Batching & Automation Challenge, Day 1: Mint.com

[Click here to read the challenge introduction post.]

Following the delay from my post introducing the new challenge, I’ll start off my challenge with a website that I’ve found to be among my favorites: Mint.comMint.com was created by the makers of Quicken, and it is quite possibly the best and only tool you’ll ever need to organize your budget and finances.

Do you currently check more than one bank website to see your checking/savings account balances?  Do you also have a retirement account (IRA, 401k) with another institution? Do you use Lending Club?  Do you have a mortgage? Do you have student loans?

The list goes on and on – potentially, you have 10 or more places that you check periodically to see balances, amounts due, etc.  Mint.com exists to solve that problem.  I’ve recently signed up to Mint.com and it’s incredible how well this service batches nearly a dozen of my website-checking tasks that I used to do at least once per week and automatically checks them for you.  It consolidates all of your financial information, shows you your net worth, and has other great features including:

  • An ability to set up and control a budget (and it automatically tracks how well you keep up with your budget).
  • Detail for all transactions (credit card, checking acct., etc.) and ability to reclassify categories
  • Alerts for when you have a credit card payment due or when a bank charges you a service fee
  • A great (and free) iPhone/iPod Touch application that allows you check all of this remotely. 

Best of all, Mint.com is FREE to use.  Some things that are free aren’t all that great, but this service is excellent.

Okay, so it’s a great service and it’s free, but why should I trust all of my secret financial account user names and passwords with them?  Can I trust them?  In my opinion, yes.  Mint.com is “TRUSTe” certified.  TRUSTe is a service provided to web sites in order to help the business validate its security and privacy procedures.  From the TRUSTe website:

As the leading internet privacy services provider, TRUSTe helps thousands of businesses promote online safety and trust, and guides consumers to sites that protect their online privacy. TRUSTe helps both consumers click with confidence and online companies promote their Web site privacy policies online. Thousands of Web sites rely on TRUSTe’s privacy, including top-fifty sites like Yahoo, Facebook, MSN, eBay, AOL, Disney, New York Times, Comcast and Apple.

Maybe this is foolish thinking, but if so many major sites online use TRUSTe to validate their privacy policy, procedures, etc., I am comfortable with Mint.com.  Privacy is great, but what about hackers, etc. you ask?  Mint.com is also secured by McAfee. If you click on the “McAfee SECURE” label on Mint.com, you will see:

CERTIFIED MCAFEE SECURE SITE 08-MAR-2010 The McAfee SECURE™ trustmark only appears when the website has passed our intensive, daily security scan. We test for possible personal information access, links to dangerous sites, phishing, and other online dangers.

Given these security measures in place, I don’t think there’s a reason to worry (I would never go as far as saying you’re 100% safe – I don’t believe anything online is ever perfectly safe).  You can even click here to see what Mint.com’s CEO has to say about the site’s security.

Now, the part relevant to my challenge.  If I’m automating my bank website checking and batching it all onto one interface, how much time am I saving?  Let’s first look at what account/items I use Mint.com to track:

  1. Chase Credit Card (Visa)
  2. Chase Credit Card (Mastercard)
  3. Chase Checking Account
  4. Chase Savings Account
  5. HSBC Online Savings Account
  6. Lending Club Account
  7. Vanguard IRA Account
  8. Vanguard 401(k) Account
  9. Student Loan Balance
  10. Diner’s Club Credit Card

As you can see, I would normally need to check 10 different places (even if some are within the same website) to monitor my financial account balances and transactions. 

Time Savings

  •  Estimate of current time spent checking bank/other financial account-related websites: 30 minutes/week (2 hours/month)
  • Approximate time spent with Mint.com: 5 minutes/week (20 minutes/month)
  • Monthly time savings: 4-6 hours

These numbers are very rough – I don’t actually keep track of how much time I usually spend checking websites, but I think this is a fair estimate.  One flaw in this particular case is that when you first use Mint.com, you’ll be so intrigued by it that you’ll want to check it multiple times a day.  This will wear off once you’ve used it for a week or two.  

Do you love Mint.com and have some tips or great things to say about it, or have you found any significant flaws? Share them in the comments!

The New 30-Day Challenge: Squeezing 30 Hours Out of a 24 Hour Day

Note: The “Squeezing 30 Hours out of a 24 Hour Day” Challenge will sometimes be referred to as the “Batching & Automation Challenge
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If you’ve been following along this blog or have read The 4-Hour Workweek, you are very familiar with the concepts of batching and automation.  For those of you who might not be as familiar, feel free to read my introduction to batching and introduction to automation posts.

These two key concepts will be the drivers of my new 30-day challenge.  The challenge is essentially this:

Every day for 30 days, I must automate and/or batch at least one thing in my life (be it personal or work-related).

