Can Siri and her friends save you money?
(This is part of a six-story special package on family finances. The opinions expressed are those of the author.)
By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It would have taken me just a few seconds, back in September, to note that my kids did not have religious school on the first day after winter vacation. I could even have asked Siri, the voice in my iPhone, to do it. Taking that time would have saved me $93.
Instead, I just assumed that they'd have class, and spent $40 hiring a babysitter to pick them up from school and take them to the lessons. Other expenses piled on as my mistake caused other inefficiencies. By the time I got there, I needed to feed my hungry kids, so add $30 for dinner, plus another $23 to get them home by taxi.
If only I'd had a better system- it turns out all those calendar/shopping list/scheduling programs don't just save time, they can save money. And there are now thousands of organizer applications on the market, many of them free. They range from calendars to shared list program, like GroceryIQ or Wunderlist to financial organizers like Mint, from Intuit Inc. or Pageonce.
"It's one of the best things you can do for yourself," says Ramit Sethi, author of "I Will Teach You to Be Rich," adding that you don't have to think once it's set up.
As I learned the hard way, it's worth tapping into the new organizing apps because being disorganized is expensive. Americans spend nearly $750 million on late financial fees each year, according to Cozi Group Inc., a Seattle firm that offers organizing apps aimed at families. Missed doctor's and haircut appointments can cost $25 to $50 or more per time, and many childcare providers charge $1 per minute for late pick-ups.
"It's mind-boggling," says Robbie Cape, chief executive and founder of Cozi. The average family of four can waste $5,000 a year on last-minute scrambling, he said. "One study found that just by shopping with a list, you could save 23 percent."
START WITH A SHARED CALENDAR
A shared calendar, such as the kind offered by Yahoo Inc. or Google, is often the first entry point into the world of organizing tools. In December alone, Americans paid 9 million visits to web-based calendars, according to New York-based Experian Marketing Services, not counting their computer, tablet or phone-based calendars. On Cozi, the calendar is the most popular app, the company says.
The benefit of real-time shared calendars - whether for a family, a small business, or a club - is to reduce duplicated effort. Cape describes this scenario: Mom can put item on calendar for dad to pick up Jenny at daycare at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. She can set up a text reminder or on-device push notification, and she can put it directly on dad's work calendar. Then nobody is late, and there are no fees.
Many people keep their schedules on their phones, synched with their desktop mail programs. On late-model iPhones, the voice-enabled Siri app can schedule appointments for you, so you don't even have to type.
The key to being organized enough to save money is simplicity, says Sethi. So if your email account is with Google or Yahoo, start there. If your whole family uses different services, consider a third-party app like Cozi.
LISTS OF LISTS
The next step up from the shared calendar is the shared grocery list, often coordinated with a shared calendar. In the best systems, any family member can add items to the list and add the list to another person's calendar, so mom can stop on the way home and pick up the milk that dad ran out of when he gave the kids breakfast.
There are some fee-based systems too, like Our Family Wizard, which is used primarily by divorced families to track custody schedules and costs $99 a year per user. The program also authenticates emails and allows them to be monitored by court-appointed officials, and there is a tool for managing shared expenses.
While that sounds expensive, the overall savings for families in conflict can be enormous. "It reduces litigation," says Bradley Craig, a licensed master social worker based in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Sethi has so automated his own financial life that he says he spends less than an hour a month handling his money. His incoming money is allocated immediately into various accounts and sub-accounts - for retirement, bills and special goals like a new car. His bill payments are automated, and he gets a reminder from his online calendar once a month to check over his bill statements.
"My calendar tells me to do it, so I do it. I don't have to depend on my willpower," he says.
But don't overdo it with multiple reminders: "When people get pinged too much, they stop listening," says Sethi.
Personal finance management programs - like Mint, Pageonce or your bank - will monitor your accounts and let you know when bills are due or balances get dangerously low. The key: pick a service that requires the least amount of input of data, so it doesn't get onerous, says Sethi, who uses Mint.
Paceonce says it sends out more than 200,000 reminders a month about bank overdrafts, 300,000 to users who are paying finance fees on credit cards and 3 million bills-due reminders.
The reminders seem to do a better job of changing user behavior than all the high overdraft fees, says Steve Schultz, chief operating officer at Pageonce, based in Palo Alto, California.
Pageonce followed 380,000 users from June 2012 to the end of November and found that their bank overdraft occurrences decreased 12.4 percent after getting reminders. The company estimated these users saved $1.3 million in overdraft fees over that time.
As for me, I plan to start saving soon - I downloaded a calendar app in the cab ride home.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Linda Stern, Chelsea Emery and M.D. Golan)