Accountant by Day

Mortgage news update – March 2015

So, I wrote in December that my monthly escrow payment would be dropping in March, and that I had 14 more months of prepaying $575 a month so that PMI would be dropped.

Since then, I've learned that PMI won't be dropped until I get my mortgage balance down to the required amount AND I have paid PMI for 5 years. So even if I got the balance down next year, they wouldn't drop PMI for another year after that. So starting with the March 2015 payment, I've dropped my prepayment down to $100.

I also e-mailed Chase to confirm the balance the loan needs to be at, and how long I need to pay PMI, and they responded with detailed numbers for my account, which is nice to have. The balance I have to pay the mortgage down to in order to waive PMI is also higher than I thought it was, since I have to pay the loan down to 78% of the original purchase price of the house, not 78% of the original loan balance, as I had thought.

So, since the interest rate is only 3.75%, I'm going to prepay the minimum necessary to get PMI dropped at the earliest possible time. They do "recalculate" PMI each year, so technically I could pay a bit less PMI next year if I pay off more of the balance now, but it doesn't seem worth it. Plus it's complicated to calculate what they'll adjust the PMI balance down to, so really, I was just too lazy to figure out if it might be worth it.

That means I have an extra $475/mo freed up now for savings. It's a bit dangerous, because the more I have in my accounts, the more I feel like I can spend when I suddenly feel like buying something, but it'll also be good to build up a few more months of expenses into my emergency fund, and to make sure I'm maxing out all my retirement accounts, and more. It'll be better to have the money in savings accounts I can access if I need them, instead of paying down a loan faster. I can't get the loan prepayments back if I needed cash for anything. (Nicole&Maggie have mentioned recasting mortgages on their blog--basically, getting your future monthly payments revised down thanks to prepayments, but I looked it up and this is not available for my type of loan, so I really can't convert prepayments today into better cash flow in the future, unfortunately.)

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Motif Investing Review

A new way to build a stock portfolio

You may have noticed a new investing platform--Motif Investing--popping up all over the personal finance blogosphere over the last few months. It has received a lot of press thanks to a generous bonus offered to existing customers who get new customers to sign up, as well as being an innovative service. Since most everyone who's talking about it is hoping you'll click on their affiliate link to sign up, it's hard to find objective information.

Summary of the service

As people interested in investing in stocks, up until Motif Investing arrived, we had two basic options for investing:

  1. Purchase a mutual fund (or other type of fund) and pay a certain "Expense ratio" for the privilege
  2. Purchase individual stocks through a brokerage (like e-trade or Schwab), and pay a trading fee every time you buy or sell shares of an individual stock

Motif Investing is somewhat of a mix between these two. You can create a "motif" which is a set of up to 30 stocks, and set what % of each stock your motif will hold. Think of each motif as self-managed mutual fund. Once you've set the ratio of stocks the motif will hold, you can then purchase however much you want of that motif, say $200 or $2,000, and pay a transaction fee of $9.95. So instead of paying $5 per stock, you pay $9.95 to get 30, which is a good deal.

Unlike a mutual fund, you are truly holding those shares and part-shares that you purchased through the motif. You will get e-mails about proxy votes and all the other stuff that comes along with being a shareholder.

The sign-up bonus

Motif is also offering a juicy sign-up bonus to new customers. You can get up to $150 for opening a new account. This is what attracted me to open my account, and why I closed it shortly after, so that I could cash in on the bonus.

Here's what you have to do to get the cash:

  1. Open an account and fund it with at least $2,000 within 30 days of opening the account
  2. You then earn different amounts of bonus by making different amounts of motif trades (within first 45 days of funding). Remember, each trade costs $9.95 to buy the motif, PLUS $9.95 to sell it later. I rounded up to $10 in the calculations below.
    1. 1 motif trade will receive $50. Total cost to buy+sell = $20. Profit = $30.
    2. 3 motif trades will receive $75. Total cost to buy+sell = $60. Profit = $15
    3. 5 motif trades will receive $150. Total cost to buy+sell = $100. Profit = $50
  3. The new funds must remain in the account for 45 days.

I can confirm that the bonus is legitimate, if it's worth it to you to get the $50. I opened an account with $2,000 on 10/27/14, did 5 motif trades, and then cashed out on 1/27/2015. I didn't incur any hidden or extra fees other than the trading fees listed above. If you want to use the offer, Google something like "get 150 opening a motif account" and pick the link from your favorite blogger, as they'll get an affiliate bonus for linking you there.

