Saturday, October 29, 2016

Why Podcasts Are the Best Entertainment Bargain on the Internet – And 30 Great Ones to Enjoy

Whenever I’m sitting at my desk working, I’m almost always listening to a podcast. Whenever I’m in the car, I’m almost always listening to a podcast. Whenever I’m falling asleep when I happen to be alone (like when I occasionally travel), I’m listening to a podcast.

Podcasts are easily my main source of entertainment and information. They make me laugh, they make me think, they even occasionally make me cry. A string of carefully selected podcasts is a lot like having your own radio station, programmed exactly the way you want it and, if you have a smartphone, accessible pretty much anywhere you happen to be – in your car, on the bus, at home, in bed, anywhere.

Let’s start off with the basics.

What’s a Podcast?

A podcast is simply an audio recording that you can download from the internet. Typically, these audio recordings are of people discussing some topic or another in a manner akin to a talk radio station. Usually, podcasts are released in series, with a new episode coming out every week or two. Podcasts are absolutely free. Many podcasters do it for the love of doing it, or support the podcast a little with an ad or two.

There are podcasts out there on virtually any topic you can imagine and there are usually dozens of podcasts on that topic. Current events. Board games. Music. Fantasy football. Knitting. Prayer. If you can think of a topic, there’s probably someone out there recording and releasing a podcast on that topic.

Most podcasts are done by amateurs or by small-scale entrepreneurs, not by big media companies. While you might occasionally hear an ad or two on podcasts, they’re rarely ad-laden and they’re usually done by people who are just purely passionate about the topic.

How Can I Listen?

There are many programs out there that allow you to listen to podcasts at your convenience. They let you “subscribe” to those podcasts, so that new episodes are automatically downloaded, they help you to discover new podcasts, and they also let you search for podcasts by name so that you can easily find one and subscribe to it to see if you like it.

On the desktop, I have yet to find a better free program than iTunes. iTunes simply does a great job of helping you find podcasts, automatically downloads new episodes, and makes listening easy to boot. It’s just my default recommendation for a desktop podcast organizer and player.

If you have an Android device, I recommend Stitcher as the absolute best free option for podcast subscribing and listening. It’s solidly designed, makes it easy to add and find new podcasts, and plays them perfectly.

For iOS, the default Podcast app works perfectly well, but I’ve fallen in love with another app: Overcast. It does several little things that I love, namely how it balances out the volume between podcasts so that you don’t move from a quiet podcast to a loud one. My only minor quibble is that I can’t sync my played podcasts with my desktop program, so I actually have a few “road” podcasts that are different than my “home” ones so I don’t have to worry about it.

So, let’s hear about some good podcasts!

18 Great Personal Finance, Growth, and Productivity Podcasts

Most of the podcasts I listen to are related to personal finance, personal growth, or productivity topics. Here are eighteen that I highly recommend because I’m a long-time subscriber to all of them.

Money Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips is a short podcast that focuses on practical financial strategies. This one gets right to the point, so I actually find it’s pretty good for binge listening as you can listen to a bunch of episodes in just an hour or two. The delivery is light in tone, but sticks to the facts; there’s not a lot of “character” here, but that’s a good thing for what they’re bringing to the plate. (subscribe in iTunes)

The 5 AM Miracle is a podcast focused on various aspects of productivity. Unsurprisingly, one major aspect of this is morning routines: what do people do right when they get up in the morning? The host has a great radio voice; the episodes often alternate between interviews and surprisingly good monologue episodes. In most podcasts, I tend to prefer the banter between people, but Jeff Sanders (the host) does a really good job with his solo shows. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Productive Woman is a personal productivity podcast that does have a mild focus on women’s issues and how they intersect with productivity, but I actually find that almost everything discussed on the podcast is applicable to me as an involved spouse and father. This one has actually spawned some great discussions with my wife when we’ve both listened while on the road together. (subscribe in iTunes)

Listen, Money Matters is an “uncensored” personal finance podcast where two guys talk frankly and humorously about financial matters. While the tone is definitely light and funny, they do get down to some great financial advice along with the entertainment. (subscribe in iTunes)

Cortex is a show where two creative professionals (Myke Hurley and CGP Grey) discuss the tools and strategies they use to enhance creativity and productivity. The focus is really on the particular issues that creative workers – particularly those who are self-employed or entrepreneurial – face when needing to be productive. (subscribe in iTunes)

This Is Your Life with Michael Hyatt is a podcast focused on intentional leadership. The idea of “intentional leadership” actually covers a lot of ground, including things like work-life balance, good communication with coworkers, accountability, character, and many other such things. The show manages to maintain a very practical feel when talking about these things, which is something I really like. (subscribe in iTunes)

Radical Personal Finance is probably the best all around personal finance podcast that isn’t a rebroadcast of a syndicated radio show. The host, Joshua Sheats, manages to achieve that tricky balance of talking about personal finance in a way that’s useful without being preachy and brings lots of facts without falling into a boring litany of details. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Tim Ferriss Show covers lifestyle experimentation in a lot of different dimensions. This means that the podcast goes in a ton of different directions, hitting everything from workout routines to trying different foods to life extension practices to speed learning. It’s all covered here in a fast-paced and entertaining show. (subscribe in iTunes)

Your Money Matters is a podcast produced by the Wall Street Journal that focuses on tying personal finance issues to larger global affairs. The show really succeeds when they go deep into potential law changes and how they’ll affect your finances. The hosts are factual but manage to avoid ever making it boring. (subscribe in iTunes)

Entrepreneur on Fire is a great podcast focused on entrepreneurship. The host, John Lee Dumas, usually interviews an entrepreneur about how they launched their business, what tools they use, what mindset they have, and so on. The show comes out daily (!) and features all kinds of guests, ideas, and angles. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Dave Ramsey Show is a rebroadcast of much of Dave’s syndicated talk radio show where he discusses personal finance issues with his “tough coach” attitude that’s threaded with Christian inspiration. Ramsey’s simply good at bringing the advice, taking a tough tone and a matter-of-fact tone where it’s warranted while always being entertaining. (subscribe in iTunes)

You Are Not So Smart is a wonderful podcast dedicated to cognitive biases both good and bad (but mostly bad). The show really explores the various ways that our mind fools itself and the passion for this topic brought by the host, David McRaney, is infectious. (subscribe in iTunes)

Achieve Your Goals with Hal Elrod is a wonderful personal development podcast with a heavy focus on personal goal-setting. Most episodes feature an interview with someone who offers thoughtful insight on goal setting or steps for achieving common goals, and Elrod’s tone and quick pace make the whole package enjoyable. (subscribe in iTunes)

Couple Money Podcast is a wonderful personal finance podcast that focuses on many of the issues that couples have to deal with when it comes to finances. This is a great one to listen to at the same time as your significant other as not only will you be entertained, you’ll often be left with some food for thought and for deep conversation. (subscribe in iTunes)

Planet Money is a podcast produced by NPR that looks at finance from a bunch of different angles with a bunch of different contributors. Many episodes have a personal finance angle, while some will look at broader economic issues. Regardless of the exact angle, it’s always insightful and thought provoking. (subscribe in iTunes)

Beyond the To-Do List is a personal productivity podcast that succeeds because it brings so many different perspectives to the table. Every single episode is centered around an in-depth interview with someone who has a different angle on personal productivity that stands out from the many other perspectives presented on the show. The sheer variety keeps me listening. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Clark Howard Show, much like Dave Ramsey’s show, is a rebroadcast of a nationally syndicated radio program. Howard tends to focus on a mix of financial and consumer issues, often bringing up current issues like product recalls and how to buy certain items. (subscribe in iTunes)

Marketplace is a rebroadcast of a show that often appears on NPR stations that offers a great weekday mix of financial news and current events. The light touch of the show and the occasional links to personal finance make this my “high finance” show of choice. (subscribe in iTunes)

12 Great Additional Podcasts on Other Topics

I listen to a lot of different podcasts on a rotating basis. What I often do is listen to dozens of episodes of a podcast – perhaps the last year’s worth of archives – and then move on to another one. The best ones see me coming back time and time again.

