The Psychology of Automation: Building a Bulletproof Personal-Finance System 146 Comments
Too many choices. Using automation to reduce choices and dominate your money.
I have known Ramit Sethi for several years now, first through PBWiki, which he co-founded, and later as someone I turned to with questions about the world and workings of finance. In a world of gurus who promote one method of investing and then follow another, it was refreshing to talk with someone who was willing to share real numbers and case studies from their experiments.
Ramit and I have also able to share a bottle (OK, many bottles) of wine and laugh about the downstream effects of titles we’ve tested and chosen, as both of our book titles sound like scams to most people: The 4-Hour Workweek and I Will Teach You To Be Rich.
Despite this self-imposed handicap, Ramit’s blog and advice have been featured in media such as NPR, The New York Times, and Fortune magazine. I specifically asked him if I could excerpt a few of the diagrams and call scripts from his new book. He and I both share a love of templates that enable us (and others) to duplicate results without reinventing the wheel…
The Psychology of Automation – by Ramit Sethi
Think about the 50+ money decisions you have to make today: Should you save more? What should you cut down on? What about investing — real estate or stocks or index funds? Pay off debt? Did you send in that Comcast bill on time? Is it time to rebalance your portfolio?
Faced with an overwhelming number of choices, most people respond in the same way: They do nothing. As Barry Schwartz wrote in The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,
“…as the number of mutual funds in a 401(k) plan offered to employees goes up, the likelihood that they will choose a fund — any fund — goes down. For every 10 funds added to the array of options, the rate of participation drops 2 percent. And for those who do invest, added fund options increase the chances that employees will invest in ultraconservative money-market funds.”
Why do so many people believe that personal finance is only about willpower? The idea goes like this: “If I just try harder, I’ll start saving more, pay off my debt, stop spending all that money, keep a budget, learn about investing, start investing, rebalance ever year…” Unlikely. In fact, go ask your friends if they’re taking full advantage of their employer’s 401(k) match. The vast majority of people are not — even though it’s literally free money. Their answer? “Yeah…I really should do that…”
It’s not about willpower. More than anything else, the psychology of automation is critical to successfully getting control of your finances.
In one study, researchers found that making 401(k) accounts opt-out instead of opt-in — in other words, making employees automatically participate, although they could stop at any time — raised contribution rates from less than 40% to nearly 100%.
Defaults matter. We’ve all read The Four Hour Workweek so you know about the benefits of doing less. Today, Tim’s given me the opportunity to show you the details of the personal-finance system I’ve built over the last five years. It’s a way to automate the day-to-day decisions you have to make — paying bills, investing, rebalancing, cutting down on spending, increasing spending on things you love — and focus on the things you care about.
Using “The Next $100″ Principle, which I’ll show you below, your automated money flow will automatically route money where it needs to go — investments, paying bills, savings, and guilt-free spending.
And you can focus on the things that matter to you, instead of being a slave to your personal finances.
Case study: Michelle’s Automation System
To see how this will work, let’s use Michelle as an example:
Michelle gets paid once a month. Her employer deducts 5 percent of her pay automatically and puts it in her 401(k). The rest of Michelle’s paycheck goes to her checking account by direct deposit.
About a day later, her Automatic Money Flow begins transferring money out of her checking account. Her Roth IRA retirement account will pull 5 percent of her salary for itself. Her savings account will pull 5 percent, automatically breaking that money into chunks: 2 percent for a wedding sub-account, 2 percent to a house down-payment sub-account, and 1% for an upcoming vacation. (That takes care of her monthly savings goals.)
Her system also automatically pays her fixed costs like Netflix, cable, and insurance. She’s set it up so that most of her subscriptions and bills are paid by her credit card. Some of her bills can’t be put on credit cards—for example, utilities and loans—so they’re automatically paid out of her checking account. Finally, she’s automatically e-mailed a copy of her credit card bill for a monthly five-minute review. After she’s reviewed it, the bill is also paid from her checking account.
The money that remains in her account is used for guilt-free spending money.