The pros

If you've wanted to play around with holding stocks directly, then this can be a much cheaper way to do it than trading individual stocks. You can diversify your purchases and pay only one fee. I would recommend if you want to get hands on with investing in stock, and if you think you'll have fun.

With one-time fees, you may find that Motif is cheaper for you than investing in a mutual fund with an expense ratio, depending on the total dollar amount you are investing. So, possibility of very cheap, diversified portfolio.

The cons

A major con I almost forgot about is that Motif allows users to share their motifs with each other. A motif made by a random user is probably not properly diversified, and can cause you to carry additional risk. ALSO Motif likes to market what I would call "bad" investments, because they sound fun, like "Make a motif that's all your favorite retail stores!" This might appeal to new investors, and add to the "fun" ratio, but a portfolio of only retail stores is NOT a sound method of investing.

I realized I didn't like the hassle of being a stock owner compared to mutual fund owner. I held a 50+ stocks, and got individual emails for each every time an investor communication went out.

No dividend reinvesting currently available. Currently, any dividends paid out sit in your cash balance in Motif. You can't have them automatically reinvested for free, and would need to pay the trading fee to reinvest. If you don't want to cash out dividends right away, you won't like this.

I wasn't completely pleased with the process to recover money. First, I had to sell the motifs. There were several days delay between initiating the sale, and having the proceeds from the sale available in my Motif account to transfer out to my bank account. I used an ACH, so there were no fees.

Initiated sale of stocks: 1/28/2015

Initiated transfer out to bank account on 2/3/2015 (4 business days stocks to be sold and for the cash to be available within the Motif platform)

Cash available in bank on 2/4/2015 (5 business days)

HOWEVER, for some reason, some dribs and drabs of the initial sale were still processing. So after transferring out to my bank account, suddenly my motif cash balance was $0.25, then $0.65. Luckily, it seems that motif will let you transfer these small amounts with an ACH for no fee, so they are not "stuck" there.

A note on cashing out

When I went to close out my account, I was nervous because I had read a couple reports saying I would be required to wire the money out to my bank account, and pay motif a $30 wire fee. If I factored in the fee my bank would charge for receiving a wire, I was worried that would wipe out my $50 profit from the bonus right there.

Luckily, transferring out via ACH was definitely an option, and did not involve any fees. You are also not (currently) limited to how small an amount you can transfer out, making it easier to pull out those little dividends that you might start accumulating.

My conclusion

Since I want set-it-and-forget-it investments, I'm going to stick with no-load low-expense mutual funds. I learned that I am really not interested in playing around with stocks, since I don't believe that picking individual stocks will do better than the market average. For any readers who are just getting started investing and want to just put some money into stocks and they don't really care about what, I would definitely recommend opening a Vanguard account and purchasing a cheap S&P 500 index fund.

I would recommend giving the Motif service a try if you are interested in playing around with owning individual stocks, or if you think their fee structure will save you money. From my experience with the service, it was easy to work with, and didn't spring any unexpected fees on me, which is a big positive. Given the current bonus of $150, you can make up to 5 trades without actually "losing" any money on fees, so that makes it a nice low-risk way to try it out without wasting money.




It’s tax time!

Tax season is here! *Happy dance*

I love doing my taxes. Mostly because, since buying the house, I always get a nice big refund. Of course I know that means I loaned the government money for free over the past year, but it also means extra savings I didn't know that I had!

A couple years ago, I used almost my whole refund to purchase a nice bicycle. Still enjoying that, but this year I plan to add that refund straight to my savings account!

I'm just waiting on a couple more forms from Prosper and Motif Investing. (Look forward to a full Motif Investing review in the next few weeks which will include thoughts on the timeliness of their tax documents being released! And how easy--or not easy--it is to close an account and cash out.)

Tax season for my personal return is awesome. Much more awesome than tax preparation season where there's too much work to do and rich people are mad that they have to pay taxes in order to support the army that they probably voted in favor of expanding the budget for!

Do you like filing your taxes? Or do you take the common approach that it's lame and un-fun?

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Helping family members with money, part II

In Part I of this post, I talked about my family's background, and my Sibling who is currently reinventing themself financially, with my help. (I hope!)

This part is about my plan for helping Sibling get on track. This is just a plan though--I can help with advice and personal finance tools, but I can't actually BE WILLPOWER in another human being. I hope the advice and tools will make it easier for Sibling to exercise willpower and make progress.

