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Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Compound Interest of Building a Great Career

Anyone who spends much time paying attention to their finances eventually begins to appreciate the raw power of compound interest.

It’s simple, really. Let’s say you put $20 in a bank account that earns 5% interest a year. At the end of that year, you have $21, right? Well, if you leave that money alone, that dollar you earned in interest begins to earn interest itself. So, after the second year, you actually have $22.05 in the account. After the third year, you have $23.10 in the account. And then $24.16, and $25.22, and so on and so on and so on.

If you leave an account alone, in other words, and the account earns interest, the growth of that money will start to accelerate. It will earn more money each year than it did in the previous year without you lifting a finger.

That’s how wealth is built. That’s why so many people who are serious about building wealth talk about patience. They talk about not spending your money and saving it instead, because if you put it in savings and just let it sit there, it will grow on its own.

Compound interest is how people make money without lifting a finger, in other words.

The key thing to remember with compound interest, though, is that it starts with effort. If you put in the effort to save $20 each year, that’s great and the money will certainly grow. However, if you can put in a little more effort and save $25 each year, the money grows even faster.

Let’s say that you put in the effort to put away $20 at the start of each year into that 5% savings account mentioned above. At the end of the first year, you’re at $21, so you kick in another $20. At the end of the second year, you’re at $43.05, so you kick in another $20. At the end of the third year, you’re at $66.20, so you kick in another $20. At the end of the fourth year, you’re at $90.51, so you kick in another $20. Then, at the end of the fifth year, you’re at $116.04. Not bad, huh? You’re ahead of the game, right?

Now, let’s say you put in just a little more effort and put aside $25 each year instead of $20. After the first year, you have $26.25. After the second year, you have $53.81. After the third year, you have $82.75. After the fourth year, you have $113.14. After the last year, you have $145.05. By putting in just a little bit more effort all the way along, you have a lot more money, and the lead only grows from there.

The point of this is very simple: if you put in just a little more effort up front, the power of compound interest will amplify that additional effort. You’ll earn money at a faster rate than before. Your investment will snowball faster and faster and faster.

Now that we’re all on the same page about compound interest, I’m going to seemingly switch gears completely and point you toward a great talk by Richard Hamming. Here’s the text of that talk, but I really want to point you toward one single quote from that talk:

“Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity — it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

Let’s focus on that key sentence: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.

When I read that sentence, I flash back to the single most productive period in my entire career. Over the course of about a year, I went from feeling completely overwhelmed in my job (which was a one year contract job) to cementing a permanent position and completing a project that I thought I would essentially never be able to pull off.

What did I do that made that transition happen? Honestly, looking back, it was two big things.

One, I basically didn’t waste downtime at work. If there was time when I didn’t have anything immediately to do (because I was waiting on something from someone else, for example), I spent that time trying to learn something new or improving something that already existed. If I truly did not feel energetic or motivated to work, I would go on a brisk walk and listen to some motivating audiobook and, usually, eat or drink something, too, so that I would feel great when I came back to my desk in thirty minutes or so. I basically did not allow myself downtime. At. All.

Two, I spent an hour most evenings learning something new. My employer purchased a bunch of materials for learning for me and I used them. I took books home on computer programming, on the science of the area that I was working in, on how to model data. I read those books and took notes on them for at least an hour each night, and I often tried out things I was learning about right at I was reading them. This was my routine for about an hour after work each night, as I arrived home before my wife did (I usually left well before she did in the morning, too).

Those two things were much like adding a big healthy dollop of money to my savings account each day. They started producing dividends immediately. I was almost immediately a little further along in terms of understanding the challenges before me than I ever had been before. With almost every passing day, I could feel myself progressing from completely overwhelmed to being able to handle small pieces of the project to being able to handle bigger and bigger pieces to being able to feel like I could manage the whole thing to actually feeling like I could handle this with ease and mold it into something great.

Later on in my career, I did a similar thing with networking. I decided to spend a little bit of time each day simply connecting with and getting to know other people in my field. Within several months, I had built a pile of really strong relationships within my field, some of which I still have almost a decade after switching career paths.

The key? In both cases, I just devoted a little bit of extra effort each day, and like compound interest, that little bit of extra effort built on itself quite rapidly until it grew into something amazing.

It doesn’t take that much additional effort, either. The value is that it grows on top of itself, just like compound interest. If you apply a little bit of extra effort consistently, you quickly go from being an average employee to being a great one.

The things you learn in that extra fifteen minutes or half an hour one day can be applied the following day. Plus, that next day, you’re fifteen minutes or half an hour further along in terms of learning about that topic, so you get even further ahead. Soon, you’re grasping topics or achieving things that are far beyond what you would otherwise be able to achieve.

Isn’t there an “upper limit” to this? There absolutely is. My experience has been that most people have about four to six hours of truly productive work in them per day. It seems to be true for me and true for many others. You can do “busy work” beyond that, but in terms of actually applying skill and solving challenging problems, that’s the limit.

Because of that, there’s only so much you can “add” to a given day and still get real value out of that time. The key is to make sure you’re “adding” enough to get to your daily cap of genuinely productive work before you start to trail off. Many people have days that are filled with pockets of downtime and busy work, so by using that downtime and some of that busy work time more productively (less web surfing and texting, more studying and smart tasks) one can reach that daily limit of productive time and thus maximize that “compound interest” of career benefits.

In simplest terms, most people have the focus to get six hours of really good work done per day, and when you come in below that, you’re wasting a huge career opportunity because of the “compound interest” effect of the genuinely useful things you could be doing with that time.

Sounds good. What’s the first step? The first step here is to cut out time wasting at work. Things that waste time, like visiting websites that don’t help you grow in your career or in your life, napping, playing games, and so on need to be cut out of your day. They’re not helping you succeed or to do anything other than pass the time, and every moment you spend on those things is a moment where someone is passing you by on the career ladder. Start working on recognizing when you’re wasting time at work and make an effort to fill that time with something more useful for your career instead.

You also may want to consider blocking off a little time in the evening for self-improvement and self-learning. I have found that spending an hour or so in the later stages of the day on studying, research, and brainstorming makes future days flow much better. It’s a phenomenon that’s been true in my career as a writer and, separately, in my earlier research-oriented career and my programming career. Simply setting aside half an hour or an hour after work closes focused entirely on what makes you and your career better and not just pleasing to your boss can make a huge difference in your career trajectory.

What specific things can I do to “compound” in my career? Here are seven things anyone can do to add some “compounding” to their career. Time invested in these things is almost never wasted, as each one will make you a more effective worker in your career path.

