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Saturday, February 25, 2017

12 Strategies for Maintaining Focus While Working at Home

I’ve been working from home on at least a regular basis for more than a decade, and on a full-time basis for nearly a decade. Over the years, I’ve come to learn quite a lot about what it takes to effectively telecommute for your work.

The number one thing? It absolutely requires the ability to focus.

Our homes are gigantic pits of distraction. There are always chores to be done. There are always sources of entertainment to distract you. Even worse, you don’t have any sort of threat of your boss looking over your shoulder to see if you’re still working. Either your boss is remote or you don’t have a boss at all.

Generally, the expectation of a person working from home is that they are delivering certain products on a certain schedule and that they’re available for some meetings. Outside of that, your boss and/or your clients generally don’t care when you do the work, just that it gets done and that it arrives on their desk when expected.

That encourages procrastination. That encourages a lack of focus. That encourages you to say, “Well, I need to get the laundry done and the dishes done and there’s nothing too urgent right now, so I’ll do those chores… and look, there’s an interesting segment on SportsCenter… and gee, this book sitting here looks pretty interesting…” and four hours pass.

If you do that too much, you’re going to be caught in a deadline crunch. If you get caught in too many deadline crunches, you’re going to start missing deadlines. If you do that very often at all, you’re probably going to lose clients, lose the perk of telecommuting, or even lose your job.

The key to solving that problem is focus. Being able to sit down at home and bear down on your work and get things done is absolutely vital to success when you’re working from home. It’s the ingredient that matters.

Over the years, I’ve managed to figure out a ton of effective strategies for focusing while working at home. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve learned.

Strategy #1: Set and keep a daily schedule.

A daily schedule that you stick to day-in and day-out is absolutely vital for keeping a steady forward progress on all of the tasks you have on the table (or digging for more tasks if you happen to have an empty slate at the moment). Walling off certain hours exclusively for work purposes is absolutely vital if you’re working from home or else you’ll find that distractions and other things keep interfering.

Personally, most days, I get up quite early – around 5:30 AM or so – and start writing, researching, and brainstorming almost immediately (I use the restroom, drink a big glass of water, and dig in). Other than a break from around 7:00 to 7:30 to see my kids off to school and do one or two minor tasks around the house (which I’ll mention again in a bit) and a break to stretch in the mid-morning, I generally work right on until noon. I do a bit more in the early afternoon sometimes, but that’s usually the end of my workday. I do this about six days a week, so if you do the math, that’s about a 40-hour workweek, give or take a bit (6.5 hours a day, six days a week).

I make that schedule almost sacrosanct. Nothing interferes with it if I can possibly help it. Before noon, Monday through Saturday, I’m working.

Because of that, I have a strong mindset that the morning hours are when I am working. I work before lunch, and anything else I’m doing then is something I shouldn’t be doing. That ensures that I always have a block of time within which to get my work done and that things won’t dig into that block of time unless it’s an absolute crisis.

That mindset – that you still have “working hours” and that time is devoted to work – is incredibly valuable. It can create something of a “mental switch” in your head, just like a normal workday at a different place of employment can do. At certain times of the day, you’re working, and it’s as simple as that.

Strategy #2: End each workday with a period of reflection on successes and failures.

The reality is that as you begin to adjust to working at home, you’re going to find some aspects of it very different and likely very difficult. It’s not easy to maintain focus and be productive when you suddenly don’t have a supervisor over your shoulder. It’s a real change to be at home alone working when you’re used to coworkers. It’s a different environment, too.

Those changes can really cloud your judgment and make for all kinds of challenges. As you adjust, you’re going to try things, some of them will work, and some of them will not.

That’s where a period of daily reflection comes in. It’s simply a period of time that you set aside for intentionally reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t in terms of working at home, and why those things are succeeding or failing. The purpose is to figure out ways to minimize or eliminate the problems and maximize the successes.

I personally use journaling as a tool for this. At some point each day, often during the early afternoon, I stop for a few minutes and think about the things that are going well and the things that aren’t going well in my professional life (and other aspects of my life). I then try to tease through those issues by figuring out why something is succeeding and, more often, why something is failing. What’s really happening here? How can I fix it? Can I even fix it?

By making this kind of thinking a regular part of your day, you’ll remain vigilant against many of the traps that working from home can lead you into, such as wasting more time than you think.

Strategy #3: Have a specific place in your home where you work.

For some people, a home office – a small room that’s intended for working – might be the right place to work. For others, particularly in a smaller home or apartment, an office might not be realistic, so a “working nook” or even a “working chair” might be more appropriate.

Whatever it is, identify a place that you primarily use only for work. The reason for this is twofold. One, it gives you a clear place to keep all of your work-related items, like your computers or your chargers or your “everyday carry bag.” Two, it provides a place where you can execute a mental switch into “work mode.”

This mental switch is surprisingly important. The simple move of having a specific place that means “work” in your head gives you a ton of little visual and environmental cues that it’s time to get down to business and stop doing personal things.

I’m lucky enough to have a home office – it’s a tiny little bedroom that’s also used as a library and game storage room. There’s a desk and some shelves in one corner that’s my work space. When I’m there and it’s morning – which I visually signify with light coming in the east window – I know that it’s time for me to be working. It’s a shockingly effective mental cue.

Strategy #4: Find an ‘alternative workplace’ or two outside of your home, and maintain a ‘portable office’ bag.

Sometimes, however, you can’t work from home. Perhaps there’s construction going on nearby or maybe your spouse is home and is distracting you. It might even be something where you just need a change in environment.

For those situations, having an “alternate workplace” is a good idea. It’s a place you can go that also signifies “work” in your head, but you are in a somewhat different environment. That change in environment can often spur on creative thought.

I personally use a study room at the local library as my “alternate workplace.” I tend to use it when I need to brainstorm, so I’ll go through the shelves at the library, grab a bunch of personal finance books and magazines, head into a study room, close the door, and get down to work. I take tons of notes and come up with article ideas and article outlines. The change in environment is really conducive to changing my thinking.

To make this easy, it’s well worth spending the time to have a “portable office” bag or an “everyday carry” bag if at all possible. The contents of that bag are simply all of the things you need to work effectively somewhere else.

My “everyday carry” bag is a North Face backpack that holds my laptop, a bunch of chargers and charging cables and backup batteries, a bunch of pens and notebooks, and a few reference materials, along with a few basic toiletry items. I know that whenever I need to change environments, I can just grab that bag and I have everything I need for work.

Strategy #5: At the beginning of your day, start loads of dishes and laundry.

This seems like a bizarre suggestion, but it is incredibly helpful for me personally in terms of keeping household distractions at bay. During my first break in the morning, when I’m getting the children ready for school, I also spend some of that time unloading and loading the dishwasher, putting clothes from the washing machine into the dryer, and putting a new load in the washing machine.

If things go well, I can start a load of clothes washing, a load of clothes drying, and a load of dishes washing all at the same time right after the kids leave for school and just before I get back to work.

When I do that, and I return to my workspace, I feel really productive that morning. It’s because in the back of my mind, I know that dishes are being cleaned and clothes are being cleaned and dried as I type. It provides a strong sense of multitasking without any need to break my focus.

Try it. If you have tasks around your house that are more passive in nature, like washing clothes or washing dishes or cooking a meal in the slow cooker, start those things before you settle in for work. You’ll find that the simple passive sense that personal tasks are being completed in the background makes you feel a lot more productive about your day and a lot less drawn to pull yourself away for personal tasks.

Strategy #6: Figure out which times of the day are most conducive to your focus, and work during those periods.

Some of us are morning people – I’m raising my own hand here. Other people work better in the afternoon. My sister-in-law is a complete night owl and seems to do her best work at three in the morning when her house is absolutely quiet. We’re all different. The key is to figure out what makes you really tick and take advantage of it.

What time of the day do you work most effectively? Are you like a zombie in the morning but start clicking in the afternoon? If that’s true, don’t be afraid to sleep in more and spend the morning doing mindless tasks and then settle in for a full afternoon of work. Are you someone who hits peak thinking right after arising from bed? Then start your workday as soon as possible, even when you’re still in your pajamas.

Pay attention to your own body and your own mind and figure out when the best time for you to work really is, then use that freedom that telecommuting gives you to work during those times. Save the more mindless personal tasks for periods outside of those times.

Strategy #7: Turn off digital distractions during those key focus periods.

So, you’ve identified your peak period for focus and you have a distinct place to work that’s got all of your stuff in place that you need. What else is important? The next step is simply eliminating as many digital distractions as you can.

Turn off your cell phone. Close your web browser. Disconnect from Wi-Fi. Turn off as many digital distractions as you possibly can in order to help you focus in on the task at hand.

The more distractions you have, the more you’re going to find that it’s easy to step away from your task and get sucked into something else, and every time you do that, you’ll find that there’s a loss in focus and concentration when you return to your old task.

Some of the worst digital distractions include notifications from your cell phone that emit some kind of audio or vibration, a web browser or other live updating window in the background of your screen, or an app on your computer that provides social media updates constantly. Turn off all of those that you possibly can. It’s fine to have them running at other times, but when you need to bear down on a task, they’re not helpful at all.

Strategy #8: Use ‘focusing audio’ by playing it in the background.

Unexpected noise can be a pretty significant distraction. I know I get distracted all the time by little noises of people going about normal activities in my neighborhood. I’ll hear a little clatter or the revving of an engine in the distance and I’m distracted.

What works for me in terms of solving that problem is to have some kind of background noise or simple music going at all times. An audio stream that’s conducive to focus can be incredibly helpful in terms of eliminating those audio distractions and helping you keep your attention where it should be.