I've given Sibling some tools for tracking expenses and income, and I'm hoping to sit down with Sibling in the next couple of weeks to review the data. I'm HOPING I can help Sibling get on track to:

  1. Develop a habit of tracking income and spending
  2. Understand current spending and find places to cut spending
  3. Set achievable monthly savings goals and stick to them

Tracking income and spending

Sibling is self-employed, gets many small paychecks, and doesn't have the same schedule every week. Income is almost as hard to determine for Sibling as expenses are! (Really, income is always easier though, because adding up paychecks is a lot more fun than adding up how much you blew on latte's and beer this week.)

I think tracking spending is a good precursor to actually having a budget. Many of the personal finance bloggers who really cracked down on their spending to pay off debt often found that once the debt was paid off, and they simply stopped tracking their spending as frequently, the spending quickly ballooned. For me, simply noting how much I've spent at the end of each week/month reminds me of little luxuries that I've quickly forgotten about. My mental dialog might go: "Why not buy this new crock pot for only $40? Well, because I just bought a rice cooker last week for $35. Oh yeah! Forgot about that! Maybe I should wait a few months to buy the crock pot."

Understanding current spending habits and then trimming

Sibling's current expenses are car insurance, gasoline, health insurance, cell phone, pet supplies, and personal hygiene stuff. Everything else is covered by parents. However, Sibling still purchases some of their own groceries, small gifts for friends, the occasional meal out, alcoholic beverages, and costs to attend entertainment events.

It's easy to look at Sibling and say, this is a money EMERGENCY. You are too poor for concerts, paying for meals, drinking whiskey and beer, or even eating organic food!

This is the toughest conversation though, and I'm not even sure if having it will be productive. Sibling still acts in some ways as if these things, which are luxuries, are necessities. It's nice to have nice things.

My current plan is to approach this with a "Let's think about what you really need to stay alive, compared to what you're buying. Of the extra stuff, what can you most easily live without? Coconut water? Buy non-organic versions of the same foods? Good-tasting coffee beans?" I can't dictate how Sibling spends their own money, but I'm hoping presenting it so that Sibling acknowledges that certain luxuries would not be hard to give up will be a start.

Set achievable monthly savings goals and stick to them

Before moving out of parents' house, it would be best if Sibling had cash savings to draw on for car repairs and the like. It would also be NICE if Sibling could replace current, unreliable gas-guzzling vehicle with reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle. Due to nature of work (multiple locations all over town) and the set up of the city, Sibling transitioning to biking all over town is a non-starter. (A hardcore mustachian could totally do it, but baby steps here...)

I think it will be good for Sibling's financial confidence to have a savings plan and stick to it--but that's not enough. Sibling can't get comfortable on this, because Sibling also needs to figure out how to transition back to paying rent, utilities, and groceries, while continuing to save AND while making progress on paying off debts. (Debts are to family members, so the only "interest" that is accruing is frustration from family members, as opposed to monetary.)

Is it possible?

I'm not sure. I'll know more after I see the details of Sibling's income. Sibling's work is not full time, and driving many miles to work is eating away at the profits. Being self-employed means higher taxes and insurance.

I also need to do the research on self-employment issues--things I take for granted like short- and long-term disability insurance are something Sibling needs to budget for. HELPFUL READERS - If you know any other important things that self-employed people should be paying for, like disability insurance, please share in the comments below!

And then there's the question of very-long-term success. Assuming Sibling is on track to break even currently, how does Sibling ensure that Sibling can retire? Sibling's work is physical--I don't know at what age Sibling won't be able to do it anymore. It might be earlier than 65. If Sibling could keep living with parents rent-free indefinitely, I'd be more confident that Sibling can build up a good solid savings. But rent-free with the parents has a yet-to-be-determined time limit, so really aggressive savings and frugality are necessary, but Sibling really needs to be committed for that to be possible.

How involved should I be?

I love data and spreadsheets. I'd be happy reviewing Sibling's finances every month for years to be like the "workout buddy" who keeps you accountable to your plan. Sibling probably does not want me looking over Sibling's shoulder though, which is why I don't want to come across as overly critical and controlling in this phase, in the hopes that Sibling will find me more helpful than annoying. And I'll try not to show frustration when Sibling shows off some new toy in a couple of month's time :).


Helping family members with money, Part I

I'm taking on the challenge of trying to help a family member get better at managing their money. I love the money-management part, less so the emotional dramas that can come along with money and family.

The Characters in the Money Drama

My parents, hosts to family member in need. A short history.

My parents were immigrants to the US. At age 45 (my dad) and 35 (my mom), they used what savings they had to move to the US with my siblings and I. My father's professional qualifications were not valid here, and my mother wasn't eligible for a work visa.

Dad, a professional in our home country, struggled to find work. It was the early 90's and there was a bit of a recession going on, especially in the small-town area they chose to move to (had some friends who lived in the area.) According to mom, they figured they would give it six months, and if he still hadn't found work, they would move back to the home country and try to pick up where they left off.

