Accountability Can Improve Results

This year, I’ve been posting various updates centered around my fitness activities, mostly centered on running.  It’s not that finance has become less important or more boring, it’s just that running is something that’s relatively new to me, but the posts also offer accountability.

I actually started my running last year, first at my old gym and then moving over to Planet Fitness.  But, for the calendar year of 2014, I didn’t track anything and my results were marginal at best.

Going into 2015, I added a tab to one of the daily tracking sheets that I use for things like finance, weather tracking (yes, I do track the weather temps too), for the purposes of mb-lightbulb201308tracking my running activity.

The main things I started tracking are how often I go, how far I go when I get there, and how long it takes me.  There are some additional things that I enter, and some calculations that also happen as a result, but that’s pretty much it.  Adding a run entry takes fifteen seconds per run, if that, but it gives me a lot.  It gives me the data but it also gives me accountability.

Just how has tracking improved my accountability?

  • I exercise more often- As I mentioned previously, I never tracked any of my activity.  As a result, I really had no idea on how often I would go to the gym.  I had a rough idea that I would maybe have gone 3-4 times a week some weeks, 1-2 times on other weeks, but it was just a guess. Now, I can look back and tell you exactly how many times I’ve gone.  Having that information at my disposal motivates me to keep going.
  • I improve my results – I ran for a year, but because I never really tracked it, I had no incentive to push myself.  As such, I never got better at it.  When I started tracking it, I began tracking how far I go and my pace.  Those are things that I can now try to improve upon, and I have.  I’ve shaved nearly a minute per mile off my pace, and my average distance has nudged up as well.
  • I build a plan – Because I have numbers behind me, I’ve started getting into more consistent routines.  A year ago a treadmill run would have me run for awhile until I got tired, then walk again until I felt like starting again.  Not really the best approach, especially when I couldn’t really tell you how long I was doing either one.  Now, I’ve refined it where I run for 3-4 minutes at a time, then walk for 30 seconds.  My consistency has improved considerably.
  • I have proof of results – A year ago, my biggest proof of a good workout was walking out with a sweaty shirt.  Now, I still have the sweaty shirt as I walk out the door, but I have numbers behind that I can track.  I can see how many times I’ve run.  I can see a rough approximation of how many calories I’ve burned.  I know how many miles I’ve run.  A year ago, as soon as that sweaty shirt was run through the wash, my proof the results was gone.  Now, with my spreadsheet tab, the results live on, pushing me further.

Overall, staying accountable to myself is a great method for me to keep moving forward.  And, I know that this applies in many areas.  This is mainly a personal finance blog, and it of course applies in that aspect.

Think about a budget.

I am a huge advocate of everybody having a budget, but my main reason is not so much to restrict your spending, though that is certainly one reason for which many people us it and a perfectly acceptable one, at that.  But, my main reason for having and using a budget is to bring accountability to our finances.  We can look back at what we’ve spent and make changes if we need to.  We can see where income has come in and strive for higher numbers.

It’s the same principle, and I think it’s just as important in personal finance as it is in exercising, and there are many other areas as well.

Readers, do numbers make you hold yourself more accountable? Does this lead to better results in whatever it is your tracking, whether it be a budget, a workout log, or anything else that allows for tracking and decision making?  I’d love to hear your stories and ideas in the comments below.

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

How Does Panera Bread Stay In Business?

OK, let me start this off by saying that I have a fond appreciation for Panera Bread bagels, especially their Cinammon Crunch variety, which is worth every penny of the $1.49 price that they charge as a once-in-a-while treat.

However, my appreciation for Panera products or their value starts and stops right there.

Beyond that, I just don’t understand how the company stays in business.

The ‘Promotion’

My wife has a Panera Bread rewards card, so she jumped when she got an offer that if she made five purchases on her card during the month of March, she would get a free ‘meal’ consisting of a You-Pick-Two, which is basically a half sandwich and a cup of soup normally provided to you with no price discount whatsoever, so far as I can tell.

But still, we like the bagels and figured that getting a single bagel here and there, either for one of us or for the kids to split, would not end up being such a bad deal.

And, it really wasn’t.  There’s a Panera Bread in the same shopping center as our Planet Fitness, so after my morning workouts, I stopped a few times and got the bagel.  I think over the course of the month, I had two, my wife had two and the kids got one.  We all usually each have a bagel once per week, anyway, so it really wasn’t that big of a stretch in terms of cost.

At the end of the fifth purchase, sure enough, my wife got an e-mail stating that her card was loaded up with her free Pick-Two.

What Panera Bread Did Wrong (Besides, Well, Everything)

As mentioned above, I typically avoid Panera for anything other than a bagel now and then.  I never really cared for their sandwiches, and had a memory of it being vastly overpriced, but it had been a while since I’d purchased anything other than a bagel, so when my wife suggested that we go for a family dinner to use her coupon, I reluctantly agreed.

My wife was out with the kids, so when the time came, I met them up there.  She had finished placing her order which included her ‘free’ meal, and a grilled cheese sandwich for the kids to split.  Somehow, I found out later that even with her discount, her total still came out to be over $6.  This made no sense to me as all I think she ended up really paying for was the grilled cheese.