To make sure she doesn’t overspend, she’s focused on two big wins: eating out and spending money on clothes.
She sets alerts in her Mint account if she goes over her spending goals, and she keeps a reserve of $500 in her checking account just in case. (The couple of times she went over her spending, she paid herself back using her “unexpected expenses” money from her sub-savings account.) To track spending more easily, she uses her credit card as much as possible to pay for all of her fun stuff. If she uses cash for cabs or coffee, she keeps the receipts and tries to enter them into Mint as often as possible.
In the middle of the month, Michelle’s calendar reminds her to check her Mint account to make sure she’s within her limits for her spending money. If she’s doing fine, she gets on with her life. If she’s over her limit, she decides what she needs to cut back on to stay on track for the month. Luckily, she has fifteen days to get it right, and by politely passing on an invitation to dine out she gets back on track.
By the end of the month, she’s spent less than two hours monitoring her finances, yet she’s invested 10 percent, saved 5 percent (in sub-buckets for her wedding and down payment), paid all of her bills on time, paid off her credit card in full, and spent exactly what she wanted to spend. She had to say “no” only once, and it was no big deal. In fact, none of it was.
Starting off: Scripts for negotiating with banks and credit cards
We’ll get to creating an automatic personal-finance system for you in a second. First, we need to iron out a few wrinkles to make sure your banks and credit cards aren’t screwing you.
The first steps are setting up the right financial accounts (saving, checking, investing), which I detail in chapters 1-3 of my book, but I’m just going to give you some core negotiation scripts to use against your financial institutions. With a customer-acquisition cost that’s typically between $300 and $1,500, financial companies don’t want to lose you — especially since most Americans are horrible negotiators and are afraid of using the phone. If you do it, you’re one of a select few who get preferential treatment.
First, I recommend you create a simple spreadsheet where you list all your accounts. Without it, you’ll activate a passive barrier that will make automation and negotiation far less likely to succeed. Download a spreadsheet here.
Next, I recommend you call up each account and negotiate like an Indian:
Script #1: Negotiating overdraft fees from your bank
You: “Hi, I just saw this bank charge for overdrafting and I’d like to have it waived.”
Bank rep: “I see that fee . . . hmm . . . Let me just see here. Unfortunately, sir, we’re not able to waive that fee. It was [some B.S. excuse about how it’s not waiveable].”
Bad Things to Say Here:
- “Are you sure?” (Don’t make it easy for the rep to say no to your request.)
- “Is there anything else I can do?” (Again, imagine if you were a customer-service rep and someone asked this. It would make your life easier to just say no. As a customer, don’t make it easy for companies to say no.)
- “Well, this Indian blogger dude told me I could.” (Nobody cares. But it would be cool if a thousand customers called their banks and said this.
- “Okay.” (Don’t give up here. Despite what you learned in sex ed, “no” does not mean “no” when it comes from a bank.)
Try this instead:
You: “Well, I see the fee here and I’d really like to get it waived. What else can you do to help me?”
(Repeat your complaint and ask them how to constructively fix it. At this point, about 85 percent of people will get their fees refunded. I have hundreds of comments from people on my blog who have taken this advice and saved thousands of dollars in fees. But in case the rep doesn’t budge, here’s what you can do.)
Bank rep: “I’m sorry, sir, we can’t refund that fee.”
You: “I understand it’s difficult, but take a look at my history. I’ve been a customer for more than three years, and I’d like to keep the relationship going. Now, I’d like to get this waived—it was a mistake and it won’t happen again. What can you do to help?”
You: “Hmm, one second, please. I see that you’re a really good customer. . . . I’m going to check with my supervisor. Can you hold for a second?”
(Being a long-term customer increases your value to them, which is one reason you want to pick a bank you can stick with for the long term. And the fact that you didn’t back down at the first “no” makes you different from 99 percent of other customers.)
Bank rep: “Sir, I was able to check with my supervisor and waive the fee. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Script #2: Negotiate your credit card APR
Your APR, or annual percentage rate, is the interest rate your credit card company charges you. The average APR is 14 percent, which makes it extremely expensive if you carry a balance on your card. Put another way, since you can make an average of about 8 percent in the stock market over the long term, your credit card is getting a great deal by lending you money.
