Saturday, April 1, 2017

Inspiration from Bob Ross, Aala El-Khani, Marie Forleo, Walt Whitman, and More

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

1. Marie Forleo on clarity

“Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” – Marie Forleo

To put it another way, action often makes things clear in a way that mere thought and study cannot. You can have all of the ideas in the world floating around in your head, but it’s what happens in the real world when you put them to the test that makes all the difference.

I actually wrote this in several recent entries in my personal journal, simply because I often find myself thinking about and writing about potential actions but then often I don’t follow through with them. The ideas are good and worthwhile, but they haven’t been put to any sort of practical test.

I’ll give you an example. Recently, I’ve been reading a series of novels by Jo Walton in which a group of people in the ancient world move to a remote island in order to build the ideal city as described in Plato’s Republic (The Just City being the first in that series). Reading those novels has made me spend a lot of time thinking about how to apply some of the material in The Republic to my own life and my own civic life.

The catch, of course, is that it’s all theoretical. None of this works unless I try it. For it to really mean anything, I need to take some of the conclusions I’ve drawn and actually put them to practice, focusing on my own behavior as a part of the community in which I live.

2. Ulysses

The computer I’m using right now is very likely to be the last one I’ll ever buy. Why? The reason is that, more and more, mobile programs are getting good enough to match what I do on the desktop and carrying around a tablet is far easier to carry around and use than a desktop computer.

While that switch is still some ways off in the future – I’ll probably keep using my current setup until there are hardware problems I can’t handle or until my key software is no longer supported – I am definitely looking at tablet and mobile options for replacing all of the software I currently use. Ulysses has blown me away as a long-form word processor and text editor.

I currently use Evernote directly for editing articles, but when I work on something longer, like a book manuscript, I see some real limitations in Evernote. It doesn’t manage long documents particularly well. So, for the time being, I’ve been using Scrivener for writing long things like business plans and novel drafts.

The problem is that Scrivener’s mobile app… is okay at best. The desktop program is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but the mobile app? Not good. It just feels like they tried to throw in as many features as possible without really thinking about any sort of mobile usability. That’s to be expected at this point, as it’s a fairly new app with a ton of features jammed in, but it’s clunky.

Ulysses, on the other hand, has a really good desktop program for writing, but it’s not quite as good as Scrivener (part of that might be personal familiarity). However, on mobile, Ulysses blows Scrivener out of the water. That mobile app is amazing; it’s literally the best long-form writing program I’ve ever tried on a phone or tablet.

What’s inspirational about this? Well, when you spend hours each day on a particular task, finding the right tool inspires you to do more and better work, and I feel like Ulysses might be that tool for me going forward. It’s kind of like chopping down a tree with a pretty good axe and then picking up one that’s basically built for you.

3. The Dalai Lama on shortcomings

“To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in someone else.” – Dalai Lama

Here’s the reality of the world: no one is perfect, and that includes the two of us. I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect. The catch is that I can only control myself and you can only control yourself. I’m the only person that can put forth effort to try to improve my own bad habits and traits; you’re the only one that can put forth effort to try to improve your bad habits or traits. Thus, recognizing our own bad habits and traits is inherently more important than recognizing the bad habits and traits in others because we can actually take action to fix our own bad habits and traits.

It goes further than that. We also have the capacity to control our own reactions to the flaws in other people. We choose whether or not to allow them to fester and treat that person negatively or to simply let them flow right past us and look for their good traits. That’s within us. That’s our decision.

Again, it comes back to our own traits and habits and the fact that we control them, while we don’t control the traits and habits of others. We decide how we react to the behavior of others. We decide whether we choose to think negative thoughts about others. We decide whether to form a negative opinion of others. We decide whether to emphasize the positive traits or the negative traits in others. That’s our choice and the outcome of those thoughts reflects on us far more than it reflects on the other person.

4. Aala El-Khani on what it’s like to be a parent in a war zone

From the description:

How do parents protect their children and help them feel secure again when their homes are ripped apart by war? In this warm-hearted talk, psychologist Aala El-Khani shares her work supporting — and learning from — refugee families affected by the civil war in Syria. She asks: How can we help these loving parents give their kids the warm, secure parenting they most need?

I cannot even conceive of the challenge, difficulty, and pain of having to raise my children in a war zone where I could not reasonably protect the day-to-day safety of my children. If I’m being honest, I cannot really do so now, but at least I can live with some strong confidence that my children won’t be felled by a random bomb from the sky (or from the ground). I can make them feel reasonably safe in their lives. In a war zone, that ability goes away.

Because of that relative safety, I know that my children’s stress levels are low and that their immediate needs are met, and thus I can spend a lot of time parenting them for the long term and helping them think about their future. I’m not focused on the necessity of keeping them alive each day; I can somewhat take that for granted. I can instead focus on longer-term things, like building character.

I am incredibly thankful that I live in a place where I can take that for granted.

5. Henry David Thoreau on being lost

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” – Henry David Thoreau

One of the biggest patterns I’ve come to realize in my life is that when I’ve faced my lowest points, I’ve usually responded with some sort of intense personal growth. When I felt most hopeless about my career – at two different times – I began to completely change directions and wound up in new and unexpected places. When I felt most hopeless about my finances, I completely turned that ship around by rebooting a ton of my life behaviors. When I felt most helpless about my health, I turned that ship around as well.

In those darkest moments, I truly felt lost. I felt as though my life was a large mistake and that I had made so many mis-steps that I would never really be able to undo all of the damage.

But somewhere in that sense of being lost, I began to realize that I had the power to fix one little small thing. I could do something to make things just a little bit better. And in doing that, I saw another thing. And another thing. And it became a trickle of things. And then it became a flood. And then it became a life change.

Don’t fear hopeless moments. Be inspired by them. It’s your mind telling you that your current direction has to change and it’s demanding that you look around for something to do to make that change, no matter how little. And once you do that first thing, you’ll start looking for the second. And then the third. And then a flood.

6. Red Baraat – NPR Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Red Baraat’s fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop and jazz is driven by frontman Sunny Jain’s percolating playing of the dhol, a double-sided drum which forms the rhythmic lattice of support for their boisterous horns and guitar. And though Red Baraat graced the Tiny Desk five years ago, we had to have Jain’s band back to celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival of color, of good over evil, and the coming of spring. Usually you’d see the dusting of brightly colored perfumed powders strewn in the air, covering bodies and clothing. The notion of doing that in the office was a fun thought, but the band (with my nudging) opted instead for confetti cannons and passing candied treats. It made for quicker cleanup, but their uplifting spirits lingered on, giving us a chance to shake off the final days of winter and demonstrating why music is so essential to the soul.

I love listening to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts due to the musical variety that they demonstrate. These short concerts cover almost every imaginable genre of music and have led me to discover Red Baraat, a musical group I almost assuredly would have never heard otherwise.

The music is indescribable. The attempt above, calling it a “fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop, and jazz” is a feeble one. It sounds like the music of a culture that doesn’t truly exist in this world that I inhabit, yet it is incredibly beautiful and still somehow really human. It makes me want to move in a way that music rarely achieves for me.

The best music I hear on Youtube usually winds up on repeat for a while. I’ve listened to this one a lot of times in the last week or so. It’s just so full of life.

7. The Voluntary Life

The Voluntary Life is a podcast about voluntary living, meaning that it focuses on reflecting on how many elements of life you really can control and then choosing what you want in all of those areas. The idea is that no matter what kind of life you live, most of the elements of that life are voluntary – you’re choosing them, whether you immediately realize it or not.

Thus, the podcast spends a lot of time addressing many of the assumptions of modern life – home, work, career, family, travel – and trying to undo them and ask real questions about them.

This has become one of my go-to listens in the car and when I’m doing household chores. I’ve come to realize that I’m happy with a lot of my life choices – I’m very happy living in a house on the edge of a small town with a wife and children in a good school district – but I also realize that I don’t have to make those choices and the number of options before me is immense, and that by thinking about those choices a little, I can sometimes find better ways to do what I’m doing.

This one’s well worth a listen.

