What even the best Budgeting apps CANNOT do for you? (And how to deal with it)

Welcome to the Whys, Hows, and Please-Don'ts of Budgeting and Planning part III. This time  - let's look at what all these wonderful budgeting apps from  last post  CANNOT provide.

WHAT even the best BUDGETING APPS WON'T DO FOR YOU? 

The short answer - no app can plan and set your large-scale money goals  for  you. 

But, wait, Marina, you said Mint, YNAB,etc., allow me to save for specific purposes!
Yes, they do. You want to save for a trip to Yosemite? The app will help. You want to buy a new laptop? Sure, the apps will show you how to budget for it.

But what about planning your income goals?
Realistic and achievable ones, I mean.
Do you have a $$$ number you plan to make in the next 3-6 months? Not just "as much as I can", but a concrete dollar figure to guide your efforts? As in "I plan to make $XXXX by serving clients one-one-one, and $XXXXX from selling group services, and $YYXX from e-course sales"?

The apps are wonderful. Really. Mint.com brought so much order and control into my life. But they are merely tools to facilitate a process - planning your income, based on your needs, hard data, and informed assumptions.
You're better off setting goals and planning your income in a scrappy notebook, than diligently using the sleekest app to it's max potential.

This process is what really brings in the money. And perhaps, more importantly, a sense of controlling the fate of your business


How do you go about that? 
How do know which goals are realistic? How do you know you're not setting yourself up for failure? 
 - You track
 - You analyze
 - You plan your steps, using numbers.


Maybe you have already tried, got discouraged and never finished the goal-setting. Maybe you see yourself more of an idea-generator rather than a numbers person. maybe dealing with money makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you lack a good system (process+tools) to support your goal-setting and planning.


If this is you, I have an offer: a short and sweet MONEY GOALS 3-6 service.
Two one-on-one sessions, with homework in-between. We'll set realistic financial goals for the next 3-6 months, after helping you analyze your income streams and expenses. 

You can even get it at launch price, 50% off, if you sign up before Feb-3.
 

Some of the benefits: 

  • Clear money goals for the next 3 to 6 month - hard numbers in dollars.
     
  • A system to track your income streams and expenses - Taking the guesswork out of how much money is left at the end of the month.
     
  • A solid idea about your most profitable products or services - and a clear understanding where it pays to invest your energy
     
  • As a bonus - my clients report a sharp drop in money-related anxiety. I'm no therapist, but it stands to reason that feeling in control makes you worry less, especially when it comes to the lifeblood of your business. 

Check it out here: MONEY GOALS 3-6


That's it for today. Go do amazing things!
P.S. Next post - about Money-related anxiety and ways to deal with it.

As promised - Budgeting Latest and Greatest

This is part II of my Whys, Hows, and Please-Don'ts of Budgeting and Planning for 2017 series. As promised in  my last post:

FAVORITE BUDGETING APPS and SOLUTIONS

All the apps below got high marks on most of the criteria I outlined in part I:

1. Designed for tracking and planning - most apps below have planning features, some better than others.
 
2. Clean, beautiful interface - some, I dare say, are even fun and engaging. Then again, I’m an analytics nerd, so my idea of fun may sound weird. Please don’t hold it against me.
 
3. Easy to navigate and find information
 
4. Easy to make changes
 
5. Great for specific purposes - these apps are not, strictly speaking, "budgeting". But I found them useful for their stated purposes.

All tools are web-based and sync across your computer, tablet, and phone.


1. Mint

This is probably the most established personal finance tool out there. Mint allows you to track expenses by category and to set budgeting goals for every category in your spending. Graphic interface, easy bill-pay feature.
It has Alerts! This is especially great for those of us who have trouble remembering to pay bills. The setup is very easy and intuitive.

Caveat - depending on your setup, Mint might send so many alerts and notifications they naturally get ignored.
Goal-setting feature is OK, but I prefer YNAB’s interface for that - to me, it feels more intuitive.

