Saturday, November 5, 2016

Inspiration from Alan Watts, Henry David Thoreau, Stutterer, and More

Once a month (or so), I share a dozen things that have inspired me to greater personal, professional, and financial success in my life. I hope they bring similar success to your life.

1. Alan Watts on change

“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.” – Alan Watts

Part of the reason that change seems so challenging is that we feel restricted by the patterns we’ve already established in life. While there might be aspects of ourselves that we want to change, we’re also often comfortable with the patterns that we’ve established. On some level, we’re comfortable with who we are, or at least more comfortable with that than the prospect of change.

The thing is, our lives really are whatever we make of it. The person we were yesterday doesn’t have to be the person we are today. We can always strive to be better. We can always improve our lives.

Don’t commit yourself to a painful future just because of the mistakes made in the past. You don’t live in the past. You live in the present, and your present self can always change your future. It starts with making good choices today.

2. Jim Hemerling on five ways to lead in an era of constant change

From the description:

Who says change needs to be hard? Organizational change expert Jim Hemerling thinks adapting your business in today’s constantly-evolving world can be invigorating instead of exhausting. He outlines five imperatives, centered around putting people first, for turning company reorganization into an empowering, energizing task for all.

During the last decade of my life (well, actually, the last two decades, to an extent), I’ve wound up in more leadership positions than I would have ever expected earlier on in my life. I’ve wound up as the president of a charity, the defacto leader of a research project, the head of an internet business… sheesh.

The thing is, I don’t actually like leading. I don’t feel that I’m very good at it, so I mostly rely on everyone else on the team as a crutch. I have no idea what I’m doing, so I just go around to everyone and ask what they’re doing and just try to see where it fits together and what I can do to help it fit better.

The thing is, I think that’s really the key. A leader is just the person who tries to help everyone fit together, and you do that by listening, by putting things in place to help people fit together better, and occasionally pull out a piece that isn’t working or put in a new piece that’s needed. That’s it. The key is listening and then trying to do something about it.

If you’re ever stuck leading something, just do that. Ask everyone what they’re doing and what their personal vision is and what they want to be doing, and do your best to make all of that work together. If everyone’s happy, they’re going to try to make the project succeed and the best way to make people happy is to just listen without interruption and then try to help and try to make things fit.

3. Dale Carnegie on dealing with others

“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” – Dale Carnegie

This somewhat overlaps with the above video. People might be logical when solving some problems, but most of the time, everyone operates out of a sense of pride and pre-existing opinions. People want to feel important and appreciated.

Over the years, I’ve figured out one thing that has really, really helped me every time I’ve had to work with other people: give an overabundance of credit to others. Whenever someone compliments you, give credit to people who have helped you. When you present something, find ways to single out others for credit.

The thing is, doing that takes nothing away from you, but it gives a lot to the people that helped you. People still know and respect that you put forth a lot of effort, even when you dish tons of credit to others, but then people know that there are a lot of additional people that helped. They also know that you’re a team player, so if anything it actually helps you a little.

Every single reasonable time you can, give credit to others. Feed their pride a little, their vanity a little. There’s no drawback to it, only benefit.

4. Darebee

I am a huge fan of bodyweight exercises – in other words, exercises you can do at home without any additional equipment that pushes both your strength and cardio health. Think jumping jacks and sit-ups and push-ups.

For many years, I used something called the “Lifetime Fitness Ladder,” which is basically just a routine of simple bodyweight exercises. The goal of the ladder was to work through the same loop of exercises every day, adding more reps over time. While it did a great job of pushing cardio health, I found that it didn’t do as great of a job at strengthening lots of muscle groups. It mostly just worked the same few muscle groups.

I tried a lot of different approaches for fixing that problem, but in the last month or so, I’ve really found the best solution for me: Darebee. It’s simply a daily bodyweight fitness routine with three different challenge levels. Each day, the challenge is far different, but it always mixes cardio exercise (meaning it gets you breathing hard and gets your heart racing) along with exercises that challenge different muscle groups each day.

All of the stuff at Darebee is free. It’s fun. It offers variety. It helps get you into shape. It requires no additional equipment. It’s really easy to just pop over there and check out today’s exercise routine.

I love it. I hope you will, too.

5. Abraham Maslow on growth

“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” ― Abraham Maslow

Dozens of times throughout the day, we have a choice. We can do something a little harder that builds to a better future, or we can slack off and do the easy thing.

It’s hard to consistently make the better of the two choices. It’s hard to not just kick back on the couch after a busy day. It’s hard to push yourself to grow. On the other hand, it’s easy to just slack off. It’s easy to just browse social media or some website. It’s easy to burn a weekend binge-watching a TV show or swimming in sports.

No one is ever going to make the tough choice to step forward into growth every time. That’s not going to happen. It’s not realistic. Instead, the best way to become a better person is to simply make the tough choice a little more often and to keep it in mind when you’re making choices.

6. Isaac Lidsky on the reality you’re creating for yourself

From the description:

Reality isn’t something you perceive; it’s something you create in your mind. Isaac Lidsky learned this profound lesson firsthand, when unexpected life circumstances yielded valuable insights. In this introspective, personal talk, he challenges us to let go of excuses, assumptions and fears, and accept the awesome responsibility of being the creators of our own reality.

Every single person perceives the world differently. Some people see a hilltop as an adventure. Others see it as a challenge. Still others see it as something to fear.

The thing is, I want to perceive as much of life as possible as challenges and adventures, things that are joyful to overcome. However, it’s up to me to perceive the things life hands me as a challenge to relish, not something to fear.

If there’s something out there that scares you and overwhelms you, that feeling is yours and yours alone. You choose to interpret the world as you want to interpret it – as something to fear or as something to relish.

I want to relish all of it: the mundane, the challenging, even the frightening.

7. Walt Whitman, I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The measure of our success as a nation has been our hard work and our willingness to work toward a common goal, to share that song. Voices high and low have come together to blend their voices, to make it special.

Where is that song? We need this now, more than ever. It’s so easy to just blame someone else for not carrying that tune, but when we’re blaming, we’re not singing. We’re not contributing to that American song.

8. J.D. Vance on America’s forgotten working class

From the description:

J.D. Vance grew up in a small, poor city in the Rust Belt of southern Ohio, where he had a front-row seat to many of the social ills plaguing America: a heroin epidemic, failing schools, families torn apart by divorce and sometimes violence. In a searching talk that will echo throughout the country’s working-class towns, the author details what the loss of the American Dream feels like and raises an important question that everyone from community leaders to policy makers needs to ask: How can we help kids from America’s forgotten places break free from hopelessness and live better lives?

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is far and away the best book I’ve read this year. It’s an incredibly insightful look at the consequences of economic inequality and how it begins to create a cultural shift over time. It’s personal, beautiful, and insightful – a trifecta that’s hard to pull off.

The thing is, there are no easy answers to the questions he’s asking, but simply paying attention to the questions and reflecting on the domino effects of globalism can bring about a lot of understanding.

I grew up in a situation not too different than J.D.’s experience. While my parents were very good people, I was surrounded by families who had gone through things much like what is described in this book and in this speech. It’s very, very easy to make a snap judgment and decide that people who make poor personal choices are somehow “bad” or personally flawed, but such outcomes are often the result of extremely uninvolved and abusive parents and a community that does very little to foster hope for a great future.

How do we fix it? I don’t know. I’m just glad that this guy is out there making it clear that cultural divides often aren’t what they seem to be.

It’s harder to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes than we like to think that it is.

9. Winston Churchill on making a point

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” – Winston Churchill

This is something that I take to heart when I’m writing about personal finance or some other aspect of self-improvement. If I come across a principle that really works, something that benefits my life and/or my financial progress, I’m going to want to share it. I’m going to want to do everything I can to make sure that you hear about it and understand it.

To an extent, that means repeating it. A truly important point – which, in my case, means a principle or a tactic that has really made a difference for me – is something that I don’t want to be subtle or clever about. I want to drive it home. That means hitting it home as obviously as possible, then hitting it again, then again.

