I am about showing the laurels and blackberries who's boss. (It's just too bad there's no equivalent to a hedge-trimmer for personal finance.)

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Sini
Sini
10 years ago

Last weekend’s yardwork marathon and all the future yardwork you’re going to keep-up with will advance your fitness goals, as well. Two flies with one swat!

Money Smarts
Money Smarts
10 years ago

I pay my bills as soon as they arrive. It’s much easier that way.

I don’t know why people procrastinate and pay their bills at the last minute.

Mike

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

A suggestion, use a bank that interfaces with Quicken. We track our spending using Quicken but its super easy to get the data b/c I just download it from Wachovia (we use our debit cards for 90% of our spending) then I just have to account for cash spending, if any.

The GuD
The GuD
10 years ago

Hey!

Thank you so much about this post, I WAS considering drop my own penny tracking… 😉

I used to do the tracking using Microsoft Money, but they stop doing it. So, I evaluated a few other options, my choice was Money Dance (www.moneydance.com), it do the trick and it’s way simpler. I take less time to do the same thing. Since you are starting from scratch and, I suppose, you stoped to avoid the ‘hard’ work, I think you should take a look on it.

Thanks Again.

Carter Adler
Carter Adler
10 years ago

“But I have a tough time deciphering what is a hospital bill and what it is an insurance statement. (Seriously: There are times I have no idea.)”

The insurance statements usually say, in big bold letter, “This is not a bill.” Really.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@Carter (#5)
True. But the hospital sends lots of statements, even at the start, and these are the ones I find most confusing. When do I stop waiting for insurance to pay and actually send money myself? And remember: The problem is compounded when I’m not paying very close attention, as I describe in this post. Good thing I have my regular bills on autopay, eh?

SF_UK
SF_UK
10 years ago

If I remember rightly, JD has legitimate reasons why he doesn’t like automatic bill pays. However, one of the reasons I do like them is that it reduces massively the number of bills I can forget to pay. When I only have 2 or 3 a month, they are sufficiently unusual that I can just leave them on my keyboard to force me to set up a transfer (usually post-dated to the week before the due date) on my online bank site. If I had to pay everything this way, things would get missed. I know me and my life,… Read more »

JasonK
JasonK
10 years ago

“Despite my marathon yard-work session over the weekend, I’m not even a quarter of the way done with all of the pruning and trimming that I need to do. But I cannot help but admire the work I have done. Last night, as the light began to fade, I stood for several minutes just looking at the driveway and the garage and the workshop. I felt great. (In fact, I felt so great that I’ll probably spend most of today pruning laurel and filbert instead of writing about money.)” Laughed when I read this because i’m the exact opposite. It… Read more »

Cole Brodine
Cole Brodine
10 years ago

The hospital in the town I live goes about it better then yours I guess. They wait until all the insurance payments have come in before sending any bill at all to me. They also put in large letters on the bill “Please Pay”. It helps distinguish it from insurance statements and I know when I get something from them that looks like a bill, it is a bill and I need to pay it. I track my finances with GNUCash (Like Quicken, but open source and a free download). I hope I never let it lapse, because I love… Read more »

JMT
JMT
10 years ago

Ahhh! I did the exact same thing! I was so mortified and upset to get the bill from the collection agency. Mine was for $20. Do you have any idea if this can be tied to your credit rating and what impact it might have?

Cara
Cara
10 years ago

@Money Smarts (#2) I pay my bills when I get them as well. Much less mental clutter that way.

Dan53
Dan53
10 years ago

One way we avoid some of the required fiscal maintenance is that we’ve been putting more expenses on our credit card. I know there’s a sizable contingent out there shuddering at that statement, but it does have some advantages: – It reduces then number of bills arriving. – Saves on postage. – Allows us to see most major expenses in a single bill. – Gets us airline miles. – And believe it or not, it saves on credit card fees. The last point is important to me. Before I started putting electrical, cable, fuel, cell phone and a couple of… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

Another idea is to put a basket only for bills somewhere conspicuous, where you’ll see them before they’re due. I used to have all of my bills set up to auto pay, but since buying a house, there are frequently stragglers that sneak in (the tree service, wood delivery, plumber, etc.). For those, since I usually am in the process of doing something else when they come in (certainly not paying them immediately like I should be!), we put them up on the bulletin board in the kitchen. The fact that I love to cook, and hate to be bothered… Read more »

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

Something this post highlights is that good money management is not intellectually difficult. Nor does it connote moral superiority It is all about habits. Some people get in good habits (for any of a hundred different reasons) and some people get in bad habits (for any of a hundred different reasons). And that determines how things turn out.