8. Walt Whitman – I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

I think of this poem whenever I see some of my own little natural souvenirs from travel or some adventure in the world. I’ll often bring home a twig or a leaf or a rock or something from a hike or from a trip, not because I intend to keep it forever, but because it can be a fleeting little physical reminder of that trip, a “curious token” of that experience.

I still fondly remember pulling over once in the Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma so that my wife and I could find a rock that was a perfect example of the amazing red colors that we were seeing along the road. She found this small little stone and we took it home with us. It still resides in our front garden and somehow it reminds me of how I felt during that stop, just enjoying a short adventure with someone that I love so much.

I don’t really need to keep that rock itself. Honestly, it’s just a little splash of red in our front garden that we’ll probably forget if we ever move. That doesn’t mean that seeing that little red rock doesn’t take me back, much like that twig on Whitman’s mantle takes him back to that Louisiana oak.

9. The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross

When I was little, I used to love visiting my great-grandmother’s house. She was quite old, as one would expect, but during my early childhood she was still quite lively. I still remember her nearly running from room to room playing with me when she was in her early seventies.

She loved to paint. She mostly painted in a studio that her daughter rented for her use, but she sometimes painted at home as well. I remember her showing me her paints and brushes a few times, though I don’t recall ever actually putting paint to canvas with her.

What I do remember, though, is that she absolutely had to watch Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting show at 2:30 in the afternoon each day. That was the one television program that she insisted on watching, and the local PBS station played it every weekday in the middle of the afternoon.

I remember watching it with her and feeling incredibly peaceful. I’m sure it was a mix of Bob’s ultra-chill and friendly demeanor and the peace I generally felt that came from being at my grandmother’s house. The thing is, though, I can still watch The Joy of Painting years and years later and still feel some of that peace.

Here’s an episode where Bob paints a winter retreat. Enjoy.

10. Carl Jung on understanding ourselves

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung

This is the flip side of that earlier quote about how one flaw in ourselves has more meaning than a thousand flaws in others. It’s normal to be irritated by someone else’s flaws, but why? Why are we irritated? What does that irritation tell us about us?

I’ll give you an example, one that I was thinking about earlier today when reflecting on a friend. I have a friend that is almost never punctual. He treats the clock as some kind of general guidance rather than a tool for meeting others at an agreed-upon time. This frustrates me, as I’m a punctual person – I’m actually a “show up several minutes early” kind of person, and it’s served me well many times in my life.

Here’s the thing – that tardy friend is also pretty much the most tolerant person in the world when it comes to last-minute emergencies. Even if you don’t contact him, he’ll wait around for you for a long time and not be worried at all if you’re late. If he has something else he needs to do, he’ll often wait around for you until he’s already late for the next thing and then cheerfully tell you it’s no big deal. Often, when he’s late to see you, it’s because he ran late being a good friend to someone else.

When you step back and look at the things that irritate you in others, you’ll sometimes see that the picture isn’t really what you thought it was, and it leads you to both a better understanding of yourself and of the people around you.

11. School of Life

School of Life is a wonderful Youtube channel that offers up some great philosophically-based advice on a quality life, as well as some good general “here’s how to handle the adult world” advice. Here’s one of my favorite examples (and how I discovered the channel), How to Find Fulfilling Work:

I’ve watched some of these videos with my own children when we’ve been discussing particular topics and I’ve often thought to myself that the advice mirrors some of the best advice my own parents gave to me growing up. It’s advice that older children and teenagers often don’t want to hear from their parents due to maturity levels, but they’ll find it so useful later on in life. I’m glad this channel exists for just that reason – to give that kind of advice to people who missed it or didn’t get to hear it the first time.

It also makes me appreciate my own wonderful parents, who have always given me so much of themselves to help me make my own life better. It’s a standard I hope I can live up to with my own kids.

12. William James on the best use of life

“The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.” – William James

Every single time that I’ve ever heard that something I’ve done has had an impact on someone else’s life and changed it, I’ve felt tremendous. It’s made me feel as though my life has purpose and meaning.

I view life as being like a rough lake on a windy day, with waves going in all directions and little sense or pattern in the water’s surface. We spend our lives out there on boats, tossing rocks into this lake. Almost all of them make no ripples at all. Some of them, though, make big ripples, big enough to affect the movement of the other boats and maybe, if we’re lucky, helping those other boats move toward the place they want to go.

I want to spend my life throwing big rocks into that lake.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Is an Instant Pot Really a Worthwhile Frugal Purchase?

Over the last few years, a hybrid pressure cooker and slow cooker called the Instant Pot has become quite popular in some circles and, as a result, many people have written to me asking for my thoughts on it. I’ve given some brief thoughts on it in the past, but I wanted to spell out my thoughts at length on this device in terms of whether it really makes sense as a purchase for saving money.

First of all, I received this specific Instant Pot as a birthday gift last year. We already owned a slow cooker, but I was intrigued by the idea of having a small pressure cooker and a slow cooker in a single device that I could use for both things. Plus, we did actually want to have a second slow cooker because we often had guests over and would prepare both vegetarian and meaty soups for our guests, and having two slow cookers made that much easier.

Over the past year, the Instant Pot has been our primary slow cooker. I’ve used it for a wide variety of pressure cooking applications and have prepared countless slow-cooked meals in it. I’ve used almost every mode available on the device.

And, frankly, I have mostly positive but some mixed feelings on it, and I’m not sure if I would universally recommend it.

First, let’s talk about the good things that the Instant Pot does.

It works rather well as a slow cooker. Rather than having a crock that’s heated by a heating element as most slow cookers are, the Instant Pot has a small internal stainless steel pot that’s easily removable that’s heated by the device itself, which is larger and thicker than most slow cookers I’m familiar with. In other words, most of the thickness is in the outer device, not the inner removable pot, which is the reverse of a crock-based slow cooker. I was skeptical of this as I was concerned about food burning and sticking to the interior surface, but this has not yet happened. The heating coils in the Instant Pot are well placed and well regulated to avoid this kind of burning.

The only complaint I have – and this is minor – is that the heat output in the “low” slow cooker mode isn’t enough to really get a large pot of soup thoroughly heated in a reasonable amount of time. My overall impression is that the “low” mode on the Instant Pot in slow cooker mode does not get as hot as a similarly-sized crock-based slow cooker, nor does the “high” mode get as hot as the “high” mode in a similar crock-based slow cooker. This means your recipes will need to be adjusted a bit, either by cooking for longer or by experimenting with a higher temperature setting. It does offer some limited programming ability, which is helpful.

The pressure cooker function works well for speedy food prep. This is probably the “cool” feature of the Instant Pot. If you’re cooking small batches of things like beans or rice or a small amount of soup or a one-pot spaghetti dish, the pressure cooker function works like a charm. This thing actually works as a really good rice cooker and can churn out perfect rice from dry rice in about 20 minutes or so. We can easily make enough rice or other items in this slow cooker to meet our family’s needs.

There are a lot of recipes out there now for cooking things using the pressure cooker function of the Instant Pot and I’ve tried several of them. They work very nicely and result in only one dish to clean and you can just toss that internal steel pot right in the dishwasher with no problems. However, you do have to manually clean the inside of the lid and it can be tough to reach some spots on the lid. Figure that you’re going to devote a small handful of minutes to getting the lid really clean after using it as a slow cooker for anything with liquid in it.

Another feature I’ve come to value with it is the saute mode. In that mode, the bottom of the pot heats up quite high, high enough to actually saute onions and peppers in there, and I use this all the time when making slow cooker meals. The saute mode means that I don’t have to make a skillet dirty when pre-cooking onions or peppers (or other such things) at the start of a slow cooker meal and it also means I can just pour in liquid right into the slow cooker to deglaze the bottom of the pot and make the liquid more flavorful. This works like an absolute charm and is perhaps my favorite feature of the whole thing. I swear I use this saute feature every other time I turn the Instant Pot on.

If you look specifically at those uses – as a general-use slow cooker and as a small batch pressure cooker and rice cooker – it’s really nice. However, there are a few things that I hoped for or expected from the Instant Pot where it didn’t quite deliver.