10. Rachel Barton Pine – Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is essential, like air and water, for many classical musicians. Pianist András Schiff starts every day with Bach — sometimes before breakfast. “It’s like taking care of your inner hygiene. There’s something very pure about it,” he says. Cellist Matt Haimovitz notes that he’s been playing and thinking about the Bach Cello Suites for more than 30 years. He even plays them in bars.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine began playing Bach in church at age 4. Ever since, she’s been mastering and re-mastering Bach’s set of six Sonatas and Partitas—more than two hours of solo violin music that looms like a proverbial Mount Everest for any serious fiddler. The trick is getting the details down. Bach left us with the notes but not much else. Pine recently analyzed every measure of these works, and prepared a new edition of the music with her own dynamic markings, phrasing indications, bowings and fingerings.

For this performance, Pine chose three contrasting movements from the set and plays them on her Guarneri del Gesu violin, which was built in 1742 — eight years before Bach died. She highlights the spirit of the dance in the “Tempo di Borea” (a Bourée from the First Partita). She unfolds a serene melody, just lightly accompanied, in the “Largo” (from the Third Sonata), and she closes with the intertwining “Fuga” (from the First Sonata), which sounds like three violinists in deep discussion.

Although the Sonatas and Partitas brim with technical demands, Pine says that every time she plays them, it’s as if she’s “conversing with the very best of friends.”

Turn this on and then go about your day. Play it when you’re doing ordinary chores (that’s when I like listening to classical music). It’s really good.

11. Henry David Thoreau on the price of anything

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” – Henry David Thoreau

More and more, I’ve come to realize that this simple statement underlies so many of the decisions I have to make in my life. I’m left wondering what exactly is worth it – and what isn’t.

If I spend $5 on something, is it worth it? Every $5 I spend adds a little bit to the amount of time in my life that I’m going to have to spend working.

If I spend an hour on something, is it worth it? That’s an hour less of my life that I can spend on things that are truly important to me.

In the end, it’s all the same decision. What’s important? How can I spend as much time as possible on that? How can I spend as little money and time as possible on everything else that isn’t important? Can I keep distinguishing between the handful of things that really are important and the other things that are not?

That’s the daily challenge. Sometimes I succeed, and that’s a good day. Sometimes I fail… and that’s a shame.

12. Stutterer

Note: this would probably be rated PG-13 purely for language because of a couple of choice words. There’s nothing overly offensive (one internal thought and then a few words uttered by an angry man), but don’t watch it at the office or with younger children unless you want them to be repeating a choice word or two.

Like any great film, it gave me that emotional punch in the gut that art can really deliver, and managed to do it about four times in thirteen minutes. It won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and The New Yorker is essentially making it available for free via Youtube. Here’s their article on it:

Our new Screening Room short, “Stutterer,” won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film this year. It’s a thirteen-minute movie about a young London typographer named Greenwood (Matthew Needham). Greenwood stutters, to the extent that verbal conversation is difficult. When he tries to resolve an issue with a service representative over the phone, he can’t get the words out; the operator, gruff and impatient, hangs up. (For surliness, she rivals the operator in the old Yaz song.) When a woman approaches Greenwood on the street, he uses sign language to avoid talking. But in his thoughts, which we hear, he does not stutter. And when he chats online with a woman named Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) he can express himself freely, and is casual, charming, and content. When Ellie writes that she’s coming to London, he panics. How he navigates her visit provides the film’s narrative and emotional suspense.

Watch it. You won’t regret it.

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Repossession: When the Bank Bites Back

“Repossession” is probably the scariest word in the financial lexicon this side of “bankruptcy.” Basically, if you bought something with a bank loan and they have a lien on it, and you stop making payments, the bank can take it back.

That means your car or your house might not be your car or your house for much longer if you fall behind. However, you’ll have more than ample warning when it comes to repossession. Here’s your guide to what repossession is, how to avoid it, and what to expect if it’s about to happen to you.

Why Was Your Property Repossessed?

If you haven’t been making payments, well, there’s your answer. In some cases, however, it might not be quite that obvious.

For example, in some states, if you fail to maintain adequate insurance on your car, that can be grounds for repossessing the vehicle. This is especially true if you car is loaned or leased rather than owned in tandem with the bank.

If you’ve been making regular payments, the first thing you should do is call up your lender to ask why they’ve repossessed your property. Then go from there.

Can You Get It Back?

In most cases, yes, you can get it back. However, there are a number of stipulations to this “yes” that might turn the answer into a “no.”

For example, let’s continue talking about cars. If you have had your car repossessed, you’re going to need to pay back any missed and late payments before you get the car back. You’ll also have to pay fees and costs associated with the repossession, which likely cost your lender a pretty penny. And, in may cases, the repossession will remain on your credit report.

Before you even start negotiating with your creditor to get your property back, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about why you had your property repossessed in the first place.

If you get your property back, can you actually afford it? In the case of a car, this means not just the payment, but also the insurance, the gas, the upkeep, and everything else associated with car ownership. If the answer is no, then you’re just going to end up back where you were before. In this case, there’s not much point in trying to get your property back. You should look into other options, like public transportation or carpooling.

Another question to ask yourself is if you’re going to declare bankruptcy. Because, oddly, if you are, then it does make sense to get your car back. This is because you’ll be restructuring your debts, so you might be able to afford the car once you’ve done that. Your lender might also work with you during bankruptcy to change your payment plan to something more manageable.

You Have Rights

Your lender can repossess a vehicle, but they can’t keep your other property that’s inside of it. You’re allowed to get all of your stuff out. They can’t sell your possessions to make up for what you owe them. This protection does not apply to things you’ve installed in the car, like nice rims or a world-class stereo system. In some states, the repossessing company has a duty to furnish you with a list of items in the car and the procedure to get them back. In other states, you have to ask.

What’s more, a repo agent can’t destroy your property to get your property. That means if you have the car garaged, they’re not allowed to break in for the purpose of repossessing your property. That’s against the law, and if they do so, it’s time for you to contact a consumer protection attorney and seek damages.

What Happens After Repossession?

After repossession, you might still owe money on the car. And, of course, your credit rating is going to take a serious hit either way. But it’s going to take an even bigger hit if you owe money and don’t repay it.

Here’s how it works: You owe another $10,000 on the car, which sells at auction for $7,000. Guess where the lender is going to come looking for the $3,000 it lost?

The best advice is to stay on top of the terms of your loan. Then you won’t have to worry about seeing the repo man.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

How We Plan Frugal Family Vacations in National Parks

It’s early November, so what have I been doing lately? I’ve been planning next year’s summer family vacation. We’re going to Yellowstone!

November? Really?

The truth is that the fall is actually a great time to start thinking about next year’s travels, particularly if you want to enjoy the beauty of the world on a nice, tidy budget. One of the best ways to do that is to camp and, at the same time, take advantage of one of the best bargains offered to American citizens, our national park system.

The national parks of the United States contain a nearly infinite array of natural beauty, from the northern landscapes of Denali to the gorgeous vistas of Glacier, from the stunning forestry of Acadia to the unbelievable hot springs of Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Joshua Tree. Shenandoah. I could go on and on and on. Suffice it to say, there is more stunning beauty to be found in our national parks than you can possibly explore in a lifetime.

Even more amazing is the fact that you can see all of this beauty on what amounts to a shoestring budget. A vacation centered around a national park can actually be very inexpensive!

So, why post this in November? It might seem a bit out of place to post this now, but the reason leads right into my first tip…

Plan Way Ahead

One of the biggest savings offered by a national park vacation is the fact that you can camp instead of staying at a hotel. That move alone saves hundreds upon hundreds of dollars over the course of several days of vacation.

The problem here is that many of the campgrounds in national parks and around national parks tend to fill up several months in advance, particularly at the most popular parks in the national parks system like Yellowstone. You usually can find a place to camp somewhere reasonably near a national park even close to the trip, but you’re likely to be camping a substantial distance from the park (meaning a long commute into and out of the park) or else be gunning for a “first come first serve” campground (meaning you’ll have to get lucky to get a camping spot).

