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4 Ways to Get Your Receipts Out of the Shoebox

4 Ways to Get Your Receipts Out of the Shoebox

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    I find receipts in the craziest places: not only do I find them in wallets and purses but it’s not uncommon to fish them out of the filing cabinet or out from behind the couch. After all, those tiny slips of paper can slide away the moment your back is turned. The only way to keep them in line is to have a simple organizational system. For years, the classic approach has been a shoebox stuffed full of receipts. It’s a great way to ensure that all of our bits of paper are in one place, but it still leaves something to be desired. Come tax season, we get the choice between handing that box to an accountant or sorting through them ourselves.

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    There are other plans that can make more sense: we can eliminate a lot of the work that goes along with tracking expenses with a little technology. The options below can simplify the situation and make for a smoother tax season.

    1. Stick to plastic

    If you can make all of your purchases with a credit or debit card, you may be able to eliminate your receipt collection. Most bookkeeping software packages can retrieve your account information for your accounts — and interpret it to a certain extent. There are certain drawbacks to relying entirely on your card statements, though. Most don’t specifically identify just what you’ve purchased and it can be hard to remember whether a particular payment to the bookstore last year was an education expense. Cash payments can also through a big wrench in the system — there are plenty of opportunities for expenses that you need to keep track of that will be cash only (think splitting a meal with a client). There are other specific issues that go along with whether you decide to use a debit card or a credit card.

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    You can annotate your expenses in most bookkeeping programs, though, so as long as you keep up with your receipts, you can avoid organizing and categorizing your receipts beyond once a month. It’s not a perfect solution, but it won’t make your accountant cringe the way that shoebox of receipts does.

    2. Pick a service

    For a fee, services like Shoeboxed will take your receipts and scan them in. They use a system that not only recognizes the text and puts it in a format you can use but it can also automatically categorize your receipts. Because Shoeboxed and other services typically operate on a monthly basis, the number of receipts you can get scanned between now and April 15th may come up short. However, you can do a brief triage on your receipts and eliminate all those that don’t actually affect your taxes: groceries, movies and what not may not need to be scanned, unless you’re working on getting all of your expenses and your budget under control.

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    Pricing can vary on such services. Shoeboxed has plans that go from $9.95 a month up to $49.95 — I consider that a deal. It’s significantly cheaper than paying someone to scan in your receipts for you.

    3. Scan in your receipts yourself

    At first glance, it might seem that scanning in your own receipts is a step backwards from paying a service to do it for you. But with the right equipment, you can pretty much automate the process at home. In this case, the right equipment is a scanner meant specifically for receipts: I’ve been using the NeatReceipts system and actually find it easier than packaging up my receipts and sending them off. I sit down in front of a television show or movie and feed my receipts into the scanner. Its optical character recognition is very good — for the majority of receipts, the scanner extracts all of the pertinent information and puts it in a format that I can dump it into my bookkeeping software (as well as saving it as a PDF).

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    Whether the price tag that goes along with purchasing a scanner just for your receipts is worth it can depend on how many receipts you plan to process: depending on where you pick up the scanner, the price can be more than the cost of a year’s basic plan at Shoeboxed — but less than a mid-level plan. Use it for more than a year, or scan more receipts with it than a service allows for, and it’s not actually all that expensive. And, as long as you’ve got the receipt, you may be able to write off the scanner on your taxes.

    4. Going Old School

    If you’d rather not spend the money on tools or services to take care of your receipts for you, there’s always the old school approach. You can enter your receipts into Excel or another bookkeeping option by hand. But it’s worth noting that such an approach isn’t just expensive in terms of time: it requires more discipline than most people are willing to devote to managing receipts. If you get even a little behind, it can seem absolutely impossible to catch up.

    Other Services and Tools

    I mentioned tools and services that I’ve actually had the chance to use and found reliable. But I know there are many other options out there — if you’ve used a service or tool to organize your receipts that you’ve particularly liked, please share a link in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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