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Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking and Nature Walking at Minimal Cost

About two years ago, I wrote a pretty well received article on how to get started with eight great frugal hobbies. I had a lot of fun writing the article because it gave me a chance to talk about some of my own hobbies and how someone might get started in them at minimal cost.

Over the ensuing two years, I’ve seen occasional follow-up questions from readers that (I think) were inspired by this article. People asked deeper questions about the various hobbies involved and what they could do to really dig into those hobbies without investing a lot of money up front.

My belief about hobby spending is this: your spending should be budgeted and should roughly reflect your time invested. If half of your hobby time in a given month is spent on a particular hobby, then it’s reasonable that half of your hobby budget (roughly) goes toward that hobby going forward. The catch with this, of course, is that if you’re trying out a new hobby, you didn’t spend any time on it the month before so, in theory, you shouldn’t be spending any money on it.

That’s why I find strategies for trying new hobbies for free or for a very low cost to be so useful. They let you dig into what’s enjoyable about a hobby without investing any money and then, once you’ve figured out if this hobby clicks with you or not, you can invest more money into it. You’ll have a better understanding of what you enjoy, what you want to do, and what you need to do it.

Let’s start by looking at my favorite fair-weather hobby – hiking and nature walking. I love walking on trails and exploring nature. I love going off trail in appropriate areas. I love going on day hikes and even multi-day hikes (though that’s pretty hard with young kids and I haven’t done such a thing in many years).

I love being in nature. I love the calmness of it. I love the beautiful views and the fresh air. I love the feeling of gently sore muscles after a long day of hiking. I love how I sleep like a baby after a day in the forest. I love taking lots of pictures of what I discover along the way. I love reaching a far point and getting a completely different view of a natural landmark. I love all of it.

(To be clear, I distinguish between hiking and nature walking by elevation: a hike is essentially a nature walk with an elevation change, meaning you’re going up hills and down hills, while a nature walk is on relatively flat ground. Both are walks through nature, but hiking implies some additional physical exertion. In general, if I use one term or the other, the statement is true for both unless it strictly involves something you need to do for going up or down hills.)

The best part is that hiking and nature walking can be a very inexpensive hobby to dip your feet into. There’s almost no expense at all if you have some typical items around your house.

Let’s get started and look at what you can do to dabble in this hobby.

What You Need

First of all, let’s look at what you need to actually get started and dip your toes in the water. It’s very likely you have all of this stuff around your house.

A backpack You’ll want a backpack for any hike or nature walk that lasts longer than a mile or so, or at least someone on your walk should have a bag (if they don’t mind carrying a couple of things for you).

A water bottle A filled water bottle should go along with you on any trip. Fill it before you leave the house or at a water fountain before you start. I recommend using any old reusable one that you have in your cupboards.

First aid supplies A simple first aid kit is useful to have on a hike in case you cut yourself or have another minor injury. This is definitely a “better safe than sorry” item.

A small snack You may get hungry on the hike. Have a small snack along, just in case. Your first few walks or hikes shouldn’t be epic journeys so there’s no need to bring along a ton of food.

Comfortable shoes that you won’t mind getting a little dirty Again, your first few nature walks and hikes shouldn’t be anywhere that would cause you to get filthy, but you may get some dust on them or a bit of mud on the bottom of your shoes.

Sturdy clothing with long pants that you won’t mind getting a little dirty I generally recommend wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a hat when walking in the woods as it minimizes tick potential. If you shortcut on any of those, a short sleeve shirt is probably where you’ll do it. I’d be hesitant to go on any significant hike or walk without a hat and long pants, though. Just make sure the clothing is sturdy and won’t rip or something if you were to slip.

A cell phone It’s a good idea to have a cell phone along in case you run into any kind of difficulty along the way. It can also help with finding your way via GPS.

A printed map A printed map makes for a very good backup for GPS in case your device’s battery runs dead. You can usually pick up a printed map of the park which highlights your trail from the park office or at the trailhead.

A camera (optional) If you happen to have a camera, you should definitely bring it along. There are often many things well worth taking pictures of when you’re out in the woods.

Finding a Good First Nature Walk or Hike

Your first consideration when dipping your toes into hiking or nature walking is to find a place to walk or hike. There are several things to consider when doing this.

First, look for county or state parks near you. In general – though this is not perfectly true in all localities – you can access county and state parks without paying an admission fee and they tend to be reasonably well maintained with clearly marked trails, which makes them perfect for your first hikes and nature walks. They were also often built in areas with very nice vistas, so you’ll get some nice views as well. National parks tend to be very well maintained and have amazing views, but they also have an entrance fee, so hold off on a national park.

A great place to start the search is Discover the Forest, which is a database of parks and nature preserves that you will definitely want to use in your search. Look for ones close to you, ideally well within an hour. Where I live, there are two wonderful state parks within thirty minutes and quite a few more if I spread that radius to an hour, so I feel very lucky in terms of the hiking options around me.

Make a list of the parks listed on that site that are within an hour or so of you, and then check each of them out and see what they have on offer. Do they have a lot of trails of varying difficulty? Is there a map available on their website? Does it look like it might offer interesting terrain and natural features?

Pick out a park from that list and plan a weekend day to visit it. Identify one of those parks that sounds the most exciting to you and make plans to spend at least part of a day there. I recommend using the park’s website to select a trail or two that looks interesting to you. I would stick with hikes or walks that feature an easy difficulty and a relatively short distance that you’re sure isn’t beyond your fitness level. DO NOT overdo your first walk. The last thing you want to do is go out there and try something that’s above your skill level. Remember, the more advanced trails are there to provide a challenge to people who have done this for years. Be patient – if this hobby clicks with you, you’ll get there.

Make sure the weather is good. While I don’t mind hiking on a mildly rainy day, it’s generally not a good idea to do so if this is your first time out there hiking or trail walking. Watch the weather and if there’s a good chance of rain, postpone the trip. It’s generally not worth your while to go out there in a rainstorm and feel drenched and miserable unless you know what you’re getting into, you know what optimal conditions are actually like, and you’re expecting it. Avoid bad weather until you’re more experienced.

On that day, I recommend packing up a picnic lunch, getting the other gear mentioned above, and heading out to that park. Again, to this point, you shouldn’t have spent anything on this beyond just using things you already have, other than maybe a bit of gas to get to the park.

Once you’re there, stop by the ranger station to see if they have any preprinted maps or other materials. It’s a good idea to do this just to grab a map and see if there are any notifications of special events or trail closings or guided walks or other things going on at the park that day.

Park close to the start of the trail you selected. This enables you to return to your car conveniently if you get tired on the walk or need to leave quickly for whatever reason. This is a pretty obvious thing, but I’ve been to our local state park and witnessed people parking multiple miles from where they intended to hike with little kids in tow so I know that sometimes such sense is lacking. (More on children in a bit.)

Walk! That’s what you’re here for! Head off down the trail and see what you find. Go at a pace that’s comfortable for you – don’t worry if people pass you or if you pass others. Don’t hesitate to stop and look at things that are interesting. Take lots of pictures, but also give yourself time to really appreciate the moment.

You’ll find that many trails, especially in local and state and national parks, are centered around a destination vista, like a waterfall or the top of a hill or an enormous redwood tree. That destination is usually one of the highlights of the walk or hike, but not the only highlight. Look for things that you appreciate, even if no one else seems to be interested in that thing.

My favorite part of trail walking or hiking is the sound. I love the sound of rushing water, of birds chirping, of insects chattering, even of other families talking to each other. The sights are beautiful, but the sound really brings things to life for me, so I encourage you to make an effort to appreciate the sounds around you.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, don’t overdo it. Don’t take on a trail that’s beyond what you think you can handle and if you’re concerned at all about overdoing it, turn back. One of the worst things you can do when you’re on a walk like this is to overdo it and find yourself returning to the car in misery, out of breath, sore, and so on. Different people have different levels of fitness and you shouldn’t expect to be a park ranger if you’ve never been on a hike or nature walk for the last ten years (if ever). Take it easy and if you’re trying to estimate what you can handle, estimate low. You are far better off leaving a trail and wanting to do more to do than leaving a trail feeling miserable. A feeling of misery is negative feedback which will discourage you from ever trying it again.