For this purpose, I like to use the audio from the YouTube channel Relax Sleep ASMR. Almost any of their 10-hour videos will do the trick. Find one that seems to click with you. I particularly like their Arctic Ocean and icebreaker video and often have it playing in the background quietly as I work.

Such audio seems to effectively cancel out minor sounds in the area. It also seems to help some people – myself included – to focus better on the task in front of them.

Strategy #9: Try to get in the ‘flow’ as much as you can.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a mindset where people are so fully engaged with the task in front of them that they seemingly lose all track of the world around them. Every spare bit of their brainpower is sucked into successfully completing or progressing on the task at hand.

Wikipedia describes it like this:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Every time you can achieve a “flow state,” you’ll find yourself getting a large amount of very good work done very quickly. There isn’t a recipe for everyone getting into that flow state because everyone works differently, but there’s often a combination of factors – many of which are strategies in this article – that increase the chances of a person dropping into a flow state.

I have several personal tricks that work well for me – dropping distractions, listening to focusing audio, drinking black coffee and green tea on an alternating basis – but there’s no perfect recipe for everyone. However, I will say that flow states are the source of the vast majority of my work and I strive to get into those states as often as I can.

Experiment. See what things you do help you to drift into a state where you’re sucked into your work and lose track of time and space. Try to find the common factors that trigger such a mental state for you, and repeat them so that it becomes a common thing. The more time you spend in that state, the more you can get done, and thus the less time you have to spend in front of your desk and the more time you can spend doing other things at home.

Strategy #10: ‘Bank’ as much work as possible and use every droplet of focused time.

Telecommuting – and especially self-employed work from home – often puts you in a situation where you don’t really have blocked-off vacation times or sick leave. If you get sick, then you’re probably missing deadlines unless you’ve prepared for that illness.

Your best strategy, if possible, is to simply “bank” as much work as you can in preparation for that downtime. If you’re a writer, have a few “timeless” pieces ready to go in case you’re sick or have a personal emergency. If you make videos, do the same.

Another useful strategy is to establish timelines for projects that bring you to completion well in advance of the actual due date. For example, if you have a month to complete a project, shoot to have it finished in three weeks and plan accordingly. That way, if an illness or an emergency interferes, it doesn’t derail your work and it doesn’t reflect poorly on your organizational skills.

Strategy #11: Block off times for professional development.

When you work from home, it is incredibly easy to blow off professional development. It can often feel like the “unimportant” part of your day and when you’re at home, there are infinite things to distract you that seem important and enticing.

Don’t let that happen. Make professional development a regular part of your work schedule. You should set aside time at least once a week to sharpen your skills and learn new parallel skills.

For example, I intentionally set aside time to learn new things about personal finance, about topics parallel to the field like self-improvement, and about writing practices as well. I intentionally write things in completely different voices (think snarky, for example) just to practice and flesh out my writing chops. This keeps my writing skills sharp; they’re currently honed to be fast and solid rather than slow and great.

Strategy #12: Find small rituals that signify the ‘start’ of a block of work and the ‘end’ of a block of work.

This is another way to mentally signal yourself that your work day is starting. You simply do a certain number of things at the start of your workday and collectively they indicate that work is about to begin.

For me, that usually involves drinking a bunch of water, pouring a cup of black coffee, stretching a little, walking up the stairs, going into my office, turning on all the lights, and closing the door. Those steps, in order, signify a mental shift into work mode.

Your steps might be different – and, in fact, probably should be different. Just look for things to do that properly set the mood for working in your head and then make those steps into a “ritual” of sorts.

You can do the same thing at the end of your day, but I find the transition away from a work mindset to be much easier. Mine is usually just a block of journaling about my day, as mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

Working from home offers a ton of freedom and opportunity, but it also leaves the door wide open to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. Most of these mistakes and mis-steps can be avoided by simply having some smart strategies in place to encourage focus on one’s professional work.

These 12 steps are a key part of how I’m able to work effectively from home and maintain focus no matter what’s going on around me. Hopefully, they can work effectively for you, too.

Good luck!

Related Articles:

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Status Symbols and Spending Less

I had a wonderful Facebook message exchange with a reader named Pete, who gave me permission to summarize our conversation but not to quote it.

Pete comes from a family where clothing is a huge status symbol. To dress in a nice suit at family events or in the community that he grew up in is a visual sign that you are an adult, that you’ve made it, and that you’ve achieved things that deserve respect. A cheap suit doesn’t convey those messages of status, nor do more casual clothing options.

In short, for Pete, the clothes themselves convey status and value that goes beyond the mere quality of the clothing.

Pete makes a good point, and it’s not just a truism for families, either. There are many career paths and community situations where the way a person chooses to dress conveys a certain status and can open you up to building certain relationships that would be otherwise closed to you if you show up in a rumpled sweatshirt.

Of course, there are some problems with that equation. For starters, it’s expensive. A nice suit can run into the four figures without breaking a sweat. That can seriously hamper the finances of someone starting out.

Another problem is that, even with a nice suit, there’s no guarantee of the status you want or the relationships you hope to build. You might have a great suit, but that won’t make a reputation you’ve already damaged and it won’t guarantee respect if you’re prone to sticking your foot in your mouth, for example.

None of those caveats change the fact that there are some benefits to investing money in certain status symbols. There’s no denying that. The question I’m much more interested in is how a person can get the maximum “bang for the buck” out of these kinds of status symbols.

In other words, how can our friend Pete get the maximum value for his dollar out of owning a “status” suit or two?

Here are some strategies I’d use.

Before you do anything else, decide whether a “status symbol” will really return meaningful value to you. Is a nice suit or a nice watch or a nice dress or a nice car going to open up enough community or professional relationships to really be worthwhile for you?

A person with a local business that thrives on community involvement and needs to cultivate a strong local reputation might find a great deal of personal value in appearing to have status in the community. On the other hand, someone who is self-employed or works in a research environment might find that status within their field comes from other sources and won’t get much value from a physical status symbol.

This is much more of an introspective thing. However, I will say that in my experience, status usually comes from reputation, and reputation usually comes from character. When I think of people I really respect in my local community, some of them do dress nicely and some of them do have status symbols, but many of them do not. The one person I immediately think of is usually found wearing a worn hat from the college he attended paired with a sweatshirt. His status is supported by a mix of friendliness and personal reputation, not by his clothing.

A status symbol isn’t “reputation in a box.” It’s a foot in the door, perhaps, but it’s up to you to build a reputation and it’s up to you to show character.

If you decide that a status symbol is right for you, first talk to a respected mentor with experience in this area. Find an older relative that you trust, or an older person in your workplace, and explain your situation. You’d like to buy a nice suit but you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of cash for it yet. Obviously, substitute whatever status symbol is necessary here.

What you’ll often find is that a good, trusted mentor will be able to find you that item you’re looking for at a surprisingly good price. They might even be able to give you one.

Early on in my career, one of my mentors helped me to find an amazing suit at a really great price, and another mentor simply gave me an amazing watch from his personal collection.

Why did they do that? Perhaps they saw some kind of potential in me. Perhaps they wanted to cultivate that relationship with me. It might have been simply a desire to pay things forward, or perhaps to give to me something they wish had been given to them early in their life.

Whatever the reason, mentors are often extremely helpful in situations like this. Don’t be afraid to talk to a trusted older relative or other mentor when you’re trying to “dress the part” or establish status in some other way.

Second, be patient and shop slowly. Don’t just run to the store immediately and throw cash at a problem like this. Remember, you don’t need that status symbol. Far from it. It’s something that will perhaps be useful, but it’s not something that you need to run out and pay full price for.

Instead, spend your time doing research and figuring out exactly what you want or need. Give yourself a variety of options. Then, start bargain hunting those options. You can sometimes find incredible discounts on things like fine clothing if you give it time and patience.

Don’t be afraid to utilize your mentors a bit here, either. Just let them know that you’re looking for a nice suit and ask them to keep their eyes open for any sales. Even if your mentor can’t hook you up with a personalized discount, they might be able to find you a really good sale.

Once you do decide to invest in a status symbol like this, use accessories to multiply the value at an extremely low cost. The example that I love to use here is using ties and shirts to add a great deal of variety to suits. Wearing a variety of tie patterns and shirts will make it appear as though there’s a great deal of variety in your wardrobe, when the truth is that you mostly just rely on one nice suit.

This is a huge money saver. It means that you don’t need to have a lot of expensive suits, just one or two. You just surround those two suits with a variety of different accessories – a variety of ties, shirts, watches, and so on – and you’ll pass off that single suit as being part of a widely varied wardrobe.

Also, take immaculate care of that status symbol so that you maximize the length of its life. If you’re actually investing a lot of money into something that’s largely for appearance and status, take care of that item. Maintain it properly. Clean it properly. Follow the instructions to the letter.

The reason is that you’re going to judge the value of an item like this by the number of times you use it. If you invest, say, $1,000 in a suit, if you wear it 10 times, it’s costing you $100 per wear. If you can wear it 100 times, it’s down to $10 per wear. Get it up to 250 and it’s down to $4 per wear.

Proper care and maintenance is going to extend the life of that status symbol. It’s going to enable you to get more uses out of that item before it begins to break down, look worn, or even potentially fail. The more uses you get out of that item, the better the value is going to be.

Think of it this way. Imagine your status symbol opens the door to one new connection each time you use it. That connection has value, right? The more uses you get out of that status symbol, then, the less expensive each connection becomes.

I want to conclude this article by clearly stating that I don’t think that status symbols actually build the kind of relationships that have value. They can help you get your foot in the door and can help boost your charisma, but they’re not required, and to actually build that relationship, you need to be bringing positive personal characteristics to the table, and no status symbol in the world can help you with that.

