Saturday, December 9, 2017

Putting It Down on Paper: A Look at 12 Goal-Oriented Paper Planners

A few months ago, I mentioned that I had been using a goal-oriented paper planner for a while in order to reflect on my daily progress toward various goals in my life. I had tried several in my quest to find one that really clicked with me and found that many planners had some great features and some little drawbacks that kept me looking for other approaches.

Several readers then asked me for a review of these goal oriented planners that I tried. In order to make the review as thorough as I could, I did some research, found some goal-oriented planners I hadn’t tried yet, requested copies for review, and found myself with a big pile of different (mostly) goal-oriented planners to review. I spent some time with each one and I’ve come up with twelve (or so) that I would recommend to various people and one I’m going to stick with going forward.

I’m basically only going to write about the ones that I would actually recommend to various people. I tried a few that either had huge flaws that keep me from recommending them to anyone, or ones that were good but were wholly superseded by other journals. For each journal I talk about below, I tried to identify who exactly I would recommend that goal-oriented planner to, so if you’re using this guide, try to find the description that best matches where you’re at in your life regarding goals and interests and follow that recommendation.

Please note that the ones I reviewed here do not make up an exhaustive list of goal-oriented paper planners. This is a market niche with a lot of entrants right now. The ones I have chosen to review were ones that (a) I’ve personally used in this fashion or (b) were recommended to me by friends and people I trust. I requested a review copy of each of them, but I did buy a few of the ones for which the publisher wouldn’t send copies in order to be as complete as possible. There are undoubtedly many more goal-oriented paper planners out there that I could mention, but these are just the ones I have hands-on experience with. (As noted above, I did look at a few more, but I excluded them if I really couldn’t recommend them to anyone.)

Before we get started, let’s talk about what a goal-oriented paper planner actually is.

What Exactly Is a Goal-Oriented Planner?

A goal-oriented planner is basically a paper planner that integrates features that encourage you to make steady progress towards larger goals in your life. Typically, this includes specific features that revolve around daily evaluation and review of your goals and a regular deeper review of those goals (usually weekly). Different planners approach this in different ways, which is why a review is worthwhile.

While the goal of most of these planners is to help you achieve some number of goals in your life, they also usually function as a normal daily/weekly/monthly planner as well, incorporating the usual features like an appointment schedule and to-do lists.

It’s worth noting, right off the bat, that the value of any planner, goal-oriented or not, is directly correlated to how much effort you put into it. If you make a conscious effort to actually use the features of the planner and make sure to record everything of note in there – all of your appointments and to-dos – you’ll definitely invest some time, but the planner will become extremely useful for you. If you don’t, then it won’t be particularly useful and you’ll find yourself dropping it.

I personally find paper planners to be incredibly valuable. They work regardless of whether my phone has a charge. I can take them anywhere. Plus, I find that writing things down locks them into my mind far better than simply typing those ideas out. In terms of things I want to reflect on and consciously remember, analog tools are the real winner for me. Digital tools are best for storing lots of data for later access, but it’s not particularly good for helping you integrate all of that information into your head.

What Features Do I Look For in a Goal-Oriented Planner?

After using quite a few of these, I’ve found that a few features are almost required for me in a goal-oriented paper planner that I’m going to use every day, and a few more are highly desired.

First of all, there must be a single-day view that includes an hour-by-hour calendar and a to-do list. This is absolutely required, but this is basic planner stuff. When a planner doesn’t have this… I’m probably ditching it.

Second, there needs to be a place to set a small number of top priorities for the day. I use this during my daily reflection, when I think about my day and decide what’s going to be the top priority for that day. This can be just a blank space without any prompt, but there needs to be adequate space for it.

Third, there needs to be a place to reflect on my goal progress for that day, as well as space to note things I’m grateful for. This really can be a chunk of blank space, but there either needs to be blank space or formal places to put these things. Without it, I’m not going to be using the planner every day. As I noted above, I do a daily review and these are essential parts of that review.

Fourth, there must be some sort of space to do a weekly intense review of my goals. Again, this can be a couple of blank pages at the end of each week, but it needs to be there. For me, success in achieving goals is heavily tied to regular reviews of those goals, and that’s done perfectly in a planner where I already have tons of notes on what I did towards those goals over the last week.

I expect those things to be present in any goal-oriented paper planner or journal that I try. If they’re not present, I’m probably not going to stick with the system long term.

There are other things I enjoy, but don’t find vital. I do like a daily quote for reflection. Sometimes it doesn’t match up very well with my day, but sometimes it really clicks and makes me think about things in a fresh way. I like having several ribbon bookmarks incorporated into the book, so I can have one for the day, one for the week, and one for the month, at least. Most journals are roughly around 6″ by 9″ in size, which is perfectly fine for me, so I generally won’t mention it unless it’s exceptionally smaller or larger than that.

What About a Blank “Planner” or Notebook?

I wanted to mention this one first as a baseline, even though it was not the first goal-oriented planner that I used, simply because it’s such a clear-cut starting point. I had tried several different goal-oriented planners beforehand and always found little things that I didn’t like about each one (in fact, the one I ended up deciding was the best of the lot isn’t exactly perfect, but it’s pretty close), so I essentially decided to “roll my own” by using a blank planner and incorporating all of the features I wanted.

I started with an extra blank notebook that I had on hand – specifically, a Leuchtturm1917 hardcover medium dotted journal. I basically spent several hours laying out the entire notebook by hand, organizing it based on the exact features I wanted on each page. I made up a two page layout for each day, using the two facing pages so that when the journal was open I could see two pages of information at once about a particular day. At the start of a month, I hand-drew a calendar view, and after each Sunday, I had a four page “weekly review” section.

On each “day” layout, half of one page was simply an hour-by-hour calendar of the day, with a to-do list on the other half of the page. On the opposite page was space to mention my big three goals for the day, as well as a simple step I would take to move forward on each of my ongoing goals and projects. At the bottom was space for five things I am grateful for, so it served as a gratitude journal, too.

This was almost exactly what I wanted in a journal. The only problem is the time it took to lay it out by hand. I spent a day doing nothing but a layout, using a pen and a ruler and a bit of advance planning. It turned out wonderfully, but it was an enormous investment of time.

A much better approach, if you want to go this route, is to print your own planner. If you have used a bunch of goal-oriented planners in the past and know what you like about them, you can make up your own layout using Microsoft Word and print it yourself, putting it in a binder of your own choosing. I think making your own planner is far and away the best DIY approach if you find yourself not perfectly happy with a few planners, but I recommend trying a few already-designed ones yourself so that you can gather a bunch of ideas first. It’s also the least expensive option once you reach that point.

Bullet Journal

Bullet journaling is where I started upon this road toward finding a goal-oriented planner. Bullet journaling is basically a system whereby you can transform almost any notebook into a journal or planner of your own liking. You can think of it as a more formalized set of rules of the “roll your own planner” idea I mention above. The official bullet journaling website offers a page that describes it really well.

Basically, if you want to mix together to-do lists, notes on everyday life, goal planning and tracking, daily planning, and other things into one consistent package, this is a very effective way to go about it. It turns your planner into a one-stop shop for all of that stuff.

The only problem is… well, I quickly learned that I didn’t want a one-stop shop for all of that stuff. I wanted a single place I could turn to for my goals, plans, things to do, and appointments – that’s it. I wanted to know what I was supposed to be doing today and have an obvious place to record things I needed to be doing tomorrow or next week or next month.

For all of the other miscellany of life, I carry a pocket notebook and a pen with me where I jot down things like interesting ideas or notes from a meeting or someone’s contact information, and I go through that pocket notebook regularly and put the information in places where it should be, like in the contacts of my phone or in my searchable archive of notes in Evernote.

Don’t get me wrong, you can use bullet journaling to create your own planner, but for me, it basically ended up in two different states when I tried using it. One time, it basically ended up like a messier version of my “roll it yourself” planner I described above – a bit less up front work, but a bit messier and a bit harder to find things. That’s when I tried using it with some tight restrictions on what I put in there. When I tried it with very few restrictions, I found that it was very hard to use it as an actual reference for my day, as the actual dates were always spread out all over the place in a haphazard fashion.