The best route is to simply start planning now and reserve a spot at a campground as early as possible. Tools for finding such a campground are listed below, but the key thing to remember is to start planning ahead now.

If You Have a Fourth Grader, Get in For Free

The National Park Service currently offers the “Every Kid in a Park” program, which gives every fourth grader in the United States a free year-long national parks pass for their family. That means you don’t even have to pay an entry fee to visit those national parks that require one, further reducing the cost of a national park vacation.

The process for signing up for this free pass is very simple. Your fourth grader can do it on his or her own and will learn about the national park system in the process.

For us, the occasion of our fourth grader picking up a national parks pass means that we’re planning a vacation that centers on Yellowstone, but actually involves stops at other national parks as well for a day or two. Since the pass works for all national parks, this is a great time to plan a trip to multiple national parks for multiple days.

Do It at Your Own Pace

The idea of hitting multiple parks over the course of a number of days brings me to my next point. A national parks trip is a highly self-directed trip, which means you can do things at your own pace without having to carefully plan days or make appointments.

Most of the trails and majestic sights that you’re going to see in a national park will be there tomorrow or the day after. You don’t have to schedule things. You don’t have to rush to jam everything in on a single day or two. You can do things at your own pace.

Furthermore, there are opportunities for all different levels of physical exertion in our national parks. Most parks feature amazing sights that require almost no trail walking and there are trails and hikes available in most parks with a huge variety of different lengths and different difficulties. Some are basically walks along an elevated boardwalk for half a mile through a beautiful forest, while others might involve many miles of hilly trail hiking – and we’re not even talking about backcountry hiking. You can find something that perfectly matches your fitness level and desire to hike and you can spread different walks and hikes throughout the trip. You can even see many beautiful sights from your car window if you so choose.


Driving to a national park is actually a great way to save money on the trip as compared to flying, particularly if you’re traveling as a family. Driving allows you to pack your camping gear with you instead of having to mail it or take it through airport luggage. It also greatly enhances the freedom of the trip and allows you to make stops and side journeys along the way.

For example, on our upcoming Yellowstone trip, we’re planning on spending most of two days in Badlands National Park on our way to Yellowstone from Iowa, then spending a day at Devil’s Tower National Monument. If we so choose, we can also stop at Mount Rushmore and at Custer State Park on the way (all but Custer are free thanks to our free pass, as described above). If we flew for this trip, we’d miss all of those things.

Use the Library as a Great Planning Resource

Your local library likely has a travel section that has a ton of books on any national park or part of the country that you might wish to visit. Even if they don’t happen to have a book on your specific destination, it’s very likely that the librarian can acquire one for you via interlibrary loan.

I think that using a travel guide is still the best tool for planning a vacation, simply because it takes pieces of information that are spread out all over the place online and puts them all in one single volume where you can find everything you need.

I typically check out several travel guides during the planning stages of a vacation, such as when we’re figuring out what campgrounds we’re going to use, where we’re going to stay, and what trails and sights we might want to see. While I don’t usually mark things down in stone this far in advance, I do usually reserve campsites based on travel guide recommendations as far in advance as possible as well as make lists of recommended hikes and recommended things to see in the national park.

If possible, I’ll often check out those travel guides again close to our trip and take them with us. This can sometimes be “hit or miss” depending on other travelers, as sometimes others check out such travel guides during the summer months.

Eat Simple… But Tasty

One of the biggest money savers when it comes to a national park trip is food. Rather than eating at restaurants all the time as would often happen on vacations, the entire trip is much more conducive to eating simple meals at your campsite.

While I tend to get into preparing interesting meals in a Dutch oven over a campfire, you can prepare lots of different, tasty, simple meals without any tools. For example, this article from Country Living offers a ton of simple recipe ideas that work well while camping that go far beyond simply making sandwiches for every meal (though sandwiches should be a staple – a simple sandwich is practically designed for camping).

This is another reason why driving to a national park is helpful. It enables you to take a cooler along, which you can use to keep items cool, plus it gives you a secure spot to stow food away from wildlife at night. It also makes grocery shopping easy, since you can simply go to a grocery store somewhat near the national park and fill up the back of your vehicle with food you might want to have on the trip.

Strategize Your Camping Gear

The biggest cost that people bring up when it comes to a camping trip is the cost of gear. You’ll need some kind of shelter at the very least, which means you’ll either need to have a tent or come up with some other form of housing (which is likely to be much more expensive).

Here’s the thing, though: if you camp regularly and make camping part of your family’s activities (particularly during the summer), the cost per trip for a family tent and sleeping bags and other materials goes way down. Let’s say you invest $100 on a simple family tent and then buy a few sleeping bags to boot at, say, $25 each. That’s $200 in gear – expensive, right? Well, consider the fact that you can use that gear over 20 camping trips. That means your cost per trip for that gear is $10 per trip. It quickly becomes dirt cheap. (There’s also the fact that you can use sleeping bags at home for various things, such as sleepovers and for winter blankets on the coldest nights.)

Another thing worth noting about camping gear is that many people overdo it in terms of what they need. Out of inexperience, they buy everything that they think they might possibly need and then find out that they don’t need a lot of it. If you’re going on a typical tent camping family vacation, all you need is a tent that comfortably houses your family, sleeping bags (and that’s even kind of a maybe, as you can use blankets), something with which to start a fire, and a flashlight or two (which you probably already have). Additional gear is unnecessary until you can figure out why you need it, so just take it all slowly and frugally.

Final Thoughts

If I include the prorated cost of our camping gear and all of the cost of driving, eating, campground fees, and everything else, our family’s summer national park vacation will cost us substantially less than $100 a day. There’s almost no vacation we could possibly take that would be less expensive than that. Not only that, the trip offers us a unique opportunity to see the natural beauty our nation has to offer.

I consider that to be an incredible bargain, but part of that bargain comes from starting our planning the fall before our trip. If this kind of trip sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to start planning now.

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What to Do When You Get a Debt Collection Notice for an Account You Don’t Recognize

Sometimes you get a debt collection letter in the mail and you know exactly why you got it and what you owe. Other times you get one and you’re left scratching your head, wondering why you owe this company money, or even who the company is. So what do you do when you get a mystery letter in the mail asking you for money you’re not even sure that you owe?

Search Your Memory Banks

You might not recognize the company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t owe the money. Have you let any accounts get past due? Do you have any older debts that simply “went away?” Because, barring the statute of limitations on debt, debt doesn’t just “go away.” You might not recognize the company in question, but it could just be that they purchased the debt as a third-party debt collector.

Look Into the Company

You first need to find out about this company. Third-party debt collectors run the gamut from totally legitimate to totally slimy (and there’s no shortage of outright scammers, as well). If the company in question has a number of complaints from the Better Business Bureau, it might not be in your best interests to communicate with them on the phone. Instead, you should contact them by mail, where you can have more control of the situation.

Be Careful How You Communicate With an Unknown Debtor

Communicating with a legitimate debtor is a must, however it’s in your best interests to tightly control how you communicate with them. First and foremost, never admit that the debt is yours, either verbally, in writing, or by making a payment, until you are absolutely convinced you are legally obligated to pay the debt. How can you be sure that you actually owe the debt?

Begin by sending off a debt validation letter. Companies collecting debt are legally obligated to prove to you, upon request, that they actually own the debt. This is known as debt validation, and it will also help weed out fake debt collectors. There are rules for this under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: If the company does not respond to your request to validate the debt in a certain period of time, the debt is not legally yours — or at least, the company cannot legally collect it.

If you are provided with a debt validation letter, make sure that you’re still legally obligated to pay back the debt. Like crimes, most debts have a statute of limitation. Once the debt reaches a certain age, it can no longer be collected — the clock has run out, as it were, and you’re no longer obligated to pay the debt.