First of all, the pot is just too small for any sort of high throughput canning. You can do pressure canning in it, but you’ll be doing it just a jar or two or at most three at a time and thus it’s going to take a long while. If you’re wanting to can a lot of jars of a particular food for future use, the Instant Pot is just too small for it. If you just want to dabble and pressure can just a few jars of something, it’ll work okay for that.

Second, you have to buy a separate lid for the slow cooker to really use it well. The default lid that comes with it is a pressure cooker lid that is really awkward to use if you’re using it as a slow cooker. The lid doesn’t allow you to see what’s cooking in there without removing the lid and it’s hard to find a way to sit the default lid on there that’s just right for slow cooking. After a few uses, Sarah got frustrated and purchased the tempered glass lid, which is absolutely great, but I really feel like this lid should be included by default with the Instant Pot. For us, it’s basically an essential add-on, which effectively raises the price of the Instant Pot by $15-20.

Third, given that it’s driven by an electronic interface and has a lot of modes, I am concerned about loss of functionality in the future. With most electronic devices, the simpler the device, the longer it will last, and this is definitely light years more complex than our normal slow cooker. This isn’t a criticism of the function in any way, only a concern that the device won’t have as long of a lifespan as our other slow cooker (which has worked like a charm for years) or the original slow cooker that Sarah and I first had when we were dating (which still works, but is missing a leg and I don’t really feel good about “fixed” leg options for that thing, so we almost never use it).

In the end, do I recommend the Instant Pot? It really depends on what you want to do with it. If you’re looking for a slow cooker that you might occasionally use to cook rice or to cook one-pot meals, it’s going to be perfect for that – just make sure you get that optional lid. On the other hand, if you doubt you’ll use it for anything other than straight-up slow cooking, you’re probably better getting a slow cooker model like this one and save yourself $100. If you’re looking to do extensive canning or pressure cooking, I’d invest in a larger pressure cooker.

In my mind, this fits right into the wheelhouse of how we acquired our Instant Pot: it’s a very nice gift for a frugal person and they’ll most likely use it because some of the features are very useful. Is it worth $100 over a regular slow cooker if you’re buying it for yourself and already have a rice cooker? I’m hesitant to say yes.

I quite like my Instant Pot. I will continue to use it as my main slow cooker for as long as it lasts and I definitely do use some of the other features. I don’t think I would spend $100-$140 on it (depending on size and whether you buy that nearly-essential lid) given that I could get a similarly-sized slow cooker in the $30 range because, although the extra features are cool and useful, they’re not essential for anything I’m doing in the kitchen. I would happily gift this to other people in the right situation, though, such as a wedding gift.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Guide for Busy People Who Want to Build New Income Streams

John writes in:

Recently, you mentioned in this article that you’ve set up some additional income streams to the point “where any income stream can go away and it won’t really adversely affect my family.” — I’m curious to know what they are and how you’ve achieved that.

I’ve been listening and reading up on multiple income streams for a few years now and from what I understand they are really hard to build for people with full-time jobs and young children to the point they would start providing a decent income.

Building new income streams takes a lot of work. Starting any kind of side gig takes a great deal of effort and that new income stream often doesn’t make a whole lot of money at first. It takes a great deal of continuous effort to start seeing results, and even then, it builds slowly. Most people give up before that.

It’s even harder when that income stream is a passive one. Most people think that a passive income stream means that you just make something, throw it out there, and profit from it. Sure, you can do that, but you’ll make income in a trickle.

So, let’s say you’re a busy person like John or myself. You have a main career with a full-time job. You have a family with children. You have all of the other maintenance of daily life. You have (hopefully) some semblance of social connections as well, and perhaps a hobby or two. Those things added together can eat up almost all of your day. How can you possibly build new income streams?

Over the past few years, I’ve been tackling this exact problem in a number of ways, with reasonable success. I’m going to describe some of these initiatives in detail, but for now, I’m not going to mention specifics. Why? I’m trying to build these things without using the audience I have for The Simple Dollar, because that would be an advantage that others do not have, and I intend to write about each of them in full detail once they’ve had some more time to mature.

Speaking of The Simple Dollar, let’s start with that one.


The Simple Dollar started as a “side gig” for me back in 2006 when I felt the urge to start writing about my financial turnaround. It struck a chord and eventually grew into my full-time work. The Simple Dollar was a website I started completely on my own. I was able to earn an income from it by placing advertisements on the site, as well as using Amazon affiliate links when I would talk about a book or other product that had positively impacted my life.

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s easy to set up, for starters. Anyone can start a blog using Blogger for free, or you can host it separately using something like Squarespace. Adding advertisements is easy, too, using tools like Google Adsense, and you can join Amazon’s associate program to generate a bit of income when you describe a product and people click through to Amazon’s site to learn more about it. It’s low-cost, too, as you can basically start all of this for free.

Why it can work well for busy people: You can define your own posting schedule and make it nice and slow if you wish, though a slower posting schedule usually does mean that it’s harder to build up a lot of visitors (which you need to make money) because you simply don’t have a lot of articles for people to search for and find. You can pick your own topics as well. Another advantage is if you decide to take a break, your archived writings will continue to earn income for a while, though that income will slowly decline over time.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: It takes a ton of consistent work to build an audience for a blog. Not only do you have to write on a very consistent basis for quite a while, you also have to put in the footwork to find communities in which to talk about and share your site with interested parties without being a spammer (which can result in very negative things for your site). Writing consistently takes a ton of work; building an audience takes a ton of work. You need both to succeed with a blog.

Another challenge is that you have to be focused on a particular topic. Websites that wander from topic to topic almost never find an audience. This means that you have to choose a topic that’s going to consistently provide something for you to write about all the time and then stick with that topic (and similar topics).

It’s a lot of very consistent work. Now, this can work well for some busy people who have highly consistent schedules, which I did when I was first starting The Simple Dollar. I locked in a very consistent daily routine that gave me a block of time each evening to work on the site. This site was built in the evenings after long days at work, and often in those evenings I was holding a baby on my shoulder while clicking a mouse or bouncing a toddler on my knee while typing.

Another challenge is that it’s hard to earn a lot of money unless you have a pretty big audience. You need thousands of consistent readers (or else lots of well-regarded pages in Google for people to find via lots of different searches) in order to be able to make consistent money via advertisements. Until you have that, you won’t earn a ton of money. My first year or two with The Simple Dollar showed monthly income that’s better described in pennies rather than dollars.

Should you do it? If you have a good broad topic in mind, enjoy writing short essays, and can do so quite often and with relative ease, blogging might really click with you. This describes my own writing style quite well. However, it takes a long time to start earning an income from blogging and you will need to do some self-promotion.

Now, we’ll move on to some of the other potential side gigs for busy people, many of which I have direct experience with and others which are drawn from the experiences of close friends. Right up front, let’s be clear: I have experience with each of these, but I’m intentionally not talking about specifics at the moment because I don’t want to “spoil” their results by using The Simple Dollar as a platform to advertise them. I want to, in the future, be able to write about the results a person can achieve without being able to leverage something like The Simple Dollar to help it grow. When that happens, you better believe I’ll talk about the exact things I’ve made, but until then, I’m going to speak in more vague terms.


A YouTube channel is something that anyone can create. It’s a collection of videos uploaded to YouTube made by the same creator (or team of creators) that people can subscribe to and watch. You might, for example, make a series of cooking videos or pocketknife review videos or videos on hunting tactics or videos discussing the latest events in the NBA. It’s generally a good idea to have a consistent theme to your videos. These videos earn income through advertisements placed before and during the videos by Google (and some popular channels can earn income through product placement arrangements). Many YouTubers earn additional income through Patreon.

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s very easy to get started. Starting a channel is free. You can make videos and upload them to YouTube on a smartphone or virtually any computer with a good internet connection, and once they’re uploaded, they stay there forever. You can define your own video creation schedule, too.

Why it can work well for busy people: Much like blogging, you can pick your own production and posting schedule and you can pick your own topic. You don’t even have to worry at all about hosting issues – your only real worry is making videos and then promoting them. Another advantage is that you can take breaks from creating videos and your older videos will continue to earn revenue for quite a long time.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Video production can take a lot of time. Even though you’re posting at your own pace and schedule, it can still take quite a lot of time to come up with an idea for a video, plan out the content, film it, edit it, and post it. Making something look halfway decent also takes some video editing skills, which you may have to learn before you even start.

