This is part two of a four part series on getting your home-life organized (part one is here). The following is a list of software and web services that has helped me automate daily tasks, clean up some of my home’s clutter and simplify my life all while reducing stress levels that often accompany disorganization and household chaos.
Simplifying Your Finances
Online banking and bill pay – This will vary from person to person depending on your bank, but using your bank’s online services is a sure way to rid your house of paper clutter and keep your finances organized. In particular, online bill pay in conjuction with auto-withdrawal can eliminate the need to receive bills in the mail. No bills in the mail means a serious reduction of paper piling up on counters and tables everywhere, which I absolutely can’t stand. Taking advantage of companies that offer paperless statements is another way to cut the paper clutter as well.
Mint.com – eliminates the need to maintain a ledger or shuffle through your bank statements. With the mobile version you’ll always have easy access to your account balance and budget, which means you’ll know whether the new sneakers you’re anxious to buy will break that budget you work so hard to follow. Understandably, there a lot of folks out there who are apprehensive about inputting their sensitive financial data into a third-party service. I won’t go into detail about Mint’s privacy and security features but you can read all about them (and even watch a video) on their privacy/security page. Before Mint I was using iBank on my Mac to maintain my family’s personal finances and when I was a PC dude I was a fan of Microsoft Money (which I still think is the best personal finance software out there). Now I don’t need to maintain anything, I can literally get an overview of all my finances – from checking, savings and investments, to credit cards and any other debt I may be carrying – all in a single place. Oh, and Mint is real pretty (borderline sexy, actually) and fun to use, which says a lot since we’re dealing with financial management.
Managing Your Media
iTunes – There are things to both love and hate about nearly every piece of media management software on the market. But after trying nearly everything out there from Foobar to Windows Media Player, Winamp, Songbird and loads of others, I always come back to iTunes. I know it’s bloated software and that it’s not perfect in every way, but for me it works. It’s simple and 99% of the time it does what I want it to do. It connects and syncs easily with my iPod Touch and AppleTV so I can play movies, listen to music and flip through photos anywhere in my home. There was a time when stacks of CDs were impressive to see. I remember owning this massive CD shelf that housed thousands of CDs, many of which only contained one or two songs worth giving a listen. Now I own roughly 10 CDs, and a vast collection of digital music that takes up no additional space outside of a hard drive tucked away in my office. My DVD collection is next in line to be compressed as I’m slowly transitioning to digital video as well. And with no DVDs, CDs or stacks of forgotten photos filling up our home, life is good.
Boxee – Boxee is great. It pulls a whole slew of content into a single media browser which can be downloaded for Mac or Linux (Windows version is in the works) and played over your monitor or TV. And it can even be installed on the AppleTV with a little tech geek know-how.
For photos it can pull images from your Flickr or Picasa accounts or directly from anywhere on your computer or network. And on a side note, by using photo sites like Flickr or Picasa to store and organize your photos, you eliminate the boxes of pics that pile up in your closet only to be looked at on occasions when you’re feeling nostalgic. And those old photo albums with the puffy, feaux leather covers? Well, you can replace those with professional looking photo books that often take up less space and are attractive and compact enough to place on a coffee table or bookshelf.
But back to Boxee. In addition to photos, the program can also pull in video from all over the web. Sites like Netflix (streaming movies), Hulu, CBS, and CNN can be viewed all from a single interface. This is great for folks out there who don’t have cable or satellite or who don’t want to pay for it. By simply connecting your computer to your TV you can get all the yummy video goodness out there and watch it while chillin’ on your couch. Naturally, it will also play nearly any type of video file you have on your computer or network. Again, putting all your media right at your fingertips.
Finally, when it comes to music, Boxee can import your entire music collection or allow you to stream music from popular sites like Pandora or Last.FM. You can also listen to podcasts from notables like NPR and BBC.