Network effectively, learn about the people around you, and build a lot of great professional peer contacts. There are countless ways to do this. You might get involved in a local Meetup group that’s aligned to your career goals, or find an online community that’s related to your career path. Maybe you’ll simply find people on Twitter or LinkedIn. Perhaps there’s a group of people in your office or corporate environment, or maybe there are conventions you can go to.

No matter what the case, devote time to getting to know other people in your field and spend some time maintaining those relationships you’ve built. Keep track of those people you’ve met and interacted with and follow up with them occasionally to see how they’re doing. It can even make sense to schedule these updates, or to take a few notes just so you’ll remember. What kind of coffee does this person prefer? What kind of personal struggle does this person deal with?

The more strong connections you build and maintain, the easier it will be to take the next step in your career.

Learn about the latest technologies in your field and practice using them if at all possible. This mostly revolves around staying up to date in your field by reading trade publications, blogs, and other materials related to your career path, understanding the material that’s being presented, and actually attempting to master the new skills and technologies and even apply them to your career.

One strategy that works well for this is to try to find ways to integrate these new technologies into your current work projects. For example, if you’re learning about a new computer programming methodology, ask yourself if there’s a way to include it in your current projects at work and, if so, try to integrate it and see if it clicks.

Brainstorm ideas to a specific problem you’re facing and then evaluate the results. This doesn’t have to be a direct problem; instead, it can just be something indirect, a rough patch in your work day. What’s something that you’re struggling with? What’s something that simply doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like?

Spend some time focused on that one specific thing. Wrap your brain around it and look for solutions that might fix that problem or make it go away or make that process flow more smoothly. Then, once you’ve come up with a bunch of ideas, filter them a little and refine some of the best ideas. You may just find yourself with a little side project that, when implemented, will be a productivity boon for you and perhaps even for others in your office.

I’m reminded of the time that one of my coworkers spent several hours over the course of a few weeks rewriting the software we used to keep track of billable hours. At first, he just used it himself and, shortly thereafter, shared it with me as well. Eventually, though, it was shared throughout the organization, and it ended up improving everyone’s productivity and kicking back a lot of credit to him.

Learn a language that would enable you to communicate with a larger group of peers and clients. This might be a computer language, but it’s very likely to be a spoken or written human language. What language do your collaborators and clients use? That’s probably a language worth learning.

To get started, just download Duolingo and spend fifteen or thirty minutes a day focusing on your language of choice. Progressing through all of the Duolingo content on a specific language will take a while, but it will provide you with a solid baseline of grammar and vocabulary. If it’s a computer language, try using that new language to write some simple tools for your own use, as practical projects tend to be a great way to learn a new programming language.

Write an article on a specific aspect of your career and publish it somewhere. There are few better ways to really codify an idea in your head than to write it all out and organize it into an article in such a way that others can understand your thinking. Taking a concept that you understand reasonably well and working it through the grinder of turning your understanding into words and organized ideas is a very powerful learning technique.

Taking that end product and publishing it somewhere, whether it’s a publication or a blog or an online forum somewhere, serves the additional purpose of raising your profile within that community.

Prepare for an upcoming meeting by studying the presentation and researching some of the specifics, as well as some of the meeting attendees (if relevant). If you have an upcoming meeting to attend, it can be well worth your time to review the meeting’s agenda and any presentations in advance and do some homework on that topic, as well as on the people in the room.

The better you understand the topic of the presentation and the content within, the more likely it is that you will be able to give useful feedback or ask useful questions, which will not only increase your own knowledge but will increase the knowledge and understanding of others in the room.

Read and take notes on a book or article relevant to your field or relevant to your personal growth. Simply sitting down with a book relevant to your field, reading it, and taking notes on it as you go is a powerful way to spend your spare time at work or time in the evening. If you don’t have a particular book that makes sense, a book on personal growth, time management, or any topic like that is similarly powerful.

The time you invest in reading a book that aims to improve your comprehension of a field or aims to improve you is time well spent for your career.

These ideas are good, but I want more! If you’re looking for more ideas on how to apply “compounding” to your career path, take a look at my earlier article on twelve simple tactics for shoring up your career during work downtime.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s this: when you apply a bit of effort consistently to improve your career standing and performance, that consistency pays amplified dividends, much like the power of saving a little more amplifies the power of compound interest when looking at finances. Overdoing it and burning yourself out isn’t good, either, but many people do have a bit more time than they think for improving themselves at work, and when you actually use that time well, it pays off in amplified ways.

Good luck!

The post The Compound Interest of Building a Great Career appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Handling Impostor Syndrome in Your Finances and Career

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”

That’s the first sentence of a Wikipedia entry on the subject of impostor syndrome, which is a term that describes the sense that you’re really not accomplished or skilled enough for the career or job that you have and you feel like a “fraud” simply being there.

I know that feeling. I felt it extremely strongly when I first got a job after college. I was employed to write some software to organize and present large data sets, and I knew from the first moment I was completely in over my head.

I didn’t know the database system we were using. I didn’t know the operating system that our server software was running on. I didn’t know the language or the coding environment. I didn’t really have much domain knowledge of the data, either, and the person that was supposed to be an expert in that area was suffering through a personal crisis and wasn’t offering any help at all.

I felt lost. I felt like I was a complete fake who should never have had that job. I was embarrassed to come into work in the morning. I was absolutely sure I was going to be fired when my contract was finished.

What happened? Our tiny team, with me writing almost all of the code, produced a demo version of our software in two months that was good enough to make my boss’s boss ask twice in a big meeting whether this was actual software or just an animation. Four months after that, we publicly rolled out our “beta” version to the world about six months ahead of schedule. It was a resounding success and the project is still alive, almost a decade after I walked away from it.

None of that changes the fact that for the first year – even after those initial successes – I still felt like a massive impostor. Nothing external ever changed that feeling – no matter how many positive reviews our software received and no matter how many times it popped up in publications and no matter how many outside reviewers and other folks seemed to be thrilled about what we were doing. I still felt like a three year old being marveled at by mom and dad because of a misbegotten Tinker Toy creation.

In some ways, that feeling was good. It kept me hungry in many ways. I never ever felt really secure. At the same time, it kept me from making difficult choices I needed to make. It amped up my constant stress level. It also stopped me from being as much of an advocate for myself as I should have been. The bad aspects of impostor syndrome outweigh the good ones.

For me, it took years for that “impostor syndrome” to finally go away.