Cost: Mint is free to use, they make their money (mostly) from ads. However - these ads are not necessarily a bad thing - Mint tries to customize the offers to your spending habits, so the stuff Mints suggest could be actually useful.

2. YNAB (You Need A Budget)

Awesome, wonderful, and great!

The only reason I’m not on YNAB is because we started with Mint, and transferring everything will be a hassle. Talk about being first on the market.

I love YNAB's philosophy, their 4 rules (https://www.youneedabudget.com/method/). My favorite feature - the age of money. YNAB allows you to see how long a specific sum is sitting in your account. Why is it great? Because it helps you pay this month bills with money from last month or older. This feature allows you to create a buffer, and avoid the “I’m flush! Let’s spend!” trap.
The interface is sleek and flexible, in the best sense of the word.

Cost: YNAB is not free, but I’d say it’s more than pays for the $5 a month.

3. MVELOPES

This solution uses a classic idea of dividing your expenses into envelopes** ahead of time: an envelope for groceries, an envelope for gas, an envelope for dining out, and so on. When the money in an envelope is out, that's it. The basic principle is very similar to Dave Ramsey’s system, with electronic envelopes instead of physical ones.

The apps, both iOS and Androids, have great design. The desktop version is a bit old school.

Speaking of design - I heard complaints that MVELOPES isn’t as sleek and intuitive as Mint and YNAB. I would agree. However! Some people do better when a bit more of a conscious effort is required. MVELOPES forces you to be more intentional and involved, precisely because the framework is more rigid than Mint or YNAB.
So if you know that about yourself - go with MVELOPES.

Cost: - free basic level, $9.95 for Premium (pro - they have a community forum. Con -  there are cheaper solutions that work better for most people). You can even get financial Coaching, starting from $59.95 per month.

**Note - if you a tactile person that functions better using physical objects - just go with real paper envelops. Here is the best explanation of the method, again.

4. APPS for SPECIFIC PURPOSES

Trim - a free app that cancels subscriptions you don’t really need! Trim will scan your accounts for subscriptions, and offer to cancel whichever ones you’d like. They’d do the dirty work of emailing the companies, and will even have a robot talk to Comcast for you!

Personal Capital:
Great for investing if you are a DIY/beginner investor OR a high-worth investor (starting $1M in assets) who want a financial adviser at a really great fee. 
Tracking is free, adviser fees depend on portfolio size.

Prosper Daily (used to be called BillGuard) - their philosophy says it takes a village to guard against fraud. This free app allows you to view your recent credit card transactions, and either approve them or mark them as suspicious. The kicker - this app will tell you if any other members flagged a similar transaction as suspicious.
Oh, and the interface is drop-dead gorgeous.


So there you have it. Now I’m really curious what are your favorite budgeting methods, what are the most annoying challenges. Write me! I might answer the your question on the blog!)

Next post - what the missing piece these apps DO NOT PROVIDE, and how to solve this part of your financial puzzle.

In the next few days, I’m going to talk about the missing pieces for business financial planning, about reducing anxiety when dealing with money, and about reviewing your financial goals for 2017.
Stay tuned!

Is there an IDEAL Budgeting app?

Around New Year's we all got inundated with articles about “best budgeting tools” on every possible platform. Some of these articles are great (this and this, for example) but it’s easy to get lost in the sea of information they present.


So I made this short series of posts to help you navigate the whys, the hows, and the please-don'ts of Budgeting and Planning for 2017. Below is the first one:

IS THERE an  IDEAL BUDGETING APP?


Almost 30 years ago someone I love wrote:

"The fact that a visit to a dentist can be not painful was stunning news!” 
She was a recent immigrant from a different... reality. A time and place where most people would only go to the dentist if the pain became can't-sleep-at-night unbearable. Going a couple weeks (or months) earlier would make the treatment less traumatic and maybe not as expensive. But in our collective mind a visit to the dentist felt so daunting and unpleasant, we'd postpone it as much as the pain threshold would allow.