Explore the park, eat lunch, try another easy walk or hike… the possibilities are endless! If you’re already in a state or local park, spend some time exploring it. Find some of the best features of the park and check them out. Eat the lunch you packed (if you brought one along) at a picnic area. If you feel up for it, identify another short hike or walk and do that one, too – and if you don’t feel up for it, that’s okay, too. Hiking and nature walking offers a lot of freedom and you can really make what you want out of it.

Next Steps

So, let’s say you’ve done this a few times and you’ve really enjoyed it. You’ve walked several easy hikes and nature walks in multiple parks and you can see yourself really getting into this. How do you slowly start ramping things up without compounding the costs?

Here are some of the things I recommend, depending on what exactly you enjoy about it.

Slowly start trying out more difficult walks and hikes, both in terms of length and terrain challenge. Harder trails usually mean longer distances, more uphill portions, and even some terrain challenges. If you slowly increase your difficulty, you’ll eventually start to bump into trails that challenge you quite a bit and leave you feeling overwhelmed when you’re done. That’s okay – that’s sometimes part of the experience. Don’t let it leave a bad taste in your mouth. Instead, back off and do less challenging trails for a bit. I generally find longer low-difficulty trails to be less problematic than shorter high-difficulty trails if you’re trying to decide what to do next. If you’ve done a two mile low difficulty trail, I’d suggest that a three mile low difficulty trail will be easier for you than a one mile medium difficulty trail, so I’d try them in that order.

Invest in good shoes specifically for hiking. This is absolutely the first thing I would actually buy if hiking starts to become a regular hobby. Good, comfortable shoes that provide excellent traction on trails and in the forest are the best thing that a person who enjoys hikes and nature walks can own. Spend your time shopping for these. Don’t be afraid to go to an outdoor store and try some on just to get a sense of what you like and what fits you before buying. I have been very happy with a pair of Keen Targhee II hiking shoes and would suggest them as a very comfortable starter pair, though you can sometimes find a better price if you carefully shop around and are patient.

Check out some field guides from the library. Field guides are a great way to enhance your appreciation of the natural environments in which you’ll find yourself when hiking. They can help you identify the trees, the birds, the rocks, other types of plant growth, and even the mushrooms you discover when hiking. If you’re interested in this, start at your local library, check out some of their various trail guides, and see how they click with you. Take one with you on a walk and try to identify trees or plants or rocks or wildlife or fungi and see if it’s something that clicks with you or if a different guide might click better. A good field guide that you’re excited to take into the woods with you is a worthwhile purchase, but find one that clicks with you first. I highly recommend the field guides from the National Audubon Society, for starters. I would seriously love to own all of these someday.

Make it social. If you have any friends that might enjoy this type of hobby, encourage them to go with you. Share this guide with them, then pick out a park with a great easy trail or two to go on. Remember, the goal isn’t to pick something that’s new and challenging and exciting for you, but to pick one that you’ll both enjoy. Keep in mind the trails you enjoyed a lot when you first started and revisit one of those with some friends. If you make the introduction friendly and fun, you may cultivate a trail buddy for yourself!

Plan a vacation in a national park. Yosemite. Yellowstone. Shenandoah. Acadia. Denali. I am firmly convinced that the national parks of the United States offer some of the best hiking and trail walking and natural views that can be found in our entire world (let’s be clear, I didn’t say all of the best, but some; I’d be shocked if there is anyone who enjoys the outdoors in this world who wouldn’t enjoy some of the best that our National Park Service has to offer).

Plan your next vacation around a national park. You can stay in a cabin if the idea of camping doesn’t seem enjoyable for you, or you can dive in and camp there.

Fill each day with lots of trail walks and hikes. Visit tons of park offices and learn more about the park itself. Fill yourself up with some of the most beautiful things to see that our world has to offer.

Get Started ASAP!

The best part about a hobby like this is that you can get started for nothing at all. Just visit Discover the Forest and find some interesting parks near you and then pick an easy trail or two at the park of your choice. Put on your most comfortable shoes and clothes and head out to that park for a few hours. It’s that simple to get started and you might just find a whole new world of enjoyment for yourself.

Good luck, and see you on the trails!

The post A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking and Nature Walking at Minimal Cost appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

How Cognitive Loading Undermines Your Good Financial Decisions

One of the earliest posts on The Simple Dollar was centered around a trip to the grocery store that I took with my then-one year old son. The focus of the post was on comparing prices on various items and using the actual cost per serving to decide what to buy, as well as making sure you were actually looking at all the options. Here, take a look.

When I look at that post, other than being struck by the fact that my child actually used to be that little, I’m reminded of a concept called cognitive loading.

Several times in the past, I’ve discussed the idea of decision fatigue on The Simple Dollar. For those new to the concept, decision fatigue refers to the idea that people tend to make worse decisions after having made a lot of decisions.

This is why it makes good financial sense to make your financial decisions earlier in the day rather than later. If you’re going shopping, do it earlier. If you’re prone to online impulse buying, stay off of ecommerce sites in the evening. It makes sense, right?

Cognitive loading is a very similar concept. Cognitive loading simply means that the more things you have to focus on at a given time, the worse your overall decisions are going to be regarding each of those things. This is why it’s often considered a really good idea to use to-do lists, because if you instead try to keep the tasks you need to accomplish in your head, you’re adding to your cognitive load and thus you’re splitting your focus away from the task at hand and not doing it quite as well. (Plus, you’re likely adding to your decision fatigue, because you’re loading yourself up with little decisions about what to pay attention to.)

So, let’s jump back to my trip to the grocery store with my one year old.

It may seem like I’m focused on one thing in that picture – shopping for groceries – but the truth is that I actually had three major things I was focusing on during that trip, and my attention was jumping back and forth between them. I was focusing on groceries, obviously, but I was also focusing on my one year old and I was also focusing on taking lots of pictures and deciding what to write about for that article.

In short, during that grocery shopping trip, I was under a fairly high cognitive load.

You can actually see the result of that cognitive load right there in that article. I ended up handing a package of goldfish crackers to my son without even really looking to see if it was the best buy or considering whether we even wanted to buy him crackers. Because I was switching back and forth between three things I was thinking about, I was under a higher than normal cognitive load and it caused me to make a suboptimal decision.

What would I have done normally without that cognitive load? For one, I wouldn’t have been shopping with my son, so I would have never had any reason to impulsively consider buying goldfish crackers. If they did happen to be on my list, I would have stopped and compared brands and sizes and likely bought a large container of store brand goldfish crackers, which would have cost about half as much per cracker.

So, without that cognitive load, I would have either skipped that purchase entirely or else spent half as much on it.

Let’s step back and look at a more general definition of cognitive load: In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. In other words, the more things you have to keep in your working memory at once, the more taxing it is and the more focus you have to apply to that.

When you’re in the grocery store with a list in your hand, no children to watch, and no article to worry about, your cognitive load is low. You have very little that you need to keep in your working memory.

Add a child to that, and you have to remember to keep track of your child. Where is your child? What are they doing? You’ve got to remember to pay attention to that child very frequently!

Add more demands to that, like the need to remember to keep working on an article, or the need to remember additional items that aren’t on your list, and more and more of your focus is devoted to maintaining a fairly complex state in your working memory. That means less and less of your focus is applied to actual grocery shopping.

What happens then? You’re prone to make progressively worse buying decisions in the store. You’re more prone to marketing techniques, from in-store advertising to how products are arranged on the shelves. You’re more prone to have to backtrack repeatedly during your shopping trip. You’re more prone to throwing unplanned things in the cart. All of those things cost you money and time.

These things don’t just happen at the grocery store. They happen at work, pulling your focus away from the task at hand and reducing the quality of your output. They happen when you’re paying bills or making an investment decision. They happen all the time in modern life.

You try to keep several thoughts in working memory at once so often that you often don’t even realize how much it’s affecting your ability to focus, and a reduced ability to focus means worse decisions.

How do you fight that? Here are four very effective simple strategies I’ve learned to utilize over the years.

Shop alone, or only with people who are focused on a frugal shopping trip. I try as hard as humanly possible to not take my children to the grocery store with me unless the intent is to buy a very small number of items and to use the experience as a teaching tool. If I’m there just to shop for groceries or for other things, I prefer to shop alone or to shop with Sarah when we’re both on focus with the task.

Why? Other people are a distraction. Children are definitely a cognitive load, as you have to keep track of them, but other adults can be, too. Minimize those distractions.