If you do decide that a particular status item is warranted in your personal and professional situation, be smart with that purchase. Seek help from a mentor. Shop around. Accessorize it rather than buying duplicates. Take care of the item. If you follow those strategies, you’ll maximize the value you get from that purchase.

Good luck!

Related Articles:

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 28): Handling the Long Valley

“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 took a deep look at tactics that a person might use when handling a personal crisis. Things like a death in the family, a car breakdown, a job loss, or a personal illness can have a real impact on a person’s finances, so we looked at how a person on the road to financial independence – particularly people on the beginning stages of that path – can handle a life crisis.

Today, we’re looking at something completely different, a topic that isn’t often handled by “financial turnaround” guides, but a topic that I consider absolutely vital.

It’s the long valley.

The long valley is merely a term I use to describe that long period between the end of the “honeymoon” phase and actually approaching your final goal.

During that initial “honeymoon” phase, the changes you’re making in your life to achieve that goal seem exciting. You’re engaged with the life transformation that’s happening. You’re reveling in every small success. In short, you feel like someone newly married on their “honeymoon” – joyful and happy with this new chapter in your life.

During the final approach, you’re full of a lot of anticipation. That big goal you’ve been working for is now in reach and you can almost taste it. You’ll often start cranking up your efforts to get over that final hurdle just a bit faster. If you’ve ever seen someone start to raise their pace near the end of a marathon, you know what this is all about.

But what about that leg in the middle? You don’t have that “honeymoon” vibe, nor are you close to your goal. Instead, you’re in the “long valley,” where the freshness of the start is well behind you but the big goal is still far off on the horizon.

Most grand goals fall apart in the long valley. They start off like a house on fire, but when that newness of the change wears off, you’re left with a long and unexciting path, a path that’s often not the easiest path. There’s a lot of work ahead, a lot of tough choices to be made, and with a very long path trailing off into the future, it can feel really disheartening.

This happens all the time with financial turnarounds. People are thrilled at first with the initial impact of all of the changes they’re making. Often, they were in the midst of a real financial struggle and those initial changes gave them some much-needed breathing room. The immediate stress in their life took a nosedive.

Then, over time, the newness wears off. They start to miss some of their old “treats” and old routines. They feel disheartened by the distance between where they’re at now and where they want to be.

And so, slowly, things begin to fall apart. They go out for a treat, and then another. The drops become steady, then they become a trickle, then they become a flood. The original goals are all washed away and the old routines are back in place, and a few months later that person is left wondering what happened to all of their nice financial progress.

The biggest key to long-term financial success is to figure out how to get through the “long valley.” If you don’t have a plan for how to handle that valley, it’s extremely likely that you’re going to meet failure when the “honeymoon effect” wears off.

Exercise #28 – Handling the Long Valley

What can you do, then? How can you make the “long valley” manageable, when the newness and excitement of a goal has worn off and you’re facing a long path full of obstacles?

Here are a dozen strategies that will keep you on the path through the longest of valleys.

Automate as much of your financial life as possible. If you’ve gone through the typical “honeymoon” period with a financial turnaround, you’ve likely made a number of moves that will have reduced your bills. Maybe you’ve paid off a few debts. You may have lowered the interest rates on some debts, too. You might have made some energy improvements to your home or cancelled some of your subscriptions.

Those changes result in a significant reduction in your regular bills each month. The money that comes from those reductions in expenses forms the bedrock of your financial progress going forward.

The catch, of course, is that if you falter in the long valley of your financial journey, that money will be spent on things that aren’t in line with your big goals. The most powerful safeguard you have against that kind of faltering is to automate your goals.

If you’re saving for retirement, automate a payment to your Roth IRA or bump up your contribution to your 401(k). If you’re trying to achieve debt freedom, set up an automatic extra debt payment each month. Those payments should roughly equal the total amont that you’re saving due to your positive financial moves during the “honeymoon.”

For example, let’s say that you cancelled several subscriptions and memberships and bills that added up to an average of $120 a month and you paid off a debt that had a $100 per month bill coming in. That’s $220 a month that’s saved. You can set up an automatic contribution of $55 per week into a Roth IRA, which will slurp that $220 a month gradually out of your account. You’re never tempted to spend it because it really never has a chance to be spent.

The nice thing about automating your bills is that you remove your conscious choice from the equation when it comes to deciding whether to add money to savings or to make an extra debt payment. It just happens automatically – you don’t have to think about it. In fact, you have to make a conscious choice to turn it off, something that most people won’t want to do unless things are dire.

To put it simply, automation “locks in” your good financial moves. It takes the money that you’re saving through the cancellation of bills and paying off of debts and other smart moves and automatically puts it somewhere worthwhile.

Put lots of minimal effort money saving strategies into place. One of the biggest challenges in the “long valley” is the idea of consistent effort. People often begin to falter when they see that their life going forward is going to be a constant flow of extra effort all of the time. It can feel like a big drain on your life.

That’s why financial choices that require no additional effort or minimal additional effort beyond that initial action are really good choices. If you can do something once and it continues to save you money – even at a trickle – going forward, then it’s probably a really good move.

Almost all energy saving strategies fall into this group. When you replace your light bulbs with LEDs, you’re doing it once, but the energy use falls permanently and you feel it with lower energy bills. When you install windows that insulate your home better, you feel it going forward with lower energy bills. Caulking your windows and installing weatherstrips at the edges of drafty doors fall into this category, too.

Cancelling memberships often falls into this category, too. Cancelling the auto-renewal on an unused gym membership takes only one action, but then you’ve eliminated a constant drain on your finances.

The goal here is to find things that will save money that really only require one significant one-time effort. It’s very easy to sustain those changes. It’s much harder to sustain changes that require a constant input of effort.

Don’t completely abstain from treats. During a “financial honeymoon,” people often completely deprive themselves of all treats and splurges because they’re giddy with a sense of financial success. That’s a mistake that will completely destroy you once you enter the long valley.

Sure, you can choose to skip treats during your “financial honeymoon,” but that should never become the norm. Instead, what you want to seek is a better balance. You do want to throw away some of the low-reward treats – things that really aren’t adding much value to your life – but the high-reward treats should actually stay in your life.

For example, I still love buying books sometimes. I still love buying notebooks and journals and pens. I still love buying a board game every once in a while. I still love going out to dinner with my wife. And I do those things.

The thing is, I don’t do them as often as I used to. Instead, I’ve simply spread them out so that they individually become bigger treats. It’s sweet when I get a new book or a new board game. I also find myself focusing more on the experience I get from having those things and using them rather than the burst of pleasure I get from buying it. For instance, I consciously redirect my desire to buy a new book to instead look at the unread ones on my bedside stand. I redirect my desire to buy a game to the ones on my shelf that are unplayed or have only been played a time or two.

Don’t abstain from treats. Instead, simply be more selective with them.

Actively build a fresh social network out of people who make wise financial choices. Most of the social network I have now is made up of people who have made good financial choices. My three closest friends (besides my wife, of course) are people who managed to pay off their home and all of their student loans in their thirties and are now saving for big goals like retirement or financial independence.

Surrounding myself with those people makes it much easier to make good financial choices. I can actually feel the difference if I happen to spend more time for a while hanging out with people who are less conscious of their financial decisions. I find myself desiring more stuff and considering things like new car purchases, whereas I don’t normally think about such things.

The truth is that you really are the average of your five closest friends, and thus your five closest friends should be cultivated carefully in order to represent people who have attributes that you want to have. Your friends should be the kind of people you want to be, in other words, and if you want to be someone on the path to financial independence, then you should try to build close friendships with people on that same path.

How do you find people like that? You look in places where such people would congregate. You’ll find them in community organizations. You’ll find them in book clubs. You’ll find them at volunteer events. You’ll find them at meetups. Look for social events that don’t require spending money just to get in the door. Look for social events that are also centered around doing things beyond merely socializing.

In other words, you generally won’t find people oriented toward financial independence hanging out at the coffee shop or the bar every night. You probably won’t find them at events that cost a lot of money to get into. That’s not to say there aren’t a few people at such events who are financially minded, but that financially minded folks tend to avoid such events and look for other options.

Chart your progress over time. One of the most powerful motivational tools I’ve ever found for keeping myself on a positive path is to chart my progress over time. I find a number that represents my continued success and focus on tracking that number.

For my own financial journey, that number is my net worth. I find a great deal of value in tracking my family’s net worth each month. Net worth, for those unfamiliar, is simply the total value of all of our significant assets – our house, our savings accounts, our investment accounts, our automobiles, our valuable possessions – minus the total value of all of our debts (right now, that’s zero).

I have been calculating our net worth every month since 2006. Almost every month, it has gone up; the only months where it hasn’t have involved huge unexpected expenses or big dips in the stock market. Knowing that our net worth is going up each and every month is a really powerful motivator for us to stay on our current path. I know that when I look at those long term numbers, especially when I see our negative net worth in 2006 and 2007 as compared to our obviously positive net worth today, I feel a ton of pride in our progress. I also feel a lot of pride during any month when our net worth goes up, especially when it’s going up significantly more than what I can attribute to the stock market.

Depending on your goal, you may want to track a different number. Maybe you just want to track your total debt. Perhaps you want to simply track your savings for a down payment. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Whatever it is, start tracking it somewhere. On the first of each month, write it down. Keep it in a Google document so you can access it wherever you are. You’ll find that looking at the positive progress of those numbers fills you with a surprising amount of pride and joy, and you’ll also find that you don’t want to let down your streak of positive months. It’s a great mental motivator.

