Sunday, January 29, 2017

Do you need a budget?

My wife and I are stuck at O'Hare International Airport.  Our flight is delayed and has been pushed back a few times.  When life hands you lemons, you blog.

I was a long-time Microsoft Money user.  But it didn't have the concepts of expense categories (or envelopes) that I needed.  So I ended up using Excel alongside.  I created my categories there and every expense I logged, I would log under the appropriate account defined in Money and then again under the appropriate category in Excel.  Then, at the end of the month, I had this end-of-month ceremony where I would move funds from categories with leftover money into the categories where we overspent.  And then I would copy the categories into a blank slate ready to start the new month.  You could probably feel my pain while reading that.

In 2009, Microsoft discontinued Money.  I was sad because it meant looking for and learning a new product.  I found one that used envelopes but it seemed too simplistic.  Then, lo and behold, I found YNAB!  It stands for "You Need A Budget".  Microsoft's axing of Money turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I remember starting with YNAB 3.  Shortly after, they came out with version 4, which was miles ahead.  It is now called classic.  Recently, they introduced the new YNAB, which is now web-based and has an annual subscription, as opposed to a one-time purchase.  It is the main reason why I haven't switched to it.  The now-classic version 4 still works fine for me.  However, I just heard that they had added search and reporting capabilities to the new version.  They were blatantly missing when it first came out.  I'm thinking of trying it out soon.  The subscription fee is not that big after all (around $5 a month).  Just got used to not paying one, that's all.

So what is great about YNAB anyway?  First off, the categories.  No more double-entry.  Adios, Excel!  When I log something, I get to specify both the account and the category.  YNAB takes care of updating both.  And my end-of-month ceremony is now just a matter of telling YNAB to copy my previous month's budget into the next month.  Well, I do monitor my categories, too.  Sometimes, I over-spend in one.  When that happens, I either fund it by moving money from another category or just let it be a negative number, knowing that it will be funded again next month.  Of course, I'd have to spend less next month to make up for it.  NOTE:  The new web-based version does not permit negative numbers to be forwarded to the next month.  That's another reason I'm hesitant to switch.  That feature is very handy in certain cases, particularly for receivables and of course, the occasional overspending (that is to be made up for later, of course).  Some people have found one or a couple of workarounds, however, so it's not a deal-breaker anymore.

Second, the discipline.  When you receive income, you're supposed to assign each and every cent to a category.  Keep in mind that categories are not just for expenses.  You can also and should define savings categories, such as for retirement, college, rainy days, etc., and then assign some of your income to them. Just to further give you an idea, you can also include a big-ticket items category that you contribute to every month.  It helps curb your impulse-buying tendencies.

Wait, don't go!  You probably got scared of the word "discipline".  Well, it does take discipline to log all your income and expenses (and reconcile them with your bank and credit card statements, which you probably already do anyway).  But if you really want to take control of your budget, you do need to do it.  Otherwise, how do you make sure you're on track with your savings goals and that you're not going over budget with your expenses?  They do provide a phone app that will let you log wherever you are (and sync your devices using Dropbox).  It's actually fun (most of the time).  This was another downside to MS Money.  I could only do it at night when I was in front of my computer.

Third (yep, we're still counting), the principle of not using your income until next month (or even later, I suppose).  Before I switched to YNAB, we needed to spend our income in the month we received them.  We had no choice.  With the discipline that YNAB taught us, we were able to gradually pad our buffers and eventually follow the "income is for next month" principle.

Fourth and last but not least, it has a great support system.  Not only is there a forum where fellow users can ask questions or voice their complaints and wishes, they also provide free classes to make sure that their users are properly trained to use the software and the principles.  They do care about us and our financial well-being.

I'd encourage you to try it out.  It's free for 34 days.  I *think* you can only get the new version now.  I could be wrong though.  But you can't go wrong with either one.  So much better than just carelessly spending your hard-earned money.

Lastly, note that I'm not an affiliate of theirs.  They won't compensate me for bringing referrals to them.  I'm a happy user so I thought I'd share it with everyone who happens to read this.  I've spoken with a lot of friends and coworkers and they hadn't heard of it.  They usually know about the other one, whose name I'm not going to mention (No, it's not Voldemort).  While I admittedly know very little about how that other one works, I don't think it has real budgeting capabilities, at least those that YNAB does.

How do you like this lemonade? ;)

Keep informing your gut,

Monday, January 16, 2017

Time management matrix

I could certainly use more time.  Like most people, I work five days a week and have two days off.  It's like we live to work.  It'd sure be nice to reverse that and only work two days.

Someday :).  But for the time being, we make do with the time we have. We have a TODO list that usually keeps growing.  In fact, we may have multiple lists lying around, both physically and digitally. Every now and then, we decide to start with a clean slate.  But the process just repeats.  The new list inevitably grows.