Use lists whenever possible. One of the biggest cognitive loads that people burden themselves with when shopping is trying to remember the stuff they need to buy in their head rather than writing it down on a piece of paper. If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store trying to remember seven things you need to buy and then wandering through the aisles only finding four or five of them but winding up with six other things in your basket or cart, you’ve seen the dangers of cognitive loading at work.

Make a grocery list before you go. Think it through and make sure everything you really need is on that list before you ever leave. That way, you can fully trust that list and simply follow it, reducing your cognitive load and enabling you to focus more on each purchasing decision, which means that you’re more likely to end up with the best bargain for each product in your cart and less likely to wind up with unplanned items in your cart, both of which will save you money.

Keep a pocket notebook or a smartphone note taking app with you at all times, jot down things in it, and review it a couple of times a day. Sometimes, life is going to throw tasks at you that you’re going to need to remember later. Sometimes, pieces of information are going to pop up that you’re going to want to recall later. Simply trying to hold them in your memory for the time being introduces cognitive load in everything you do until you take action on that item.

This is why a pocket notebook or a note-taking app is so handy. Just pull out that notebook and jot down whatever it is that came to mind and then let it drop from your mind. Just make it a habit to review that notebook at least once a day, if not more often, and then you can completely trust it as an extension of your memory, reducing your cognitive load and enabling you to focus on your decisions.

Handle financial decisions in a calm and non-distracting environment. If you’re going to be doing things like filing taxes or studying investment options or making a budget or reading through a bill, do it in an environment with few distractions and with a notepad on the table in front of you to jot down notes as you go. You want the fewest possible mental distractions or things on your mind when making important decisions like this, so make an effort to put yourself in a place with almost no distractions or things to remember so you can really focus on the task.

Reducing your cognitive load whenever you’re making a spending decision is a great way to improve all of your financial choices, and when you do that, you’re going to gradually improve your overall financial state. Take charge of your financial load and you’ll find that everything simply clicks into place much better than before! Good luck!

The post How Cognitive Loading Undermines Your Good Financial Decisions appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The ‘One Bag Challenge’: What I Learned by Living Out of a Single Duffel Bag

A few months ago, I spent some time reading about people who are essentially “digital nomads,” meaning that they live their lives with a very small number of possessions and essentially work anywhere they happen to be. I started down this rabbit hole by reading this article by James Altucher about minimalism, which started with this:

“I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.”

Essentially, Altucher lives out of a duffel bag and a backpack. They contain all of his worldly possessions and he moves from location to location quite easily. When he wants to “move,” he just picks up his stuff and goes.

Reading about this reminded me of a college professor I once knew who slept on a futon in his office and showered at the rec center at the university. He lived entirely out of his car, which was a tiny efficiency model. I remember him telling me that he could be ready to permanently go anywhere in the world in about five minutes.

Now, why would a person do this? There are a number of obvious disadvantages here, including a lack of access to many things that a person might need or want, a lack of a place to really call home, and a lack of the comforts of everyday life that we enjoy in our homes. The biggest disadvantage, in my eyes, is the lack of a place to prepare meals. Of course, some of those things can be mitigated by living in a furnished apartment, but that often ends up with you having possessions.

On the flip side, there are a number of pretty big advantages, too. For one, the time spent on shopping is tiny and the amount of time spent on cleaning house is basically zero. You can spend that time doing other things. For another, if you only have space in your bag and backpack for the relatively small number of items you can fit in there, you’re not going to be spending your money on a lot of stuff.

This whole concept intrigued me, so I decided to spend most of a month recently living out this kind of arrangement in the closest possible way that I could. I knew I was taking a trip to Denver during the month, so I decided at the start of the month to pack for the trip and then try living out of a single duffel bag and my backpack for the whole month, consciously avoiding using anything else (other than food prep items in our kitchen to make family meals). If I used things around the house, I made sure that they were things that I could have purchased elsewhere as a “service,” like doing laundry, which I could have done at a laundromat. I called it the “one bag challenge,” and it turned out to be very insightful in terms of my finances, my possessions, the money I spend on possessions, my home environment, and so on.

First, let’s really spell out what I tried to do.

‘The One Bag Challenge,’ In Detail

After being inspired by reading about “digital nomads” and vagabonding, I became really interested in the idea of what it would be like to live entirely out of one bag for a while and I basically did it for an entire month. The purpose was to evaluate my own connections to spending money on possessions, how living like that might alter one’s finances, and whether shifting to a much more minimalist lifestyle could actually work.

I am interested in things like frugality, minimalism, the tiny house movement, vagabonding, and so on, and though I am not on board to committing to such a thing with a family of five, I am interested in seeing what principles from those movements I could really apply to myself.

So, here were the ground rules I set for myself.

I put all of my essential possessions into a duffel bag and a backpack. I used the same ones I always use – a North Face Surge 2 backpack that serves as my “portable office” and a Best American Duffel bag. The intent with choosing what went into those bags was to provide everything I would need and many of the things I would want in two bags.

In large part, the duffel bag was my “living” stuff. It contained a few sets of clothes – five t-shirts, six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, two pairs of blue jeans, one dress shirt, and one pair of dress slacks. That was in addition to the t-shirt, underwear, socks, and jeans I was already wearing. I packed these tightly.

I also had a small bag of toiletries in there with a razor, some replacement blades, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a small bottle of body wash, a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner, some floss, and a tiny bottle of aftershave.

I also had a spare pair of shoes in there in an enclosed bag. I describe them as “indoor” shoes and “outdoor” shoes, as one pair is definitely what I would wear indoors and at meetings and when doing things in a city environment, while the other pair is what I would wear in parks and on hikes and such.

I also kept a small bag with some snacks in there – granola bars and the like. I also kept some important documents in a small side pouch – insurance cards and the like. Although I have digital copies of these things, I still felt better having the actual documents with me.

My “backpack” was my work and entertainment bag. It had my laptop, my Kindle, a tablet computer, a bunch of chargers, my journal and a backup journal, several pens of various kinds and some backup ink, a water bottle, an emergency change of clothes, and a few other things.

I made sure to leave some extra space in both bags at the start for the purposes of needing to add more things during the month or to have space for transporting things (like a gift for my kids, for example).

I made a few exceptions for things I already had pre-planned (like some activities I already had scheduled that involved other possessions I owned), but I made it my goal to stick to this. If I needed clothes, they came out of the bag. If clothes were dirty, they went into a laundry bag that I kept in there. If I wanted entertainment, it came out of my backpack. If I wanted a snack, it came out of my backpack.

Whenever I had to use anything not in those bags, I kept track of it in my journal, because this was obviously something I journaled about extensively.

So, how did I do? Let’s walk through some of the lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: It is far easier to do this if you have living space of some kind.

Whether you find yourself staying in a hostel or staying with friends or even renting furnished apartments, everything becomes far easier if you have ready access to a place to bathe and a place to sleep without needing to own your own bedding and shelter.

I found myself thinking about this issue a lot during the early parts of the month. I take a shower every day, which requires, well, a shower. I eat a meal at home at least twice a day, which requires a kitchen and at least some kitchen implements. Those two things become much more difficult because you can’t really make them portable. They either force you to have some kind of living quarters or else jump through additional hoops.

For showering, you could buy a day pass at a gym or use a truck stop or a hostel. Those would all provide access to a shower, but they’ll each come with an additional cost and the hassle of getting there. For making your own food, you’re not really doing that unless it’s very simple stuff like assembling a two ingredient sandwich. Most likely, you’re buying prepackaged foods from stores. In a furnished apartment, you can cook for yourself, which is a nice money-saving advantage.

Again, you can avoid these challenges by simply living most of the time in a small apartment of some sort and relying on friends when you travel, but this experiment made me realize how we rely on lots of things in our home without really thinking about it.

Lesson #2: At the same time, this approach to life makes a very tiny apartment in a city much more reasonable.

If I had a very tiny apartment with basically enough space for a bed and access to a shower and a bit of kitchen space, I really think I could pull this off and live very cheaply. What I learned very quickly is that aside from the big things listed above, it actually wasn’t too hard to live out of those bags (with a couple of exceptions, noted below).

If I were suddenly single again, I would be very tempted to move to a large city, find a tiny apartment with a shower and maybe a small kitchen somewhere near a stop on the metro, and then move there. I’m not even sure I would own a car. I’d just spend my day exploring on foot, work in libraries and coffee shops, go back to the mini-apartment just to shower and sleep, and use the metro for everything. I’d probably maintain a mailbox somewhere near my hometown and check it once every month or so while visiting family, which I would do with a super cheap efficiency rental.