The dentistry came a long way since.
But some things, like the subject of this post, retain similar characteristics when it comes to getting them done - people postpone as much as their pain threshold would allow.

I'm not going to preach why Budgeting is essential. You already know that.
Instead, let’s make it un-painful. Before we dig into "best apps and solutions", let's look which criteria to check when choosing a budgeting tool that'll work best for YOU.

1. Past. Present. Future?

Most budgeting apps focus on tracking rather than planning. Tracking is great and wonderful, it keeps you attached to reality and helps you navigate your spending.
But!
In my book, the whole point of tracking is to help you plan forward better. I can’t really change what I made or spent last week. I can only determine how much I’ll spend or make next week, or month, or quarter.
A good budgeting tool would allow me to PLAN easily.

2. Clean Interface

No one wants to stare at a wall of numbers. Best apps have great visuals to tell your money story. Besides, a beautiful engaging interface increases your chance of, well, engaging with it. The more you engage with your budgeting, the easier it is to develop a healthy habit of consistently managing your finances.

3. Easy to make changes

YNAB, one of my favorites, (more on it next post) calls it “Roll With The Punches”. You will change your budget, especially if you’re just starting Budgeting as a habit. Making changes shouldn't be a struggle, you shouldn't feel you're being punished. I can't help myself but to quote YNAB again, they are just so eloquent: "No guilt. No hand-wringing. It’s a halftime adjustment. A chess grandmaster adapting to an opponent’s silly mistake."

4. Easy to navigate and easy to find details

We all process information differently. Some people need all the info at a glance (well-designed spreadsheets are great for that) . For others, a good search function makes all the difference. Yet for others, the information must be structured in a way that makes sense. Don't know what's your own personal preference? This is what free trials are for. Make sure to choose a Budgeting tool you can navigate without a GPS.

5. Specific purposes (advanced)

Some apps help you invest better. Others focus on saving toward specific goals. Some will even help you get rid of all these subscriptions you aren’t using anymore! So before choosing a budgeting app, ask yourself, does your budgeting have a specific aspect you want to address?



Wait, no links to specific tools? No, that's in the next post.
That's is for today. 
Small portions.

In the next few days, I’m going to talk about best budgeting apps and solutions, about reducing anxiety when dealing with money, and about reviewing your financial goals for 2017.
Stay tuned!

Making Your Very Own “Brain-Dead” Lists

We had an influx of new readers over the last couple days.
If you're one of them - welcome! I'm absolutely delighted to have you here!

My previous post was about stuff to do during creative downtimes.
Or, as that post stated,  ”7 *productive* things to do when brain-dead”. But you’re not me. You may have a very different set of things you prefer to do when you feel stuck, tired, depleted, but still have to be productive. So I’ve outlined a strategy to come up with your very own list of “stuff to do when brain-dead”.

It's really short, and you can complete your list in the next 20 minutes, including the time to read the guidelines below. Feel free to set a timer.
 

1. Write down a handful of things you love love love doing. Don't overthink it. 3-5 is a good start. 
 

2. Take note which activities require more of you. For example: let’s say you deeply love writing, but it requires a true presence of mind. This would be a 5. You may also be absolutely enamoured with surfing your Facebook Groups. That requires very little effort on your part, because you are a voracious reader and a natural connector. Facebook groups interactions are like breathing to you.
That would be a 1.
 

3. Write the required energy level next to each activity, rating them from 1 to 5.

 

4. Now make a list of stuff you really resent doing. Stuff you avoid it at all costs and, (this is the important part!) you find boring and tedious. For instance, you hate paying bills, or dread sifting through your Inbox. Maybe reconciling bank statements or reviewing fine print on contracts make you cringe. That kind of things.
 

5. Go through the same exercise, rating the hateful things on a scale from 1 to 5.

 

6. Now cross out any everything you rated 3, 4, or, 5. You’re left with low-energy activities you can do outside of your creative peaks.



