I just answered a question on the Stacking Benjamins Facebook page about a recent podcast interview featuring some bill pay app creators. My interviewees had discussed just how difficult it can be to quickly and efficiently pay bills. “I don’t understand the problem these guys are presenting,” the poster said (I’m paraphrasing….). “I just go to my bank and use their bill pay app every other week. No problem.”
I wish it were that easy for everyone.
Let’s face it. Most of us have one big problem with our financial profile: we’re disorganized. After 16 years in the financial trenches, I’ve seen it far too often to think it’s anything other than a widespread problem. Most of us pay bills on sixteen different sites and have two old 401k plans with former employers, our current job’s plan AND different 529 plans for each child. It’s impossible to manage everything. I’d ask people with all of these different investments and bill paying problems how they juggle everything, and the answer I most often heard was, “I manage it very poorly.”
Yet moving investments to a single provider is a scary proposition. We’ve all heard of Bernie Madoff and don’t want to trust one person with our money. We also have all heard of diversification. Having different plans ensures that I won’t have all of my eggs in one basket.
So we have two problems: safety and diversification….and the fact that by having your assets spread out it’s impossible to track. How do we reconcile these two ideas?
It’s easier than you think.
Think About Driving A Car
When you drive a car, do you have one set of gauges or several? Of course, you only have one set of gauges. It’d be impossible to drive if you had five different dashboards. Imagine! Yet, when you think about your car, it’s a diversified collection of inputs, all working independently. However, when you put it all together, these gauges make your car easier to drive. You get the right data at the appropriate time.
That’s what we’re looking for with money management success….we don’t want to get rid of diversification. Our goal is to create a single dashboard.
In Your Personal Life
There are three areas you should look at with your money:
– Budget and bill tracking. Budgets fail when you’re making decisions about spending without knowing where your money goes each month. Items like a mortgage or rent payment and grocery bills are easy to track, but how much do you spend each week on entertainment? If you don’t track your expenses, it’s difficult to project the future or find any money management success. The gauge you’re looking for to help with daily money management is an app like Mint or Yodlee, that will automatically track your expenses so when you’re planning next week’s expenses you know how you’ve spent money in the past.
For budgets, Mint will allow you to set up alerts so that you’re notified when going over budget categories. YNAB (paid subscription) will help you think differently about your budget and keeping every area in check. People who like the old-fashioned envelope system may be attracted to MVelopes, an automatic way of instituting envelope budgets so you don’t have cash sitting around your home.
– Investments. Many apps will help you track your investment life. In particular, Mint can create a pie chart of your overall diversification so you can easily make investment decisions. Companies like Jemstep allow investors to input their goals and then recommends investment shifts. FeeX will look at all of your investments across platforms and tell you how much you’re paying in fees….an important gauge to see when investing. Zillow has a cool app that will track any real estate properties you own. NVestly is a social media site that not only helps you see results across your whole portfolio, but also makes investing social (you can see others investment pies…but not the amounts of money they have in any investment). While each of these is different, using a couple of these apps can help you make better investment decisions without worrying about having too much money at a single brokerage account.
That said, brokerage houses all offer a diversified collection of investments through different companies. Just because your portfolio is housed as Fidelity, for example, doesn’t mean you have to have all Fidelity investments. They work with a wide range of providers….and you only have to visit one brokerage site to see everything. One dashboard but still diversification!
– Big Picture. You should be able to see how your net worth is growing at a glance. Mint and Yodlee, among others, will give you that quick at-a-glance overall picture.
With Your Business or Side Gig
If you’re self employed, you’re even more crunched for time. You have your personal books AND business metrics to track. As a fan of the excellent management book The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, I know that the keys to business success are in systems and data. How much data you have and how quickly you can use that data to your advantage are important. That means three things:
– Platform. If your business or side-gig project isn’t build on a solid footing, you’re hurting. A web presence built by experts like 1and1.com means that you won’t have to worry about the “bones” of your business being difficult for customers or employees to navigate.
– Reporting. Using your bank’s application to track inflows and outflows (as well as setting up a Mint or Yodlee account for your business) can help you stay on top of business expennditures and inflows. Ask your accountant about great business tracking apps and software that they recommend.
Staying diversified doesn’t mean having money scattered all over. By focusing on systems, building a dashboard, and reliable business help, you’ll find that you’re able to more quickly make financial decisions that move the needle. That’s how you build long-term wealth!
Photo: Steve Jurvetson