There’s also the issue of promotion, which is something we’ll come back to time and time again. To make money off of online content you create, you need viewers, and to get viewers, you have to promote what you’ve made. That means spending the time to get involved with a community that would be receptive to your videos. Of course, if you’re making videos on things you already enjoy, this should be relatively easy and fun, but it still takes a long time.

And, again, much like blogging, it takes a substantial audience to make more than pennies with this. You either need a lot of videos or a healthy handful of really, really good videos to start building an audience and that means a lot of work before you really earn much money at all.

Should you do it? If you have a good topic in mind and the idea of making videos about it seems fun to you, then this can be a good hobby. However, as with many of the ideas here, you should expect that you won’t make much money for quite a while, and you will need to do some self-promotion.


Podcasting centers around recording audio programs and releasing them via the internet for others to listen to as they choose. You simply list your podcast with various services, record episodes, release them, and then people who use those services can discover and listen to your podcast. I like to describe it as “independent talk radio.”

Why it works well as an income stream: It’s fairly easy to record a podcast episode; you can even do it on a smartphone, though the audio quality would be relatively poor and that should only be a method for getting started. You just need a website to host your podcast, which is easily done at Squarespace, so it’s not too involved to actually publish your episodes. The actual recording, editing, and publishing doesn’t take too long at all per episode. If you enjoy having conversations about a particular topic, it’s a ton of fun.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Most of the same challenges with other formats for earning money pop up here. You need to be consistent with it (though you can get away with a pretty infrequent schedule when podcasting), and you won’t earn much money for a while, if ever.

I’ve found that with podcasting, the need for consistent day-in-day-out work is less than with some of the other models discussed here, but it’s actually harder to get income going with it. You basically have to find your own sponsors; if you’re lucky, they’ll find you, but you’ll probably have to go find businesses that would be interested in advertising on a podcast on your topic and work something out with them. At first, it won’t earn you much money, because your rates are wholly dependent on your listenership. You can also use Patreon as an income stream, where your listeners pay you a small amount per episode.

So, while the actual content production of a podcast is relatively easy on a per-episode basis, you do need consistency, and it’s fairly challenging to find people to pay you for doing this, at least compared to other strategies listed here.

Should you do it? If you like the idea of recording a talk radio show on a topic you love, podcasting is a great hobby that can earn an income stream along the way. However, it’s fairly hard to get the ball rolling with this in terms of income generation, though the actual content production isn’t incredibly hard. I found podcast content to be the easiest to produce (after blogging) among the options here.


Another strategy for building some side income for yourself is to write ebooks and sell them, either through Amazon’s Kindle store or through other venues, including your own. You simply write a book on your computer, edit it so that it’s worth reading, format it correctly, and upload it (assuming you’re using the Kindle store). It’s then listed on the Kindle store and people can buy it, download it, and read it.

Why it works well as an income stream: This is very much a “work at your own pace” kind of side gig. You can write and edit at whatever pace you like. Once you do upload a book, it’s there for good and will be found by people searching through the Kindle store thereafter. There’s virtually no up front cost, either.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: Your book basically won’t sell at all on its own. You have to promote it, perhaps more than any other option here. If you want it to consistently start selling and to build up a following who will consistently buy your ebooks, you’ve got to get the word out there about your books, and that starts with writing great descriptions for your book, finding lots of online communities to actively participate in, and talking about your stuff there in a non-spammy way. That’s a lot of additional work. I’ve personally found that promoting ebooks takes more promotional work than the other avenues here.

So, while the actual writing is probably the least intense option among the ones listed here, the work needed to promote the books is quite large in order to be successful.

Should you do it? Do you like to write long-form items like books or novellas? If that sounds appealing to you, this is a great avenue to do just that. Just be aware that in order to make significant money from this, you have to be willing to invest significant time in promoting your books. They’re not going to make a mint all by themselves.

Standalone Websites

Standalone websites are websites that serve as an information resource about a specific topic. Typically, these websites are supported by ads and exist solely to serve up detailed information about some relatively narrow topic that people might be interested in that isn’t really covered elsewhere. For example, you might make a website that offers detailed notes on all of the hiking trails at a national park near where you live or offers up detailed notes on how to get started with a particular niche hobby. Once you make such a website, you’d simply promote it a little and mostly look for ways to get it linked to from other sites in order to start welcoming visitors from Google, who will view the ads and earn revenue for your site.

Why it works well as an income stream: Once you actually have such a site established, it requires very little irregular work to keep earning income and even slowly grow that income. A website that’s bringing in Google traffic tends to keep bringing it in provided you update the site every once in a while with fresh info, which you can do irregularly. Hosting websites like this is extremely cheap, as almost any web host is up to the task. You can also sell sites once they start earning income if you want to completely get out of the equation, which is harder to do with other opportunities. That’s the big advantage of using this as a money making tactic.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: It takes a lot of time to make a website with a bunch of pages that thoroughly covers a niche topic. You need some basic web design skills, too. After that, you’re going to invest a ton of time trying to get some links to that site built up, especially from reputable places. All of this occurs before you earn a dime and while you’re paying for site hosting for your site.

For this to really work, you need to have some writing skills and motivation, some limited web design skills, and a strong desire to self-promote, a mix of things that many people don’t have, and you’ll also need to be willing to dump in a lot of up-front time, though it doesn’t need to be regular time.

Should you do this? If you’re interested in writing some detailed guides to specific topics, building standalone websites is a great avenue for this. Just be aware that it is a fairly slow process to make it profitable. This is a good route if you find yourself with bursts of time here and there to devote to it rather than consistent time.

‘Chore Synergy’ Businesses

What if you don’t want to do any sort of online business? Most real-world businesses usually require a ton of consistent time, which make them a nonstarter when it comes to very busy people. The only approach that seems to work well in a busy lifestyle is what I call “chore synergy” businesses; things you can do that synergize really well with things you’re already doing.

For example, if you walk your dog for a mile or two every day, simply picking up some dogs along that route, walking a big loop, and then returning them would just extend your dog walk a little bit and earn you some money. A door-to-door laundry service that’s along your work commute would allow you to pick up laundry and drop it off during your commute, do it at home, and then return it in the mornings before work, again right along with your commute. The idea is to “synergize” things you’re already doing.

Why it works well as an income stream: It involves a relatively low time commitment, as it usually just increases the time you spend on something you’re already doing. Once you have some clients, it’s actually a rather effortless way to earn more money. Most of these types of businesses involve very little cost to you outside of the time and energy involved.

Why it doesn’t work so well for busy people: You have to have a good idea that people actually want, then you have to promote that idea, then you usually have to actually execute that idea, all before you ever see a dime. You will have to worry about things like billing and so forth. You’ll also be expected to consistently stick with the task you’re promising to fulfill and any time you step away from it, you’ll have to clearly notify your clients or else drop the business. It won’t earn any residual income if you step away, whereas the other options will.

Should you do it? If you can identify a task that you can synergize really well, like a laundry delivery service or a dog-walking business or a basic lawn mowing service, and you’ll actually enjoy adding more of that task to your life, then a synergistic chore business might be a really good fit for you. If you loathe your household chores, avoid this one like the plague.

Final Thoughts

If you look through this list, you’ll see that many of the ideas have some things in common. They tend to involve a lot of work at your own pace that won’t earn a lot of income up front, but can build into something that earns good money over the long haul if you’re patient. They tend to have very little up-front cost, so that if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have a deep financial investment. They tend to be able to produce some level of residual income if you walk away from them for an extended period or for good.

All of those are factors that work well for making a side gig for busy people, particularly the “low up-front financial investment” and the “work at your own pace but consistently” aspects of it. I have obviously found success with The Simple Dollar following this pattern and I’m currently exploring projects in almost all of these areas.

If any of these sound interesting to you, start by writing up a side gig business plan for that idea. Use that opportunity to figure out the ins and outs of actually pulling off what you have in mind in terms of how to actually do it, what the real time commitment is, and whether you could fit it into your life. Be sure to consider the drawbacks I’ve discussed here and how you will overcome them, as well as other drawbacks you discover.