What gets me to come back? Passion is probably the biggest thing. Passion means that the person is obviously passionate about the subject, no matter how esoteric or strange. I love passion, and passion can often engage me in a topic that I might not otherwise enjoy all that much. Some podcasts are hosted by people with great radio voices, but their heart isn’t in it; I’d far rather listen to an amateurish recording by someone who is really passionate.

These twelve podcasts are ones that I come back to time and time again. Although the subjects are … all over the place … it’s the passion of the people on those podcasts that keeps me coming back.

Serial, in my eyes, is the best demonstration of how great a podcast can be. The show is released in seasons, and each season (so far) has focused on a single story. The first season investigated a strange murder case in Baltimore, and the second season looked more closely at the story of Private Bowe Bergdahl who was a POW in Afghanistan under unusual circumstances. The host of the podcast, Sarah Koenig, is absolutely amazing in terms of her tone and approach to both seasons. Listen to all of this, from the beginning. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Moth is a series of live recordings of people telling stories about their lives. The windows into different lives provided by these stories is what makes the show so addictive. Some stories are merely okay, but then you’ll hear one that drives you to peals of laughter or brings a flood of tears to your eyes. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Pen Addict is a podcast about pens and paper, seriously. It’s basically a stationery, notebook, and pens podcast. It’s the sheer passion and enthusiasm brought to the table by the hosts, particularly Brad Dowdy, that make this one such an enjoyable listen (and has pulled me more into appreciating pens and paper than I would have ever expected). (subscribe in iTunes)

The Dice Tower is a podcast about board games “and the people who play them,” as goes the show’s slogan. While the hosts definitely dig into the nuance of modern board games, it’s the accessibility and enthusiasm of the show that really keeps me coming back for more. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Sword and Laser is a podcast about science fiction and fantasy books. The episodes release weekly and there’s an ongoing “book club” where the hosts read a novel each month and then discuss it throughout the month (saving the spoilers for the last episode of the month). Many episodes include interviews with fantasy and science fiction authors. (subscribe in iTunes)

D&D Is for Nerds is basically a recording of some very inventive and skilled improvisational roleplayers playing a tabletop role playing game. They get deeply into their characters and keep the action moving and lively, making it an unpredictable and sometimes humorous ongoing fantasy story. (subscribe in iTunes)

Science Fiction Film Podcast is pretty much exactly what you would expect. It’s a group of science fiction film buffs reviewing films in detail – mostly sci-fi films but sometimes treading into films in other categories. Their insights and attitude keep me coming back for more (and keep me going to the library to rent more DVDs). (subscribe in iTunes)

The Fantasy Footballers is an incredibly well done podcast on fantasy football, mixing analysis, humor, and conversation in an almost perfect blend. I am far from an avid fantasty football player, but this podcast is so enjoyable to listen to and so well executed that I can’t help but enjoy every listen. (subscribe in iTunes)

This American Life is a long-running public radio program that can best be described as a journalistic variety show. Each episode has a theme and there are several segments on the theme, most of which can be described as some form of journalism. In most episodes, you’ll laugh, you’ll learn something, and something will tug hard on your heartstrings. (subscribe in iTunes)

Lore investigates the reality behind folklore. The host, Aaron Mahnke, has a deep love for folklore and for figuring out what it’s really based on, and often it’s based on something utterly fascinating. Each episode is incredibly fun to listen to, coming across as a mix of a campfire story and investigative journalism. (subscribe in iTunes)

The Partially Examined Life is a wonderful podcast about philosophy and how it can be used to reflect on one’s life and, ideally, improve it. This podcast will leave you thinking about the world and about yourself, each and every time, and that’s why it’s such an essential listen for me. (subscribe in iTunes)

99% Invisible is a podcast about design, but more than that, it’s about the “invisible” things in life – things that we rely on or take for granted but are actually the result of a lot of careful thought and analysis. For me, this show is almost meditative at times in how it takes things that scarcely merit a second thought most of the time and show how thoughtful that thing actually is, like the arrangement of windows on the front of a house, for example. Every episode is surprising and enjoyable. (subscribe in iTunes)

Now get out there and listen to some podcasts!

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Four Ways to Get a Faster Tax Refund in 2017

When it comes to getting your tax return as quickly as possible, there are two or three key pieces of advice that professionals typically offer year after year.

And then there’s the new ins and outs for the 2017 tax season.

For instance, few taxpayers realize that this year for the first time, no matter what you do or how you file, the IRS will be holding refunds that include the Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit until Feb 15.

The delay is tied to a 2015 law known as the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, which made several changes to the tax law and mandates that no credit or refund be made before Feb. 15 if the taxpayer claimed Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit on the return.

Yes, that’s a mouthful. But boiled down the takeaway here is that the change is aimed at giving the IRS additional time to review returns in order to prevent revenue loss tied to identity theft and refund fraud (which is often based on fabricated wages and withholdings).

While Feb. 15 may be long before some of us even think about filing, for others, who routinely get their returns in early, this may come as a bit of a surprise.

“People claiming the Earned Income Tax credit or Advanced Child Tax Credit are typically the population that files first and they tend to look for that refund within three to five days,” says Nina Tross, executive director of the National Society of Tax Professionals. “They would fully expect to have their refund by the end of January, but that’s not going to happen this year.”

One other development taxpayers should keep in mind this year is that the IRS is on heightened alert across the board for refund fraud, says Tross, which means there will be increased security protocols tied to filing and accessing previous returns.

“Refund fraud is the number one priority,” continues Tross. “It’s getting a lot of attention, so they are going to be looking at returns more closely.”

For the general public, the heightened security will involve such things as being required to provide a cell phone number in order to access tax returns from prior years, ensuring that you’re able to receive a text message and answer security questions.

“Fraud has become global, coming from Russia, Bulgaria, Romania… places where we have no presence,” Tross explains. “All we can do is stop it here and that effort involves having to provide additional identity verification.”

The takeaway for this one is to be prepared when filing and have all your key information available.

Here’s a handful of additional advice for streamlining the tax return process and getting your refund as quickly as possible.

File Early

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the professionals say many people still don’t realize the impact early filing can have.

“The reason behind this is that there are less returns being processed, so the earlier you get the return in, the quicker you get it back,” says Tracie Miller-Nobles, a CPA and member of the AICPA Financial Literacy Commission.

Make Sure All Information is Correct

Yes, this is another seemingly basic step, but it too can be cause for countless delayed refunds.

Take the time to review such things as your name, Social Security number, and bank routing number carefully. If you got married or divorced in the last year, double check that your name is updated, particularly if you’re e-filing.

“If you’re using tax preparation software, the software defaults to whatever the taxpayer’s last name is. So for people who have recently changed or blended names and are not paying attention that can cause an error. Make sure to correct for that,” says Tross. “In terms of the bank routing information, people seem to have the feeling that the bank verifies this stuff and that’s not the case.”

File Electronically

There are numerous ways available to file electronically these days. Those whose adjusted gross income is $62,000 or less annually may want to use the Free File software options provided by the IRS. There are many well known companies and software options available through this program, including TaxSlayer, Jackson Hewitt, and H&R Block’s Free File.

In addition, for a fee, there are countless commercial online tax preparation services and software.

Why is filing electronically a key part of getting that tax refund quick? The answer is it expedites the entire process.

“Electronic filing really helps in processing the returns,” continues Miller-Nobles. “Most certified public accountants are now required to e-file returns for clients. It speeds up the process of getting the return faster.”

Opt for Direct Deposit of Your Refund

This option may not be for everyone, particularly those who don’t have a bank account, but it’s one of the best ways to speed things up and get a fast tax refund.

“There’s a lot of reasons why this is beneficial,” says Miller-Nobles. “It gets the money into your account faster and you don’t have to worry about the post office losing the check.”

Taxpayers without a bank account may want to look into establishing an Individual Development Account. A valuable tool for low-income families, IDAs are savings accounts that in many cases are able receive a direct deposit.

If none of those options are available, Miller-Nobles has one last piece of advice.

