We all know at least one of those highly organized people who can instantly locate their every receipt, rebate card, electronic warranty, and third cousin's address, phone number, and the birthdays of all of his kids. We wonder how they do it -- how they have time to update their Quicken balances each day, find the coupon for the free dozen eggs just before it expires, and color-code the hair products in their medicine cabinet (pink sticker for frizz control, blue for shine).
I am not one of those people. (If you are, please come organize my closets.) I'm more like a TMF Money Advisor subscriber who recently wrote in and lamented the fact that he has little time to follow his investments closely. Said he, "I hardly ever -- maybe twice a month -- find a two to three hour time block to devote myself to financial matters."
Actually, he's in better shape than most.
Sweating the small stuff
Author Mike Nelson discovered that Americans spend an average of 16 times as many hours selecting clothes (145.6 hours a year) as we do on planning our retirement. And proportionally speaking, we spend more time deciding how to handle a single inbox document than we do on purchasing our dream domicile.
In Clutter-Proof Your Business: Turn Your Mess into Success, Nelson mathematically breaks down tasks to determine what percentage of time people spend on everything from making airline reservations to buying a car. It's clear that most of us are not carving out adequate time to manage our finances.
Based on the lifetime of an object and the time we put into making a decision about it, people spend on average 0.32% of their time making a decision about buying a car (which we own an average of 1,670 days) and just 0.10% of effort buying a home (10,950 days or more). Compare that to 2.5% of our time -- proportionally -- that we spend dealing with a single piece of paper at the office, and you can see that our priorities are a bit out of whack.
When portrayed in black-and-white ticks of the clock, it seems silly to spend an hour dealing with an office memo that has just a 20% chance of ever being referred to again.
Time is money (saved)
Life is precious and way too short -- and littered with countless money tasks. No one dies saying, "If I only had spent a few more hours poring over financial statements and chatting with my accountant." But I bet more than a few people make that declaration within the first few weeks after they retire.
It's too bad. With more time to work on your serve and volley game and figure out exactly where you filed the dog's registration, it's a shame to spend an equal portion of your golden years kicking yourself in the pants for not paying better attention to your finances back in the day.
But exactly how much time does it take? Consider Geico's great marketing hook: "15 minutes could save you 15% or more on your car insurance." It's a pretty cool promise -- take a little time to comparison shop, pocket a few hundred bucks in savings.
Sure, not all things can be measured so exactingly. But if you're going to spend time shopping around, start with the big items that'll have a big impact on your budget. Price shopping for things such as mortgages, insurance, cars and even your broker is always time well spent.
Here are some other ways to frame those daunting money tasks:
Peace of mind is priceless
Just knowing that financial measures are in place for those "what-if" scenarios can let you enjoy your time with the kids, the dog, and, yes, even at the office. It is worth more to you and your loved ones than all else. Consider that when you set aside in your "to do... later" pile the paperwork for disability insurance or the phone number for the estate lawyer your brother recommended.
You can do anything for 15 minutes
Domestic organization goddess Marla Cilley -- the FlyLady -- coaches the 90,000-plus subscribers to her site to spend just 15 minutes a day dealing with life's clutter, whether it's laundry, a dirty sink, or some other undesirable task piled up in a corner. "Anyone can do anything for only 15 minutes, even if you have to break it down into five-minute segments," she says. Give it a try. Set the timer and spend 15 minutes filing those brokerage statements. Update the information in Quicken (and hit "save"). Buckle down and power-write the column that is due in an hour. (That last one may not apply to a lot of you out there.)
You can do a lot of things in less than 15 minutes
A lot of money management tasks take much less than 15 minutes to complete. Having trouble making it to the bank every other week? Setting up an automatic paycheck deposit is a breeze. Simply get the paperwork from your payroll or HR department, fill it out, and cross "deposit paycheck" off your "to-do" list. While you're at it, why not set up an automatic monthly transfer into your emergency savings account? Trust me, it takes less than three minutes to do if you bank online.
How long does it really take you to input receipts into Quicken, check your credit card and bank statements for accuracy, or review and file the monthly brokerage and mutual fund statements? Time yourself doing these monthly chores. Knowing in black and white irrefutable ticks of the clock that a chore takes 23 minutes to complete makes it easier to schedule. And you won't waste three hours and 47 minutes of your packed schedule dreading it. Similarly, if you find that you don't have time to follow a portfolio of 20 stocks, then simplify. In the end, you may not really be sacrificing returns by choosing to put your money in a simple index mutual fund instead.
Spend time finding a trusted helper
Our TMF Money Advisor membership director decided that he and his wife could paint the entire exterior of their home in their spare time. (By the way, they have a two-year-old and a three-month-old at home.) After getting three weekends of work in, they are one-quarter of the way done painting the front of the house. Sometimes it pays to find a trusted pro to get the job done. A little legwork up front can save hours of hand-wringing and avoidance (trust me) and a less-than-satisfactory retirement or paint job.
And finally, set all your clocks 30 minutes ahead
No time saver here, but it's kind of funny to watch your spouse run around like mad to get to work on time and then later entertain visiting relatives by playing back the irate message he left on the answering machine.
This column originally ran in April. Talk about a time-saver -- it took Dayana just 20 minutes to re-edit it to run today! She is the author of Couples & Cash: How To Handle Money With Your Honey , which took a little bit longer to write.