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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Miracle Money Cure: Six Common Financial Problems a Budget Can Fix

Only a third of Americans bother to create a written or computerized budget each month, according to a 2013 Gallup poll on budgeting, the most recent available.

Considering the state of personal finance in the U.S., this actually explains a lot. A recent study showed that fewer than half of Americans have more than $1,000 in savings, and the average indebted household now has more than $16,000 in credit card debt. A recent study from CareerBuilder even revealed that 78% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck – including one in 10 workers who make more than $100,000 a year.

In a world where budgets are scarcely used, this is the outcome. While a lot of financial hardship may be due to circumstances beyond someone’s control (e.g., job loss, poor health, or stagnating wages), budgeting offers a way for the rest of us to take control of our finances and maximize the money we earn. Yet, for some reason, few people choose to get on board with a budget – no matter how much it night benefit them.

Six Money Woes a Budget Can Cure

Those who budget already know that planning your spending and saving is the best way to solve common financial problems that plague people today – things like a lack of emergency savings or a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

If you’re not budgeting already, you might even be surprised to find out just how many problems a budget can cure. Here are some of the biggest issues you can solve if you’re willing to do the work and set up a budget of your own:

#1: You have no idea where your money is going.

Ever feel like the balance in your checking account just seems to evaporate? One of the biggest benefits of budgeting is just figuring out where your money is going each month. For a lot of people, it’s difficult to decipher where their cash disappears to until they start budgeting and tracking their spending.

While there are several different kinds of budgets, pretty much all of them require you to keep track of your spending in all important categories, including food, dining out, miscellaneous, entertainment, and regular bills. You also need to track your savings, and many budgets involve “paying yourself first” so your savings goals are always met.

Without a budget, you’re more likely to spend your paychecks as they come in with no rhyme or reason at all. If the money’s in the bank for what you want when you want it, you might be more inclined to splurge on something wasteful without having any idea what other bills, responsibilities, or more important wants will be affected later that month.

With a budget, on the other hand, you have to be real with yourself. A quick analysis of your past spending will make it perfectly clear where you’re money’s been disappearing to all these months or years. When you write down a financial plan every month, there’s nowhere to hide – and if you spend money you don’t have, you’ll know it ahead of time.

The bottom line: It’s hard to know where your money is going when you don’t pay attention to it, but a budget can make your financial situation crystal clear. Not only can it help you plan out your spending, but it can help you stay on track as the month progresses.

#2: You’re chronically overspending.

In the same vein, budgeting has a way of helping you discover your problem areas or “money leaks” – areas of your life where you constantly overspend. It’s easy to buy a new sweater or book every few days and not realize the kind of cumulative damage you’re doing. But, when you start budgeting and tracking your spending, you may quickly realize that those seemingly sporadic purchases have been adding up to hundreds of dollars per month.

Budgeting is also a great way to tackle the areas where most people have trouble – food and entertainment spending. You might think your grocery bills are under control or that you’re not spending much on dinners out, but a budget and a few weeks of tracking your spending will set the record straight. You might also believe your entertainment spending is pretty low, only to find you’re dropping a lot more than you think on movies, sporting events, and fun nights out.

If you’re pretty sure that your overspending, but don’t know where or how to stop, a budget can tell you for sure.

#3: You’re not saving any money.

If you’re not saving much if any money and don’t have an emergency fund, you’re like the average American. But that’s not a great thing to be when it comes to money, and like most Americans, you’d probably benefit from a budget.

One of the biggest perks of budgeting (and especially zero-sum budgeting) is that it forces you to save money as you reduce financial waste. Zero-sum budgeting even asks you to list your savings on your written budget and pay it like a regular bill.

As your budget teaches you how to spend less, you may also find you have more money to save every month. With more money to save – and less waste overall– you should reach your savings goals even faster.

#4: You struggle to afford the things you really want.

Budgeting is a process, and part of that process involves some fairly painful steps. For example, you’ll need to determine the difference between the wants you’re splurging on and the needs you actually can’t live without. And you may also find out that you have to cut some of those wants out of your budget. To save money — for retirement, college, vacations, or any other goal — you have to spend less than you earn.

This part in particular can be painful. It’s not easy to admit you need to quit dining out so much or to take the kids out of a few sports or extracurricular activities. But if you can’t truly afford it, you’re only hurting yourself the longer it goes on.

The thing is, it’s hard to make a good decision on what to cut when you don’t know “where you’re at” in the first place. Without a budget and a few weeks spent tracking your spending, it’s impossible to know what your spending problems actually are, let alone how to fix them.

And while a budget may include some painful steps, remember that it’s a tool to help you. The whole point of a budget isn’t to ruin your life – it’s to improve it, to help you prioritize your spending with a focus on what really matters to you. A budget can help you locate and stop wasteful purchases that don’t add to your life, so you can afford your big goals, like that family trip or kitchen remodel you’ve been dreaming about.

#5: You have trouble keeping track of bills.

One unexpected side effect of budgeting is the amount of organization it can bring into your life. Before you start budgeting, you might pay your bills as they arrive, or in clusters a few times per month. But, if you don’t really keep track that closely, you may not realize a bill is missing or how much you really spend on it. (And making consistent, on-time payments is the No. 1 factor in your credit score.)

A budget makes it easy to stay organized because you’re always keeping track of which bills are due, which are coming, and which ones you’ve already paid. With a zero-sum budget specifically, you’ll actually “check off” each bill as its paid so that you can know which bills are still owed and when at any given time.

#6: You often face cash flow problems.

Cash flow problems can cause financial catastrophe whether you’re living below your means or not. If all of your bills are due at once – or if you’re not great at managing your available cash throughout the month – a budget can help you craft a better plan.

Generally speaking, budgeting will help you build a savings buffer in addition to your emergency fund. You can use your savings buffer to cover a surge of bills at the beginning of the month, then replenish your buffer near the end of the month when you have more cash on hand.

Meanwhile, the planning aspect of budgeting can also help you manage cash flow better. When you know which bills are due and when, and your expenses are less than your income, it’s a lot easier to stay on track and never run out of cash when you need it.

The Bottom Line

If you’re like the majority of Americans and aren’t using a budget, it might be time to give it another try. A budget doesn’t have to be restrictive if you don’t want it to be, but it will help give you a sense of purpose if you’ve “winged” your finances in the past.

But, don’t take my word for it. Ask one of the 1/3 of Americans you know who uses a budget what they think – and why they bother to spend the time. Chances are, they’ll tell you that budgeting helps them be intentional with their spending while helping them avoid debt and pushing them to save more for the future.

