Saturday, January 7, 2017

Inspiration from Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Carrie Fisher, 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. Abraham Lincoln on believing in friends

“I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” – Abraham Lincoln

If you’re trying to take on a major life change or work on a major project, there are few things in life that are more helpful than a supportive friend or two. Not only is a supportive friend often full of good ideas and suggestions and positivity, you also often cultivate a sense that you want to succeed at your goal in order to not let that friend down. You want to succeed because they want you to succeed, and it becomes a boost to your own motivation for success.

Talk to your friends about your goals, particularly the ones that you know are positive and supportive. They’ll be there for you along the way, if you let them, and you’ll find that before long your desire to not let them down adds to your desire to succeed at your goal.

2. Draw a Box

I am absolutely terrible at drawing. My drawing and sketching skills basically extend to drawing stick figures or following along with step-by-step Youtube videos and still ending up with crude results. My nine year old daughter produces substantially better results than I do.

I’ve tried a lot of different online tutorials for drawing and none of them have ever really clicked until I tried this one. Draw a Box is the first online drawing tutorial I’ve ever done that’s actually resulted in significant improvement in my drawing ability and the entire website is free.

What I’ve come to realize is that I was doing a bunch of things fundamentally wrong and that by getting rid of those bad fundamentals and working to replace them with good fundamentals, I’m naturally able to draw a little better. For instance, when I draw, I used to work almost entirely with the wrist, but after using this tutorial, I’m using my shoulders a lot more and the result is far better flowing lines on the page rather than bumpy weird lines.

The site explains things very well and offers up tons of exercises and practice “homework” for reworking fundamentals. I’m admittedly moving through it slowly and really hammering repetition on some of the fundamental things before I move on, but when I sit down with my daughter now, I notice already that there’s a big improvement in what I’m producing. It’s far from great yet, but this is the first time since I was a kid where I’ve seen real improvement.

3. Anaïs Nin on how love dies

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” ― Anaïs Nin

I started dating my wife more than twenty years ago (in the summer of 1996), and I know by now that time can really see a relationship fade if you don’t pay attention to it and nurture it. It is very easy to fall into a routine of everyday life where little forgotten things and little unintended things add up and the everyday dance of love falls away. There are few things truly sadder than that.

Never let a day go by without wrapping your arms around your partner and telling him or her that you love them. Never let a day go by without a kiss, a hug, and a warm embrace. Never let a day go by without a conversation where you actually listen rather than just waiting until your next chance to say anything.

You’re going to mess up sometimes and do things in a way that hurts your partner. Quite often, you’ll never notice yourself doing it. But you can go a long way toward healing those things if you simply do the work to keep your relationship alive, every day. It’s worth it.

4. Videos on better ways to do everyday things

I love videos like this one on how to fold a fitted sheet:

… or how to insert a duvet into its cover:

… or how to fold a t-shirt quickly:

… or how to test your oven temperature, which can really help with making sure recipes turn out right:

For some reason, videos that show off how to do some of these simple household tasks really appeal to me. Usually, the solution is something so comically simple that I almost slap myself in the head for having not thought of it before, like taking advantage of the melting point of sugar to check oven temperature or tucking together the corners of a fitted bedsheet to fold it.

I think the appeal is similar to why I keep digging into frugality tactics. I love to know how to do the ordinary things that I do just a little bit better.

5. Socrates on being what we pretend to be

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” – Socrates

All of us have this image of ourselves that we want to present to others. An image of kindness, of wisdom, of being organized, of being a functional and mature adult, of being a leader. However, there are a lot of times, particularly when we’re alone, when we feel like we fall far, far short of that image that we want to project.

I often don’t feel like I’m frugal, though it’s an image that I want to present here. I often feel like I’m not the best parent or the best husband, though it’s an image that I want to present to many people in my life.

The further I feel I am from the image I want to project, the worse I feel about myself, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t really dissipate. The best solution I’ve found for feeling comfortable and happy in the world is to live as close as possible to the image I want to project to others. If I want to project an image of being frugal, I need to actually be frugal. If I want to project an image of being a good parent, I need to actually be an attentive and involved parent.

If I do that, then the image comes naturally and it doesn’t feel false. It feels like an authentic picture of who I am. And that feels good. Really good.

6. NOVAE – An aestethic vision of a supernova

If you can watch this in full screen, do so.

From the description:

Novae is a movie about an astronomical event that occurs during the last evolutionary stages of a massive star’s life, whose dramatic and catastrophic death is marked by one final titanic explosion called supernova.
By only using an aquarium, ink and water, this film is also an attempt to represent the giant with the small without any computed generated imagery.
As a tribute to Kubrick or Nolan’s filmography, Novae is a cosmic poem that want to introduce the viewer to the nebulae’s infinite beauty.

This is just a gorgeous video to watch. Turn it on, turn up the sound, and let it flow over your eyes and ears. You’ll be incredibly glad that you did.

The simple effect of using an aquarium, water, and ink in the water to describe an enormous natural phenomenon in such a stunningly beautiful way is something that’s well worth enjoying. I’ve watched this with my children several times and my youngest wanted to watch it again and again and again.

Don’t miss this. It’s well worth your time.

7. Adam Galinsky on hotw to speak up for yourself

From the description:

Speaking up is hard to do, even when you know you should. Learn how to assert yourself, navigate tricky social situations and expand your personal power with sage guidance from social psychologist Adam Galinsky.

The biggest concern that many people have with speaking up – including myself – is the sense that by doing so, you’ll come off as a negative person and be less likable. Speaking up often comes with this air of being rude or intrusive, attributes that people don’t want to have.

The truth is that the ability to speak up often comes down to one’s sense of power in the room. If you feel powerless, you won’t speak up, ever. If you feel powerful, you’ll speak up all the time, perhaps even too much. The thing is, people don’t like to be surrounded by powerless peers unless they just want to run roughshod over them. They want people who speak up when it’s actually important, because that indicates that the person has useful beliefs and the power to express them when it matters.

That’s the key: knowing when it matters. Don’t speak up when there’s no benefit for anyone in doing so. If you’re just being negative toward someone, literally no one benefits when you speak up and many involved suffer. Save speaking up for the moments when a comment can really help and provide a positive impact. Couch it in a positive way, but still, go for it. Speaking up when it’s actually useful gets you noticed in a positive way, and that’s something that’s beneficial for you and beneficial for the recipient of your actual useful comment.

8. C.S. Lewis on reading great literature

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” – C.S. Lewis

I’ve been asked before why exactly it is that I read so much. It’s almost hard to find me without my nose in a book or without my Kindle at arm’s length.

The biggest reason I read so much is because it is the only window I have into the souls of other people. Great books provide that window; truly great writing can open up ideas and open up people in a way that nothing else I’ve ever experienced can pull off.

I read because I need to understand the world. It’s a drive that’s deep inside of me. Experience can teach me a lot about what’s on the surface, but there are some things I can only get by looking at the world through the eyes of others, and books achieve that more reliably than anything else.

9. Health Care Triage

I wasn’t even aware of this Youtube channel until recently, when a friend of mine shared with me their paid sick leave video, which you can see here:

Health Care Triage is a Youtube channel devoted entirely to well-produced and well-researched and actually entertaining videos on health care issues of all kinds.

Whenever you manage to perfect the “triage” of being entertaining, being informative, and backing that information up with sources, you’re probably going to attract me as a viewer, and Health Care Triage absolutely did that. I spend a few hours nearly drowning myself in videos from this channel and walked away with new ideas on why the “five second rule” doesn’t work, the interconnection between SNAP and the obesity epidemic, the amazing return on investment from Medicaid, and countless other things.

I firmly believe that channels like this are part of the future of video media: small producers with editorial freedom who really truly care about the topic and back it up with public facts and research. Health Care Triage is a great template for it. Great job, guys.

10. Haruki Murakami on money and time

“Spend your money on the things money can buy. Spend your time on the things money can’t buy.” — Haruki Murakami

There is no amount of money in the world that will keep my kids young forever. They’re growing up. There is a limited amount of time left in their childhood, before they spread their wings and fly.

