Are you at peace with your financial to-do list? Or are you a human being?
Here’s a short list of the things that might currently be stressing you out. (Again, this is mostly applicable if you are a member of the aforementioned human race. If you feel totally in control of your financial to-do list, we salute you, and please tell us all of your secrets.)
- A never-ending, Whac-A-Mole list of little tasks to do; and
- An overwhelming list of big projects to do.
We know better than anyone that dealing with behemoth financial institutions, and navigating the ins and outs of complicated money matters, can run you off the road to inner peace rather abruptly.
We don’t want that for you. After working with many women in their 20s-40s over the years, we’ve tried a bunch of things, read a bunch of things, and figured out some tactics that work for our clients.
We present these practical solutions to you now in the hopes that they might work for you!
“Batch” your small financial tasks.
I used to believe that if I had 7 items on my financial to-do list for the week, breaking said to-do list into bite-sized pieces—only tackling one small task per day! Totally reasonable!—would be the key. And for some people, it just might be.
This strategy, however, doesn’t take activation energy into consideration.
Let’s take a completely hypothetical example that definitely isn’t from my own life. The task: close a bank account…which required calling the bank. Simple, right?
Time spent procrastinating on said task, while simultaneously feeling stressed about the task remaining undone (the worst possible combination!): unfathomable.
Time actually required to complete the task, after overcoming inertia: four minutes.
Energy level after completing the task: 💥 Motivated 💥To 💥 Take 💥 Over 💥 The 💥 World!
The lesson? Once you’ve overcome the inertia of getting started on little tasks, it’s often easier to just keep going with the rest of ‘em. If you spread them out too much in the name of “making them seem manageable,” you end up working against inertia again, and again, and again.
What might work better? Keep a running list of small tasks in a place that’s always accessible to you: a dedicated Google Doc, a paper planner, your iPhone Notes app. Then, mark a recurring block of time in your calendar—weekly, monthly, whatever feels right—to tackle the items on this list. Consider doing this during your lunch break, if your financial to-do list contains items that require calling customer service folks during business hours.
You just might experience the domino effect: once you get started on the first bite-sized task, subsequent ones begin falling like…well, you know.
Get Rid of Unimportant Tasks.
This tip is for the overachievers in the crowd—the ones who tend to lose the forest for the trees. The best way to make your financial to-do list shorter? Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.
When you sit down to your “batched” list of financial tasks, start by culling the items that aren’t truly important. If those items are hard to identify, ask yourself of each task: “If I didn’t do this, what’s the worst thing that might happen as a result? If I did do this, what’s the best thing that might happen as a result?”
Some worthwhile tasks? Analyzing the details of your health insurance options during open enrollment, which could lead to thousands of dollars in savings over a year. Or applying for term life insurance, so that any loved ones dependent on your income are sure to be supported in the event of your passing.
Less worthwhile? Ramit Sethi talks about $3 versus $30,000 questions. Usually, the $3 questions take up a lot of headspace for very little upside.
Consider the task of moving $10,000 from a bank that offers a 2.25% interest rate to one that offers 2.5%. You’ve made an optimized decision there! But for all the effort it took to research banks, open and close accounts, and set up recurring transfers again at the new institution, you’ve earned $25 over the course of a year. Check in with yourself: is that the best use of your limited time and energy?
If ignoring a task has no real potential downside, and completing it doesn’t offer much potential upside, it might simply be financial busywork that you’ve created for yourself. Consider deleting it, basking in the resulting spaciousness, and then doing something more important, enjoyable, or meaningful with the time you save.
Identify the first step.
Have you ever fallen into the trap of putting one financial task on your to-do list, when it’s actually a full-on project comprised of seven sub-tasks?
Yeah. Us, too.
And we get it. At first blush, writing down “rollover old 401(k) into new one” makes it look more manageable than writing:
- Call current 401(k) administrator, ask them what information they need to properly receive an incoming 401(k) rollover check, and obtain the address to send it to.
- Call old 401(k) administrator, make sure address on file is correct, and ask them to initiate the rollover check with the current 401(k) administrator’s details.
- Once check arrives in the mail, forward it along to current 401(k) administrator using the address provided.
But when you compress all three steps into the prettier shorthand of “rollover 401(k),” you’re not actually removing any of the work involved. You’re just making it harder for Future You to get clarity on the first step.
That makes it harder to get started…and get finished.
What might work better? Task yourself with the first step in multi-step financial projects, rather than the whole, giant, overwhelming, maybe-not-entirely-understood thing.
Prioritize your big projects.
We all have a finite amount of energy. We can either spend that finite energy divided between many financial goals at once, not making meaningful progress on any of them. Or we can direct all of that energy toward our most important financial goal, complete it effectively, and then redirect our energy toward the next priority on our list.
As the author of Essentialism argues, maybe we should focus on our biggest “priority,” rather than an endless list of “priorities.”
If we do, we’ll probably be a lot less stressed out—because ranking your big financial projects in terms of importance releases you from the trap of worrying about everything, everywhere, all at once (aka the Michelle Yeoh movie I still need to watch).
And we’ll probably get there faster: as the saying goes, sometimes you need to slow down to speed up.
Okay, so you’re sold on the idea of ranking the financial projects on your to-do list. So: how to actually do it? Once you’ve laid out all your options—and their various tradeoffs—on the table, you can evaluate your energy around each of these projects, and their relative importance. (A financial planner, especially one who truly understands your goals and values, can be invaluable in this process.)
Is there one particular opportunity that you’re most fired up about? That energy might indicate you’ll find it easier to keep the ball rolling as the project unfolds.
Is there one risk management item that will have an outsized effect on your financial well-being? That might indicate you should prioritize it, even if you’re not exactly chomping at the bit to apply for, say, long-term disability insurance.
Revisit your rankings every so often—once a quarter, or once a year—to make sure they’re still in line with your goals, your values, and your changing financial reality.
Automate and create systems.
Whenever possible, create automated, repeatable systems for your biggest financial priorities.
Your 401(k) deferrals happen like this—which is why it’s so easy to stay on track with them. You set your contribution rate when you start a new job, and generally don’t have to fiddle with it too much from there.
Can you come up with a straightforward, or creative, solution for the other important financial projects in your life?
A straightforward solution for building your emergency fund or taxable investment account might involve setting up a recurring transfer from your checking account each payday.
A creative solution for remembering to sell your RSUs as they vest might involve setting up a quarterly 15-minute meeting with your financial planner, who may not be able to click the relevant buttons to sell shares herself, but can certainly help hold you accountable and on-task! (And remind you to deal with the resulting cash, and pay your estimated taxes, because she can’t help herself.)
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for educational, general information, and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. We encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Flow Financial Planning, LLC, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.