At the end of the day, that’s what most of us want anyway – more money in the bank for bills and fun and a break from the stress of debt.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

Related:

Do you use a budget? If so, why? How has budgeting made your life better?

The post The Miracle Money Cure: Six Common Financial Problems a Budget Can Fix appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Personal Finance Success and Directionlessness in Life

A few days ago, I received a handwritten letter from an old acquaintance, someone I hadn’t seen in a healthy handful of years. The letter was full of reminiscence, but then it moved onto a request for some advice on some issues that he didn’t know how to handle.

The advice request started out in the domain of personal finance, but as he wrote more and more details, it became clear that the real problem in the whole picture wasn’t just financial.

The key issue was a sense of directionlessness.

The person who wrote the letter was fairly insightful regarding that sense of directionlessness, too. He was aware that he wasn’t being particularly challenged at work and that was provoking a fairly strong sense of frustration. His main financial issue was really rooted in that same sense of directionlessness, as it boiled down to a choice between a smarter short term decision and a smarter long term decision, a fact he already recognized.

The whole letter brought to the forefront a major truth about personal finance: it is really hard to make good personal finance decisions without some sense of direction in life. If you don’t have any idea where you are headed, making the right financial choices becomes essentially impossible.

For many people, this kind of directionlessness in life ends up manifesting itself as financial inaction. There’s no sense of where you’re going, so a lot of financial articles seem to make little sense and it becomes easier to just do nothing and assume that when things become clear in the future, then you’ll make good financial choices. In fact, that was part of what was going on in this letter – the person in question was making some good financial choices in terms of actually putting money into a 401(k), but in terms of other choices, like figuring out whether to rent or to buy, he was stuck, paralyzed by a lack of direction.

So, if we accept the basic idea that directionlessness makes it much harder to make optimal personal finance choices, how does one break through? How does one move from a sense of personal and professional wandering to a state where there’s at least enough forward direction to make some smart choices?

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, from years of working through these kinds of challenges in my own life.

Picture of the Future

My default strategy when it comes to solidifying some idea of the future is what I call the “picture of the future” strategy. I’ve tried lots of different techniques to come up with at least some idea of where I’m headed and nothing has worked nearly as well for me.

This strategy is simple. Just pick a particular point in the future – five years from now, ten years from now, whatever – and think about what you would like your life to be like at that point if things went reasonably well for you. Don’t visualize yourself becoming a world-breaking success and don’t imagine pure failure, either; instead, imagine modest success. Also, try to imagine a life you’re happy with – don’t imagine a life that just carries forward things you dread about today.

What does that look like? What is your job like? Your career? What are your main relationships like? Where are you living? How do you spend your free time? What about that life would make you jump out of bed in the morning with a smile on your face?

Give it some real thought. Don’t jump on board the first set of cool ideas that you have. Think about whether you really want those things. Think about the elements of your life that you want to maintain, and which ones you would really like to improve and what that improvement would look like five or ten or twenty years from now.

I actually do this exercise pretty regularly, at least once every few months. I visualize things at different points, too.

Now, one thing you’ll realize when you’re doing this is that any picture you paint in your mind is not set in stone. It’s not certain at all, especially when you dig into details.

So, why dig into the details, then?

The real purpose of this exercise is to establish the kind of things you want from your future, the kind of things that you’re going to be willing to work for. That doesn’t mean you’ll wind up with those things, but there’s a good chance that, if you set those things as your goal, you’re going to wind up with something similar to those things.

I’ll use myself as an example. Around the time of the birth of my first child, I envisioned myself with some sort of job where I worked from home so I could be there when they got off the bus. This was important to me. My mother was always there when I got off the bus and, looking back, it was a great thing to have that friendly smile and greeting and a snack waiting for me when I came in the door, almost every single day. I wanted that for my own kids.

At the time, I thought I would probably be consulting or something in the field I was in at the time, but I knew that whatever I did, I’d be looking for some sort of path forward that offered that kind of flexibility.

Flash forward to now. I never expected I would wind up being a writer of personal finance and personal growth material, but I did expect that when my kids got off the bus, they’d run home and a parent would be there for them with a snack and a friendly ear that was ready to hear all about their day at school.

It was holding onto that desire for truly flexible hours, however, that led me to where I am today. I am sure I could be making more money doing other things if I so chose, but a big part of what I wanted to do with my life during the years where I was a parent of young children is to be there at home when they got off the bus, and that principle, which I recognized by doing these kinds of pictures of the future, helped guide me here.

Another example: for years, I visualized eventually being a homeowner. I visualized lots of houses, none of which were particularly like the one we live in now. The only certainty I had was that I wanted to live in an area with a lot of stable families nearby for my children to grow up with. Simply knowing that I wanted to become a homeowner had an enormous impact on my finances over the three years leading up to our home purchase.

The purpose of this picture isn’t to map out exactly what your future will be like, because it probably won’t be exactly like that. The purpose is to fill in lots of details so that, through those details, you begin to really understand the broad strokes of your future that are really important to you.

If you’re visualizing a life where you greet your kids where they come home off the bus, you’re probably wanting a future with employment with flexible hours.

If you’re visualizing a life where you have a nice large home, you’re probably wanting to eventually become a homeowner, probably in a place with a relatively low cost of living so you can afford that home.

If you’re visualizing yourself spending your time on particular projects, you’re probably either going to want to steer your career in that direction or else start building a side gig that takes you there or else commit fully to the idea of your job being mostly a support for that greater interest.

The weather that you visualize probably shapes where you’ll live, too. I often visualize chilly fall weather when I think about the future, where there are leaves falling and a strong chill in the air and maybe even some snow, but not blistering cold. Thus, the upper Midwest or New England make sense for me.

The whole purpose of these kinds of pictures is to fill in many of the broad strokes of where you want to go in life so that you have a framework to use when making professional and financial and personal decisions going forward.

If You Don’t Like How Things Are Right Now, Start Doing Something Different

Quite often, directionlessness comes from a life with which you’re very happy with some aspects but generally indifferent to many others and unhappy with still others, and there’s an underlying gentle fear that making big changes will cause you to lose the elements you’re happy with.

Maybe you have a stable job that pays well, which you’re happy with, but you yearn for new challenges and those new directions are stifled. You don’t want to lose the stability that you value, but the happiness of that stability is counterbalanced (or more) by the yearning for new challenges.