It's probably the craziest decision I've ever heard of my parents making, and they've never given me a solid answer on exactly why they woke up one day and decided it was time to risk it all and move. There are plenty of reasons, safety, opportunities, etc, but I'm not sure what the catalyst was.

So, time goes by--no work to be found. Finally, dad finds a job driving a forklift, part-time. In a few weeks, he's full-time, and foreman of the shift. Not sure about the details from there, but he works his way up into a professional management position at a large manufacturing firm, and has a nice stable career, very good income.

My mother, once we got US residency, found admin work (no college degree) and proceeded to blow employer's minds at every place she has worked with how fantastic she is at working.

Frankly, while they won't let Sibling starve in the street, they are baffled by why Sibling is not scrambling to find full- or more-than-full-time work and get financially stable.

My Sibling, a brief description of the circumstances

Sibling is older than I am, and by the time I was in high school, Sibling was done with college and had joined the working world as an Educator of Children. Until Sibling moved in with parents a few months ago, Sibling lived in a different state than our parents and I have for the last ten years.

I'm not intimately familiar with Sibling's daily life and behavior in that time, but suffice to say, Sibling arrived here with a small amount of retirement savings, $0 cash savings, about $10,000 owed to family members, and no job. On the plus side, Sibling has no credit card debt, no car loan, and has a good credit score. Sibling is also in relatively good health, and does not have any children to support. (Sibling does have a Pet.) Sibling has an unreliable truck, but in addition to accommodations and food, parents also provide an extra fuel-efficient vehicle in good working order.

So, sibling is trying to get life back on track, and has found work in the type of field sibling likes to work in. This is good, but not ideal (yet) because:

  1. Work is part time, and offers no benefits
  2. Work is over an hour commute one-way, and often requires additional travel time on the same day between client locations
  3. Due to the nature of the work being an hour here and there are various clients, it is not clear whether it is feasible that this job will ever be full time. Apart from the business owners, almost all of the "employees" are part time contractors (with spouses who work full-time.)

Reasons to be positive about this job:

  1. Sibling is educated for and good at this type of work.
  2. The company really likes Sibling.
  3. Siblings hours have been consolidated and increased over the past few weeks, so driving is only four days per week, and Sibling doesn't have days with only one or two hours of work, but three hours of commuting time. **Note, one Parent strongly believes Sibling should push for only 3 nearly full-time days, to avoid driving time, which would then allow sibling to pursue other hourly, lower-paid work closer to home.

My role in this, as a supportive family member:

  1. Trying to provide emotional support to Sibling whose life is not fantastic right now
  2. Help Sibling create a budget, track income and spending, and help Sibling create a long-term plan for independent living (i.e. purchasing a reliable vehicle, and being able to afford rent somewhere.)

My parents' role is providing housing and food, but they also feel that they need to provide a bit of a kick in the pants, to make sure that Sibling doesn't WANT to live with them forever.

My challenge? This is a financial issue that needs a long-term solution. Sibling needs to learn to save, needs to build up savings so the next disaster doesn't send sibling back to borrowing money or moving in with family.

Unfortunately, parents and Sibling want the issue resolved NOW, of course. They know, objectively, that not all problems can be solved right away, but when tensions arise because of the living situation, etc, the patience wears thin. So the time frame for Sibling to build up an emergency fund/any savings is limited.

This is going to be a multiple-part post as the situation progresses.



Let’s talk later

Chatty co-workers - how do you deal with them? I've been having a problem with an extra-chatty coworker, and I've been trying to take steps to address the issue in a sensible fashion.

Advice from a Google search ranges from a variety of polite response to simply wearing headphones at all times to discourage co-workers who like to chat with you while you're working. One search result I turned up was someone complaining about people using their office as a "waiting area" for the bosses office next door. They would just chat with the woman in this office until the boss was ready to see them.

That made me realize that I think my personal chatty coworker may be doing this, since my office is next door to a conference room, so Chatty may come in every time he is waiting for a meeting to start.

Now, I don't think Chatty's intrusions were nearly as frequent before the last few weeks, but admittedly, I've also been very busy at work for the last few weeks, so the interruptions are more noticeable. Anyway, once I noticed it being an issue, these interruptions began to happen EVERY DAY and sometimes more than once per day, and I started to try some tactics to thwart Chatty--here are the results.

First tactic -- be unresponsive to show that I am involved in work

Surprisingly, this almost made Chatty more chatty. Chatty will often start with questions that I am not interested in answering, which is part of what makes the interruption irritating. His favorite question is "What are you working on?"