I can work and work and work right now to make money so that they can have some sort of perfect life, but when I look back on my childhood, the things I remember aren’t the things we had or the trips we went on. It’s the time we spent together. It’s the dinner table conversations. It’s the board games played on a lazy afternoon. It’s the baseball games and basketball games we watched together. It’s my mom’s constant presence at my school events. It’s fishing with my dad.

I’m willing to earn a little less in my life right now so that I can be there for them when they get home off the bus, so that we can spend an hour or two together each day, so that if they have troubles in life they can talk about them, so I can help them with their homework, so we can have a family dinner together.

Before long, I won’t have that choice. I already can’t hold them as the babies and toddlers that they once were. I don’t mind that, but I don’t want to miss a thing as they move forward. I want to be here when they need me and be accepting of the times when they don’t.

Time trumps money, every time.

11. Roger Antonsen on math is the hidden secret to understanding the world

From the description:

Unlock the mysteries and inner workings of the world through one of the most imaginative art forms ever — mathematics — with Roger Antonsen, as he explains how a slight change in perspective can reveal patterns, numbers and formulas as the gateways to empathy and understanding.

The world is full of patterns. Mathematics is the universal language of patterns. It’s a way to explain them and compare them and understand them. Thus, the better your understanding of math, the better your toolkit for understanding the world.

The interesting part of this video is how smoothly that extends to humanities and social sciences and philosophy. Math shows up in surprising ways in areas you’d never expect, even in the most human of emotions.

Antonsen does a great job of touching on all of that in an easy to understand way in this video. It’s very much worth watching.

12. Carrie Fisher on doing it anyway

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” ― Carrie Fisher

I don’t think this edition of Pieces of Inspiration would be complete without talking a bit about Carrie Fisher.

One of my most vivid memories of childhood comes from when I was about ten or so. I had a tiny color television with manual dials in my bedroom that could pick up about four channels and one of those channels was showing one of the Star Wars movies – I couldn’t tell you which one. I was hiding underneath a bedsheet with my pet dog, peeking out and watching it.

The Star Wars movies changed my life. I saw them for the first time on broadcast television when I was very young and they ignited a fire inside of me for fantasy and science fiction. My grandmother fed that fire very nicely, buying me tons of books in that genre for birthdays and holidays and even slipping me a book as a surprise here and there. My mother fed it, too, by taking me to the library quite often and letting me check out whatever I wanted with no filter whatsoever. She didn’t censor my reading habits at all.

Those books introduced me to many different ways of thinking and seeing the world, from the libertarian views of Robert Heinlein to the personal explorations of Samuel Delany. They eventually led me to reading a great deal of science nonfiction, then into philosophy and other areas. I ended up studying in the hard sciences in college largely because of those endless adolescent and teenage days spent reading science fiction and philosophy and science.

Even today, I read a lot of science fiction, and it still exposes me to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. It still pushes me to think differently and often pushes me into reading science nonfiction, philosophy, history, and other things.

It all started with Star Wars. I owe a great deal of the directions and choices of my life to the original vision of George Lucas and the onscreen performances of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill. They came along at just the right moment to have a tremendous impact on me, helping me to understand myself and the world and start that fire of curiosity that is still burning.

They’re all getting old, now, and I’m older, too. It was a painful surprise to find that Carrie Fisher had passed away, one that impacted me a lot harder than I would have expected.

Carrie Fisher isn’t just a part of my distant past, though. She’s a part of a very fond memory I have from the last year. I sat in a theater watching The Force Awakens with my daughter and a much older Carrie Fisher was on screen. No longer the young Princess Leia I remember from my youth, she was instead a general, someone who had devoted her life to leading others and making hard decisions. She was strong and tough and had made countless sacrifices and hard decisions in her life. She was a leader of people, one who had overcome challenges. It was a vision of womanhood that is rarely portrayed in movies, one that I was really glad that my daughter could see on the screen.

Thanks, Carrie, one more time.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Macrobudgeting and Microbudgeting

Most people, when they think of a personal budget, think of what I would describe as a “microbudget.” It’s the traditional kind, where you divide your spending up into a whole bunch of different categories – $500 for food, $700 for rent, $125 for electricity, and so on. You then make it your goal to achieve that target in each category by being frugal. You make sure the lights are turned off and keep the heat running low in order to reach your monthly electricity spending target. You eat more meals at home in order to make sure you hit your monthly food spending target. And so on and so forth.

Another approach is what I call “macrobudgeting.” Macrobudgeting basically splits your spending into just a couple of groups – “needs” and “wants,” generally. Your energy bill, your grocery bill, your phone bill, your Roth IRA contributions all qualify as “needs.” The money left over can be spent on “wants” – things like hobbies, entertainment, eating out, and so on.

In general, people who struggle with their finances use a “macrobudgeting” model. They don’t have a strong sense of where their money goes and thus they’re left wondering why they have nothing left over at the end of the month. Often, they don’t include genuine long-term needs in their “needs” portion of their budgeting, meaning that they don’t contribute to things like retirement right off the bat and treat it as a need, and they intermingle their wants with their needs.

Almost always, the suggestion for people who start their financial turnaround is to jump to a “microbudgeting” model. That’s why you see it pop up again and again in personal finance books. People are encouraged to break down their spending into narrow categories, see where that money is going, set targets for each category, and work to achieve that number. Microbudgets tend to be what people think of when they think of budgets.

Microbudgets are a great tool, don’t get me wrong, but there are some flaws with them.

For one, it takes time to do this. In order to build a decent microbudget, you have to spend some time looking carefully at your spending, dividing it into smart categories, and coming up with realistic targets. Then you have to do it again at the end of the month, and the next month, and the next month. That adds up to quite a lot of time invested.

For another, it can be pretty inflexible. An unexpected expense in a particular category can really wreck a microbudget and leave you feeling like a failure at the end of the month. There are life events you simply cannot control, and microbudgets rarely “flex” enough to handle those unexpected events.

Macrobudgeting is obviously easier and a lot more flexible. So why would anyone ever microbudget?

It’s simple. The purpose of microbudgeting is to teach practical frugality. The entire purpose of a microbudget is to force you to look deeply at how you’re spending money, identify ways in which you could spend less, and then actually put those methods into practice. You can then figure out which frugal tactics really work in your life and which ones do not.

When you budget, say, $500 for food for the month when you normally spend, say, $800, that means you’re going to have to make some smart choices about the food that you buy. You’ll have to prepare more meals at home from scratch. You’ll have to look more carefully at the items you put in your shopping cart. You might try using a grocery list in order to trim your grocery spending. Maybe you switch from using an expensive grocer, like Whole Foods, to a discount grocer like Fareway for many of your foods (I’m a Fareway fan – substitute your favorite discount grocer, like ALDI, into that sentence if you prefer).

You’ll find over a few months of microbudgeting that some of those tactics really work for you and some of them are a struggle. Maybe you find that shopping at Fareway instead of Target and Whole Foods is a great switch for you and a grocery list is great, but it’s hard to cook lots of meals at home so you still rely on prepackaged meals. Or maybe you find that using a grocery list and making slow cooker meals both click with you, but you’re very particular about your vegetables and want a huge selection of them, so you keep shopping at Whole Foods. Or maybe everything clicks. No matter which story is true for you, your food spending goes down and, ideally, comes in under budget.

During the times when you’re actively microbudgeting, you’re picking up many different frugal strategies and integrating them permanently into your life. For example, once you’ve switched to a routine of using a grocery list every week for grocery shopping and you do it over and over and over again, it starts to become the new normal. When you buy LED bulbs instead of incandescents, it becomes the new normal. When you make most of your meals at home, it becomes the new normal. When you shop around for cell phone deals between contracts, it becomes the new normal. When you automatically contribute to your Roth IRA through automated deductions, it becomes the new normal.

The point is that microbudgeting makes a lot of frugal strategies into the new “normal” for you. It forces you to keep trying a new thing until it either becomes frustrating enough that you reject it or it seamlessly integrates into your life.

That’s why, after several months of microbudgeting, many people can step back to macrobudgeting for a while. Since microbudgeting has taught you a lot of tactics that reduce your spending and repeated microbudgeting integrates those tactics so firmly into your life that they become the new normal, microbudgeting no longer remains as useful as it once was, so the drawbacks of it start to really push to the forefront. If you’re spending hours each month on a budget after doing it for several months and you’re finding that the benefits are getting smaller and smaller, it’s probably time to take a break from it.