The debt collection agency can take you to court over it, but there’s not much point. If they do, all you have to do is show the judge your debt validation letter and cite the relevant statute. It’s called an affirmative defense — you’re not disputing that the debt is yours, just pointing out that it was so long ago you no longer legally owe it.

If You Still Legally Owe the Debt

In the event that the debt is yours and you’re still legally obligated to pay it, you should communicate with the company to come up with a repayment plan. The best way to do that is to call up the collection agency and talk to them about how you can repay the debt.

Make sure to get any agreement that you come up with in writing before you start making payments. Making a payment on a debt is often considered a de facto agreement to the terms — so don’t cut a check or make any other kind of payment before this stage, lest you inadvertently lock yourself into terms you didn’t agree to. Any reputable debt collection agency is going to be happy to let you read the terms and see them in writing before you make a payment.

Once you’ve done that, your job is just to make sure you keep making those payments on time. Not making a payment on time can mean that you’re no longer covered by the terms you agreed to. At that point you can go into default or even just be at the mercy of the debt collection agency’s standard terms when it comes to collecting debt.

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 12): Trimming Your Spending – Insurance

“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 continued 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 insurance spending. As you can see from the budget above, the average American family spends $5,528 per year on insurance. That averages out to about $450 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.

Insurance can be a tricky budgetary area to look at because there are so many different types of insurance for people with different needs. Rather than digging into the specifics of various types of insurance, I’m going to stick to some of the main insurance types that people spend their money on – health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, auto insurance, and renters insurance.

Exercise #12 – Trim Your Insurance Spending

The rest of this article consists of a long list of specific tactics that you can use to trim your insurance 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.

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.

Shop around. Always. Here’s the truth about every kind of insurance: different insurance providers price things differently. Some are simply more expensive than others, for various reasons (advertising, service, or just a bigger profit margin). Some offer discounts for various reasons, while others don’t offer the same discount. Some simply evaluate risks differently than other ones.

Because of all of that, you’ll sometimes get very different prices from different insurers on what amounts to the same insurance. The only way you can find the best prices is by shopping around and getting quotes from a bunch of different providers.

It’s simple. For each type of insurance you buy, contact a bunch of competitors and get quotes on the policies they offer. If it’s less expensive, switch. Don’t just stick with the first offer you get. This is particularly important if you’re buying for the first time.

Choose insurance with a high deductible. Most types of insurance can be compared in terms of cost by looking at two numbers: the premium and the deductible. The premium is how much you have to pay each month/quarter/year, while the deductible is the portion of the cost of an insurance event that you’ll have to pay out of pocket. For example, if your car suffers $8,000 in damages and you have a $1,000 deductible, the insurance company will pay the $7,000 and you’ll be responsible for that $1,000.

Virtually always, insurance policies with a higher deductible have substantially lower premiums, and unless you turn in insurance claims on a regular basis, the money you save on lower premiums will be substantially greater. Thus, try to choose insurance policies with a high deductible, (especially if you have an emergency fund in the bank… which you should anyway).

Look into bundling different policies together, such as home and auto insurance or renter and auto insurance. Many large insurance providers offer a number of different types of insurance all under the same roof. Because of that, those insurance providers can use bundling as a way to offer a lower price to consumers and attract more customers. They simply offer multiple types of coverage to the same customer and make a somewhat lower profit on each policy but make a little bit more overall because they’re selling two policies.

What does that mean for you? If you get two (or more) types of insurance from a single provider, you’re usually going to get a better deal on each policy. So, when you’re shopping around for one type of insurance, shop around for other types at the same time and see what kind of discount an insurance provider can offer you if you’re giving them the opportunity to sell you multiple policies at once. Chances are you’ll be saving money.

Ask your insurer for specific steps you can take to lower your insurance premiums. Many different types of insurance will offer discounts to their customers if their customers take steps to reduce the likelihood of an insurance claim. For example, many homeowner insurance policies offer a discount if you install a home security system, and many health insurance policies offer discounts if you get regular checkups or participate in certain fitness programs.

It’s easy to find out about such programs. Just pull out the documentation for each of your insurance policies and give your insurers a call. Ask them about steps you can take that can reduce your insurance premiums and then assess whether or not they’re cost effective for you. You may find that the steps are quite simple and the savings are quite large.

Keep your credit clean. Many insurance providers rely on the credit rating of their customers in order to make a general assessment of that customer’s trustworthiness and likelihood of making insurance claims. The better your credit, the more likely you are to be playing by the rules and the less likely you are to engage in behavior that would increase the likelihood of claims.

Again, this one’s easy. Just keep your bills paid and don’t keep a big balance on your credit cards. If you do that, your credit will be solid at the very least and you’ll see a positive impact on your insurance costs.

Review your policies at least once a year and ask if they still make sense. At least once a year, you should take a look at all of the insurance policies that your family is responsible for and make sure that they still make sense.

For each policy, ask yourself a few tough questions. Do you still need this policy? Could you raise the deductible on this policy? Have I recently shopped around for a better price on this policy? Simply asking these questions can reveal avenues for trimming your insurance and thus trimming your expenses.

Consider using an HMO instead of a PPO for your health insurance. Many people, particularly those who get health insurance through their employers, have a choice between an HMO plan and a PPO plan. To put it simply, HMO plans require you to use a network of doctors selected by the insurance company, while a PPO generally allows you to see your choice of doctor.

Naturally, a PPO plan is going to be more expensive, but is the flexibility you get from that plan going to be worth the additional cost? If you’re healthy and don’t have an established primary doctor or medical team, a HMO plan makes a lot of sense.

If your health insurance includes a HSA, take advantage of it. Many health insurance plans that come with a high deductible are coupled with a HSA – a health savings account. A HSA is much like a savings account, but with a few nice features that can end up saving you money. For starters, money you put into a HSA is pre-tax, which means that it typically comes directly from your paycheck, but every dollar you put in means your paycheck only goes down by about $0.75 or so.

Now, here’s the nice part – you can spend money from that account on health-related expenses without ever having to pay taxes on that money. It’s like your health insurance gives you an opportunity to pay for all of your health care costs at a discount.

If your plan includes a HSA, use it. Put money in there. It’s going to save you money on health care expenses whenever they come up, even if it’s far down the road.

Make absolutely sure you need life insurance. Many people buy into the idea that they need a life insurance policy when it makes no sense. Unscrupulous insurance salespeople often encourage this, convincing people with investment plans and all sorts of scenarios.

The question you need to ask yourself is this: what purpose does this insurance really serve? The purpose of life insurance is to leave behind money for people who will need it in the event of your untimely death. That’s it. It’s not an investment product or a magic solution or anything else. Now, does anyone actually need that money? Would you be leaving behind money that wouldn’t fill a need? If the answer is no, you probably don’t need life insurance.

If you do need life insurance, choose a term policy at an appropriate amount. What if you do decide you need life insurance? Maybe you’re leaving behind children, or perhaps a spouse who would be struggling with a very low income for a while after your passing. Your life insurance should address that problem specifically and not try to solve other problems at the same time.

Many life insurance packages incorporate investments and other unnecessary features along with your life insurance. Honestly, you don’t need any of that stuff. Skip all of it. All you need is a term policy – a life insurance policy where you pay a certain amount per month (or year) and it only pays out in the event of the insured person’s death. Such policies are the best bargain in life insurance – you’re only paying for what you actually need and nothing else.

Be very careful about life insurance for your kids. Many people reflexively buy life insurance packages for their children. The idea comes from a good place – you want your children to be insured and a whole life package “grows” with your child – but the truth is that unless you would actually need financial assistance if your child were to die, life insurance for your child probably isn’t worth it.

Why not a “whole life” policy, though? If you want to put aside money for your child’s future, do it in a more cost-effective way and start a 529 college savings plan for them. The money in that plan can be used for educational expenses and it comes without the fees and commissions that are baked into a whole life policy.

When buying homeowners insurance, think about the cost to rebuild, not the value of what you have. The value of your home as it sits is higher than the cost of building an identical home in a similar area. Why? You have to wait for that home, and many people are impatient.