There is a nice pre-made Bullet Journal available that incorporates all of the features of bullet journaling, although I think it works best as a “starter package” to get your feet wet. Once you “get” the system, it’s just as easy to do it yourself in your own notebook without all of the persistent reminders. After all, one of the appealing features of bullet journaling is how flexible it is.

I would recommend the Bullet Journal system to anyone who has very free-form needs for their planning and wants to incorporate a wide variety of notes and lists and subsections of their own design.

Momentum Planner

Momentum Planner is a printable planner, meaning that it is delivered as an electronic document (a PDF) that you can fill in partially on your computer, print, and then continue to fill out by hand.

The entire planner is broken down by year, then by quarter, then by month, then by week, then by day. You’re encouraged to start by filling out a page of five annual goals and relate them to quarterly objectives. Similarly, each quarter has a page that summarizes the annual goals, then focuses in on that quarter, helping you figure out your objectives for each month within that quarter. The monthly pages follow that pattern, helping you to identify the weekly objectives for the four or five weeks within that month that follow from the monthly objectives.

The catch, of course, is that if you print all of those pages, that’s a lot of paper. What I ended up doing when I used this was to print them in small batches and duplex them. I did everything by hand except for the monthly, quarterly, and annual pages, which I typed out.

One of the big advantages of the Momentum Planner that stood out to me is that, because the whole thing is printable, you can organize the pages in whatever order you want. I personally like to put weekly review pages right between Sunday and Monday date pages, for example – that works the best for me, and some printed planners don’t do this. With Momentum, I can put those pages in whatever order I like, and you can put them in whatever order works best for you.

The big disadvantage of this planner is that you have to print it yourself and find some way to bind it yourself. What I ended up doing after a while was printing a fresh one every week, which I just stapled in the upper left. I duplexed all of the pages to save paper. It had a cover page, followed by the annual page, followed by the page for that quarter, the page for that month, the page for that week, and the pages for the seven days that week. I often kept the document for next week printed off as well so I could add appointments. I just stapled them in the upper left. This was a “best option” solution.

I think that, if you pair this with a better long term calendaring solution like Google Calendar and you have the ability to conveniently and inexpensively print a lot of pages, this is probably the best planner of the lot. Many workplaces offer some degree of printing services for employees, so if you’re in that boat and you also use an electronic calendar solely for remembering longer term dates, this is really useful. As part of a weekly review, you’d just take upcoming events out of Google Calendar and move them by hand onto this document (or do it digitally before you ever print it). The best part is that it’s free – for the most part. The monthly planners are free, but you have to download a fresh one each month. If you want to have one with months laid out in advance and a matching quarterly and annual planner, it does cost $12.

The only real drawback I see is that it’s just a lot of paper and it’s very hard to use this conveniently for long term planning unless you use a binder and a hole punch. I found a binder to be just too big and clunky for planner use.

I would recommend Momentum Planner to those who have easy access to printing and don’t mind pairing it with a digital calendar for long-term tracking.

Panda Planner

The Panda Planner is the first goal-oriented planner that I used seriously and thus it’s the first “traditional” buy-it-and-it’s-ready-to-go planner that I’m going to mention here. Even after trying it out years ago, I still think it does quite a few things extremely well.

The basic Panda Planner (there are several variations) is a 5.25″ by 8.25″ hardcover book with 240 pages that covers roughly sixteen weeks of planning, depending on how you use it (mine lasted for three). There aren’t any real introductory pages – instead, it launches into six monthly views (spread across two pages each) that feature a typical calendar view and some basic goal setting tools on the edges. This enables you to cover almost any permutation of months that this planner might cover, as it’s undated. After that are sixteen weekly reviews, each of which are spread across two pages, and those provide a lot of specific prompting about the week that passed and the week ahead.

Following that section are roughly ninety daily sections, each of which take up two facing pages. These include all of the sections I like – main focuses of the day, a schedule, a to-do list, a gratitude section, and a few other specific prompts that were a bit less relevant to me. Again, since this is undated, you don’t have to use it on weekends and can skip days as desired. I’m an “every single day” kind of user with very rare skip days, so I found that a Panda Planner lasted me for almost exactly three months.

The planner has three embedded ribbons, which I kept at the current month, the current week, and the current day for convenient bookmarking.

This planner nails virtually every feature I look for in a goal-oriented planner in a straightforward and user-friendly way. I would absolutely be happy using this planner in the future. It does a great job of keeping you focused on goals and projects.

The one thing that holds me back from giving a wholehearted and full-throated endorsement is that there is very little space anywhere for free-form notes or writing. If there’s something you need to record that doesn’t fit into their predefined categories, there is extremely little space for it. It was that limitation that eventually encouraged me to try other planners, as I constantly found myself wanting to jot down and record various things and there just wasn’t room. There’s a lot of stuff on each and every page, but that means that each item doesn’t have a whole ton of breathing room and there just isn’t much space for extra notes.

I would recommend Panda Planner as a great default goal-oriented planner, as it hits well on almost every note.

Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner

The Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner – which I’m going to shorten to RfL for the rest of this discussion – is a planner recommended to me by a close friend who described it as life-changing, and I can see why it would be for people in certain situations in life.

This planner is a year-long 6″ by 9″ planner, organized by quarters, months, and weeks. Rather than having a daily view, the planner focuses instead on a weekly view broken up into daily schedule columns with a lot of goal-oriented sections around the edges of the page.

Two features of this goal planner really stood out for me.

First, the opening section is marvelous – it’s the standout feature of this planner, in my eyes. It walks you through a wonderful process of taking some larger visions you might have about the life you want and transforming them into really good and really specific year-long goals and projects. It takes a soft approach to this, with lots of white space and encouragement to brainstorm, and then takes that brainstorming and nicely codifies it into goals that are then broken down piece by piece all the way through the planner. I really, really like how this is executed.

Second, a lot of the book focuses on healthy daily and weekly rituals and routines. It offers a preprinted checklist of things you should try to do each week to stay mentally and physically well in the upper right corner of each weekly spread, as well as a suggested thing to try for the week that encourages physical and mental well-being. The obvious goal here is to establish a system of healthy daily and weekly habits and routines, which is great, and I like the fact that these are pre-filled, even if they aren’t all necessarily ones I would follow. It just provides a really good starting point.

I also liked that there is an abundance of blank pages and whitespace for free form notes and things, which is something I really value.

The one thing that holds me back from a pure endorsement of this goal-oriented planner is that it is not robust enough on the planning part for me. I lead a very structured life with a to-do list that sometimes seems infinitely long. I block out time for certain activities and have to be pretty careful with all of my planning to ensure I have time for everything. The planning areas in this notebook aren’t robust enough for what I need in balancing a creative career, a fitness routine, lifelong learning, being a great parent to three very different children with different needs, being a great husband, community commitments, spiritual growth, finding time for at least some hobbies, and so on. I need more space for to-do lists and daily reviews, more than anything, and while this planner does incorporate mild weekly reviews and very strong quarterly reviews, it’s just not enough for me in the planning and review department.

I think this is a great planner for someone with a slightly less busy life who is really seeking direction, but that’s just not quite where I am at in my own life journey. I know what my goals are right now and my days are filled to the brim with achieving those goals and sticking with my other obligations.

I would recommend the Rituals for Living Dreambook and Planner for anyone who has visions for the future but is struggling to codify them into goals and daily routines.

The Mastery Journal

The Mastery Journal really stretches the definition of what I would call a planner, to tell you the truth. Rather than encouraging you to write down a daily schedule or make up a daily to-do list, the entire book is meant to push you toward a single large goal (like writing a book or recording an album or a programming project or something akin to that) over the course of 100 days. The book makes the assumption that you have some significant scheduling control over those days on your own, which is a very interesting approach.

The book is made up of 100 entries, each one consisting of two pages and covering a day, and those entries are subdivided into groups of ten – between those groups is something of a “weekly review,” except that it happens at the ten day mark.

The individual daily entries don’t have any sort of schedule or real to-do list at all. Instead, they’re mostly broken down into six sections – a morning ritual section, where you step through a checklist of several steps that will get you ready to do creative work for the day – and then four sections that each define a creative work session of some length, probably an hour or two. With each one, you define what you’re going to do for that hour, do it, and record some info about it – what time you did it, what you did, what your energy level was, how productive you were, and so on. The last section of the day is kind of a daily summary, where you reflect on your overall performance that day and think of ways to have a better day next time.