That’s it, you’re done.

 

By the way? If you’re not feeling like doing any of the above -  Read a good book.

7 *productive* things to do when brain-dead

A “constant creative peak” is an oxymoron.

There are times when I feel deflated. There are times I feel drained, as in “I can breathe, but everything else is optional”. A nap, or better yet, time off my desk is wonderful but not always possible. More often than not I have to find productive uses for these dreary, tired hours. Enter “7 productive things to do when brain-dead”.

This is not a typical “how to stay productive when you’re exhausted” post. I’m not going to tell you to tweak your nutrition, stretch, and get a nap. It’s solid advice, but sometimes you can’t jump-start creativity or muster enough optimism for a reasonably significant task. Sometimes you’re physically OK, but mentally or emotionally depleted. A stretch or an energy drink will only take you so far. 
This post is about stuff to do when you’re creatively brain-dead.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

7 *PRODUCTIVE* THINGS TO DO WHEN BRAIN-DEAD

1. Do free trainings from the experts you have long planned to do, but never found the time.

You probably have a list of those. Maybe these emails reside in your “Education” folder. Maybe you have a directory with pdfs buried somewhere under “Biz Dev” label. Maybe you have 674 unplayed episodes in your podcast app. Pick one and dive into it.

Bonus points if you jot down a list of next steps the training has prompted you to take. Double-bonus points for walking or running with a good podcast in your earphones.

 2. Check the financials

I’m not talking “Financial Planning for next quarter”. I’m talking “look at your numbers, check if your need to update some paid invoices or expenses, see if there any red flags”. Maybe look at your monthly Freshbooks report.

 3. Tweak headlines to planned content updates. Without commitment to the end result.

Headlines: an Art or a Science? The collective business community hasn’t reached a verdict yet. Jokes aside, your first attempt at a headline rarely produces your best one. If you’re like me, you probably have a cache of content pieces in various stages of completion. This is the time to play with headlines, with no commitment to nail down the final version.The last piece is important. If you approach this task with the intention to make that headline final already, the best you can hope for is an hour of resentful spitting through gritted teeth. The more likely scenario - you won’t even start.

If, however, you browse your content folder and you play  - that’s a fun, undemanding activity. Try going completely ridiculous. Say, instead of “7 things to do when brain-dead” write “7 things zombies eat when trying to lose weight”.

 4. Browse industry-specific Facebook groups guilt-free

Step one: set a timer. Facebook is a rabbit hole - you open it and the next thing you know it’s 8:30PM and where did the day go? Step two: browse your favorite groups, click Like on some posts, see what’s going on. If you have enough energy for thoughtful responses - wonderful. Way to show up and get your name out there. If not, that's OK too. Write down frequent questions  people are asking. Note most common challenges. It could turn into marketing gold later on.

 5. Look at stats

It doesn’t require any mental effort or creative juice. Just take notice which content is most popular, where people hang out, who opens your emails. Like many points on this list, this is about absorbing information rather than making decisions or creating something new. 

6. Install new versions of my software

Ideal for a zombie-state. This is a kind of mindless work that has to be done. No point wasting good productive hours on it, especially if the new version requires rebooting your computer. 

7. Read about the newest apps and tools in my industry

You know you need to do that from time to time to keep your business up to date. If you’re a nutrition coach, check out “Best nutrition tracking apps”. If you’re a graphic designer, google “Best iPad apps for pro designers”. If you’re a boat mechanic, search for “Best tools for marine mechanics of 2016”.
Just make sure to set a timer, because it’s easy to get lost in exploration.

 

A parting thought:

Using “brain-dead” times goes beyond "I really can’t afford to lose these 12 hours". It’s especially true when you’re emotionally invested in your work. It goes deeper than that: I know that if I lose a day to mindlessly surfing the net, I'm going to pay dearly with sharp guilt and a nose-dive in self-esteem.
This, in turn, will bring about debilitating paralysis of will, and require a huge amount of energy to lift myself back up to operational level. That means losing even more hours, and chipping away at my sanity.
I really cannot afford it on the deep psychological level.
 