Maybe you have a family that you adore, but you utterly loathe your overall career path, but you have this underlying fear that making a radical change to that path will undermine your family’s happiness. Or, maybe you’re single and you love your social and cultural life, but your career makes you feel empty.

Maybe the reverse is true – you have a job that you really love, but you have this underlying sense that it’s everything to you and you don’t have any room for anything else in your life. You don’t want to sacrifice this job that you deeply enjoy just to find more enjoyment in your other areas of life.

Our tendency as humans is to simply hold things in place out of fear of losing what we love about our lives, so we wind up tolerating the things we don’t like about our lives. In other words, we resist change, and when resisting change means a life with some aspects we don’t enjoy, that can really end up feeling like directionlessness. “I don’t fully like where I’m at, but I don’t want to lose what I have, so I’ll just stay put.”

The problem is that in accepting that kind of directionlessness, you abandon the search for better things in those areas that you’re lacking. That, of course, means that those things will never get better.

The best solution here is to never stop looking for ways to improve the areas of your life that you’re not happy with. Ever.

If you’re unhappy with your financial life, start looking at how you’re spending money. How much of your money is spent on unimportant things that really have no lasting impact on your life? Cut all (or at least most) of that out of your life.

If you’re unhappy with your job, start looking for ways to improve that situation without rocking the boat. Use your downtime to build something new, or if you’re in an overstuffed job, focus on tasks that are really resume-worthy and keep that resume polished up. If you’re in a job that seems to absorb all of your time even though it’s pretty flexible, consider some new approaches within that job, like forming new sub-groups of people to work with or building new relationships with people you don’t know as well.

If you’re unhappy with your social life, start checking out meetups, just to see what’s out there. Go to a few, even if you’re nervous about the prospect. Make an agreement with yourself to stay for a certain period of time, and to have a meaningful conversation with at least three people.

Obviously, these kinds of changes are good things, but how do these changes help with an overall sense of directionlessness?

First of all, if your life is in a good place, a direction forward comes almost automatically. If you like how things are, you’re going to want to make choices that preserve and enhance your current life and set the stage for things that are clearly coming down the road. Dealing with the aspects of your life that you’re unhappy with directly can really help.

Second, making attempts at solving what seems like the biggest problem in your life can sometimes expose the real problem, which isn’t immediately obvious. Digging into a career dissatisfaction issue might uncover that the real problem is the lack of meaningful social connections, for example; you’re digging for more meaningful work relationships that just aren’t there in order to make up for having fewer meaningful relationships outside of work, which is what you really need to work on.

Finally, trying new approaches to one’s life problems often uncovers new sources of happiness and joy that you didn’t expect. Going to a meetup might expose you to a new hobby that you deeply enjoy, or helps you find a new circle of friends. Pursuing further education through your workplace might light a fire in your life that wasn’t there before because you’re engaged in the new topics so deeply.

When You’re In Doubt, Choose Flexibility

Even if you apply the above strategies, you still might find yourself less than sure about what to do going forward. I know that I oscillate back and forth between having a really clear direction for the future and being less certain about things, even though I’m pretty happy with how things are and I know generally where I want to go from here all the time.

If you find yourself uncertain as to what the future might hold for you, my honest suggestion is to choose the path forward that offers the most flexibility.

What does that mean?

For your living quarters, lean toward renting over owning. Renting usually has a lower monthly cost and it is much easier to extract yourself from a rental situation than a house with a mortgage on it. Homeownership is a great way to build equity, but it only really begins to click after you’re in the house for a few years, the growth in the value of the house has compounded a little, and you’re past the worst part of your mortgage (when payments are almost entirely going to interest). If you’re not sure where you’re going to be living in the next few years, rent, don’t own.

For your savings, lean toward options that are low risk and fairly liquid. In general, when you raise the risk level of investments, you increase the chance of losing money in the short term so that you have a better average annual rate of return in the long run. For example, compare a savings account to investing in the stock market. A savings account is going to return a boring 1% per year, but it’s not going to lose money no matter what. Stocks might average a 7% annual rate of return, but some individual years might see losses – even big losses. 2008, for example, saw a huge loss in stocks.

As for liquidity, lean towards things where you can extract the money quickly and use it for other things. Again, savings accounts are pretty strong here, as are stocks; things like real estate are a bit harder to quickly liquidate while maintaining your gains.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t save for retirement. Take advantage of a Roth IRA, and especially take advantage of any matching money you might get at work into a 401(k), 403(b), or TSP available there. You will virtually never regret putting away money for retirement. All of us are going to grow older.

For your job, keep your resume and skill set polished at all times. Keep a copy of it on LinkedIn with fresh updates so that people can find you if they have opportunities. Focus on things at work that will directly bolster your skill set and enable you to actually add meaningful things to that resume. Look to add education to your resume as well (though that’s something you should always be doing). In short, put yourself in a position where doors might open easily for you elsewhere, even if you don’t intend to jump right away.

In your social life, focus on connections that may provide a professional springboard or directly lead to new opportunities in life. It’s great to have old friends, but those old friends generally don’t open new doors in life, which is what you need to have if you’re feeling directionless. Don’t toss aside old friends, but put in the effort to build new friendships, ones that might potentially open new doors for you.

If you’re actively taking steps in your life to find a direction, the advice here will work well until you find what you’re looking for, at which point things begin to change. You may start making some longer-term commitments, like buying a home or investing for the long term. You may get more involved in local communities that are focused on improving things locally, like a local church or city or county governance or a civic organization. You may end up shaping your career going forward to meet the specific needs of your current employer.

Final Thoughts

Even at this stage in my life, there are definitely moments where I feel directionless, where I don’t know for sure where my life is headed. In those moments, I take a lot of the steps above: I visualize where I want to go, I look for ways to seed my life with the opportunity for change, and I plan for the prospect of short term change as well.

It’s when those things take root and I begin to feel more direction that I begin to make specific plans to push myself in those directions.

That transition is rarely easy, and it is rarely quick, but it’s well worth working towards.

Good luck.

The post Personal Finance Success and Directionlessness in Life appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Earn Cash Back with the Top Holiday Toys of 2017

If you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, chances are you’re already trying to strategize how to get the best Holiday gifts at the lowest prices. And Walmart’s trying to appeal to early shoppers: The retail giant has recently released its list of the most popular toys for the 2017 Holidays.

Sales are great, but if you’re looking to take your savings even further, a cash back credit card might be the most powerful tool in your wallet. We’ve calculated the total amount of Walmart’s list — which includes Hatchimals, Fingerlings Interactive Baby Monkeys, and the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit — to be $597.67. We’ve measured that amount against our list of the best cash back credit cards of 2017, to show just how much you could save.