“If the taxpayer doesn’t have a bank account and direct deposit isn’t available, then we really urge them to file early in that situation, and make sure that the refund checks are sent to a secure location,” she says.

Related Articles

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Friday, October 28, 2016

How Popular Television Shows Subtly Encourage Bad Spending Habits

Like it or not, we’re all influenced by the things we see and do and hear. Sometimes, we’re conscious of and aware of those influences, like when we’re talking to a friend and really listening to their advice. Often, we’re not conscious of or aware of those influences at all, like when we’re barely paying attention to the radio and it blares out a few advertisements.

Likewise, some of the things we see and do and hear are obvious attempts at convincing us to buy stuff. Blatant magazine ads, television commercials, internet ads, and radio commercials are clear attempts to get us to be aware of a particular product or a particular retailer. That’s the point of advertisements, after all. They’re designed to make us aware of – and to make us desire – certain products.

However, marketing doesn’t stop there. It often seeps directly into the programming itself, hoping to be an “influence” that we don’t notice as much.

It’s easiest to see this tactic at work on television, which combines both audio and video and offers a nearly infinite variety of programming. Television marketing is incredibly sophisticated; it’s loaded with things that sit right on the edge of our awareness and subtly increase our interest and desire for a wide variety of products.

Here are five tactics that you might see on your favorite television programs. Keep an eye out for them – you’ll be surprised how often they show up. And, as they used to say on one of my favorite cartoons as a child, knowing is half the battle.

Product Placement

In the above clip, you’ll see a ton of examples from popular television programs where products are blatantly placed into the programming itself. The camera will focus in on a particular product for several seconds and, sometimes, the characters will specifically mention the product. On occasion, it’s played off as a joke (like the clip at the very end of the video), but at other times it’s taken completely in stride.

This, honestly, is little more than a commercial embedded in your show. The characters use almost all of the same strategies that normal commercials use to convince you that the product is desirable – it’s sexy, it’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s “macho,” it encourages uninhibited behavior. The only difference is that the characters themselves become the product sellers.

Do things like this directly encourage sales? Maybe, maybe not, but their main purpose is to increase brand awareness. If placements like these increase your familiarity with a cell phone model or a particular brand of car, you’re more likely to choose that cell phone or car when you have a purchasing decision because that brand is familiar to you, thanks to that product placement.

Inexplicable Name Brand Usage

This is something of a variation on the normal type of product placement. I happened to notice it while watching the Netflix series Luke Cage, which depicts a former convict who is living a very down-on-his-luck lifestyle. During one scene that really stood out at me, he was shown cleaning up his very run-down apartment during a period where he had almost no income. Inexplicably, he was using a bunch of name brand cleaning supplies to do it. (I’d love to find a video clip of this that I could share, but after much searching, I came up empty handed.)

Now, stop and think about this for a second. This guy barely has enough money to feed himself and keep a roof over his head and he’s going to the store and spending a bunch of extra money to buy name brand supplies instead of the very similar store brand cleaning supplies? If this were a real situation, this guy would be using store brands and dollar store cleaning supplies, not name brand stuff.

There’s nothing inherently out of place about using a name brand cleaning agent, but showing people in financially challenging situations using them as though that’s a normal choice sends a really bad signal. There’s almost no reason for anyone to use name brand cleaning supplies over the store brand versions, especially if they’re in a financially challenging situation like Luke Cage was in that scene. It creates a sense that this is a normal expense even when times are tight. It isn’t.

Unrealistic Lifestyle Based on Career Choice

The above clip comes from the television show Friends, which shows off the giant New York City apartments that the characters live in. As you can see, the apartments are spacious with open floor plans and gorgeous furnishings.

Here’s the problem. According to best estimates, the rent on the somewhat larger apartment would come in around $5,000 a month. $5,000. At best, you would see three characters actively living in that apartment together; often, it was two characters together. This apartment was theoretically in Greenwich Village.

Now, within the show, they mentioned a time or two that this was a “rent controlled” apartment and it was rented out for $200 a month, which makes it realistic within that reality. Remember, the characters had jobs such as being a librarian, a barista, a mostly-out-of-work actor, and so on.

The problem is that it gives people the impression that two or three of them could go to New York and rent a big apartment together in the middle of the city for a reasonable price. I’ve known many people who have just believed that they could easily pick up and move to New York or San Francisco and afford a nice apartment there with a similar job to what they have now. While reality is likely to quickly change that, this type of unrealistic lifestyle choice that’s commonly depicted on television constantly convinces people to rent or buy homes and apartments they can’t afford, cars they can’t afford, and so on.

1% Lifestyles

On the flip side of that comes programs like Real Housewives of Orange County that blatantly depict the lives of ostentatiously wealthy people.

This type of show takes a different approach than the ones above. Rather than showing a realistic lifestyle that people can relate to, it instead shows an over-the-top lifestyle that few can afford. It’s intended to look amazing and glamorous and chock full of things that are simply outside of the spending limits of most of the viewing audience.

So, what does that have to do with convincing people to buy?

Many such shows are vehicles for getting people familiar with high-end brands. These shows tend to be laden with product placement, but here many of the products are high-end products. They’re smaller items that people could buy if they stretched their budget and, in doing so, can link their lives to the type of “millionaire” lifestyle shown on the show. Doing so, of course, is financially disastrous for most people, but that doesn’t prevent it from happening.

It’s also a vehicle for some of the stars to create a “personal brand,” from which they can sell products and do various kinds of endorsements and product placements. This strategy is spelled out really clearly in this profile of Kim Kardashian, where she discusses her “life as a brand” and lists some of the multitude of products that she endorses and promotes using her reality show fame and extensive social media following built from that television show. She may be the most successful at doing this, but she’s far from the only person doing it.

“News” Programming

The final category that I want to mention is “news” programming, by which I mean segments in the middle of news programs that are seemingly only meant to tell you about and sell you on a product of some kind. Apple products are a common beneficiary of this type of “news.” For example:

This is basically a 90 second advertisement for the iPhone 7 that’s aired as “news” content on CNN. It’s not “news.” It’s an advertisement.

This happens constantly, with a wide variety of products. They do the same thing with many Samsung products and many car brands, too.

Just because it says that it’s news programming doesn’t mean that it’s not an ad for a product, whether or not the company involved paid for that ad or not.

What Can You Do?

So, what can you do? If so much of television programming is geared toward selling you products and raising your recognition of different store brands, how can you avoid those things?

The first thing you can do is simply cut down on your television viewing. Do other things. Go on a walk. Read a book. Make an interesting meal for supper. If you’re tired, go to bed instead of watching television in a daze. Just turn it off.

The next thing you can do is be selective in what you watch. If you happen to notice these tactics in the programs you’re watching, consider watching other things. I’ve found that lower budget independent movies and documentaries are largely devoid of these tactics.

Finally, just be aware of these things and constantly question them. If you’re watching a news story, ask yourself if this is actually news or just an ad for the product. If you see the camera focusing in on a product when you’re watching a drama, be conscious of what they’re doing there.

In the end, the best thing you can do is be more aware of how you think and what’s influencing your thinking, and watching television with a critical eye is very worthwhile in that regard. The same holds true for magazines, newspapers, websites, and pretty much every other form of media.

Good luck!

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Is Borrowing Against Life Insurance a Good Idea?

In addition to providing money for your beneficiaries when you die, permanent life insurance policies build cash value that you can borrow against while you’re alive.

Borrowing against cash value policies offers advantages over traditional loans, says Matthew Carbray, a certified financial planner based in Avon, Conn.

“Borrowing from a life insurance policy can be a favorable way to get access to quick capital,” he explains. “Depending on the policy structure and underlying insurance vehicle, most policies will allow for a policy loan upwards of 90% of the current cash value.”

You can borrow against your life insurance policy for any reason, says Erick G. Colon, a financial advisor with Concord Wealth Management in Massachusetts.

“The loan can be used for any purpose, whether it’s for education, purchasing a home or car, or as a source of funds in the event of loss of income,” he says.

How Life Insurance Policies Build Cash Value

While term life insurance policies remain in effect for fixed periods, permanent or cash value insurance covers you for your entire life.