This type of data is really, really useful in terms of figuring out when you’re most energetic during a given day and when your productivity and energy starts to fall off.

There is some guidance toward the beginning in terms of coming up with a good morning ritual and an overall plan for executing this big project you have in mind. In other words, the book starts off trying to get you to the point where you have a good plan for a day and now you just need to execute it, which is where the individual day entries come into play.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to do these pages consecutively. For example, let’s say you’re intending to write a book on the weekends in the coming year. You could simply use this book every Saturday and Sunday until the book is complete – it would actually do a great job with that approach.

I think this planner hits a home run for people who don’t necessarily need tight scheduling and lots of goal coordination, but instead just need some discipline and focus toward achieving a single larger goal like writing or reading or studying or recording an album.

I would recommend The Mastery Journal for creative workers who need routine and discipline – people who need to establish a routine of creative work in order to accomplish a major project of some kind, like writing a book or completing a programming project, and really need a disciplined routine to pull it off. This planner will nail it!

The Simple Elephant Planner

The Simple Elephant Planner is probably the most straightforward goal-oriented planner that I looked at. It starts off with four pages for defining annual goals, jumps straight to a set of monthly calendar pages, then the rest of the book is made up of weekly spreads and a bunch of pages for notes at the end. There are no daily pages.

The weekly spreads themselves are incredibly simple, with a very quick goal review section and then seven blocks, one for each day of the week, that just consist of several blank lines. Write in appointments free form! Record things you need to do! However you want to fill them up is really up to you.

This simple structure is really good for people who are focusing on just one or two goals and have a limited number of appointments and to-dos to keep track of. For example, let’s say someone has a steady job and is mostly focused on one or two self-improvement goals outside of work. This planner is almost perfect for that situation.

What it’s not is a full-featured planner for people with incredibly busy lives to track. There is simply no way I could use this book with the number of things I have to remember and take care of on a daily basis. I simply could not list all of the stuff regarding a single day in the space allotted here.

This is a great planner for someone who has just enough going on that they’re struggling a bit to keep it all straight in their head. They want a place to record things like a few doctor’s appointments and their niece’s birthday. They have one or maybe two big goals they’d like to achieve in the coming year – maybe something like going to the gym each day and want some motivation for that goal.

If that sounds like you, this is the right planner for you. If your life sounds way more busy than that, then you can skip this one.

I would recommend The Simple Elephant Planner for people who lead moderately busy lives and want to focus on a particular goal or two in the coming year.

Daily Greatness Journal

The Daily Greatness Journal is one in a series of daily planners that each focus on one specific area of life – there’s a version for training, a version for parenting, a version for yoga, a version for healthy habits, a version for growing a small business, and so on. All of these variants follow more or less the same structure, with variations that are geared to the specific area of interest.

The main Daily Greatness Journal is more or less the “prototype,” as it follows the same structure as all of the others but isn’t locked into any sort of specific goals.

The Daily Greatness Journal starts off with a very robust section on specifically defining one’s goals, then it moves onto four quarterly sections. Each section starts off with a quarterly plan and ends with a quarterly review. Between those two are thirteen “weeks” and three month-long calendar layouts sprinkled appropriately in the middle (before weeks 1, 5, and 9, by my count). Each “week” consists of a weekly plan, followed by six daily pages (assuming a day per week off, I guess), and a final weekly review page.

The individual day pages consist of two columns, one of which is a schedule and short to-do list and a very short daily habits reminder. The other column is basically a series of questions about your day. What’s interesting about these is that they vary from day to day throughout a given week. It’s kind of like a guided questionnaire about what you’re hoping to get out of the day and then, at the end, a few reflections on the day. Theoretically, you’d answer the first several questions at the start of the day and the remaining few at the end. This is a really effective setup by someone who wants to live a more considered life and reflect on their days, but isn’t particularly good at structuring that reflection on their own.

In fact, the entire journal – in terms of the inspirational quotes used everywhere, the colorful nature of the pages, the page layouts, the questions used on each daily layout – gives a strong sense that this planner is meant to encourage a person to live an overall healthier and well-rounded life. While it doesn’t prescribe anything specifically, the whole planner nudges you toward some good daily habits for physical and mental and spiritual health, things like daily exercise and meditation. It doesn’t completely lock those in as a mandatary goal on every page, but it really does nudge you in that direction.

Out of all of the goal-oriented planners I looked at, I felt this one was the most like a life coach. It really provides a lot of nudges to the reader to adopt healthier habits and routines and to adopt a more growth-oriented mindset while working toward goals.

For some, that type of hands-on life coaching is really going to click. For others, it’s not. I think it has a lot to do with the station you’re at in life.

I would recommend the Daily Greatness Journal for anyone who wants a lot of nudging and guidance toward a key goal or two and towards healthier lifestyle routines and responds well to a more hands-on coaching approach.

Passion Planner

The Passion Planner is a full-sized (meaning the pages are full 8.5″ by 11.5″ sheets of paper) planner that stands out for a couple of key reasons.

First, it includes a lot of blank pages near the back and encourages you to use them in terms of planning out and defining goals during reviews. The book starts off with a simple planning practice and basically tells you to do it back there, with plenty of space. You can also use those pages for lots of freeform notes, something I like quite a lot.

Second, the material at the beginning which lays out how to define four key goals for the upcoming year and how to build those goals into a plan that carries through the year is really well executed.

Third, the monthly reviews are extremely well executed, with plenty of space to flesh out thoughts and a meaningful process to go through that helps you rework your big goals a bit for the coming month based on what happened in the preceding month.

Finally, the weekly schedule layouts take advantage of the large pages and really make everything work in a smart way.

This is a really, really good all-around planner, and I actually used it for a few months until something happened that made me stop using it. Simply put, it fell apart.

I typically carry my planner around in my “portable office,” which is a North Face backpack. I’ve carried tons of notebooks and planners and other items around in it over the years. Almost all of them handle the minor wear and tear with ease. I have never, ever had a planner fall apart in there until this one. It just started shedding pages left and right. Looking at the comments on this at Amazon indicates that this is a consistent problem with the Passion Planner.

I think that the book will hold up fine if it regularly just stays on your desk or moves between your desk and a drawer, but if you’re consistently carrying it with you in a bag or something, I really can’t recommend the Passion Planner for now. The design of the book is fantastic except for that key binding issue.

I would recommend the Passion Planner for anyone who will largely be using the planner in one location without extensive daily carry in a bag, as the layout is really well executed but the binding seems to struggle with significant carrying.

Get to Work Book

Let’s get this out of the way now: if you’re pretty strong already at formulating goals on your own and reviewing them consistently without much hand-holding, the Get to Work Book has a lot of very good things going for it. If that doesn’t sound like you, you may want to choose another journal.

The biggest feature that stands out with the Get to Work Book compared to the other goal-oriented planners I reviewed here is the spiral binding, which allows it to be open without taking up a whole lot of table space. This is really nice if you want to position it open on the corner of a desk or work table while you do other things so you can see it at a glance. That’s a nice design feature. The cover is really thick and sturdy, too, as is the spiral binding – I don’t think this will come apart very easily.

The interior of the journal borrows very heavily from traditional planners. There isn’t a whole lot of space given over to directly holding your hand in terms of helping you define goals and review goals. There are some nice blank pages – both blank and gridded – near the back for coming up with goal plans on your own, but there is almost no structure for it. Each month does have a nice two page layout for defining a goal for the month, but it’s placed at the back of the month, which I found a bit unusual. Most planners place planning pages at the front of a given month.

The weekly schedule pages are very straightforward and offer plenty of white space around the edges for to-dos or gratitudes – it’s pretty free-form in that regard. The weekly schedules are organized by month, so you’ll find a monthly calendar layout followed by four or five weeks of weekly layouts, followed by the aforementioned project plan, followed by a single page of monthly review.

While this is definitely a goal oriented planner, it comes off as a good choice for someone who already has mastery over the process of planning, executing, and reviewing goals in their life and basically wants the journal to get out of the way and provide just the basics and some white space along the way. That’s great for highly self-motivated people who are already goal oriented, but people who are not might not get maximum value from this one.