The Goal

By the end of the 30 days, we will have a collection of 30 ways to improve your life by making it more efficient, leaving you more time to pursue things you enjoy. 

In addition to simply explaining what I am batching or automating, I will try to quantify the time saved (either per day, per week, or per month) by batching/automating the activity.  That’s where the title comes from – by batching and automating pieces of your life, you effectively give yourself more free time in any given day (perhaps even 30 hours in a 24 hour day).

The Rules

  1. There is no limit to how large or small the activity can be.  If I decide to sharpen 20 pencils at once instead of one at a time as I need them, that counts as batching.
  2. The 30 days may not be consecutive.  Given the fact that I’m in the middle of an extremely busy time at work (it’s tax season!) working nearly 80 hours per week, I won’t necessarily have time to update daily.  In other words, this 30 day challenge may take 45 days (or it may take 35 days, who knows).

If you combine the outcome of my previous 30-day challenge with the desired outcome of this challenge, you’d find yourself in a position of having more cash and having more free time.  These are two of the primary goals of this blog, so it’s nice to see that I’m working in that direction.  The only catch is, having more free time seems to lend itself to spending more money…

Follow along as I attempt to batch and automate everything that I can!  Feel free take part in the challenge yourself by leaving your ideas in the comments each day.

My 4HWW Tools: A Review of RedLaser

I rarely ever review tech/software products, but this one caught my eye recently and paid for itself 10+ times within 24 hours of me acquiring it.  If it saves you time and money, I feel compelled to share it here.  Sorry non-iPhone users, this may not apply to you.

RedLaser is an iPhone application that allows you to scan a UPC bar code (for almost anything) and receive a host of information depending on the item.  For food, you’ll be able to immediately pull up a nutrition label, but more importantly for most products, you can see a list of prices and various places (both online and locally) that sell the product.

“Okay, great, you found yourself a toy” you say to me.  Well, yes, I must say that after downloading this app, I ran around my apartment scanning everything I could find.  Just recently, I found a practical use for the app that really saved me time and money.

I was out shopping for a printer at Microcenter (a computer and peripherals store nearby me) and found a pretty nice one that I liked, for $130.  I knew this couldn’t be the best price, but on a Sunday, there are many things I’d rather be doing than shopping around online and/or running around to different stores.  I know I could’ve purchased it online to begin with, but when I purchase items like this, I like to see them up close (and also run a test print).  Sure enough, I pull out my iPhone to scan the item and find that it’s available for as low as $89.99 online (at some no-name, shady looking online electronics store).  However, it also was available at Target for $99.99 (only Target.com – it specifically said “not available in stores”).

I promptly asked a Microcenter employee if they price match.  Indeed, they do.  I showed the employee the price on Target.com’s website (the RedLaser apps gives you a link to any matching products/stores online), and the printer was mine.

Could I have saved more by shopping around online? Probably. The point was, I didn’t need to waste my free time doing all the searching – a simple scan by RedLaser did all the work for me, and I paid $30 less than than Microcenter’s price.  Already, the $1.99 app has easily paid for itself.  Watch the video below for a demonstration:

Tim Ferriss Follows His Own Muse Advice

If you’ve read The 4-Hour Workweek, you’re likely familiar with the chapter on muse creation – specifically, Tim’s three basic types of muses: reselling, licensing, or creating a product. He prefers to create, as it’s where you have the highest potential (and perhaps the greatest risk).  Specifically, he notes that creating information to sell is the best choice of all – inexpensive to create, easy to replicate (for you, to sell – not for someone else to duplicate), and little downside risk, besides the loss of your time.  Ferriss says, “Information products are low-cost, fast to manufacture, and time-consuming for competitors to duplicate” (pg. 166).  More importantly, he explains why you don’t need to be an expert.  This is a crucial point.  If you don’t need to be an expert with respect to the information you are creating, doesn’t that essentially give you unlimited options?  The caveat is, you need to pull together expert sources and paraphrase them, cite them, etc. to make it your own and not infringe upon any copyrights.

He obviously wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, a collection of information that he makes money from, but now he’s doing it again in his new book, From Rapid Fat Loss to Strongmen: A Guide to Becoming Superhuman.  In this blog post from last June, he calls this new book “a hacker’s guide to the human body.”  It sounds very interesting.  In a recent tweet, Ferriss writes that the new book will be out Sept 2010 and that “the scope and content has become much more interesting. No fluff.”