Don’t focus on the distance from your goal, but on your distance from your origin point. Often, goals that revolve around financial independence have huge numbers associated with it. You might want to have a million dollars in savings before you retire, and when you compare that number to your current savings and the amount you can put away each year… yeah, it feels overwhelming.

A much better approach, especially early on in your trip through the long valley, is to not focus on the goal, but on the growing distance between where you’re at now and your starting point.

Let’s say you start with a net worth of $0 and your goal is $1,000,000 in total net worth. After the first month, your net worth is $1,000. If you’re looking at the end goal, wow, that looks like a long way to go. It’s easy for it to be disheartening.

Look back instead. You went from nothing to something. You now have a positive net worth. That’s something that probably hasn’t been true for you for many years.

Now, look at the next month. Maybe you managed to increase your net worth to $2,200. Looking ahead to $1,000,000 is painful. But look back instead. Two months ago, you had nothing. Now you have enough to live on for a month – yeah, it might be tight, but you could do it. Not only that, it’s speeding up! It’s accelerating! Your net worth grew more this month than last month! You’re improving, you’re making good moves, and here’s the proof of it, right here!

In general, it’s much better to compare yourself to whichever end of your journey that you’re closest to. As you approach your goal, it might even be useful to simply track the distance between where you’re at and the goal and watch that distance shrink each month.

Maybe in several years, you have a net worth of $700,000 and your goal is still $1,000,000. That means your distance left to go is $300,000. The next month, your net worth grows by $4,000. You now have a net worth of $704,000 … but your distance dropped to $296,000. You’re closing in on that goal! By percentage, the distance to your goal is going to shrink at a faster rate than your net worth is going to grow.

Directly wrestle with your negative thoughts. You’re going to think negative thoughts during that journey. There are times where you’re going to feel that the progress is just too slow, that it’s just not going to happen. You’ll have a bad month – often for reasons outside of your control – and you’ll feel like it’s time to just throw up your hands and give up. You’ll be tempted by some silly unnecessary thing and it’ll happen during a moment where you’re not feeling quite so positive about your goal. You’ll make mistakes. It will happen.

Rather than letting those negative thoughts fester and become destructive, tackle them head on. Give them some real, deep thought. I find that journaling helps a lot with this. I write down my negative thoughts and then slowly and intentionally look for holes in that negative thinking.

Journaling may not be the best way for you to do it, but this kind of deep reflective thought is one of the best ways to destroy negative thinking. If you just keep putting off those thoughts instead of taking them on and cutting them down, those thoughts will just build and build until they become overwhelming and you convince yourself to abandon your goals.

Don’t let that happen. When doubt and sadness and temptation creep in, address them directly as soon as you can. Give real thought as to the reasons behind your goal and whether your tactics make sense. Give real thought as to whether that self-criticism makes sense, too. Dig into your temptations and figure out if they’re real or if they’re just short-term whims calling out to you.

Quite often, time spent in reflection cuts through those negative feelings and thoughts like a hot knife through butter. Reflection makes it so much easier to stay on the path when you’re in the long valley. Consider incorporating some kind of daily deep reflection in your own life, whether it’s journaling or focusing on those questions while commuting or exercising.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what you can do when your goals start changing.

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Why Coworkers and Politics Don’t Mix

When is political chatter appropriate in the office? As Trent explains in a recent Reader Mailbag column, never. This is true even if you’re reasonably sure that everyone on your team has similar views. It’s just plain unprofessional.

Maybe you’re unconvinced, however. In that case, it’s useful to consider exactly why talking about politics at work is a bad idea:

It stresses people out.

An APA survey prior to the election found that 28% of younger workers reported being stressed out by workplace political discussions. One in five of all respondents said they’d avoided a coworker because of their political beliefs. Obviously, this is not a recipe for a calm, collaborative work environment.

Working with people means that you’re going to experience conflict at some point. By cutting politics out of the picture, you can focus on the conflict that’s truly necessary – and that produces results for the company.

You can’t be sure what people really believe.

Let’s say you work in the reddest red state, at a company where most employees appear to have consistently conservative political views. Talking about politics should be OK in such a homogeneous environment, right?

Not so fast. Even if you’re all registered with the same party, you probably don’t agree on every single issue in the political landscape today. For one thing, there are too many issues; for another, there’s no such thing as a large group of human beings that feels exactly the same way about multiple topics.

Finally, you can’t really be sure that your colleagues all agree. There may be some quiet folks in the group who prefer to keep their opinions to themselves. That’s a professional, respectful attitude to take. Don’t punish them for it by making them uncomfortable in the lunchroom.

Teamwork depends on feeling like a team.

To work together effectively, you have to feel like you’re on the same side. Realistically, you understand that you’re not going to hold the same views on politics as all of your colleagues. But there’s a difference between knowing your private views may differ, and hearing that your coworker thinks you’re wrong about things that are important to you. It’s hard not to feel separate from the team when you’re constantly being reminded of your divisions instead of your common ground.

It makes you look less professional.

Etiquette exists for two reasons: to ease social interactions by making everyone comfortable, and to demonstrate who knows how to behave.

Workplace etiquette has long held that people should not talk about politics at work. If you violate that taboo, you’re not only making your colleagues wish they’d decided to work from home today. You’re also sending a signal to your team – and your boss – that you don’t understand how things are done. That doesn’t make you look like someone who’s in control of their career.

Loose cannons don’t get ahead. Think of it this way: If you were in charge of promotions, would you choose someone who makes their coworkers nervous?

You could flip out.

Just talking about politics at work is unprofessional enough, but if you persist, you run into another potential pitfall for your career: You could get angry enough to behave badly, and that’s sometimes
hard to come back from.

Politics, like religion, is personal. Put yourself in the position of discussing topics that are deeply important to you, and you risk flying off the handle. That won’t help your argument or your career.

Regardless of our views, we tend to hold them pretty strongly. It’s easy to go from a civilized conversation about differing views to an all-out screaming match, even if you’re normally even-keeled. Your best bet is not to take the risk.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Use the Tools You Have Now Instead of Dreaming of the Tools You’ll Have Later

I had a great conversation recently with a gentleman in his early fifties who, upon being introduced to me and learning that I had been a full-time personal finance writer for several years, had been looking for a chance to have a conversation with me privately. Let’s call him Gene.

It turns out that Gene had never put a single dime into retirement savings during his entire professional life. He had assumed all the way along that he would save for retirement “someday” when he had the resources to do so, and now he found himself around 15 years from when he hoped to retire and with what seemed to be an impossible task before him.

Yet, he still persisted on the “someday” train. As soon as I asked why he didn’t simply go into work the next day and set up his 401(k) plan, he began to talk about other things he’d rather be doing. He and his wife had a kitchen remodel planned, for starters, and they were also “helping” both his son and daughter “get started” with what seemed to be a lot of regular cash gifts.

His belief was that those things would “someday” not be expenses for him and then he could save for retirement, but that he simply didn’t have the resources now.

Here’s the honest truth: If you’re waiting for “someday” to come to make a change to your life, “someday” is almost assuredly never coming. Gene had been thinking about “someday” for more than 20 years. I thought about “someday” for several years before my own financial turnaround. I’ve bought into the “someday” mindset with many things in my life since then.

“Someday” needs to become today. That is the single most important step when it comes to having the things you want in life.

Do you want to retire with anything more in hand than Social Security? You can’t start saving “someday” or else you’re going to find yourself in your late sixties facing down what life is like making ends meet on a small fraction of your salary. It needs to become today.

Do you want to save for your child’s college education? If you wait until “someday,” they’re going to graduate high school and you still won’t have a dime in that 529 plan. It needs to become today.

Do you want to start a different career? If you wait until “someday,” you’re going to find yourself in a pit of misery and regret a decade from now, still working in the same career path you’re unhappy with right now. It needs to become today.

Do you want to launch that side business you’ve been thinking about? If you wait until “someday,” it will still just be an idle daydream in your head. It needs to become today.

In all of those situations and countless others, people will always respond in the same way: “I’M NOT READY!” There are lots of reasons why people believe that they can’t do it today. Usually, it comes down to having commitments with their money and time already in place.

There are two possible things that are true in that situation.

One possibility is that you truly cannot spare a dime or a moment of time. You truly are that overbooked, or you truly do have your budget stretched that thin. In that case, your main priority should be to address those specific problems. If your time or your money is stretched that thin, you’re walking along a tightrope that’s destined to utterly collapse. That requires a completely different set of solutions.

The other possibility – the far more likely one – is that you’re wasting a lot of time and money without really noticing it. You spend an hour doing a task that would take twenty minutes except you keep getting distracted by social media or texts on your phone or the weather outside. You spend lots of money in drips and drops on forgettable things, like a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a quick lunch somewhere or a hobby item that you add to a collection or an automatically paid bill for a gym membership you’re not using.

That second possibility – the one that most of us fall into – is the real dangerous one. It’s the one that convinces us that we don’t have the time or the money to change anything about our lives, even though we have plenty of time and plenty of money. It allows us to look over the surface of our life and see no room for more expenses or more time commitments, but the truth is that under the surface, things are actually quite hollow.

The most valuable thing anyone can do in their personal finance journey – or any other life journey – is to start keeping track of how you’re actually using those resources in your life. Keep track as tightly and carefully as you can.

Not sure how you’re burning so much time? Try installing time-tracking software on your computer, like RescueTime. Look through the reports that it generates.

Another great strategy: Try turning off your cell phone for a few hours at a time, just to make yourself get by without that constant source of distraction at your side.