$6 for a grilled cheese? 

Well, I didn’t know that until later.  But, as it was, I walked in and was ready to order after she’d already finished.  First, I had no idea what to get.  I looked at the menu and saw a

You'll need some fat stacks to dine regularly at Panera.

You’ll need some fat stacks to dine regularly at Panera.

bunch of sandwiches, which all looked pretty much the same to me with their description.  The soup varieties didn’t look too bad, so I had no problem, but it was the sandwiches that really stopped me.  It was a flustering experience as my wife was on one side, trying to give me suggestions (none of which really took me away from my belief that they were all pretty much the same), and for some reason there were three employees standing in front of the register.

I saw that they had a couple of different things besides sandwiches, and almost thought about getting a pasta dish, I think it was Chicken Alfredo Tortellini or something.  But the price was $7.99 and I figured that the soup and sandwich deal had to be better than that, right?  But the pricing really wasn’t clear, and with seemingly everybody in the restaurant waiting with anticipation for my order, I just picked a sandwich and added some chicken noodle soup.

And I was shocked when the total came up at $9.20.

I asked them to make sure it was right, and they confirmed.  Only afterward did I realize that the Pick-Two is just you ordering two things off the menu.

But, whatever.  I handed over my card and moved over to the order pickup.

That’s where the overall experience went from bad to worse.  Let me count the things that were ‘wrong’ between our two orders.

  • No water – I asked for water with my order but received nothing.
  • To-Go – My order came out on a plate and in a bowl all set out on a tray.  My wife and kid’s stuff came put together in a bag.  They made the whole thing to-go.  So, we had to unpack everything and create a bunch of waste.
  • Roll – When you order soup, my wife specifically asked for a type of roll. Instead, she got two pieces of bread.  They were out of the roll but never asked her what she wanted instead.
  • Price, again (this time for soup) – This one really wasn’t the restaurant doing anything wrong, but came back again to the absurd pricing.  The kids spotted my wife’s soup and wanted it.  Being the amazing mom that she is, she gave them her soup.  When my sister-in-law (who also joined us) asked why she just didn’t get them their own, she answered that there was no way she was paying an extra $4 for another tiny cup of soup.

In the end, after sacrificing her soup, she was still hungry, so she stopped at the Taco Bell next door and got a burrito from their dollar menu.  I, of course, took that opportunity to lament that for the $9.20 I spent on mine, we probably could have all eaten there and been a lot more full, plus saved the money on the $6 grilled cheese and the $1 burrito.

At the beginning, the ‘freebie’ looked like a good deal, and had my wife just gone and gotten it for herself, it probably would have been.  But, it’s amazing that adding two young children and one more adult turned the experience into feeling like we’d been robbed.  There’s just something not right about that.

My wife did say that they seem to use a lot of natural and organic ingredients.  Which is great, but I guess I’ll go back to the grilled cheese.  How organic can two slices of bread and some cheese be to make $6 worth it?  With that in mind, I simply can’t put much justification into the pricing if that’s indeed the argument for higher prices.  It’s still out of whack.

It gave me enough ammunition to reinforce the fact that, but for the occasional $1.49 bagel that I’ll buy now and then, I have no intention of setting foot in a Panera for anything, and it boggles my mind to think that enough people do on a daily basis for them to stay afloat.

Readers, tell me what am I missing?  I know there have to be enough people out there who love Panera and who don’t think their prices are absurdly out of touch with reality, so I’d love to hear from you.  Or, are you like me and think that the value just doesn’t match what you get.

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Cardboard Fort Fun: Did The Fun Police Go Too Far?

I’ve been reading a bit about the Utah dad who decided to build his children a giant fort with a bunch of cardboard boxes that he’d accumulated for a while, only to get a notice from the city saying that the ‘trash pile’ was illegal, and that he had 15 days to remove it or be fined up to $125 per day.

He contacted local media and they ran with it and the story has been all over the news.

Side 1: Keep The Fort

I’ve read a few stories and have seen a few news stories on my Facebook feed and the response seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of letting the parents keep the fort, saying that the city has gone too far.  They point out that the fact that it’s made of cardboard indicates that it’s obviously going to be temporary and would likely be deconstructed as rain, weather, and the elements quickly take their toll on the fort.

They also point out that it’s a pile of trash in the sense of the term as the law was likely constructed.  He didn’t drag a bunch of old appliances, furniture, and waste bags and pile them up in the yard, so supporters say that there should be some level of interpretation and latitude used.

And, the kids, we have to think of the kids!  Most supporters are aghast that they would take away good, clean fun for the kids, saying that the city is tacitly removing encouragement for kids to spend more time outdoors, something that seems to happen less and less.

Side 2: The Fort Must Come Down

Looking at the few people that do seem to side with the city as well as dissecting some of the details of the story, there are a few things that stand in the side of the city.

First, the city responded to a complaint, likely a neighbor.  It didn’t happen by way of a city worker or law enforcement official spotting the fort and taking action.  A complaint was filed, likely by a neighbor, who did not care for the new addition.