At the end of the day, Tim’s success and probable wealth really comes from one thing: selling information.  It’s an interesting product, especially in an age where eBooks are becoming increasingly popular.  No longer do you need a publisher or any kind of massive operation to get your information out to people.  It’s not to say there aren’t high barriers to entry.  The main reason Tim’s new book will be successful is because his previous book was such a success.  If you take that away, it’s likely most of us would’ve never heard of him.  

The bottom line is, you shouldn’t feel like the weight of “starting a business” is a heavy mass on your shoulders, requiring complex ideas, plans, and operations.  It could be as simple as writing an eBook and putting it up for sale online.  It isn’t even so much what you write about than it is how you promote it.  Creating an information product will be my summer project this year – I really believe it’ll be my first big step in automating income.

The Art of Saying No

The word “no” is by far one of the most difficult words in our vocabulary (but easy to spell!). You hate to hear it, but more importantly, you hesitate to say it. It’s a powerful word and I think it’s underutilized. No one wants to be the bad guy, and no one wants to face the repercussions of being on either side of the word.

It’s powerful enough to ruin someone’s life, if only temporarily. Take a marriage proposal for example – hearing an unexpected “no” can send someone reeling to the point of depression in the depths of all that is sad in life. And you don’t want to be the cause of that, so you’ll say yes and you’ll convince yourself that “yes” is the correct answer. I think this has to be the source of at least some part of why the divorce rate in America is so high.  We’re afraid of the word no.  It’s an unacceptable word.

Let’s tie this back to something relevant to this blog – work.  Work isn’t exactly the same as marriage, but the two things consume the better portion of your life, and you often find yourself married to your work anyway.  I bet you wish you could’ve said no to that proposal.

At work, it looks good to be a “yes man.”  Your superiors love that they can always count on you to take on a task, even if you don’t have the capacity to do it (either with time or aptitude).  Some of us can manage being overloaded well, but most of us can’t.  There are only so many hours in a day, and at some point, you’d probably like to enjoy your life.

What’s the solution? You need to practice saying “no.” Strangely, it’s kind of an art.  “No” doesn’t have to be harsh and straightforward.  There was an excellent article posted recently at Zen Habits titled, “Kill Busywork: The One Skill to Focus On What Matters.”  The article discusses the difference between bad work, good work, and great work, and talks about how and why “great work” is the work you should focus on, although it isn’t possible to spend all your time with “great work.”  There are a couple great passages in the article relevant to my post here:

At the heart of doing more Great Work are the choices you make. Not just what you are saying Yes to. But – and this follows your Yes just as the back of the hand follows the front – what you are also saying No to.

That sounds simple enough, but you know it’s not.

Sure, it’s easy to say a knee-jerk Yes to whatever comes along. We all do that. It’s much harder to be mindful and thoughtful and clear and bold and courageous as to what you really want to say Yes to.

And for most of us, it’s a nightmare to say No.

What if you can’t get yourself to say no?  The article doesn’t recommend just flat out saying “yes,” but saying yes slowly. 

Here’s how it goes.

Someone asks you to do something.

And, while nodding your head, you say “Sure – and let me just ask you a few questions first.”

And then you pick and chose from some of these questions. (Your goal is to ask at least three of these.)

  • Why are you asking me?
  • Who else have you asked?
  • When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
  • If I could only do part of this, what part would it be?
  • What part of this is something that only I could do?
  • What standard do you expect this to be done to?
  • Is this more urgent than X, Y and Z that are currently on my list?
  • Have you checked with [name] about me taking this on?
  • How does this contribute to [Great Work Project]?

You get the gist I’m sure. And I’ve no doubt that you can add some questions of your own.

When you start saying Yes More Slowly, one of four things happen.

First, the person will answer all your questions and make a very good case for your to say Yes. Which is fine – you’re saying Yes for all the right reasons.

Second, they’ll tell you to stop with the questions and get on with it. (Sadly, this isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ that will work all the time.)

Third, they’ll go away and find the answers to your questions – which at the very least will buy you some time.

And finally – and this is a good result – they’ll go and find someone else who’s less trouble, someone who hasn’t mastered the art of saying Yes Slowly.


Don’t say no if you know it’ll get you fired, and don’t say no if you can easily say yes (either because you have plenty of free time, or if your skills could really benefit the task at hand).  Just don’t get caught up in always saying “yes” when “no” is clearly an option.  To get comfortable in saying “no,” Tim Ferriss challenges the reader (in The 4-Hour Workweek) to say “no” to everything for two days straight, regardless of what it is, just to get comfortable saying no.  It seems a bit extreme, but maybe it would help.

At the end of the day, we want to be productive and efficient, producing high quality results while also maintaining our sanity and life outside of work and/or the office.  The only way to do this perfectly is to learn when to say “no” and master the way that you do it.

