Annual Life Optimization Checklist

This jigsaw puzzle is your life

This jigsaw puzzle is your life

I took a little time off from work recently. I headed out to the beach with my dog and rented a house.

My main purpose from the vacation was to spend some quality time relaxing. And I did that! I invited some wonderful people to visit me for part of the trip. We talked and ate and spent a lot of time enjoying the sand and water and sky.

My secondary mission was to spend some time optimizing my personal life. I’m pretty good at keeping on top of things, but recently I realized that there was more than one area where I knew I could do better. There were other areas that I just hadn’t devoted any time to (like end of life planning). I tracked everything I worked on in a checklist.

Optimizing my life took more time than I expected. It was also incredibly rewarding and gave me a big sense of accomplishment. Was I relaxed more afterward because of the fun times, or because of the peace of mind of having gotten things in order? It’s hard to say, but it was a great combination.

My Life Optimization Checklist

Here’s the checklist of the 15 things I plan to revisit in detail at least once a year:

  1. Credit: Pull your free annual credit report from all three major credit reporting companies. Information how to get your free reports is here on the FTC site. Follow up on any items you don’t understand. Consider asking for credit increases on the cards you use and removing lesser used cards with fees if you have a large number of accounts and you don’t log into them all regularly.
  2. Mortality: Update your will, power of attorney, and related documents. If you have a living trust established, identify any items you wish to transfer to control of the trust and make a plan for carrying out the transfer. If you don’t have these documents, check out NOLO’s option
  3. Beneficiaries: Update your benefiaries online in life insurance or investment accounts.
  4. Investments: Review the performance of your stock and retirement investment accounts. Potentially adjust and research new funds.
  5. Retirement: Review your retirement accounts and the amount you put in. Set aside money or adjust your regular donation amount. Research any new accounts that you have been thinking about opening.
  6. Debt: Review your annual income and reassess your plans to pay any outstanding loans/mortgages/other debt for the next year. (Old college loans still hanging out? Maybe you can pay more down and get rid of them sooner than you thought. But make sure you balance this with your retirement plans, too.)
  7. Giving: Review your charitable donations for year to date. Set a target charitable donation account and make a plan to set aside the money you would like to donate.
  8. Pets: Is your pet registered and current on shots and tags? If they are microchipped, do you have the chip number handy? (If they aren’t chipped, why not get it done?)
  9. Health: What was the date of your last doctor appointment? Set up an annual checkup if needed.
  10. Teeth: What was the date of your last dental cleaning? Set up a checkup if needed.
  11. Data: Review the files on your personal computer. Make sure you are backing up files as needed and have secured and encrypted the data if needed.
  12. Websites: Review registration, website hosting, and automated backup status of any websites you host.
  13. Cars: Any outstanding maintenance you’ve been putting off? Schedule it! If you’re planning to make an auto purchase or sale in the next year, estimate out what it’ll cost and make a plan to set aside the money. Review the rates on your auto insurance and make sure you’re satisfied with what you’re getting.
  14. Volunteering: Is there something you’ve been meaning to do for an organization that’s important to you? Figure out if you can do it during the break, or establish a schedule to make it happen in the next year.
  15. Other Adult Responsibilities: Is there anything else that you know you should take care of that you’ve been putting off? (Renter’s insurance? Legal documents? Anything?) Confront it, and make a plan to get it researched, planned, and taken care of.

There are things missing from this list: I don’t have dependents. (I don’t have any kids or older family members to care for.) I suspect all you parents out there are much more organized than I am and have to keep on top of this stuff more often! Or maybe it’s even harder for you to keep up.

I don’t think I’ll use the list as an excuse to put things off. If anything, having a list helps me feel like I have a finite number of items to cover, and more like I can break them up into achievable goals and take care of them. But I do really like having set aside some days to just take care of optimizing my grown up life– and I plan to do it again next year.

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Review: Fidelity Charitable Giving Accounts (a Donor-Advised Fund)

Fundraising cat has a small request for you.

Fundraising cat has a small request for you.

I’m not the kind of person who enjoys researching different types of financial accounts for fun. But recently I learned about a type of account related to charitable giving that’s becoming increasingly popular: “Donor-Advised Funds”.

Here’s how it works: You set up a Charitable Giving Account with one of the major financial institutions. There’s a lot of options: Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Vanguard, and more companies have set up organizations to manage this.

Once you deposit money into your Charitable Giving Account, you’ve made your contribution. You are entitled to a tax deduction on that donation right away.

You decide how to invest that money while it’s in the account and waiting to be given out: you can pick different pools of bonds, money market accounts, etc based on your risk tolerance.