If any of this story feels familiar to you, my only advice to you is this: You can ditch it. You can get past that feeling of being an impostor, and you don’t have to “fake it until you make it,” either. Here are seven things I did to help me kill the impostor syndrome, which was one of the best career steps I’ve ever taken.

Stop focusing on unknowns and what-ifs and focus on the actual task in front of you. When you feel inadequate at a job, it is easy to get stuck on problems that might crop up that are beyond your ability to handle. You might visualize a disaster of some kind or a big programming task or a request from a supervisor that you have no idea how to handle and the mere thought of it makes you feel a bit panicked.

Don’t. Don’t worry about daydreams and possibilities, at least not in the course of your day-to-day work.

Instead, focus on the task in front of you. What do you need to get done today? What do you need to get done in the next hour?

Most of the time, you should be perfectly capable of pulling off that task. And the next one. And the next one after that.

Along the way, two things will happen. One, you’ll learn a lot more about the demands of your job than you expect. You’ll constantly be learning, in fact, if you’re open to it.

Two, you’re going to start establishing a standard of excellence in the things that you do so that your supervisors are much more lenient when you do run up against things that you struggle with.

The task at hand is what matters. Execute it well.

Make a list of what you feel you don’t know, then use that as a self-education guide. If you feel like there are major areas of knowledge and skill that you are lacking at work, simply list them down somewhere. Make a Google Doc and keep adding topics to it that you feel you don’t understand.

Use that as your study list. Spend an hour each evening studying a topic on that list in a focused fashion. If you have downtime at work, tackle topics on that list; your supervisor is going to be thrilled that you’re spending downtime studying Python libraries instead of looking at a fashion website, for example.

As you start knocking down those topics you don’t understand, you’ll feel more and more comfortable in your role at work. That list will probably never entirely disappear, but enough items will vanish that you’ll stop feeling so much like an impostor.

Make friends and spend time with “the smartest people in the room.” One great strategy is to really look deeply at the people in your workplace (and your local professional community) and determine which people are truly the most competent people around. Which ones really know their stuff and can handle problems?

Make friends with them. Spend time talking to them and getting to know them. Go out to lunch with them. Discover their hobbies and take an interest in them.

For starters, you’ll learn a ton from them about everything from the technical aspects of your work to the ins and outs of the workplace.

For another, they’re likely to be a great ally for you if you do run into something way over your head.

For another, they often end up being a helping hand when your career is ready to take another step. Often, it’s not the technical wizard that gets promoted, but the person who can talk to the technical wizard.

Having highly competent friends is always a good thing.

Take big problems that seem overwhelming and break them down into bits you can handle. One of the big reasons that people fall into a sense of “impostor syndrome” is that they’re handed challenges that are bigger than they’ve ever handled before and the problem itself seems overwhelming. A work project that takes a year to complete can seem completely overwhelming at first and can make a person feel like this is way over their head.

The key with any big problem is to start by breaking it down into little problems. Start breaking down this big problem into smaller and smaller pieces, until you’re faced with something you know you can handle, then do that part. Once that part is completed, re-evaluate things and see if there’s now another part that you’re capable of completing. Keep repeating that and soon you’ll have a firm grasp on everything that’s left.

Yes, it won’t be easy. Yes, you’ll probably make a misstep or two early on that carries consequences later. That’s okay. Keep breaking down the big problem and working on the smaller pieces.

Recognize that no one knows everything and that many people are putting up a strong front that exaggerates their knowledge. When you’re talking to peers, you might get a strong idea that they are very, very knowledgable and competent. They seem to know how to handle big projects and use a lot of technical terms.

Here’s the thing to remember: they’re likely showing off a bit. They’re trying to display that they’re highly competent and knowledgable in order to make themselves feel as good as possible, so they’re likely putting up a “front” to some degree.

If that “front” seems overly impressive to you, that doesn’t mean you’re not competent. It just means that they’re doing a good job of projecting what they want to project.

Don’t worry about them. Focus on yourself. Focus on what your job and your next career step requires of you.

Accept help. When you’re stuck on a challenging task, don’t be afraid to ask others for some assistance (perhaps one of those “smart” friends you made earlier).

People often choose not to ask for help when they need it, either out of a sense of pride or out of a sense of not wanting to be seen as incompetent. If you want to succeed in your career path, you have to discard that sensibility as soon as possible.

Ask for help, whether it’s in the workplace or online anonymously or somewhere else. Let others help you. Use that help to get through the problem and learn more. It’s a big step in moving past a sense that you’re an “impostor” in this job, because you’ll learn that doing a challenging job well is a team effort.

Keep a journal of your successes. It’s easy to get caught up in our most recent successes and failures, and a string of difficult moments can leave us really feeling down on our success.

To remedy that, I recommend keeping a “success journal.” Each day, simply add a new entry at the end of a document that spells out your five big achievements and successes that day. Keep it going and then, when you feel like things are struggling, look at it. Remember how often you’ve succeeded and how much you’ve achieved.

You’re not an impostor. You’re a success.

Good luck.

The post Handling Impostor Syndrome in Your Finances and Career appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

12 Frugal Summer Vacation Strategies from Our Family’s National Park Vacation

A few months ago, I posted an article on how we plan frugal family vacations in national parks. During the first half of June, we put that knowledge to the test with a long road trip family vacation that took us to Badlands National Park, Shoshone National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. We drove the entire trip and we camped every single night but one (we were actually unable to return to our campsite due to a freak incident and had to find emergency lodging one night).

While we did use many of the strategies in the earlier article during this vacation, I thought it would be very worthwhile to circle back and look at which strategies really were money savers on the trip. Here are 12 things that we did that saved us a lot of money on our family’s summer vacation in the national parks.

Take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program, or the Senior Pass program, or the Military Pass program to get into national parks for free or at a steep discount. If you are over the age of 62, are an active member of the military, or have a fourth grader in your family, you can easily pick up a highly discounted (or even free) pass for the national parks, which will chop substantial cost off of your trip.

In our case, we took advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program, which got our family into Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Badlands National Parks for free and gave all of us a free guided tour through Wind Cave. This simple pass saved us at least $100 on our trip, and it took about five minutes of our daughter filling out a form online. (They do verify that you have a fourth grader in your group, so it’s a waste of time to try to ‘scam’ a free National Parks pass this way. Also, my parents have a Senior Pass, which was similarly easy to acquire.)