30-Day Expense Elimination Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, it’s been a fun challenge (see the final results at the bottom).  I succeeded, with almost $40 to spare.  For those who haven’t been following along, you can see my original post here and every post that contained a 30-day challenge update here.

If you recall, I typically would spend on average $1,400 per month on “non-fixed” expenses.  In the past 30 days, I spent nearly $1,000 less than that.  It feels good, but there were times when I needed or wanted to buy something and had a difficult time restraining myself.  Anyway, this would all be for nothing if I didn’t walk away with some insight and advice for anyone else who is trying to cut back on expenses and tighten a budget.  Here are my general notes from the challenge:

  1. One key to cutting back on expenses and keeping it sustainable is to really figure out what you can sacrifice.  In my case, it wasn’t the food.  To a certain extent, yes, I sacrificed eating out, but in the end, I really cut back on my miscellaneous purchases – clothes, candy, and other random things you might buy at Walgreens or Target.  At the end of the day, you want to enjoy your life.  It’s simple: cut back on the expenses that bring you the least enjoyment.
  2. For me, this challenge was all about breaking old habits and forming new ones.  When you’re in the habit of going to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for coffee 2-3 times a week (maybe more), you can’t picture your mornings without it.  Surprisingly, this was one of the easiest habits for me to break.  Now, I make coffee every morning at a coffee machine in my office building – it doesn’t taste as good on its own, but after adding some flavored creamer ($2.50 can get you a bottle that lasts for more than a week), it’s fine for me.  If you don’t have a coffee machine at work, make coffee at home.  Get it going before you hop in the shower (or have one that you can set on a timer and prepare the night before), and you’ll have a hot cup off coffee ready for you on the way to work.  Right off the bat, I estimate this saves me at least $10-15/week.  That’s easily almost $800/year.
  3. I couldn’t eliminate eating out – I do like to cook, but I love going to restaurants, mainly on the weekends.  If you take a look at my updates, you’ll see I generally still ate out on Fridays and Saturday, often paying for two people.  The one thing I did reduce was eating out for lunch.  We all know that making your own lunch is cheaper and probably healthier, so I’m hoping I will continue to bring a lunch to work most days.

Thanks to the fact that I set my own rules, I didn’t break any of them.  There were some flaws with the challenge, however:

  • Deferral of “big” purchases – When you constrict your budget, you can reduce or eliminate a lot of expenses, like I did with restaurant food and coffee.  However, any major expenditures that are on your horizon can only be deferred.  For example, my desktop computer has a dual-monitor display.  During this challenge, the older monitor of the two burnt out.  Because of this, I need (more like want) to buy a new monitor.  I didn’t want to purchase it during my challenge, but I will purchase soon now that the challenge has ended.  All the challenge did for me was defer the expense.  One way or another though, you will always buy the big things you need – it’s just a matter of when. 
  • Access to freebies – As a co-worker of mine aptly pointed out to me, I went longer than usual without grocery shopping, only periodically eating out on the weekends.  I couldn’t have done this without free food at work (random bagels for breakfast/lunch, dinners when I work late).  Obviously, this isn’t something you could do if your work arrangement doesn’t provide for it.  If I didn’t have access to the free food, I would likely have needed to cut back on eating out even more, in favor of buying groceries.
  • The $500 limit -There’s a reason you’re encouraged to set “reach” goals for yourself – goals that are very difficult, yet possible, to achieve.  If you set the bar too low, you won’t push yourself.  My selection of “$500″ as a goal was pretty arbitrary.  I could have selected $400 or even $300 and probably still achieved the goal.  In retrospect, I definitely could have saved even more money, especially if I had set a more difficult goal for myself.
    • To go along with this, I think it was very important for me to know my current daily expense average.  It’s hard to imagine your spending over an entire month, but breaking it down into daily goals helped me stay on track.  If I know I can spend $17 per day and I don’t spend anything for 2 days, I feel okay going out to eat on the 3rd day and spending $30+, because I know my budget allows for it.

Where do we go from here?  I’m not really sure.  If I find that my spending gets out of control again in the future, I may do one of these again.  For me, expense control is only a very small piece of the pie.  The larger challenge to tackle is income generation – more specifically, automated income generation.  This still remains atop my list of desires, and slowly but surely, I hope to get there.

    The next “30-Day Challenge”: Squeezing 30 Hours out of a 24 Hour Day (working title, subject to change).
    ___________________________________________________________________
    30-Day Challenge Final Update – Day 30 (2/24):

    Gas:                                            $ 12.01
    Dinner:                                             9.87
    Day 28 Total                               $ 21.88

    30-Day Challenge Expense Total: $461.17

    “Allowed” Expenses Remaining: $38.83

    Overall Average Daily Expense:  $15.37 (Target Average: $16.67/day) 




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