These policies typically cost more than term life, but a portion of the premiums is invested. Money earned from the investment creates a cash value that can be borrowed against.

When you borrow against a cash value policy, “you’re basically borrowing your own money,” says Emory J. Smith, founder of EJS Financial Management in Phoenix.

Benefits of Borrowing Against Life Insurance

There are a variety of reasons to consider borrowing against your cash value life insurance policy. They include:

Greater flexibility. These loans give borrowers many options. Your policy’s cash value becomes the collateral for the loan, so you can decide how to use the money. Investopedia notes that insurance companies typically require no explanation.

Reduced interest rates. The interest rates on cash value loans often are lower than the rates you’ll receive from credit cards and personal loans. Personal loans typically have high interest rates. The average rate for a 24-month personal loan was 9.65% in August 2016, according to the Federal Reserve.

No credit check required. One of the advantages of a cash-value loan is you don’t have to have your credit checked, says Aron S. Brodt, a financial services professional based in Brooklyn, N.Y. If you have cash value in your life insurance policy, you can borrow against it, even if you have bad credit otherwise. You can’t be turned down because of a lack of creditworthiness.

Repay it whenever you like. You can set your own timetable for repaying the loan. However, if your policy lapses before the loan is retired, you may owe tax on some or all of the portion that hasn’t been repaid, says Smith.

Drawbacks of Borrowing Against Life Insurance

While borrowing against your cash value life insurance has benefits, there also are potential drawbacks:

You’ll decrease your assets. It’s important to make sure the loan is truly necessary. Once you take out a loan against your life insurance policy there will be fewer assets to borrow against in the future.

Your policy may be at risk. Remember that the interest on this type of loan typically is subtracted from your permanent life policy’s cash value. Once the loan and interest exceed the value of the policy, it can lapse. If that happens, “there is the possibility of a taxable event,” says Carbray.

Your death benefit may decline. If your dependents are counting on your life policy for support, be aware that an outstanding loan at the time of your death typically will reduce the benefit, says Smith.

Cash value builds slowly. Before you can borrow against a permanent life insurance policy, it must build value. In the early years of your policy, there may be little value for you to borrow against.

Will You Benefit from Borrowing Against Life Insurance?

This type of loan may be a good alternative for people who face unexpected debts and don’t want to take out more costly personal loans or increase their credit card balances.

Before you take out the loan, though, consider consulting a financial advisor who can help you decide if this is your best option for raising the money you need.

Don’t forget that the original purpose of your life insurance was to provide a death benefit. If you die before you repay the loan, your insurance company will repay the debt by reducing the payout to your beneficiaries.

“In general, a policy owner should only borrow against their policy if they intend to repay the loan or they are certain the policy will not lapse prior to their death,” Smith says.

Related Articles:

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 11): Trimming Your Spending – Food

“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

Last time, we started looking at the average American family budget, going through each category and examining how one could trim the cost of typical expenses in that category. Here’s the “average American family budget” that we’re looking at, along with links back to the earlier entries on those specific areas:

Housing – $10,080
Transportation – $9,004
Taxes – $7,432
Utilities – $7,068
Food – $6,602
Insurance (including things like pensions) – $5,528
Debt Payments – $5,252
Healthcare – $3,631
Entertainment – $2,564
Cash Contributions – $1,834
Apparel and Services – $1,604
Education – $1,138
Vices – $775
Miscellaneous – $664
Personal Care – $608
TOTAL – $63,784

Today, we’re going to take a look at food spending. As you can see from the budget above, the average American family spends $6,602 per year on food. That averages out to $550 per month. Remember, however, that this “average American family” includes single adults, married couples without children, and families with children, too. In other words, a single person is probably coming in below that, whereas a large family (like ours) is probably coming in above that.

The thing is, food is a budgetary area that’s extremely easy to cut back on without reducing the quantity of calories consumed or the quality of food. There are many, many things you can do to trim the cost of food.

Exercise #11 – Trim Your Food Spending

The rest of this article consists of a long list of specific tactics that you can use to trim your food costs. As with the other savings articles in this series, it’s important to remember that everyone lives a somewhat different life and thus some of these tactics are going to seem useful and sensible to you, while others will seem like a stretch to you, and still others won’t apply at all. That’s okay. Ignore the ones that don’t apply. Make an effort to adopt the most sensible ones. Then, give the others a trial run and see if it’s something that can work for you. Commit to some of the challenging ones for thirty days and see if they work, or apply them during the relatively rare situations when those costs come up.

Remember, your overall goal is to cut back hard on the areas of life that are less important to you – the shallows – so that you can afford the “deep” areas of your life both today and tomorrow. Keep that in mind as you read each tip. Is this tip cutting back on something that’s really important to me, that amounts to a core life value? If not, why not cut it so that I can afford those things that really matter?

Let’s dig in.

Make weekly meal plans based on the grocery store flyer before you go to the store. Just sit down with a piece of paper or a whiteboard or a blank document on your computer or phone and list out all of the meals you and your family will eat in the next seven days, then start filling in the blanks. You know that your family is going to have to eat supper next Monday – what will that be? What will everyone have for breakfast next Wednesday? With the aid of your calendar and the knowledge of how a typical week goes, you can start making those decisions now.

It’s a very good idea to go through this process with the aid of the weekly grocery store flyer from your preferred grocer (more on that in a bit). Use the ingredients on that flyer to plan your meals. That way, you know that when you buy the ingredients for that meal, you’re naturally going to be buying ingredients that are on sale at the store.

This saves money in a number of ways. For starters, it allows you to think in advance about your meal plans so that you’re not stuck making last-minute decisions about your meals. Last-minute decisions almost always wind up being expensive decisions. Second, you’re taking advantage of sales by incorporating the grocery store flyer. Third, by planning ahead, you’re more likely to choose meals made at home, which are substantially less expensive than meals eaten out.

Make a grocery list based on those meal plans and your actual needs at home. Once you have that meal plan, turn it into a grocery list. Look around your home for the elements of that meal plan that you already have and only add things to your list that you don’t have – ideally, just fresh ingredients and whatever perishable items you’re running low on.

This process of going through the items you have on hand to figure out which ones you actually need almost always results in a shorter grocery list than you might have expected. Occasionally, it might result in a minor change to your meal plan – “oh, hey, look, I have some instant oats in the cupboard, so I’ll just have that for breakfast on Wednesday” – that also causes your grocery list to be shorter.

The shorter your grocery list, the better. A short grocery list means an emptier cart at the store and a smaller bill at the checkout aisle, which means more money stays in your checking account.

Shop for groceries based on that trusted list. The next step is to head out to the grocery store with that list in hand and buy all of the ingredients you need. Since you planned that list based on a meal plan that was itself based on the grocery flyer, many of the things on your list are going to be on sale already. Couple that with the fact that you filtered the list based on what you have on hand and that list should be tight – it’ll have just things that you need and many will be on sale. That’s a list that’s going to save you money.

Not only that, having a list in your hand in the grocery store means that there’s no need to wander the aisles at all. You know what you need, so you just walk from item to item on the list, putting them in your cart and moving on as efficiently as possible. When you’re focused on that list, you’re much less likely to have your attention wander, and when your attention wanders in a grocery store, you wind up with unintended purchases in your cart.

A tightly focused grocery list gets you in and out of the grocery store as fast as possible with a minimum number of items in the cart. Not only will that save you a lot of money on your food purchases, it also recovers the time invested in preparing the meal plan and grocery list.

Settle on a regular discount grocery store that you trust. Of course, even the best grocery list strategy won’t save you a lot of money if you’re paying a premium price for everything in the store. The best approach to take when it comes to grocery shopping is to make a discount grocer your primary grocery store.

What’s a “discount grocer”? It’s simply a grocery store where the focus is on low prices on the shelves. Usually, such stores are organized and arranged very simply without a lot of extra amenities. Some examples of this include Fareway (my grocery store chain of choice), Aldi, and Trader Joe’s.

The advantage of using a store where the prices are normally quite low is that, no matter what’s on your list, you’re going to be paying less than you would at a typical grocery store. It’s almost like going to a normal grocery store only to find that literally everything is on sale.