It seems like a very free life. Of course, there’s a big reason I’m not doing this…

Lesson #3: ‘One bag’ becomes more of a challenge with children.

When I look at my life, the big reason that I can’t do this is because of my children. I think Sarah would be willing to give this kind of life a long, serious attempt if we didn’t have children, but we do have children and that restricts us.

Children have some additional requirements that make such a life much more difficult. They require education, which means that we’d have to homeschool them or else move them from school to school constantly. I am not convinced that we – or anyone else – could do a good job of providing a well-rounded education for them, even given Sarah’s training as an educator.

They also require at least some steady socializing opportunities to learn how to form relationships with their peers. This doesn’t mean that moving is ever bad, but that a constant pattern of moving makes it difficult for them to learn how to form lasting social relationships. This is a key part of raising a child so that they understand the challenges of relationships with their peers beyond the kids they happen to see on the playground that day.

They also require space. They need a place to sleep and a place to relax. While it’s easy for one person to find such places, it becomes trickier with a family of five as more space is simply needed, even with few possessions. It also means some serious work juggling if both parents have some form of employment.

These are all challenges that can be overcome, but they’re challenges that are solved by simply having a stable family home with your children enrolled in school (or part of a homeschooling community).

What I concluded from this was that even if we all committed to a “one bag lifestyle,” that would still mean five bags and five places to rest our head and five places to take showers and likely a place to prepare family meals and a place to have a stable community of peers, at least for a while. That quickly points us to some kind of home, though it could easily be smaller than our current home.

Lesson #4: My hobbies would need a lot of re-thinking.

During this month, I came to realize that many of the hobbies I currently have require a lot of stuff and take up a lot of space. I learned very quickly that my access to several of my hobbies would be heavily altered or completely eliminated. So, let’s walk through several of my hobbies to see what that looks like.

Reading books is probably my biggest hobby and probably the one least changed by the transition. I have plenty of room in my bag for my Kindle and space for a library book or two at all times and I don’t really need much more than that. I spend about an hour a day reading books (on average), so it’s a significant part of my life that I don’t want to give up. My physical book collection would have to be sold off.

Journaling isn’t even so much a hobby but “something I do to help me deal with life,” and it also wasn’t changed very much. I keep some pens and my journal in my backpack at all times, along with a spare notepad for writing notes. When I fill up a journal, I make a digital archive of it. I do keep my old journals, but I don’t strictly have to do this – I could easily discard the old ones since I have a digital archive of them.

Hiking mostly just requires good shoes (which I noted above that I’m carrying in an appropriate bag), appropriate clothes, and a backpack with a few emergency supplies in it. I have all of that stuff. So this one’s easy, too.

After that… things get trickier.

Board games take up a lot of space. There’s no two ways about it. I don’t have space to keep more than one or two full sized board games in my bag and I’m not even sure I want to do that because of the damage that would eventually occur to the games themselves. My board game collection would have to be eliminated, with me just keeping a few small games that fit into my larger bag, ones with sturdy pieces. I actually started making a list of these during the month and wound up deciding on a few of them that I would keep in there (Tak, Innovation, and Pyramid Arcade (basically just the pyramids in a bag) are definite). A few others would be bought in digital form. Many, however, would simply be sold. I’d be able to keep up with this hobby by going to community game nights and simply playing what I have and then playing the games of others.

Tabletop role playing games are fairly easy. I do have a large collection of hardcover RPG books, but they actually translate really well to a tablet computer and most of them are easily available on there. I’d need to have a bag of dice along with me, but almost everything else could be borrowed if I were to play such games.

Fermenting/pickling foods and beverages takes up a ton of space and simply isn’t replicable at all with those constraints. I love making things like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, kombucha, pickled eggs, homemade beer, and so on; there just isn’t a good way to do this in a backpack and duffel bag. This is a hobby I would have to abandon and simply enjoy those foods through friends or through purchasing them.

Cooking is similar in nature. It’s basically impossible to cook using the contents of those bags. You could, of course, visit friends and make meals in their kitchens, or you could rent a furnished apartment or some sort of temporary living quarters and cook there, but it’d be irregular and you’d have to either rely on what friends had on hand or what you buy yourself for just the meal you were preparing. This hobby would go into serious decline.

That basically covers 99% of my hobby time, honestly. Some of my hobbies could stay in place, while others would have to change significantly or be eliminated.

During this month, I found myself reading and walking a lot and basically not participating in my fermented food hobby. I attended some community game nights, but didn’t bring any games myself and just played what others brought. I intentionally cooked meals with minimal equipment. In short, I was able to still enjoy most of my hobbies, but some were eliminated and some changed significantly. I think I would be okay with this.

Lesson #5: There were some huge advantages, too.

While most of the lessons above might seem fairly negative, they really were counterbalanced with some enormous positives.

First, I spent what seemed like very little time doing household chores. There was almost nothing to clean up, ever, at least regarding my own personal things. Everything was in my bag or my backpack, so I actually spent very little time picking stuff up. To do laundry, I just carried my bag to the laundry room, tossed in the clothes, ran a load, and then packed things right back into that bag. Very easy.

Second, the fact that I could just walk out the door to travel was extremely nice. On the day I went to Denver, I literally woke up, showered, picked up two bags that were already packed from normal life the day before, and walked out the door. There was no packing for the trip. There was no making sure I had everything because I already had everything. This would make moving and traveling so easy that most of the resistance to simply going somewhere else for work or for life would become much less of a burden.

Because of that, I felt far more open to spur-of-the-moment adventures. Having a job that’s effectively telecommuting plus having a “one bag” life would make adventures seem much more realistic (without the child factor, discussed above). I can’t tell you the number of times, just in a month, I considered doing things that just weren’t on my plate beforehand, with only parental and spousal commitments holding me back. If I were single, or if I were married and Sarah were on board with these choices, I might have spent the whole month in Denver camping or renting a small furnished apartment or something, because… well, why not? I could just fly to Denver, take the metro to an apartment that I already arranged online, use the metro to get around the city and explore things, do my work wherever there was internet access, and then do the same somewhere else very shortly thereafter. That sounds tremendously exciting, and it’s very realistic with a one-bag commitment.

Third, while this lifestyle does shift costs around, it drastically reduces some of the biggest expenses in life. Yes, you’re going to pay more for things like food – it’s almost impossible to do this without causing your monthly food budget to go up unless you already eat out for most meals. You’re also going to spend more renting things that you might otherwise own or conveniently have, like renting a car or paying for a shower at a truck stop or something like that. Having said that, you’re drastically reducing the amount of money you spend on possessions and on the costs of permanent housing. That money can be invested elsewhere pretty easily.

Lesson #6: I would quickly start to put a very high premium on high-quality sturdy stuff that just works as well as stuff that takes up less space.

I already value things with a long lifespan, but that would increase even more if I were to do this. Almost everything I possessed would be chosen due to how well constructed it is in terms of extending the lifespan I can expect from it.

For example, every single article of clothing in that bag would be made to last and last and last. With my wardrobe being smaller, each item needs to be more reliable than ever and I don’t really want to be in the business of replacing articles of clothing frequently. In fact, what I would ideally do is move to a system where I refresh the whole wardrobe at once, wear it until everything’s really beat up, and then replace all of it at once at a sale of some kind.

As for saving space, I would probably consider moving to just using a tablet for all of my work tasks simply because of how much space it would save.

Applying These Lessons to Normal Life

These lessons are interesting and all, but what can I take from this to improve my everyday life and my financial state?

First, this month taught me that I have way too much stuff and that it makes a lot of sense for me to seriously downsize my possessions. In truth, I use about 1% of my possessions most of the time and maybe another 5% on occasion. Almost all of the rest just sits there taking up space. Why do I own it? Most of the time, I bought it, used it a little, put it into storage, and forgot about it. I had no real reason to buy any of that stuff and I definitely have no reason to keep it at this point. This experiment has pushed me toward having some massive Craigslist sales in the near future.

Second, this month taught me that the biggest benefits of home ownership (beyond as an investment) are tied into raising a family. Almost all of the benefits I see as a homeowner are directly tied to family stability and benefits to our children. Without those benefits, I would be sorely tempted to live a much more “digital nomad” life if i had a career that allowed for extensive telecommuting. However, in terms of what we see as important elements of parenting, having a home with adequate space for all of us to provide stability has an enormously enhanced value compared to living out of one bag.