However, imagine your life if your home were suddenly destroyed. You’d have almost no possessions, so living in an apartment while your home is rebuilt makes sense. It’s not going to cost as much to build that home as your current home is worth if you were to sell it, so you should focus on the cost to build and replace what you have, not to buy it. In other words, tone down the benefit of your homeowners insurance a little bit and enjoy the savings; you’ll still have plenty to rebuild and buy the possessions you need.

As I said at the beginning of this article, 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.

Next time, we’ll look at some strategies for reducing healthcare costs.

The post 31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 12): Trimming Your Spending – Insurance appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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How to Salvage a Bad Day at Work

Ever have one of those days where nothing seems to go right? While factors beyond your control may have gotten things off to a bad start — a puking kid, a broken-down subway train — a seeming string of problems might be more about your mindset. Once you get it into your head that you’re having a bad day, it’s hard to stop rolling down that particular hill.

“The statistics show that people who believe in bad luck will have more accidents on Friday the 13th,” says Peter J. Bentley, author of Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, in an interview with Lifehacker. “Those who have a negative attitude are more likely to endow normal little mishaps with some mystical significance. Some psychologists even suggest that it’s a way of subconsciously avoiding responsibility for our actions. ‘It was Friday 13th, so I was bound to stick my fingers with superglue,’ or, ‘Accidents happen in threes, so after the first mishap the next two were inevitable.’ Of course it’s nonsense.”

In reality, there’s no reason why your whole day should go downhill if your commute was a little worse than usual, or why your afternoon should suck if you had a tough meeting in the morning. There’s no magical reset button that hits when you clock out for the day. You can start a whole new positive cycle, if you pay attention and act deliberately, instead of just reacting to a rough patch. Here are five strategies to help you salvage a bad day.

1. Take a breather.

First things first: Interrupt the circuit. Stop what you’re doing, and walk away for a few minutes. Take a stroll around the neighborhood. Meditate. Stretch. Call your mom. Look at the horizon for a minute, instead of a screen. Give your brain a moment to reset.

2. Choose a different timeframe.

OK, your morning wasn’t great, but there’s probably no reason why that has to carry over into your afternoon (unless you’re stuck in a terrible all-day meeting, in which case, our sympathies).

Don’t extend the bad parts of your day to the whole 24-hour cycle. Let a hard conversation with the boss be just that, not an indication of your worth to the company. Allow a less-than-pleasant email exchange with a client to be an isolated incident, instead of a predictor of future success. You can’t control every aspect of your day, but you can control how you respond to what happens to you.

3. Leave social media for a day.

What makes a bad day worse? Seeing all your friends and colleagues rack up one amazing personal and professional success after another, live and tastefully filtered by Instagram. Of course, this curated version of other people’s lives bears very little relationship to reality… but you’ll have a hard time remembering that when you’re having a hard day. Shut off your FOMO for now, and sign out of Facebook, Twitter, and the whole lot.

4. Go for a win.

Ever add something you’ve already done to your to-do list, just so that you can cross it off and feel accomplished? Don’t be embarrassed – you’re not fibbing to yourself as much as you’re boosting your self-esteem and gathering strength for the next challenge.

In a similar vein, when you’re having a tough day, it can be a good idea to concentrate on something that’s likely to go well. If you have a pending task that allows you to focus on your favorite part of your job, or work with your most fun colleague, or perhaps earn some fast praise, bump it up your list. There’s nothing wrong with needing a little validation now and then.

5. Look for an opportunity to make someone else’s day better.

Sometimes, the easiest way to feel better about your day is to improve someone else’s. Think about how much it means to you when your coworkers go out of their way to help you out. Now’s a great time to return the favor. While you’re crushing bad days on all sides, you’re also building relationships – which decreases the chances of tomorrow being as tough as today.

Related Articles:

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Eight Deeply Meaningful Zero-Cost Things I Do in a Normal Day to Improve My Life

In the modern world, it is incredibly easy to fall into a life routine that just feels like an endless repetition of the same overly full day after overly full day, where there are so many things to take care of that you start in on tasks the second you wake up until you fall into a daze on the couch in the late evening. Long stretches of days like that can suck the meaning and joy straight out of your life, leaving you feeling as though you’re just walking through the paces on some endless journey that will never lead to anything joyful.

People respond to that feeling in a number of different ways. Many of those responses, like engaging in retail therapy or diving into a “quarter-life” or “midlife” crisis, are incredibly financially painful and often end up causing that seemingly endless march to get even longer.

The solution, I’ve found, is to find little things to fill the “cracks” in your day that add meaning and value to life. Whenever I find myself with a spare few minutes or a spare half hour, rather than just sitting there idling, I do something that refreshes me mentally or physically or reaffirms my life. Better yet, these things have no cost whatsoever.

Here are eight things that I do with those little windows of time.

I Vigorously Exercise with My Own Body Weight

My goal is to get myself out of breath and my heart pumping for as long as I can during whatever time window I have available. I want to be panting and feel my heart beating along at a nice fast clip at the end of it, with my body really feeling the flood of endorphins that exercise can bring, but without leaving myself feeling completely dead from overexertion.

Doing this is a fine balance. Generally, what I do is keep pushing myself until I start to feel overwhelmed, then I scale back to something light, then pump it up again once I feel like I have my breath under control.

At the end of such a session, the natural endorphins from exercise are flowing through my veins and I feel like I can conquer the world, especially after a brief rest. I don’t worry so much about “targeting muscle groups” or things like that; I’m mostly focused on having a strong core, having enough aerobic health to somewhat keep up with my kids, and feeling good every day.

Most days, I simply use the free daily bodyweight workout from Darebee.com. It requires no specialized equipment and usually includes a mix of body movements that hit a lot of different muscle groups mixed in with some cardio movements designed to get the heart rate up. The variety makes it fun.

I Record Things I’m Grateful For

It’s a simple question that I ask myself: what am I grateful for in my life? What things fill me with joy? What things make me proud? What things am I glad to have in my life?

I simply spend a few minutes thinking about those things, then recording them in some fashion. Usually, I write them down in my pocket notebook. Sometimes, I’ll type them out and save them in Evernote or Day One. I don’t worry so much about making a perfect recording of those things, but I do like to save them every once in a while, at least.

How does this benefit me? It forces me to think about things outside of myself for a little bit. It reminds me that it’s not all just about me. It makes me consider all of the people and things in my life that give value to me without really expecting anything in return for them.

Considering those things makes me appreciative of what I have, even if I’m frustrated at the moment. It makes me want to work and to help nurture and protect those things that I appreciate. Almost always, after reflecting on the things I’m grateful for, I want to do something to help repay that gratitude, and when I think about how to do it, it often provides fuel for continuing through my daily routines.

I Mindfully Meditate

This one’s really simple. For five or ten minutes or so, I simply close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I breathe in. I breathe out. That’s it.

Whenever my mind starts to wander from my breathing, as soon as I’m aware of that wandering, I consciously bring it back to my breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out.

This simple technique does a lot of powerful things. For one, it calms me down. If I’m feeling anxious or agitated, it cuts through those feelings like a hot knife through butter. For another, it improves my focus. My focus on the task at hand tends to be greatly amplified for a while after doing this.

Perhaps the best reason, though, is that it’s essentially mental weightlifting. It doesn’t just have a short term effect. It improves focus and calm over the long haul, as well. I tend to think of it in terms of, say, bicep curls or sit-ups. Every time I notice my attention has wandered and I bring it back to my breathing, that’s a mental bicep curl or sit-up. If I do it regularly and do it often enough, my focus slowly increases over the long haul and my anxiety slowly decreases.

It’s a wonderful feeling, both over the short term and the long term.

I Learn Something New, Often As Part of a Long Journey of Learning

Whenever I have a window of time open, I’ll often use it to learn something new.

If it’s a short window of opportunity, I’ll do a lesson or two in Duolingo in order to learn a new language. Duolingo is an amazing free tool for learning new languages at a conversational level, which is not only useful for one’s personal life, but can help professionally as well and it has a powerful impact on your mind’s ability to learn.