Yet another great strategy: Take a television break for a week or a computer break for a week or a tablet break for a week. Turn off whatever your primary device is that you use when you “veg out” in the evenings and don’t turn it back on for seven days.

Take the results of those practices and see how much time you really have and how much time you’re wasting on truly unimportant things.

Not sure how you’re burning so much money? Go through your credit card statements and bank statements item by item and look at where the money is going. Go through each item, entry by entry, and ask yourself whether that item really made sense. Some larger entries might be made up of a mix of useful purchases and wasted purchases – like a grocery bill, for example – so keep that in mind, too.

Another great strategy is to use a pocket notebook and write down each and every expense in it for a month or two. What I’ve found is that the pocket notebook is really, really effective at showing you how often you spend money frivolously, but it’s also really, really effective at convincing you not to spend so you don’t have to write down that frivolous expense in the book.

Again, take the results of those practices and see how much money you really have and how much money you’re wasting on truly unimportant things.

It’s only with this kind of information that you can take on the idea of “someday.” The truth is that almost all of us have the resources to tackle that “someday” challenge right now.

If you go through those time exercises and realize that you’re just burning four or five hours a day on complete nothingness – which is a pretty typical result – just replace some of that time with something truly useful, like an evening class, and replace another portion of it with meaningful leisure, meaning time spent in a genuinely relaxing way. (I find that I like to “save up” my free time and spend it in long days of meaningful leisure, so most days I don’t even watch television, for example, but I find time for long days with my friends.)

If you go through those money exercises and find that you’re spending a shocking portion of your money on stuff you just completely forget about – which, again, is a pretty typical result – just actively choose to cut some of those little wasteful expenses. Stop going to the bookstore and hit the library instead. Stop going to online shops and actually use some of the stuff you have. Start paying at the pump at the gas station instead of going inside for a “snack.” You’ll find, pretty quickly, that you have some money left over at the end of the month.

“Someday” is just an excuse to not have to take a hard look at your life right now. It doesn’t mean that the big item you have in mind – retirement savings, a career change, debt repayment, whatever it is – isn’t important to you. It just means that the idea of evaluating your life and making a few changes to make this “someday” thing work is scarier than the prospect of just putting off that “someday” thing.

Stop putting it off. Take a hard look at what you’re doing with your time, your money, your food intake, whatever it might be. Make some choices – ones that are, surprisingly, not very painful, especially in the light of what accomplishments you know that it’s leading to.

It’s time for “someday” to become today.

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Start Saving for Your Summer Vacation Now

A 2016 study from the U.S. Travel Association showed that more than half (55%) of Americans didn’t take all their paid vacation days in 2016. While Americans took an average of 16.2 days of vacation last year, they left a cumulative 658 million unused vacation days on the table in the process.

According to the study, which polled 5,641 Americans who work at least 35 hours per week, plenty of workplace barriers have made taking vacation harder. For example, 37% of workers feared returning to a mountain of work, while 30% of respondents said no one else could do their job in their absence.

Worse, 30% of respondents said they don’t all of their take paid vacation days because they can’t afford to go anywhere.

While we can’t solve workplace problems that keep people from using their earned benefits, maybe we can help with the last one. Studies have shown that vacations are particularly good for the mind, and may help you relax and even become more creative. Psychology Today even states that “vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle” caused by work – and that “we emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again” and with a new perspective on our problems.

It would be a shame to miss out on those benefits based solely on lack of finances – let alone the fact you’re leaving earned benefits completely untouched. If you’re working full-time, you truly deserve a vacation – even if you need to game your finances a bit to afford it.

Start Saving for Your Summer Vacation Right Now

If you’re ready to get away this summer but don’t quite have the funds, it’s smart to start coming up with a realistic savings strategy now. And remember, your vacation doesn’t have to be anything fancy – even a relaxing camping trip or a trip to visit friends could provide the type of break you need to feel your best.

Regardless of the type of trip you hope to afford, the best thing you can do for a potential summer trip is start figuring out the financial side of the equation today. Here are some steps that can help you start saving right away:

Step up weekly bank transfers.

With only a few months until summer break, monthly deposits into a savings account may not cut it. If you want to afford the summer trip of your dreams, it might help to figure out how much you can save each week and make weekly deposits instead.

If you hope to have $1,000 set aside for a trip in July, for example, you’ll need to save around $56 every week from the beginning of March through the end of June.

One of the best – and easiest – ways to make this strategy work is to open a targeted savings account and set up a direct deposit or automatic transfer. With a separate savings account, you may not be as tempted to spend your vacation fund on regular bills. Meanwhile, setting up direct deposit or automatic transfer will make sure your savings account is funded whether you remember or not. The main thing you’ll need to remember is to deduct the amount from your checking account each month so you don’t overspend.

Start a change jar.

If you use cash at all, starting a change jar might be more profitable than you think. By adding your spare change – and extra bills – to a change jar each time you enter the house, you could pad your vacation fund with an extra $5, $10, $20 or more each week.

Trent wrote about his experience using a change jar several years ago. Based on his spending habits, he said he saved around $0.75 in change on an average day. During a regular month, that adds up to $22.50. While that’s not a lot of cash on its own, a change jar could be a great boost to your other savings efforts.

Make a few temporary lifestyle changes.

If you want to afford a summer trip this year, cutting back on splurges for a few months can help. This could mean cutting out your daily stops at a local coffee shop, cooking at home an extra few times a month, or not drinking alcohol quite as much. It’s up to you to decide what splurges are worth cutting back on in exchange for a vacation.

Since dining out and entertainment are luxuries that are fairly easy to spot and cut, start there. Still, the key to making this work is actually putting that money aside. Whether you cut out dining, going out to the movies, playing golf, or another hobby, you need to put the money you save into a savings account for it to help.

Transferring money to your vacation account online is one of the easiest ways to “bank” your savings right away. Let’s say you normally dine out three times per week, spending around $30 for dinner each night. To build your vacation fund, you could cut down to once a week, then pocket the $60 you would have spent. To make this work, transfer the $60 to your vacation savings account at the end of each successful week.

Start earning cash on the side.

If your current income leaves you struggling to save each month, earning a bit of extra money might be your best bet. And if you don’t want to get a traditional part-time job, don’t despair. There are plenty of ways to earn money on the side without picking up retail or restaurant work.

The opportunities to earn more money are endless, but don’t forget to think outside of the box. If you have a clean car and driving record, you could consider driving part-time (and on your own schedule) for Uber, for example. If you love animals, you could set up a profile on Rover.com and watch dogs in your spare time.

Certain websites will even pay you to take surveys, surf the internet, and watch videos online. Websites like Inbox Dollars, Swagbucks, and User Testing make it possible to earn an extra $10 to $40 per week just by performing basic tasks online.

If you’re short on time, you can use these websites to earn extra money while you watch TV at night – or in place of the time you normally surf the web.

Spring clean your home and sell your stuff.

When you’re short on vacation cash, a yard sale can help. The good news for you is that it’s almost spring cleaning season as well. As warm weather approaches, it’s an ideal time to clean out your closets, spare rooms, and garage. As you clean each room or area, look for stuff you no longer use that you could sell.

Gather all your unwanted clothing, tools, supplies, housewares and exercise equipment, then find the best way to get top dollar. Depending on where you live, this could mean having a traditional yard sale or selling your items online. Either way works fine as long as you’re getting cash for stuff you no longer want or use.

The key here (as always) is making sure those profits go directly into your vacation fund – not toward more stuff that’ll just end up in the same junk pile two years down the road.

Start Saving Now for the Vacation You Deserve

If you’re ready to relax this summer, the best thing you can do is start taking actionable steps now. By saving weekly sums of cash or earning a little more in the short term, you could have a burgeoning vacation fund by the time spring is in full swing.

While the right strategy for you will depend on your lifestyle, it’s worth giving each one a try. Over time, you might even build habits that improve your finances for the long run – and well past your summer travels.

Either way, like it or not, summer will be here before you know it. If your idea of summer includes a getaway with your family, you need to start saving now.

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

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Are you already saving for your summer getaway? What do your summer travel plans look like?

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

15 Simple Driving Tactics That Will Save You Surprising Money (and Time, Too)

One of my biggest financial frustrations is stopping at a gas station. You dump fuel in your car, spend $40 or more, and then all you do is burn that fuel getting to where you need to be. It just goes up in smoke, literally.

Whenever I see something that I’ve spent my hard-earned money on just disappearing like that, I want to conserve it. I want to find every strategy that there is in order to reduce how much is disappearing, because the slower the gas disappears, the slower my money disappears.

Much has been written about strategies that people can use in order to improve the fuel efficiency of their car through actions taken before and after driving. Strategies like reducing the weight in your car, keeping your tires properly inflated, and keeping up with your maintenance schedule are all wonderful strategies and they do have a great impact on how efficient your car is in terms of how much gas it gobbles down per mile.

However, that’s only part of the story. Another big part of maximizing the efficiency of your car comes when you’re behind the wheel. Many of the little decisions you make as a driver impact how much fuel is consumed and how much time it takes to get there.

Here are fifteen little tactics I use myself to maximize the fuel efficiency of my driving. Some of these techniques add a little time; others actually shave off some of that time. In the end, I find that my driving times haven’t really changed that much when using all of these in concert.

Turn right as often as possible and avoid turning left when approaching your destination. This seems like a strange trick, but stop and think about it for a moment. Whenever you’re at an intersection with a stoplight, in most cities and states you’re completely allowed to turn right as long as the traffic is clear. On the other hand, whenever you need to turn left, you often have to wait on a stoplight to show a green arrow that seems to last for about three seconds before turning yellow and quickly red, meaning that you just continue to sit there idling in the turn lane.