Third, this month taught me that I spend an unsatisfactory amount of my time buying stuff or thinking about buying stuff or taking care of stuff. This isn’t out of some desire to own a lot of things. It comes from the requirements of being a homeowner, making meals at home, cleaning things up, and so on. The truth is that most of our household time is spent simply because we have so many possessions, and the fewer possessions we have, the less time we need to spend on household tasks, the less money we need for cleaning and household supplies, and the more time (and money) we have for other things we want to pursue in life.

I really encourage you to try out the “one bag challenge.” Make it your goal for a week or two weeks or even a month to live as much as you can out of the contents of one bag or suitcase and one backpack. Try to get all of your clothing, hygiene needs, entertainment, work, and even food out of those bags and just see how it goes for you. You might come to some really interesting conclusions about how you live your “normal” life, conclusions that may change how you spend and save your money.

Good luck!

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The post The ‘One Bag Challenge’: What I Learned by Living Out of a Single Duffel Bag appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

10 Smart Ways to Use Leftover Beans (Smart Staple Strategies #2)

For the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about some smart strategies for using leftover staple foods – things like rice, beans, pasta, and so on. Here’s what you do when you cook a bit too much and don’t know what to do with the rest!

Personally, beans are my number one staple food. I love so many different kinds of foods that utilize beans, from 13 bean soup to bean burritos, from lentil casserole to “chili.” Beans go so well in so many different types of dishes and so many different culinary traditions, and I love so many of them!

Whenever I make beans, I almost always cook them from their dry state, allowing them to cook for a long while in boiling water and then soak in that water until they’re ready to eat. This provides me with a great source of beans for whatever recipe I’m making at the time, but I often find myself with tons of leftover beans.

Naturally, I scoop up those leftover beans into a large container and pop them in the fridge – a bean lover like myself isn’t going to let perfectly good beans go to waste. However, the question then becomes what am I going to do with those beans?

Here are ten things I love to do with leftover beans. Note, of course, that not all of these work perfectly well with all types of beans, but most beans will work reasonably well for most of these uses.

Strategy #1: Freeze extra beans in a small container.

This one is so easy! All I do is measure out an amount of beans equal to a typical can of beans, put them in a small freezer-safe resealable container designed to hold about a pint of food, and pop that container right in the freezer with a little masking tape label reminding me of what it is. Look! I say to myself when I open the freezer door. I have a pint of black beans right there, and there are a couple of pints of pinto beans!

Whenever I need those beans, I’ll just pull them out of the freezer a day or two beforehand and let them thaw in the refrigerator. A single pint-sized container replaces a can of beans in any recipe and they’re usually tastier because I boiled them myself from dry beans at home. If you’re suddenly in a pinch, you can always defrost them in the microwave.

Strategy #2: Make soup.

A bunch of leftover beans screams “make a big pot of soup!” to me whenever I see them. That’s because there are so many ways to utilize beans in soups. You can make a traditional vegetable bean soup, where almost any chopped up vegetable works with a few basic seasonings, some broth, and some salt. You can puree some of the beans and make a very thick and hearty blended bean soup. You can add lots of chili powder and tomatoes and broth to make a great “chili” soup. The possibilities really are endless.

My parents have this annual tradition of making a large pot of soup on New Year’s Day for all of their friends to stop by at their convenience to have a bowl and talk about the new year together. Their soup is just a big collection of white beans, vegetables, and a big ham bone dropped into the soup, where the ham bone is left over from Christmas dinner, many of the vegetables are remnants from the fall garden harvest, and the beans are (usually in part) left over from other meals over the last few months. The soup is gently seasoned, warm, and delicious!

Strategy #3: Make refried beans.

You have leftover beans. Make refried beans! Refried beans work as an ingredient in many things such as burritos and tortilla soups and even as a sandwich topping (seriously, I do this quite often). It’s easy, too – just saute a few onions in a skillet, mash up some cooked beans, and put them right in the skillet along with the onions to cook a little bit. The onion residue on the pan soaks right into the beans, making a delicious paste that can be used in almost infinite ways.

Strategy #4: Make burritos.

If you want to put those refried beans right to use, make some burritos. Load them up with the refried beans you just made, add some whole beans as well, and add whatever toppings you like – cheese, lettuce, salsa, tomatoes, picante sauce, chicken, steak, eggs, whatever. It’s all welcome here!

Beans add a lot of bulk and earthy flavor to burritos and can actually vary the flavor and texture of the burritos quite a bit depending on the type of bean used. Black beans add a certain flavor (I love them with eggs and cheese in a breakfast-style burrito), while lentils and pintos are completely different.

Strategy #5: Mix them with eggs for breakfast.

Speaking of mixing eggs and beans, that’s the foundation of many delicious breakfasts around our house. I’ll often scramble eggs and toss in a bunch of cooked beans just as the eggs are starting to curd up – a bit of salsa on top and some shredded cheese makes for a wonderful hearty breakfast for everyone involved.

The best part? You can easily scoop that bean/egg/cheese scramble right into a tortilla shell and wrap it up tight for a great breakfast the following day! There’s no need to let any of that good stuff go to waste!

I often like to cook some onions and green peppers right in with the eggs and beans. I’ll start by sautéing diced onions and green peppers, then when they’re a bit browned, I’ll add a bit more butter or oil and then cook the scrambled eggs right in that same skillet. It does darken the eggs a bit, but that skillet meal is to die for and leftover beans are a key part of it!

Strategy #6: Make a savory bean casserole.

Almost all beans can be tossed together with other savory vegetables, a little bit of broth, and a handful of shredded cheese as a binder, with a bit of shredded cheese on top to make a very easy and delicious casserole that works as a side or even as the main course for many meals.

My mother-in-law makes a fantastic savory casserole using leftover lentils, leftover brown rice, some broth, and some cheese. Here’s that recipe, if you want it; if you ever find yourself with leftover lentils and leftover rice, this is a great way to use that stuff!

Strategy #7: Make hummus (or ‘hummus’).

Hummus is essentially chickpeas blended with olive oil and spices, and chickpeas are merely a type of bean. The truth is that you can make “hummus” by blending almost any bean with some olive oil and spices.

I like to make a black bean “hummus” by adding some olive oil, a bit of garlic, a tiny bit of onion powder, and a dash of chili powder. All you need is a bunch of leftover black beans for this. Some of the less flavorful beans can be made into a “hummus” with literally whatever flavorings you like to make a savory snack.

Strategy #8: Make a bean dip.

You don’t have to blend all of your beans into oblivion with olive oil to make a great dip, either. Simply mixing beans together with something else to bind them together can make for a great dip.

You can simply layer beans with things like fresh salsa, onions, guacamole, and sour cream to make a great seven-layer dip for tortilla chips. You can mix beans with cream cheese and taco seasoning, layer some cheese on top, and bake until nice and warm to make a great hot dip. You can even just season them well with things like Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, garlic powder, and dry mustard and mix them thoroughly with mayonnaise to make a really interesting savory dip. There are many, many possibilities!

Strategy #9: Make veggie burgers.

One of my favorite things to do with well-cooked leftover beans is to simply form them into patties with a bit of beaten egg as a binder and cook them on the grill. They cook quite well and form very solid patties. Pile the condiments high and you have yourself a delicious sandwich!

You can also mix a lot of things into the bean patty depending on the flavor you want to create. Try putting garlic right in there, or some sauteed onion, or some cayenne pepper, or some feta cheese. You can make a lot of varieties on the old black bean burger!

Strategy #10: Add them to a salad.

If you’re preparing a tossed salad, consider adding some rinsed beans directly to the salad to add some body, texture, and protein to the mix. It can make an ordinary salad seem quite a bit more hardy with just that simple addition and significantly change the flavors and textures, too.

I like adding beans to salads where I’m using a southwest-style dressing with a bit of zip to it. I’ve also seen light-colored beans added to tossed salads with Italian-style dressing as well. In both cases, adding a few extra beans just completely changes the salad’s character.

Next time, we’ll look at some awesome strategies for using extra pasta!