Note: For toys with multiple prices, we’ve selected the average amount. Cash back is rounded to the nearest cent. Pricing does not include shipping and handling costs.

Credit Card Cashback Rate Total Return
Discover it® – Cashback Match™ 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else $5.98
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express 6% at U.S. Supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% on everything else $5.98
Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card 3% on gas, 2% on grocery stores, and 1% everywhere else $5.98 + Bonus
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card 1.5% on all purchases $8.97 + Bonus
Chase Freedom® 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else $29.89 + Bonus
Barclaycard CashForward™ World Mastercard® 1.5% on all purchases $8.97
Chase Freedom Unlimited® 1.5% on all purchases $8.97 + Bonus
Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card 1.5% on all purchases $8.97


The Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Chase Freedom® card, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® each offer a $150 signup bonus when cardholders spend $500 or more within a specified amount of time. 

Breaking it down, card by card

Earn 6% at U.S. Supermarkets, 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% on everything else

  • While cardholders earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, American Express considers Walmart a “superstore” instead of a grocery store, so cardholders only earn 1%. But if you spend $1,000 in purchases within your first three months of card ownership, you’ll earn $200 back. That’s an impressive savings. And rewards dollars can be redeemed as statement credits, good for any purchase.

Earn 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else

  • The card offers 1% cashback on all purchases, as well as 5% cashback on purchases made within select categories that rotate quarterly. Through December, that includes 5% cash back for purchases made through Amazon.com and Target. (Discover members should be sure to activate their 5% bonus through their account.) It’s possible that cardholders could find more value at either Amazon or Target as opposed to Walmart. And don’t forget about the dollar-for-dollar cashback match at the end of your first year of card membership!
  • cardholders earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter (so long as they activate via their Chase profile). From October to December, that includes 5% cashback at all Walmart stores and other department stores. Otherwise, cardholders earn unlimited 1% cashback on all other purchases.

Earn 3% on gas, 2% on grocery stores, and 1% everywhere else

  • If you’re a Bank of America® customer, and you participate in Preferred Rewards, the holds the most value for you. In addition to the 1% cash back you’ll earn on Walmart purchases, you’ll be able to earn anywhere between a 25-75% customer points bonus! That’s in addition to the $150 online cash rewards bonus earned after spending $500 in the first 90 days of card membership.

Earn 1.5% on all purchases

  • The offers one of the simplest, highest reward rates of any cash back card. Cardholders earn 1.5% cashback on all purchases, period. Combined with no annual fee, this is one of the most no-frills, flat-rate credit cards available on the market today.
  • The is a useful cash back card for stacking rewards. Cardholders earn 1.5% cashback on all purchases throughout the year. Every time you redeem rewards, you’ll earn a 5% cash reward bonus toward your next redemption. That’s a solid, consistent bonus that lasts past the holidays.
  • The card combines a 1.5% cash back flat rate with a $0 annual fee and a 15-month 0% intro APR period. Customers can earn rewards without accruing interest or fees, making this card a perfect choice for anyone looking to open a new card during the holidays. And you can redeem rewards at any time.
  • The offers a straightforward, flat-rate 1.5% cash back for cardholders. It’s designed for those with average-to-fair credit and can help build up your credit score over time. (As a bonus, cardholders get 50% off of a Spotify subscription.)

Lastly, consider how you’ll use your card post-holiday. Cash back credit cards offer differing rewards rates based on spending habits: Some are optimal for spending in specific categories, while others are optimal for everyday expenses. For more info on the cards in this list, and to see which card is right for you, check out our list of the best cash back credit cards of 2017.

 

The post Earn Cash Back with the Top Holiday Toys of 2017 appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Guanxi: Thoughts on Building Relationships for Professional and Personal Success

Over the years, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some great friends from other cultures. Back in the late 1990s, I was lucky enough to have my time on this earth overlap with a wonderful guy from China, a guy whose laughter could fill a room at certain times, a man who would have your back whenever you needed it, a person who always seemed to have the right question to ask, an individual who seemed to click in any group he was in.

Most of the time, when I spent time with him, he would dress very casually and seem very loose and humorous. He usually wore a rumpled sweatshirt and blue jeans. At other times, I’d see him with other groups and he might be dressed to the nines in a business suit and seem as serious as can be, or I might find him with a group of his peers, dressed in sharp business casual clothes while engaged in thoughtful conversation.

I asked him about it once and he told me that the most valuable lesson he learned from his parents is that it was always well worth his time to put himself in positions where the people around him felt comfortable with him as a peer, because from there he could start building relationships that felt equal on both sides. For him, that often started with clothing.

He called this “guanxi,” and spelled it out for me. I jotted it down in my notebook next to his own beautifully written characters, ruminated on it, and then eventually it spilled from my mind.

The other day, I was leafing through some of my old notebooks and found that page of notes. All it said there was “guanxi,” along with the term written in simplified Chinese characters that he’d written on the page for me. Back then, I wrote it down with the intent of remembering it and looking into it later… and, I guess, almost twenty years after the fact, “later” has finally come around.

Wikipedia offers a great introductory explanation of guanxi: “Guanxi (Chinese: 关系) describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence (which can be best described as the relationships individuals cultivate with other individuals) and is a central idea in Chinese society. In Western media, the pinyin romanization of this Chinese word is becoming more widely used instead of the two common translations of it – “connections” and “relationships” – as neither of those terms sufficiently reflects the wide cultural implications that guanxi describes.”

It goes on: “At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon, that is, one’s standing with another. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another.”

“Guanxi also refers to the benefits gained from social connections and usually extends from extended family, school friends, workmates and members of common clubs or organizations. It is customary for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships, which may expand in a huge number of directions, and includes lifelong relationships. Staying in contact with members of your network is not necessary to bind reciprocal obligations. Reciprocal favors are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, while failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offense (that is, the more one asks of someone, the more one owes them).”

To summarize, guanxi refers to the network of relationships you have with people and the reciprocal favors that are done within those relationships.

As is natural when one learns about something like this, I immediately translated this into my own life.

I have a pretty wide social network, encompassing people in a lot of different locations, with different backgrounds, in different career paths, and at different socioeconomic levels. If needed, there are several dozen people I feel like I could tap for a personal or a professional favor and reasonably expect it to have positive results. Most of those favors are on the back of favors done in the past, often a chain of favors that we’ve shared over the years. Those favors and relationships add up to a lot of value, something I can tap if I ever need to do so.