If it’s a longer window, I might read a chapter of a book or a Wikipedia article on something that I’m curious about in order to gain a basic understanding of the topic. Perhaps I’ll go to Coursera or EdX and listen to another lecture in a college course.

The goal is to simply learn something new, to incorporate a new idea into my thinking or a new technique into my skillset. Doing so not only enriches me, it also adds to my overall understanding of the world and also improves my ability to learn things quickly.

I Walk or Hike with a Question in Mind

Whenever I’m struggling to come up with an answer to a problem in my life, I go on a walk or a hike somewhere for a little while – maybe just a few minutes, maybe for an hour or two. I take that question with me and spend that time alternating between thinking about the question on my mind and the environment around me.

What I find is that when I’m walking around and especially when I’m walking in nature, my mind feels calmer. When I let my attention gradually meander back and forth between appreciation of my environment and the question I have in my mind, I find that the question gets passed back and forth between my conscious mind and my subconscious mind, often building right toward a good solution.

Many, many articles have been written in this way. I’ve used this technique to organize ideas in my head so that when I sit down at a keyboard, the final article just flows right out.

Many personal problems have been solved this way. Many philosophical questions have received personal breakthroughs.

Not only that, if I’m out walking around, I’m gently exercising. My blood is flowing a little bit. If I go up a hill or walk at a fast pace, my breathing might elevate a little or I might perspire a little. All of those things are good for my long term health as well as my current sense of well-being.

I Document My World in Photos

One of the things that bothers me the most about earlier periods in my life is that I didn’t document a lot of the things that were the foundation of my day-to-day life. There are basically no pictures of the route I bicycled to work every day for years. I have almost no pictures of the various places I’ve lived over the years. I have very few pictures of the beautiful things I’ve walked by on a regular basis for years.

I’ve found incredible comfort and joy in documenting these things. I’ve started taking pictures of things that seem routine, but when I think about them, they’re pretty special to me, like a little statue that I walk past almost every day when I go on a walk or an image of my children bursting in the door after school on a normal day, or of my dog relaxing on the back of a couch.

I’m saving lots of these images in Day One and I already find it enjoyable to leaf through entries from even a few months ago. These are things that I look forward to seeing years down the road when I try to remember the little joys and little routines of my life as it is right now, because I certainly wish I had some record of the little joys and little routines of my life at earlier points.

I just take pictures of the ordinary beauty and save them. It’s simple, but it’s peaceful and joyful.

I Make Something from Scratch

Whenever I feel really overwhelmed by life, my first temptation is to kind of shut down. I want to go binge-watch a Netflix series or read a page-turning book for several hours, but I find that when I finally step away from that kind of escape, I haven’t really done anything and the problems are still there.

Instead, I’ve started to find a much better escapism in making something completely from scratch.

For example, a few days ago, I felt completely overwhelmed and I needed to check out for a little while. I could have gone to the basement and watched a show, but instead I went into the kitchen, pulled out some flour and a few eggs, and made a bunch of pasta completely from scratch. I made a bunch of sheets of it by simply mixing the eggs and flour and then spreading it very thin and repeatedly folding it over on itself and rolling it very thin again.

After a while, I diced some tomatoes, took a few herbs I had on hand, and cooked it all together to make a very thick sauce, and then I turned all of that into a tomato-cheese ravioli.

The whole thing was about as “from-scratch” as I could make it. It was honestly an excuse to “get lost” for a little while, and I did feel as though I escaped from some challenges for a bit, but when I “came back to reality,” I had actually made something really cool. We had a splendid family dinner before us, one that everyone enjoyed.

I find that this kind of “escapism” is a lot like what Matthew Crawford describes in his wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft. When you allow yourself to make something or build something or repair something, you can easily just get lost in the craft of doing so, and getting lost in that craft is somehow very healing for the heart and mind.

I Go to a Religious Service

A religious service is a mix of meditations and devotions and songs and touching. It’s quiet and loud. It’s sad and happy and imperfect and somehow beautiful. If you let it, it can sweep you away in its currents. It doesn’t even have to be a religion that you believe in. The simple act of sharing a religious service with people and exploring the varieties of religious experience in the world can leave you feeling deeply in touch with the world around you. When I do it, I feel somehow calmer and more peaceful and grounded, no matter the service.

I don’t try to analyze it. I try to get lost in it. I try to feel the prayers and I try to get lost in the songs. Am I communicating with or understanding a higher power? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that it feels good to be lost in the shared moment of a community of faith. Even better, I often feel like I understand the people around me more, as though we have some deeper bonds than I often realize in my daily life.

Almost every community of faith opens its doors to outsiders. You usually don’t have to be any sort of a member to participate, and if you go in without judgment and open your heart, you’ll often feel a connection to something bigger than yourself, whether it’s the music or the community or something else entirely. It can move you if you let it.

Final Thoughts

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to bring a particular feeling into your life. You don’t need a getaway to feel calm. You don’t need a gym membership to push your body. You don’t need a yoga class to clear your mind. You don’t need a new car to feel free again.

You can already find those things in your life if you open yourself to them.

Good luck.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Finding Meaningful Gifts Without Breaking the Bank

The last two months of the year are a gift-giving crunch for our family and for many others. Not only do we have a child’s birthday coming up very soon, but the holiday season brings a number of gift exchanges with people from all over our life.

Naturally, we want to find meaningful gifts for all of these people. A last-minute gift given with little thought might solve a problem, but it doesn’t do anything to warm the heart when it is given or when it is received like a thoughtful gift can do. A thoughtful, meaningful gift is worth many times the cost of the item and it goes a long way toward enforcing whatever bond exists between the giver and the recipient.

Finding a truly meaningful gift is hard, though. Finding a truly meaningful gift without breaking the bank is even harder.

This is a process that Sarah and I go through every year. We try to find thoughtful and meaningful gifts for everyone that we give gifts to, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. At the same time, we try to keep our gift spending under control.

Here are seven strategies that we use during this process.

Strategy #1 – Start Early

Part of the reason I’m writing this article in early November rather than in mid-December is that one of the keys to finding meaningful gifts for people is to start early. Almost every remaining strategy on this list takes at least a little time, and although that time can be spread out and can often be invested while doing other things, you still need some weeks between the initial push to start considering gifts and the actual day of giving to work through those strategies.

For many gifts for holiday exchanges that are months down the road, Sarah and I have already started. I have multiple gifts that I’m making for which I already have the necessary elements. I’ve purchased a few gifts on sale already, too.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to have ideas in place for all of the other people on my holiday gift-giving lists, along with the starting steps of any projects that they might involve. That way, I have plenty of weekends and even weekday evenings to move forward on those things and complete different projects.

Start now.

Action Step #1: Right now, start making a list of everyone that you’re intending to give a gift to in the next two months. Then, right away, start thinking of ideas for each of those people. Do this now, and write it down. The longer you wait, the harder everything becomes. It becomes more stressful. It becomes harder to find a meaningful but inexpensive gift. It becomes more likely that lots of people are just going to slip through the cracks and receive whatever you can find on Amazon in a ten minute search a few days before the gift exchange. Don’t do that. Start now. Make a list.

Strategy #2 – Consider the Recipient and Do Some Homework

So, you have a list of people that you want to give gifts to, but you’re completely unsure as to what you should get for many of the people on the list. You love Grandma, for example, but what can you even give her that means anything?

For each person on your list that you don’t have any good ideas for, spend some time just considering that person. What makes that person happy? What does that person enjoy doing? What bonds do you share with that person?

These types of thoughts fill my spare moments this type of the year. Whenever I drive anywhere, I’m often thinking about different people to whom I intend to give a gift in the coming months. When I have a few spare moments at the doctor’s office, I’m thinking about my relationship with someone and what causes us to connect.

Sometimes, the answers come fairly easily. Sometimes, they do not.

When I find myself really struggling for ideas, I start doing homework on that person. I take a look at their social media accounts. I check and see if they have an Amazon wishlist. I visit that person, if at all possible, and take a look around their home.