You get to pick when you disperse money from your account to charities. (This is called “making a grant”.) Different donor-advised funds have different rules about minimums you should give out. The idea isn’t to let it all sit there forever, but to disperse money regularly over time.

Why I wanted a Charitable Giving Account

This account will help me for a few reasons:

  • I want one receipt for tax deductible donations. If anything makes it easier for me to get organized and not be scrambling to find a receipt, I’m all over it.
  • I want the option for a simple process to donate stock. There can be a tax benefit to donating investments directly, rather than selling it and donating the proceeds.
  • The account simplifies your estate/end of life planning. If you know you’d like to donate a certain amount of money to charity, this lets you just build it in its own fund which is not part of your own estate. You can specify how you’d like the funds to be dispersed in the case of your death, and even grant trusted family members the right to disperse the funds for you.

There’s also a nifty little perk with the Fidelity Charitable account: Gift4Giving eGifts. You can make a dispersement from your account to someone, who gets to give it to a charity of THEIR choice. (I laughed when I first read about this, because of course you get the tax deduction yourself. Only rich people could think this stuff up, right? But in some cases it is very nice to be able to give the gift of a charitable donation, and this is an easy way to do that.)

Setting up my account with Fidelity Charitable was easy

I set up my account with Fidelity Charitable. This was an easy choice for me because I’m already a Fidelity Customer: I started using them for a 401K years ago and they’ve always given me great customer service. The account has a $5,000 minimum initial donation, which was around my personal giving goal for the year.

I had a little hesitation at first because you don’t set this up directly in the Fidelity website. You’re technically creating a new account with a different organization: this is not the same Fidelity corporation. However, the accounts link up and setup was quick and painless.

After I got my initial donation set up, there were a few options about how to choose to invest my money. I chose to walk through a simple questionnaire about how much I want to give each year, how much I want to disperse each year, and my tolerance for risk.

Donor Advised Funds charge fees

The minimum initial contribution amount varies, and so do the fees charged by the fund. If you’re looking at a fund, read the guide about what they charge annually as well as when you make a contribution.

Fidelity Charitable itself is a 501(c)(3) and fees go toward salaries and other operating expenses. (Some of these salaries may be sky-high, I haven’t checked. I just looked at the fees and decided they were acceptable for my needs.)

You might not be able to give money to everyone you want

You can only make a grant to qualified charities. That’s usually public charities registered with the IRS in the United States.

If your employer “matches” donations you make, they may not match disbursements from your donor advised fund.

Why give away money?

I give away money because I’m pretty lucky in this world, and I can afford to share. It’s just something I want to do, and I’m happy to add a tool to my life that helps me be a little smarter and more organized about philanthropy on a real-world scale.


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Review: NOLO Quicken WillMaker Plus 2014

The will instructions said to "Enter a brief description of your pet." I wrote, "My sausage-shaped black and white dog"

The will instructions said to “Enter a brief description of your pet.” I wrote, “My sausage-shaped black and white dog”

Alternate Title: Backing Up Your Life’s Metadata 

I knew I needed to make a will. I was pretty sure there were other documents I needed to fill out, but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. And of course, I wanted the documents to be legal in my state of residence (Oregon, USA).

I decided to try out a downloadable product for this rather than consulting a lawyer. My personal affairs are relatively simple. I also wanted the convenience of filling everything out electronically instead of working through paper forms.

Why I purchased WillMaker 2014 through NOLO

If you buy this product from the legal site, you also get a free activation of their tool to walk you through setting up a Living Trust online. The downloadable software cost me $43 for both.

A living trust can be handy to have in addition to a will. It’s a little more work because ideally you make major pieces of property owned by the trust rather than by yourself. But it can make life a lot simpler for your loved ones after you die.

So even if you’re not going to transfer a lot of property immediately, you might want to go ahead and set up the living trust and then work on transfering items over the years. Or setting up new purchases to use it. Worth at least looking into it, right?

What I like about WillMaker 2014

I like a lot about this product. Here’s five things that really stood out to me:

  • It’s easy to use. It asks questions in everyday language and gives you plenty of examples of the type of responses that make sense for the questions.
  • There’s a lot I hadn’t thought of. What payments are automatically deducted from my accounts each month that will need to be handled? What would I like to happen to my websites and social media accounts after I die? Who is my pets’ veterinarian? It records all of this and more.
  • I made important decisions. After some thought, I realized I have strong feelings about organ donation and how I’d like my remains to be handled. I’d just never thought about it seriously. I also decided on some specific gifts that I would like to go to younger family members if I pass away. Now that I’ve written those decisions down, nobody else has to struggle through making the decision for me and not knowing exactly what I would want.
  • It made the most of my data entry. The application has a centralized “contacts” feature where you can add information about each person or entity you name in all the documents. If you update the contact, you can recreate any of the documents easily with the updated info. The application made the best use of my time.
  • It knew about where I live. It knew all about Oregon’s end of life options and even made recommendations about whether I was required to file certain documents with the state or not.

