I have no idea how I'm going to plan the wedding.
December 28, 2011 3:52 PM   Subscribe

I have come to realize that I am terrible at planning in most areas of my life: education, finance, events, daily tasks etc. How do I become better at looking ahead, seeing what's coming and acting now so that the future doesn't suck?

I've gotten by pretty well thus far in my life by being smart and reacting quickly when new situations present themselves. I got through university by cramming for exams and writing papers the day before they were due. I've kept myself afloat financially by renting and making enough money so that I can afford my modest lifestyle. I've gotten through the daily grind by waiting until things needed to be done and then doing them. I'm a procrastinator that gets things done when they need to be done.

Things have changed. I'm 35, am living with my girlfriend who has 3 children and have my own child on the way. I have a well paying job with good future prospects but I have no house, no significant savings and moderate (but not unmanageable) debt. What I saw as a modest lifestyle before (eating out, alcohol, gadgets, books) is now unsustainable. When I let things slide at home (not picking up milk on my way home from work) it just means even more work for me later on.

What can I do to get on top of my situation? Budgeting, task lists and goal setting all sound like good ideas but I have no idea where to start. I feel like I need an elementary education in planning and organizing my life. Can you make any suggestions as to where I should begin?

posted by talkingmuffin to Work & Money (7 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I think maybe the easiest approach would be to work out which of your friends does have it all together the most, and do what you can to start emulating them. Do you know someone who earns a similar amount to you, but whose finances are more healthy? Can you observe, or ask them about their spending habits? (How often they eat out, what non-essentials they buy, etc, what sorts of meals they cook?)

The same approach could work for other areas of your life that you want to improve too. Ideal would be if you could stay with such a friend for a week or so, and "shadow" them in their daily life, but that's probably not an easy thing to make happen. I think that's how people who have things together often learned it, though, through observing parents who were good at organisation, budgeting, etc, too. And learning it from a real human being rather than a book shows you that it really is achievable.
posted by lollusc at 4:11 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

With four children in the equation you're going to have to make charts. Make chore charts for you and also for the children old enough to help out.

Make a set dinner menu 1950-s style of, say, the 10 meals your family likes best and plan accordingly. Make lunches for school and work religiously-- such a savings of money and anxiety.

As far as planning the wedding... if I were you I'd go the City Hall route and save all that wedding money for the children or a family vacation.
posted by devymetal at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am a big fan of The Simple Dollar's Budget. The title is gimmicky but the format works for me. You start by writing down the things that are important to you and then develop a plan on how to achieve them. I like the idea of working for my dreams instead of just working for money.
posted by calumet43 at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: David Allen's book Getting Things Done is good if your problem is that you want to do things but find yourself too disorganized to get things done. In a nutshell, his approach involves identifying goals (e.g., plan this wedding), breaking them down into manageable projects (e.g., find and book a venue for the wedding), and then for each project, identifying a concrete next action that you can take for it (e.g., draw up a list of places we would like to have the wedding). You keep lists of such things and review them frequently so that you can identify what comes next (OK, you've drawn up your list of possible venues; the next step is to call them to see if they're available for your wedding date). There's a lot more to it, of course, or there wouldn't be a book (and a sequel, and a whole spin-off industry...). But the book is really all you need, along with some paper for lists. Software can help, as long as you don't let playing with your to-do software come to be a substitute for actually getting things done.

If your problem, though, is that you don't want do do those things you think you should be doing, the best system in the world won't help you.

And as a recovering procrastinator, I'm familiar with the idea of getting things done when they need to get done. But if you are honest with yourself about the things you didn't get done, or where you did a half-assed job because you let things go to the last minute, you should be able to find the motivation to change. One possible approach is "structured procrastination," but it's a halfway solution at best.

As for finances and budgeting, start with Beth Kobliner's book Get a Financial Life. It's succinct and packs a lot into every page (or at least the first edition did).

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 5:25 PM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

marry to your weeknesses
posted by kenaldo at 7:29 PM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: A bit over a year ago the planning bug really bit me. I'd say it came in three waves: scheduling, todo listing, and finally budgeting. But this was only after having read Time Management for System Administrators six months prior and letting the idea percolate. It's a relatively short book that mainly deals with work related problems, but makes the case that you should manage your whole day in the same system, because it makes the tradeoffs between staying late and missing your kid's birthday visible.

It started when I realized that my backlog at home kept growing. I decided to record a baseline time budget by using calendars to record daily activity. It turns out it's a lot easier to plan the day and then revise it to match reality later than it is to constantly update such a thing or try to remember post-hoc. So I sat down and scheduled commutes, dinner, all the normal TV & podcasts, socializing, grocery shopping, household chores and whatnot. I also budgeted an extra hour every night for "productive" things like watching a specific lecture or podcast episode.