The post 10 Smart Ways to Use Leftover Beans (Smart Staple Strategies #2) appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Five Ways to Save on Your Summer RV Rental

Summertime is perfect for packing up the family and hitting the open road. And whether you want to camp or simply travel in style, renting an RV (recreational vehicle) adds features to a vacation that you just can’t get anywhere else.

Like a portable “tiny house,” most RVs feature ample room for sleeping, full or partial kitchens, and space for games and fun. If you’re going to traverse the country, doing so in an RV is a lot more comfortable than, say, cramming your kids three-deep in the back of your Toyota Corolla.

How Much Does It Cost to Rent an RV?

Before you rush out to rent a RV for your summer trip, however, it’s important to know that comfort comes at a cost. While renting an RV helps you avoid many of the spending pitfalls of traditional vacations (like hotel charges, airfare, and dining out constantly), renting an RV isn’t exactly cheap.

First, you have to pay for the cost of your rental, which can vary dramatically depending on a variety of factors.

When I searched for a 10-night rental out of Indianapolis for late summer dates, a standard RV that sleeps five rang in at $1,000 for 10 nights. A larger RV that sleeps up to seven people was a bit more at $1,100.

Paying $100 per night isn’t bad at all, but you have to remember the extras, too. Not only will you have to pay for gas for a giant vehicle that might be getting less than 10 miles per gallon, but you have to pay for campground space, too. And that can vary dramatically (more on that in a bit).

How to Save Money When You Rent an RV

The bottom line: Renting an RV can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it. If you want to spend a week in a luxury rental at a campground with lots of amenities, you can. But if you want to save money, cheap RV rentals provide an extremely authentic way to see the country and spend less than you would at a resort or staying at hotels along the way.

To find out the best savings strategies for families to use, I spoke to Kevin Broom of GoRVing.com. Here are some of Broom’s best tips for families who want to score a cheap RV rental this summer:

#1: Shop around for the best RV rental deal you can find.

Flexibility is the No. 1 rule of budget travel, and RVing is no different: Renting an RV at off-peak times has its perks. “Typically, the best deals are during the winter months and during the school year,” he says. “But some RV rental companies offer hot deals and one-way rentals to move their inventory around the USA.”

The best way to save on a rental is to shop around among dates that work with your schedule. At GoRving.com, you can also compare RV rental types to search for the right size rental for your family. You can usually get away with paying a lot less for a smaller RV. Larger vehicles that sleep more people tend to cost more.

Compare options until you find the best rental with the lowest price on dates that work for your family, and you’ll be good to go.

#2: Choose your campground carefully.

The price of campground rental space can vary dramatically depending on the locale. Luxury parks with awesome amenities can be a lot of fun, but you’ll pay out the nose to stay there.

The best way to save on rental space is to shop around and plan your trip ahead. If you wing it and go wherever the road takes you, it could very well lead you to a luxury campground where you’ll pay $150+ per night for a Jacuzzi site. Yes, those exist.

State and national parks offer some of the most affordable camping in the country, on the other hand, though it’s smart to book ahead since they can fill up fast. Most states have their own websites set up to direct you to camping opportunities. You can also explore federal campsites on the U.S. National Parks Service website.

#3: Prepare your own meals in your RV.

Cooking your own food instead of dining out at restaurant is a money-saving travel idea that transcends all vacation types. But, with a rental RV, this strategy becomes especially simple. You’re basically living in your car, which is also a small house on wheels. Most rental RVs have either a full or partial kitchen with plenty of room to cook and a refrigerator to keep things cold.

You can make freezer meals ahead of time and cook them on the road. Or, you can stop at the store (park in the baaaaaaaack of the lot!) and buy ingredients as you go.

Eat all your major meals in your RV and pick up snacks for the road, and you’ll save money no matter what.

#4: Bring your own ‘extras.’

Broom says some RV rentals tack on charges for “kits” that help you avoid bringing too many supplies from home. “The RV can be equipped with a kitchen kit (pots, pans, dishes, utensils). The fee varies, but it’s normally about $100 for the rental period,” says Broom. “If you want to add in personal kits (sheets, blankets, pillow, and towels), the fees vary, but are normally about $50 per person.”

Save money and bring your own, he says. RV rentals offer these kits as a convenience, but adding them on isn’t necessary.

#5: Bring your pets along for the ride.

Boarding your pet while you travel can be extremely costly, ringing in at $25 to $50 per day or more in some parts of the country. Whether you check your dog into a pet hotel or hire an in-home dog-sitter from a service like Rover.com, those costs can add up quickly over a longer trip.

This is one reason why renting an RV can be such an affordable option, says Broom. “Sixty-three percent of RVers travel with their pets – dogs, cats, and even birds,” he says.

Instead of boarding your furry family member, bring them along for the ride. Not only is it frugal but, depending on your pet, it could make your trip extra fun.

Final Thoughts

While renting an RV isn’t as cheap as tent camping, it can be a smart alternative for families who want to experience the great outdoors without the hassle of a tent. Not everyone wants to sleep on the ground or forgo luxuries like a microwave while they travel, after all.

With a rental RV, on the other hand, you access the fun side of camping with the comfort of a hotel. And that’s what people like.

Whether you’ll save money over staying in a hotel really depends on the type of trip you choose and how many savings strategies you employ. But no matter what, you and yours will have a boatload of fun.

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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Have you ever rented an RV before? Did it help you save money?

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

20 Gift Ideas for That Frugal Person in Your Life

One of the most popular articles I’ve ever written, at least as judged by the reader feedback I’ve received, is Holiday Gift Ideas for the Frugal People in Your Life, which featured a list of somewhat generalized gift ideas for frugal people that they have to buy gifts for. Obviously, the list wasn’t so much intended for frugal people, but for people who have to buy gifts for frugal people, and my intent was to write it as a frugal person myself.

Here’s what the list included:
+ A slow cooker (with this specific model suggested)
+ Freezer and oven-safe storage containers (with these specific ones suggested)
+ A chef’s knife (with this model and this model suggested)
+ A knife sharpening stone (with this model suggested)
+ A cast iron skillet (with this model suggested)
+ A safety razor and blades (with this model suggested)
+ A rechargeable battery kit (with this model suggested)
+ Bed sheets
+ Quality food and beverage items
+ High quality tools
+ High quality camping items
+ Homemade items

The questions still roll in from that post. Most of the time, the notes are simply requests for more ideas or from people hoping that I’ll evaluate the idea they came up with. After receiving a bunch of these requests over the last year and responding to many of them privately or in reader mailbags, I decided that a follow-up list might be useful.

A few very important caveats:

First, I’m recommending very specific items here because that’s often been requested by readers. Rather than just saying something like “good tools,” they want me to point to a specific item. I encourage you to also use your own creativity and “riff” on a suggestion to put your own twist on it, if you can.

Second, I’m posting this list now because many of the gifts on this list are great gifts for Father’s Day. They’re great gifts for men and women for many such events throughout the year, but I know from my own life experience that many of these types of items are very welcome on Father’s Day rather than a tie or something of that nature.

Third, if you do decide to give one of these gifts, put in the time to make sure that the recipient doesn’t already have it or would like it. Have a conversation with them about a particular area; for example, if you’re looking at getting that person a camping item, ask them for advice about camping and ask what they use. Similarly, make sure the recipient actually likes coffee before getting them an item related to coffee.

Fourth, frugal people generally enjoy consumable items and practical items; the only high-end items that they generally like are ones can actually use to spend less money or to produce something high quality without additional cost. High end items (unless they’re very practical) are usually a poor idea, as are items that a frugal person can buy used with little fuss. Frugal people like practical gifts! That’s really the key thing here.

Fifth, if your frugal recipient is actually asking for something, go with that person’s wishes! Frugal people are practical people and, unless you know them really well, surprises are often troubling. If you find that there’s something that they actually want, listen and get that instead of the items listed here!

Finally, don’t forget the specific items mentioned at the start of this article. They’re very practical gifts; I just happened to mention them in an earlier article first. Consider them “grandfathered in” to this article!

All right, let’s dig in! Here are twenty potential gift ideas for frugal people (keeping the above caveats in mind, of course)!

Instant Pot

This is a great gift for a busy frugal person who struggles to make home cooked meals and often relies on making very simple things. An Instant Pot really opens the door to a lot of other options for cooking at home, as it simultaneously serves as a slow cooker, a small pressure cooker, and a rice cooker and it enables a person to make a lot of meals in one pot that are hard to do even with a normal slow cooker. It’s very convenient for cooking meals while you’re away at work or spending the day doing something else.