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the summer after your child finishes fourth grade is a great summer for a National Parks vacation. Not only will it be less expensive thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program, the child will also get a great deal of value out of it. While our youngest child was perhaps a bit too young to really get full enjoyment out of everything, our two older children really found a lot of value in the National Parks, and we’re already tentatively planning a National Parks vacation when our youngest is in fourth grade (Acadia and a stop in Shenandoah along the way, if you’re wondering).

Check out travel guides from the library before you go and rely on the free pamphlets within the park. Travel guides are incredibly useful for advance planning of the trip and identifying trails and other activities and sights that might work for you and your family. However, once the trip is over, they become much less useful, so I don’t recommend actually buying them.

Instead, hit your local library. Check out their travel guides associated with the area and make some notes and plans for yourself. You can even take the books with you on the trip.

While you’re there, however, you should really take advantage of the great pamphlets and documentation that the National Park Service provides onsite. Their brochures and pamphlets are top notch, especially when paired directly with stellar advice directly from park rangers.

Pack as much of your own food in advance as possible, bought from discount grocers. If you’re doing an inexpensive national parks vacation, there’s a very good chance you’re camping, and if that’s the case, you’re going to be responsible for preparing your own meals, probably simple ones. There’s also a very good chance that you’re driving there, provided the national park is within several hours of your home.

Given those two assumptions, one brilliant way to save a lot of money is to simply plan a bunch of meals out in advance, buy a ton of food at your local discount grocer before you go, and pack a cooler with ice from your own freezer for items that need to stay cold. That way, you’re spending very little on food for most of the trip.

This is exactly what we did. We covered much of the trip with the food we packed ourselves, filling every little nook and cranny in our vehicle with food items. We planned out a bunch of simple meals that we could utilize any day for breakfast, lunch, and supper and made sure we had everything on hand for all of them.

We also prepared a shopping list to take with us. Part of the way through the trip, when we were actually out of the national parks for a bit, we went to a discount grocer and bought everything on that list. Those items fulfilled the remainder of our meal plan for the trip.

Our food costs were stunningly cheap for this trip. Yes, we ate a lot of simple meals – sandwiches and simple soups and foods cooked over a campfire – but they were extremely low cost and actually quite fun to prepare over a propane stove and sometimes over a campfire (more on this in a bit).

Camp in a nearby National Forest rather than a National Park, if possible; it’s still beautiful and often way cheaper. As we were examining the comparative costs and availabilities of campsites, we discovered that camping in the Shoshone National Forest, which is adjacent to Yellowstone, was actually cheaper and more widely available than camping within Yellowstone.

Shoshone contains many wonderful trails, great views, and other features that make it well worth your time, plus it’s literally adjacent to Yellowstone, meaning you have full access to Yellowstone with a 15 minute drive.

The same thing is true at many national parks. There are often national forests and national grasslands and state parks and other such places adjacent to the national park that can provide wonderful vistas and experiences and a low-cost camping destination that’s often in much less demand than the national park itself.

Speaking of lower-demand camping…

Check on “first-come-first-serve” campsites, but don’t rely on them. Once you start planning a national park vacation, you’ll quickly learn that many campgrounds allow reservations while other campgrounds operate on a first-come-first-served basis. I’m not going to say that either style is strictly better than the other – you’ll have to rely on individual campground reviews for that – but simply recognize that both are available to you. In general, however, I’ve found that the first-come-first-served campgrounds are significantly less expensive than the reserved campgrounds.

In short, the more flexible you are, the more it makes sense to rely on first-come-first-served campgrounds. This is especially true if you’re open to considering campgrounds that are in adjacent national forests, or you’re willing to spend your first night in a hotel after a long drive and set up camp the next morning.

As I mentioned earlier, first-come-first-served campgrounds tend to, in general, have a lower per-night cost than reserved campgrounds, so if you’re going for a longer trip, you can actually still save money by staying at a hotel near the national park the first night, then going in early the next morning to secure a campsite for the next several days.

Given the length of our drive (from central Iowa out to western Wyoming), we chose to go with reserved campsites, but during one portion of the trip we were faced with some logistical challenges and we examined the options of first-come-first-served campsites and were impressed with the relative value they offered.

Bring along a sturdy backpack that can serve as a “picnic basket.” Here, I’m speaking directly to families who may not be frequent campers but are giving it a try as a family vacation: a sturdy backpack will be your friend on this trip. It will save you a lot of money.

The reason is very straightforward. When you’re out and about visiting ranger stations or walking on trails or checking out visitor centers, you’re not going to want to stop and rush back to the campsite for lunch for a hungry family. Instead, it’s far more convenient to just find a picnic table or even a log to sit on and simply enjoy a picnic together, produced as if by magic from your backpack. (Often, the other option is to eat very expensive fare sold by the park service at their stations.)

This does take some morning prep work. You’ll have to plan out some meals that will work well in a backpack, prepare all of the food before you leave in the morning, and someone will likely have to carry it at least for a while. However, the convenience of being able to go on a very long trail from the mid-morning to the mid-afternoon with lunch at the far end of the trail, or the ability to go to the far side of the park for the day without having to worry about paying for an expensive lunch or expensive snacks can make a huge difference in your vacation costs.

Keep meal prep as simple as humanly possible so that you’re not tempted to skip it and do something else. On this trip, we ate a lot of sandwiches. We simply kept loaves of bread in a box in the back of our vehicle along with cheese and hummus and condiments in a cooler, along with some fruits and vegetables in the food box and a few additional items in the cooler. Those sandwiches became the basis of a lot of meals – they made up most of the lunches we ate, in fact!

Our dinners were a mix of simple campfire meals – soup made in a cast iron pot over a propane burner one night, hot dogs over a campfire another night, campfire meals wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked directly on the fire yet another night.

All of those meals were very easy to prepare. Often, we just pulled food from the food box and the cooler, assembled meals within a few minutes, and started cooking them immediately (if cooking was even necessary). The meals required few ingredients, but the ingredients we did use were flavorful. We did not plan gourmet meals on this trip.

We ate at restaurants exactly twice the entire vacation and both times we ate very nice meals, but the vast majority of our meals were very simple meals prepared quickly from just a few ingredients. We intentionally chose simple things so that we could spend our time enjoying all of the things to do, rather than preparing complex meals or throwing money into expensive restaurant meals.

Use a small propane burner for hot foods, as it’s far cheaper than campfires; campfires are fine, but don’t use them for every meal. Yes, camping often implies a campfire, but campfires can be expensive. Often, the wood needed for a night of campfires can add up to $10 or more and you’re strongly discouraged from bringing outside wood.