So, call your credit card company and ask them to lower your APR. If they ask why, tell them you’ve been paying the full amount of your bill on time for the last few months, and you know there are a number of credit cards offering better rates than you’re currently getting. In my experience, this works about half the time. It’s important to note that your APR doesn’t technically matter if you’re paying your bills in full every month—you could have a 2 percent APR or 80 percent APR and it would be irrelevant, since you don’t pay interest if you pay your total bill in each month. But this is a quick and easy way to pick the low-hanging fruit with one phone call.
Script #3: Get your monthly/annual fees waived (credit cards and all bank accounts)
You: “Hi, I’d like to confirm that I’m not paying any fees on my credit card.”
Credit Card rep: “Well, it looks like you have an annual fee of $50. That’s actually one of our better rates.”
You: “I’d rather pay no fees. Which card can you switch me to that doesn’t charge fees? I’d like to make sure my credit score isn’t affected by closing this account, too. Can you confirm?”
The vast majority of people don’t need to pay any annual fees on their credit cards, and because free credit cards are so competitive now, you rarely need to pay for the privilege of using your card. The only exception is if you spend enough to justify the extra rewards a fee-charging account offers. If you do pay an annual fee, do a break-even analysis to see if it’s worth it. Hundreds of my readers have either (1) had their annual fee refunded, or (2) switched to a no-fee card.
Script #4: What to do if you miss a credit card payment
You: “Hi, I noticed I missed a payment, and I wanted to confirm that this won’t affect my credit score.”
Credit Card rep: “Let me check on that. No, the late fee will be applied, but it won’t affect your credit score.”
(If you pay within a few days of your missed bill, it usually won’t be reported to the credit agencies. Call them to be sure.)
You: “Thank you! I’m really happy to hear that. Now, about that fee…I understand I was late, but I’d like to have it waived.”
Credit Card rep: “Why?”
You: “It was a mistake and it won’t happen again, so I’d like to have the fee removed.”
(Always end your sentence with strength. Don’t say, “Can you remove this?” Say, “I’d like to have this removed.” At this point, you have a better-than-50-percent chance of getting the fee credited to your account. But just in case you get an especially tough rep, here’s what to say.)
Credit Card rep: “I’m very sorry, but we can’t refund that fee. I can try to get you our latest blah blah marketing pitch blah blah…”
You: “I’m sorry, but I’ve been a customer for four years and I’d hate for this one fee to drive me away from your service. What can you do to remove the late fee?”
Credit Card rep: “Hmm . . . Let me check on that. . . . Yes, I was able to remove the fee this time. It’s been credited to your account.”
You don’t believe me that it can be so simple? It is. Anyone can do it.
There are other advanced negotiating strategies and tactics, including optimizing your debt-to-credit ratio, but I’ll leave those for another day.
Finally, if you decide to switch accounts, which ones should you use? I cover this in detail in the book, but here’s what I use ING Direct for savings and Schwab Investor Checking, where I earn interest and get 100% of ATM fees refunded from anywhere.
“The Next $100″ Principle Applied: Automating your Finances
Too many people try to save money on 50 things and end up saving 5% on everything — and causing themselves a huge amount of stress that makes them give up entirely. Instead, I prefer focusing on my top two discretionary expenses (for me, eating out and going out), and cutting 25%-33% off over a period of six months. This generates hundreds of dollars of extra cash flow that I re-route to investing and travel.
To show you how automating your accounts works, I’ve prepared a 12-minute video that shows you how to build a personal-finance infrastructure that automates your money so you can spend less than 1 hour per week monitoring your money. Everything will be done automatically — investment, savings, bills paid. Everything.
Ramit’s 12-Minute Guide to Automating Your Finances
First, you’ll need to log in to each account and link your accounts together so you can set up automatic transfers from one account to another. When you log in to any of your accounts, you’ll usually find an option called something like “Link Accounts,” “Transfer,” or “Set Up Payments.”