I reviewed the Instant Pot a few months ago and concluded that it was a good purchase for someone who didn’t already have a slow cooker, but that the additional features weren’t quite enough to merit buying it to replace a slow cooker. If you know a frugal person who doesn’t have a slow cooker, this is a pretty sweet gift idea.

National Parks pass

Many frugal people enjoy time in nature, as it offers boundless opportunities for exercise and exploration. Many state and local parks are completely free, but some of the most beautiful vistas in America are in national parks, which typically require an admittance fee. For some, that can be a bump in the road that keeps them from utilizing our wonderful national parks.

Get rid of that bump in the road and buy your frugal friend or family member a one-year National Parks pass. This is a great gift to give to anyone who lives within a couple of hours of a national park or will be spending significant time near one in the next year or so. Very few frugal people with a taste for the outdoors will be able to resist checking out a national park if they have a free pass, and a national parks pass will get them into any national park for free for a year.

Field guides

If your frugal friend is really into exploring nature, having a guide to the natural flora and fauna of the area can be really interesting and useful as it will add another dimension to their nature walks or stargazing.

I love sticking field guides in my back pocket or in my backpack whenever I’m going on a day hike or exploring a national park as it can help me identify birds and trees and other elements of the natural world.

An electric kettle

If you know someone who enjoys drinking tea, hot chocolate, and even coffee, a high quality electric kettle that can keep a lot of water hot for a significant period of time without the burner running can be a great choice. Many frugal couples simply use one of these instead of a traditional coffee pot because the hot water inside can be used simultaneously for coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and other hot beverages, or even for things like instant soup.

It’s also a great item to have along when “car camping” at a site with an electrical hookup, so if the frugal person has a family and they camp regularly, an electric kettle can become a part of their camping gear.

Again, this gift only makes sense for frugal folks who regularly drink hot beverages and don’t already have a nice electric kettle.

High-quality food and beverage items customized to their taste

This option was on the earlier list, but I’ve been asked for all kinds of suggestions pertaining to this, so I thought a more detailed follow-up might make sense.

A consumable gift is almost always a good idea for a frugal person. Most of the time, they’ve settled into some “bang for the buck” items that they like and they view expensive consumables as a splurge that they might enjoy but won’t indulge in because the bump in quality isn’t worth the money. If you have a 7/10 food item for $2, why spend $10 for an 8.5/10 or a 9/10? It’s not that they don’t recognize or appreciate the better item, it’s merely that they don’t feel the need to spend that extra money for a relatively small bump in quality.

This is where gift giving comes in, of course. Buying that person the higher-quality selection of a food or beverage that they already like is almost always a welcome gift. I love it when someone buys me a bomber of an unusual craft beer or a bag of really high quality coffee or some expensive cheese – something along those lines that I would never buy for myself, but of a type of food that I love.

Here are some suggestions, depending on the taste of the person involved, that you can easily have delivered. These are items that Sarah or I or other close friends and family members have received as gifts in the past and enjoyed (or sampled while visiting these shops while traveling).

(Note: Subscription boxes are generally a poor idea for frugal folks because they usually contain unwanted stuff that they have to deal with; however, when the items inside are completely consumable and of good quality, they’re often appreciated.)

A cold brew coffee maker

Cold brew coffee is an extremely inexpensive way to make coffee. If you have a cold brew coffee maker and space in your refrigerator, the only thing that’s required is the beans. No filters. No electricity for a coffee pot. Nothing.

All that you really need for making cold brew coffee is a vessel to hold the water and a container that fits inside that vessel to hold the grounds that holds in the grounds but allows water to pass through. You can use a French press for this, for example, or any sort of tea infuser, but ones designed for making cold brew coffee tend to work very well.

A French oven

A French oven is just a fancy name for an enameled cast iron pot. A well made enameled cast iron pot can be used to cook practically anything, as it works on stovetop burners, can be put in the oven, and can be put in the refrigerator or freezer for convenience as needed and is perfectly dishwasher safe. You can make pasta in it, casseroles in it, soups, scrambled eggs… pretty much anything you can think of can be cooked in one. It is a spectacular long-lasting multi-use item for pretty much any kitchen.

The only difference between a Dutch oven and a French oven is the enameled coating and, in fact, many publications use the term Dutch oven as a term to include both enameled and non-enameled cast iron pots with lids.

High-quality socks

This is one of those wonderful simple things that often get overlooked but really make a noticeable difference in quality of life. Good, high quality socks – the kind that are really comfortable, wick away moisture without odor, and survive many, many washings without bearing holes – are the kind of thing that frugal people really appreciate, because such socks are comfortable and address a need for a very long time without replacement.

Keep an eye on the style of sock that they frequently wear (dress socks? athletic ones? casual ones?) and note their foot size, then buy a few pairs of truly well made socks that match what they use. Well-made wool socks last and last and last.

Heirloom seeds

Many frugal folks at least dabble in gardening. They’ll often have a small garden in their backyard or a large pot or two on their patio in which they grow a few herbs or vegetables. Not only is it a very inexpensive hobby, the produce is tasty, too.

Heirloom seeds are garden seeds that you can save year after year to grow the same vegetables over and over again. Most seeds you buy in the store are hybridized, which means that the seeds cannot be grown, so heirloom seeds can provide an extra benefit to frugal gardeners. Plus, heirloom seeds are often of unusual varieties, which can be fun to grow.

A compost bucket

Gardens need fertilizing to ensure that the plants grow well. Many frugal folks balk at the cost of fertilizer and thus seek out other methods of keeping the soil fertile, and one great way of doing that is with compost. However, having a compost bin requires quite a lot of space in the yard and it can be an odorous eye sore, so many people skip that option.

A great alternative to that is a classy compost bucket with a charcoal filter to keep the odor at bay. Charcoal filters last for a long time – more than a year, in my experience – so replacing them isn’t a big deal. A compost bucket stores vegetable scraps and coffee grounds and allows them to break down over time, making rich organic matter for the soil in which to grow your next round of vegetables.

Home fermented foods kit

Turning garden fresh vegetables into other edible foods, especially ones that can be kept in the refrigerator for a while, is something that many frugal people enjoy doing. We almost constantly have something fermenting or pickling on our kitchen counter.

It’s actually pretty simple to do it – you just need a glass jar and something to weigh down the food to keep it below the brine. Just put some vegetables in there – shredded cabbage to make sauerkraut, cucumbers to make pickles, green beans, beets, shredded vegetables to make kimchi – and then cover the vegetables with brine, weight them down, and then cover the jar and you’ll soon have something delicious in there, as the salty environment kills harmful bacteria and the natural bacteria and yeast pickle and ferment the foods.

All you need are a few simple items to get started and soon your frugal friend will be turning cucumbers from the garden into pickles and cabbage from the farmers market into mind-blowing sauerkraut.

A rechargeable electric toothbrush (and brush head replacements)

This falls directly into the category of “expensive initial investment, but great for preventive maintenance” category that many frugal people really value. Electric toothbrush models are highly recommended by most dentists, but they do tend to have a pretty real up-front cost and they do require upkeep costs like batteries and brush heads. In the eyes of a frugal person like myself, having something that does a really good job at preventive maintenance on the body is great, but those costs are a big reason why I’ll just stick with a manual toothbrush for now.

That’s why a rechargeable electric toothbrush with a bunch of brush head replacements is a good gift idea for a frugal person. It ensures that they’ll have the best in preventive maintenance on their teeth (reducing dental costs) without the expense of the actual brush, the batteries, or the brush heads (at least for a long time).

Amazon: Sonicare 2 series rechargeable electric toothbrush and replacement heads

LED light bulbs

This is a pretty “unromantic” gift, but it’s a gift that will be hugely appreciated by any frugal person who is still using incandescent bulbs or CFL bulbs around their home.

LED bulbs cost a bit more upfront, but they use very little electricity and have a very, very long life span, especially compared to current bulbs. A single LED bulb will last about 20 times as long as a normal incandescent and use about a fifth of the electricity, but you pay for it up front. It’s a cost that many frugal people will skip over, especially if they still have incandescents to use.

Make that choice easy for them. Find LED bulbs that match the wattage and shape of many of the bulbs they use at home and they’ll happily put those new bulbs into their light sockets and enjoy the convenience and energy savings.