Our solution? We didn’t necessarily have a campfire every night, especially on nights when we returned to the campsite later in the evening. On nights when we did have a campfire, we prepared meals on it and roasted marshmallows; on other nights, we used a simple propane stove for meal prep needs along with a solar battery lantern for light.

This enabled us to keep fuel costs as low as possible. It’s definitely less expensive to burn a small amount of propane to cook some food and use a solar light to see than it is to burn $10 worth of campfire wood, and on a night when everyone is tired after walking twelve miles of trails, a quick meal over a propane stove and heading to bed immediately was more suitable to everyone, anyway.

Avoid the touristy towns on the edges of national parks. Jackson, Wyo., is a beautiful town. However, it’s an expensive town, one clearly built with visitors in mind. Virtually everything there is pricey and there are simply infinite opportunities to spend your money.

The best solution? Don’t go there unless you’re expecting to spend some dough.

There are cities and towns like that near every significant national park. They’re convenient. They have a lot of little creature comforts. They often have some interesting things to see. But they’re expensive places to visit.

We chose to eat lunch in Jackson one day and visit a few interesting sites there, but the cost of lodging and of many of the shops there was very high (though everything seemed to be of good quality). While Jackson is lovely, it was also not a good match for what we intended to be a very low-cost family vacation. The same holds true for any expensive, tourist-oriented town on the edge of a national park area.

Go electric-free and use rechargeable batteries. When evaluating campsites, you’ll quickly notice that some have electricity and some do not and that the electrical sites come at a premium. I encourage you to give electric-free a try.

“But what about cell phones?” you might wonder. Our solution was simple – we simply used rechargeable batteries. We stayed at an electric-free campsite for five days and my Anker PowerCore lasted for the entire stint, charging my phone several times. We saved about $12 a night compared to a similar campground, so the savings alone paid for the battery (and more).

It only takes a few days at an electric-free campsite to pay for a rechargeable battery, which you can then use and use and use again. If you stay at an electric-free site in the future, you’ve already got the battery!

Set a “souvenir budget” for everyone right off the bat. At the very start of the trip, we agreed to buy each child one article of souvenir clothing and one additional item up to a specific dollar amount. They knew that this was the rule and we stuck with it throughout the trip.

This allowed us as parents to set clear boundaries before ever setting foot in a store of any kind and allowed our children to understand what kind of souvenir to look for.

Our children did also bring along earned allowance money, so they were able to buy additional small souvenirs if they so chose, something some of our children did.

This policy as a whole saved us a lot of money on souvenirs because the policy was clear and unambiguous and set the cap for spending very low overall. We came home with a few new shirts and a couple of books, mostly.

Fill up with gas away from the park, if possible. Many of the larger national parks offer options for fueling up within the park, but those gas stations are often priced as you would expect a gas station to be priced in an environment with no competition. Needless to say, the gas there wasn’t cheap.

The best solution is to fuel up outside of the park whenever possible. We went on one lengthy excursion outside of the national parks on our travels (besides the actual travel to and from the parks) and we did our best to fuel up outside the boundaries of the park. Why? The cost of gas inside the park was $0.20 to $0.30 higher than outside the park. It wasn’t enough that a buyer would be shocked at the price, but it was enough to notice if you were paying attention and it was enough to make a $10-20 difference on the trip.

Naturally, this isn’t a big thing, but it makes enough of a difference that by simply being aware of it, you can make better choices that will keep money in your pocket.

On the whole, this was an extremely inexpensive vacation for our family. We were away from home for 10 days and spent less than $100 each day on everything – food, fuel, campsite, firewood, everything (the only thing I’m excluding is the unexpected emergency night in a hotel). That cost savings was largely due to three factors.

First, we are regular campers. Most of our camping supplies are used several times a year and have been used for many years, bringing the cost per night of camping for that gear down into the pennies, literally. I have a sleeping bag that I have slept in countless times since college, so the cost per night of that thing is far, far less than a dime. Being a regular camper makes camping cheaper and cheaper.

Second, we planned with low cost camping in mind. We thought about the trip in advance, thought about choices we could make to keep costs low, and executed those choices. We made meal plans, checked out library books, and carefully packed things before ever departing. We didn’t just toss clothes in a bag and roll out the door. That prep work paid off – our family was able to see a ton of natural beauty at a low cost.

Finally, we separated ourselves from the idea that vacation has to mean “luxury” experiences. Rather, vacations, to us, simply means experiencing a new slice of the world, and we certainly did that. (Though, to be honest, I can’t think of anything “luxurious” that would seem more amazing than some of the natural beauty we saw.)

I highly, highly recommend a well-planned vacation in the national parks if you have a fourth grader in your family (and even if you don’t). It can take some planning to keep it cheap, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to see some of the amazing natural beauty of our country at an incredibly low cost. See what national parks are within 10 hours of driving from your home and use that as a starting point.

Maybe, in a few years, we’ll see you in Acadia.

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Six Free, Gripping Documentaries That Can Change How You Think About Money

The well-done documentary film is a singular, wonderful piece of art. A great documentary can inspire, expose, educate, elucidate – and sometimes, do all of those things of that at once. I think they work best when they tackle a complicated issue, make us question our preconceived notions, and teach us things along the way.

For many of us, nothing is more complicated than money. Should I dollar-cost average? How quickly should I pay down my debt, and which balances should I tackle first? Should I do a 15-year or a 30-year mortgage? The questions are endless. And while it’s worthwhile to get down and dirty with the minutia, it’s also important to step back from time to time and take in the whole picture.

These documentaries allow us to learn about money, personal finance, economics, and life from a bird’s eye view. Each offers actionable takeaways that can be applied to the everyday, but the viewer must draw those out from the larger tapestry. That process is both engaging and rewarding.

The following films address inequality, personal finance, entrepreneurship, overcoming financial setbacks, motivation, and more. The lessons are timeless, and the presentations are beautiful. These six documentaries will change the way you think about money.

‘Inside Job’

This 2010 five-part series won an Oscar, and for good reason. It expertly depicts how the 2008 U.S. financial crisis happened and who was responsible in an intimate, eye-opening fashion. It shows how the modern debt-based monetary system offers many benefits, but can come tumbling down fast in the face of ineptitude, corruption, and recklessness.

If this doesn’t make you want to assess your appetite for risky investments, you have a bolder constitution than me. It also makes you realize that there are more “black swans” looming on the horizon, and the best way to be prepared is to have an emergency fund and a rock steady plan.