You may just find that a side gig does fit well in your busy life and it can provide another income stream for you.

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Why You Should Never Feel Bad for Chasing the Money

I have had a wild ride the past couple of years, career-wise. I went from making just $22,000 per year working in the mailroom of a Hollywood talent agency to making far more than that at my current job at a startup.

Sure, I had to sell my soul and give up my artistic dreams, but that’s a small price to pay for a big raise, right?

I joke about selling my soul, but it’s something I actually think about. I was committed to making it as a TV writer, and now I pretty much do sales at my main gig. For a few months after making the decision to pursue a career with more immediate financial rewards, the thought that I was a “sellout” gnawed at me.

I imagined a younger version of myself, upon hearing that I’d taken a more corporate job, saying something like, “Good job, quitter. Have fun selling widgets the rest of your life.”

I think these are common, natural feelings for a 20-something to have after realizing that they’re making a career shift away from the creative and toward the traditional. The good part is that, after a while, the negative thoughts subside. And when they do, you’ll have the time to analyze your decision with more clarity. If you’re like me, you might come to the conclusion that you’re only a sellout if you think you’re a sellout.

Recognize That You Are Always Changing

Before I was trying to make it as a TV writer, I was trying to be a professional basketball player. And I succeeded! For three years, I actually got paid money to play a sport, which for many people would be a dream come true. But, I was never satisfied. I wanted to make the NBA. I felt like a failure.

When I eventually stopped playing basketball, I felt like I was giving up. Instead of realizing that I’d accomplished a lot and had much to be proud of, I wallowed in self-pity and stressed myself out thinking about my next career move.

But, as they always do, those feelings passed. I started to feel better about myself as I dove into the task of finding a job that would help me pursue my new passion: Becoming a big-time Hollywood writer.

There’s nothing wrong with that goal. I really believed at the time that TV writing was the path for me. My mistake, though, was not being able to apply the lessons I’d learned from ending my basketball career once I decided to end my TV writing career as well.

Rather than beating myself up for not pursuing the life of a starving artist, I should have been able to look at things more pragmatically. I mean, I’d pretty much gone through the exact same situation already with basketball!

But, I found that it’s hard for me to move on from pursuing lofty, shoot-for-the-moon-type career goals. And I’m sure it’s the case for many others out there as well.

The main thing I keep telling myself is that it’s okay to change. I’m happy I didn’t have all the same goals, principles, and dreams at age 12 that I did at age 18. Why is it such a big deal if I encountered similar changes between the ages of 22 and 24, or 25 and 28?

Your 20s are bound to be a time of growth, questioning, and reassessment. It’s better to embrace that than to stubbornly stick with Activity X because you were so sure you wanted to be the best in the world at Activity X a few years ago.

You’ll eventually want to settle on a set of core values and principles that matter more than anything, but it’s okay if takes you some work and some time to get there. I never appreciated that.

Trent made a great point along these lines a few months back, when he highlighted a quote by the philosopher Alan Watts: “You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.”

Don’t Fall Victim to ‘Fading Affect Bias’

A problem I faced after leaving my old career was that I couldn’t stop remembering the good times. There was the the time I won an award for a script I wrote, the time one of my jokes made it into the finished pilot for a show on CBS, and countless positive memories associated with just hanging out with my bosses.

It took some active effort for me to snap out of it and think, “If it was so great, why did I leave?” Then I remember the aspects of the career I wasn’t so enamored with, such as the late nights spent in a dingy edit bay, the countless hours spent on my scripts even though there was no guarantee anyone important would ever read them, and the low wages.

I’ve learned that I’m not alone in emphasizing the positives when looking back on a situation. In fact, there’s even a name for it: The Fading Affect Bias. Studies have shown that across all cultures, bad memories tend to fade faster than good ones. Some researchers think the purging of bad memories could be an evolutionary adaptation to make sure our self esteem stays sufficiently high.

And to that I say: Not all adaptations are universally good across all circumstances. I think when making a big, profound career change — especially leaving a job you once considered your “passion” — you’d do well to remember exactly why you left.

It can help to take some time to write down in a journal your reasons for moving on. Then you can refer back to them the second you start thinking, “If I had just stuck it out a little longer, I’d be writing on Modern Family right now!”

There’s Always Time for Your Hobbies

Just because you’re no longer doing something “fun” for a living doesn’t mean you have to completely abandon your passions. I still write (obviously). I still play basketball (poorly). And the crazy thing is that I genuinely love doing these activities, even though they are now only done in my free time.

If I wanted to, I could have kept writing scripts even after I took my new job. In fact, the one script I wrote that won an award was written during the free time I had at one of my office jobs.

Heck, I could have even kept training for basketball. Just last year a former college basketball player left his job in public radio and signed a professional basketball contract to play in Poland.

The point is, if you really want to pursue something and you aren’t an on-call surgeon raising six kids by yourself, you probably have some time to get good at it and still maintain a day job. In many cases, it just requires rethinking how you spend your downtime: The average American spends four and a half hours a day watching TV and another few hours surfing the web, some of which could no doubt be devoted to a side project or passion.

Money Matters

People like to say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but a now-famous study showed that earning more money does increase happiness — to an extent, before leveling off after around $75,000 per year. Let’s just say low-level European basketball players and entry-level writer’s assistants aren’t very close to reaching that bar.

I’m not trying to imply that people earning below a certain amount of money are going to be less happy. There are people I know in both the careers I abandoned who are perfectly content doing what they love for very little pay.

I’m just saying that in my situation, with mounting student loan debt and the dream of being able to retire before age 70, it was plausible that I could be happier if I pursued a more lucrative career path. I’m very grateful that such avenues were open to me, and I’ve enjoyed learning something new in a different field.

Summing Up

If careers in sports and the arts were easy, everyone would do them. It takes a special kind of dedication to succeed in either arena. I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that it’s okay to not be one of those people. It’s not selling out to do what’s best for you financially, even if that means you end up in a career you would have once considered boring. Who knows, if you pursue your side hustles hard enough maybe they will eventually become your main hustle. In the meantime, take the time to appreciate you have a job at all, and hold your head high as you crank out those widgets.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Balancing Financial Success and Life’s Big Moments

A little over a week ago, I responded to a mailbag question from Mary, who was struggling with the decision about whether to go on an expensive trip (that she could afford) with her ailing sister. She was worried about the long-term financial impact of this big expense and was weighing it against doing something with her sister that they had long talked about before her sister became too ill. You might want to go ahead and read the full question and answer before continuing.

My response to Mary was that she should absolutely go on this trip. The reasoning was simple: The entire purpose of being financially responsible is so that life doesn’t stand in your way when those rare, life-altering moments come along, the kinds of moments that leave you with regret for the rest of your years if you let them pass by. Being frugal and living beneath your income level means that when those things come to pass, you’re prepared. It means putting aside the little things that you’ll forget in an hour or in a day or two so that you can step up during the really big moments.

To say I’ve received a lot of feedback from that mailbag entry is an understatement, and virtually all of it was positive and in agreement with my answer. So, why does it merit another post?

Several people who wrote to me in the aftermath of that question were dealing with their own crossroads in life, moments of various kinds where they were unsure what they should do next. Was it smart to take the financially sensible path? Or was this a “key moment” in life where they needed to take the financially risky path and rely on the financial support they’ve built?

Every single one of those questions revolved around situations that seemed less certain than Mary’s trip to France with her sister. One person wanted to buy a restaurant. Another person wanted to buy a houseboat. Yet another person was torn about moving across the country out of love. Literally none of them seemed to be a clear cut “life moment” like Mary and her sister.

This, of course, left me thinking: How does one know whether or not this is a big enough choice in life that one should take the less financially stable path? Sometimes, the situation is like Mary’s situation, where it’s pretty clear that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that needs to happen now or else the opportunity is lost, but many times in life, that’s not the case.

How does one know the difference? How does one make the right choice in those really big moments of opportunity?

First of all, look at the actual likely downside of this choice going badly. If you choose to make the leap and it goes poorly, where does that leave you? It might be tempting to buy a restaurant, but if it doesn’t work out, what will your financial state look like? Will you be able to easily recover? Or does it put you into a bad financial position?