Second, while it probably isn’t a hazard in the sense that ‘real’ trash could be, it could be.  A child could climb on top of it or jump off of it and get hurt.

Third, and the part that kind of makes up my mind on where I stand, is that this was built in the front yard.  The front yard.  The homeowner decided to do something that was admittedly cool for his kids, but why he chose the front yard is where I have to draw the line on supporting them.   A fort like this is a temporary ‘fun thing’ that is in line with things like a swing set or sandbox, both things that we have for our kids….in the backyard.  Do you know anybody that has a swing set in their front yard?  I don’t.

My Stance: Take It Down and Be Smarter Next Time

Obviously I’ve already given away where I stand.  I don’t think that forts should be discouraged.  I remember climbing into cardboard boxes from new appliances at the home of a babysitter I had while in early elementary school, and it was fun.  But putting it in the front yard for more than a couple of hours just seems silly, irresponsible, and not very thoughtful to your neighbors, who may not have the same appreciation.

I think that they would have had a better chance of not having problems had they tried a more sensible approach, which would have been building it out of sight, or at least great limited, if they’d put this together in the backyard, basement, garage, or other area that wouldn’t have attracted so much attention.  Now, it’s certainly possible that the same person that complained would have anyway, but I like the odds a lot better of being able to keep it, anyway, if it wasn’t sitting smack dab in the middle of the front yard.

Readers, did you see the story?  What do you think?  If your neighbors built a giant cardboard fort in the front yard, would you say that since it’s their property, they can do whatever they want, or would you find it a problem?  What if it was in their back yard?  Where would you draw the line?

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.

Avoiding Audits After Tax Season

To paraphrase Jim Croce:

You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with the IRS

At least, that’s how Al Capone would have sang it. The Department of Education, on the other hand… Go nuts. They’ve never educated a single person. And they have never put anyone in prison. The IRS has routinely done both. They have the power to give you an education in finance and consequences that you never wanted, and they can take you from your office directly to the penn without passing go, or collecting $200. These reasons should encourage you to avoid IRS attention in the form of an audit after tax season. Here’s how:

Give Yourself a Tax Education Before the IRS Gives You One

Before you even get to the EZ form, there are a thousand and one little things you need to know. I assure you; the things you don’t know about taxes far outweigh the things you do. Trouble lies in the vast area of things you don’t know. While an error of a few dollars is unlikely to trigger an audit, the IRS has no sense of humor–at least not one of which they are aware. They have nearly unlimited resources. And they have very little in terms of a sense of proportion. A little knowledge goes a long ways towards keeping their gaze away from you.

For example, a lot of people believe they can claim however many allowances or deductions on their W-4s as they like. This isn’t necessarily so, according to Natalie Cooper of BankingSense.com, who writes that “the deductions and credits that you qualify for each year may change based on your own situation and changes in tax code, so you should avoid simply copying the number of allowances that you were using from the previous year.” She goes on to point out that, if you are married, the number you can claim will change based on the number your spouse claims on his or her W-4.

Learn how your various forms and details are supposed to work and be calculated before you start plugging numbers into your 1040. The last thing you need is to be audited because you and your spouse accidentally claimed each other as dependents when turning in your annual W-4!

Let a Professional Do the Heavy Lifting

Since we’ve already established that you don’t know your way around the tax code, why not enlist someone who does? They will know right away if you are at risk of an audit. Anyone who is in the high-risk category should have a professional do their taxes for them. No need to inflict yourself with this slide show from Forbes.

Here are some of the risk factors therein:

  • Make a lot of money
  • Fail to mention off-shore accounts
  • Be a tax protester
  • Claim huge charitable contributions
  • Omit income reported by someone else
  • Take too many home-based business loans

This list goes on. But you get the idea. Any deviation from the standard will get you noticed. As the Japanese proverb goes: The nail that stands out gets hammered. There are a lot of risk factor lists out there. They all will have income near the top. Other factors aside, if you make a lot of money, you stand a good chance of being audited. Don’t fool around. Have a professional do your taxes for you.

Don’t Panic

In acknowledgement of the fact that there is no airtight method of avoiding an audit, I should say a few words about what to do in the event you find yourself in that situation. Cando Finance  offers some very good advice including:

  • Be prepared
  • Get help
  • Think compromise
  • Record it
  • Appeal it

Part of your preparation will be to immediately follow up and find out exactly what is at issue. The audit letter may not be very clear or forthcoming. Know exactly what you are dealing with. Hire a professional who specializes in audits. Understand that you are not dealing in absolutes. Even with the IRS, there is room for compromise and negotiation. If you don’t like the outcome, you can always appeal it.

While receiving an audit letter is not the end of the world, it is the start of a very bad day. Take all reasonable steps to avoid it altogether by educating yourself and letting a professional do the heavy lifting. Oh, and try not to make too much money.

Copyright 2015 Original content authorized only to appear on Money Beagle. Please subscribe via RSS, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or receive e-mail updates. Thank you for reading.