I recommend the Get to Work Book to someone who prefers spiral binding, as well as to those who are already goal-oriented and naturally know how to plan out goals and regularly review them.

SELF Journal

The SELF Journal is absolutely perfect for someone who is focused on a very small number of very specific goals over the next quarter. This is a three month planner with daily pages that is highly oriented around the creation of, continual review of, and completion of three quarterly goals.

The journal starts off with a goal planning process that walks you through defining those goals very clearly in a way that makes them very actionable, breaking them down into a pretty clear plan. This is excellent goal planning material.

After that, the book moves on to the standard planner fare – it has monthly layouts, followed by thirteen single-page weekly reviews that are very oriented toward the goals you defined, followed by 90 or so double-page daily plans. Those daily plans include a daily schedule with plenty of whitespace, a little bit of space for a daily to-do list, a place to do gratitude journaling both in the morning and the evening, and some really good daily reflection questions about how today went and what you can do to make tomorrow better.

This book is really designed to be examined as part of a morning routine and then again as part of an evening routine. To get the most out of it, it really needs to be a component of a structured life. In fact, I think this journal really is best for an organized busy person with a clear morning and evening routine already in place who has a strong desire to start thinking about personal and professional goals from a higher level.

I recommend the SELF Journal to someone who’s already fairly organized but needs an extra boost in the path of stepping back and defining bigger goals for themselves. If you have a fairly organized life but can’t quite find yourself putting the pieces together to do something bigger, this is probably the right one for you.

Ink+ Volt Planner

The beautiful Ink+ Volt Planner has a very nice minimalist layout all throughout the hardcover book that I find really appealing. It’s organized in a sensible way, with plenty of whitespace everywhere, and it never feels overcrowded.

What makes it stand out, at least for me, is that although there are goal-oriented elements, it doesn’t really push long-term goals very hard. There are only two pages at the start for planning annual goals. After that, the planner quickly switches to a very interesting focus – the thirty day challenge.

The book is very much oriented around thirty day challenges, where you spend a month really focusing on one particular goal or habit. Thirty day challenges are quite popular because they give you enough time to really know whether the habit is right for you without committing to a lifetime of change. You can succeed at a thirty day challenge without feeling like you’re locking yourself into a lifetime of misery if a particular change isn’t right for you.

Each month in this planner comes with the usual elements – a month-long layout along with four or five weekly schedule layouts (each spread across two pages) which make it convenient for scheduling. It also includes a single page for setting monthly goals and a single page for a 30 day challenge for that month.

Each week, in addition to the two pages of weekly schedule, there’s also a page for goals for the week (basically a checklist you fill in that covers the top of the page) and reflections on the week (at the bottom of the page) and, perhaps more interesting, a full page that’s basically a reflection on the week prompted by a question of some kind.

It’s all done very elegantly – the design is just beautiful and very minimalist. However, I couldn’t shake the sense while I was using it that it was perfect for someone who is largely happy with their life but feels like there is just a little something missing and wants to proactively find the missing pieces through thirty day challenges and reflections. This isn’t a person trying to achieve giant things, but instead a person who is on a journey to improve a life that seems good but perhaps isn’t fully satisfying and wants to apply some structure to that journey by achieving personal challenges.

I recommend the Ink+ Volt Planner to someone who is most of the way to a life they love and wants to experiment with some new directions in specific areas in a very focused way. This might seem like a very specific type of person, but I think there are actually a lot of people out there in this boat, and I think the Ink+ Volt planner is perfect for them.

Full Focus Planner

This last planner is perhaps the most interesting of all. This is clearly the “can’t sit still type A personality” planner, as it is a quarterly planner with double-paged daily layouts with very large spaces for a daily to-do list and schedule along with daily reflections. It’s clearly designed for a person who is juggling a lot of plates.

A few elements of this journal really stood out to me.

First of all, there’s a large section that revolves around defining a morning and evening routine, as well as a workday start and a workday finish routine. The idea is pretty clear – if you impress upon yourself a few key steps at the start and end of each day and of each workday (and one of them is a planner review), you’re probably going to see success. In fact, if you think about that for a moment, this planner really works best if you put it on your nightstand when you go to bed each night, so you can review it before bed (and thus follow the evening routine mentioned in there) and then review it again when you wake up (and thus follow that morning routine).

Second, the book starts off with a goal-setting rubric for ten goals in a quarter (each one in service of a single annual goal, which you also set). Naturally, some of those goals are probably going to be small-scale goals – for example, when I used this journal, one of my quarterly goals was a daily habit I wanted to install in my life to help my marriage that took about a minute a day – but that’s still pretty strong.

Third, this planner is very oriented around daily and weekly reflections. Every week has four pages of weekly reflections and seven pages of daily reflections – one for each day. This is clearly intended to try to tease out the meaning in an overstuffed to-do list. I find that when I’m at my busiest, that’s when stopping for a little bit each day for reflection is actually most important.

Finally, and this was perhaps the most interesting thing, two pages of the weekly reflection are oriented towards rest. This planner is clearly oriented toward borderline overworked people, and thus having the planner actively push you toward taking a break, getting a couple good nights of sleep on the weekends, and doing some things that are purely for personal enrichment in order to recharge really stands out.

My only real complaint about this journal is that there are a few elements that just feel almost unnecessary. They’re small ones, like marking whether a day is “front stage” or “back stage” or “off stage.” I understand why it’s there – it’s a way to think about the day ahead a little bit – but it does something that some business books do where they try hard to force a metaphor that doesn’t always quite work. There are several small signs of that in this planner. When I used it, I basically ignored it.

In summary, this is the best goal oriented planner for super busy people, in my opinion. It comes the closest I’ve seen to replacing a well-executed digital to-do list and project planner in paper form while also providing ample room for reflection.

I recommend the Full Focus Planner to people who are trying to balance an already very busy life with a desire to achieve a healthy number of goals and need a clear structure to make that work. This is probably the best choice for those who feel like they have little downtime but a lot of goals and things to do and need a structure for all of the appointments and tasks and goals all at once, in paper form.

Which One Will I Use?

If there was a printed and well-bound version of the Momentum Planner, that’s the one I would use. I like this planner quite a lot and would use it if it didn’t require so much printing.

So, what I did instead is priced out the cost of printing this as four bound volumes at a local print shop. Why four? I basically set one up for each quarter – one for the first quarter, one for the second, and so on. The price was completely reasonable – it was actually cheaper than all of the quarterly planners on this list.

So, going forward, this is the one I’ve chosen to use.

However, making that happen involved quite a bit of additional effort beyond simply ordering a product from a website. It’s also more expensive than other options.

So, if I insisted on having a finished and professionally bound planner, I’d probably choose the Full Focus Planner. Once I start sliding out of the “sandwich generation,” I can definitely see myself preferring the Ink+ Volt Planner, as it’s a bit less intense on the “huge to-do list” aspect of my life right now and really intrigues me with its focus on thirty day plans.

What if I were going the absolute most frugal route possible with this? Honestly, I’d buy a bunch of cheap notebooks at the local dollar store and emulate the layout of the Momentum Planner by hand. That would take some time, but not as much as one might think, and the cost would be literally pennies per month.

I think that every single journal I mentioned above is perfect for someone at a particular stage in their life, as long as they’re goal oriented and want to move from having vague dreams to having concrete goals and a path to achieving them. It’s all about figuring out which one matches your place in life the best.

Good luck!

The post Putting It Down on Paper: A Look at 12 Goal-Oriented Paper Planners appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

This Often Overlooked Credit Card Perk Could Save You Money This Holiday Season

There are 16 days left until Christmas, and the crunch is on to find the perfect gift while sticking to your budget. You’ve tracked prices, flipped through fliers, searched online and in-store to finally find the item you want at the lowest price.

But wait… it’s been a few days, and there’s your item for $15 less than you paid! What do you do? Do you buy the new lower-priced item and return the original (which you already wrapped)? Do you take the loss?

If you used a credit card to make the purchase, you might be able to get a price match refund without standing in the return line.

What is price protection on credit cards?

One often overlooked perk of many credit cards is price protection. With price protection, if you find an item you purchased with your credit card at a lower price within a certain time frame, you can submit a claim to your card issuer to receive a refund of the difference in price. What’s even more exciting is that price protection is a completely free-to-use benefit when offered by your card issuer.