I'm the accountant. Maybe other accountants would be happy to talk about their work but honestly, my work is either a) administrative, so not that interesting to others, or b) confidential if I'm working on financial statements and other reports for the boss.

I've tried responding with, "Work," while continuing to focus on said work.

Chatty's response? To remain in office, perpetuating awkward silence, until Chatty can think of another question to ask. It makes me feel a bit like Chatty thinks that I am a recalcitrant teenager who needs his help to socialize, so the less social I am, the more he pushes.

Also, sometimes I respond with the task I'm doing, for example, "Invoicing customers." And then continue to keep working away at that. Chatty's favorite follow up question is "Oh, do you like that?" Which is just an awkward question to ask at work, I think. How about, "I LIKE IT WHEN I'M NOT BEING INTERRUPTED WHILE DOING IT."

Interestingly, for a couple days I considered whether maybe Chatty was just not good at social signals, and wasn't noticing that I wasn't responding. I paid attention to Chatty's behavior in other situations, and noted that he is perfectly fine at picking up subtle signals at other times, so I don't think this is the problem. That's when I started to theorize that Chatty might think it's his role to make me more sociable by continuing to ask questions when I'm not responding.

Second tactic -- use canned phrase to indicate now is not a good time

As recommended by my boyfriend and sensible people on the internet, I prepared myself to use a canned phrase.

"Sorry, I'm in the middle of something just now, can we chat later?"

The next time Chatty came in, I was thwarted by his phrasing.

"I have a meeting in 2 minutes," Chatty announces, "What are you up to?"

In hindsight, I could have distractedly said "Sorry, I'm in the middle of something just now, can we chat later?" but I was thrown off by the fact that his opening gambit was to announce that I was graced by his presence at this time thanks to the timing of a meeting. And further annoyed that rather than doing the heavy lifting and suggesting an interesting topic to talk about, he is once again asking me to also supply the topic. I felt a bit like being asked to be an entertainer for the guests in line at an amusement park.

Hello? Your meeting is not the only "real work" of the company. People sitting at their desks that happen to be near the meeting are actually not placed there to entertain you. (As you can see, if interrupted when busy, I can get extraordinarily irritated, beyond what may really be called for.)

BUT the next morning I successfully used the phrase! Chatty came in, asked what I was doing, and I managed to get out "Sorry, it's actually something I need to get done right away," and I barely got out the "Can we chat later?" politeness at the end (WHICH I DON'T ACTUALLY MEAN BY THE WAY), because he was all like, "Oh, okay. I guesssssss I should leaaaaave you to it then." Literally dragging out the syllables so that it took the longest possible time to say that sentence before actually exiting my space.

I texted my boyfriend in triumph! I used a polite canned phrase! Chatty left!

I see Chatty two hours later in the break room as I'm getting myself a cup of tea.

"So are you done with everything that was keeping you busy this morning?" He asks.


Third tactic - Cave in an chat

Yes, this does not solve the problem. But when I am less busy, as I was once this week when Chatty came in, it is easier to just go ahead, participate in chat, and I actually get less irritated because I don't have to deal with Chatty asking a bunch of boring questions I answer monosyllabicly. Instead I can just be like, "Oh, read this article you might be interested in, did you know XYZ?" and actually talk about something interesting for a couple of minutes 'til his meeting starts or whatever.

I FEEL - Remembering that my reactions are generated by myself, not caused by someone else

Over the last few weeks while I've been stressed, I noticed that a lot of why Chatty irritates me is because I build up a "story" behind his behavior. 1) He doesn't think I have important work to do, 2) He expects me to entertain him (I'm not nearly as annoyed with chatters who stop by because they have an interesting piece of news to share with me), 3) He thinks I need to be encouraged to talk, the less responsive I become.

Thinking up these "reasons" behind his behavior result in me feeling a bit demeaned and feeling quite angry at him. In reality, these may or may not be the truth, but working myself up about it to the point where I feel bad about it is my problem, not his. That was actually the best takeaway I had from the book Crucial Conversations--no one else can MAKE you feel a certain way. (Well sure, emotional manipulators play on known weaknesses in human psychology, but in this type of situation, I'm clearly constructing the anger and feelings myself.) Interestingly, I don't feel that Crucial Conversations advice helps me out much in how to have a conversation with Chatty about the frequent interruptions.