If you quit your job, will you be able to find another one if your endeavor doesn’t work out? Or are you basically exiting your career because it will be tough to find your way back?

Most drawbacks in life are mitigated by making really good choices along the way when things are calm. If you spent your financial life consistently making good decisions and spending less than you earn, then there is much less financial risk in buying that restaurant. If you spent your career constantly building a great reputation and a ton of strong relationships, then there is substantially less risk in making a very unusual career or business choice.

On the other hand, if you’re struggling in a pool of debt, taking a big financial gamble is a huge risk that could easily sink what you have left. If you don’t have a really strong career built up, then taking a big professional gamble has a huge downside.

Here’s the truth: The calm moments of your life are times of preparation for the big moments, so use them that way. The calm moments are when you spend less than you earn and get rid of debts and build a strong financial base. The calm moments are when you build up a strong professional reputation and a great skill set and a huge professional network. In both cases, you do those things so that when the big opportunities come around, you have something to fall back onto if things fall flat and you have the resources to make that choice happen.

Second, ask yourself honestly if this is really a unique opportunity. Great opportunities can grab our attention and convince us that we absolutely have to jump on board with this opportunity, but many opportunities aren’t really all that unique. This is particularly true when it comes to buying something, particularly something that isn’t at an incredibly steep discount.

You may have always dreamed of running a restaurant, but it doesn’t mean that now is the time to make that leap simply because you became aware of a restaurant location for sale. Restaurants go up for sale all of the time and locations can be converted into restaurants as well. You should make this leap when you’re ready, when you have a strong business plan in place and appropriate financial backing. Until then, a restaurant on sale at a discount is just one similar opportunity among thousands and not one you should reroute everything for.

You may have always dreamed of owning a boat, but it doesn’t mean that now is the time simply because you saw a beautiful boat for sale at a decent price. Boats are bought and sold all the time. If you want a boat, plan for it. Save your money and figure out what you can actually spend and deeply understand what you’re looking for so that it’s not a regrettable purchase.

Yes, there may be a special extenuating circumstance or two about this particular situation, but is it really that special or unique? Or is it just attractive to you in this moment when you happen to have the idea floating around in your head?

There will always be another restaurant or another boat, but there will never be another sister.

Third, ask yourself if this specific situation is something you would genuinely regret if you say no. This again comes back to the big purchases or big career decisions or big life decisions and whether they offer anything truly unique or just happen to be both convenient and somewhat compelling.

If you pass on this restaurant, does that mean you’ll never be able to open a restaurant again for the rest of your life? Or does it simply mean you might have to wait for a little while, a calm period in which you can strengthen your business plan or improve your financing?

If you pass on this boat, does that mean you’ll never be able to own a boat in your entire life? Or does it mean that you might have to wait for a while, a calm period in which you can save for that boat and really evaluate what you want and whether it’s truly worth it for you?

If you pass on moving across the country to be with someone you’re in love with at the moment, does that mean that you’ll never be able to fall in love ever again? Does it even mean the end of this relationship?

Mary’s situation was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime situation. It was extremely likely that her sister was not going to live more than another several months, so, yes, the opportunity was not likely to happen again. But what if her sister was going to live for the foreseeable future? Does that mean that if they were excited about a trip to France, they shouldn’t have taken it?

No, it just means that they should have planned for it. The opportunity to travel to France together would come up next summer or the summer after that. They could have saved for it and planned for it and then gone on that trip in a way that produced no worries for their life. The only thing that caused a faster choice was a huge unchangeable deadline.

Finally, consider whether or not there is another approach to the problem. If you’re thinking of buying a restaurant, that means you want to get into the restaurant business. There are a lot of ways to pull that off without just buying the restaurant sitting in front of you. Consider other options for what you’re wanting to do… in fact, writing a business plan might be a much better step at this point than just buying a restaurant.

Ask yourself whether it might make sense for your long-distance romantic interest to move to you, or whether a move might make more sense in several months when you’re sure the relationship will last and you’ve really vetted the other person.

Contemplate other career approaches. Maybe a simple change in employer is a better approach for the short term than simply abandoning a career you’ve invested deeply in.

The point is simple. If you’re at a crossroads, step back and look at all the paths forward rather than locking yourself into one or two of them. You might just find a road less traveled that you didn’t consider before.

Here’s the thing to remember: Financial success gives you more opportunity to take advantage of those key moments in life, but that doesn’t mean you should jump wildly on whatever opportunities cross your path. Take advantage of the calm times in your life to build financial and professional and personal stability so that you can take advantage of those key life moments when they happen, but don’t fly headfirst into everything that comes your way. Step back and take a deep breath and look more deeply at the situation, because throwing everything into something that isn’t really that worthwhile just means you have less opportunity when something truly important comes along.

How will you know when something is truly important? Will you truly regret not taking this opportunity in five or ten years? Is there no other chance to take it, or take anything like it? Is the downside of not taking this opportunity not all that disastrous? And, more than anything, your heart is unquestionably telling you that this is something you need to do, even when your mind is sure? Those are the guideposts to pay attention to.

Good luck!

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Eight Ways to Use Expiring Produce

Knocking money off your grocery bill may not be easy, but it can be done. By using coupons, planning your meals, and shopping regular sales, it’s not that hard to whittle your food bill down a notch or two.

Still, you can often save even more with a very basic technique: Reducing food waste. By eating leftovers, using up foods before they go bad, and repurposing everyday ingredients, you won’t have to buy as much at the store.

Beyond saving money, reducing waste is also a good move for humanity. By reusing food that’s about to go bad, we can keep good food out of landfills and reduce the constant strain we put on the planet. Around one third – or 1.3 billion metric tons – of food produced for human consumption is wasted around the world each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Sadly, fruits and vegetables – the very foods that provide the bulk of our nutritional needs – are the most likely to end up in the trash.

While we can’t change global trends, we do have some power over what happens in our own homes. Here are eight ways to reuse, repurpose, or save expiring produce so it doesn’t end up in your local landfill:

#1: Make vegetable soup.

Vegetable soup is a great catch-all for your expiring veggies – and they don’t even need to start wilting all at once. Just keep a large Ziploc bag in your freezer and add to it whenever you’ve got produce that’s about to go bad. That way, you’ll have a great start to your soup when you’re ready.

Each time a vegetable – tomato, carrot, zucchini, onion, etc. – gets to the point where it only has a few days left, take the time to wash it, cut it up, and throw it in your freezer bag. The next time you’re ready to make soup, simply throw your frozen vegetables in with the rest of your garden goodies. Simmer with vegetable stock and/or tomato juice, add your favorite seasonings, and your soup is good to go.

#2: Add bananas or zucchini to bread or muffins.

Save your zucchini and bananas for bread or muffins. You can add either to almost any dessert bread recipe, and you can freeze them beforehand.

When my summer garden went nuts this summer, I made way too much of this simple zucchini bread recipe. I wouldn’t say it’s healthy, but it is oh-so-good. You can add overripe bananas to any banana bread recipe of your choosing, or even add them to a premade banana bread mix from the store.

#3: Make a smoothie.

Smoothies are a great way to use – and hide – your expiring produce. The key, as above, is freezing your produce before it expires, washing it, then cutting it up ahead of time.

Add your favorite fruits and vegetables together in a blender along with some soy milk, almond milk, or yogurt. Mix and add ingredients like honey or frozen fruit until it reaches your ideal flavor and consistency, then suck it down it right away.

Also keep in mind that smoothies offer a wonderful opportunity to trick your kids into eating nutrient-rich vegetables. Throw some kale or spinach into a delicious smoothie and they’ll never know.

#4: Start a compost bin.

Composting is a great way to put your already expired produce to good use. If you can’t consume it, you might as well use it to create vitamin-rich soil for future veggies.

Many people start a simple compost bin using a medium-size trash can, but you can buy compost-specific containers online. Either way, mixing your expired produce with grass clippings, leaves, and other plant material will help break it down into fertilizer you can use in your home garden.

#5: Start juicing.