At that point, you can just keep rolling forward with the frugal strategies you’ve learned while macrobudgeting instead. It’s a lower time investment and it keeps saving you money as long as you stick with the frugal strategies you’ve already integrated into your life.

Once you’ve reached that point, the only time when it makes sense to switch back to microbudgeting is during times of change when the routines of your life are shifting. For example, if you start noticing that you’re not having as much money left over at the end of the month as you once did, it’s time to consider a switch back to microbudgeting for a while. If you find yourself going through a significant change in life, such as a job loss, a switch to a new employer, a move to a new city, a separation, or something similar, it’s usually a good idea to jump back to microbudgeting for a few months.

The way I like to think of microbudgets is that they’re training wheels for financially responsible living. When you’re first learning how to ride a bicycle, training wheels are invaluable when it comes to teaching you how to balance yourself, but there comes a time when the training wheels aren’t needed any more. You remove them and you’re biking without those wheels holding you back at all.

However, let’s say that your bicycle broke and now you’re riding a pennyfarthing bicycle or a unicycle. Your ride has completely changed, though parts of it might seem familiar. Throwing the training wheels back on for at least a little while can be a good idea until you’re used to the differences.

The same thing is true with life changes. Your routines have changed, so it can be a good idea to switch back to microbudgeting for a while so that you can figure out the best frugal routines in your life after the changes. You can always take off the microbudgeting “training wheels” later on.

At the end of the day, the key thing to remember is that any budget is intended to help you make better decisions about where and how to spend your money. That’s the entire purpose of a budget: it allows you to see where your money is going and think about where you’d like it to go in the future. Microbudgeting just means that you’re putting a tighter grip on things for a while as you learn better frugal routines.

What do I do? I mostly macrobudget at this point, although I switch back to microbudgeting twice a year or so for a few months. I usually use You Need a Budget to figure out what’s going on with my finances, figure out which areas I’m struggling with (usually hobby spending, to be honest), and figure out ways to correct them.

My advice to you: If you’re struggling to figure out where your money is going, try microbudgeting for a few months and see what you discover. If you find that your normal routines are causing you to spend a lot less than you earn, switch to macrobudgeting and use the saved time wisely in your life. You can always switch between the two, as needed.

Good luck!

Related Articles:

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How to Save Money on Your Next Laptop

Even though I’m happy with my six-year-old computer, I can’t help but take interest when new laptops come onto the market. It’s like how you don’t stop noticing other people you’re attracted to just because you’re in a relationship. (Note to my fiancee: I only have eyes for you!)

Because the variety of laptops is staggering, it can be hard to figure out what computer you actually need, the best place to buy a laptop, and how to get the best deal.

Whether you simply need a slim, cheap laptop to work online, or a powerful machine that can handle your company’s finicky security requirements, here’s how you can get the performance you need from a laptop without breaking the bank.

Bare Bones Models Offer More Than You Might Expect

Even for those looking to spend the bare minimum on a laptop, there are a number of good options. For instance, Google’s sleek, light, Chromebook line comes highly regarded.

The cheapest Chromebook starts at $179, and still comes packed with 2 GB of RAM, an Intel Dual Core processor, and a solid state hard drive. Various models are produced by Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Acer, ASUS, and other manufacturers, but no Chromebook gets less than a four-star rating on Amazon.com, which is impressive for such an affordable machine.

Chromebook hard drives are quite small, however — about what you’d find on a basic smartphone — so these computers are better suited for people who don’t mind storing most of their data in the cloud, or as a backup computer that won’t be tasked with storing an entire video catalog or iTunes library.

That said, they’re pretty useful for people who do most of their work online – especially for the price. “I’ve used a Chromebook for 99% of my work the past two years,” says The Simple Dollar editor Jon Gorey. “It’s lightweight, it’s fast — it starts up in literally five seconds — and the Chrome OS gets updated automatically so I’ve never had any virus issues or anything… knock on wood. If you’re comfortable with Google Docs and work mostly online, it’s a bargain; I think mine was like $229, I’ve long since got my money’s worth. But we do have a desktop Mac as kind of an anchor computer for the house when we need it.”

Other computers in this price range to keep an eye on, according to PCMag.com, are the Lenovo Ideapad, the ASUS Vivobook, and the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 series.

The Oft-Forgotten Mid-Range Options

When I start searching for computers, I tend to focus on the extremes. I get excited thinking about owning something spartan and cheap, because I wouldn’t be very upset if it got damaged. Alternatively, I like to fawn over the best of the best, thinking that if I spend a bundle it’ll last me forever.

But there are plenty of great computers that won’t deplete your bank account and also offer more raw power, storage, and memory than the budget lines.

For our purposes, we’ll consider mid-range to be anything from $600 to $800. Sean Hollister, senior editor at CNET, recommends looking long and hard at the Dell Inspiron 7000, the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S, and the Lenovo ThinkPad 13.

Another way to snag something in this range is to be savvy about looking for computers that are normally very expensive but have come down in price. For instance, Hollister notes you can get a ThinkPad with even better specs in this price range if you find it on sale or refurbished. “You can find them in this price range when you look at the right time,” he says.

Buy Refurbished to Save Big

As Hollister notes, buying refurbished is one of the best ways to get a high-end laptop at a mid-range price point.

This is different than simply hopping on Craigslist or eBay and buying used. In those situations, you have no guarantee that the seller is being honest with their listing. While there are deals to be had on these sites, make sure you do your due diligence.

When you buy a refurbished computer straight from the manufacturer, however, you’re getting a pre-owned machine that has been repaired and restored to almost-new condition by the company’s own technicians. They typically come with warranties, so you’re protected against buying a faulty product.

So not only are refurbished machines guaranteed to work, they’re also much more affordable than a brand-new version.

For example, if you’re an Apple fanatic, but you’re also trying to be frugal, Apple’s refurbished outlet is going to be your best place to buy a laptop. Every computer on Apple’s refurbished site is at least 15% off — and any fanboy knows Apple rarely, if ever, discounts its products.

Dell and Lenovo also have well-regarded sites where you can find great deals on refurbished machines.

How (and When) to Find Cheap Laptops for Sale

There are certain times of year that are always going to be good for saving money on tech purchases, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the back-to-school months (July to September.) If you have patience, you can find heavy discounts on most laptop models around these times. The best places to search are reputable sellers who are inclined to have sales, such as Best Buy, NewEgg, and Tiger Direct.

Also, you might benefit from setting up price alerts. This means that you install a web application on your browser that lets you know when a computer you have your eye on drops below a certain price. Some popular ones include Amazon Price Watch and CamelCamelCamel.

Another thing to keep in mind is that after a new model of computer is released, the previous year’s model will inevitably drop in price. This is especially useful if you’re looking at higher end laptops, where the new releases sometimes only improve on specs you don’t care that much about, such as weight or screen resolution. (Now that we have retina displays, how much better can screens really get? Do I need to get Lasik eye surgery to fully enjoy the newest crop of laptops?)

A Final Tip: Don’t Be Seduced by Processor Speeds

You might want the latest and greatest laptop because it promises to turbocharge your computing experience via a state-of-the-art processor. For instance, everyone wants their machines to have an i7 Intel chip these days. Of course, ever-improving processing speeds are also part of the reason new computers can be so expensive.

But, it turns out that processing speed might not be that important after all. Notable online tech experts, such as the writer who simply goes by “Daley” at Techmeshugana.com, are shedding light on this fact. “Most 10-year-old processors are still more than capable of performing the same tasks as today’s top processors for the average user,” Daley says.

It turns out that the improved processing speeds have helped things like battery life and power consumption, but for the average user, top of the line speeds won’t make that much of a difference in performance. According to Daley, “Unless you’re editing large media files, insist on watching 1080p or higher resolution videos, or game heavily… pretty much any dual core (or greater) processor running at 1.8GHz (or faster) should be plenty for most people’s needs.”

Keep those specs in mind as you hunt for deals, because you don’t want to overpay for something that won’t end up mattering to your overall computing experience.