Eat out less. Naturally, the idea behind such a focused grocery store strategy is that you’re going to be eating lots of meals at home. In truth, that’s the core of saving money on food – eating at home.

No matter how you slice it, eating out or getting food delivered or picking up ready-made meals is going to be far more expensive than making comparable meals at home. That’s because you’re paying those restaurants for the labor of actually preparing your food and delivering it to you. If you cook at home, you save that cost.

Isn’t eating out more convenient, though? Even if you’re eating at a fast food drive-thru, you’re still waiting in line, ordering food, waiting for the food to be prepared, and paying for it, which does add up. Eating out isn’t instantaneous and often has a similar time commitment to a fairly quick meal at home. That leads us to the next strategy…

Learn how to prepare a number of well-loved meals quickly and efficiently. If you have a repertoire of ten or so meals that you like and that your family likes, particularly when those meals can easily be varied to provide different flavors and textures, and you can prepare those meals quickly and with minimal effort and cleanup, you have little reason to eat out very often.

The trick, of course, is reaching the point where you can prepare meals you enjoy quickly and with minimal effort and cleanup. That only comes with practice. The more you prepare your favorite meals, the more efficient you become at every aspect of the preparation (and you also improve your efficiency at other meals).

This takes time, but it’s an investment of time that really pays off. Your first meals will be slow and messy and perhaps not perfect, but you will improve with each attempt until the process becomes second nature. At that point, preparing meals at home often seems like the most sensible choice.

Rely on low cost staple foods as much as possible. Some recipes are simply more expensive to prepare than others because of the cost of the core ingredients in that recipe. A meal that’s centered around a perfect steak, for example, is going to have a premium cost.

One great strategy for keeping average meal costs low is to fill most of your meal plan with meals that are centered around low cost staple foods. Dry beans, dry rice, chicken, peanut butter, eggs, cottage cheese – all of those things are inexpensive staples around which you can center a lot of different meals.

Make those low cost staples the centerpiece of a lot of meals and you’ll save a lot of money. You can buy the dry ingredients, like beans and rice, in bulk because they become even cheaper and they’ll last forever.

Use a slow cooker. A slow cooker is an amazing device. You can simply put a handful of ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, hit a button or two, and then walk in the door after work to a delicious home-cooked meal that’s ready to put directly on the table. It’s absolutely perfect for busy families like ours; in fact, we use ours two or three times a week to allow for homecooked meals in situations where time constraints might force us to pick up food or get takeout.

Slow cookers excel at things like soups, stews, and casseroles – things that work really well when cooked slowly over several hours. Most of those meals, particularly soups, amount to literally adding ingredients to the cooker in the morning, turning on the heat, and enjoying it in the evening. It’s about as easy as can be.

Another great use for a slow cooker is for making broth or stock. Just save your bones and other scraps from meats and any vegetable scraps you might have and boil them together. A pot full of chicken bones and vegetable scraps, filled up with water and left to slow cook all day, turns into a wonderful broth that can be strained and saved for future soups and other meals.

Prepare multiple batches of meals and freeze them. If you’re already making a casserole or soup or stew for dinner, why not make two or three batches of the same thing and freeze the extra batches for later use? Doing so adds only a little work if you’re already preparing a meal.

Another strategy is to prepare a full second batch, cook it at the same time, and then divide it into individual meals for reheating. A pan of lasagna, for example, can be split into twelve individual pieces which, when placed in individual freezer containers, can provide many lunches going forward. A well-stocked freezer provides lots of meals that are ready to be pulled out and thawed in the refrigerator. These meals can then easily be heated at your convenience in the next few days.

The big advantage here is that it allows you to buy ingredients in bulk when it might not otherwise make sense to do so. If you’re making lasagna because the ingredients are on sale, for example, you can make a “cheap” pan by buying double the ingredients. Similarly, if you can get a much cheaper price per noodle on a jumbo box of lasagna noodles, making multiple pans at once can be a real money saving proposition.

Drink water instead of soda or other beverages. Water is an extremely inexpensive beverage, and it serves its key purpose incredibly effectively. It quenches your thirst. It hydrates you. It has zero calories. It’s also incredibly convenient and pretty much free.

Virtually every other beverage out there fails in at least one of those areas. Almost everything is more expensive than a cup of water, the cost of which is substantially less than a penny if poured from your tap. Many beverages fail to hydrate you. Many beverages are loaded with calories. Many beverages actually don’t quench your thirst at all.

Make water your main beverage. Not only will you feel better, you’ll also save yourself quite a bit of money along the way.

Buy nonperishable foods in bulk when they’re on sale. I touched on this idea above a few times, but it really deserves to be said on its own. If there are nonperishable foods that you use regularly in your meals, buy them in enormous bulk. Fill up your cupboards with rice if you use rice in a lot of meals. Fill up your cupboards with dry beans if you use dry beans all the time.

When you buy nonperishables in large bulk, you drive the price per pound down as low as you possibly can. Buying a twenty pound bag of dried beans, for instance, often reduces the price per pound for beans to about 60% of the cost of buying a pound by itself. If you’re going to use those beans, that’s a tremendous bargain – basically, the first twelve pounds cost you the same per pound as the one-pound bags, but the next eight pounds are free.

Look at the nonperishable foods you use all the time in the kitchen and then look into the possibility of buying those items in large bulk through warehouse clubs or other opportunities. You’ll likely end up saving a whole lot of money.

Buy dried beans and rice and prepare them in advance when it’s convenient. One reason that people rely on the convenience of precooked canned beans or on instant rice is because of the time involved in preparing dried rice and dried beans. When you’re trying to prepare a meal with beans in it, for example, waiting for beans to cook can just stretch out meal preparation too far.

The solution is surprisingly simple: just cook the rice or beans a day or two earlier and store them in the refrigerator. Let’s say you need some cooked beans for a chili soup in the next few days. Cook the beans now when you have some time. Bring them to a boil on the stovetop and let them sit in the hot water for an hour or two, then drain the beans and put them in the fridge. Boom – it’s actually easier at that point than using canned beans!

Every time you can take an element of a meal and prepare it earlier, do so. This makes the actual meal preparation even easier, and when meal preparation is easy, you’re more likely to do it instead of going out and spending more money on food.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how to save money on insurance.

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Five Signs You Need a Career Change

Contrary to what you might have heard, no one is really sure how many careers the average person has in the course of a lifetime – in part, because many career changes are hard to define. If you start out your career as a Registered Nurse, become a Nurse Manager, and then later go on to work in hospital administration, have you had one career, or three?

Regardless of how you define them, careers are fluid, and most of us will have at least a few. The more important thing to know is when it’s time to consider moving on to the next phase of your working life.

These are all good signs that it’s time to start thinking about what comes next:

1. Your industry is dying.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook tracks occupations’ median pay, educational requirements, and growth rate. If you’re trying to figure out if your job will still exist in a few years, it’s a good place to start.

For example, if you’re Statistician or a Wind Turbine Service Technician, good news – both occupations are projected to grow at 30% or faster between 2014 and 2024. On the other hand, if you’re a Broadcast News Analyst or Medical Transcriptionist, it might be time to retrain, as both occupations are expected to decline.

2. You’re chronically burnt out.

When we think of job burnout, we often picture the behavioral evidence that someone is about to reach their breaking point – snapping at coworkers, for example, or becoming critical of the job. But burnout can manifest as physical symptoms as well, appearing as everything from insomnia to getting sick more often.

If you’re feeling not quite right, and your doctor can’t find anything wrong with you, the issue might be career-related. Engage in some self-care now, while you figure out what you want to do next. Your coworkers will thank you, and you’ll be able to embark on your next phase with a clear conscience.

3. You don’t want your boss’s job.

There’s no rule that says that you have to climb straight up the ladder, but in many professions, if you don’t want your boss’s job someday, there’s really nowhere else for you to go. If you don’t love what your manager does all day, and there’s no other path forward or way to earn more money as your experience grows, you might want to consider whether it’s time to look into another career.