So here you go - I’ve described the Coping Mechanisms I developed to use my brain-dead times and prevent meltdowns. By the way? They deserve a capital letter because they are so effective.

I bet I'm not the only one who has days feeling completely and utterly incapable. A quick post about creating your own list of "stuff to do when brain-dead" is coming out in a couple days.

Stay tuned!

Finding PEAK productive times, if you're NOT an obsessive productivity geek (like me)

You have heard this before: Do creative work at your most productive times, when your energy and motivation are at their peaks. This post is about finding these precious times, and including them in your weekly planning.  
I want to offer two approaches: one for the productivity-obsessed like myself, and one for the rest of the world.

Approach #1:

Track your Energy, Focus, Motivation and Creativity every hour. For at least 1-3 weeks.
This approach was presented by Rob Nightingale, who’s also have created the  Prime Time Calculator Spreadsheet for you to download and capture your rigorous tracking. You can read more about it here.
The insights you’d gain would be deep and meaningful, maybe even life-changing. But it’s an INTENSE commitment, especially if you’re already struggling with time management and focus. In weight-loss terms, it’s like a gastric bypass surgery.

 

Approach #2: 

Ask yourself a few simple questions. Once you have the answers, take the insights into account in your weekly and daily planning.

1. Let’s start with the easy one: are you a morning person or a night owl?

Schedule big blocks of creative work the times you’re awake. Simple.
For example - I can’t think straight at 8AM. As a parent to a school kid I am technically awake, but there’s no chance I will start penning my next masterpiece before 11AM. Not even a tweet. Nothing. It’s just not in my biology.

2. Human Interactions: do they make you more focused and energized, or do you do your best work alone?

Once you have answered this question, combine that with your previous response. Maybe you do your best work by yourself from 2PM to 6PM. Or maybe a morning brainstorm with a co-worker or a business partner gives birth to your most exceptional creations. Now you know what to do.

3. Do you tend to hyperfocus? Do you need setup times to settle into a creative task? Are you one of the precious few that actually can and should multitask?

Some people have the ability to hyper-focus on one thing, spend 6 hours with no bathroom breaks, and GET.IT.DONE. It is especially common among creative entrepreneurs - the words “creative surge” come up in most of my initial consults.

On the other end of the scale are people that work for 20 minutes, take a 20 minute break, then work for another 20. Ending up with an award-winning PhD and a most prestigious fellowship in their field, like a dear friend of mine. Pomodoro principle was probably invented by someone like that.

Take your focus patterns into account when planning your week. It's especially important for scheduling the recurring blocks of time, dedicated to creative work.

4. What are your productivity patterns around exercise?

Energy and focus patterns around exercise vary a ton - depending on your preferred type of exercise and the specifics of your biology. Some people feel at their peak as they finish post-workout shower. Others need 2 hours to recover the ability to concentrate. There are no wrong recipies, just the need to be aware of your own patterns.

5. Taking eating habits into account.

“Eating for Productivity” - an art or a science?  
I’m not going to advocate any specific eating style (although you may be interested in what the experts have to say), but I would encourage you to ask yourself - are you more productive between the meals? Do you experience after-lunch energy crush?  Again - your eating habits are absolutely none of my business. It’s all about being aware how your particular eating habits impact your focus and energy throughout the day.

6. A bonus question - do you get your best ideas in the shower?
This is so common, it could be defined as a "Local Peak".
I'd suggest keeping a notebook and a pen in the closest dry place. A smartphone works too - you can type or speak your idea into Evernote, Google Doc, or even a Reminder app.



Once you have these questions answered, look at your weekly planning.
Setup creative blocks when you know you're most productive. 
Repeat as necessary.