Summing Up

Sometimes after I watch a particularly compelling truck commercial, I’ll be convinced that I’ve been depriving myself because my car doesn’t have enough torque. Then I remember I don’t really know what torque is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be hauling three tons of construction material up a rocky cliff anytime soon.

The same thinking should apply when you’re looking for laptops. Keep in mind that even the cheapest options are very powerful these days, and should be more than enough for the average consumer.

Finally, if you make sure that you always investigate refurbished options and keep an eye on seasonal price fluctuations, you’ll set yourself up to find the perfect laptop for your budget.

Related Articles:

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 21): Starting a Side Business

“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 examined strategies you might want to use if you’re looking to move on to a better job. Today, we’re going to to take a different approach to income generation and look at some strategies for starting a side gig.

So, what’s a “side gig”? A side gig simply refers to anything you do outside of your main job in order to earn some additional money that’s self-funded (meaning you don’t have to take out debt for it and already have the gear you need or can buy it out of pocket) and won’t require employees, at least not at first. Usually, it’s in reference to a microbusiness, where you’re making something and/or selling something. This can take a lot of forms, from starting a Youtube channel to engaging in freelancing parallel to your career, from repairing smartphones to building wooden Adirondack deck chairs, from making jewelry to sell on Etsy to mowing lawns.

The key to a successful side gig is to find something that you enjoy doing that you can turn into profitability or else find something that other people hate doing that you don’t mind doing so that they’ll pay you for it. For example, in the first category, you might make a Youtube channel about your hobby, or in the second category, you might mow lawns. It also needs to be something that isn’t so time-consuming that you can’t do it in your spare time.

In my own experience, building a side gig was a fundamental part of achieving financial and professional success. The Simple Dollar started as a side gig for me, one that grew into a full time job over a series of years, and it helped both with our financial turnaround but also with our life flexibility.

Let’s get to it!

Exercise #21 – Building a Side Gig

Most of the strategies in this article seek to tease out some of those ideas from your own life and then how to turn that idea into something that actually makes money along with a few basic tips on keeping your money straight.

Identify your personal skills and passions. People pay money for skills. They also pay money for passion. That’s what people like to spend their money on. People want things that are done with skill. People enjoy things that are produced with passion and care. People put up their money for things that they want and enjoy.

Thus, if you want to make money, one great way to start is with things you’re passionate about and things with which you have skill.

To start, make a list of all of the skills you have: things you can do well that elude others, either through natural talent or through training. Maybe you’re good at photography or line drawing. Maybe you’re really good at poker. Perhaps you can play the piano, or you’re a wizard at Adobe Illustrator. Perhaps you’re good at making videos, or maybe you can write reasonably good prose in large volumes quickly (that’s something I can do!). Maybe you’re a borderline golf pro. Figure out the things you’re notably good at.

Then, figure out things that you’re really passionate about. What do you love doing or learning about? Perhaps you’re passionate about science fiction books. Maybe you’re really into binge-watching shows on Netflix. Maybe your passion is board games. Think of things that you truly love, that you’re opinionated about, that you think about all the time.

Those two lists are things that you can draw upon to form a side gig. The best ones, I’ve found, come when you combine a skill that you have – say, video making – with a passion that you have – say, science fiction. That means you’re in a place to create something with skill that you’re passionate about, and you’ll almost always find fans who will buy into what you’re doing when you combine the two.

If you don’t have a skill that matches up well with a passion, you can always focus on learning a skill. Video making is a great skill to learn, for example. Starting a side gig can be a wonderful incentive for learning a skill.

Identify things you don’t mind doing that other people hate doing. If you’re struggling with the previous list, switch your focus to considering things that you don’t mind doing that other people seem to loathe doing. House cleaning. Lawn mowing and other yard work. Laundry. Moving stuff. Walking dogs. Those are all tasks that people don’t enjoy doing and will often pay others to do.

Think about things that others complain about all the time that you really don’t mind doing and you’re probably pretty close to the source of a side gig for yourself. People will always pay to offload a task that they don’t enjoy.

From those lists, identify two or three ideas that might work for you. At this point, you should have a bunch of skills, passions, and tasks you don’t mind tackling written down. Now is the time to start filtering all of those ideas.

The first step here is to start mining those skills, passions, and tasks for potential side gig ideas. Just look at those things and ask yourself what you could do with them to make money, especially when you can combine a skill and a passion.

For example, if you wrote down that you’re skilled at Adobe Illustrator and that you’re passionate about board games, perhaps you could find someone with an interesting prototype for a game and turn it into something beautiful that you could publish together. If you’re passionate about chess and interested in learning videography, perhaps you could start a Youtube channel where you teach basic chess or else analyze matches in a way that a layperson could understand. If you’re passionate about board games and skilled at writing quickly, maybe you could start a blog about board game reviews. Add those things to your list.

You might have freelancing opportunities related to each of your skills as well. You might have the opportunity to directly sell your creative works or offer consulting.

Maybe you don’t mind doing laundry and others hate it; you could start a “laundry service at your door” business. If you like mowing, maybe you could start a lawn care business. Almost everything that other people dislike doing that you don’t mind is a great basis or a business.

Hopefully, you’ll come up with a list of several ideas for businesses during this process. If you did, spend some time whittling that list down to the two or three that intrigue you the most. You should strive to end with your three best ideas for a side gig.

Develop a real business plan for each idea. Take each of those three ideas and flesh them out into a business plan. This seems like a painful formal process to many, but there’s a very good reason for making a business plan: it helps you see the potential problems in your idea before you start running with it, which means you can think of ways to get around those problems so that you’re more likely to have success right off the bat.

I highly suggest following the recommendations for writing a business plan from the Small Business Administration. You can skip over the parts about funding – a side gig should be self-funded, as noted above – but take the other parts seriously. Unless you’re doing this just for kicks, you’re going to want to have a side gig that will succeed and walking through the steps of writing a business plan for each of your ideas will pretty quickly help you figure out the problems and benefits for each of your ideas.

I did this with The Simple Dollar (back then, I used a business plan book from the library rather than these great SBA resources that exist today) and with many other small businesses I’ve dabbled in. The process of writing such a plan has almost always helped me see obstacles and helped me figure out how to deal with them before they become disasters that I’ve invested many hours in. I’ve walked away from many ideas after writing a business plan, and for good reason – they would have turned into black holes of time and money, slurping away all of those resources and giving me little in return.

Once you’ve written up a business plan using these ideas, pass them around to some trusted family members or friends or mentors. Send each one to a few people and get their feedback. Send them to people you trust and whose advice you trust and take their comments seriously. They might be really negative on an idea that you think is great, but rather than just brushing it off as “jealousy” or something, stop and listen to what they’re saying. Often, the good people in your life are critical of something you’re doing for a reason – they may be seeing something you’re not seeing due to your own blind spots.

Often, this can turn into a feedback cycle, where people give you comments, you improve the business plan, and then you send it to people for a second reading or to new people for a fresh reading. The goal is to develop a plan as well as you can so that you have a strong plan going forward when you start.

Choose the one that makes the most sense. Once you’ve written up a few plans, passed them around to people for comments, and made some changes to each one, read each one of them again and make a decision on which one to follow up on.

Most of the time, you’ll already know in your gut which one you should choose, but if you’re still uncertain, my general suggestion is to choose the one that you think you could sustain over the longest period of time. If you’re thinking that a particular idea sounds profitable but that you can see it becoming misery in a few months or a year, skip that one. You don’t want to invest the time and effort into building something up only to find yourself hating it down the road.

Wall off blocks of time to devote to your business. Once you’ve got a business plan in place, wall off some blocks of time during your typical week to devote solely to this business. This is your time to work on your side gig – make it as uninterruptible as your main job.

Unless the tasks for this side gig require long blocks of time – meaning that the weekend is the best time for it – it’s usually better to devote a block of time most days to the business. Plan for it every day unless there is a mitigating reason not to, like a particular meeting you have on Tuesdays or something like that. Put this in your calendar. Make it a real thing.

Blocking off a segment of time each day for your side gig means that you’ll move forward on the things that need to be done and you’ll begin to take it more seriously. It will become a routine for you, and when it becomes a routine, you’re going to find that you’re much more likely to do the hard work it takes to make it succeed.

