If you’ve followed this website for very long, you’ll know it’s not a secret that my fiance and I frequently sign up for new accounts in the pursuit of extra cash, free travel, and numerous other perks that come along. The benefits of doing so have been substantial as we brought in thousands of dollars in cash and enough points to travel the world in style, but one side effect of doing so is a plethora of accounts that need to be managed.
Between credit cards, bank accounts, and our various investment accounts, we currently sit at 54 unique financial accounts, but that number is constantly in flux. It’s often not too difficult to open the latest account and reap the rewards up front when you have some free time, but it’s not always convenient to do it on the back end when a delay in closing it out could cost you an annual fee or more. This is why it’s important to have an organizational system you can stick to regardless of what’s going on in life around you. My goal is to share with you the organized chaos that is the system I use to stay on top of it all.
Life Has Been Busy
Posts on the blog have slowed recently due to a combination of factors that mostly revolve around my lack of free time to innovate and write. My goal has never been to regurgitate the headlines of other blogs or write about the latest credit card signup bonus, so I try to always bring something new to the table that’s worth reading. Most of my best material has come from exploring new ways to earn points, miles, or cash and sharing the results with all of you. Unfortunately as of late, a combination of work, travel, and helping plan a wedding has slowed my personal pursuit of the next great deal, but I assure you that you’ll be the first to know the next time I crack something great.
What really spawned this post was the recent realization that despite all the chaos going on around us, we never really worried about whether or not the bills would be paid or fees would surprise us. When you get pretty deep into the game of churning through accounts, the stakes can get fairly high for a slip up. If I happened to drop off the grid for the next 6 months, I’d come back to thousands of dollars in annual fees due, numerous late fees, unnecessary interest, and who knows what else. It’s important to stay on top of it all and I want to share the system we use to make it happen.
The real goal of creating any system to optimize your life is to minimize the potential for a problem and to reduce the manual work required. Manual work can be anything from having to physically call a phone number to all of the mental space in your brain that gets taken up by trying to remember everything at once. A lot of anxiety and stress can probably be attributed to a lack of trust in whatever system you’ve set up (or failed to set up) in order to manage all of the different things going on around you. I’d probably go crazy if I had to remember all of the due dates, confirmation codes, and everything else that goes into keeping our life moving forward.
In addition to minimizing problems and reducing work, the system has to be something that you’ll actually use. A wonderful system that gets ignored or lacks a full set of information can actually be more detrimental than anything else. It’s important to either get into a habit or put the system in a place that’s impossible to ignore.
My System Is Basically Just Gmail
I hope you weren’t crossing your fingers for groundbreaking new technology that you’ve never heard of before. The mission control of tracking just about everything in my life, let alone financial accounts, is simply Gmail. Personally, I like Gmail, but the majority of this could be done with just about any modern mail client.
First, Get Your Inbox Under Control
I always maintain Inbox Zero, or 0 unread messages give or take a day or so. This was never anything deliberate that I did to improve my organization, but rather what I thought was just common sense. Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to see someone posting a screen capture of their phone or browser that happens to include an indicator of thousands of unread messages! I’m not sure how those people stay organized and I’m kind of afraid to ask (the unread bubble would drive me crazy!), but the system is to take every email and quickly categorize it as one of the following which goes along with a specific action:
- The email is pointless and I don’t want to receive emails like this anymore
- Action: Unsubscribe if possible, then delete/archive
- Examples: Pretty much all advertising and promotional emails
- The email has no more use because I quickly read it
- Action: Archive/Delete
- Examples: Twitter/Facebook notifications, newsletters
- The email has no more use, but may be useful in the future
- Action: Mark as read
- Examples: Receipts, Shipping/Payment Confirmations
- The email is very important and I will definitely need to reference it in the future
- Action: Star It
- Examples: Flight/Hotel confirmations, Attachments that need printing
- I need to respond/take action from this email and it will take less than a minute(ish)
- Action: Resolve whatever needs to be taken care of, mark as read
- Examples: Anything that requires a 1-2 sentence response or a couple clicks. A good example is activating your 5% categories every quarter.
- I need to respond/take action, but don’t have time
- Action: Star It, move on
- Examples: Bills that need paid manually, questions that require a longer response
Going through this process with any single email should take seconds (except for #5 which may take a little longer). Anytime you make it through the newest email, you should have 0 unread messages and potentially several items that are starred for later use. This can all be done through the app, so you can do it from anywhere, but you certainly don’t have you be on your phone 24/7 to make it work.
Anytime you’re waiting around for anything, cycle through the latest emails you’ve received and get back to 0 unread messages. Anytime you feel like you’re forgetting something or want to be productive, check your Starred folder and start taking action on anything you can.
Second, Send All Important Stuff To Your Inbox
Once you have your inbox under control through unsubscribing to junk you don’t need and marking the important stuff so you don’t forget about it, it’s time to make sure everything possible is being sent to your inbox. This means every bill you’re responsible for, any message you want to respond to, and anything else you don’t want to lose track of.
Also, I recommend combining as many inboxes as makes sense into one central location. This means forwarding the email from your various accounts all to a central account that you regularly use. I send everything except for my work email (which I try to avoid when away from work) to one place whether it’s related to my personal life, this blog, or my various side hustles, it all goes to the one place through the power of mail forwarding and I can respond with the appropriate email address seamlessly.