Price protection is different than purchase protection. With price protection, you’re simply price matching and getting back the difference, whereas purchase protection will refund you if an item is lost, damaged, or stolen and/or you can’t get a refund from the store, in some cases.

Which credit cards offer price protection?

Many cards — such as the , , and the — offer price protection. However, it’s not a feature of all cards, so be sure to check your card details.

Here are some price protection details from popular card issuers:

Card Card Price Protection

Details Chase Capital One Discover
Cards covered , All Discover cards, including
Timeframe 120 days 60 days 90 days
Coverage amount Up to $500 per claim Up to $250 per claim Up to $500 per claim
How to start a claim Call 1-888-320-9656 for information or to file a claim. Call 1-800-MC-ASSIST to request a claim form. Call 1-800-347-0213 to ask questions or file a claim.
Benefits guide Capital One® QuicksilverOne® benefits guide Discover help center FAQ

How to file a price protection claim

The process for filing a claim may differ by the issuer, but in general, you’ll need to:

  • Make sure the item is not an excluded item as outlined in your benefits guide.
  • Contact the claims or benefits center to start a claim and receive a claim form.
  • Fill out the claim form and attach your itemized receipt.
  • Provide a copy of your credit card statement showing the purchase.
  • Provide a copy of the print or Internet ad with the sale price

Once you’ve filed a claim, there is a bit of a waiting game. Claims will stay open for a certain period to ensure adequate time to process the information and request any other documents they may need from you. For instance, with the , claims are open for 60 days from the date they’re filed. After the claim has been processed, a refund will be issued, usually in the form of a statement credit or check.

The key takeaways

Holiday shopping is a stressful time, especially when it comes to finances and staying on budget. No matter how much due diligence you do, you might not find the best deal. The good news is that with a credit card that offers price protection, you can still save!

The post This Often Overlooked Credit Card Perk Could Save You Money This Holiday Season appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Personal Finance and the Flood of News and Information

Last week, for a full seven days, I tried an experiment. It’s basically something I’ve described before on the site – a media diet where I intentionally avoided almost all sources of “news” and instead stuck to books and offline games and physical activity for entertainment.

For seven days, I didn’t watch the news at all. I didn’t visit any news websites – in fact, I blocked all of them. I avoided social media except within the strict limits of what I needed to do professionally and to contact a few people for face-to-face meetings. I did not watch cable news. I did not read a newspaper, save two feature articles suggested to me by trusted friends. I kept my phone turned off unless I intended to communicate with someone and I often kept it in another room.

What did I do instead? I read a book on economics. I went for several long walks with no distractions, just looking around at my environment. I read a novel about two friends in Italy. I played several board games with my kids. I got several nights of really good sleep. I practiced my taekwondo moves and form. I watched a documentary.

Here are some of the things that I noticed during that break.

One, after the first couple of nights, I slept really well. I slept tremendously well, in fact, over the last couple of nights. I woke up feeling really well rested and ready to tackle my day. A large part of this was the fact that when I was tired, I went to bed without any cell phone time or reading time at all. I just went straight to bed in a dark room. Thus, I fell asleep pretty quickly and slept very restfully.

Two, I felt less compelled to want things, particularly those related to my interests and hobbies. I didn’t hear about the latest and greatest board game or some upcoming book that I couldn’t miss. All of that completely fell off my radar. I can always tap into that sentiment if I ever felt a need in my life to have a new book or a board game, but if I don’t have that feeling, why bother?

That feeling extended even to stuff I don’t normally buy. I honestly wasn’t struck with the urge to buy much of anything aside from covering basic food needs.

Finally, I didn’t feel like I missed anything important. There was no news that went on in the world that required any action of any kind from me. I didn’t feel like I became less informed on the real issues of the day; in fact, because of my book reading, I actually felt a little more informed about how the federal reserve works. I suppose that I did miss out on a few things that would have been the source of some “water cooler” small talk, but in truth if I find myself in a situation like that, I mostly just ask questions of others anyway, so that didn’t really change.

Yes, I didn’t happen to know the latest twists and turns in the lives of whoever the media happened to be talking about today, but in truth, those events almost no impact on my life. I can’t do anything about it, and just having those bits of information doesn’t really change my understanding of the world in any way, though good journalism and writing on these subjects may someday rise to that level. “Hot takes” don’t have much value at all.

Yes, I missed out on some potential fodder for water cooler conversations, but in the few situations where I found myself in that situation, I just said, “I haven’t heard about that!” and asked a few questions, or else I just listened.

In the end, I realized that a nonstop flood of information in my life steered my thinking in countless subtle ways, ways I didn’t even recognize until I took a break. It shaped my opinions and made them forceful, far more forceful than they ever should be when they’re standing atop a fragile pile of selected facts and hot takes from recent days. It nudged me toward buying all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have purchased, and also nudged me toward specific versions of things that I might not have otherwise selected.

Honestly, I don’t need those things in my life, neither for my wallet’s sake nor for my sanity. I want to step back for a while and get away from influences that shape my thoughts in ways that I don’t want. I want to stop spending time on those things and use that time elsewhere in my life, on things of my choosing that have meaning and impact for me.

In fact, I’ve decided to make this a permanent change in my life. Here are some of the changes I’m making to my media diet going forward in order to reduce the impact that “news” has in my life.

I’m untethering myself from my phone. As much as possible, I’m simply not carrying my phone with me anywhere. I am carrying a book with me, however, so that when I’m stuck somewhere with some downtime, I can just read a book.

Furthermore, I deleted many of the media apps from my phone. I basically wiped out any and all apps that don’t involve directly communicating with people that I know, leaving behind only a few information apps – the Overdrive app for reading library books, for one, and a Wikipedia reader app.

I blocked a bunch of websites and I intend to leave those blocks in place for a long time. I often reflexively visit a handful of news sites and that’s a habit I’m specifically trying to kill by making it difficult to visit them. The specific program I’m using is SelfControl.

I now keep an audiobook in the car to listen to while driving. It’s a direct replacement for listening to the radio which seems to be a nonstop mix of sponsors and advertisements. Right now, I’m listening to Mindware by Richard Nesbitt.

I don’t watch much television anyway, so that hasn’t changed. I’m still not watching much television. There are too many other things to do.

I created a “work” profile on my primary work computer that’s devoid of most media distractions. It’s trimmed down to the minimum I need to get work done in a timely manner. I do need a web browser, which is why I’m running the aforementioned SelfControl.

Since these changes are actually saving me a surprising amount of time, I’ve added a block of time for deep reading to my daily schedule. The time I used to spend bouncing around news sites and social media sites is now being channeled into an extra half an hour of deep reading each day. I sit down with a book, read it slowly and carefully, and jot down a few notes as I go. The goal here is to actually add a brick to the foundation of understanding in my life, as opposed to hopping from site to site and not building any deep knowledge of anything.

Most of all, I’m trying to remain conscious of these changes. Things like SelfControl and the revamped app selection on my phone are constant reminders, of course, but one personal practice I use is to remind myself several times throughout the day of the things I’m trying to change. This pushes me to remain conscious of those changes almost all the time and thus it becomes much easier to stick to those changes.

The purpose behind these changes is really threefold. First of all, I want to keep my wallet from being led astray. Much of the news media seems to be specifically cultivated to bring about wants, causing us to desire things that we previously saw no purpose for in our lives – usually, we weren’t even aware of the thing. I have no need for that in my life. Second, I was shocked to see how much time I spent just hopping from news site to news site, and I want to recover that time. As I note above, I want to use it on something more meaningful and foundational in my life. Finally, I want to improve my ability to focus. I’ve found that the constant availability of news and information of all kinds has really damaged my ability to focus on a task and, perhaps even more worrisome, has made me far more prone to making snap judgments about things. I want to step back from that – it’s not a good thing for me.

Even if you don’t agree with the steps I’ve taken here, I hope that this article encourages you to step back for a moment and think about the impact of news (online, television, and print) and social media in your life. Is it helping you to become a better, more well rounded person with a deeper knowledge of the world, or is it putting you emotionally on edge with an incomplete assortment of facts? Is it encouraging you to desire to spend your money on things that you hadn’t even heard of before, that don’t fit any actual preexisting want in your life before you read that article or saw that video? Are you getting more value out of it than the time you put into it?