What if you don’t have anything to do at the moment? Spend that time promoting the business so that you’ll have more to do later on. Get engaged on social media or in your community in an effort to promote what you’re doing. Alternately, spend that time sharpening the skills you have that the business is based on by taking classes or working on interesting personal projects that use those skills. Don’t waste that blocked off time; do something that adds value or potential value to your side gig.

Launch sooner rather than later. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about side gigs, it’s that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” to borrow that old maxim. It’s completely true, too – if you spend your time preparing to launch something and you keep tweaking it and editing your business plan and making promotional stuff and talking about it and thinking about it but never actually doing it because it doesn’t seem “perfect” yet, you’ll never do it.

Just do it. Let go. You have something good there, so launch it. Dig in. Get started.

Yes, there will be problems. There would be problems if you waited until things were “perfect” to launch it, too. Nothing will turn out exactly like you dream it to be.

You know what? That’s okay. The purpose of a side gig is to spend some of your spare time doing something that makes money and if you’re not launching, you have zero chance of making money. You can only succeed if you throw it out there.

Don’t sit around fretting and worrying and planning and trying to perfect things. It will never be perfect. Instead, just dive in and get started.

Start off as a sole proprietor, but keep all money separate from the very start. Much small business advice suggests starting off with a legal business structure, but I think that’s really only a good idea if you’re investing a lot of money in equipment solely for the business itself and not directly for personal use. Given that this is a side gig, one that may or may not take off, and one that you’re starting by using things you have on your own or with very little investment – as suggested at the start – I’d suggest just sticking with a sole proprietorship at first.

So, what’s a sole proprietorship? It means that any income you earn from this business is considered personal income. It’s by far the easiest way to handle a side gig in terms of taxes, but it doesn’t offer you any real personal protection, either. If the business starts to grow or if you’re starting to acquire significant things in the name of the business, you may eventually want to structure it legally like a business.

Because of that, I strongly suggest keeping all money separate from the very start. Keep a separate checking account solely for the business and get in the habit of paying for all expenses for the business out of that account, putting all income for the business into that account, and if there’s money in there, paying yourself by taking the money out of the business account and moving it to your personal checking account.

Eventually, if you move to a more robust business structure, having this already in place will make everything much easier. This will also make things easier when it comes time for taxes, even now, because you’ll have all expenses related to this side gig separate from all of your personal stuff.

When might you transition to a different structure? That gets into a completely different ball of worms…

If things start to click, dig deep into entrepreneurship reading. This article isn’t a be-all-end-all of entrepreneurship, obviously. It’s a “getting started” guide that can push you to the point where you’re launching a little side gig that can make you a few dollars.

Sometimes, that’s all that will happen. (And, yes, sometimes even that won’t happen.) But sometimes, you’ll find that things really click. People like what you’re doing. You accumulate more popularity, more viewers, more readers, more clients than you ever expected. It starts to eat more of your time. You start making significant money. You wonder what the next steps are. You wonder about things like business structures and legal protection and possibly hiring employees. You wonder whether this could become your full-time thing.

When those things start happening, then you need to turn to some deeper guides on entrepreneurship and building a business. One great place to start is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau, which covers some of the ground in this article but carries it further, describing many of the steps one would take if a side gig grows up. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is a great book about what steps to take if you have a side gig that seems successful and you want to grow it while avoiding failures that can come from growth. Ready, Fire, Aim by Michael Masterson focuses well on what you need to do to take that core idea and turn it into something that will grow rapidly. The Tax & Legal Playbook by Mark Kohler is a great book for when you start to earn significant income from your side gig and you want to understand some basic tax strategies and whether different business structures are right for you. And those options just scratch the surface.

Those books will help you greatly if you find that you have a successful side gig on your hands, one that might grow faster than you think you can handle. That’s a good problem to have.

Next time, we’ll step back and look at “the gap” you’re creating with all of your efforts.

The post 31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 21): Starting a Side Business appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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How to Save a Job Interview That’s Going Downhill Fast

If you’re heading into a job interview soon, you’ve probably read a lot of advice on how to make a good impression on the hiring manager. Almost all of it will focus on preparation: practicing interview questions, researching the company and the role, even making sure your interview outfit is top-notch. Read enough of this advice, and you’ll start to get the impression that if you’re prepared, nothing could possibly go wrong.

If only that were true.

Of course, if you’ve been on an interview or two in your life, you already know this. No amount of preparation will prevent you from spilling coffee down the front of your white shirt or getting stuck in traffic for an hour. Sometimes, the best you can do is brainstorm solutions for the common problems that might arise, no matter how well-prepared you are.

When you’re late…

Obviously, you do your best not to be late for interviews. But sometimes, leaving an extra hour won’t be enough – the train will stall in the station or construction will reroute your trip through Antarctica and you’ll wind up a few minutes late, despite all your planning.

When this happens, your first instinct will be to rush into the office panting and flinging papers everywhere, apologizing to everyone you see. It’s counterintuitive, but take a beat instead and get yourself together. You don’t need to compound a bad impression by being late and having anxiety-induced cowlicks.

Find a restroom, fix your hair and your clothes, and take a few deep breaths. Then, when you go in, apologize once to the people you’re meeting, and leave it at that. They had to get to work today, too – chances are, they know everything that can go wrong on the commute.

When you put your foot in your mouth…

There are 1,000 ways to accidentally insult someone, no matter how hard you try to be polite. You might get their name slightly wrong, for example – hey, it’s not your fault that the interviewer’s name is CaroLINE and your sister’s name is CaroLYN – or you might try to find a common point of connection by mentioning your favorite sports team, only to find out that the interviewer is a fan of their bitterest rivals.

Ideally, of course, everyone’s an adult and lets it go. But again, a quick apology can go a long way toward helping the situation along. Just don’t overdo it. The goal is to get everyone thinking about your qualifications, and let the incident fade from memory.

When you suddenly become the clumsiest person you know…

You spill your coffee, or you trip over the carpet, or you drop your portfolio … into a tray of sandwiches. It’s flustering and embarrassing, but unless the job you’re interviewing for requires a high level of dexterity – for example, waiter at a fancy restaurant – there’s no reason for a little clumsiness to derail the conversation. In fact, you can turn the incident to your advantage by showing that you recover quickly from unexpected setbacks. Clean up any mess as quickly as possible, make a joke, and use it as a segue. Maybe now’s a good opportunity to talk about a time you used your skills to fix a mess at a previous job.

When you don’t know how to answer a question…

Not knowing the best answer to a question won’t ruin a job interview – but rushing to answer it might. Take a moment to gather your thoughts before you answer, and don’t be afraid to ask the interviewer for clarification on what he or she means.

If you still need more time, Lily Zhang at The Muse suggests thinking out loud:

“For example, if you get asked something like, ‘Tell me about your copy editing process for long form articles,’ and you don’t actually have a process (yet), a good approach would be to imagine that you’re editing that article and share the steps out loud,” she advises. “Add transitional adverbs like ‘first,’ ‘then,’ and ‘lastly’ to give your answer some structure. You can also finish off with a qualifying statement that ‘the process varies depending on the situation,’ which shows that you’re flexible even if your answer isn’t what the hiring manager would do.”

Whatever you do, don’t try answering a question that wasn’t asked. The interviewer will probably call you on it. If you’re really stuck, it’s better to reiterate your interest in the position… and in learning new things. It’s honest, and allows you to move on as quickly as possible.

When the interviewer just doesn’t like you…

The interviewer doesn’t make eye contact, or doesn’t seem to like a single answer you give, or looks bored, or is dismissive. When you get the sense that the interviewer doesn’t like you, it can feel like all is lost.

First of all, don’t make assumptions. Your gut might well be telling you something… or the interviewer might just have a more aggressive style than you prefer. The goal remains the same as it would be if the interviewer seemed like your biggest fan: Make your case for why you’re the best candidate for the job, learn as much as possible about the role and the company, and pay attention for cues that will tell you what it’s like to actually work there.

That last bit is important: If the interviewer seems hostile or like they just don’t get you, you might want to ask yourself whether you really want to work at the company. While it’s totally possible to meet the one bad apple at your very first meeting, it’s also worth considering whether the hiring manager’s misery is induced by the job… or if their behavior indicates a culture you wouldn’t want to join.