Most utility companies, banks, and just about anyone else you might owe money to on a regular basis will have a way to notify you via email when it happens. If you use auto-pay, great, but I still recommend having them send the email so you at least get a quick glance at the total to make sure something isn’t way off. Once you glance at it though, there’s no reason to star it because no action needs to be taken. Anything that does require manual payment, either because they don’t offer auto-pay or you want to make sure you use the latest credit card to pay for it (our strategy), then star it and pay it the next time you get a chance.
If there’s anything important that you need to keep track of that doesn’t offer email alerts, possibly because you just thought of it right now and definitely don’t want to forget it, send yourself an email! After you hit send, star it and move on with your life if you can’t take care of it right away.
One word of caution with this approach is that you don’t want to overload your starred messages with long-term goals as that kind of defeats the point. In theory, over time your starred folder will cycle with older messages being taken care of or no longer being relevant (and therefore un-starred) and new ones will take their place, and on, and on.
For anything else you don’t want to lose but doesn’t necessarily have urgency or a specific timeline to complete, I recommend using email drafts. Just start writing an email, don’t fill in the To field, but give it a relevant title and put whatever information you want for later in the body, then save as a draft. Easy to edit at any time and accessible from anywhere. Some of my current drafts include a to-do list with nothing urgent, a list of blog post ideas, a list of board games I want to try, and several others.
Third, Check the Starred Folder on a Regular Basis
The entire process relies on the fact that I use my email on a regular basis. Whether I’m on my phone or at my computer, all of the information is in exactly one place. I’ve tried several “organization” apps such as Evernote and Asana, but despite early excitement, they never seemed to integrate with my life because I wasn’t forced to visit it often enough. I think this is essential to why doing everything through email works so well for me.
On any given day, I receive dozens of emails, potentially hundreds, which means I’m already checking my mail on a regular basis, so why not put everything I can there.
Starred emails have come to replace sticky notes, print-outs, and a reliance on remembering everything I need to do at any given time. Email drafts have replaced scattered word documents, to-do lists, and scrap pieces of paper spread around to be lost or forgotten. The consistent receipt of emails means I’m regularly reminded of what needs to be done and the easy access from anywhere with internet means I can be productive during just about any downtime I have.
Mint and Google Calendar Help as Well
Gmail is the central control system that makes sure nothing slips through the cracks, but there are a few key things that work alongside it to keep our financial house in order. First, we have all of our accounts organized through Mint.com. (We also track our investment accounts through Personal Capital, but those are pretty much on auto-pilot and we don’t really ever need to check them outside of once a year or so.)
Mint allows us to keep all of our transactions in a single place that makes it easy to both track our spending and know where our money is at any given time. If you’re the kind of person with a single bank account and a single credit card, then Mint is probably overkill (but still has some nice features). If you’re the kind of person who opens and closes new accounts on a monthly basis, Mint is a life-saver for not losing track of anything.
We’re strong believers in tracking our spending rather than budgeting and Mint takes care of that for us (although I do export our transactions and add some extra stuff with excel as well). Mint is also good about sending an email anytime a fee pops up on a credit card (usually annual fees), which I simply star in Gmail and take care of the next time I have a moment to call, chat, or secure message with customer service.
Google Calendar is great for setting up items that you know you’ll need to complete in the future, but can’t take action on yet. The Starred folder seems to work because at any given time, the items in it are either for later reference (no action needed), or immediately actionable given time availability. For that reason, it never builds up to more than a few dozen items, most of which are usually travel reservations. If it included everything I needed to do in the future, but can’t take action on yet, it would get rather difficult to wade through and find the things you should be doing soon.
That’s where Google Calendar comes in. Set an event for when you’ll need to complete an action (or can start to complete the action) and then set up an email notification related to the event. The beauty of the email notification is that you won’t need to check Calendar on the regular basis and can forget about it outside of setting up events (if you choose), everything important is still going through email. I’m convinced the system is working well for myself because everything is in one single location. Adding a second or third app, or trying to split things between various locations increases the potential for things to be forgotten or missed.
By making sure everything is in one location and maintaining the organization in that one location, it’s simple to ease my mind anytime I think I’m missing or forgetting something. Just glance through my starred items, put my mind at ease, then move on to more important things.
I set this up in the context of managing any number of financial accounts such as credit cards and bank accounts, but it can really be used to manage anything that needs attention over time. New accounts are recorded in a spreadsheet when I open them, but I never need to check the spreadsheet unless I need to reference some data. Everything from bills to annual fees all filter though my Inbox and are handled as necessary. Due dates for spending requirements or credit cards perks are placed on the right dates in Calendar and I get an email the appropriate amount of time before I need to make sure it’s taken care of. Mint organizes all of the transactions for all of the accounts so I can make sure there isn’t anything I don’t expect and can also make sure we’re on track with our savings goals.
By sending everything to one place, maintaining the organization of that one place, and making sure that one place is something I’ll visit frequently without needing to remember, everything pretty much takes care of itself. Even when life gets busy and hectic, I know everything important is being taken care of through a quick glance at my Starred folder in Gmail. No missed payments, no forgotten due dates, and no stress when it comes to worrying whether or not you forgot to do something (or at least less than before!).
Does anyone else use their email as the place to track just about everything they need to remember and complete? Have you discovered a much better system that helps you get everything done? Please share your thoughts below