Time spent idling is time wasted and fuel wasted, too. You’re far better off driving a little more if it means avoiding a high likelihood of a few minutes idling.

Take advantage of that observation and make sure that, as often as you can, you’re turning only right at busier intersections. That might even mean going around a block and traveling a bit further than you might otherwise go, but you make up for it by being able to turn so much more quickly than you would if you waited on a left hand turn.

If you must make a left hand turn, plan ahead for it and make that left hand turn at a point where there’s less traffic.

Drive the speed limit. Most cars are engineered to have maximum engine efficiency at or near the highway and interstate speed limit – somewhere between 55 and 65 miles per hour, depending on the exact car. Once you start going over that, your fuel efficiency drops through the floor.

Another disadvantage of speeding is that you quickly begin to escalate the risk of getting a traffic ticket, which is quite expensive and completely shoots any time benefit you get right in the foot. There’s also a pretty rapid escalation in the chance of accidents.

Keep it at the speed limit and you avoid those risks and additional costs. The decrease in fuel efficiency, increase in ticket likelihood, and increase in accident likelihood add up big time, and when the latter two more than eliminate any time gains, it’s just not worth it.

Leave a little early so you’re not predisposed to rushing. Many people convince themselves that they need to speed because they’re either running a little late or they’re merely “on time.” You can simply take away that temptation by leaving a bit earlier. Add an extra 10% to the time you expect to spend driving.

That way, there’s much less incentive to speed and, if you get there a little early, you have time to go to the bathroom or freshen up or grab a bite to eat or something to drink before your appointment. It’s simply a lot less stressful.

On the other hand, you can leave a bit later, speed to get there, still arrive late, have no time to freshen up or use the bathroom or grab a drink or a bite to eat, and also burn a bunch of extra fuel and run a higher risk of accidents or traffic tickets (both of which would make you far later).

Leave five minutes early. You usually won’t regret it and you’re likely to save some money.

Use cruise control on flat roads; disable it near hills. If you’re on a long straight stretch of highway or interstate, it’s a good idea to engage that cruise control at the speed limit and just let the miles slide by. On a flat stretch of paved road, the gas pedal isn’t going to vary much at all, so keeping it steady is actually very efficient.

Where it’s not efficient is in hilly terrain. Your car tries to maintain the same speed when it’s going down a hill as when it’s going up a hill. The end result is that your car needlessly brakes when going down a hill and then guns it when going up a hill. That’s a lot of wasted gas.

The best solution? Turn off cruise control when you approach a hill. Allow yourself to coast into a downhill segment, where gravity will help you speed up, and for an uphill segment, gently accelerate into it and don’t worry about going under the speed limit before you reach the top of it. Just keep the acceleration gentle and accept that you’ll slow down while going up the hill.

Make this your natural reaction to hills and you’ll save a lot of fuel along the way.

Slow down gradually when approaching stoplights. If you’re doing a lot of stop-and-go driving in town, don’t accelerate hard when you’re coming out of a stoplight. Instead, gradually speed up to the speed limit. If you see a stoplight ahead of you that’s already red, don’t speed up just so you’ll stop again. Go slowly and then start coasting as you approach the stoplight.

Every time you hit the accelerator hard, you’re burning gas. You’re far better off accelerating slowly over a longer distance than accelerating quickly to the speed limit.

Similarly, every time you hit the brake hard, you lose most or all of your car’s forward momentum. Your car’s forward momentum is responsible for a lot of fuel efficiency; it enables you to cruise at a steady speed without burning much fuel. When you drop your speed to zero, you have to hit the gas hard to re-establish that momentum and your fuel goes away rapidly.

Even better, if you coast slowly toward a stoplight rather than driving quickly toward it and then braking, there’s a decent chance it will turn green as you get close to the light, which means you didn’t lose much time at all and your car is already moving forward, which means it uses much less fuel to get back up to speed.

So, when you’re in town, accelerate slowly out of stoplights and when you see a red light ahead of you, start coasting well in advance.

Choose more lightly traveled routes. A busy road means lots of traffic. It means long waits at stoplights, where your car is probably idling. It means even longer waits at turns, where, again, your car is probably idling. It doesn’t really save you any time.

Instead, find an alternate route to where you’re going, even if it’s a bit longer or a bit “slower.” If that alternate route has a lot less traffic, then you’ll find that you spend a lot less time at stop signs and stoplights than on the “faster” or “shorter” route and you get to your destination often much quicker than if you had taken the “shorter” route.

Try to avoid main roads in cities. Instead, stick to interstates and to side roads whenever possible.

Avoid peak traffic times if at all possible. If there’s any way for you to possibly do so, try to avoid driving during peak traffic times. Peak traffic times are loaded with stop-and-go driving, which is absolutely atrocious for the fuel efficiency of your car.

If this doesn’t work well with your employer, ask whether it would be possible to come in an hour earlier and leave an hour earlier each day. You may find that you can work out an arrangement where you can actually avoid both the morning and the afternoon rush and, by doing so, save on fuel and actually spend significantly less time commuting. Other similar options include a 9/9/9/9/4 work schedule or a day of telecommuting, all of which keep you off the roads during people traffic times.

If you have errands to run, run them in the evening or in the midday on weekdays so that you’re not on the road during rush hour.

Do the longest leg of a series of errands first. This is a very subtle trick, but it’s a powerful one. Unless there are reasons to do otherwise, you should start a series of errands by going to the furthest one first and then working backwards toward your home from there.

The reasoning is simple and twofold. First, approaching your errands in an organized fashion like this reduces the total distance you’re driving, and this is a simple rule to minimize that distance. Second, driving the longest leg first gets your car engine warmed up as much as possible, and thus it’s going to be a bit warmer when you turn on the ignition at each subsequent stop on your trip. Your car operates most efficiently with a warm engine.

Basically, the argument here boils down to choosing an efficient route for your errands, and this is one of the most optimal patterns to follow. If you add onto that the minor benefit of having a warm engine after all subsequent stops, it all adds up to the best pattern for fuel efficiency (again, if there aren’t any extenuating circumstances).

Assume “stale” green lights are about to change. If you’re driving along and notice a green light ahead of you that’s been green for a while, start assuming now that it’s going to turn yellow and then red before you get there and lay off of the accelerator. Most of the time, you’ll be right.

How is that beneficial? Let’s assume you’re right and it’s going to turn red before you get there. If you keep speeding along instead of coasting, that extra gas is completely wasted. You’re going to wind up sitting at that red light regardless. So, if you used extra gas to get to that red light, that gas was completely wasted.

Just keep an eye up ahead of you and if you see a light staying green for a long time, start coasting, especially if you see traffic in the cross lane waiting for their green light.

Minimize use of the brake pedal. This is a great general-use strategy. Whenever you hit the brakes, even a little, you’re killing the momentum of your car and you’re going to have to burn gas to restore that momentum. The simple solution? Minimize brake use.

You can do that by following many of the other strategies in this article along with a heavy dose of common sense. If there’s a situation where you see that you’re going to need to slow down soon, start coasting and wait to apply the brakes until you’re closer – the congestion may relieve itself by then. If you’re on the highway, go at a constant speed and don’t go up and down constantly. It’s easy.

Remember, every time you hit the brakes, you’re losing money on gas. Drive with the mindset of driving as safely as possible without needing to hit the brakes and you’ll significantly improve your fuel efficiency.

Drive without shoes. Really? Yes, really.

The reason is simple. If you’re driving without shoes, you can feel the pressure of your foot on the accelerator with a lot more sensitivity than you can when you’re wearing shoes and feeling the pedal through the rubber in your soles. Without your shoe, you can tell by pressure whether you’re accelerating or not with far more detail than with your shoe on.

On long trips, I almost always remove my shoes once I’m in the car because I know that the extra sensitivity of my feet on the pedal will keep me from accelerating too much, something I might do through the dulled sensation of a shoe’s sole.

Avoid parallel parking. Even the best parallel parkers are going to spend some time idling as they turn their tire angles back and forth in order to get their car into a parallel slot. Those of us who aren’t good at parallel parking (most of us, in other words)? We’re going to be jockeying back and forth for a long while, moving in fits and starts, braking constantly, and burning fuel the whole while.

You’re far better off parking a little further away in a non-parallel spot than you are using a parallel parking slot (unless you can just pull straight into the parallel slot). The time you spend jockeying for position in that parallel slot and the extra fuel you burn are more than recovered by simply parking in a non-parallel slot elsewhere.

Yes, sometimes you have to parallel park, but in many places there are other options around if you look for them. Take advantage of those other options.

Manually cycle the air conditioning on and off. Many people simply turn on the air conditioning and let it run until they feel frigid, then they’ll knock the temperature up a few degrees. That’s extremely expensive in terms of fuel.

A much better approach is to simply run the AC for a while, turn it off when you feel cool, and then turn it on again when you feel hot. Let your body temperature tell you when to use the device rather than just leaving it on by default.

Rolling down the windows seems to be a wash in terms of fuel. You’re not running the air, sure, but it increases air resistance as you’re driving due to the air blowing into your car.

Minimize use of four wheel drive. Four wheel drive is another nice automotive feature in some situations. Some situations. Not all situations. If you leave four wheel drive on all the time, you’re using much more fuel than you need to.

Instead, leave it off unless you actually need to due to rough terrain or hazardous weather. When you’re driving down the highway normally, there’s no reason to have the four wheel drive engaged. It’s just sucking away at your fuel.

This is a setting that people sometimes overlook when they hop in their vehicle and drive off, so get into the routine of checking on your four wheel drive and turn it off if it’s engaged.