File the information away with everything else you learn. After all, you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you.

Related Articles:

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Secret of Inverse Vacation Planning

Last summer, Sarah and I took our family to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a couple of days as part of our summer vacation looping around most of the Great Lakes.

This summer, Sarah and I are taking our family to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park as the centerpiece of our family vacation.

Why did we choose those places? A big part of the reason was that our two oldest children are in upper elementary school and the National Park Foundation offers a wonderful program (that I truly hope continues in the future) called the Every Kid in a Park program.

Basically, if you’re a fourth grader in America, you can visit the Every Kid in a Park website and download a free national parks pass for you and your family that lasts for a full year. This enables us to bypass the cost of entry at our national parks, which means that a summer vacation that involves or is centered around a national park now comes at a discount.

Thus, this past summer, this coming summer, and a summer or two down the road (when our youngest child reaches fourth grade) will all involve stops in or will focus on a national park or two.

A few days ago, while listening to an old podcast of Clark Howard’s radio show, he was discussing vacations and said, “Buy the deal, then figure out why you want to go there.” I realized immediately that, to an extent, we did exactly what he was talking about. We found the deal first, then planned our vacation around the deal. It’s something we do most years, actually.

Planning your vacation in that way is the exact inverse of how most people plan their vacations. Typically, vacation travel planning starts with a destination in mind, then moves onto finding deals centered around that destination.

For example, several of our summer vacations have been launched by a friend or relative inviting us to visit and stay with them for several days while we see them and enjoy their city and the area around them. I have an extremely hospitable cousin in the greater Chicagoland area, for example, and she absolutely insisted multiple times that we spend several days in the Chicago area, where she took care of almost all of our meals and our housing for us. That’s a huge bargain and it allowed us to have a much smaller vacation budget and to focus on a handful of experiences we really wanted to have (like visiting the Art Institute).

Another example: we once spent our summer vacation staying for free at a cabin that was owned by a friend of a friend who basically just let us stay there without paying a dime. When the offer came up, we planned our summer vacation around it.

We’ve flown our entire family of five to the West Coast and back for less than $600 in the past, straight from Des Moines. I’ve flown round trip to Texas and back for less than $80 in the past. Both of those were the starting points for family travel.

How do you plan for vacations like this? It’s actually pretty simple.

First, pay attention to the events in your life. We found out about the Every Kid in a Park program thanks to our oldest child’s fourth grade teacher, who told us about it early in the school year. We found out about opportunities to visit family and stay in the cabins of friends simply by being present and paying attention at family events and weddings and dinner parties.

It’s easy for things like those to slip right through the cracks. Don’t let it happen. Whenever I hear about an offer like that, I make a note of it in Evernote so I can return to that idea later on. I try to keep the idea front and center in my mind so that when vacation planning begins to happen, I recall that idea first and start there.

Whatever tool you use to remember stuff for the future, whether it’s a notebook or emails or a calendar or whatever, take advantage of it and write deals you’ll want to revisit in the future down in that storage tool. That way, you have a strong chance of seeing it when you start planning for vacations.

Another strategy I use is to start searching for huge flight discounts far in advance of any vacation days. I’ll go to SkyScanner and Kayak and simply search for all flights departing from Des Moines or Chicago (which is convenient for us thanks to the accommodating relative I mentioned above) to anywhere over a huge range of dates. Just choose dates that are anywhere within the possible span of when you could take time for a vacation and see what pops up.

Almost always, I’ll find a ludicrous deal or two, like a domestic flight to a city for way less than $100 a person or even sometimes flights to Europe for $100 to $200 a person for everyone in our family. Note that these deals are irregular, but they do show up if you search with very wide parameters. (Although we haven’t traveled internationally yet, it’s very likely that such a tool will help us with a cheap international trip in coming years.)

Between those two strategies, you should have some discounted destinations in mind for your summer vacation. Center your vacation around that enormous discount. If you can fly round trip to the UK for $150, then plan a vacation in the UK and start bargain hunting for the other things you’ll need at that location, like cheap lodging. If you have a free pass to Disney World, figure out how to make the other elements of that trip as cheap as possible.

Maybe you’ve found a huge discount on travel to a particular destination that you don’t know much about. Well, start researching that destination! What’s there that might interest you? What could you do or see there? Start learning about what’s available in a particular area and what might make for a pleasurable vacation for you in that area. Everyone’s got their own thing that they like when traveling – I personally just like to wander around cities and visit art museums – and you should center your research around that. Look at travel guides for the area and focus on things you can see for free.

The goal is to center your trip around a huge discount, then plan outwards from there. Once you’ve found a cheap flight for your family that’s within the bounds of when you can travel, or if you have a great deal on lodging thanks to a friend or another connection, or a bargain of some kind that’s well worth a side journey on your vacation or even the destination itself, start there. Figure out what’s nearby that you would enjoy. Figure out the other elements of the trip that you might need, like how you’ll get there or where you’ll stay, and bargain-hunt those elements, too.

Doing this can turn a trip that would cost thousands into a trip that costs hundreds surprisingly fast.

The key thing behind all of this is flexibility. Inverse vacation planning does not work if you’re fixated on a particular destination at all costs or you absolutely must have a particular experience on your trip. The more constraints you add to inverse vacation planning, the harder it becomes to find a good deal.

Another challenge is knowing when to bite. You’re going to see lots of good bargains when searching. The question then becomes: when does a good bargain become a great one that you should snatch up?

My best advice in terms of knowing when to strike at a travel bargain is to not bite immediately and search for a while so that you get a sense of what good bargains are – of which there are plenty – so that you have a sense of what a great bargain looks like. A flight to Europe for $300 is a good bargain, but if you wait a while, you might just find a great bargain and save another $50 or $100 or even more.

Also, don’t shy away from unexpected places. You might end up on a trip to a place that you never expected to travel to, but what you’ll find is that if you’re flexible, you’ll discover new places and new experiences and do it all at an incredible discount, whether you’re alone, just traveling with a partner or a friend, or going with an entire family.

Good luck on your inverse vacation planning!

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What I Learned From Working Remotely, and Why I Decided to Stop

A year and a half ago, I was presented with the enviable opportunity to leave my job and start working for a company remotely. At the time, I was sick of commuting through Los Angeles traffic, and relished the opportunity to work from my apartment without anyone looking over my shoulder.

I figured I’d get double the work done in half the time. No more inefficient, pointless meetings! No more commute! I thought I’d be living the dream. Maybe I’d even have time to pick up a new hobby. My last attempt at learning guitar got me halfway through a single Neil Young song, and I was excited to try to remedy that disaster.

My fantasies quickly gave way to the harsh reality of what working from home is actually like. Being a remote employee presents many challenges I hadn’t fully appreciated, and I recently decided that the benefits of going into an office outweighed the value I was getting out of working from home. I packed up and headed for the East Coast, and I’m composing this from an office in downtown New York City.

Every person is going to face unique circumstances and obstacles when deciding whether working from home is right for them — and I should note, I don’t have children, so the desire to spend more time with my kids or cut down on pricey childcare wasn’t a factor for me. But I hope that my thought process can help people make more informed decisions if they’re weighing the option of working from home.

I’ll share what I enjoyed about working from home (or WFH, as my cool tech friends used to call it) — as well as how these benefits come with a downside.

WFH Benefit: Freedom

You know those days when you feel like taking a walk at 10 a.m., just because? When you work from home, you can. As long as I had my phone on me and I could reach my computer in a reasonable amount of time, I was free to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

Even in the most lax office environment, there is unspoken pressure to be in the office from at least 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., unless you’re on your lunch break. When your office is your living room and your desk is a cardboard box on top of a counter, you can come and go whenever you want.

WFH Downside: Inability to Detach

In my experience, traditional office jobs haven’t required much after-hours work. I was able to switch my brain out of “work mode” when I left for the day. When I worked from home, meanwhile, I found myself constantly staring at my phone, wondering if something would pop up. There was never a clear start or end to my workday.

Further complicating things, the home office was based in New York, while I was living in California. That means they were operating on East Coast time, and if I woke up at 7 a.m., there was already a pile of emails waiting to be dealt with. I always felt a just a little bit behind, which is a stressful way to live.