This brings me to a few observations.

First of all, it’s almost always worth my while to do a favor for someone else, particularly when the favor has low cost for me personally. If someone I know needs help and I can provide that help without exceptional effort, I almost always do so without even thinking twice about it. I’ll offer advice in an area I know well. I’ll introduce people. I’ll lend a book. I’ll give a recommendation or write one. I’ll listen to their story and give the best suggestions I can. I’ll help people with tasks like moving furniture or boxes. You get the idea.

I do those things without any specific reciprocity in mind. I don’t expect anything for doing things for other people, not at all, unless there’s an extensive personal cost of time or money or energy for me. When someone needs a hand, I give it.

Sometimes, those favors are in fact completely invisible. I have recommended friends without their knowledge. I help friends out of trouble without their asking. I’ll sometimes just offer things if I see that they’re needed. I don’t just wait to be asked, and I sometimes do positive things without the person even knowing about it.

I come to view people I help as then being part of my larger social network. If we’re not already friendly, I expect that we will be if I’ve done a favor for you. If I see people I’ve helped in public and they’ve not wronged me, I’ll greet them.

Of course, when the time comes and I need help, I feel okay asking almost anyone in my network for a favor, though I try to look for someone for whom the favor is low effort. If I need someone to watch my children for a bit when I get off the bus, I’ll ask my neighbor. If I need help with dog care, I’ll talk to my dog lover friend. You get the idea.

I don’t mind it if complex favors are declined, but if simple ones are declined, I begin to doubt the relationship. If I ask for something from someone and the favor seems trivial and they just don’t bother without a very clear reason, I tend to start to view them as someone who wants to just use me, especially if the lack of reciprocity is repeated.

That’s how I view practical guanxi in my life.

Now, guanxi isn’t a cultural thing in America as it is in China. It’s merely something I value personally. I think that many relationships are often made of a long series of small favors, and that those favors actually add up to a lot of value, because favors are usually things that are hard for the person asking but easier for the person that’s asked. Over time, if you have a lot of people who you’ve built relationships with who are willing to do favors for you, things that are hard for you but easy for them, you’ve got a lot of value in those relationships. It doesn’t need to be a cultural thing.

So, how do you cultivate this in your own life?

First of all, treat others as you’d like to be treated and help them, especially when the required effort is low for you. If you can do something that will really help someone and it doesn’t take a lot of time, effort, or money, then you should do it almost without thought. Not only does this build your relationship with that person, it puts them in a better place. You’re helping to raise the tide, and a rising tide lifts all boats, yours included.

Seek out potential friendships in your own life and don’t be afraid to be the first to help. Put effort into building real-life relationships, even if it’s uncomfortable. Go to community events, especially ones where you will have the opportunity to meet people. Don’t sweat meeting everyone, but focus on building just a few relationships each time. I’m an introvert, so in those situations, what I usually do is just commit to having a meaningful conversation with at least two people, enough so that I might have something to follow up with. That’s the start of a relationship, and I’ve built many over the years that have blossomed into great community relationships and even some lifelong friendships.

Put yourself in positions where you can start building relationships without crossing a cultural bridge. This is one of the interesting lessons my Chinese friend taught me. You’re going to always find it easier to connect with people if you’re willing to bend a bit to their cultural expectations. If you want to “challenge their expectations” and change their mind, you’re going to have a much better chance at it once your relationship is already established. Start by being palatable – dress appropriately for the situation, don’t throw up controversial opinions (even if you harbor them), and look for commonalities. Build the bridge first before you cross it. For me, that does mean that sometimes I keep my mouth shut when I might express a particular viewpoint, and that does mean that sometimes I dress in ways that aren’t perfectly comfortable for me.

Accept that some relationships aren’t equal and reciprocal ones. Most relationships you have in life are going to be fairly equal, where people help each other out from time to time in a roughly reciprocal fashion. Some relationships are even ones where the other person is incredibly giving. Both are good. However, not all relationships are like that. Sometimes, people take and take and don’t give back. Unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise, you should de-emphasize such relationships in your life. There are times when friends are down and you need to give far more than you receive, don’t get me wrong, but there are relationships in which otherwise normal people do nothing but take and take, and you should divest yourself from those relationships. It’s not a relationship, then; you’re merely a tool to be used, and no one deserves that.

In the end, I appreciate guanxi as a personal principle, even if it’s not a truly embedded cultural one, and practicing it in my life has been a huge personal and professional boon. I’ve developed great friendships and relationships, saved a ton of money and time over the years, had some career doors open up for me, and been a positive influence in the lives of a lot of people around me, putting all of them in better places in both large and small ways. I now have a large circle of people I know I can ask when I need help, which is incredibly valuable. All it really took was doing favors, particularly ones that were easy for me but really helpful for others, and doing it without question.

It turns out that maybe I did remember guanxi after all.

The post Guanxi: Thoughts on Building Relationships for Professional and Personal Success appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Art of the ‘Dump Meal’: Nine Super-Simple Ways to Get Maximum Efficiency and Value from a Slow Cooker

One of the most efficient ways for a family to save money is to simply eat meals at home as often as possible. Feeding three or four or five people with take-out or at restaurants all the time becomes quickly expensive, even if you choose super-cheap options, and if you consider the health impact of eating restaurant-prepared food, it becomes even more costly. (Research suggests that home cooking is a key part of a healthier diet, simply because you control what goes into the meals and you’re usually using better ingredients.)

The counterbalance to that is our busy lives. For many people – myself included – preparing a meal at home becomes yet another task in a day that’s already filled to the brim with tasks. After a long day at work followed by parental responsibilities and marital responsibilities and community responsibilities and a pile of household chores, simply being able to offload the task of meal preparation can seem like a huge breather.

So, the problem is this: Meal preparation at home is cheaper in the moment and healthier over the long term, but it requires a larger time and effort commitment. That’s an equation that becomes particularly tricky when you’ve got a highly committed life.

Our solution to that has been to find ways to reduce the time and effort it takes to prepare meals at home – in other words, to reduce the friction of meal preparation.

We use a lot of tactics for this. We make meals in advance on the weekends, often by planning a “meal prep day.” We make convenient spice mixes so that it’s easy to just add several dashes to a dish to make it come together quickly. We keep the ingredients for “staple meals” on hand for when we need something we can prepare on autopilot – for example, we always have a box of pasta and a jar of marinara sauce in the pantry and a bag of flash-frozen vegetables in the freezer.