‘The Ascent of Money’

This documentary accomplishes the tricky task of condensing 2,000 years of financial history in a concise and engaging fashion. I feel like I would have done myself a favor had I watched this documentary before going to college. That way, I would have had a better understanding of the role of money throughout history as I entered into my introductory economics courses. Plus, it’s downright fascinating. I never would have thought that a once small bond market in Renaissance-era Italy kicked off modern financing as we know it.

The film does a particularly good job of making the viewer understand that money is only as real as the agreements and laws that underpin it. If you want to make lasting change with regards to how the monetary system works, it’s going to have to start at a grassroots level.

‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’

This film is a fantastic complement to “Inside Job.” It details how Enron, one of the biggest energy companies of all time, turned out to be a built on a house of cards.

It’s riveting to watch the story develop, as it’s like a real-world “Breaking Bad.” The leaders of Enron start out with good intentions, but greed and overconfidence lead them down a dark road. One of the most shocking scenes is when the viewer hears real recordings of how Enron executives dealt with an energy crisis happening in California in the early 2000s. They not only cheer the rolling blackouts that are occurring, but they jack up their energy prices in a way that can only be seen as ruthless extortion.

When I watch it, I see parallels to the worst aspects of the financial services industry. If you’re not careful with who you trust, you might end up with someone who does unethical, dangerous, and ultimately tragic things with your hard-earned money. The Enron executives were widely believed to be brilliant people, but looks can be deceiving.

‘Broke’

Many of us believe that if we were to suddenly come into millions of dollars, we’d finally be happy and content. It would be even better if we got that money as a reward for working on something we love.

Yet, that’s what happens to thousands of professional athletes every year. What happens after these cash windfalls can be sobering.

“Broke” shows how formerly rich athletes lost their fortunes. Sometimes they go broke because of faults of their own, but just as often it’s due to predatory “friends” or incompetent financial advisors. It reveals in gripping fashion how the people you surround yourself with are crucial to your future financial success.

A boatload of money won’t necessarily set you up for life. Without prudence and solid money management skills, there’s no sum that can’t be squandered.

‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

This film that doesn’t directly deal with finances, but if you look beneath the surface, valuable business and life lessons emerge. It tells the story of how 85-year-old Jiro Ono operates his critically-acclaimed, Michelin three-star sushi restaurant. The restaurant is not in a fancy French hotel and it wasn’t born out of millions of dollars of funding. It is tucked away in a dim, underground Tokyo subway station. Yet, visitors flock in from all over the world and there is a years-long wait list for a seat. The question is, how did little old Jiro do this?

The amazing revelation is that there is no “secret sauce,” no magic formula, no shortcut to success. Jiro is just a regular guy who found his passion and worked at it as hard as he could. He faced setback after setback over the course of his career, but he stayed true to his passion and trusted that with enough preparation and focus he could overcome anything. He didn’t focus on accolades, but rather on working as hard as he could to find the best ingredients and prepare them in the best way he knew how.

In the end, you see that trial-and-error was his “secret sauce”. He got better and better at making sushi as the years went on, and ultimately word of his mastery spread. It’s an inspirational look at just how far you can get with perseverance and single-minded focus.

‘Maxed Out’

It’s a problem all too familiar to millions of Americans – bills are piling up, money is running low, and you’re behind on your credit card payments. The credit card interest rates are onerous, and your debt is growing faster than your income. It’s a sad and frustrating position to be in. How did it happen? That’s the question ‘Maxed Out’ tries to answer.

The film explores our credit card-obsessed culture not by demonizing those that overspend, but by showing how several different factors make credit card use very hard to resist. It shines in its ability to evoke emotions by showing just how powerfully real people are affected by credit card problems.

Predatory lending practices are examined, as well as how the laws are written to benefit credit card issuers as opposed to the regular folks who are affected by their unethical business practices.

The film makes you realize that, yes, banks and lawyers are going to act in their own best interest, but also that each of us has to take more personal responsibility for our actions. Ultimately, you sign the agreements, and we need to be better at assessing what we really need and what the best methods are for funding our lives.

Summing Up

While documentaries can never replace textbooks, they are very useful tools for visual learners. These films can serve as a useful jumping-off point toward learning how to be wiser with your money. Coupled with some great books on the topic, anyone can use them to become more informed consumer, a better investor, and a stronger entrepreneur.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

8 Expert Travel Hacking Tips for 2017

“Travel hacking” is when you work within the rules of airlines, hotels, and travel credit cards to earn rewards such as points and miles to put toward free travel. Despite its name, travel hacking is simple (and legal), and lots of people do it every day to save money and see the world. If you have ever wanted to take the family on a trip and just couldn’t afford the airfare, learning to travel hack can solve your dilemma.

Meet the experts

We reached out to the following travel rewards experts for their advice on choosing a travel card, maximizing rewards, and making the most of points or miles at redemption. Here’s what they told us.

TravelExperts-Grid

Tip #1 – Take advantage of more than just free travel.

You might not know this, but travel credit cards are good for more than just earning points. Some of these cards grant you and your family access to additional perks. Ariana from TopCashback explains:

Airline miles or hotel loyalty points may seem like the only rewards, but think again! In addition to miles, some reward programs (such as American Express) give you access to airport lounges, restaurant and hotel concierges and deals on rental cars.”

Rewards programs may also offer opportunities for earning extra points with participating car rental services, hotels, and airlines. All the more reason to make sure you read up on everything your card has to offer.

Tip #2 – Choose cards with miles bonus incentives and flexible redemption.

Travel hacking is all about finding ways to earn miles and points faster while working within the existing rules. Cat Holladay from The Compass is Calling explains how some cards make that even easier:

“The key is to sign up for the cards with the most miles’ bonus incentive AND the most flexible usage. Several cards out there give 50-60,000 ‘miles’ after spending $3-4,000 in the first 3 months. 60,000 miles is the equivalent of 2 domestic tickets on many airlines, almost two international tickets on Singapore Airlines, and one international ticket on most carriers.”

Choosing a travel credit card with flexible redemption means more options when it’s time to redeem your hard-earned miles. Some top travel cards offer 1:1 rewards transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs or discounts on travel booked through the card’s rewards program, and more. Others allow you to redeem miles for a travel statement credit, which means you can reimburse yourself for eligible travel purchases, no matter where you book. And, as Cat points out, many of them offer generous mile bonuses for spending a couple thousand dollars within the first few months.

Tip #3 – Maximize rewards on everyday purchases.