That was informative in the short run, but a lot of work. I still use it to schedule social events, but I replaced the "extra hour" events with a set of lists: Education, Career, Games, Money, Movies, Personal, Automotive, Website, and a few others. The goal of the lists wasn't to "solve procrastination," but to document and organize, so I have something better to do than watch reruns if I'm ever bored.So just start brainstorming todo lists and items. Try to think diverse and long term here. For examples, my car repair schedule is listed out to 2020, and I've got a list of movies I'd like to get around to watching some day.

Once you've got a healthy list, pick out this month's set. Try to start out with very short but rewarding tasks. Maybe replacing broken lightbubls or cleaning out your bathroom mirror; the point here is to work the system and reinforce it with a feeling of accomplishment. For individual tasks, shoot for a length of 15m-1h. For scheduling, I try to have no more than one task at home scheduled for every day. I've read that studies suggest monthly planning works best, but I like the "done" feeling that a set of 25 tasks marked "December" can't give you. It's also wise to leave some slack every month, because important things may come up, or you might underestimate a task, or feel lazy for a day.

Appwise, I've used Outlook and Evolution to handle both calendars and tasks. Haven't tried Sunbird lately. I have Evolution start in calendar mode when I log in. I use davical to make them accessible from home and work. My phone has a calendar desktop widget that shows tasks and events from an exchange account (or compatible system like Zimbra..), and I make sure that shows up on the default screen. Important events like packing for a trip get an alarm.

On budgeting and finance
I use GNUCash in a way I haven't seen anyone else discuss it before. From 2007-20110 I used GNUCash as a data collector mainly to track net worth. It's still useful to have the historical record, but what's really changed the way I use GNUCash is Scheduled Transactions. I have about twenty scheduled transactions that formalize pretty much all my regular incomes and expenses, and create the entries 30 days ahead of time. Rent, car loan, student loan, credit cards, groceries, phone bills, utilities, paychecks, cash back, as much as possible gets put in under the Automate That Shit principle. Especially the huge ones that sneak up on you. Especially if you have bank statements and credit card statements from the past, this is a trivial task: right click -> Schedule...

Once you've set this all up, the Future Minimum Balance column will tell you whether you need to find more money for a given account or if you can transfer some out. As long as your records are accurate, this tells you how much you can afford to spend. I realize as a new parent that it may be difficult to predict expenses, but you've got 4, so that's a lot of practice you'll get in a short period. The easiest way to handle this is to set aside some cash for unanticipated child expenses. To wrap this up, every 30 days I have a todo item on the Money list to reconcile my scheduled transactions with reality and see how things are shaping up for the next 30.

With the operational side automated and out of the way, this lets you focus on strategy and planning. I have an annual budget spreadsheet, which I use to evaluate major decisions like rent vs buy and taking or refusing job offers. While it grows in complexity over time, it'll never match GNUCash for accuracy, but it's a good first stab at reality. The annual budget is where I make sure that income exceeds expenses without the complexities of 3rd monthly paychecks and lumpy expenses. It's also what I look at when trying to cut expenses. Every month gets a "theme" where I have a few tasks to wrangle the expenses down. Twice a year I gather quotes from a lot of different insurance companies. In October I prep for open enrollment. January is tax prep month. In May I review the cellphone situation.

Anyways, this is a lot to digest at once. The important thing is that I did this over the course of a year not a week or month. Children do complicate the picture, and one thing you're going to have figure out is whether it makes sense to have a two income household with 4 kids and an infant. Childcare, gas and other business expenses can be expensive! I like devymetal's suggestion to create chore charts for the family.
posted by pwnguin at 8:09 PM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm unclear why the broad swathe of goal setting can't be accomplished with an independent financial planner, a lawyer and a To Do list or app.

The birth of a child is the ideal time to have a financial review. You absolutely must have life insurance for both parents (and with four kids, quite a lot of it.) You need emergency savings of +/- three months of combined income. You need a debt repayment plan if you have one. You need educational savings for each child. You need retirement savings. And you might want to save for a house and it sounds like a wedding, too.

That is a significant savings burden, so... financial planner for you. If it helps you to find the need to be motivated to do this right now, let me tell you that your need is in fact very urgent. You must have life insurance for both you and your partner before the birth of this baby. Additionally, you need an attorney because you need wills and your familial situation is complex. In a worst case scenario, the insurance and the will are how you take care of your family. To not have those two things in place is irresponsible. Ask friends for referrals and go do, right now.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:56 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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