Listen to anything other than high-tempo music. High-tempo music tends to subtly encourage people to start speeding, running many of the financial risks described earlier in the article. It’s less fuel efficient, it increases the risk of traffic tickets, and it also increases the risk of accidents.

Instead, when you’re driving, listen to low-tempo music or to spoken word – talk radio, podcasts, or audiobooks. Those types of tracks don’t get the adrenaline pumping and thus don’t encourage you to mash the gas pedal.

There’s absolutely a time and a place for uptempo music. However, that time and place isn’t behind the wheel of a car.

If you follow these strategies together, you’ll find yourself getting to your destination on time, but you’ll also find yourself spending a little less time at the filling station. If you can shave off just a stop or so a month, that’s time and money saved just by driving a little bit smarter.

Good luck!

The post 15 Simple Driving Tactics That Will Save You Surprising Money (and Time, Too) appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Don’t Fall for These Credit Repair Scams

Have you ever struggled with credit problems? If so, chances are you’ve probably wished, at least once, for a solution to erase all your credit troubles. After all, bad credit can cause your life to be quite stressful and more expensive. It can lead to the denial of loan applications, difficulty finding an affordable place to live for your family, and can even cause you to be passed over for a job.

Given the many issues that accompany poor credit, it’s no surprise that some people may search for a quick fix to their credit problems. And there’s no shortage of scam artists offering quick and often expensive fixes to the people who find themselves in this situation.

However, before you go chasing a quick fix to your credit problems, you should realize that your “quick and easy” solution could potentially backfire in some very unpleasant ways. So unless you want to risk sporting an orange jumpsuit, you should avoid these common credit repair scams.

EIN and CPN Scams

Perhaps the most common credit scam, and certainly one of the most dangerous, involves creating a “new” credit identity for yourself so you can leave your old, lousy, identity in the past. Shady companies lure desperate consumers into this particular scam with promises of wiping out bad credit immediately, thereby creating a clean slate or blank credit reports, which can allow consumers with credit problems to simply start over from scratch.

This scam comes in a few different flavors, but it will almost always involve you paying some company to “assign” a new EIN (Tax ID Number) or CPN (Credit Privacy Number) for you to begin using in lieu of your legitimate Social Security number on future financing applications.

While EINs and CPNs are not inherently illegal in and of themselves, it is certainly illegal to lie and use them in place of your Social Security number on a loan or credit card application. Additionally, many of the scam artists who sell these numbers actually sell stolen Social Security numbers, which could mean you’re not just committing loan fraud, but identity theft as well. When you’re filling out a credit application and you notice it asks for your Social Security number — they’re not kidding.

Crying Wolf

Identity theft can be a horrible experience. Thankfully if you ever find yourself in a situation where fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that these accounts be erased from your credit reports quickly. In fact, as long as you report the fraud properly, the accounts must be removed from your credit reports within four business days.

You can probably already see where this scam is headed. One of the strategies some unethical credit repair companies employ is to convince you to cry wolf and claim to be a victim of identity theft in order to wipe your credit reports clean of derogatory but legitimate accounts. These companies may even assist you in filing falsified police reports or identity theft reports in order to corroborate your ruse. Unfortunately for you, if you go along with such deceit, you will likely be breaking multiple laws and could be risking significant fines or even jail time in the future.

I was an expert witness in a lawsuit where a defendant was able to get a large amount of “fraudulent” (not really) accounts and inquiries removed from his credit reports using this particular strategy. Yada yada yada, he’ll be out of jail in about four years.

‘Renting’ Authorized User Status

A totally legitimate strategy that can help you to rebuild damaged credit is to ask a friend or family member to add you as an authorized user to an existing credit card account.

Being added as an authorized user could potentially give your credit scores a boost by helping to increase the average age of  your accounts, possibly lowering your revolving credit utilization ratio, and adding a generally good account to an otherwise bad credit report.

Yet some consumers either do not have a loved one who’s willing or able to help them in this manner, or they’re too embarrassed to ask. Enter the “trade line renting” scam.

There are actually companies that act as brokers between credit-challenged consumers and those with well managed, well aged credit card accounts. Essentially, for a hefty fee, a consumer with credit problems can pay to be added as an authorized user to a stranger’s good credit card account. You shell out big bucks, the broker keeps his or her hefty share, and the actual cardholder gets a little bit of the action too.

Participating in such an overtly dishonest means of manipulating your credit could find you on the wrong side of a bank fraud (or even mail fraud) lawsuit with the U.S Government as the plaintiff. Good luck fighting that one.

The long and short of it is this: There are a lot of ways to repair bad credit. Scamming your way there isn’t necessary. Don’t take the risk.

Related Articles

The post Don’t Fall for These Credit Repair Scams appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Questions About Financial Coaching, Letterboxing, Bag Dumps, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Certifications and financial coaching
2. Selling valuable items through mail
3. Starting college advice
4. Thinking of quitting my job
5. Restaurant bloat
6. Most important characteristic?
7. Going out of business sales
8. Receipt surveys
9. Snowball method best?
10. Letterboxing?
11. Instant Pot?
12. Bag dump

I go through periods in my life where it feels like everything’s clicking on all cylinders for a few weeks. I’m incredibly productive, feel great about myself, and everything’s going well.

Suddenly, though, something will throw sand in the gears and everything grinds to a halt or close to it. Everything’s out of whack. I go from feeling super-productive in all aspects of life to feeling like I’m barely keeping up.

Then, even after whatever caused the “sand in the gears” resolves itself, it takes a long time for me to build back up into that sense of everything clicking on all cylinders.

I would love to master some strategies for not being so disrupted by unexpected events. I haven’t figured it out yet.

Anyway, on to reader questions…

Q1: Certifications and financial coaching

I thoroughly enjoy numbers and the application of numbers when I get to help people with taxes, personal finance and financial planning. Can you recommend a certificate or training I could pursue along this route? Not interested in this as a full time job but as a side gig to help out those just getting going in life.
– Jim

There are a number of financial coaching certifications that you can earn, from the APFC certification to the Dave Ramsey Financial Coaching certification.

The thing is, “financial coaching” is an unclear term. You may find some value in going through these materials on “financial coaching” to help you clarify what exactly it is that you’re wanting to do and practices for getting started.

Be aware that many people will want to have a certified financial planner help them and not a “financial coach.” A “financial coach” seems to be a comparatively low-threshold entry into the field and doesn’t offer the same fiduciary requirements of other certifications, so some clients may not be interested.

Q2: Selling valuable items through mail

I have a collection of trading cards that are worth a fair amount. An online buyer has proposed buying these cards from me for an amount I found agreeable. I sent him high resolution scans and so on and we worked out an arrangement.

The next step obviously is the exchange of cards for cash. The sale value is around $15,000. What is the safest way for me to send cards without getting scammed?

The buyer gives many indications of being reputable with various communities, but that’s a big risk! Suggestions?
– Erik

In a situation where you’re selling items with that much value, I’d use an escrow service. Most large banks will act as an escrow service, which is about as reliable as you can get.

Here’s how it works. After an escrow agreement is signed, the buyer sends their money to the escrow agent. Then, you send your items to the buyer, usually via a service with strong documentation like FedEx. Then, the escrow agent sends the money to you.

Almost all large banks will act as an escrow for a fee. Given that the buyer seems to have a positive reputation and you’re both very clear on the items being sold, this is a secure way for this transaction to occur.

Q3: Starting college advice

Hello! I am a high school senior headed off to college at the end of the summer. I am going to University of Wisconsin Madison and I have a number of scholarships that are paying for most of my tuition for four years with som additional help from grandparents and parents. I am hoping to complete four years there without any student debt.

My grandfather sent me links to a couple of your articles about getting the most value out of college and I read a lot of things on your website. I was wondering if you could help suggest to me what I could be doing to put myself on the best financial track during my college years. Given that I should have no student loans, what should I be doing?
– Travis

The number one thing you should do is extract every droplet of value out of your college experience. College is an amazing time to explore ideas, build relationships with peers and with professors, get a stellar education, learn how to learn independently, and figure out what you want to do with your life. That’s a tremendous value, and many, many students end up wasting it with excessive partying, not taking classes seriously, hiding in their dorm room watching movies and playing games, and so on.

The absolute best investment you can make in your college years is to use the time effectively. That doesn’t mean college should be four years of “no fun.” It means that, for example, you should actively seek out a lot of friendships, but that you shouldn’t waste your time with relationships that aren’t helping you grow. Seek out friendships with people both similar to you and different from you who are invested in getting a lot of positive value out of college and don’t waste your time with people who get drunk every day or play video games all day long. Connect with your professors, too.

You should treat your classes almost like a job, putting in adequate study time and project time, but wall it off. Set hours for yourself and focus within that time. Get started on projects and studying early so that you’re not stuck in some kind of cramming nightmare later on. The best time for this is gaps between classes when there’s not much to do on campus anyway; just find a quiet place and study or work on projects. Turn off distractions (your phone, for instance) when you’re doing this.

One great way to spend your evenings hitting almost all of these notes is to get involved in on-campus organizations that are related to your area of study or other areas of interest. Colleges are a hotbed of people organizing into groups around interests and building relationships within those groups. Get into a lot of groups. Learn a lot of stuff. Build a lot of lasting friendships.

The finances are easy for someone in your shoes. Avoid spending money as much as humanly possible. Rely on the terms of your room and board plan as much as possible. If you eventually decide to live off campus, get a tiny room and spend most of your time elsewhere. Treat it as a place to lay your head. During a large stretch of college, I could carry all of my possessions on my body, and that would be even easier to do today. A part time job is great (if you want to do that), but focus on jobs and internships that generate positive career movement rather than anything that makes money right now. A job that’s good for your career but pays minimum wage trumps almost anything that pays better at this time in your life. Given that everything is paid for, focus on things that build you rather than earning money right now.