What kind of purchases do you make in your everyday life? Do you find yourself eating out more often than not? Are you brand loyal? It is wise to sign up for a credit card with a rewards program that aligns with those everyday spending habits.

“By signing up for a new credit card with a hefty welcome bonus and just doing your normal, everyday spending, you can accrue points or miles towards free flights (plus taxes or fees, generally low) or hotel rooms,” explains David Slotnick of The City Miler.

One of the best things about a credit card that rewards your everyday spending habits is that you don’t have to change anything. You don’t need to adjust how much you’re willing to pay for something just to hit a particular threshold, and you’ll earn your way toward a free trip in no time.

Tip #4 – Don’t opt for cash back.

Some cards let you cash in your points for a pre-paid gift card. While that might seem like a perk, it’s a colossal waste of points and miles. With most travel cards, you’ll get the best points redemption value for, you guessed it, travel. (Some travel credit cards even give you a nice redemption bonus if you book through their cardmember portal!)

“It’s tempting to exchange your points for cash back – you see the dollar amount beckoning to you on your screen, just one click away,” says Kaja of Reward Expert. “However, people need to know that it’s not necessarily the best value available to them. In fact, redeeming for air travel is typically offers the most lucrative return.”

Tip #5 – Study loyalty program terms for extra points.

Travel isn’t the only category where loyalty programs exist to help you earn and spend points. In fact, quite a few travel credit cards on the market feature loyalty programs in other categories for dining, car rentals and more. Studying and understanding the terms of these programs is a great way to maximize your point accrual, according to Torsten Jacobi of Mighty Travels:

“Loyalty programs often offer bonus miles or points just for signing up to them for free. If you shop online, you can use various portals like MileagePlus Shopping and AAdvantage eShopping to earn as you spend and some loyalty programs also have dining programs so you can earn as you eat. You can earn with your car rentals, your mobile phone provider, when you buy an Internet service, order flowers and sometimes even when you buy or sell a property!”

Another way to earn extra points is with loyalty programs that let you “level up” in terms of spending and earning points. “Just for signing up you get 3 American Airlines points for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants,” explains Sean Ogle from Location Rebel. “Once you hit 12 transactions in a year, you get bumped up 5 points per $1 spent. So to give you an example, if you go out to a dinner and spend $100, you’ll get 500 Aadvantage points just for being part of the program. If you register one of your rewards credit cards, then you’ll also get points from them.”

Tip #6 – Consider a card with an annual fee.

No one likes to pay annual fees on their travel credit cards. However, in some cases, the annual fee is worth it, as Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt points out:

“For those who travel a lot and fly a lot, I think it is worth it to get a card with a fee. Fee-based cards tend to give you a better rewards scheme, where you can accumulate points faster, get better access to services and special offers, and get better travel protection. With these cards, I have saved more money on travel than I have spent on fees.”

The cost of the annual fee can pay for itself several times over. This is especially true with cards that come with a generous sign-up bonus. For instance, if you opt for a card that nets you 60,000 points just for signing up, the cash back on those points could pay for the card for several years. It’s also worth noting that some of these cards offer to waive the annual fee for your first year.

Tip #7 – Be flexible.

Generally, flexibility is a good thing to have when life throws little curve balls at you. This is especially true for booking travel and redeeming hotel rewards. Some rewards programs help you save money or earn extra points if you are flexible about your departure date and are willing to shift things around. You might even be eligible for more rewards if you downgrade your hotel accommodations.

“Flexibility is key when trying to maximize airline and hotel rewards. Sometimes the award space will appear just days before your trip. If your travel dates aren’t flexible, book a backup itinerary and change it as better options become available.” – Scott Mackenzie, Travel Codex

It’s often important to opt for travel credit cards that have flexible spending and redemption bonuses. The same is true for how flexible you are in redeeming those points.

Tip #8 – Transfer points to partner programs.

Sometimes it pays to transfer your points to a partner program. Take it from the Financial Panther himself, Kevin. He explains:

“[Some card issuers have] a bunch of travel partners of which you can transfer your points over and get tremendous deals. For example, I have a friend this year, who is flying to Hawaii round trip from Minneapolis for 25,000 points! He did this by transferring his points to Korean air partner, who partners with Delta, and they have a deal where you can fly anywhere in the US roundtrip for 25k points.”

Some top travel credit cards feature 1:1 points transfer to several airline and hotel loyalty programs. That means you won’t lose any points if you decide to do like Kevin’s friend and transfer those points for a better deal.

These are just a few expert travel hacking tips you can use to earn free travel while making the most of your points. So don’t let the rising cost of travel stop you or your family from seeing the world. Take some tips from our panel of travel experts, and start making the system work for you.

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10 Smart Ways to Use Leftover Sweet Potatoes (Smart Staple Strategies #5)

This is part of a short summer series covering 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!

Sweet potatoes are one of my family’s “hidden” staple foods. It’s not one of the obvious ones that people often point out, like rice and beans, but sweet potatoes are always available at a really inexpensive price, they’re always tasty, and they can be prepared in a lot of different ways.

In our house, we often eat baked sweet potatoes instead of normal ones. We’ll eat them as a side dish for many meals by wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven, then serving them by simply slicing them open and adding butter and sour cream (and maybe a bit of brown sugar, too).

Sweet potatoes are rather large and they’re also a bit dense, which means that it’s really easy to cook far too many for your family’s needs, especially when they constitute a side dish. If you find yourself with some extra cooked sweet potatoes at the end of a meal (and you haven’t jazzed them up too much), there are actually a lot of tasty things you can do with them in the next day or two. Here are ten of my favorite ideas.

Make mashed chipotle sweet potatoes as a side dish.

This recipe for mashed maple chipotle sweet potatoes is a great use for leftover sweet potatoes. Since step one is just cooking the potatoes in a normal way, you can just skip that and jump right into the two remaining steps, which basically add up to adding some flavorings to the potatoes and mashing them like mashed potatoes.

These end up being this perfect mix of sweet and savory and work perfectly as a side dish for all kinds of meals. The secret here is the chipotle pepper, which adds a great spiciness to the natural sweetness of the potato and the hint of maple syrup. This stuff is so delicious!

Cube cooked sweet potatoes into tiny cubes and add them to oatmeal.

We often have steel cut oats for breakfast and we usually flavor them in simple ways, with brown sugar or maple syrup. Those are flavors that practically beg to also have a bit of sweet potato.