We should be spending more effort figuring out what causes people to get into good habits and forget the rest of it, which is mostly just people talking.

Rob

finallygettingtoeven.com
finallygettingtoeven.com
10 years ago

Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself, you ARE human after all. Things happen, we screw up, we fix it and life goes on. At least you have a great excuse for your ‘temporary failure’. You are one heck of a busy individual. Just think if you were sitting back thinking about all your bills 24/7 we wouldn’t have all this wonderful content to read.

Ian
Ian
10 years ago

Do a daily quicken session- I fire up quicken first thing in the morning, do a data exchange and plug in a receipt or two and in less than 5 minutes it’s done. Twice a month (payday) takes a few extra minutes to plug in everything and make transfers and about once a month I spend an extra 10 minutes to reconcile my statement.

I used to dread the marathon quicken sessions- updating once every couple of months. I’d always have errors and mistakes.

Doing it daily helps keep everything accurate and easy.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Thank you for the reminder to re-read Being There, a fabulous novel about the relationship between gardening and economic prosperity. Many may remember Peter Sellars’ brilliant performance as Chance the Gardener in the film version.

And thanks for the reminder to sit down with MS Money tonight!

clint
clint
10 years ago

I’m thinking about trying out quicken but I have a few questions for you.

Right now I use mint.com (Quicken bought mint.com a while back) which is free. Have you tried mint.com yet and if you have what are the key features in Quicken that you don’t get at mint.com?

Poultry in Motion
Poultry in Motion
10 years ago

What a timely post! I need to get off my duff and get busy on my financial tracking. I did the yardwork this past weekend, and tonight will be dedicated to my often-neglected Google doc for tracking finances.

Great reminder and a great post, JD! Thanks 🙂

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Good for you going back to what works for you.

Re: bills. What I do is put the bills in a pile (separate from magazines etc.) as they come through during the week and take care of them on Saturday when I get a chance. Unknown medical bills sometimes get pushed off to later in the week because they may end up requiring phone calls during business hours, but they are examined on Saturday.

Personally I would probably go crazy if I had to track everything. But different things work for different people.

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I aim to pay bills every week, and I fail a lot – but all I really have to do is succeed once a month or so to be on top of the bills, so it’s OK. Medical bills are the worst, though – our insurance company is always bickering with some provider (recently my partner got two wisdom teeth removed and the insurance company claimed there should only be one tooth removed per visit and fought the dentist over the second “duplicate charge” tooth for six months) The only way to stay on top of them is to file… Read more »

Kyle Richey
Kyle Richey
10 years ago

I have to admit that I always got the feeling you did about your cousin Nick when you talked about NOT tracking everything, so I’m glad to hear you are doing it again. It might be that some of us are more inclined to feel the need to track every transaction, but I truly believe that it relieves stress in the long run. Also, have you considered trying iBank instead of Quicken? I’ve been happily using it for about 3 years now, and I would never go back. Just curious what the personal finance guru would think of my weapon… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I don’t understand how organization helps you pay these hospital bills if you can’t always identify them in the first place. I have a handful of bills on auto withdraw, long term things with established banks, such as my mortgage, car payments (when I had one). I have even MORE things on auto bill pay such as daycare and the electric bill. I don’t let companies that have no reason to work with me (ISPs being notorious) have access to my account. But I’m not sure why someone wouldn’t trust bill pay enough to put large regular bills on automation.… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

Hey JD, just an idea…

maybe you could collect some *methods* people use and write a post about it. So many people starting out stumble around because “do what works for you” doesn’t work when you don’t have the experience to build a system that works for you. It could be a *foundations* type post for new people that find you.

“Track every penny” or “automate your bills” aren’t systems. They’re tools and ideas. Some people need a few more specifics.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

I’m going to sound like an ad, but the way I do this is through Remember the Milk (or whatever todo list you like). I have it on my iPhone so it’s with me at all times. Anytime I think of ANYTHING that needs to get done it goes into the list. If it’s a recurring thing is super easy to set up that up too so I’ll never forget it again. Plus the satisfaction of getting to “cross off” (electronically) items each day helps with the motivation to get them done. Driving that to-do list each day from usually… Read more »

Erin
Erin
10 years ago

I don’t think you aren’t paying your bills because you stopped counting every penny; it’s because you didn’t come up with new routines for things like transferring money to savings or paying bills. A tickler file or magic box (http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/worklife/02/12/office.makeover/) and a weekly scheduled time to do bills may be enough.

Melissa S.
Melissa S.
10 years ago

I’m really surprised that you admitted your error! I think it’s great. So many financial gurus think they have to be perfect and never admit their mistakes. It’s cool that you still admit that you’re human.