Flour sack towels

One of the least frugal things you’ll find in many kitchens is a roll of paper towels. Having lots of easy-to-use absorbable “towels” in a kitchen is really convenient, but buying a lot of towels that are really good at mopping up messes or covering dishes or bearing a snack or any of the things that we use a paper towel for can be tricky.

Many frugal folks eventually move to a “cloth drawer” when they accumulate enough towels and other cloths to utterly replace paper towels for almost all uses, but that takes a while. Simply using a small towel and then tossing it in the laundry means no more buying paper towels and no more filling the trash with them, either.

Flour sack towels are my favorite replacement for paper towels. They’re nice and soft and you can use them for drying, wiping, cleaning, covering bread dough as it rises, and all kinds of things you’d use a paper towel or a dish towel for in the kitchen. With a healthy number of them on hand, you don’t really need paper towels or dish towels any more.

A glass popcorn popper

Popcorn is a great frugal snack, but it’s far cheaper to just buy a big container of popcorn kernels than it is to buy microwaveable bags of popcorn. A great solution, then, is to just pop the kernels in a paper bag or something, which is cheaper but it still requires you to toss the paper bags after popping.

The best solution is an infinitely reusable solution. A glass popcorn popper designed for the microwave typically comes with a silicon lid that has a built in measurer for both the kernels and the right amount of butter. Just measure kernels in the lid, dump them in, put the lid on top, put the right amount of butter on that lid, and microwave it for three minutes. When it’s done, pour the butter on top, then eat the popcorn and then put all of it right in the dishwasher. This is a good gift along with a big bag or container of popcorn kernels.

Handmade soaps

This item is on this list primarily because the most frugal person I know absolutely beams when you give her handmade soaps as a gift. She generally uses very cheap generic soaps when buying them on her own, but having really well made soaps that are soft on the skin with wonderful aromas seems to just click perfectly with her.

Most quality grocers sell a nice variety of locally made soaps, which is where you should start your search. Try to pick soaps that match what the recipient would like in terms of scents and contents.

A charitable donation in their name

Many frugal people simply do not feel as though they need anything and they’re pretty careful about their wants, too. Often, they’re more concerned about the needs of others than the things that they may want, so a charitable donation in their name can be really meaningful.

Choosing the right place to donate can be a bit difficult, but you’re usually on safe ground when focusing on highly-regarded charities that benefit the poor.

  • I personally highly recommend the charities recommended by GiveWell, a program dedicated to effective altruism. The charities they recommend tend to do a lot of good for every donated dollar.

A car emergency kit

This is an incredibly useful item that many, many people overlook these days, and it’s something that many frugal people will deeply appreciate due to the practicality of it.

A car emergency kit is something you just keep in the trunk of your car and never think about until the time comes when you need it, and a good kit contains pretty much anything you’d need in a roadside situation – jumper cables, flares, rain ponchos, a Mylar blanket, and so on. You can assemble such a kit yourself with items of your own choosing using this list as a guide or simply buy a readymade kit.

A solar charged external battery

Almost everyone, frugal or not, uses electronic devices every day. Cell phones, tablets, electronic book readers, and many other odds and ends need regular charging and that’s not always super convenient. One strategy many people employ for convenient charging is to use an external battery that they can plug their devices into anywhere, but that battery can run out of charge as well at an inopportune time.

One thoughtful solution is an external battery that’s chargeable through solar power, meaning that wherever there’s sunlight, you can charge up your devices without any need for a power outlet. An external battery that can charge with solar power is a super-convenient way to do this and enables people to charge their external batteries without sucking down power at home, either. It’s convenient and can save them a few cents to boot, plus it’s invaluable when camping or in nature.

An experience

The final idea for this list is an experience – something for them to do that they likely would never otherwise do. A gift certificate to a restaurant, tickets to a show or concert, passes to a museum, a gift certificate for a massage, passes to a convention catered to their interests – all of those things are experiences that a frugal person would deeply enjoy but would also pass up.

The best gift along these lines is one in tune with their current interests. If they enjoy art, a pass to an art museum is great. If they have a particular hobby, a pass to a convention related to that hobby is wonderful. Remember, you’re choosing the experience gift for them, not for you, so invest the time to actually research what they like.

A final note on this type of gift: It’s a bad idea to give a gift to a frugal person when it’s going to cost them a significant amount just to use it. Don’t buy them tickets to a big event when that means they’re going to have to pay for the trip unless you’re springing for the trip as well.

Final Thoughts

The key thing to remember with this list is that every single item on it should be trumped by the specific characteristics of the person you’re giving the gift to. You know this person; I don’t. If that person has a particular hobby or a particular interest, use that as a starting point. If that person has actually made a request of some kind, use that request. These are just “backup” ideas at best, shared by someone who doesn’t actually know your recipient.

That being said, most of the items on this list are going to have at least some appeal to many (but not all) frugal people. Gifts that save money, encourage preventive maintenance, can be consumed, and don’t result in the accumulation of non-practical stuff are almost always smart places to start with frugal people, and all of these gifts (mostly) fit right into those categories.

Good luck!

Related Articles: 

The post 20 Gift Ideas for That Frugal Person in Your Life appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Should You Use a Personal Loan to Pay Off Credit Card Debt?

Drowning underneath a pile of expensive credit card debt? Don’t have the cash to write a big check to pay it off? Are the maxed-out cards killing your FICO and VantageScore credit scores? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Nationally, total credit card debt climbed to over $1 trillion last year, according to the Nilson Report.

It’s no secret that excessive credit card debt often foreshadows serious financial problems. In fact, if you currently owe more on your credit cards than you can afford to pay off this month, then you’re already in trouble and wasting your money. To add insult to injury, that outstanding credit card debt that’s hurting your wallet could also be hurting your credit scores.

Why Credit Card Debt Hurts Credit Scores

Many consumers find it surprising that even “on-time” credit card accounts can damage credit scores. The truth is it takes a lot more than good payment history to earn a great credit score. Payment history is just one piece of the much larger puzzle. Outstanding credit card debt can have a negative credit score impact even if you make all your monthly payments by the due date.

Credit scoring models like FICO and VantageScore are designed to compare how much credit card debt you owe (balances) with how much you are eligible to spend (limits). This relationship between your credit card balances and limits is referred to as your debt-to-limit ratio or your revolving utilization ratio.

You can calculate your revolving utilization ratio on a credit card account by dividing the balance by the credit limit and multiplying that number by 100. For example, if you have a credit card account with a $5,000 limit and a balance of $2,500, then your revolving utilization ratio is 50% (2,500 ÷ 5,000 = 0.5 X 100 = 50%). Pay that balance down to $1,000, and your new revolving utilization ratio would be 20% (1,000 ÷ 5,000 = 0.2 X 100 = 20%). The higher that percentage, the lower your credit scores… it’s that simple.

The Personal Loan Solution

Naturally, if you can afford to write a big check and pay off all or a big chunk of your credit card debt, then you should probably do so. Yet if paying off your credit card debt all at once is impossible, there are still some other smart ways to handle your credit card debt. Paying off your credit card debt with a personal loan is one such solution. Here are two big reasons why:

1. It can be cheaper debt.

Credit card interest rates are typically among the highest rates you will ever pay. It is not unusual for general use credit card (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa) interest rates to rise well over 15%, even for people with good credit. Interest rates on retail store credit cards are almost always well into the 20s.

By comparison, personal loan interest rates are often much less expensive, especially if you have decent credit. (It goes without saying that a high-interest personal loan – they can also climb past 20% for applicants with mediocre credit – will not be very helpful.)

2. It’s almost guaranteed your credit scores will improve.

Personal loans are unsecured installment loans, not revolving accounts like credit cards. As a result, when you carry outstanding debt on an installment loan, your scores are not impacted in the same negative way as they are when you carry outstanding revolving debt. In fact, the balance you carry on an installment loan typically counts against you very little, if at all, from a credit scoring standpoint.

And remember that math problem we did above just a few moments ago? If you were to convert your revolving credit card debt into installment debt, then the “revolving utilization” problem ceases to exist, because installment debt isn’t factored into that math problem.

In fact, if you were to pay off your credit card debt over multiple cards with an installment loan, your debt-to-limit ratio may very well go to zero, and your scores will likely shoot through the roof — provided you keep up to date on payments with your new personal loan.

Related Articles:

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

The post Should You Use a Personal Loan to Pay Off Credit Card Debt? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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