You don’t have to be a manager to be a success. But you do have to plan carefully to achieve a non-management track career that meets your emotional and financial needs.

4. You have the ‘Sunday Night Blues’ …all week long.

No matter how much you love your job, you’re going to have the occasional day where you’d rather be on the beach or the golf course instead of heading into yet another meeting. That’s perfectly normal. What’s not normal is dreading every day like it’s your annual review and you haven’t met your goals.

If you’re always dragging your feet as you head out the door, it might be time for a change. Consider the famous quote by late Apple founder Steve Jobs: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

If the issue is what you do – as opposed to a problem with your boss or your employer – you might want to think about changing careers, and not just looking for a new job.

5. You’re not excited about your work anymore.

Sometimes, it’s not that you hate what you do for a living, but that it just doesn’t excite you. This isn’t to say that work needs to fulfill all our needs; many people earn a living doing one thing and feed their soul doing something else. But if you used to feel passion for your work and now you’re feeling ho-hum, it might be time to consider whether a change in scenery would reignite your excitement.

Related Articles: 

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

One Little Square

Quite often, big financial changes (or other life changes) can feel absolutely overwhelming or even impossible. When you have debt that’s bigger than your salary, it can just feel like this mountain that you’ll never overcome. When you read about the retirement savings that you should have in order to be able to retire, it can feel like you’re trying to cross an ocean in a kayak.

That sense of impossibility and feeling overwhelmed by the big picture often convinces people not to even try to achieve financial goals.

Here’s another way of looking at it, though. Instead of imagining $100,000 in one place, imagine instead a big bunch of little steps, each one of which saves you $10. Every time you make one of those little choices, you put $10 in your account. All you have to do is take some number of steps – a number less than 10,000 because of the power of interest – and you’re at your goal.

I like to envision giant goals like this as squares on a piece of graph paper. In fact, I often use graph paper to help. I’d take a piece of graph paper with 100 squares by 100 squares on it and I’d simply mark out one of those squares every time I did something that saved $10 and I put that $10 aside in an account somewhere. Whenever that account earned $10 in interest or dividends or growth, I’d add another square. Then, over time, I can watch that square fill in. Maybe your goal is even bigger and it requires a 500 by 200 piece of paper – that’s okay. It’s still just made up of little steps and little squares.

Each step matters. Each little square on that piece of graph paper matters. Each step is a real, tangible movement toward that big goal. At the same time, each step is something small enough that you can easily grasp it in the normal course of your day.

One little square. You can fill in that square countless times in a given week, and with each little square you fill in, your success grows larger and the distance you still have to go grows smaller.

Filling in one little square is a small one time change. You can simply choose to do something different today and you’ll save ten dollars, and 10 dollars is enough to fill in a square.

Filling in one little square is something you can repeat over and over again if it works. If you find that the simple step you took is actually not a problem, you can always repeat it again later or find something similar to do.

Filling in one little square doesn’t require a radical life shift. You don’t have to become a frugal master. You don’t have to start pinching every penny. You don’t have to become a bodybuilder. You’re just making a single choice on a single day to do something better.

Filling in one little square might be easier than you think, or perhaps even fun. You might find that the thing you thought would be the tougher choice is actually the more enjoyable choice, which means that it’s actually the better choice. You won’t know until you try.

So, what are some examples of “one little square” changes that you might make? Here are several financially-related examples mixed in with examples from other gigantic goals people might have.

Choosing a few store brand items over name brand items. You’re in the store trying to decide what kind of laundry detergent to buy or what kind of crackers to buy. Instead of buying the familiar name brand, you choose the store brand that’s a couple of dollars cheaper. Do that several times during a grocery store visit and you’ve saved $10 – that’s a perfect little square.

Doing a short one-time exercise burst. Do a hundred jumping jacks until you’re panting and your heart is racing. Do anything until your heart is pattering along and you’re out of breath. There’s no need to make yourself miserable, just do enough so that you get the blood really pumping and flowing. That alone is good for your health.

Choosing to eat at home rather than eating out. Doing so will likely save you at least $10 if you’re an adult. For our family of five, choosing to eat a meal at home usually saves us about $30-$40 because our meal at home is so much cheaper than eating out. That’s three or four little squares on that piece of graph paper.

Doing a Duolingo lesson. If your goal is to learn a foreign language, a single lesson on Duolingo is a perfect “little square.” It takes about 10 minutes, exercises your vocabulary and sentence construction, and forms just one little step in a long language learning journey.

Going somewhere free (or super cheap) for entertainment rather than paying for it. My wife and I used to go on dates to the “dollar theatre” when we were younger because the movies were still pretty new and it saved us about $10 in ticket prices compared to the full priced theatre. Maybe you’ll go to a free concert by a municipal band or an unknown band rather than paying $20 to go to a paid concert – that’s two little squares.

Drink water instead of soda. When you’re tempted to pop open a soda, drink a glass of water instead. When you’re tempted to order a soda at a restaurant, order water instead. Each time you do this, it’s not only a little square for your health, but several choices like that add up to $10 in savings, so it’s a little financial square, too.

Spending an afternoon air sealing your home instead of doing something fun. You’ll probably spend about the same amount on a few odds and ends at the hardware store for air sealing your home as you would on whatever you might do that afternoon, but here’s the difference. After you air seal your home by installing weatherstrips around drafty doors and putting caulk around windows that might be leaking air and putting some insulation in your attic anywhere where you can see daylight, you’re going to see a permanent drop in your energy bill. If that change saves you $10 a month, you can now fill in a square each and every month for as long as you live there because of that one afternoon you spent.

Eat a vegan meal. That’s right – eat a meal composed entirely of vegetables and fruits. That single meal is almost always going to be cheaper than a meal with a big cut of meat involved (probably saving you half a square in the process) and it’s going to be a lot healthier and lower in calories, too. If vegan is too hard, try a vegetarian meal – you can use things like milk and eggs and cheese with a vegetarian meal.

Check out a movie or a book from the library instead of buying it. If you’re about to buy a book or a DVD, stop. Check and see if it’s at the library first and check it out from there. You’ll get to read that book or watch that DVD and you’ll save (at least) $10 in the process, too.

Turn off your cell phone and do something focused for an hour with your child. Let yourself not be distracted by your cell phone for a while and instead get lost in time spent with your child. If you find yourself getting distracted, intentionally bring your focus back to the child you’re playing with. You’ll find yourself making your relationship just a little bit stronger and you’ll also find that your ability to focus is just a little bit better.

Change your own oil instead of going to the oil change place. Doing it yourself isn’t hard and it’ll probably save you $20 (two little squares!). It’s one of those things that’s intimidating the first time, but then it’s simple thereafter.

The big key here is to not waste that square once you’ve claimed it. If you save $10, actually put that aside in a savings account or a retirement account somewhere. If you make a good dietary choice, don’t eat a huge meal to “make up for it.” Life reverts to normal, not to a splurge.

The beautiful part? Every time you claim a square, the goal gets smaller. When you claim a financial square, the amount of money you still need to save shrinks a little bit. Ever so slowly, the goal becomes less and less scary.

You can do this, one little square at a time.

Related Articles:

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Is AAA Worth It?

If you’ve ever broken down on the side of the road or had to get a car towed, you’ve probably wished you had some kind of roadside assistance coverage. But if you’re wondering whether a membership to the American Automobile Association (AAA) is worth the cost, pretty much across the board experts say, “Not necessarily.”

Costs and benefits vary by state and by membership level, so it’s important to evaluate all the options, and what parts of the service you’ll actually use, before handing over your credit card.

What You Get With AAA: The Basics

The annual fee for the lowest level AAA membership (here in Colorado — it varies by-state) is $75, plus a one-time enrollment fee of about $15 for new members. You can add additional family members (e.g., a spouse or child) for $37 per person, per year.