PB
PB
10 years ago

It’s possible to “automate” your bill collecting as they come in. For years we have sorted the bills and anything dealing with finance out of the mail each day and put them on the corner of the piano. Every once in a while, I will grab the stack, take it upstairs to my desk, and put it in my bill-paying drawer. When our paychecks come in (we both work at the same place and get paid once a month), I pull everything out, sort it into constant (education loans, mortgage, car), variable (utilities and occasional stuff), credit card, and later… Read more »

Chad
Chad
10 years ago

your job is to write about making good fincial decisions. I feel that there is a small conflict of interest with you accepting a free copy from intuit. They are hoping that you keep mentioning that you use quicken to do this or that. so Basically you are encourageing all your readers to use Quicken because you recieved quicken for free, and not because it is the best financial decision for your readers. quicken may be the best Program out there but that does not make it the best financial decision out there. so please do a idepth study of… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

I pay my bills once a month immediately after pay day. Until then they get put in their own special holder.

This works fine, except for when the bills arrive after bill-day. Or, as in the case of a recent hospital bill, my banks online billpay had an issue creating new payees. Now I keep forgetting to try again, and I fear it won’t get done until next bill-day.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

@15 Rosa

I had a really similar situation with my wisdom teeth in graduate school (6 months of bills and complaints). In the end, credit agency ladies called and I sicc’d them on the insurance company and they worked it out in a few days. I don’t think a credit agency ladies were used to having someone so happy to hear from them. It also didn’t go on my credit report, which was nice.

Jacque
Jacque
10 years ago

I completely understand, J.D. I was recently horrified to open a utility bill to realize that I hadn’t paid the previous month’s bill.

I have ALL of our bills automatically paid and then review the statements online regularly, usually on a weekly basis. However, we have this one obnoxious little bill that can only be paid by check (simply archaic!) and falls “outside” of my normal online financial routine and is at a higher risk of being neglected.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

Hospital bills are the worst. Go into the emergency room and three weeks later you get six bills from different departments, half of which are for $0 because they’re already paid by your insurance, one says it’s already late and you were supposed to pay it in person when you were there (which nobody mentioned because you were bleeding at the time), and it’s ambiguous whether your insurance is going to pay the other two, or if you’re supposed to pay them yourself. I don’t track my spending, but I can see that issue from both sides of the fence.… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@Shara (#24) — and everyone else I like the idea of collecting financial systems from GRS readers. This sounds like a great Friday “ask the reader” topic. What do you folks want to know about how other people handle their routine finances? @Chad (#29) I understand your concern over my accepting a copy of Quicken from Intuit. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest. Publishers send me books all the time. Web developers give me previews of their apps. I do my best to not let this stuff influence me. I like what I like, and I say… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

I’ve had that problem, too. I have nearly everything automatically paid through a credit card or checking, so the odd bill that comes in for a non-recurring charge (like my car registration, for instance), can get lost in the shuffle. My only solution is to try to pay them immediately. My suggestion for the bills you don’t understand is to immediately put them in your to-do pile. You must have an inbox you can add them to. Then choose a time to look into it and write it in your planner/PDA/calendar. That way a reminder will pop up and bug… Read more »

Karen in minnesota
Karen in minnesota
10 years ago

I used to save up all my bills in one basket, and then sit down once a month and pay them. But it was always an emotionally-agonizing session! Because i) it took all evening and I never seemed to have the stamps or envelopes or check forms I needed, ii) I worried about losing a bill, iii) it seemed like it cost a HUGE amount of money to pay them all at once, and iv) the due dates were sometimes past by the time I got around to paying the bill. Now I just pay them electronically through my bank’s… Read more »

elaine
elaine
10 years ago

After missing a credit card bill some 10+ years ago (I’m pretty sure it got lost in the mail), I have set up all recurring payments and/or income as “scheduled transactions.” That way, if I don’t get an e-notice that a bill has been posted (American Express notices to me are “bouncing,” despite the fact that I’ve put all email addresses they listed into my address book), I get a notice from Quicken that it’s time to pay it. This wouldn’t have helped with the hospital bill, but it will help you to remember quarterly, semi-annual, and annual bills.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

A combo attack of automatic bill pay, thorough mail screening, and planned annoyance has kept me from ever missing a bill thankfully. All our basic bills are set up on automatic bill pay through our rewards credit card or our bank if they don’t accept credit. Any non-recurring bills are received either by email or via regular mail. The emails are marked as unread until the bill is paid (usually within a day or two since I cannot stand unread mail) and the mailed bills get paid within a week since I don’t allow myself to take them out of… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

@Nicole – that’s great, make them duke it out amongst themselves.