One thing I recently thought about doing and actually did :) was to come up with what I now call my time management matrix.

You start with an inventory of all the things you need or want to do, particularly the recurring items.  Here are just a few examples to jog your memory:

  • Pick one task from my non-recurring TODO list.
  • Catch up on my reading.
  • Learn something new.
  • Practice playing my favorite musical instrument.
  • Blog.
  • Meditate.
  • Nap.
  • Be mindful.

Then, come up with a list of your "free" times.  Yes, you likely have some.  They're probably just occupied with less important stuff that you could do away with.  Remember my post about questioning your habits?  Here are a few examples of "free" times:

  • Waiting (anywhere, e.g. at the doctor's office, at your kid's violin lessons, at the car shop, etc.)
  • On the treadmill
  • Driving
  • On board a shuttle or train (I'm actually drafting this post while I'm on a ferry.)
  • Watching a game (unless you don't want to miss a single second.)
  • Real free time (I'm sure you have those, however rarely.)

Once you have both lists, you simply match them up.  A natural and efficient way is to come up with a matrix (hence, the title of this post) with the free times as your columns and your tasks as your rows.  

Then, check the cells that are feasible.  Only certain combinations will be.  For example, you could listen to an audio book while driving or running on a treadmill.  If you're just walking, you could even read (although not all people can).  You obviously can't read while driving or you might want to hold off on calling people if you're on board the train (you know, so as not to annoy the people next to you).

The thing I like about this is that it keeps me aware of the things I could do when. Without this, I'd normally just randomly do whatever came to mind and it usually includes incessantly refreshing my emails or portfolios.  It's obviously a waste of time but my brain doesn't know any better.  With this, it will.

It will obviously require discipline but you should allow yourself to take a break from time to time.  If all you're feeling like doing is listen to music, then that's all you do.  This happens to me.  Sometimes, when I'm on the treadmill, I just want to sing. :)  But it sure feels nice and cozy to know that I have this matrix as my map whenever I decide to get back on the trail.

I would like to point out the last task example I listed above... being mindful.  May I suggest that you check the cells for that row under all the columns?  In other words, do it every time you remember.  In fact, I would go as far as creating a column called "Every time".  We usually get lost in our thoughts.  And when we do, we waste time, either by being idle or by being distracted.  We should try to catch ourselves as often as possible and switch to a mindful state.   Step outside of your body (well, figuratively of course) and observe yourself thinking the thought.  Be truly in the present and appreciate yourself, your surroundings, your loved ones, everyone, and everything.  It's a wonderful feeling to be in that state.  Try it.

This reminds me of another book I've read.  It's called The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.  Mr. Tolle talks about this and other profound life-changing insights.  Now that I think about it, I should add it to the list on my subconscious mind post.  In fact, let me do that now.  Brb... back... done. :)

Almost at our destination.  Taking my family out this MLK day.  This was another productive ride on the ferry.  (Note after the fact:  On our way back, I decided to catch up on my reading and then napped a bit.  We had a fun day at the pier.)

Keep trusting your informed gut,

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Question your habits

So we were cleaning up after dinner and my wife was transferring some leftover dish into a smaller plate.  My mind shifted into a mindful state (ha!) and I asked her why she had to do it.  The only answer was that it didn't need the bigger plate anymore.

I'm sure the original reason was that the bigger plate would have taken up a bigger space in the fridge and we needed more room for other stuff.  While that reason is not always there, the action became a habit.

What's the harm of doing it anyway?  In this case, we'd be washing two plates instead of one... the bigger plate now, and the smaller plate later.  We'd be wasting water, soap, time, and effort.  Not by much, I know.  But a waste nonetheless.

The takeaway is, question your habits, everywhere, be it at home, at work, on the road.  Be mindful and keep asking why you have to do whatever it is that you have to do, especially if it's something laborious.

  • Is there a more efficient way of doing it?
  • Could you avoid it completely?  Perhaps the reason for doing it is gone or is not as important anymore.
  • Could you delegate it?
  • Is there some big preparation you could do in order to avoid doing it repeatedly?  At work, it's usually about automating something.  The automation process may take some time and effort but once it's in place, you'll have more time to do other stuff.  In other words, you'll be more productive.
  • Is there a better use of your time?  Ask yourself if you should be doing something else, you know, something more important :).  For example, while the Internet has been a blessing, people tend to get glued to their seats or to their phones when they're online.

If you'd like, you can start a brainstorming session now and inventory some of the things you tend to do habitually and figure out how to do them efficiently or how to eliminate them altogether.

Keep trusting your informed gut,

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Monitor your garage door

We've always had a burglary alarm system.  We also have cameras in and around the house as well as lights that we can program to turn on and off when we're out and about.

But the one thing that we didn't have until October last year was the ability to monitor our garage door.

