The Rewards of Routine Maintenance

by J.D. Roth

I had a great weekend. In fact, it was probably one of the best weekends I’ve had in years. I spent all day Saturday and Sunday doing chores. (Well, I watched the World Cup a little, too.) I spent nearly 16 hours doing yardwork, and I loved every minute of it.

This passion for pruning may seem strange to you, but it seems even stranger to me. I generally don’t like yardwork. But here’s the thing: When we bought this house in 2004, I was fairly diligent about performing routine maintenance. I pruned the hedges, mowed the lawn, cleaned the gutters, and did dozens of other little things to make sure the house and yard remained at peak form.

For several years, I stayed on top of things around Rosings Park (which is what we call our two-thirds of an acre). But about two years ago — just as Get Rich Slowly began to take over my life — I let things slide. I stopped pruning the hedges. I left tools outside to rust. I just stopped caring about the routine maintenance that had kept our home looking great.

I’m sure you can guess the results. Over the past two years, the yard has gone feral. The neighbor’s kiwi has mated with our oak. The filberts have developed shaggy manes. Blackberries are sending thorny shoots through every nook and cranny. And the laurels — well, the laurels have been jubilant in their self expression, exploding with twigs and leaves.

Though I’d known it in theory, the past two years have taught me that if you don’t keep up with routine maintenance, your home and yard can get away from you.

Fiscal maintenance
Ah, but this is a personal finance blog, isn’t it? So what’s the connection? Most of you have probably already guessed where I’m going with this. Taking care of your finances is very much like taking care of a yard. A few routine chores performed diligently are enough to help you keep things in line. But the moment you get lazy or distracted, things fall apart.

I’m ashamed to admit that over the past few months, my personal finances have come to resemble my yard. No, I’m not spending more than I earn, and I’m not abusing credit, but I am allowing financial weeds to grow where once I would have pulled them on sight.

Last week, I got a call from a collection agency. It wasn’t a wrong number; they were calling for me. Worse, they were trying to collect on a legitimate debt. They wanted to know why I hadn’t paid the $23.23 I owed the local hospital for services rendered in February. Ouch!

Now, let me be clear: I’m not intentionally evading this bill. In fact, I have enough money in the bank to pay the bill several hundred times over. But somehow over the past few months, this bill — along with about a dozen other pieces of my financial life — got shoved aside and ignored. I thought I had other more important things to worry about, like PR for my book.

Back to basics
One thing I’ve always prided myself on is the fact that I’ve never missed a payment on anything. Even when I had over $35,000 in debt, I always paid my monthly obligations. (Sure, I was making minimum payments, but I was making them!)

When I decided to get out of debt, one of the key habits I developed was tracking every penny I spent. It didn’t matter how small the purchase (or the income) — if I earned it or spent it, I put it in Quicken. But over the past year, I’ve come to believe that I don’t need to track every penny I spend. My habits are great. My income exceeds my expenses by a wide margin. I’m making smart choices, so why should I track my spending?

But there have been unexpected side-effects to giving up my weekly Quicken ritual.

I know this is stupid stupid stupid, but my former habit of putting everything into Quicken once a week forced me to pay my bills when they were due. Without this trigger, I just forget to pay the hospital bill and rent on my office. The bills sit on my desk, buried under magazines and notes and comic books.

Note: I used to make fun of my cousin, Nick, for this. Nick has tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, yet he’s always getting late fees for things like the electric bill. “What the heck?” I asked him once. “How can this be possible?” He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I get the bills in the mail, put them on the table, and then I forget about them. They get buried under other mail. It’s only three or four months later that I find them again.” This used to baffle me, but now I understand.


There are some simple solutions to this of course. Once great way to handle the problem is to simply pay the bills as they arrive. I’ve advocated this many times in the past, and I still think it’s a smart way to operate. But I have a tough time deciphering what is a hospital bill and what it is an insurance statement. (Seriously: There are times I have no idea.)

Another solution — and the one I plan to adopt — is to simply do what I used to do. I’m going to resume tracking every penny I spend. I’m going to set up the new version of Quicken (Intuit gave me a free copy), and then do what I’ve done for the past six years. Scheduled start date: July 1st. I’m gathering all of the data now.

Final section
Last night, my pal Nickel tweeted the following:

In the middle of a marathon Quicken-updating session. Feels so good whenever I get caught up.

I knew exactly what he meant. Despite my marathon yard-work session over the weekend, I’m not even a quarter of the way done with all of the pruning and trimming that I need to do. But I cannot help but admire the work I have done. Last night, as the light began to fade, I stood for several minutes just looking at the driveway and the garage and the workshop. I felt great. (In fact, I felt so great that I’ll probably spend most of today pruning laurel and filbert instead of writing about money.)

And I’ve made a vow: In the coming years, I will not allow the yard to revert to jungle again. I’ll stay up-to-date on my chores. After all, there’s a sweet sense of satisfaction that comes from performing routine maintenance on anything. It’s nice to know that through constant low-intensity effort you’re able to keep things looking and running smoothly.

For myself, I’m just as excited about resuming my weekly finance sessions as I am about showing the laurels and blackberries who’s boss. (It’s just too bad there’s no equivalent to a hedge-trimmer for personal finance.)

Updated: 14 June 2010

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