Last, but not least, we have a slow cooker. The slow cooker is probably our most valuable tool for reducing the time and energy investment in meal preparation on busy evenings.

Our favorite use for the slow cooker is in preparing what we call “dump meals.” A “dump meal” is one where you can just “dump” several ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low (or program it to turn on low in a few hours), and then just let it sit there all day. When you get home and are ready to eat, the meal in the slow cooker is all ready to go.

What this often does is that it lets Sarah or I actually prepare dinner right in front of the kids as they’re eating breakfast. I’ll talk to them about their day or about current events or about what books they’re reading at the breakfast table while actively assembling supper in the slow cooker. I’ll flip it on “low” just as they’re walking out the door and put any dishes or utensils I may have used into the sink or dishwasher. Supper prep is complete – all I have to do is serve it that evening!

For us, these “dump meals” are worth their weight in gold. They enable us to have a great family meal together on even the busiest nights, and they make it easy for us to eat in two separate groups when that doesn’t work out (we usually try to make sure that at least one parent eats with each child when they’re eating dinner, so we might have one kid eating with one parent at 5:30 and the other two kids eating with the other parent at 6:15 on super-busy evenings).

Another advantage of “dump” meals is that you can prepare most of them well in advance by putting most or all of the ingredients together in a gallon freezer Ziploc bag or another freezer-safe container and just freeze them until you’re ready to use them. Most of the recipes below work perfectly well in that environment, particularly the soups and stews.

Interested? The first thing you need is a slow cooker, and pretty much any slow cooker will do. I prefer ones that actually feature a crock on the inside and I generally don’t bother with ones with lots of electronics, because that seems to be the element that fails first. My suggestion? Go to your local Goodwill or other secondhand store and find a used slow cooker there. If you can’t find one, then I recommend this 7-quart manual Crock Pot, which is a great slow cooker at a nice price.

It’s also useful to get an outlet timer (like this one). This enables you to plug in the slow cooker and walk away even if the cooking time is shorter than the length of your day. Just set the timer so that there’s no power running to the crock pot until you want it to start cooking. That way, if you have a recipe that requires six hours on low, you can set the timer to turn on the outlet at noon and then the recipe will be done at 6 o’clock.

Here are nine of our favorite “dump meals” – some vegetarian, some otherwise. Most of these boil down to simply adding a bunch of stuff to the slow cooker, turning it on low, and walking away.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Beef Stew

When Sarah and I were first married, this was our traditional Tuesday night meal together during the winter months. We would make a pot of this, and then we’d have leftovers on Wednesday and Thursday to take to work.

Ingredients
– 2 1/2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 celery ribs, sliced
– 30 baby carrots, approximately, or 2 cups sliced carrots
– 5 small red potatoes, cut into small bite-sized cubes
– 1 cup frozen corn
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
– 1 32 oz. container beef broth
– 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried parsley
– 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Directions Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker and set it on low for ten hours. That’s all.

If you want your stew to be a bit thicker, about half an hour before it’s finished, mix together 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water and mix it into the stew – you can do this right when you get home.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Lasagna

This recipe structure works with all meat, all vegetables, or a mix of the two. You can use almost anything there – in fact, just a few days ago, our vegetables consisted of just quinoa. Four cups of it. It was delicious.

Ingredients
– 2 24 oz. jars of your preferred pasta sauce
– 1 box lasagna noodles, uncooked (don’t need the “oven ready” ones)
– 2 cups cottage cheese
– 1 egg, beaten
– 1 tsp. oregano
– 4 cups chopped vegetables of your choice (almost anything works) OR 4 cups chopped cooked meat of your choice (again, almost anything works) OR mix and match the cups
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
– olive oil

Directions Coat the inside of the slow cooker with olive oil. Put about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the slow cooker. Add a layer of uncooked noodles, breaking them so that they fit – it doesn’t have to be perfect. Mix the oregano, egg, and cottage cheese together, then add about 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix as an even layer on top of the noodles. Add about 1/3 of the meat or vegetables as the next layer, then a layer of 1/4 of the mozzarella. Repeat the layers twice more, starting with the sauce – 1/2 cup sauce, followed by layer of noodles, followed by 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix, followed by 1/3 of the meat/vegetables, followed by 1/4 of the mozzarella. Add a final layer of noodles on top, cover it with just a bit of sauce, and put the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan on top. Cook on low for 5-6 hours, using a timer if needed.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chili

This is a fall and winter classic at our house, and it’s so simple that our 11-year-old has actually prepared it before. I told him that if he wanted chili for supper, he could make it himself, and I handed him the recipe card for it. He put it together and started it himself and it turned out wonderfully. The optional ingredients at the bottom are purely to taste, as chili has infinite variations.

Ingredients
– 1 pound uncooked lean ground beef or turkey OR 2 15 oz. cans black beans OR 2 15 oz. cans red kidney beans OR 1 can each
– 1 15 oz. can red kidney beans OR 1 15 oz. can black beans (in addition to the first ingredient)
– 1 15.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes (28 oz)
– 2 cups water
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
– 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)
– 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (optional)
– 1/2 cup leftover dry red wine (optional)
– 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
– 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce (optional)
– A dozen chocolate chips (optional)

Directions Mix everything together and cook on low for 8 hours. Remember, use one can of beans only if using meat; use three cans of beans total if making a vegetarian version.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Pot Roast

With this recipe, it’s well worth your while to get a good roast. Chuck roast works best, but you can substitute a beef brisket or a round roast if you don’t have a chuck roast available. If you’re pulling the roast from the freezer, make sure it’s fully thawed before using this recipe or else it won’t be fully cooked.

Ingredients
– 2 to 3 lb chuck roast
– 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
– 1/2 medium bell pepper, chopped (any color will do)
– 2 stalks celery, chopped
– 2 large potatoes, chopped into bite sized pieces
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 cups beef broth (or 2 beef bullion cubes and 1 1/2 cups water)
– 1/2 cup tomato sauce
– 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Directions Place the roast in the bottom of the slow cooker. Place the vegetables on top of and around the roast. Add the other ingredients on top of the vegetables. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chicken or Vegetable Tetrazzini

This recipe does require a bit of extra effort in the morning before you leave – you need to boil up some pasta and put it in the fridge! You’ll add it right at the end, within a few minutes of actually serving it (I like to add the cooked pasta just before setting the table for dinner, then put the crock directly on the table after the table is set).