Controlling the News
NetNewsWire – this software allows you to get the news you want right on your computer or mobile device. If you don’t yet know about RSS feeds read up, my friend, because once you learn that you don’t have to dance from website to website or blog to blog to see what’s new (if anything at all) you’ll never want to go back to the old way of checking on your favorite sites again. I use NetNewsWire to keep up on all the great home renovation and product blogs as well as other interests I have. One of the coolest features offered in this particular software is the ability to sync across all platforms – mobile, computer and web. When you mark an article as read or add a news feed to your list, the same thing occurs on all other platforms.
With this kind of software at hand, you don’t need to have newspapers or magazines scattered throughout your home or at the very least you can be far more selective in the subscriptions you choose to have delivered. I know there are folks who love the feel of actual paper in their hands but the idea here is that if you really wanted to, you could eliminate all or nearly all of those items and in the process contribute to the green movement by saving some trees.
Other top notch RSS readers:
Feedly (cross-platform) – a Firefox extension that allows you to customize a magazine-like start page. I’m quickly falling in love with Feedly and all of its extra features that you’ll have to read about on your own…this isn’t a tech blog you know.
Google Reader (cross-platform) – another well-developed product from Google
Organizing Mundane Tasks
Google Calendar (with notifications turned on) – With Google calendar I can sync my personal and work calendars with my iPod Touch. I can sync with my wife’s calendar. And I can get notifications of meetings and dates however long before the event I choose. I can set up multiple calendars and turn each on or off depending on what I want to view. I have a work, personal and birthday/anniversary calendar that keep me completely on schedule when combined with the cell phone notification feature.
Hallmark or Photoworks – I’m not a card kind of guy. By that I mean I’m too lazy to take the time to write in them and send them out in a timely fashion. Not to mention the fact that I never seem to have cards or stamps on hand when I need them. I just find the whole process completely inconvenient. So a while ago I went out looking for a service that would do most of the work for me. On Hallmark or Photoworks I can hop on their site, find a card I like, customize it with my own text and photos and have it sent directly to the recipient. Some of you may argue that a handwritten card is more sentimental and there may be some truth to that but if you can wax your words well enough then even a typewritten note can have a Niagara Falls-like impact.
A couple of distinguishing points between the two services is that Photoworks has more creative card designs and since it’s a photo site, there are many oppportunities to integrate your own photos into their cards. Hallmark, on the other hand offers an extremely useful notification service where you submit important dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc. that you want to be reminded of and they’ll send you an email X number of days before the event giving you the time needed to get a card out to your friend or loved one. You could certainly setup Google Calendar to do the same thing but for some this service may be more convenient or effective.
Postful – This service is slightly related to what you can get with Hallmark and Photoworks. Posful allows you send full color postcards and letters using the web. Again, the beauty here is that it reduces my need for envelopes, stamps, and having to drop off any mail. The cost is $.59 for a single postcard and $.99 for a one-page letter. When composing a post card you have the option to upload a photo which would great if you were traveling or on vacation and you wanted to drop a note to family or friends.
With this service you can send full color PDFs, office documents, newsletters, photo images…whatever you need. They print it, put it in an envelope and deliver it to the post office for you. For me, that’s convenient and worth the money.
Get a Tighter Handle on Food and Meal Planning
This is a tough category for me because although I’ve written about how to organize meal planning before, I still think this is an area that could be much improved in the digital world and I’m surprised that with the technology available there are so few advances in simplifying such an integral part in everyone’s lives. Since my last post on this I’ve added one additional tool to my meal planning arsenal and that is Shopper, an iPhone application that makes setting up shopping lists a breeze. You can create and add to your shopping lists at any time and as you’re shopping you can check off the items on your list as you go. A few key features found in this app are:
- Your lists can be organized to match the layout of your store.
- You can save a list that contains all the standard food items you purchase regularly and use it as a template each time you start a new list, saving you the time it would take to start a new list from scratch each week.
- There is a recipe function that allows you to associate specific ingredients with a particular recipe, that way if I want the ingredients for lasagna I don’t need to add them individually, I can simply add “lasagna” to my list, which will automatically add all the ingredients contained in the recipe to my grocery list.
I know there are other elements in our lives that could use simplifying and de-cluttering so if there is a particular area in yours that you’d like some help with, let me know, because I believe there’s a digital solution for nearly everything.