This basic-level membership includes the following roadside assistance:

  • A mechanical adjustment: If your responder thinks it’s possible to get your vehicle operational on site, they’ll try to do so. That might include jump-starting the battery, changing a flat tire, charging an electric vehicle, or fuel delivery (you pay the price of fuel).
  • If none of that solves the problem, your car will be towed to the destination of your choice, within seven miles.
  • If your keys are locked in the car, AAA covers retrieval.
  • Roadside assistance, in some areas, can includes bicycles. AAA won’t fix a flat, but they’ll drive you and your bike as far as they would tow your car.
  • Services are connected to the member, not the vehicle. That means you can call in AAA to help whether you’re the driver or a passenger, in your car or someone else’s, up to four times per year.

The Plus and Premier levels (in Colorado, these are priced at $125 and $165 a year, respectively) add services such as towing up to 100 miles, free fuel, one day of car rental, and extrication assistance if your vehicle is stuck in mud or ice.

What Else You Get: The Bonus Perks

AAA members have access to a full-service travel agency, as well as other travel-related discounts and benefits. For example, many hotels across the country offer a AAA discount of about 10% or more off normal rates, including chains such as Marriott and Best Western, and rental car agencies also honor AAA discounts.

Members can also can access a lengthy list of other discounts available to them. But between the proliferation of discount travel and deal websites (from Kayak and Priceline to Honey.com) and the tendency for individual companies to rewarding newsletter subscribers with more coupons than they can ever hope to use, this is more of a nice throw-in than a reason to get a AAA membership.

For example, one “deal” on AAA.com as of mid-October is free shipping from Gap.com on a purchase of $50 or more, and free returns. But if you’re a regular on the Gap website, you know that the company offers that deal to everyone, all the time — and if you sign up to receive their emails, they regularly send along additional site-wide discounts.

AAA does offer a cash-back “WOWPoints” program — similar to many credit cards rewards programs. So that $50 Gap.com purchase will earn you 50 points, which you can redeem at a penny per point during checkout on future purchases through approved merchants. Again, it’s worth evaluating your credit card’s loyalty programs against AAA’s to see where you can get the best deal.

You May Already Have Roadside Assistance

Bonus perks aside, most people mulling over a AAA membership are primarily looking for fast and reliable help on the road when something goes wonky with their vehicle. If this is true for you, it’s worth researching what services you might already have access to first. Those might include:

Your vehicle’s manufacturer: New vehicles typically come with some level of roadside assistance. Check the fine print of your paperwork to see what’s included and for how long or how many miles it’s valid. Plans can range from three years from purchase date to the lifetime of the car while you’re the owner.

Your car insurance: Many car insurance policies offer some level of roadside assistance either as part of the plan or for a low additional fee — for example, GEICO’s fee is $14 a year. Some don’t limit the number of calls per year, and offer towing up to 100 miles (which you’d only get with AAA at the Plus or Premier levels).

Your credit cards: While some credit card companies have dropped roadside assistance as a basic benefit in recent years, some still offer free or low-cost options. Options vary by card issuer or even by credit card, so once again, dig into your paperwork or have an online chat with a representative to see whether you’re eligible.

Is AAA Worth It? Some Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most compelling financial reason to get a AAA membership is the peace of mind it offers — especially if it means you feel more comfortable trying to squeeze another year or two out of an old, paid-off car.

Every year you’re able to put off buying a new car can save you thousands of dollars. So if the knowledge that you won’t be left stranded on the side of the road gives you the confidence to stick with your beater for another year or three, a AAA membership (or the roadside assistance coverage through your insurer) is probably well worth it.

If you do decide to sign up with AAA, do a quick Google search for “AAA promotion code.” As of mid-October, this search brought up multiple opportunities to save — from enrollment fee waivers to reduced-rate memberships. It might just be the piece that makes AAA worth it after all.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How a Meaningful Morning Routine Can Set The Stage for Financial, Professional, and Personal Success

The first few hours of each of my days are set in stone.

I wake up at 6 AM on the dot. (Some mornings, I awaken a bit earlier, and if I do, I usually read in bed for a little while.) I try really hard to just sit up and not hit “snooze” on my alarm.

Upon waking, I use the restroom and do some basic hygiene, then I head downstairs and drink a huge glass of water. I then head into my office, close the door, and meditate for ten minutes.

After that, I scan my email to see if there are any absolute emergencies happening and, if there aren’t any, I catch up on the day’s news. At about 6:45, I set three goals for the day, then I make sure my kids are awake and help them with their morning routine until they’re out the door.

After that, I write. I write in roughly one hour blocks with fifteen minute breaks in the middle, during which I do household chores, and that fills my morning. (In the afternoon, I write some more and usually finish by outlining the next article or two so that I can just sit down and start dropping words the next morning.)

I follow this exact routine each weekday morning and only a slight variation on it on weekend mornings (I do the same routine except I skip the morning routine with the kids and jump straight to the writing until everyone else in the house is awake.) I firmly believe that this routine is absolutely vital for me getting my day started off on the right foot, because whenever this routine fails, I spend the entire day feeling out of whack and unproductive.

In the afternoon, I’m much less intense. Rather than doing things I have to do, I focus more on things that I want to do. Afternoons are when I learn. They’re when I do mild exercise that I really enjoy. They’re when I sometimes just do something fun and personally enjoyable. They’re when I spend time purely focused on my kids.

In other words, my morning – and my morning routine – is focused on making sure I’ve taken care of the things in life that I need to get done, while my afternoon and evening is focused on the things in life that I want to get done.

Why a Morning Routine Works

The reason that I try to pack my day in this way – a morning routine where I handle needs, a freeform afternoon where I handle wants – is that it takes advantage of the normal mental and physical changes that happen to me over the course of the day. The thing is, these mental and physical changes happen to most people.

In the paper Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis, the authors (Hagger et. al.) offer up the following analysis (don’t worry, I’ll parse it out more clearly in a moment):

According to the strength model, self-control is a finite resource that determines capacity for effortful control over dominant responses and, once expended, leads to impaired self-control task performance, known as ego depletion. A meta-analysis of 83 studies tested the effect of ego depletion on task performance and related outcomes, alternative explanations and moderators of the effect, and additional strength model hypotheses. Results revealed a significant effect of ego depletion on self-control task performance. Significant effect sizes were found for ego depletion on effort, perceived difficulty, negative affect, subjective fatigue, and blood glucose levels. Small, nonsignificant effects were found for positive affect and self-efficacy. Moderator analyses indicated minimal variation in the effect across sphere of depleting and dependent task, frequently used depleting and dependent tasks, presentation of tasks as single or separate experiments, type of dependent measure and control condition task, and source laboratory. The effect size was moderated by depleting task duration, task presentation by the same or different experimenters, intertask interim period, dependent task complexity, and use of dependent tasks in the choice and volition and cognitive spheres. Motivational incentives, training on self-control tasks, and glucose supplementation promoted better self-control in ego-depleted samples. Expecting further acts of self-control exacerbated the effect. Findings provide preliminary support for the ego-depletion effect and strength model hypotheses. Support for motivation and fatigue as alternative explanations for ego depletion indicate a need to integrate the strength model with other theories. Findings provide impetus for future investigation testing additional hypotheses and mechanisms of the ego-depletion effect.

The idea in the paper is that during a given day, we have a finite amount of self-control that depletes throughout the day. That depletion can be measured physically in terms of things like blood glucose levels as well as mentally in terms of things like perceived task difficulty.

After a good night of sleep, our self-control “tank” is full and we gradually burn it throughout the day. Every time we don’t simply take the most pleasurable path in that moment, we’re using a bit of that self-control. When we make ourselves go to work, we’re using a bit of self-control. When we bear down on a task instead of dawdling, we’re using a bit of self-control. When we stick to a grocery list at the grocery store, we’re using a bit of self-control.

Eventually, the tank starts running low. It gets harder to exhibit self-control. Our mind starts wandering in the afternoons. We come home and have to really push ourselves through the things we need to do in the early evening. We often then find ourselves camped out on the couch watching television or browsing social media on our phones. Our self-control is basically gone at that point. (This is the part of the day where I’ll find myself playing video games or reading page-turner pulp fiction, for instance.)

“Need” to Do Versus “Want” to Do

So, let’s bring this back to the things that are on your agenda for today. They generally fall into two groups: things you need to do and things you want to do.