WFH Benefit: No Dress Code

I’ve had one go-to outfit for pretty much my entire life: mesh shorts and a t-shirt. When I worked from home, I got to wear my favorite outfit every day. It was a dream come true. Most of the time.

WFH Downside: Being Caught Off Guard

My job requires a lot of calling, and quite a few interactions over Skype. A couple of months into my work-from-home stint, I accepted a Skype video call from a coworker. Then, I heard the laughter. I quickly glanced down and realized I’d only completed half my outfit that morning. I was now on a Skype call with coworkers… topless.

I quickly tried to duck down and display only my head, but the damage was done. The laughter echoed through the office and out of my tinny computer speakers. My boss was very nice and said he thought it was hilarious, but I was very embarrassed. I can’t imagine that a question like, “Remember the time Drew took a call topless? Does he do that with clients?” wouldn’t come up in an internal review.

WFH Benefit: No Commute

There are few things in life worse than a bad commute. They are stressful, boring, expensive, and, if you take a car, dangerous. When you work from home, you can roll out of bed, pop open your laptop, and you’re at work. If you’ve ever had a bad commute, it’s hard to overstate how glorious that can be.

WFH Downside: Lack of Routine and Movement

When working from home, there were days when I had no time to myself in the morning. I would sleep as late as I possibly could, wake up, and get right to work. Since the East Coast office was already humming, there was always stuff to do first thing in the morning. Next thing I knew, I’d look up and it would be lunch time  – and I hadn’t yet walked, stretched, worked out, showered, or meditated. I usually like to do some combination of those things each morning, and it kind of throws me out of whack when I don’t.

Since moving east, I’ve been walking an hour to work each day, and I like it. It was rare for me to take even an hour-long walk each day when I worked from home. Now, out of necessity, I walk two hours a day. I get to clear my head, experience fresh (by New York City standards) air, and call people I want to catch up with. Sure, I could have the discipline to do this every day if I worked from home — see the point about freedom — but it’s a lot easier to accomplish when it’s a requirement.

WFH Benefit: Reduced Office Politics

This one almost goes without saying. No one likes gossip, a scourge afflicting offices everywhere. No one likes being forced into a conversation in the kitchen when you were hoping to quickly grab your lunch and get back to work. No one likes being forced to talk about which team you’re rooting for (okay, I kind of like that one when it comes to basketball, but it’s a different story when your coworkers like the Bachelor).

Interoffice drama is draining and counterproductive, and there’s much less of it when you don’t work in an office.

WFH Downside: Reduced Relationships and Hampered Work Flow

While on one hand I can bicker about office politics and mundane water cooler talk, with the other I can point out that some of my best friends are people I met while working in an office. I even met my fiancee at work! Having a built-in social network is great, and working from home can be quite isolating in that regard.

Also, when it comes to getting work done that requires collaboration, it can be frustrating to rely on instant messaging. There is no substitute for being able to turn to your left and ask a question knowing you will get an immediate answer. Skype messages can be missed, and communication via typing can be slow and clunky, or even unclear. I’ve found that projects that could take a half hour when I worked remotely can be handled in just a few minutes when I’m in the office.

Those are just a few of the big pros and cons of working from home vs. working in an office. Here are some other factors that went into my decision:

Other Things I Liked About Working From Home:

  • Ability to take naps (rare).
  • Avoiding potentially harmful, low quality, recirculated office air.
  • Never having to pack a lunch.

Other Things I Didn’t Like About Working From Home:

  • I tend to procrastinate more when there’s less oversight.
  • No facetime with boss made job feel less secure.
  • No amenities, such as my fancy standing desk, big computer screen, and free coffee.

Ultimately, the draw of being able to do better, more efficient work felt like the best decision at this moment in my life. Financial security is my number one priority, and I felt like I would have more of it if I came into the main office every day. At this point in my life, that’s worth more to me than being able to work in a t-shirt and shorts.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Why You Should Reduce Media Costs and 12 Strategies for Doing So

Recently, I spent a large portion of a day with an acquaintance who left his television on all of the time, tuned almost exclusively to a cable news channel. This channel often seemed to grab his attention, even in the midst of conversation with me.

I don’t watch cable news at all, so I watched it for a while along with him, and I couldn’t help but notice a few things.

First of all, a lot of the stories seemed the same. They either reported on a very current disaster or on an off-the-cuff comment someone had made recently or on the passing of a media celebrity. These same types of stories cycled over and over and over. Often, the same story was repeated again and again. I understand the value in doing this so that a viewer who is freshly tuning in can catch the latest batch of stories, but if you watch for more than a few minutes, it ends up being a repeating cycle of the same stuff most of the time.

At the same time, the perspectives were all the same. The particular network I was watching did offer token viewpoints from another perspective, but one particular perspective was given heavy credence in almost every single discussion panel, often to the point of not even allowing another set of ideas to be expressed or else portraying a “stunted” version of those ideas. Rather than informing, the point seemed to be to reinforce the idea that the side promoted as dominant was “right” and other viewpoints were “wrong.” I didn’t understand how you could become well-informed about anything from watching it, though you could become versed in a particular perspective.

More than anything, I walked away from it feeling like I got nothing whatsoever out of it. I wasn’t told about anything that could improve my life. I wasn’t informed on current events other than one side of it. There was no depth offered on any issue. On the one “opinion” program I watched, the entire point seemed to be to make certain people and ideas seem like fools without explaining why any other viewpoint was right.

It was all just… valueless. I wasn’t improved or didn’t learn anything or didn’t think or didn’t even feel anything from watching it. I spent several hours in that room with that television on and walked out having not learned anything other than a vague viewpoint on a few stories and a sense of being emotionally drained.

Looking back, what I see is a lot of cost and not a lot of benefit. Let’s walk through some of those costs.

The Costs of Media Consumption

Before I get into this, let me be clear exactly what I’m talking about.

Whenever you watch television or watch a movie or read a book or a magazine or listen to the radio or visit a website or check out social media, you’re consuming media of some kind. You’re seeing a display of text and pictures and sound and video created for you by someone else.

Whenever you do that, there’s a cost, even if you don’t immediately see it. That cost shows up in a variety of ways.

First of all, media itself is often expensive. People pay for cable subscriptions, books, magazines, an internet connection, a cell phone data plan, and so on. They also have to have equipment to view the media on – tablets, computers, cell phones, televisions, and so on. Beyond that, there’s also the cost of the electricity to run most of those devices.

Even if you go elsewhere to watch a movie or a television show, there’s still cost involved much of the time – buying a ticket, for example, or buying snacks at the bar or paying for coffee at the coffee shop.

Those costs add up. The average American spends about $103 per month on cable television and about $47 per month on a cable bill. The average American also spends about $20 a year on magazine subscriptions and about $6 on newspaper subscriptions. The average American cell phone bill is about $71 a month, with a notable portion of that going to data. We’re not even getting into the cost of subscription services like Netflix or Hulu, movie tickets, or the surprisingly large energy cost of running all of this stuff. You’re talking thousands of dollars a year in media spending per person.

That money could have been used elsewhere to pay off debt, save for retirement, build an emergency fund, or pay for other life experiences. The amount of money that an average family spends on media in a year adds up well into the thousands; that’s a very nice annual vacation or a lot of getaway weekends, for example.

Not only is there a financial cost, media consumption comes with an opportunity cost, too. The time invested in media is tremendous. The average American watches television for 4.3 hours a day. The average American’s internet time is almost the same. In total, the average American spends more than eight hours a day consuming media.

That’s a lot of time, no matter how you slice it. I’m absolutely in favor of some media consumption – it can be very good for the mind, body, and soul – but more than a third of an average American’s life is spent consuming media. If you strip away just two or three hours a day from media consumption, you have tons and tons of time for other things in your life.

Not only is there an opportunity cost in terms of using your time for other things, there’s also an opportunity cost within media choices itself. If you spend two hours watching something that isn’t very good, that’s two hours you could have spent watching something much better or reading a book or, well, anything else.