If any of those questions make you uncomfortable, it might be time to consider a short media diet, and the steps above will help you to do just that.

Good luck!

The post Personal Finance and the Flood of News and Information appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

How to Set Meaningful Financial and Frugal Goals for Yourself

Many people – myself included – like to use the month of December as a time to reflect on personal goals, both the ones that we’ve been working on throughout the year as well as ones that we might embark on in the future.

Most years, I wind up setting several goals for the upcoming year and, if they’re planned well, I end up finding some level of success with almost all of them. For example, in 2017, I lost a surprising amount of weight during the first half of the year, read a number of very challenging books, and pushed myself to join taekwondo.

Over the years, I’ve learned that two specific elements make a goal really click for me.

First of all, a good goal must be a SMARTER goal. SMARTER is simply an acronym that describes how to set up a good goal for yourself. Let’s run through what that means.

“S” means specific. A specific goal is one that establishes exactly what actions you are going to take to make this successful. What is it you want to accomplish? What exactly are you going to do to make it happen?

“M” means measurable. A measurable goal is one where you can tell very clearly whether you’ve achieved success or not. For example, “I’m going to get fit” is not measurable at all, while, on the other hand, “I’m going to run a 5K in 20 minutes” is very measurable. It is extremely clear whether or not you can run a 5K in 20 minutes or not.

“A” means attainable. Is this something you can really do? The best way to ensure attainability is to take on something that is mostly under your control and is a natural outcome of your effort but is something that will really challenge you to make it happen. Don’t make a goal reliant on the choices and actions of others.

“R” means relevant. Does this goal, when you achieve it, bring about specific things you want in your life? Is this a worthwhile goal? Is it in line with what you want in your broader life?

“T” means time-specific. This just means you’re committing to completing it within a certain timeframe. By simply adding a timeframe to a goal, you make it time specific.

“E” means evaluate. This means you step back regularly and consider how your progress toward your goal is going and whether or not you need to alter your plans. A good goal has a regular evaluation as a part of it.

“R” means review. If your evaluation isn’t good, what can you change about your goal and your plan to get there to make it better? That’s what review is all about.

Second, a good goal must be personally meaningful, not just something you’re doing to impress others. The goal must be oriented around something you want to change in your own life. It’s very possible to design a great SMARTER goal without this, but without that key meaning of a goal, it is very hard to apply this to your life.

It’s easy to see how this might apply to goals in some spheres of life.

For example, you might have a vague goal like “I want to get fit.” That’s a noble goal, one that may be meaningful to you, but turning it into a SMARTER goal will make it something you can really take action on.

You might want to transform it into something like “I want to be able to run a 5K in 20 minutes and do 200 Hindu squats without stopping within one year, with an evaluation of my progress every month.” That’s a SMARTER goal, and if it comes from a meaningful place, it’s going to be a pretty good goal. From there, you can define a clear-cut plan for achieving this by starting with a “couch to 5K” program and a squat progression plan.

Another good example might come from your career. You might have a goal of getting a big promotion, which might be meaningful to you, but it’s not really something you can do.

Try turning that goal into “I will sit down with my boss during the first week of January and come up with a plan that will lead me to a promotion, then spend an hour a day working directly toward that plan for the next year and evaluate those efforts each month.” This is a perfect SMARTER goal – it’s almost entirely about your own efforts, since the goal isn’t to achieve the promotion but to put yourself into position to receive it, and it’s about as specific and measurable and time-specific as one can get.

I often have a lifelong learning goal that I’ve learned to tweak over the years. Originally, it oriented itself around reading a number of books, but now it simply amounts to devoting an hour a day to lifelong learning in whatever form I choose at the moment. Sometimes it is reading a book, while at other times it involves digging into a Wikipedia entry on a topic I don’t fully understand (like this recent one) or taking an online class or reading a scientific paper or a well-researched piece of journalism. Moving it to an amount of time I devote each day takes it out of the realm of being influenced by long or short books – it’s a lot easier to read, say, 30 short books in a year than 30 long ones.

It’s easy to see how effective goals exist in some areas of your life, but it’s often not quite as easy to see it in other areas. How does one define an effective financial or frugal goal? How do you turn the SMARTER rubric toward money issues?

This is something I’ve struggled with for years, and I’ve really only come up with a few good strategies. Thankfully, these strategies really do work for coming up with meaningful SMARTER goals in the financial and frugal spheres of life.

First, the goal needs to be oriented around your behavior and isn’t disrupted by unexpected events. If you start setting net worth goals for yourself or debt elimination goals for yourself, you’re going to often find that unexpected events can either accelerate you to the goal very quickly or can completely derail your progress. Those unexpected events should have nothing to do with your goal and your route to achieving it. Your goal should not be hindered by changes in the real estate market or the stock market. Success needs to be focused entirely on your behavior, not on things outside of your control.

Second, the goal should be oriented around steady improvement, like a weight loss goal, but success can’t be wholly dependent on that number at the end (again, like a weight loss goal). In other words, your goal should be oriented around the action you take every day or every week or whatever, not the long term results of that action. For example, an action you can take every day is to adopt a low-cost coffee solution as opposed to your current expensive routine. It’s not about how much you’re saving over the long run, but the fact that you’re taking a straightforward step every day that you know will have long term benefits.

Third, you have to have a strong tracking mechanism for the behavior change. Are you actually doing this every day or every week? Each morning, are you drinking an inexpensive coffee you made at home (or at work) or are you buying an expensive latte at the coffee shop? It’s a simple yes or no question, much like asking yourself whether you’re keeping breakfast under 300 calories and not snacking in the morning. You can track that kind of behavior on a checklist, and I highly recommend doing so.

Finally, your goal has to have some breathing room for changes in your life. The key thing to remember about a goal is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. You cannot expect, given all the variables in your life, that you will hold to a simple behavior change every single day. With that coffee change, for example, you can’t simply say “no morning coffee outside the home or the free coffee at work, ever.” That doesn’t work, because you might have a meeting with someone at a coffee shop or an old friend might invite you to meet for coffee, and there are reasons beyond the coffee to say yes. Another example: you can’t say that you’ll try to max out your pushups every single day because if you do that you’re going to quickly find yourself failing at that goal if you injure yourself or something else prevents you from completing it. Give yourself a bit of breathing room in your goal. Shoot for very good, not perfect.

How can you apply these principles to a SMARTER financial goal?

A SMARTER Financial Goal

Let’s say your financial goal for the coming year is to pay off debt. Your goal is debt repayment. That sounds nice and it’s a noble goal to head in, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

Let’s run this through the SMARTER rubric first and see what comes out the other side.

Specific This goal isn’t very specific. What exactly are you intending to do? What actions can you take that will move you in the direction of debt repayment? The reality is that you’re either going to have to spend less or earn more in order to be able to have the resources to repay debt. So, since this is a goal you intend to start on immediately, you should be focusing on cutting spending.

How will you cut spending? Do you have a plan for doing so, a specific one that draws on your actions? Perhaps you can simply say that you will spend some time each day figuring out how to reduce long term spending and then track the amount you save and use that total amount for extra debt repayment.

So, turn the goal into this – “I will spend time each day finding ways to cut back on spending, track what I’m saving by spending less, and then use that saved amount for a big extra debt payment each month.”

Measurable What constitutes success at that goal? One good way to do this is to put aside some time each day to focus on spending less money.

So, you might turn it into something like – “I will spend 10 minutes each day identifying ways to cut spending, and 10 more minutes actually putting those ideas into action, and I will track what I save and apply that savings to an extra debt payment.”

That’s great, but, as we noted above, it can still lead to failure due to a busy life. So, try something like this – “25 days each month, I will spend 10 minutes each day identifying ways to cut spending and 10 more minutes actually putting those ideas into action, and I will track what I save and apply that savings to an extra debt payment.” You can literally use a piece of paper with checkmarks in it to track this, which is what I do with a goal like this. I draw a grid with 25 columns and 12 rows, post it somewhere very obvious, and check off a box each day I succeed at the goal.

Attainable Spending a small amount of time most days toward a goal is definitely attainable. In fact, I consider that type of approach toward a goal to be incredibly attainable because it puts the failure and success of the goal entirely on how you use a few minutes each day.