They do always end up taken care of one way or another, but the heap of unpaid/unpayable/should not be paid bills makes me insane. I usually pay whatever’s come in – we actually pay our credit cards online the day we use them, to eliminate interest charges – and having unpaid bills makes my skin itch.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

J.D. I envy you your yard. Good luck getting back in control of it!

Rob @ #14 – excellent use of the word “connote.”

Troy
Troy
10 years ago

This sounds like an organization issue, not a tracking issue. I try to keep it very simple. Bills go in a bin on the desk. They don’t get lost, or missed. They get paid. Of course most bills are electronic. And are not autopay. They are electronic pay but not auto. I also don’t track spending, and I don’t really understand the reasoning. You seem to have a decent hold on your finances. Tracking for what. Why? So you know where it went. who cares. It already went. What matters is the money you haven’t spent yet, not the money… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Agree with others, medical bills are the worst and I generally wait 60 days to pay (in order to get the statement from the insurance co. about what we pay, they pay, etc.) but the providers start sending bills before the insurance clears. I’ve been in a situation when I’ve paid a bill, our insurance paid and then I couldn’t get my money back.

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Sounds like you mostly just need to clean your desk! I have a box that I put bills in when they arrive. Every so often I go through and pay all the bills in the box. If there’s one I don’t want to pay yet, I leave it for next time. I also have a very simple checklist of all the major bills for the month (rent, discover, amex, various student loans, internet, electric, gas) and I check off the date that each is paid. It’s a lot easier than tracking every penny and with these two simple methods I’ve… Read more »

Starving Student Survivor
Starving Student Survivor
10 years ago

I pay nearly every bill online, and try to pay the moment I open the bill, whether it be delivered by postal mail or email. I like that I can schedule the payment for a week or two down the road, closer to when it’s due, so that my money can sit in the checking account and accrue interest a little bit longer.

April
April
10 years ago

Ugh. I really want to track every penny, but I’ve started and stopped about 20 times already. I’ve tried different software, online programs that pull info for you (and always have apparently unfixable glitches that throw off my numbers), paper and pen, but eventually, I drop the tracking.

We only have two bills that actually come in the mail and require a check, and we’ve never missed paying them, but I’d like to be able to compare spending from month-to-month to know if we’re getting a bit carried away with fancy groceries, etc. It just never lasts long. :/

Rachel211
Rachel211
10 years ago

99 times out of 100 – I know exactly what bills we should be expecting each month and when they are due. I keep a binder with accounting type forms in there and our budget. Long ago when I first got married, I looked at all the bills and how much money we had coming in. I realized that if I paid all the bills at the start of the month (or all at the end) chances were good we would either think we had more money in the bank then we actually did, or worse – would end up… Read more »

Marie-Claire
Marie-Claire
10 years ago

I really resonate to this, as I’ve been keeping my accounts on Quicken for about ten years. I used to have some bills paid automatically but no more, I still pay everything online every week, but not automatically after experiencing some snafus. Every Friday, I download transactions from my various bank accounts and credit cards, and pay any bills that might have come in during the week. I have all kinds of reminders on Quicken about payments for which I don’t receive a bill, such as tithing, or estimated tax payments. I don’t keep track of every penny, but I… Read more »

Tara
Tara
10 years ago

I use a custom piece of software to track my finances. Every Saturday, I go through the receipts in my wallet and any duplicate checks, input them into the software as “scheduled” transactions. I then log onto my bank’s website and fill in the holes and post the transactions in the correct order that the bank did. My phone and rent bills are on auto-pay and my salary on direct deposit. When the electric and internet bills come, I go onto my online banking and schedule the payment and also put it into my software. I find that by “paying”… Read more »

Jason Beck
Jason Beck
10 years ago

I’m actually sympathizing more with the yard work aspect of this post. It’s timely and motivating. I spent much more of my weekend staring at a screen than I would’ve liked, and was just discussing motivation with a friend this morning because I want to get these maintenance tasks done! It is a very nice feeling once it is done, and remembering that is one motivator in getting me to start (and often make much progress) on such tasks.

Jason Beck
Jason Beck
10 years ago

Plus, what Tara said. I wrote a custom web application back in 2003 and have tracked everything since, not including cash transactions which primarily come out of the bank as ATM withdraws from my Allowance account. Very similar software exists at http://www.clearcheckbook.com although it has a lot more features. I just prefer to use my own server to host my data, and I haven’t had a chance to try out their recurring transactions or see if the forecasting works the way I like.

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