Most important of all, though, I simply have some conversations with that person. If I care enough to give that person a gift, this should be a normal course of events. If it’s awkward to have a normal conversation with a person, why are you giving that person a gift to begin with?

If you pay attention during a conversation of any length with a person, you begin to get an idea of what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about. Ask them questions about the things they seem excited about and dig in a little; you’ll often find several great gift ideas dropped directly on your lap.

Action Step #2: Go through the list of people to whom you intend to give a gift in the next couple of months. Consider each person individually. What is that person passionate about? What is your connection to that person? If a gift idea doesn’t rise to the surface, then commit to doing some homework. Visit that person. Give that person a call. Ask questions and talk about their interests. Ideas will come. They will most definitely come.

Strategy #3 – Include a Note

One of the best ways to transform an ordinary gift into something meaningful is to simply include a note with it. That note doesn’t have to be anything special. It just needs to be a short appreciation of the recipient in some fashion.

One of my favorite things to do with a note is to explain exactly why I gave the gift that I gave that person. Basically, it’s a description of the thought process from the above strategies: what I noticed about the recipient and how that translated into a gift idea.

Such a simple note is deeply meaningful for one reason: people like to be noticed and appreciated. The simple fact that someone else paid enough attention to them to notice a specific interest that they had and then translated that interest into an attempt at a thoughtful gift often means far more than whatever the gift itself might be.

What if you’re not a “wordy” person? The honest truth is that notes from people who usually don’t do such things are even more meaningful, even if those notes aren’t written with perfect penmanship or with perfect spelling or grammar. In those cases, you know as a recipient that the note caused the writer to step outside of their comfort zone to express something for you, and that adds incredible meaning.

Action Step #3: If you give someone a meaningful gift, include a handwritten note with that gift explaining it and how that gift ties to the recipient. It’s an incredibly easy way to add deep meaning to a gift given.

Strategy #4 – Involve the Shared Community

One mistake that people make when it comes to giving a gift is that they think of themselves and the recipient as being in a bubble of sorts. The gift is from one person to another or from a couple to another.

Often, however, you share a lot of ties with that person. That person might be your father, for instance, but you share that relationship with all of your siblings. Your favorite uncle might be everyone’s favorite uncle. Your favorite coworker might be everyone’s favorite coworker.

In those situations, you can often add a lot of meaning to a gift by working with other people to create something extra special. Perhaps you can make something together, like a giant photo collage or, in one hilarious case, the world’s biggest cheese plate (this happened once… such a fun memory). Or, perhaps you can chip in together for a bigger gift that’s outside the realistic range for any of you, like when a bunch of family members chip together to send an older relative back to visit his ancestral home.

If you have a great idea for someone that’s just outside the scope of what you should realistically spend or can realistically pull off, start talking to other invested parties. Quite often, if you take the advice of the first strategy here and start early, you’ll find that they haven’t planned anything yet and thus are very likely to get on board with your idea.

Involving a large group in a shared gift like this greatly broadens the horizons of what’s possible for a meaningful gift. It allows you to think bigger than what you might otherwise consider.

Action Step #4: If you come up with ideas that are “too big,” ask yourself whether other parties with a similar relationship to the recipient might want to become involved. You might find a bunch of willing assistance to make a very big meaningful gift possible that was otherwise impossible. Again, the key is to start thinking now, not later, and get ahold of people sooner rather than later.

Strategy #5 – Give to Their Better Self

This final strategy is a sneaky one and it’s one that’s often hard to implement, but it’s something that almost always makes for a meaningful gift that will really connect with the recipient.

On the surface, it’s really easy: give to their better self. Consider the best, most heroic attributes of that person and give a gift that is in line with those attributes. Think of the moments in your life where that person has really amazed you and then think of a gift that matches up to that moment.

I’m going to give you a specific example here. One of my older brothers has had a mix of great moments and setbacks in his life. He’s achieved a few tremendous things, but at other times, he’s been almost overwhelmed with personal challenge.

It would be easy for me to give him an ordinary gift when there’s an opportunity for gift-giving. If I want to make that gift truly powerful and meaningful, though, I should aim for those moments where my respect for him was the highest, those moments where he did something that left me in positive awe. If I can come up with a gift that reflects those moments when I thought most highly of him, then that gift is going to be truly meaningful.

I have an idea, though I don’t want to spoil it here in case he might be reading this. Suffice it to say, it comes straight from a moment where I was in awe of one of his personal attributes.

Action Step #5: Think of the recipient in their best moments. What kind of gift might be appropriate for those moments? What gift can you give them that reminds you of the moments when they touched greatness, and can show them that you remember when they touched greatness? What gift can you give that will cause them to reach for a little more than they are today without being somehow critical of where they are right now? It’s a difficult task, but if you can navigate it, you’ll almost always find a meaningful gift.

Strategy #6 – Start Watching Sales

Once you have some ideas in mind, it’s time to start taking action. For many gifts – and for the items needed to make gifts – a big part of this is to start watching sales.

For me, watching sales means several simultaneous little tricks.

I use Camel Camel Camel to watch a whole lot of items on Amazon for price drops. The site watches them automatically for me and informs me when a price drops on an item. Anything that might remotely work as a gift or as an element of a gift gets listed there.

I download store flyers from various stores in my area each week from their websites and browse through them, looking for sales on particular items.

For some specific items, I’ll actually dig into websites devoted to those specific hobbies or areas of interest and see what I can find. I’ve joined many hobby-related websites over the years just to look for idea recommendations and hunt for sales.

What about Black Friday? It’s usually clear whether or not a particular item you’re considering has a chance of being a Black Friday sales item. If you’re looking at a specific consumer electronic device, for example, waiting for Black Friday might be a good decision.

All of this really doesn’t take too long. I might spend an hour all told setting up searches on Camel Camel Camel. I might spend fifteen minutes a week downloading a few store flyers. I might spend another half an hour doing specific research for specific gifts, but that usually adds up to just a few gifts on my list.

What if they already have the gift that you bought them? Once you’ve done a little due diligence on the item, don’t worry about it. There’s almost no way you can ever guarantee that someone doesn’t have an item that you’ve selected. Just make a little effort to make sure you’re not duplicating something they already have, if you can.

Action Step #6: Once you have ideas for people, start looking for sales on the required items as early as possible. Using Camel Camel Camel is a great way to start for many general purpose gifts. Downloading weekly store flyers – and, eventually, Black Friday flyers – is another powerful step. The goal is to find items that match what you have in mind already when they’re on sale, so the sooner you reach this action step, the better, because it gives more time for sales to pop up.

Strategy #7 – Make Something Unique (or Unusual)

For me, actually making gifts for people is a wonderful way to celebrate the season. If I can find a way to actually make something for someone that they’ll actually enjoy and use, I’ll almost always do that, especially if it’s something that I’m going to enjoy making.

I’ll give you a specific example. For this holiday season, I’m actually making someone an electronic device using a Raspberry Pi mini-computer. It’s been an incredibly fun project so far and I’ve learned a great deal along the way. I know for an absolute fact that this person will enjoy the gift deeply and I’m enjoying the process of building it, so it’s become an extra fun project for me.

For another friend, I’m making a poetry book. I’m literally hand-copying a selection of poems from the public domain into a thin book, along with little notes on why the poem is meaningful to me and might be meaningful to that person.

In past years, Sarah and I have made a number of consumable items for people, from craft beer to soaps and from handmade stationery to personalized soup mixes. Each of these worked well because they indicated an attention to the person. Not only did I know that a particular person liked craft beer, I knew their favorite style of craft beer, made a batch in that style, then bottled it for them with humorous personalized labels.

It’s that bit of extra distance that makes a gift meaningful. It’s easy to make something for someone. It takes a bit more attention and sometimes a little more work to make that gift for that person, and it’s that extra step that makes a gift really meaningful.