Ingredients
– 2 pounds chicken breasts, sliced into 1″ thick strips, OR 4 cups vegetables of your choice (for a vegetarian version – I like using just a standard frozen vegetable mix)
– 1/2 small white onion, diced
– 8 button mushrooms, sliced
– 1 cup broth, vegetable or chicken
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1 8 oz. package cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1/2 to 1 pound spaghetti noodles, cooked to package directions

Directions Put the cream cheese, mozzarella cheese, and cooked spaghetti noodles in the fridge for later. Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours. About ten minutes before serving, add the cream cheese to the slow cooker, then use two forks to shred the chicken breasts, then add the pasta. Just before putting it on the table, put the mozzarella cheese on top.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Potato Soup

This is about as easy as it gets. Can you chop a few potatoes? Can you cut cream cheese into cubes? Can you put ingredients into a slow cooker and turn it on? Then, my friend, you’re in for some delicious potato soup!

Ingredients
– 8 small yellow potatoes, cut into bite-sized cubes
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 4 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon paprika
– 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
– 2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Directions Put everything but the cream cheese and the cheddar cheese in the slow cooker and turn it on low for 8 hours. Before serving, stir in the cream cheese until melted. Serve with the shredded cheddar as topping. If you wish to thicken it, add a tablespoon of corn starch or flour and stir when it’s hot and repeat until it’s at your desired thickness.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Frittata

I like this recipe because you can pretty much use any ingredient you want and come out with something tasty. It is super flexible, and it’s almost never failed me as long as I stick to something that at least seems reasonably palatable. I sometimes make this before I go to bed and then start it when I first wake up on a Saturday morning so we can have it for breakfast, but it also works well for dinner.

Ingredients
– 4 cups cooked meats or uncooked vegetables of my choice, cut into small pieces (ham, broccoli, onion, bacon, steak, carrots, spinach – almost anything works)
– 8 ounces Swiss cheese, sliced thin
– 12 eggs, beaten until consistent
– 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
– 2 teaspoons salt
– 1/4 teaspoon tarragon
– 1/2 teaspoon basil
– 1/2 teaspoon thyme
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– nonstick cooking spray

Directions Mix the pepper, salt, tarragon, basil, thyme, and garlic with the eggs and set aside for a moment. Spray down the inside of the slow cooker thoroughly. Add the meats and vegetables to the slow cooker on the bottom, then put the sliced cheese on top of those ingredients, then pour the egg mix on top. Cook on low for three hours, no more.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Red Lentil Curry

This is my wife’s favorite slow cooker recipe of all time. I think she would make this weekly for herself and just subsist off of it if she were single. She always makes a double batch of this and then takes the leftovers to work several days in a row. This is her particular version of the recipe.

Ingredients
– 4 cups brown lentils, uncooked
– 2 onions, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
– 2 tablespoons butter
– 6 tablespoons red curry paste
– 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala
– 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
– 1/2 teaspoon sugar
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
– 2 28 oz. cans pureed tomatoes
– 6 cups water
– 1 cup coconut milk
– rice or naan bread for serving

Directions Add all ingredients but the coconut milk to the slow cooker, stir, and cook on low for 8 hours. If you come home and it looks dry, add more water to your own judgment – different lentils absorb water differently, and sometimes it can end up soaking up all of that liquid. Just before serving, mix in the coconut milk.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Black Bean Soup

Since we just listed Sarah’s favorite recipe, we’ll finish off with mine. I seriously cannot get ENOUGH of this stuff. I love this soup so much I have actually eaten it for breakfast. I will eat it and eat it and eat it and eat it. I love black beans and I love how this soup comes out. (I just wish the rest of my family all loved it, too, so we could have it twice a week.) Plus, it’s really really easy.

Ingredients
– 3 cups dried black beans, soaked in water (see directions)
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1 large yellow onion, chopped
– 1 orange bell pepper, chopped
– 1 red bell pepper, chopped
– 5 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups vegetable broth or vegetable stock
– 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
– 2 teaspoons salt
– sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese, to serve

Directions The night before, put the beans in a separate pot and cover them with water so there’s at least two inches covering the top of the beans. Put a lid on the pot and let it sit overnight, at least eight hours (do it in the early evening and you’re fine).

You can do this part the night before, too. Add the oil to a skillet and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers, and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent. Add 1/2 cup of the broth to the skillet while it’s still hot. Save the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid.

In the morning, pour the water off the beans, rinse the beans a bit, and add the beans to the slow cooker. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid to the cooker, too, along with the rest of the broth/stock, the cumin, and the salt. Cook on low for 8 hours. Serve with the sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese. Eat more of it than you should (wait… that’s my own personal part of this recipe).

Final Thoughts

The best part about “dump” recipes for the slow cooker is that they’re incredibly easy and the actual work can be done in the morning or late in the evening before, so that you’re not rushed at all during the actual meal time. You just come home to a house that smells amazing and serve up dinner for everyone within a few minutes.

These recipes are all very inexpensive compared to going out to dinner and most of them will generate leftovers, even for a family. If you’re not sure if there’s enough for your family, just double the recipe and add a little cooking time.

They’re also healthy, and they manage to be pretty delicious, too.

Slow cooker “dump” meals manage to actually hit the mark for us in terms of fast, cheap, healthy(-ish, in some cases) and delicious, all at the same time. They’re a key part of how we keep costs low, even though we’re busy in the evenings. I hope you find some value in copying these recipes or modifying them to your own use!

Good luck!

Related Articles:

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Disaster Relief: How to Assist from a Distance

You may be following the news of recent natural disasters from thousands of miles away, wondering what you can possibly do to help. If so, rest assured that the effectiveness of your charitable donations doesn’t necessarily decrease with distance.

A large number of charities and relief organizations are helping victims of Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean, as well as earthquake victims in Mexico. The list includes some of the most respected, highest rated groups in philanthropy, including:

Whether it’s on Main Street or beyond the mainland, the combination of generosity and effective charitable organizations can make a difference in people’s lives. But if you have questions about the process of donating to groups doing good work far afield, we have some answers.

Is international disaster relief tax deductible?

It largely depends on the nationality of the groups rather than the nationality of the people they’re helping.

Many of the nonprofit groups channeling your charity into disaster relief are based in the United States and meet Internal Revenue Service requirements for tax-deductible donations. In the case of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — both U.S. territories — your donations to charities located there should be tax-deductible as long as they meet those same IRS requirements.