The things you need to do are things that you simply have to take care of in order for today to seem like a successful day. They have to be done, whether you like it or not. Many professional tasks fall into this category (the “un-fun” parts of your job) as do many personal tasks (like laundry… seriously, I don’t know anyone who relishes doing laundry).

The things you want to do are things that, as you’re doing them, bring positivity into your life. You actually enjoy doing them and look forward to them. These include the best parts of your job, some of your personal tasks, and most things that involve leisure and your personal hobbies.

You need to restock the shelves at work. You want to binge-watch that series on Netflix. It’s simple.

The idea behind building a morning routine is to make sure that you’re doing the things you need to do for a successful day in the morning when you still have a lot of self-control in your tank. Then, you can leave the things you want to do for later in the day when the self-control is flagging – the simple desire to do those things will help you to still do them.

For example, many people put exercise in their morning routine because they feel they need to do it, but they have a hard time mustering the self-control to do it later in the day when their self-control begins to run out. I put it in the afternoon because it’s something I want to do – I love going on a long, brisk walk while thinking about something in my life or listening to a podcast.

The Value of a Morning Routine

Given that idea, the reason for a morning routine makes sense. A morning routine is simply filled with the important things that you have to do in life – the tasks that are unpleasant or require a lot of focus to complete. You accomplish them early while your self-control is still really high and you create a strong sense of achievement early in the day.

For me, my morning routine is when I take care of things that absolutely have to be done, when I try to establish positive habits, and when I take care of things that require the most focus. I am lucky – there are very few things in my life that I truly dislike doing, so I don’t have to fill my mornings with them.

The thing that requires the most focus for me is actual writing – transforming an outline of ideas into an article and then editing that article into something more readable and pleasant. (I can brainstorm and create outlines when my self-control is slowing down, so I often do that in the afternoon.) I also need focus when I’m doing things that involve spending, like going to the grocery store, because I’ll easily make bad spending choices when I spend when my self-control is lower.

So, before we start talking about implementing a morning routine, ask yourself these three questions.

What things do you want or need to take care of every day in your life? Your job is probably part of this, as are positive personal habits that you’re trying to establish, like exercise.

Which of those are ones that you find hardest to motivate yourself to do? What are the hardest tasks to complete? What ones really require focus but you have a hard time producing that focus? Also, which ones are new to your life?

Which of those are ones that you relish and enjoy? What parts of your life do you really enjoy?

Those three questions will help you devise a great, meaningful morning routine.

What Goes Into a Good Morning Routine?

There are three key elements to a good morning routine.

The first element is making sure you’re physically and mentally alert when you get up. This involves different things for different people. For me, that involves using the bathroom, brushing my teeth, drinking a bunch of water, and doing mindful meditation for ten minutes.

The second element is setting the stage for what you want to achieve for the rest of the day. I do this by checking my to-do list and then deciding on three main goals for the day. Usually, those three goals are large tasks I need to do, often two professional and one personal. Those are the central focus of my day.

The third element is taking on the hardest tasks first. This way, you’re tackling the hardest tasks when your self-control is the strongest. After I’ve set the stage for the day, I then move on to taking on the tasks that require the most focus and hard work and I do them first while my self-control is still really high. I leave the other tasks that require less self-control until later in the day. So, for example, I do high-focus work tasks and tasks that involve financial responsibility as early as I can in the day and I save more “fun” tasks like brainstorming and learning for later in the day.

So, how can you build a morning routine that really works for you and sets you up for successful days?

Step One: Physical and Mental Alertness

The best way to start your day is to get yourself into a physically and mentally alert state so that you feel good, you know that your self-control is in a good place, and you’re ready to tackle the challenges of the day.

Here are some suggested elements:

Don’t keep hitting the snooze button. Set your alarm for when you actually need to get up and, when the alarm goes off, get up. Make yourself sit up and put your feet on the floor before you ever touch your alarm clock. Laying in bed in a semi-awake state isn’t restful; in fact, it adds to the stress of the day because you’ve lost that time.

Take a shower. Many people find that a morning shower makes them feel more alert and ready for the day. I’ve tried this, but I find that showering later in the day after I exercise works better for me. Different people are wired differently.

Brush your teeth or perform other basic hygiene. Similarly, basic hygiene tasks like brushing your teeth or using floss or washing your face can really help with bringing about both physical and mental alertness. I almost always start the day by brushing my teeth and splashing water on my face.

Drink some water, coffee, or tea, depending on your tastes. I’m a morning water person. My wife is a morning coffee person. We both consume beverages because it raises our alertness. For me, the hydration really helps with alertness; for my wife, the caffeine and heat of the coffee raises her mental state.

Do some mild exercise or stretching. Some people like to use exercise as a tool to raise mental and physical alertness first thing in the morning. I usually just stretch for a few minutes, as that seems to have the same effect for me in terms of raising alertness. I usually just sit on the floor with my legs stretched out and try to touch my toes and I also do a few basic yoga poses.

Mindfully meditate. To me, this is the key to mental alertness to start the day. I do this for ten minutes in the morning and usually for ten minutes around midday. It’s simple: I just turn off all distractions, sit in a comfortable place, close my eyes, and focus entirely on my breathing. If I feel my mind wandering away, I become aware of it and bring my focus back to my breathing. To me, this feels like doing “reps” with my mind and it really helps with building one’s ability to be alert and focused over the long term.

Step Two: Set the Stage

The second element of a good morning routine is to set the stage for the day to come. What is it that you need to achieve today? What are the most important things you need to do? This is a great thing to assess, because then you can choose from among those items and do the ones that require the most focus first.

Here are some suggested elements:

Set one to three key goals for the day. What are the key things you want to achieve before the end of the day? They might be personal. They might be professional. They might even be related to other spheres of life. Set those as your personal goals. I usually try to set three of them each day. Typically one to two of them are professional, one is personal, and the other one varies.

Check your to-do list for tasks you need to complete. I use a to-do list manager to keep my multitude of tasks organized. I’ll check this list so I know what things I need to do today. These are usually smaller tasks that don’t really make sense as the focus for the day.

Quickly review your email and messages to make sure there aren’t any absolute emergencies to handle. I do this now because, when I move on to taking on the hard tasks, I turn off my phone and email so that I can focus better on those tasks. If there’s a true emergency, I deal with it right away; if not, I don’t look at messages again until mid-day at the earliest. I don’t get anything done if I’m constantly interrupted by fresh emails and messages.

Step Three: Take on the Hard Tasks

At the start of your day, your self-control is as strong as it will be all day long, so use it! Put that self-control to work and knock out some of the key things you need to take care of.

Here are some suggested elements:

Exercise. Many people struggle to take the first step to exercise, so try doing it early in the morning when you have the self-control that you need to get you started. This is true for any tough daily routine you’re trying to implement.

Turn off distractions. Turn off your phone entirely. Close your email program and your social media sites. The goal is to focus on the tasks at hand, not to have your attention pulled away by the latest text or social media alert.

Do the most difficult task on your agenda first. What’s the hardest task you have to face today? You can define “hardest” however you’d like; for me, it’s the task that requires the most focus to complete efficiently. Do that task first.

Make spending decisions. If you need to shop, do it as early in the day as possible while your self-control is high. In the evening, when self-control is lower, you’ll have no reason to go to the store or visit e-commerce websites.

Do “un-fun” work and home tasks. Yes, some tasks simply aren’t enjoyable. We all have specific work tasks and home tasks we don’t like. Do them early so that they’re out of the way and the more tolerable tasks are the ones that are left.

Final Thoughts

A good morning routine sets you up for a successful day in every sphere of your life. It ensures that you get the important things done. It helps you motivate yourself to take on new habits and routines. It helps you to avoid bad spending choices. It leaves you with an afternoon and evening full of much more tolerable tasks and free time, perfect for when your self-control is naturally lower. In short, a morning routine can make you much more personally, financially, and professionally successful.

Consider using the ideas above to develop a strong morning routine for yourself so that you can enjoy all of the benefits, financial and otherwise. Good luck!

The post How a Meaningful Morning Routine Can Set The Stage for Financial, Professional, and Personal Success appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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