Relevant Actually achieving this goal frees up money in your life so that you can reduce debt, which was the reason for even setting a goal in the first place. Thus, the goal is highly relevant.

Time-specific Quite often, in the process of making a goal specific and measurable while making a conscious effort to keep the goal focused on your own efforts above all else, it naturally becomes time-specific, and that’s the case here. It’s very clear how much time you intend to spend toward the goal, and that’s a reasonable amount.

Evaluate One approach I use for evaluation is to add a 26th column of checkboxes to my 25 by 12 grid that I often use for annual goals. That 26th column is often drawn in a different color or uses thicker grid lines. Basically, whenever I fill out a row of 25 normal checkboxes, that 26th box means that it’s time to specifically review that goal. Am I achieving things with this goal? Is there some regular but less frequent action I should be taking here (like making that extra debt payment)? Basically, you’re just adding an end-of-the-month evaluation to the goal, which is always worthwhile.

Review During that evaluation, it’s a good time to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t and whether or not you can make changes that will make things more effective going forward.

Is it meaningful? One challenge with frugal and financial goals is to make sure that the goal remains meaningful. It’s often easy to lose track of why you’re spending time doing these things.

For me, one really powerful technique for ensuring that a goal remains meaningful is that I heavily visualize what successful completion of that goal will look like. So, if you manage to complete this goal, you know that your debt load will be smaller. It’s almost impossible for that to not be true. Also, you’re likely set up in a situation where you’re spending significantly less per month than you once were, ideally without any real negative impact on your life, so you have a stream of money each month that you can direct toward financial goals. The debt will continue to melt – after that, you can build a big emergency fund or start saving for a down payment on a house or really amp up your retirement savings.

I do these types of visualizations each time I evaluate or review a goal. I think about what my life will be like upon successful completion of that goal, and the thought of being there makes me feel really good, especially when I recognize that I’m on my way. This simple practice makes sure the goal stays meaningful.

Additional Financial SMARTER Goals

Let’s look at a few other vague financial (or finance-related) goals that can be transformed into something actionable using the SMARTER and meaningful rubric.

Earlier in the article, we mentioned the “I want a raise” goal, which transforms nicely into “I will meet with my boss next week to develop a plan for how I can get a raise/promotion in a year, then I will devote an hour four out of five weekdays to making the elements of that plan happen.”

“I want to start saving for retirement” can transform into “I will meet with HR next week and sign up for the 401(k) plan at work and contribute 10% of my income to that plan, then spend ten minutes a day adopting frugal strategies until it’s easy to live on the slightly reduced paycheck.”

“I want to cook more at home” transforms into “I will make my own dinner at home six out of seven nights of the week and check out a great beginning cookbook from the library to help guide me through how to make simple dishes and become more skilled in the kitchen, and I will make a weekly meal plan to aid in the planning.”

“I want to cut back on my hobby expenses” transforms into “Each month, I will withdraw $X from my checking account for hobby expenses and all hobby expenses must come from this money with no exceptions.”

Notice what all of these goals are doing. They’re turning a vague positive notion into a straightforward action that you do on a regular schedule. Most of them allow for some flexibility so that you’re not chasing an unattainable perfection, but they each challenge you to do something better than you’ve done before. They’re all focused on your actions.

Final Thoughts

The key to meaningful financial and frugal goals is to start with the feeling in your gut that something in your life has to change, and then mold that feeling into something actionable using the SMARTER rubric. If you start with something you feel, you’re ensuring that it’s meaningful, and if you move it through a good goal rubric, you come up with something that you can actually do with some high likelihood of success.

Will you magically transform your life overnight? Likely, no. Will you make steady improvement so that your life is better than before? Absolutely.

Good luck.

The post How to Set Meaningful Financial and Frugal Goals for Yourself appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Uber Visa Card Review: Up to 4% Back and No Annual Fee

If you’re looking for a new cash-back card that offers more bang for your buck than other cards on the market, you should check out the new Uber Visa Card. Launched earlier this year, the Uber Visa card offers a surprisingly high rate of cash-back rewards in popular categories like travel and dining out. Not only that, but it comes with no annual fee and added perks that could make it a valuable addition to any wallet.

Even if you don’t actually use the rideshare service, don’t be too quick to write off this card. While you can redeem your points for Uber rides, you can also cash them in for gift cards or regular ol’ cash back. And, did we mention this card has a signup bonus?

Keep reading about this new rewards card that will likely go head to head with other popular cash-back cards like the and Citi Double Cash Card.

The Simple Dollar’s Key Takeaways

  • Great earning potential. The new Uber Visa Card offers some pretty stellar earning tiers that could benefit almost everyone. Not only will you earn 4 points per $1 spent on dining including restaurants, bars, UberEATS, and takeout, but you get 3% back on hotels, airfare, and vacation home rentals (such as Airbnb). You’ll also score a generous 2% back on online shopping, video and music streaming services, and Uber rides, along with 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • No annual fee. Amazingly, the New Uber Visa card doesn’t charge an annual fee of any kind.
  • Signup bonus. At the moment, you’ll score a sweet $100 signup bonus after you use your card for $500 in purchases within three months of account opening.
  • Added perks. In addition to the card’s more obvious perks, the Uber Visa Card offers a $50 annual credit for streaming services after you spend $5,000 on your card each year, up to $600 in mobile phone protection, and no foreign transaction fees.

Review: A Stellar Cash-Back Card for Travelers or Frequent Diners

If you’re angling for a rewards card that offers a cash-back structure you’ve never really seen before, the Uber Visa Card might be right up your alley. While there are many cards that offer high rates of return on travel and dining, almost all of them charge an annual fee. Take the , for example. This card doles out 3 points per dollar on travel and dining (along with other benefits), but comes with a staggering $450 annual fee.

Still, among traditional cash-back cards, the Uber Visa Card stands out. Where there are several no-fee cash-back cards that offer 1.5% or even 2% cash-back, their offers pale in comparison to the 3-4 points per dollar you can earn on travel and dining with the Uber Visa Card.

The new card’s signup bonus is a nice touch, and so is the fact that you don’t have to redeem points for actual Uber rides. According to Uber and the card’s issuer, Barclaycard, you can redeem your rewards for Uber rides, gift cards, or cash-back with “a simple tap.”

Add on the free cell phone coverage and $50 credit for streaming services and you’ve got a real winner. Since this card doesn’t charge an annual fee, there’s nothing to lose – so what’s not to like?

Uber Visa Card: Where It Falls Flat

While the new Uber card has a lot going for it, it still faces some of the common challenges of other traditional cash-back cards. While it’s great you can redeem your points for gift cards or statement credits along with Uber rides, you can’t transfer to airline or hotel loyalty programs like you could with the or other premier travel cards, for example. Not only that, but the Uber card doesn’t offer any additional travel perks such as airport lounge access.

Last but not least, some of the card’s “extras” come with added stipulations. To take advantage of the $50 annual credit for streaming services, for example, you have to spend $5,000 on your card every year. Further, the $600 in cell phone coverage is only good if you use your card to pay your cell phone bill every month.

Who This Card Is Good For:

  • Anyone who spends a ton on dining and travel.
  • People who want to earn cash back instead of travel rewards.
  • Cash-back enthusiasts who are against paying annual fees.

Who Should Pass:

  • Travelers who want to be able to transfer points to hotel and airline loyalty programs.
  • Anyone who wants special travel benefits like airport lounge access or hotel or airline status.
  • People who don’t spend a lot on travel, dining, or online purchases who may be better off with a flat-rate cash-back card.

How Does the Uber Visa Card Compare to Other No-Fee Cash-Back Cards?

Before you can decide whether the Uber Visa Card will leave you better off, it helps to know how its benefits stack up to competing cards. The chart below will give you a good idea of which cash-back cards might suit your tastes and spending style the best:

  Uber Visa Card Chase Freedom® Citi® Double Cash Card
Signup Bonus Earn $100 after you use your card for $500 in purchases within three months of account opening Earn $150 after you use your card for $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Terms Apply. $0
Annual Fee $0 $0 $0
Earning Structure Earn 4x points on dining, 3x points on travel, 2x points on online shopping, Uber rides, and online streaming services, and 1x points on all other purchases Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, plus 5% cash back on your first $1,500 spent in categories that rotate every quarter. Terms Apply. Earn 1 percent back when you make a purchase and another 1 percent back when you pay it off
Redemption Options Redeem for Uber credits, cash-back, or gift cards Redeem for cash-back, gift cards, travel, or merchandise Redeem for statement credits, gift cards, or a check

As you can see, the Uber Visa Card really pulls ahead for people who spend a lot on travel and dining. Earning 3x points and 4x points in those categories respectively is a huge boon for anyone who spends a lot and wants the most bang for their buck.