Although charitable organizations based in foreign countries generally don’t qualify for deductions, certain Mexican, Canadian, and Israeli charities do.

How do I check a group’s tax-exempt status?

That information should be readily available on the group’s website or in its literature. Signs to look for include:

  • Registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization
  • A statement specifying that donations are tax-deductible
  • An EIN (Employer Identification Number) assigned by the IRS

Also, you can check directly with the IRS using its Exempt Organizations Select Check Tool.

How do I know if a charity is legitimate?

Even though disasters can create opportunities for scams, you have a number of safeguards on your side.

The internet has made it easier for potential donors to do their own detective work and donate safely. You can also check an organization’s credentials with watchdog agencies such as Charity Navigator and GiveWell.

Can I donate credit card rewards to charity?

Many credit card issuers allow you to donate points, miles, and cash back to charity. In some cases, an issuer may offer bonus rewards in exchange for donating to disaster relief.

If you want to donate your credit card rewards, be aware of the card issuer’s guidelines and the intended charity’s guidelines. For example, the value of your points may vary when you convert them to donations.

Also, remember that the IRS typically doesn’t consider such donations tax-deductible. To get the tax benefit in this situation, you would probably need to redeem cash back rewards for a cash payout and then donate that payout to the charity of your choice.

Your support matters, no matter the destination

People in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida still need help with hurricane relief, as do victims of the recent California wildfires. Locations around the country and the world need assistance at any given time. Whether you choose to provide help, and how, is entirely up to you. Just remember that your generosity can cross oceans and span continents, and make a real difference.

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The Most Efficient, Science-Based Way to Learn and Memorize Practically Anything

For the first 28 years of my life, I thought there was only one way to memorize information: brute force repetition. If my schooling taught me anything, it was that the way to do well on tests was to make detailed notes and then read them until your eyes bled.

This style of learning is effective, but only to a point. As we all know, information that was crammed is soon lost.

Much of this forgetting is normal and healthy. Our brains are like computer hard drives with limited storage capacity. There isn’t a need for most of us to remember every capital city in Africa (something I actually had to do freshman year of high school — thanks, Mrs. Heukrodt). Letting go of information is a natural and important process.

But, what about stuff we genuinely care about remembering? What if we need to quickly learn new skills in order to keep up in the workplace? That’s a tall order facing millions of people in today’s ever changing, technologically driven work landscape. When confronting such a challenge, it’s crucial to know the most effective ways to learn.

I found a system that clicked for me when I stumbled upon spaced repetition learning. This system, developed over 100 years ago, was once thought to be the panacea for all struggling students. While it never quite caught on the way researchers hoped it would, it is still used by millions as a way to learn without cramming. Now, thanks to modern technology, there has been a renewed interest in spaced repetition learning.

Let’s take a look at how the system works, and see how the average person can harness its power.

How Spaced Repetition Learning Works

Spaced repetition learning is a system built around the existence of the “forgetting curve,” which refers to how long we can retain a piece of information.

Immediately after learning something, we have almost total recall. Unfortunately, as we all know, it’s a quick downward slope from there. After an hour we remember a bit less. Two hours, less. Two days? Much, much less. This somewhat depressing chart illustrates just how powerful the effect is:

the forgetting curve

Spaced repetition learning tackles this problem head on. It taps into the proven psychological principle of the spacing effect, which states that we remember things better when we learn the information in intervals over a longer period of time, as opposed to cramming it in all at once.

When the spacing effect is combined with knowledge of the forgetting curve, magic happens. That’s because we remember things longer when we’re exposed to the ideas just as we were about to forget them.

Using spaced repetition learning and spreading your study sessions out – in shorter intervals over a longer time frame – can cut the overall time it takes to learn new foreign language words in half.

This incredible effect has held up whether you’re trying to learn a language, memorize body parts while in medical school, study philosophy, and everything in between. It just works. No one is sure what exact mechanism makes it so effective, but it could have something to do with the particular way in which spaced repetition learning promotes neurogenesis.

How to Practice Spaced Repetition Learning

Although I have a tendency to rant against modern technology, there’s no denying it’s caused a revolution in spaced repetition learning. Smartphone and desktop apps, such as Anki and Mnemosyne, help us leverage a a memorization tool we started using in grade school: flash cards.

Apps like Anki allow you to create your own, customizable flash cards. If I were learning about investing, a sample card for me might read: “When interest rates rise, bond prices tend to ____,” on the front. On the back, it would say “fall.” There is no limit to the complexity you can come up with, and you can even draw or insert your own images, if you’re more of a visual learner.

The fun begins when you start reviewing your deck. I like to steal study time on my morning commute. I take out my phone, open the app, and I’m presented with a flash card. After answering, I must select from three buttons: “Again,” “good,” or “easy.” These selections determine when I’ll next be asked to study that card. If I can easily answer a question, I won’t see it again for days. If it’s hard, I’ll see it much sooner, usually within minutes. The timing and frequency of when you see each card is built into the algorithm, which takes out any guesswork or calculations for the user.

The algorithmic spacing is key, as the app is tapping directly into the forgetting curve. Science has shown that there is a perfect time to practice what you’ve learned. You don’t want to be exposed to concepts too soon, as that would be inefficient. But, if you’re exposed too late, you’ll have already forgotten the concept.

Spaced repetition learning apps help you thread that needle, presenting you with just the information you need to study at the exact right time. As long as the app can tell what you’re struggling with and what you’re mastering, it will present flashcards at just the right time.

The fun thing about learning in this way is that you can build any sort of flash card deck you want. My Anki deck has things like foreign words I want to learn, famous quotes I’d like to commit to memory, and historical facts. It’s a repository for anything I deem interesting and worthy of remembering. The simplicity, and the fact that it’s all stored in my pocket, makes me more likely to actually study.

It’s also convenient that these free apps give you access to hundreds of user-generated flash card decks. These “packs” are voted on by other users, so their quality has been vetted. If you find one that interests you, it can be downloaded in seconds and you can be on your way to becoming a memorization ninja. Success stories on the internet are numerous, with coders finding it particularly helpful for learning new concepts.

Summing Up

Spaced repetition learning is effective, engaging, and easy to use. If I had known about it in college, it would have made my life a lot easier. However, I think it’s important to note that this style of learning isn’t a magic bullet. It still takes diligence and commitment.

That being said, I find it comforting to know that when I really want to remember something, I have access to a tool that’s scientifically proven to be effective.

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The post The Most Efficient, Science-Based Way to Learn and Memorize Practically Anything appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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