Another problem is that most media comes from a relatively small handful of sources which present only the ideas they want to present and make a lot of money from repeating the same stuff. That’s why cable news channels often seem to endlessly repeat the same stories and same types of stories from the same perspective and with more or less the same style, with little variation. That’s why so many television shows are repeated endlessly in syndication and reruns. That’s why so many movies seem so similar, why there are so many sequels, why there are so many of the same types of movies, and so on. It’s easier for them to just sell the same type of story over and over again.

There’s nothing wrong with rewatching or rereading some of your favorite things on occasion, but every time you repeat something, there’s a little less value involved. You know the plot. You know that particular perspective. Find new plots and new perspectives.

Fourth, most media is laden with advertisements, both around and within the content. There are tons of print ads all over magazines and billboards and commercials between television shows, during ad breaks, and before movies. All of those ads serve to encourage your desire to buy something, which means that you’re encouraged to spend even more of your money on something that you don’t need or didn’t even want before you saw it. Even beyond that, there are often ads right within the programming – “news” that’s merely more than a press release for a new product, for example, or an obvious use of a “great” product within a show that makes you more aware of that product.

A final thing to consider is that most media has almost no positive impact in terms of improving your life. Sure, a comedy can lift your mood when you’re down, but a lot of media has no positive impact on your mood and a fair amount of it actually makes you needlessly sad or, even worse, needlessly angry. Much of it doesn’t leave you with a new perspective on the world or new ideas to think about or tools with which to improve your life or anything like that. Even “informative” shows are just a bundle of factoids that don’t increase your understanding of anything in any real way, or else presents useless information as though it were urgent and important.

Let me make it clear: I am not saying that people should throw away their televisions and delete their internet service. What I am saying is that if you’re making such a huge investment of time and money in your life, you deserve to be getting the most value from it that you can.

Strategies for Reducing Media Costs and Maximizing the Value of Your Media Dollars and Time

What follows are seven great strategies for reducing the actual financial cost of your media use while also increasing the value of what you get out of it.

Do more, consume less Almost all media becomes more valuable when you combine it with your own set of rich life experiences. The more people you meet, the more places you go, the more conversations you have, the more environments you experience, the more foods you taste, the better media becomes because it can directly reference all of those experiences that you have.

So step away from the media and do things. Find a group on Meetup doing something interesting or something you never thought you’d do and go “meet up” with them. Go on a hike in the woods. Volunteer at your local food pantry or soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity group. Make a cool meal, something outside of your norm, and eat it with some friends. Have a dinner party. Play an abstract board game, like chess or go. Wander through your town and watch people go about their business. The more you discover in other aspects of life, the less you feel the need to use media for entertainment and the richer the media you do choose to consume becomes.

Consume less “urgent” media and more “important” media A lot of media is sold as being “urgent.” Cable news is loaded with “urgent” things – the headlines, in other words. Celebrity news is always “urgent.” The latest TV show or the latest movie is always “urgent.”

But urgent often doesn’t mean good.

I would far rather spend an hour watching a television show from five years ago that’s critically acclaimed and that people are still talking about than watch a forgettable hour of cable news or the latest episode of a mediocre show. Give me an hour of The West Wing over any current drama or Arrested Development over any current comedy. Good stuff lasts and it’s talked about forever.

I would far rather spend an hour reading a book on a topic, particularly an award-winning book or a book from a respected author, than watching an hour of cable news. The book took a lot of time to prepare, with a lot of research involved, and is likely to dig deep into an issue, challenge my thinking, and present different perspectives. The news on television won’t do that at all. I’d far rather read a long piece on a self-improvement topic that will positively impact my life than five pieces of headline news that have no impact on my life and will be immediately forgotten. I’ll let the filter of time inform me and stick to long-form journalism that reports in detail on a story with lots of sources than a quickly-written response that’s likely half-wrong anyway.

In other words, my media diet these days is mostly books, long-form journalism that took time to research and write, and well-regarded movies and television shows (I’ll usually binge-watch the shows). I watch almost no current news and only a bit of sports (I find baseball weirdly comforting and it raises my spirits, so I watch or listen to that sometimes). I’ve seen about two movies made in the last year and maybe one season of a television series, but I did watch some older stuff.

Those things make me think. They usually have a powerful impact on my mood. They leave me actually understanding an idea or event a little better rather than just repeating facts. In short, they have a valuable impact on my life, something I can’t say about most “urgent” media.

(You’ll notice that I differentiate between media sources using the groupings of “important” and “urgent.” This is borrowed from Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who uses the same “important” versus “urgent” comparison to decide how a person should spend their time and energy. I’m basically just applying that idea to the media I consume.)

Use the library to get free books, movies, magazines, and audiobooks The library is my primary source for “important” rather than “urgent” media. A local library can provide you with endless books to read, movies to watch, magazines to read, and audiobooks to listen to. With such an abundance of options, I’m able to filter through them however I’d like. The best part? All of it is free.

I challenge you to stop at your local library sometime soon, see what they have to offer, sign up for a card, and take a book and/or a well-regarded movie home with you. Make time for those things by choosing to read instead of watching Sportscenter or watch that movie instead of watching a new episode of a mediocre sitcom. See if you’re not glad that you did so afterward.

Install a roof or wall antenna for free television Watching television is a perfectly fine recreation in moderation, plus there’s value in having local television for things like local weather updates, EBS notices, and other things. Of course, you can get all of these things for free with over-the-air signals using a roof antenna or a wall antenna that plugs either directly into your television or into a converter box which then attaches to your television.

An over-the-air antenna can pick up anywhere from ten to forty channels almost anywhere in the United States, though the channel count is lower in rural areas and you’ll probably need a roof antenna. The channels have a surprising amount of variety – we get a children’s channel (from PBS), an all-news channel, a channel that’s primarily documentaries, all of the broadcast networks (PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox), an all-weather channel, and a few other odds and ends. It’s all free – no subscription, no additional cost. All that’s needed is an over-the-air antenna.

Explore other hobbies away from a screen or a page This kind of goes hand in hand with the “do more, consume less” suggestion above, but it addresses a more specific point. Many people – myself included – have at least one major hobby that’s centered around media consumption, something that they enjoy doing that fulfills their time. If you can simply find another hobby that is not related to media consumption, then you’re naturally reducing your time consuming media because you have a little less free time for it.

Pick up a hobby. Learn to knit or crochet. Make a goal of walking the trails at every state park in your state. Learn to play the guitar. Start a vegetable garden in the back. Learn how to carve chess pieces out of wood and finish them. Learn how to make jewelry. Learn how to play the harmonica. Teach yourself how to sketch well. Learn how to brew your own beer. Write a novel. I can list inexpensive hobbies all day long.

Choose one that sounds fun. Dig into it. Even better, if you can find a Meetup group that’s into the same hobby, you can quickly make it social.

Turn off your phone and put it away for large portions of the day Smartphones are wonderful devices that are insanely useful, but they also make media consumption a constant thing in some people’s lives. Not only does all of that data really add up, most of the media consumed on smartphones is pretty empty because of the brevity of it, bringing little lasting value to the table.

A better approach is to turn off your smartphone sometimes, put it aside, and focus on something else. Spend time with your children. Go on a hike. Read a book. Cook a meal. Do it without your smartphone on so that you’re drawn more into the moment and can focus on it and appreciate it.

Take “breaks” from specific media sources – television, internet, video games, etc. Can you spend a weekend without watching television? Can you spend a week without video games? What would those things even be like? Are you reliant on those things, and if so, is that healthy?

Taking a break from a media source can show you a lot about how you live your life. You can begin to see how routine-oriented that your television watching or your video gaming really is and you can also begin to evaluate whether it’s really bringing value into your life.

Take a weeklong break from television. Take a break from social media or from a particular celebrity gossip site or from cable news or from news in general. See what you notice about yourself, how you spend your time, whether you’re drawn to that media source. Find other things to do.

When something starts to fall in importance to you, unsubscribe from it. If you follow these practices for a while, you’ll start to naturally notice that you miss some things and you’re completely happy without other things. It’s completely fine to bring back things that you miss, but when you realize that your life is just fine without something that was previously gobbling up your money and your time and your attention and your mindspace, you’re better off without it. You’ll find that just cutting that subscription saves you money and gives you one less thing intruding into your life, and that the average quality of things in your life has gone up. That’s a benefit all across the board.

Good luck in wherever your media adventures take you.

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