Juicing is yet another great way to put all your fruits and vegetables to good use. I have an Omega brand masticating juicer, which I mostly use to juice vegetables with some lemons and limes thrown in.

This is yet another way to use produce that can get your kids involved. It’s amazing what kids will drink when you add a tiny bit of fruit for sweetness.

Whenever we have expiring produce and I’m in the mood to juice, I’ll whip up something tasty for the entire family to drink. Most of the time, my juice blends include a mix of green vegetables (kale, bok choy, spinach, dark lettuce, etc.) with carrots and an apple or a lemon. My kids love it, and so do I.

#6: Pickle expiring cucumbers and onions.

This summer, my husband and I pickled a bunch of cucumbers with onions when a rush of our fresh vegetables came due all at once. First, I made “noodles” out of the cucumbers and onions with my vegetable spiralizer. Then, I covered them with a mixture of sugar, vinegar, and spices. It was absolutely delicious, and it helped the veggies stay fresh longer.

There are a ton of different ways to do this, but I used Martha Stewart’s recipe for pickled onions and cucumbers.

#7: Clean and freeze berries and grapes.

Getting your kids to eat fruit is easy, and adults tend to love fresh fruit, too. Unfortunately, produce like apples, grapes, and blueberries can go bad quickly.

Keep an eye on your fresh fruit so you can act before it goes bad. Right before it expires, wash it and freeze it for later. From there, you can add fresh frozen fruit to your smoothies, your morning cereal, or yogurt. My kids will also snack on frozen blueberries and grapes by themselves any time of the year.

#8: Get out your dehydrator.

A basic food dehydrator is a great tool to have if you want to reduce the amount of fresh produce you waste. With a dehydrator, you can make healthy snacks like apple and banana chips.

I tend to use my dehydrator in spurts, and mostly for apple chips. The best part about it is, the only prep you need to do is wash your produce and cut it into even, thin slices. Once you prep your fruits and stack them in your food dehydrator, you just turn it on and you’re done.

To Save Food, Be Proactive

Any one of these strategies can help you reduce waste and make the most of the food you buy. Still, it’s important to be proactive and think ahead if you want to use expiring produce before it goes bad.

If you wait too long to check, you’ll have mushy, rotten produce on your hands. While you can still throw that in the compost pile to get some use out of it, you’ll be better off if you can eat the food you buy.

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.


The post Eight Ways to Use Expiring Produce appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wealth Is Not a Route to Happiness. What Is?

I recently read a great article by Peter Singer on the general topic of effective altruism entitled The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle, which was originally published in New Internationalist. In the article, Singer’s primary focus is on personal happiness and whether helping others is aligned with it. The article contained a key quote that really stood out at me:

“We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfillment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.”

The idea that happiness doesn’t increase with income once you have a certain level of income (and, by many measures, it actually declines) is something I’ve talked about before on The Simple Dollar. A few years back, I wrote about a well known research study by Daniel Kahneman that a family income above about $75,000 per year (adjusted for income, of course) does not bring any additional happiness whatsoever and, in many cases, actually results in a slight decrease in happiness.

The reason is easy: once all of your needs are met and many of your desires are met, you’re at a crossroads. You can begin to chase desires that produce smaller and smaller returns in your life at a cost of putting more and more pressure on your career, which ends up at best producing neutral happiness. Or you can seek out other approaches.

This is a crossroads I’ve found in my own life. Sarah and I worked hard to achieve some level of financial security in our life over the past ten years. We paid off our student loans and our mortgage incredibly quickly and we found ourselves at the point I described above. We could meet all of our needs. We could fulfill a lot of our basic wants.

What’s next after that? Let’s dig in.

Finding Happiness in More

One route forward from this point is to keep pushing to fulfill lesser and lesser wants. We could own things like a constant cycle of new cars and new gadgets. We could go on spectacular trips. We could enjoy a ton of great meals at restaurants. It sounds good, right?

Often, these wants were incredibly expensive and, yes, sometimes we fell into those traps. We would prioritize a really expensive vacation, for example, over a low cost one. We went to Disney World instead of going to a national park. We looked at expensive household items. We spent more on our hobbies, buying things that were very much in the realm of “more and better versions of stuff we already have.”

We realized pretty quickly that in general these things might bring short bursts of joy, but they didn’t really bring anything that was long lasting. Sure, we have memories of our Disney World vacation, but we also have great memories of our summer vacation spent camping in Door County or at Gooseberry Falls, too. Sure, we have a lot of neat things for our hobbies, but I still spend a lot of my actual hobby time reading books from the library or playing some of our favorite board games that we’ve owned for many years or making some sort of complex recipe using tools we’ve had since we were first married.

This isn’t to say that all such expenses aren’t worth it, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Finding Happiness in Less

The other route was to simply preserve what we have and push ourselves toward ever more personal freedom within that space. In other words, we started working for financial independence and early retirement. Our goal wasn’t to keep pushing up our relative lifestyle, but to stick at our current lifestyle and instead stock our retirement savings so heavy that we could walk away from our work much earlier than we might have otherwise.

In other words, we make a concerted effort to lock in our lifestyle at a certain level and keep it there, and when extra income arrives, we use it to preserve that lifestyle rather than expand it.

What that means is that rather than buying a new car every three years (or leasing one), we buy cars and drive them until they’re about to completely wear out. Instead of going on a huge summer vacation and “getaways” every few months, we go on a modest family summer vacation that’s still fun and memorable. Instead of buying everything we could possibly want for our hobbies, we own modest bicycles and (mostly) reasonable collections of hobby items. Instead of having a huge house in the country, we have a modest house on the edge of a small town that provides plenty of room for us and our stuff.

Through the Lens of Vacations

Let me expand on this a little bit using the vacation example above. In 2014, my family went on a summer vacation throughout the Southeast that culminated in five days spent at Disney World. We took my parents along on the trip, as they had never seen the Southeast of the United States at all and this would give us all some great bonding time.

It was an expensive trip, no doubt about it. Our final total bill for the whole trip was several thousand dollars. (Remember, we have three children and were also taking my parents along for the ride, too, and the vacation was fairly long.) We all deeply enjoyed ourselves and had tons of memories.

The next summer, we camped in Door County in Wisconsin at a pretty ordinary campground. We explored a ton of trails, visited lighthouses and forests, and spent some time in Green Bay doing things like visiting the city’s free zoo. On that trip, we all deeply enjoyed ourselves and have tons of memories from that trip.

The difference? The trip to Door County cost several thousand dollars less than the trip to Disney World.

The Door County model is the one we’re adopting for most of our summer vacations going forward. This summer, for instance, we’re going to drive to Yellowstone and camp there, visiting Badlands National Park on the way. We’re using the program that gives every fourth grader in America a national parks pass for their family. The entire trip will be a tiny fraction of the cost of the Disney World trip – I’ve already budgeted for it.

There’s nothing that we deeply want that these types of more modest vacations don’t fulfill. Going on huge elaborate trips would merely fulfill some relatively small wants at a huge price tag.

Through the Lens of Housing

During the early years of our marriage, our big shared dream was to own a giant house in the country with a small barn and plenty of room for our kids to roam and explore. We designed floor plans and talked about the attributes of the land we’d like to buy.

As we had children and our incomes and financial state became more stable, one might expect that we were building toward this goal, but what we came to realize is that the modest home on the edge of a small town that we currently lived in actually met all of our needs and many of our wants quite well.

It has plenty of room for all of us. It’s close enough to a grocery store and a library that I can walk or bike to both of them. We all have friends that live literally a stone’s throw from our house. It has a big basement and garage for ongoing projects and storage.

There’s nothing that we need or deeply want that this house doesn’t fulfill. Buying a big house in the country would merely fulfill some relatively small wants at a huge price tag.

Through the Lens of Hobbies

I have several hobbies that could easily turn into huge expenses if I allowed that to happen. I enjoy home brewing and the cost of home brewing equipment can basically go as high as you want it to until you’re basically building a microbrewery in your garage. I enjoy riding my bicycle around town (both with and without my family), and it would be easy to invest thousands in a bicycle. I enjoy reading books and it would be easy to have an enormous library of books (in fact, I sometimes slip into that trap). I can go on and on like this.