I like to be frank with people, and considered bluntly explaining that I have work to do, and would prefer not to chat while I'm in my office. But I think that would be way too harsh in this situation, and create more of a conflict than there already is. Then again, maybe that's me being female and wanting to keep everything in harmony. But I try to think about it in reverse, and if I went to chat with a colleague a couple of times, and then they sat me down for a serious talk about it, instead of politely shooing me out a few times until I got the message, I would be mortified.

The resolution?

I'm not so crazy busy anymore, so a permanent solution is no longer very high on my priority list. I think I will try using the "can we chat later" phrase more, when I'm not so irritated by Chatty, as I think I will be more comfortable delivering it. (I was worried that my anger would show in my tone of voice, regardless of the politeness of the canned phrase.) At first, I was concerned that Chatty would feel like it was never okay to come and chat, but sometimes it is! If I'm not clearly busy. But I've also come to the realization that I would be perfectly fine with Chatty learning that my office is never a good place for chatting. Just have to work at making that clear.

Anyone have some words of wisdom for dealing with chatty office mates? Ever feel like coworkers are being disrespectful of your work by assuming you can talk to them while they wait for the boss to be free/the meeting to start?




Checklists that work

When I switched jobs, I decided it was time to be organized. I didn't have any more excuses--I don't have to bill time to clients, so it's okay to take some time each day to be organized. I'm not so busy I'm at the office until 9pm each night, so I can breathe for a minute and keep my to-do list up to date.

I found a to-do list method that works very well for me, called the "Bullet Journal." There are a bunch more symbols that I don't use, but here's my simple, effective bullet-journal-style to-do list method:

Checklist 1I start with a list of what I need to do that day, with an empty box next to each item. Pretty standard stuff. You can see on my example of "closing journal entries" that, where possible, I try to break the tasks down into smaller tasks. This helps if I have just 10 minutes free, I know I can accomplish one of those smaller, subtasks in 10 minutes, so I can use the time productively. I also have the tendency to avoid tasks on my list that are too vague--breaking them into subtasks makes it clear how to begin. It also provides the satisfaction of completing more tasks, and getting rewarding feelings of productivity as I do so.

Instead of checking the items off, I fill the square in completely. If the task is partially done, I fill in half a box, diagonally, like the "Enter closing journals" task below:

Checklist 2Finally, if a task is incomplete at the end of the day, I either move it to the next day, and then draw a little arrow in the box on the current day once I've transferred it. If I haven't transferred it to a new day, I leave the box blank, so it is easy to flip back over the last couple of days and see what I might have not completed that should now be added to a new day's list when I have time. Usually, tasks don't get pushed out more than one day, but on busy weeks like this one, when I'm working on the year-end close, it happens!

If a task is incomplete, and it is going to be postponed indefinitely or never done, I strike through the line and write a little note about why it was taken off the list.

Checklist 3No one gets paid this week! Inventory reconciliation will have to happen tomorrow. Pats on the back for all of the other tasks completed!

Simple as that. I also keep a dedicated moleskine notebook, with one day's list per page. This helps avoid some problems I had with my old method of to-do lists, which was to use the same 8.5x11 legal pad I used to write all other notes on, so then it was hard to find the page with my to-do list. I chose a brightly colored journal for my to-do list, so I never confuse it with my hundred-odd other moleskines (all black) that I tend to have lying around the house.

I also make sure I write the list every morning. My old method, I would write a list for a whole week, fill up a whole page of the legal pad with check boxes, and then feel overwhelmed (plus lose the list by the end of the week.)

That brings me to keeping track of what should go on my list. My job has repeating cycles of tasks I need to do, which helps this process. I have to do a bunch of the same tasks each month. So I figured out how many I could do a day (i.e. I can't do all of the month-end tasks the first day of the next month), and I figured out what order they would need to go in. Some tasks can't happen until other items are done. Then I use the same checklist each month, and at the beginning of each month, figure out what date I'll do each set of tasks on. When I make my daily to-do list, I start by checking the recurring tasks list. This sounds super convenient, right? And like it won't work for your job where you don't have a monthly cycle? But really, the majority of my tasks that are on my daily to-do list are not these recurring tasks. They're things like "Make report of sales by customers who are located in countries beginning with the letter G" that the boss requested that morning, or yesterday evening.

Looking back at my previous job, with my monster to-do lists, this is how I would have handled it.

1. Create the monster to-do list in a word document, and print out. Maybe note on the list what date things must be done by, and spend some quality time thinking about the priority of the items. Order the list in priority-order. (I am really bad at deciding what would make the most sense to do next, priority wise, if I finish one task, and am faced with picking the next one right away. Better to pre-select priority when I am thinking hard about it.)

2. Keep this list pinned to the wall near my desk, and choose tasks from it every morning to write down in the daily to-do list.