These are the links you need to make:
Examples: Your 401(k) should be connected to your checking account via direct deposit (talk to your HR rep about setting this up — it takes 10 minutes to fill out a form). Then log into your Roth IRA, savings account, and credit card, where you can link your checking account to them. Finally, there are some bills that can’t be paid through your checking account, like your rent. For those, use your checking account’s free bill-pay feature so they automatically issue your landlord a check on the precise date it’s due. Now, you never have to manually write a check again.
Set up automatic transfers
Now that all your accounts are linked, it’s time to go back into your accounts and automate all transfers and payments. This is really simple: It’s just a matter of working with each individual account’s website to make sure your payment or transfer is set up for the amount you want and on the date you want.
Most people neglect one thing when automating: dates. If you set automatic transfers at weird times, it will inevitably necessitate more work, which will make you resent and eventually ignore your personal-finance infrastructure. For example, if your credit card is due on the 1st of the month, but you don’t get paid until the 15th, how does that work? If you don’t synchronize all your bills, you’ll have to pay things at different times and that will require you to reconcile accounts. Which you won’t do.
The easiest way to avoid this is to get all your bills on the same schedule. To accomplish this, get all your bills together, call the companies, and ask them to switch your billing dates. Most of these will take five minutes each to do. There may be a couple of months of odd billing as your accounts adjust, but it will smooth itself out after that. If you’re paid on the 1st of the month, I suggest switching all your bills to arrive on or around that time, too.
Call and say this: “Hi, I’m currently being billed on the 17th of each month, and I’d like to change that to the 1st of the month. Do I need to do anything besides ask right here on the phone?” Of course, depending on your situation, you can request any billing date that will be easy for you.
Now that you’ve got everything coming at the beginning of the month, it’s time to actually go in and set up your transfers. Here’s how to arrange your Automatic Money Flow, assuming you get paid on the 1st of the month.
2nd of the month: Part of your paycheck is automatically sent to your 401(k). The remainder (your “take-home pay”) is direct-deposited into your checking account. Even though you’re paid on the 1st, the money may not show up in your account until the 2nd, so be sure to account for that.
Remember, you’re treating your checking account like your e-mail inbox— first, everything goes there, then it’s filtered away to the appropriate place. Note: The first time you set this up, leave a buffer amount of money—I recommend $500—in your checking account just in case a transfer doesn’t go right. And don’t worry: If something does go wrong, use the negotiation tips above to get any overdraft fees waived.
5th of the month: Automatic transfer to your savings account. Log in to your savings account and set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account on the 5th of every month. Waiting until the 5th of the month gives you some leeway. If, for some reason, your paycheck doesn’t show up on the 1st of the month, you’ll have four days to correct things or cancel that month’s automatic transfer.
Don’t just set up the transfer. Remember to set the amount, too. Use the percentage of your monthly income that you established for savings in your Conscious Spending Plan (from Chapter 4 of my book; typically 5 to 10 percent). But if you can’t afford that much right now, don’t worry—just set up an automatic transfer for $5 to prove to yourself that it works. The amount is important: $5 won’t be missed, but once you see how it’s all working together, it’s much easier to add to that amount.
5th of the month: Automatic transfer to your Roth IRA. To set this up, log in to your investment account and create an automatic transfer from your checking account to your investment account. Refer to your Conscious Spending Plan to calculate the amount of the transfer. It should be approximately 10 percent of your take-home pay, minus the amount you send to your 401(k).
7th of the month: Auto-pay for any monthly bills you have. Log in to any regular payments you have, like cable, utilities, car payments, or student loans, and set up automatic payments to occur on the 7th of each month. I prefer to pay my bills using my credit card, because I earn points, I get automatic consumer protection and little-known benefits, and I can easily track my spending on online sites like Mint, Quicken, or Wesabe.
But if your merchant doesn’t accept credit cards, they should let you pay the bill directly from your checking account, so set up an automatic payment from there if needed.