Action Step #7: If you’re considering making any gifts, ask yourself how you can tweak that gift to specifically match the person you’re making it for. What specific elements of that gift can you tweak? How can you tweak those things to make it more personally meaningful for that specific recipient? Once you know what you can do to make the gift distinct, take action to make it happen.

Final Thoughts

In the end, finding a truly meaningful gift for someone that doesn’t break the bank comes down to two things: time and thought. The best ideas come from thinking about the person and giving those thoughts time to marinate and grow. Giving yourself plenty of lead time as you go through that process enables you to find a great idea and then still have plenty of time to implement it at a reasonable price.

What’s the take home message? Start today. Start right now. Make your list and start thinking about meaningful options. This gives you plenty of time to find the right gift – or the right items needed for the gift – at the right price and to handle other elements that might make it special, such as a note or a collaborative effort.

Good luck!

The post Finding Meaningful Gifts Without Breaking the Bank appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Here’s How Much Your Credit Score Impacts Your Mortgage and Auto Loan Rates

When you apply for a new loan, the most influential factor in determining your interest rate is your credit and, more specifically, your credit scores. Other factors certainly matter during your loan’s underwriting, such as your income and employment history, but the importance of your credit scores cannot be overstated when a lender decides which interest rate to set for your newly opened account.

The difference your credit scores can make in the interest rate you’re charged and, ultimately, the overall cost of your loan, can be quite remarkable. Take a look at the examples below to see just how much a bad credit score could be costing you, and how much you could save if you were to work on improving your credit for future applications.

620 Credit Score: Not So Good

Meet John. John is a nice, responsible guy who tries very hard to properly manage his credit and finances. Unfortunately, John has just gone through a nasty divorce and his once-stellar credit scores have been dragged through the mud. He needs to purchase both a car and a home, but sadly the damage to his credit scores is going to cause him to pay significantly more than he would have paid before his credit problems. Let’s take a look.


Thankfully, though John’s scores were borderline, he was still able to at least qualify for a new mortgage. The rate he received on his 30-year fixed loan, however, was not the best. With a credit score of 620, John was offered an interest rate of 4.77% on his $200,000 mortgage. Here is a breakdown of how much this loan will cost him over time:

  • Loan amount: $200,000
  • Credit score: 620
  • Monthly payment: $1,046
  • Total interest paid: $176,455

Auto Loan

John also needs to purchase a new vehicle, and his credit problems will cost him again. He was offered an interest rate of 9.014% on a 60-month, $25,000 new auto loan. Here is a breakdown of his overall loan cost:

  • Loan amount: $25,000
  • Credit score: 620
  • Monthly payment: $577
  • Total interest paid: $9,615

720 Credit Score: Much Better

John, of course, was not very happy with his poor credit scores and high interest rates. So, he decided to work hard to raise his credit score back to where it used to be. After a couple of years of patiently and consistently rebuilding his credit, John has finally seen his scores rise back up to a much more respectable level of 720. He’s decided to refinance his mortgage and is trading in his vehicle for a newer model. Here’s a look at what these new loans will cost him now that he has worked to improve his credit.


With his new credit score of 720, John is able to qualify for a much more attractive interest rate of 3.403% on his $200,000 mortgage. That 100-point increase in his credit score will save him more than $150 a month and more than $57,000 over the life of the loan. Here’s a complete breakdown of how much he’ll save on his new mortgage with his improved credit scores:

  • Loan amount: $200,000
  • Credit score: 720
  • Monthly payment: $887
  • Total interest paid: $119,246
  • Money saved monthly: $159
  • Money saved overall: $57,209

Auto Loan

John also traded in his vehicle on a newer model. Once again he took out a 60-month, $25,000 new auto loan. However, this time he was offered an interest rate of 3.276%. Here’s a breakdown of the cost and savings on his new car loan.

  • Loan amount: $25,000
  • Credit score: 720
  • Monthly payment: $452
  • Total interest paid: $2,137
  • Money saved monthly: $125
  • Money saved overall: $7,478

Overall, by raising his credit score just 100 points, John was able to save $284 a month and will save $64,687 total — on just these two loans alone. That’s the real-world impact of improving your credit score.

Related Articles

John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books on the topic and has been interviewed and quoted thousands of times over the past 10 years. With time spent at Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 230 credit related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit.

The post Here’s How Much Your Credit Score Impacts Your Mortgage and Auto Loan Rates appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Zillow Zestimate vs. Reality: How Much Is My House Worth?

Almost everyone these days begins their search for a new home inside their old home. That is, if you’re looking to buy (or sell) a house, you’re very likely lying on the couch with your phone or a laptop, looking at some online real estate websites like Zillow, Redfin or Trulia – or entering your home’s information on the sites.

And while you’re poring over pictures of homes and examining numbers such as how many bedrooms or square feet a home has, the one number you’ll pay the most attention to is the price. That makes sense. If you’re selling your home, you obviously want to have an idea of what your home might fetch on the market before you list it or get too far along in your own home search – after all, why fall in love with a house that’s way out of your price range?

But many real estate experts say you shouldn’t pay too much attention to the home value estimates that real estate websites offer. In fact, even their very own executives have admitted that their online value estimates should be taken with a grain of salt.

Zillow, for instance, has said that its Zestimate tool has a median error rate of 8%. Of course, that sounds pretty good – a 92% success rate? But when homes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, 8% matters: No one wants to overpay by $24,000 — or 8% on a $300,000 home. Plus, this is the median we’re talking about. In some parts of the country, the error rate will be even less and in others, quite a bit higher.

So when you use those home estimation evaluation calculators, remember three things:

1. These home value calculators rely on a formula.

The formulas are generally based on a set of factors, such as square footage and prior sales of other homes in the neighborhood. That said, homes are generally imperfect, as you know if you live in a home that’s been beat up over the years by you, your kids, and your pets.

That’s why many real estate agents have come to dislike real estate websites’ home evaluation calculators.

“There is no human interaction involved in coming up with these estimates. They’re based solely on an algorithm, with no one to determine the validity of them,” says Bill Golden, an Atlanta-based independent real estate agent with RE/Max Metro Atlanta Countryside.

Golden is also unimpressed with the numbers used in the algorithm. “The sites use a formula based on location and square footage, as reported by tax rolls, which are notoriously incorrect,” he says.

2. Online estimates miss the details of a home.

As noted, these tools can’t tell if your house is extremely lived in. They don’t know if a house or condo is covered in 1950s wallpaper, or if it was once a meth lab, or has 80-year-old wiring.

On the flip side, if you’ve recently renovated your kitchen and bathroom or added a $25,000 deck in your backyard, all of those improvement would bump up your home’s value — but the online estimators have no idea.

“The price that’s listed does not include upgrades, amenities, the current condition, or neighborhood irregularities. All of these are items that will reflect what buyers are willing to pay,” says Chantay Bridges, a real estate agent in Los Angeles.

And even if a house has three or four bedrooms, you don’t know if all of them are comfortable bedrooms that you’d want to sleep in — or if they more closely resemble a closet.

3. These calculators are a guideline, and that’s all.

This is common sense, and easy to tell yourself, but not always easy to remember if you’re getting dollar signs in your eyes believing your net worth is climbing or your home will sell for much more than you initially thought.

“Use the internet to do homework and help you learn about types of properties in which you may be interested and areas that intrigue you, but don’t get married to the values presented or even to specific listings,” Golden advises.

So… How Much Is My House Worth?

What should you do, then, if you’re selling your house and aren’t sure of its value? Golden naturally puts in a good word for his profession: He recommends you consult a real estate agent familiar with the area who can tell you the actual value of your home. But he also says you could bring in an appraiser.

Bridges is even more harsh in her assessment of online calculators that tell you what your home is worth. “The estimates… give consumers false hope… It’s a fantasy without any real substance,” she says.

She advises thinking of such home value estimates the way you would if you were looking for a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.

“You’re taking your chances just as if you were engaging in online dating,” Bridges says. “Just because the profile makes them look like a good catch, doesn’t necessarily mean they are.”

Related Articles

The post Zillow Zestimate vs. Reality: How Much Is My House Worth? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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