3. Check stuff off and feel like progress has occurred! (Also add on stuff that boss pops head into office and says they need by the end of the day.)

I also put meetings on the list, even though meetings are also in my Outlook calendar, because at the end of the day, it might look as though I slacked off all day, doing only 3 tasks, when in reality, I spent 4 hours of the day in a meeting. So for my own comfort, I like to keep track of what I was doing. (No one else sees the checklist, of course.)

So, seems simple, but using the bullet method, especially the marking items as "partially finished," and keeping a dedicated journal for the to-do list, has worked REALLY well for me. I highly recommend trying this out if you currently don't keep a to-do list, but find yourself forgetting to do things, or if your current to-do list is not working for you.

Anyone else discover a magical to-do list method that works for you when other methods didn't?



December 2014 Mortgage

Yay! Got the letter about my escrow adjustment for the upcoming year. I predicted last month that my escrow payment would be adjusted down from $560 a month to about $425. The actual adjustment will bring the escrow amount down to $410! Plus, due to the slight overpayment this year, they will apply $9/month of overpayment to next year's monthly payment. The reduced escrow amount will only come into effect March 1, but I am looking forward to having $150 extra per month.

December 2015 Mortgage Payment:

Payment: 1,751.83

Principal: 253.55
Prepayment: 575.00
Interest: 362.58
Escrow: 560.70

Only 14 more months of pre-paying $575 per month until PMI is eliminated, and I can save another $120/month. (AND possibly stop prepaying the $575, freeing up that amount for savings and retirement goals.)


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Private industry after public accounting

I spent about 3.5 years (4 busy seasons) working in public accounting. I was good at it. I worked a ton of hours, and stressed about meeting the ever increasing workload and expectations. They loved me.

So, when I quit and let them know I was taking a job at a private industry company, small enough for me to be the only accountant, a few of my colleagues expressed surprise at my choice of exit plan. I was a bit surprised at their surprise--I deliberately chose to work at a smaller CPA firm upon graduation and when it came time to look at private industry jobs, I was very interested at working at a smaller company. I'm not 100% sure what my colleagues expected, but they probably expected me to look for a job at one of the Fortune 500's in town. The recruiters I worked with sure had a lot of openings for the Home Depot, UPS, and Coca Cola on their radars. Instead, I found an opportunity at a small science-related start up, through LinkedIn, which I felt would be a good fit for me from the moment I read the job description. And so far, seven months in, that is definitely the case.

The biggest concern some of my public accounting coworkers expressed was that they would be way too bored in this kind of position. And to be honest, there are definitely days where I don't have enough work to do, so that can get a bit boring. But the actual work itself? I don't see why entering vendor invoices is any more boring than flipping through 100 invoices that you've selected during an audit, and making a note in your spreadsheet of what price was paid for inventory on that date. And there is a satisfaction to creating a customer invoice and recording a nice chunk of revenue that I never got from doing audit test work. And if I run out of regular, daily accounting work to do, I can always find a project to improve my little department. These projects might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world either (creating an official reimbursement policy, researching an ERP software that will fit our needs, learning about the accounting rules specific to our government grants), but I like working on projects.

I love being the whole accounting department. I know how to do my stuff. If the system isn't working right, I fix it. If I see something that needs doing, I do it. I love having a real manager (the CEO) as a boss, instead of someone who was good at accounting, but maybe never quite learned how to manage people. At a bigger company, I'm pretty sure I would be frustrated by the bureaucracy of the approval process if I wanted to change how we did things. Heck, at the smallish CPA firm I was at, I was frustrated with the bureaucracy that one needed to navigate to make any improvements to our work processes.

There's the pay situation too--I am making more money now than I was in public. It would have taken another 2 raises to get me to this salary level at the public accounting firm (about a year from now, maybe I would have been making the same.) After that, I will probably start to fall behind what I would be earning in public accounting. But I'm also exchanging so much less of my spirit and energy. It would take several more years of raises in public accounting to match my currently "hourly" earnings, since I work a standard 40-hour week now, instead of 50+ hours a week. If I want to push my earnings up a level in a few years, I could probably do it through switching jobs, but I really like working here, you see, so I probably won't do that.

You know who is bored though? Some of my other public accounting friends who switched to internal audit at big brand-name companies. Bored out of their minds, they say. But also unable to self-direct their time. Their tasks are repetitive, but they don't have the freedom to find little projects to work on like I do.

I wouldn't be as qualified as I am today though without the public accounting experience. Public accounting allows you to learn a lot in a relatively short time--you are constantly being presented with new challenges, as you master the old challenges. It also allows you to earn hours and your CPA license. You need to work more industry hours to earn a CPA license, plus you need to work under a CPA who can sign off on those hours.