Then one night, something really strange happened. The garage door kept opening and closing, every few minutes. We thought it might have been due to a low battery in one of the remotes or perhaps one of them had gotten bad. I unpaired all of them but nope, it was still happening. Our theory was that there was something in the neighborhood that was controlling it somehow, perhaps someone's visitor because it never happened again. That night, we just went ahead and locked it so that nothing but the wall controller could operate it. Even when it was locked, we could tell that something was still attempting to open it because we'd hear clicks and see the lights "blink", which is what happens when you try to open the garage door with a remote when it's locked.

This got me searching on Amazon. It's about time I filled in that gap in my security system. Lo and behold! I found just the right product:

It was compatible with our LiftMaster opener. All I needed to do was replace our existing wall controller with the one that came with it and connect the Internet gateway to my modem/router.  My modem happens to be in the garage too but I believe that the wall controller can still communicate with it even when it's indoors.

I did have a problem connecting the wires.  Our wires were too short. The two terminals on the new wall controller are spread farther apart than those on my old one.  Had to run to Home Depot to get extenders.  Other than that, it was really very straightforward.  Don't forget to turn off the circuit to your wall controller before doing this!

It works just like a wall controller.  Surprise! :)  I read a funny review on Amazon saying that the open/close button was too small.  They obviously didn't realize that the panel "door" itself could be the button. You just press it and it would press the little button inside.

Of course, it's more than a wall controller.  It has a motion sensor that can turn on the opener lights when it detects motion.  But I dunno, I have this feature turned off.  I don't feel the need for it.

You can also configure how long before the door automatically closes if you forget.  There's also a Hold Open button when you don't want it to auto-close.

Most importantly, it has the ability to talk to the gateway, which then talks to your MyQ account.

I don't remember running into issues registering my device and creating an account.  One thing though, I created two accounts, one for LiftMaster and another one for MyQ.  Me thinks that the former was perhaps unnecessary.

Anyway, so I have the app on my phone. Unfortunately, my alarm provider could not add this device to my existing account.  You might want to check with your provider.  But having a separate app for this is no biggie.

So what can you do with the app?  

  1. First off, you can check anytime whether the garage door is open or closed.
  2. You can set up alerts when the garage door opens and/closes.
  3. You can have alerts going off any time or only during certain times.  I have it alerting anytime.
  4. You can have it alert you on your phone and/or send you an email.  I initially had it doing both but we thought the emails were too much so we're only doing phone alerts for now.
  5. You can open or close the garage door using the app, should your usual remote fail to work.  Note though that closing it using the app will trigger a loud'ish beep that will go for about 15 seconds before finally closing.  It's supposed to be a safety measure, warning people that may be there.  I have yet to re-try this but I think the auto-close feature I mentioned works the same way.  They probably should have added an option to mute it.  Otherwise, the beep is not too loud that it would wake up your entire street... maybe just your next door neighbor if their room is next to your garage.  A reviewer on Amazon did some physical hack to minimize (or totally remove?) the noise.  Something you can look into if it bothers you.
One other gripe that some people have is the fact that you can only have one account and one email per device.  This doesn't bother me.  We log in using the same account on both my and my wife's phones.  No biggie.  By the way, the app works with the iPhone's Touch ID.

I'm happy I bought and installed it.  No more wondering and no more turning back only to find that you did indeed close the garage door. :)

Keep trusting your informed gut,

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Safari Books Online

First day back at work after the holiday break.  I don't think I can sustain the daily blog I have been doing but I have a quick one for you all tonight.

If your school or employer does not offer free access to Safari Books Online and you don't want to pay for one yourself, you might want to check out the public libraries in your state.  My local library doesn't offer it but another one in a nearby county provides free access to Safari Books Online, albeit a subset of the titles.  Better than nothing. I am assuming that the libraries in your state will let you get a library card even if you don't live in the same county.

I think many more libraries subscribe to Books24x7 instead, which I think is also okay but I'm a fan of O'Reilly titles.

Good luck finding a library and keep trusting your informed gut.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Your subconscious mind

I am now more spiritual than religious.  I still believe that God is everywhere. By that virtue, He must be in each and every one of us and is not some distant figure that's hard to reach.

This belief has affected me in so many wonderful ways.

I am God's co-creator.  I no longer see myself as a victim of circumstances. Everything that happens to me, I willed at some level.

I see God and therefore the good in everyone. I am more patient, more understanding, more compassionate, less judgmental.

I am more confident, more trusting, more open to messages from God and from within. I listen when I pray, whereas I used to just bombard Him with all my complaints and requests.  I don't think I even thanked Him for the blessings in and around me, including the people I love.  Now, I often stop and appreciate even the littlest things.

Obviously, I love this new me.  I am definitely in a much better position financially.  But I'd be lying if I said I would attribute it all to this without any doubt.  I honestly don't know but I would like to think that the new me did have something to do about it... a big chunk of it. 