The two most valuable things you’ll get out of college is the ability to learn things on your own (and a passion for doing so, hopefully) and a lot of valuable relationships. The degree itself will help you get your foot in the first door, but it’s the practice you get learning how to learn and becoming passionate about that kind of learning that will make the actual difference in life. Don’t sweat the money – just live cheap and put any money you accumulate into savings for post-college expenses.

Q4: Thinking of quitting my job

I’m 31 and single. During each year I’ve worked at this job, I’ve saved more than 50% of my income either in 401(k), Roth IRA, savings accounts, or a brokerage account. I don’t need much stuff to be happy so I just don’t buy much stuff.

Right now, I’m pretty confident I could live through my thirties on what I have in my brokerage account and savings. I just feel completely tired of my job and my career and want to figure out what’s next for a few years.

I know the obvious answer to this: it’s foolish. If I stick with this through my thirties, I can probably get away with not working for the rest of my life. So I feel like my choice is to take my thirties off or take the rest of my life off after my thirties.
– Megan

My only real suggestion to you is to try to figure things out at least a little bit before you quit. Have some sense of what’s next before you just walk away.

It sounds to me like you’re just fed up with going to work, but that you have no sense at all in terms of what you’d do without that routine. If you don’t have any real visions of what else you would do, you’re likely to just start drifting in life, and while there’s some appeal to that, you run a very strong risk of essentially being unemployable when you’re 40 and run out of money.

Keep going to work for now, but rather than viewing it as the centerpiece of your life, view it as a way to support yourself while you figure out what’s next. Step back from the aspects of the job that you hate and don’t worry too much about the consequences of that; after all, you have money in the bank. Use your newfound lower-stress free time to figure out what’s next for you, but don’t just toss the job into the trash until you know what you’re going to do next. Just turn the tables from living to work into working to live.

Q5: Restaurant bloat

You haven’t ever mentioned one of the best benefits of eating at home! Over the last year, I’ve basically stopped eating at restaurants. I eat lunch in the breakroom with the “brown baggers” nowadays and make my own meals at home. Anyway, this week I had to go out to lunch twice to entertain a client (paid for by the office) and I felt absolutely bloated and lethargic all afternoon. What I hadn’t realized before is that I have been feeling a lot better in the afternoons lately after switching to bringing my own lunch! It’s cheaper and I feel way better too!
– Tammy

I actually noticed the same thing. For a time, I ate out 1-2 meals per day and I considered how I felt after those meals to be normal. I usually felt really lethargic after lunch.

Now, most days, I eat home-cooked beans and rice or home-cooked leftovers for lunch and I don’t really have that feeling of an “afternoon crash.” I actually feel really good most afternoons. My mental focus goes off the rails by mid-afternoon, but I still have energy so I find other things to do.

It’s cheaper and I feel better. That, to me, seems like a double win.

Q6: Most important characteristic?

I’m writing a paper about people who become wealthy and people who do not. What do you think is the one characteristic that distinguishes the two?
– Mark

This is a great question that I actually spent some serious time thinking about for the last few days.

I think the answer is that people who accumulate wealth have a strong internal locus of control. In other words, they feel in control of their lives and feel as though their personal choices determine their outcome, and because of that, they recognize that they must make good choices if they want a good outcome. Almost universally, I’ve found that people who find success at almost anything have a strong internal locus of control. There are lots of ways to say this – you’re proactive, or you go after things instead of waiting for them to come to you.

How do you cultivate that? I’m not really sure. I think that a lot of reflection on life and looking at your own choices and connecting those choices to results is really important. I think a willingness to accept that your choices have a huge impact when it comes to results is important. Many people never do those two things, and in my experience, success is rarely found by them.

Q7: Going out of business sales

Last year the Sports Authority chain went out of business and the store in my area had some great sales right before they closed, with some stuff going at like 80% off. Now American Apparel is going out of business and there’s a chain near me. Are “going out of business” sales worthwhile? It seems like they still kind of fall under the idea of you’re not saving money by buying stuff you don’t need or want even if it’s cheap.
– Nikki

You nailed it with that last sentence. Even if something is 90% off, it’s still money spent on something you don’t really need and didn’t even really want.

Now, if you’re already planning on buying some clothing items and you notice that a clothing store is going out of business, it might make sense to go there and get some discounts. I’m not really a customer of American Apparel – I wouldn’t have shopped there anyway – but if it were on your radar and you were already needing some clothes items, it might make sense to look there.

However, if you already have plenty of clothes, why would you ever go to a clothes store unless they were literally handing out free stuff with no strings attached? Don’t spend money on stuff you don’t need and don’t really want, either. Just don’t bother with it.

Q8: Receipt surveys

A lot of times when I go shopping, there is a survey on the receipt for some kind of discount or for an entry into a drawing. I save them intending to fill out the survey but forget most of the time lol. Is it worth doing these things?
– Kim

I think if you’re getting something for free, it’s worthwhile, especially if the alternative is browsing social media on your phone when you could be filling out the survey.

I have a friend who fills out the survey at Subway every time he goes there to get a free cookie, for example. He just fills it out on his phone while he eats. According to him, because of the cookie, he just gets a 6″ sub and a free cookie instead of the 12″ sub, so he saves a couple of dollars each visit because he fills out a one minute survey on his phone.

I’ll usually do the survey if there’s a freebie or a good discount that I get for doing it, but I do the survey almost immediately (like when I’m sitting at the table) or I don’t bother with it.

A tip, though: unless they’re actively being bad workers, give them perfect scores. Giving 4/5 stars is often enough to get an employee harangued by their manager and most service workers are earning minimum wage and actually doing a good job for their pay.

Q9: Snowball method best?

Did you see this research study from Harvard?

http://www.businessinsider.com/spreadsheet-snowball-method-pay-off-debt-2017-2

The study found that the self-motivation that comes from paying down a large percentage of a debt kept people on board with a debt repayment plan for longer. Thoughts?
– Kenneth

I absolutely agree that the snowball method is the best strategy psychologically for paying off debt. However, it’s often not the best strategy mathematically.

Now, which one is more important to you? I think it has a lot to do with how an individual person is wired. If I followed the snowball method, for example, I know I’d be hard on myself and feel as though I were wasting money by using a bad payback method. That’s because I’m a hard-wired numbers guy.

If you’re not a strong “numbers person,” I’d agree completely that the snowball method makes a lot of sense for the reasons stated in this study. I don’t think any method that can get people to pay off their debts is “wrong,” because different strategies work well for different folks.

Q10: Letterboxing?

Has your family ever tried letterboxing? It’s kind of like geocaching which you’ve mentioned many times. You “geocache” to the first clue, then follow a series of clues to find a letterbox. In this letterbox is a stamp, which you stamp your logbook with, and then you use your own stamp to stamp the letterbox logbook. It’s pretty fun.
– Connie

I have honestly never heard of letterboxing until this email. I checked out AtlasQuest, which seems to be kind of a community hub for letterboxing, and now I’m definitely intrigued by this. This seems like a great family alternative to geocaching and this is going to get added to our summer list of things to do.

The only catch is that you need to have a rubber stamp, an ink pad, and a log book to do it. We’ll have to go find an interesting rubber stamp as a family so we can dig in.

Thanks for letting me and the readers of The Simple Dollar know about this cool, (nearly) free activity!

Q11: Instant Pot?

Do you have an Instant Pot? Is it worth the price?
– Maggie

I do have one! I received this Instant Pot as a gift for my birthday last year from my mother- and father-in-law.

I quite like it and it has become our “everyday” slow cooker, though if you do use it regularly as a slow cooker I strongly recommend the optional slow cooker lid. We also use it regularly for cooking rice. I really like the ability to saute onions in there as the first step in making a soup or a stew. It’s also been nice for rapidly cooking some meals, as you can pressure cook things surprisingly quickly.

It’s not going to be a good pressure cooker if you’re pressure cooking a lot of things at once. If you’re going to be a high-volume pressure cooker, I recommend getting a larger pressure cooker. However, if you’re just doing a few jars on occasion, this will do the trick wonderfully.

Is it worth the extra price over a regular slow cooker? I think if you’re going to regularly cook rice with it and don’t have a separate rice cooker, it’s probably worthwhile. I’d say we use it about 25% more than a regular slow cooker because of the pressure cooking feature and I expect that to ramp up some more during the summer.

Q12: Everyday carry bag dump

Do you have an everyday carry bag? If so what do you carry in it?
– Andrew

I sure do. I use a North Face Recon II backpack as my “everyday carry” bag. It holds almost everything I need to do almost anything outside of the home.

By default, it contains the following:
+ my laptop and laptop charger
+ charging cables for my Kindle and my phone
+ a six port USB hub for charging several devices at once
+ a large rechargeable battery for recharging my phone or Kindle on the go (this one, specifically
+ a small handful of pens that vary from time to time (currently a Retro 51 Tornado and a few Uniball Signo 207s and Pilot G2s)
+ a large notebook and a few backup pocket notebooks
+ an empty Nalgene water bottle
+ a few basic toiletries in a bag – deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, a razor, some shaving soap, some aspirin
+ a Leatherman Juice multi-tool
+ a small flashlight that I got as a giveaway somewhere
+ a pair of in-ear headphones
+ a container of breath mints
+ several healthy snack bars

Other items go in and out of the bag, but all of this stuff is basically a constant.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

The post Questions About Financial Coaching, Letterboxing, Bag Dumps, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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