Here’s the thing, though: many of these hobbies eat up only a small sliver of my free time. I don’t have a ton of free time to pursue hobbies and the time I have is pretty precious to me, so I’m selective on how I spend it. If I’m choosing to not spend my free time on a particular hobby in any significant amount, why should I spend my extra money on a particular hobby in any significant amount?

It’s that logic that keeps me from buying an expensive bicycle or turning my garage into a miniaturized microbrewery. The only area where I’m challenged by that logic is with my core hobbies, the ones that eat most of my hobby hours in a week: reading books and playing tabletop games.

In both cases, I do slip up and spend more on those hobbies than I should, but when I actually reflect on them, I realize that even in those hobbies, spending more pretty much always leads to diminishing returns in joy within the hobby paired with less money for other life goals. A new book when I have nothing new to read is a real joy; a new book when I have fifteen unread books at home and I’ve got a few on reserve from the library really doesn’t bring much to the table. A new board game when I’ve played everything on my shelf is amazing; a new board game when I have five on my shelf that are unplayed and a bunch more that I want to play many more times isn’t really all that great.

I’ve learned, over time, that with my core hobbies, I’m better off collecting experiences rather than stuff. I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the games I’ve played and I realize I actually get more joy from adding things to that list than from adding books and games to my collections.

Finding Your Happiness Without Diminishing Returns

One pattern that’s pretty obvious from all of these experiences – and something you’ve probably observed in your own life – is that once you reach a certain point, investing more money in it brings diminishing returns in terms of happiness. Even if I had all of the money in the world, I’m going to get far more joy for my dollar out of a book if I have nothing else to read than if I have a bunch of unread books on my bookshelf, so it makes sense to read those unread books first before buying a new one. I’m going to get far more joy for my dollar out of a modest vacation (like camping in a national park and making my own meals over a campfire) than an elaborate one (like, say, going to Disney World or going to London).

That’s not to say that the more expensive options aren’t going to bring me more total joy from the experience. They probably will, honestly. The difference is that once I creep above a base level of spending, the joy I get out of it doesn’t increase at the same rate; it slows down.

If I can spend $1,000 on a family summer vacation and get 75% of the enjoyment that I would out of a summer vacation that I spent $10,000 on, then the $1,000 seems like a better option. If I can spend $50 a month on a hobby and get 75% of the joy that I would get compared to spending $500 a month on a hobby, then that $50 seems like a better option.

Furthermore, the more you spend on something, the greater the financial impact on the rest of your life. Whenever you spend more money, you have to either cut back in other areas, sink into debt, or push yourself to earn more money. Those are really the only three options out there that don’t rely on some kind of outside luck.

To me, that kind of financial pushback is a negative, one that eats up some of the diminishing returns. I might enjoy that trip to France more than that trip to Yellowstone, but that enjoyment isn’t five times as much, and when I go to France I do have this vague financial worry in my mind that doesn’t exist with the trip to Yellowstone. That financial concern further erodes any “joy advantage” that the more expensive option has.

I’ve actually talked about this very concept of diminishing returns of joy and fulfillment before. I like to use the term that Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin use for the concept – the “fulfillment curve.” In an earlier article, I quoted their book Your Money or Your Life on the subject:

“One of the deep problems of consumerism is that the average American tends toward buying more. They would rather have more stuff that, per item, they have less time to enjoy than less stuff that, per item, they have more time to enjoy.

This is connected directly with the clutter problem, also discussed here. This tendency to buy extra luxury items gradually fills a home with lots of clutter – unnecessary stuff that just sits there taking up space when the money invested could be used to help build a more fulfilling life.”

So, what is that “more fulfilling life”?

Addressing “Emptiness and Lack of Fulfillment”

Let’s go back to that quote from Peter Singer that started this article:

“We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfillment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.”

So far, we’ve clearly covered that consumption above a certain point brings rapidly diminishing returns in terms of joy and happiness, possibly even being completely counteracted (or more) by the relative cost of that more expensive option. Yet, in so many ways, our culture encourages us to chase that sense of “more and better.” I’ve certainly fallen prey to it at times. It’s easy to sometimes have a sense that buying that “better” thing or going for that “better” experience will bring a deep joy that I don’t currently have. Time and time again, it really doesn’t do that at all; sure, it might happen in the short term, but it rarely lasts, and it very rarely happens in the long term with enough quality to make up for that larger cost.

The key, then, is to find sources of lasting happiness and fulfillment that don’t involve buying more and “better” experiences and things.

I don’t have some magic recipe for this. I can tell you what makes me happy and brings me fulfillment – spending time with my family, learning new things, challenging my mind, exploring nature, and so on – but that doesn’t tell you what makes you happy and brings you fulfillment. It is something you have to find for yourself. All I can really do is tell you how I found those things in my own life.

One big thing that has always helped me is reflecting on and writing down my thoughts each day. I make sure to write down the best things that happened that day, which means I have to think back through my day and look at what really brought me joy. When did I feel happiest that I clearly remember?

The funny thing is, when I reflect at the end of the day, I usually don’t remember the burst of temporary joy I get from buying something or receiving something in the mail. What I remember is something like laughing with my oldest son while playing a game with him, or that feeling I had when I realized I had been lost in working on a task and when I became aware of how much time had passed, I felt great and had produced a ton of good work.

Each week or so, I like to go back through those things and see which ones continued to stick with me. Again, I find some very common patterns in the things that brought me joy that continues to resonate. They tend to involve my family. They tend to involve learning and mentally challenging myself. They often tend to involve nature. They often tend to involve achieving or completing something that I’ve invested my time and energy into. Again, those are things that resonate with me, not necessarily with you, but you’ll discover what things resonate with you by doing this regularly.

By doing that over a long period of time – I’ve literally been doing this for years on a nearly daily basis and weekly basis – you can start to see some patterns in terms of what makes you happy. When you start to see those patterns in terms of what brings you lasting, memorable happiness, you can shape your life to include more of those things and less of other things.

The thing is, literally every person I’ve ever talked to who has done something like this has discovered that the things that brought them lasting joy rarely had much cost involved at all. Sure, they sometimes found lasting joy in things that were expensive, but they just as often found it in something that was free.

Why Be Frugal or Earn More, Then?

If the “secret to happiness” isn’t found through money, then what’s the purpose of trying to earn more money or to be frugal? If you earn enough to meet your needs and a few wants and you find joy in the life you already have, why be frugal? Why earn more?

I have two answers for that: security and opportunity. When you bring in more money without expanding your spending, you add both security and opportunity to your life.

You enhance the security of the life you’ve built by having money on hand to handle life’s unexpected events and emergencies. Bad events are less likely to knock your life for a loop. If you earn more than what you need to spend to be consistently happy, then you can use that extra money to protect yourself against things like a job loss or an illness or a car breakdown, things that would disrupt that happiness.

Once you have good security, having more money on hand increases opportunity. It leads to things like the possibility of retiring early or of changing careers without having an abrupt change in your lifestyle. You can try something new with your whole life for a while without worrying so much about making ends meet and whether you can financially do it. If you’re already in a career you’re pretty happy with, you can push toward retiring early, which can either let you truly retire and pursue other things without a financial objective, or make career choices that aren’t financially wise but are more fulfilling to you (like, for instance, leaving your stable engineering job to jump into a truly exciting startup, or getting out of your current job to avoid the world’s worst boss).

Both security and opportunity bring happiness. Security brings happiness when something unexpected happens; knowing that this job loss won’t kill your lifestyle for years is an enormous relief compared to the alternative. Opportunity brings bundles of happiness because you feel much more in control of your own destiny.

Final Thought

If there’s one take-home message in this article, it’s this: spending more money won’t bring more happiness. The things that bring happiness are probably already in your life or already within your power to grasp. If you’re not sure what those things are, spend some time discovering them, and when you do know, fill your life with those things. Earning more money and being more frugal is still useful, though, because it increases the security of that life and the opportunities available to you, giving you more control than you might otherwise have.

I don’t know what your path to happiness looks like, but I hope that you can discover it and that when you do find it, you let it lead you to a great life.

The post Wealth Is Not a Route to Happiness. What Is? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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