In addition to a will, the product includes forms where you can set up a health care directive, a medical power of attorney, specify organ donor wishes/ final arrangements, and record all sorts of information that can help people take care of your estate with minimal hassle.

What’s not so awesome?

I’m a Mac user, and the application is Windows only. I was able to run the application in a virtual machine running Windows 8.1 and it all worked fine for me. But if you’re  a Mac user and you don’t already have VMware Fusion or Parallels or some other way to run Windows, that’s a bit of a problem.

You also have to redo a bit of data entry when you set up the Living Trust, if you choose to do that. It doesn’t transfer the information from your account into the online tool or anything fancy like that.

What problems does this NOT solve?

There’s two glaring problems that are related: Passwords and trust.

The application points out that it doesn’t solve these. One big problem with managing someone’s estate when they’re incapacitated or deceased is accessing their accounts. Your executor may never be able to get into your email if they don’t have credentials, and they might have a good reason that they need to. And it can be a big convenience for your executor to be able to get into your financial and healthcare related accounts with minimal hassle.

Of course, trust is a big issue. If you don’t have someone you really trust to be your executor, you don’t want to go sharing all those passwords with them.

But even if you do have someone you trust, you don’t necessarily want to write all your logins and passwords into this software and just save them off in a PDF.

I plan to take a hybrid approach: I’m going to use a more secure password related application to share my authentication information in a more secure way. This still isn’t super simple. (How technically savvy does my executor / alternate executors have to be? How many people do I give this critical information to? And what about all the accounts where I have 2-factor authentication enabled?) But it does have the perk of allowing me to easily update my passwords over time and have a way to sync them without regenerating PDFs storing passwords in raw text.

I’m glad I didn’t wait longer to do this

I don’t consider myself all that old, but I wish I’d done this sooner. Running through these documents is a bit like taking a legal backup of all your wishes and intentions, and making it available to people you care about. If they need to make decisions for you, this will really help them out.

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The new, and How You Can Learn about Life in Haiti

Like anyone else, I easily get wrapped up in my own life: my family and friends, my work, my local community, my technical community. Facebook, Twitter, cat pictures. When I took time off from work recently, I got a glimpse outside of my normal, narrow world.

The new Apprenticeship in Education home page

An old friend of mine, Steven Werlin, lives in Haiti and helps people climb out of poverty. He needed some help with his website.

Hardware fails, and so did the old website

Years ago, I helped Steven set up his website. This was back before WordPress had largely taken over, before the real “rise of blogs” had happened. Wikis were particularly popular at that instant, so I set the site up with a free Wiki software. It ran on a server sitting in the basement of a house in Seattle, Washington.

Time passed. I moved away from Seattle. Steven kept writing, and the website grew to over 300 essays.

But eventually one of the hard drives in that old server in the basement stopped spinning so perfectly. We were lucky: very little data was lost. (There were 2 or 3 corrupt images, and the backups of the website databases were OK. Yes, I’d set up backups, but my younger and more foolish self hadn’t set up transfers of complete backups off that server. And thank you Rich for helping me recover everything!)

A better

The new setup is cost effective and has a lot more redundancy. It should be a lot more reliable for Steven to write and for readers to access. It’s nothing too fancy, here’s what I configured:

  • WordPress site hosted by a cloud provider. (I like Laughing Squid.) This provides basic high availability. We don’t need a lot of 9’s.
  • A free, clean, simple WordPress theme with a static front page. (I used 2012.) WordPress is pretty darn user friendly for authors and readers, and the theme is simple enough that it isn’t so bad reading the site on a phone or tablet.
  • Regular backups to a different cloud site. (I like Vaultpress.) This provides some disaster recovery, as well as the ability to go back in time if anything’s accidentally deleted from the UI or if the site gets compromised.

Getting that all set up was fast. Moving in all the old post content and images took a lot longer, because all the posts were stored in Wiki format and the images were in a variety of subfolders. (The Add From Server plugin was a lifesaver in the migration process.)

But there was a perk to the work of migrating the content post by post: I learned a lot.

Get a glimpse into microcredit programs in Haiti

Steven works with programs that are part of Fonkoze. He helps identify people who can successfully work through the microfinance programs and transform their own lives. He writes about the way the programs run, the people they help. He writes about successes and struggles. When you read his writing, you get a glimpse into a world that is probably very different than your normal life.

When you have a few moments, visit and read for a while.

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