It all started when I stumbled upon this gem called The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. It was the perfect introductory text for me.  Very easy read.  I think I picked it up at a used books store, long before Rhonda Byrne came out with The Secret, which I think would also have been a good introductory text.  I've since picked up other titles on various tangentially-related subjects (intention, manifestation, metaphysics, etc.) and I list below the ones that stand out in my memory, including the ones I've already mentioned.  Click on the images to view them on Amazon.

The Power of Your Subconcious Mind
I actually read a different edition but the one above is apparently considered the gold standard by many, both figuratively and literally as you can see.  Get this one first if you haven't read it.

The Secret
Again, this would probably have been another good introductory text for me had it come out much earlier.  This is the 10th Anniversary Edition and I honestly don't know how it's different from the one I read.

The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire
I actually listened to the CD version of this.  It was nice to hear Mr. Chopra's voice himself.  I remember getting a lot of insights.  I wish I had taken down notes.

The Science of Mind
Mr. Holmes was the founder of Religious Science, not to be confused with Scientology (which I don't know anything about).  This book is huge.  While I own an edition, I admittedly haven't read the whole thing myself.

365 Science of Mind
If you're the type who prefers reading a little nugget of wisdom every day, try this one instead.  It has a reading for each day of the year.  You get a one-day break during leap years. ;)

365 Ways to Raise Your Frequency
Another daily read that I just picked up recently.  So far, it's been an easy read.  I think it would also be a perfect introduction to those just finding out about the power within them.  The thing I like about this one is it's not tied to the days of the year.  So you can skip a day or two or however many if you have to.

Mr. Tolle talks about being present, getting out of your thoughts and observing yourself thinking those thoughts, thereby eliminating their powers over you.  You become one with this observer, which is the real you.  It's really profound.  It's on my to-read-again list.

Your Hands Can Heal You
This book talks about healing your body using its own energy called "Prana".  I've met Master Stephen Co myself.  I attended one of his 1-day seminars.  While I remember feeling the "Prana" between my two hands, I don't believe I have ever attempted to heal myself using Pranic Healing.  I've been meaning to re-read this book and apply the techniques.

There you have it.  I have read so many other books.  I may add them later or create another post as I see fit.

Keep trusting your informed gut,

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Amazon Prime worth it?

I've always been a fan of Amazon.  We do majority of our online shopping there.  Only when we can't find what we want there do we go look elsewhere.  But I held off on subscribing to Amazon Prime because I didn't think it was going to be worth it.  I finally gave in and tried it out in August of 2015.  I was interested mostly in the music then.

A whole new world opened up to me.  First off, no more waiting to accumulate $35 worth of orders to get free shipping.  And that was regular shipping.  Now, we can order even the littlest things such as batteries and get them within 2 days.  We've even gotten Sunday deliveries a couple of times.  I didn't think people did Sunday deliveries!  That 2-day delivery has mattered the most when our kids needed something urgent for school.

Then, the music, which was my original objective.  The thing I like about the service is the fact that I can listen to the songs I want, instead of songs that it thinks I want.  Although, it does recommend similar music to the one currently playing.  While they provide pre-built playlists and stations that cater to every mood, you can also build your own playlists using your own favorite songs.  And there are no commercials to disrupt my listening sessions.  Although, you get so much more (and I mean so much more!) when you sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited (AMU), which, as a music fan, I also succumbed to.  You get preferred pricing if you're an Amazon Prime customer.  That was nice.  By the way, if you're not up for subscribing to AMU, Prime allows you to upload up to 250 songs for free.  You could upload even more but you'd have to pay beyond the first 250.  I initially uploaded my favorites that weren't available on Prime.  Most of them are now available through AMU.

I then also started streaming videos.  I've seen several movies and TV shows that I would have missed if not for Prime.  I just recently completed Season 1 of their original series, The Man In the High Castle.  Season 2 is out now.  Looking forward to seeing it.

There are other benefits that I'm currently not using but those three are what matter to me at the moment and just for them, oh yeah, it's definitely worth it for me.  If you have been on the fence, you can try it for free for 30 days using the link below.  Let me know how you like it.

This just in:  I just learned that their Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card will earn you 5% instead of the usual 3% for purchases (including the Prime subscription) if you are a Prime member.  With no foreign transaction fees combined with no annual fees, it's so appealing to me right now.  There's even a $70 instant reward to boot as I write this.  I might apply.  Last summer, we were in Paris and incurred a lot of these fees.  We tried to use our also-no-foreign-fees Discover card but very few stores accepted it.  This one is a Visa.  There are other travel-related perks.  I think I just found my new travel credit card.

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

But if you're really only interested in the music, go for Amazon Music Unlimited.

Try Amazon Music Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial

Keep trusting your informed gut,