It also helps that these categories never change or rotate. While the Chase Freedom® does offer 5% in back on certain purchases, those bonus categories rotate every three months. Not only that, but the Chase Freedom® limits your 5x earnings to the first $1,500 spent in bonus categories each quarter, whereas the Uber Visa Card lets you earn unlimited rewards.

The Citi® Double Cash Card is always a winner since it doles out a flat 2% back – 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay it off. However, it doesn’t offer a signup bonus and you’re limited to 2% back no matter what you buy.

Best Strategy With the Uber Visa Card

If you’re on the fence about the Visa Uber Card and unsure which cash-back card will leave you better off, here’s my advice: Sign up for the Uber Visa Card and at least one other cash-back card with alternate rewards.

Let’s say you signed up for the Uber Visa Card and the , for example. You could use the Uber Visa Card for dining (4x points), travel (3x points), and online purchases (2x points), then use your Chase Freedom® for your first $1,500 spent in categories that rotate every quarter.

You could also pair this card with a top travel card if you wanted. If you had the Chase Sapphire Preferred® or Reserve, for example, you could use those for their premier travel benefits and transfer partners while racking up some solid cash-back with your Uber Visa Card. With no annual fee and high bonus categories, the Uber Visa Card is a good addition to any point-earning strategy.

Want Flat Rate Rewards? Consider This Card Instead

If you don’t want to worry about which categories pay out more and prefer a cash-back card that is entirely predictable, the Citi® Double Cash Card is probably your best bet. As we mentioned already, this card offers a flat 2% back on everything – 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay it off. And you get all this cash-back without an annual fee.

While you may not earn as much over time if you spend a lot on dining or travel, you’ll at least know exactly how much to expect based on your regular spending.

The Bottom Line

Earning cash-back on your regular spending is a smart move if you’re able to pay your balance in full every month. You might as well get something in return if you’re going to spend anyway, right?

If you just so happen to spend a lot on travel, dining, and online shopping, the Uber Visa Card should definitely be on your short list. Not only does it offer up to 4% back in bonus categories, but it doesn’t charge an annual fee, either. Its signup bonus and added features are just icing on the cake.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

Related Articles:

Are you considering the Uber Visa Card? Why or why not?

The post Uber Visa Card Review: Up to 4% Back and No Annual Fee appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Here’s How the GOP Tax Plan Might Save (or Cost) You Money

The House of Representatives passed a monumental tax bill in November, and now the Senate has passed its own version — by a 51-49 vote around 2 a.m. Friday night. The two chambers are meeting this week to hammer out their differences before teeing up the legislation for the president’s signature.

And while there are quite a few important differences that need to be worked out, a lot of the big stuff is settled: The primary goal of both bills was to lower the corporate tax rate, from 35% down to 20%. But there are lots of other tax cuts to go around.

“Hooray, less taxes!” you might be thinking. Well, probably… but not necessarily. Both bills pair their tax cuts with other rule changes that could impact people in different ways, and a study by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that about a third (32%) of Americans won’t see a significant tax cut (greater than $100) in 2019, or could actually end up paying more. In fact, for a piece of legislation that cuts taxes dramatically, it’s not very popular, with critics ranging from AARP to the National Association of Realtors.

And while the corporate tax cuts are meant to be permanent, the individual tax cuts will expire in 10 years, by which time the JCT expects the bill to result in higher taxes for a lot of folks and to add about $1 trillion to the nation’s debt, even after factoring in an uptick in economic growth.

Leaving all that aside, though, here are some ways the GOP tax legislation could impact your finances in the near term:

Most people will pay less in taxes.

That same JCT analysis found that 68% of Americans would receive a tax cut of at least $100; a separate study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that households earning between $50,000 and $87,000 a year would save an average of $800 a year, at least at first. High earners are positioned to save even more — lots more. Households earning $750,000 a year or more can expect an average cut of $28,000.

Parents get a boost.

Both the House and Senate bills increase the Child Tax Credit from its current $1,000 per kid, up to $1,600 (House) or $2,000 (Senate). This benefit starts to phase out at higher incomes and, notably, expires after 2025. But for low- and middle-income families, it’s a pretty big score in the near term.

There is a trade-off, though: The Senate bill does away with the personal exemption, which currently allows you to deduct $4,050 for yourself and each of your dependents without itemizing (a big benefit to single parents and large families, among others). The expanded Child Tax Credit aims to make up for it, along with an increased standard deduction (which we’ll get to next).

Homeowners lose some advantages, especially in costly or high-tax areas. 

Only about one in five Americans itemizes their taxes (as opposed to taking the standard deduction), and they’re almost all homeowners. That’s because you can write off a bunch of related expenses, like mortgage interest and local property taxes, making it worth the headache.

That may no longer be the case for a lot of homeowners. The House tax bill would cap the mortgage interest deduction to loans under $500,000 and eliminate property tax deductions, while the Senate version would leave the mortgage interest deduction as-is (capped at $1 million) and limit property tax write-offs to $10,000. Both bills do away with deductions for state or local income and sales taxes, and the ability to deduct home equity loan interest.

At the same time, the standard deduction — which everyone can claim without itemizing – will nearly double, to $12,000 (or $24,000 for married couples). This will likely discourage a lot of people from itemizing — simplifying the tax process and helping renters, but weakening what was formerly an advantage for homeowners.

Meanwhile, residents in costly coastal areas with high sales or income taxes – like California and New York – may see an overall tax hike, as they won’t be able to write off those local levies. Some critics say this could place put added stress on local government services like police and school departments.

Home prices may fall.

Elizabeth Mendenhall, president of the National Association of Realtors, expects the loss of those homeowner tax breaks to dent home prices. “The tax incentives to own a home are baked into the overall value of homes in every state and territory across the country,” Mendenhall said. “When those incentives are nullified in the way this bill provides, our estimates show that home values stand to fall by an average of more than 10 percent, and even greater in high-cost areas.”

That’s great news for first-time buyers priced out of the market, but it comes with a caveat: Most economists say the biggest obstacle to housing affordability right now is lack of inventory – there just aren’t enough homes for sale to meet demand. If owners can’t fetch as much money for their houses, they may be more reluctant to sell, compounding that problem. Plus…

You may want to wait longer to sell your home.

One rather vexing change pertains to the capital gains tax on home sales. Currently, if you sell your home for more than you paid for it, you must pay capital gains tax on the profit – unless it’s your primary residence and you’ve lived there for two of the past five years, in which case the first $250,000 (or $500,000 for married couples) isn’t taxable. (This is one reason flipping houses is a dicey proposition.)

However, the Senate bill requires sellers to live in a home for five of the previous eight years if they want to dodge that capital gains hit.

So if someone bought a home three years ago and it’s gone up considerably in value, they may be forced to wait another two years to move or pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes on the sale. That could further reduce housing inventory in the short term.

Grad students and indebted college graduates might lose out.

The House bill would eliminate the student loan interest deduction and force grad students to pay taxes on tuition waivers. (That means a doctoral candidate who gets $50,000 in free tuition in exchange for teaching some classes would owe taxes on that free tuition as if it were income.) The Senate version does neither, so it remains to be seen what kind of compromise is reached in a final bill.

You may be able to drop your health insurance without penalty – which would drive up healthcare premiums.

Because the Senate bill includes a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate — which fines people if they don’t carry health coverage — young, healthy types with a teenage invincibility complex would be able to drop their health plans to save money and not face what is currently a $695 penalty. The Congressional Budget Office expects that would drive up premiums for everyone else by 10% — leading even more people to simply ditch their high-cost insurance with hopes they don’t get a serious illness or hit by a car.

The House bill has no such provision, though, so we’ll have to wait and see how the two chambers of Congress hash out this and other discrepancies.

Related Articles:

The post Here’s How the GOP Tax Plan Might Save (or Cost) You Money appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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