7th of the month: Automatic transfer to pay off your credit card. Log in to your credit card account and instruct it to draw money from your checking account and pay the credit card bill on the 7th of every month— in full. (Because your bill arrived on the 1st of the month, you’ll never incur late fees using this system.) If you have credit card debt and you can’t pay the bill in full, don’t worry. You can still set up an automatic payment; just make it for the monthly minimum or any other amount of your choice. (Incidentally, paying your bills on time is the one of the top factors in determining and improving your credit score.)
By the way, while you’re logged in to your credit card account, also set up an e-mail notification (this is typically under “Notifications” or “Bills”) to send you a monthly link to your bill, so you can review it before the money is automatically transferred out of your checking account. This is helpful in case your bill unexpectedly exceeds the amount available in your checking account—that way you can adjust the amount you pay that month.
Tweaking Your System: Freelancers, irregular income, and unexpected expenses
That’s the basic Automatic Money Flow schedule, but you may not be paid on a straight once-a-month schedule. That’s not a problem. You can just adjust the above system to match your payment schedule.
If you’re paid twice a month: I suggest replicating the above system on the 1st and the 15th—with half the money each time. This is easy enough, but the one thing to watch with this is paying your bills. If the second payment (on the 15th) will miss the due dates for any of your bills, be sure that you set it so that those bills are paid in full during the payment on the 1st. Another way to work your system is to do half the payments with one paycheck (retirement, fixed costs) and half the payments with the second paycheck (savings, guilt-free spending), but that can get clunky.
If you have irregular income: Irregular incomes, like those of freelancers,
are difficult to plan for. Some months you might earn close to nothing, others you’re flush with cash. This situation calls for some changes to your spending and savings. First—and this is different from the Conscious Spending Plan—you’ll need to figure out how much you need to survive on each month. This is the bare minimum: rent, utilities, food, loan payments—just the basics. Those are your bare-bones monthly necessities.
Now, back to the Conscious Spending Plan. Add a savings goal of three months of bare-bones income before you do any investing. For example, if you need at least $1,500/month to live on, you’ll need to have $4,500 in a savings buffer, which you can use to smooth out months where you don’t generate much income. The buffer should exist as a sub-account in your savings account. To fund it, use money from two places:
1. Forget about investing while you’re setting up the buffer, and instead take any money you would have invested and send it to your savings account.
2. In good months, any extra dollar you make should go into your buffer savings.
Here’s an example of how I set up my sub-savings accounts:
Once you’ve saved up three months of money as a cushion, congratulations! Now go back to a normal Conscious Spending Plan where you send money to investing accounts. Because you’re self- employed, you probably don’t have access to a traditional 401(k), but you should look into a Solo 401(k) and SEP-IRA, which are great alternatives.
Just keep in mind that it’s probably wise to sock away a little more into your savings account in good months to make up for the less profitable ones.
If you have an irregular income, I highly recommend using YouNeedABudget as a planning tool. It uses a forward-looking system that’s very helpful if you don’t know what you’re going to make next month.
Your money is now automatic
Congratulations! Your money management is now on autopilot. Not only are your bills paid automatically and on time, but you’re actually saving and investing money each month. The beauty of this system is that it works without your involvement and it’s flexible enough to add or remove accounts any time. You’re accumulating money by default.
Most importantly, whenever you’re eating out, or you decide to buy a new pair of shoes or fly out to visit your friends or get the “Pro” version of that web app you’ve been eyeing, you won’t feel guilty because you’ll KNOW that your finances are being handled — automatically.
Excerpts from Ramit Sethi’s new book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Used with permission.
Note from Tim on the next 48 hours only: I think optimizing your finances is so important that anyone who buys this book (no-purchase option available here) in the next 48 hours will get: (1) An exclusive invitation to attend a private webcast where Ramit and I will answer your questions about automation, money, and entrepreneurship, and (3) a grand prize of one roundtrip ticket from anywhere in the United States to meet me and Ramit for dinner in San Francisco. Just get the book and forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org by 6pm PT, this Saturday, 3/28/09.
Posted on March 26th, 2009