The other interesting thing I wanted to share with others who might be thinking about leaving public accounting is this: I was nervous that I would make the "wrong" choice, and really throw my career off base. I was anxious that I would choose a second job that would make it really difficult to obtain a third job at some future point. It was also scary looking for a new job, because the last time I had been looking for a job, I was in college, where the firms come looking for you, and your potential employers don't expect you to have any experience. Once I finally made the jump, it's like I can more clearly see the world around me, outside of public accounting. And let me tell you, from here, it looks like there are tons of opportunities for an accountant to find work.

It was also tough finding people to provide recommendations, because all the people I had ever worked with were in the company I was currently working at during the job search! I was lucky in the references in a couple of ways--first, I had an opportunity to work a temporary accounting job right after graduation, before my CPA job was scheduled to begin. I worked really hard there, and my boss from that short three-month stint was happy to provide a recommendation. Secondly, within the CPA firm, I had sought out opportunities to work for people outside of my regular department when I was a first-year, before I was completely swamped with work from my own department. These people were also happy to provide references for me, as my leaving the firm was no great disadvantage to them, as I didn't regularly work for them. But, they could truthfully give a review of my work, since I had done a few jobs with them. I highly recommend trying to do this at your own CPA firm too when you are a first year, as there are plenty of other advantages from this too.

But you know what? Now that I am in my second job, suddenly there are so many more people to ask for recommendations if/when I am looking for a third job! All those people that were my supervisors in my department at the CPA firm, the ones I couldn't tell about my last job search? Now that I don't work for them anymore, they'll be happy to provide recommendations for me in the future. In addition to just "not burning bridges" at the CPA firm, I've made an effort to stay in touch with people that I worked with a lot, even if we were never "outside-of-work friends" in the past. Maintaining this network of past colleagues is significantly easier for me than building new connections with strangers at networking events!

So I would say, I'm glad I worked at the CPA firm for the years that I did, but I'm also glad I exited when I did. In retrospect, it seems like an obvious good choice, but at the time, from the view from inside public accounting, it was not such a clear decision!

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The value of work

Most of us go to work everyday. Some of us might prefer not to go to work, would prefer to work less, or would prefer their work to be in a different field.

We also have ideas about what is "important" work and we have more respect for some jobs than others. From the lamentations we hear today about the loss of manufacturing sector, you'd think working in a factory was the best job of all. People often claim to respect teachers, but in reality, we pay them poorly, relative to other professions with similar education requirements, and many people see teaching (elementary and secondary school) as easy because "school hours" are not such a tough schedule. We pay lawyers a lot, but who likes them?

Jobs allow us, a society, to generate more stuff per person. If no one had jobs, we would each spend most of our days trying to fulfill our own basic needs-hunting for food, building and defending our shelter, farming land. Instead, people specialize, so some people/companies who are really good at farming generate the food, police defend your shelter and safety (when they're not accidentally shooting you, I suppose), and some of us, like accountants and professors, do tasks that help make the whole thing run smoothly (educating the specialists for their jobs, counting the currency we use to exchange all these goods and services.)

So any kind of job there is, the worker can feel good that they're contributing to society. Their work creates a better standard of living for most of us, compared to each of us tending to or own basic needs all day. Or at least, leads to more free time and choice about what you're of tasks to do.

And yet, some of us end up in jobs that aren't valued enough to pay for basic food, shelter, clothing. Many of us work at places that pay well above average, but we don't enjoy our jobs, or we don't feel like our jobs contribute to the good of society. Many people find that they can't stand working for someone else, and may work much harder for the same pay to run their own business instead. Others would hate the responsibility of running the whole show.

There's a lot of talk about finding a job you love, that you're passionate about. I suspect that much of this passion for work may be more dependent on the attitude of the worker than their ability to find the "correct" job. We all know examples of house cleaners/janitors who loved their work. I'm sure there are some zoologists out there who hate their jobs too.

I like my current job a lot. It's a pleasant place to be. But I don't feel that fulfilled by going and doing a hard day's work every day. My father, on the other hand, seems to live for work. He's close to 70 and just uninterested in the idea of retiring. While he is very interested in his field of work, I think he would be happy doing any kind of work, as long as he felt like he was being productive and bringing home a paycheck to support the family.

Do you feel passionate about your field of work? Or do you feel passionate about work itself? What would you do with your time if you could support your family doing anything (including watching movies all day!)? Did you navigate your way from a first job that you didn't really enjoy to one that you really like now?