It’s easy – just cube up a baked sweet potato just before serving and toss the cubes in there just long enough to warm them up. Make the cubes relatively small – you want a small bit or two in with your oatmeal, not a whole mouthful of sweet potato – and you’ll find yourself with a surprisingly delicious breakfast treat!

Cube the cooked sweet potatoes and add them to a salad.

This might seem a bit different, but you’d be surprised how well some cubed sweet potato works on most salads. Their firm texture and hint of sweetness works with many different kinds of salad and many vinaigrette dressings work like a champ in terms of complementing the flavors of the sweet potato.

I often make salads out of whatever green mix is on sale at the store, often for lunch, but sometimes as a side dish for dinner. Adding some cubed sweet potatoes to the salad makes the whole thing distinct and surprisingly flavorful.

Turn them into sweet potato pancakes.

This is so easy. All you need to do is take a cooked sweet potato with the skin removed, add two eggs, add a pinch of nutmeg and sweetener if you want, then mash it into a consistent mix. Form that mix into pancake-sized discs and cook them on a griddle or in a skillet with a bit of oil to prevent sticking. They turn out delicious and fluffy and you just can’t get enough!

I’m quite serious when I say that I would happily replace normal pancakes with these. They are almost magical with some maple syrup on them.

Another approach, if you’re not quite that committed to sweet potato pancakes, is to just puree one cooked potato without the skin along with some ordinary pancake batter. That way, you get a nice jolt of sweet potato flavor with the ordinary texture and cooking style of pancakes.

Blend them and use it to thicken chili.

Just take a leftover cooked sweet potato, remove the skin, add a couple of cups of chili to a blender, toss in the sweet potato, and puree it until it’s a thick paste. Mix that back into your chili.

This process thickens the chili and adds a bit of sweet potato flavor to it while also improving the nutritional value. The flavors tend to combine really well. It also bulks it up quite a bit, meaning that the same amount of chili can now feed another person or two.

Turn an uncooked sweet potato into a bunch of sweet potato chips.

All you have to do is take an uncooked sweet potato, slice it as thinly as possible (a food processor really helps here), then dredge the slices through olive oil, then top them with a bit of salt or other powdered flavorings of your choice, then bake them at 250 F for two hours, flipping them halfway through.

These make for a wonderfully crispy treat, flavored just the way you like them. It’s a great way to transform a leftover uncooked sweet potato or two into a snack that everyone will devour.

Mash them and make sweet potato quesadillas.

Got some leftover tortillas, too? Just take a sweet potato without skin, mash it thoroughly, then spread that mashed sweet potato thinly on the inside of a tortilla. Add some shredded cheese, fold it in half, and cook it in a skillet over high heat until the tortilla is just barely browned in places. Perfect!

It turns out that the sweet potato flavor meshes well with quite a few different cheese varieties, making this a very simple and tasty sandwich for lunch. You can also jazz it up with additional ingredients as you so choose – I like to add just a little bit of salsa to this.

Shred them and make sweet potato latkes.

I absolutely love these next to a fried egg for breakfast. Their flavors just bounce off of each other so well, and they’re easy to prepare, too.

Just take an uncooked sweet potato and shred it. For every pound of shredded sweet potato, add 1/3 cup flour, two large eggs, a teaspoon of salt, and some black pepper to taste and mix thoroughly. Then, just take about 1/8th of a cup of this mixture, flatten it into a disk, and add it to a skillet with a bit of oil in it over medium high heat. Cook until brown on one side, then flip and brown it on the other side. Perfect!

Mash them and bake them into sweet potato cupcakes.

Sweet potatoes make for a wonderful backbone for sweet baked items, such as sweet breads and, yes, cupcakes. Without getting too much into detail, here’s a great recipe for sweet potato cupcakes that works perfectly with the insides of a leftover sweet potato or two.

Baked goods like this perfectly accentuate the gentle sweetness of a sweet potato, bringing out all of those flavors and mashing them up with other flavors (like cinnamon) for an amazing sweet treat. For a different take on turning sweet potatoes into a delicious dessert, check out this amazing pecan and sweet potato bread recipe, which works great with leftover sweet potatoes.

Scrape out the insides, preserve the skins, and make loaded sweet potato skins.

What about all of those unused sweet potato skins? You can easily turn them into “loaded skins” for a great snack. Just take a bit of the sweet potato insides and mix it up with things that you like – cheese, sour cream, bacon crumbles, whatever sounds good to you. Blend it to consistency, then scoop that mix right back into the skins.

I like to then top them with a bit of cheese and bake them for a short while at 350 F until the top is just a bit crisp and the whole thing is just perfectly warm throughout. It’s such a delicious snack!

A leftover sweet potato, whether cooked or uncooked, can be used in so many ways. It doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of a meal or even a side dish on its own. Instead, get a little creative and you’ll find infinite easy ways to enjoy that sweet potato flavor!

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Three Credit-Boosting Ways to Tackle Credit Card Debt

Does the idea of taking 20 or more years to pay off $10,000 worth of credit card debt sound appealing? Does the thought of paying more than $15,500 in interest fees on that $10,000 debt seem like a wise financial move?

These are silly questions, or course — the answer is clearly no to both of them. Yet if you choose to make only the minimum monthly payments on your credit card accounts, this math is a very real example of the situation you could be facing – a lot of wasted money over a very long period of time.

If you’ve done your homework, you already know that revolving an outstanding credit card balance from one month to the next will not only hurt you financially but can also damage your credit scores. For this reason, it’s important to tackle your credit card debt problem sooner rather than later. Here are three ways to go about it:

1. Accelerated Payback

One method of tackling credit card debt involves scaling back on your charges and accelerating the payback of your outstanding balances. If you’re carrying balances on multiple accounts then you’ll also need to prioritize which balances to pay down first (while maintaining on-time minimum payments on every account, of course). Here are a few options to consider.

  • Pay off the balance closest to being maxed out: This option may help your credit scores since scoring models like FICO and VantageScore pay attention to how much of your credit limits you utilize. As your debt-to-limit ratio falls, your credit scores will likely improve.
  • Pay off the lowest balances first and move upward: This option, sometimes called the “debt snowball”, can help you build early momentum – and may help to improve your credit scores as well. Credit scoring models not only pay attention to your debt to limit ratios on each card, but also your total number of accounts with outstanding balances. The fewer accounts with balances, the better from a credit scoring perspective.
  • Pay off the highest interest rates first: This is clearly a financial move. However, remember that anytime you pay down credit card balances, you’re likely helping your credit scores as well.

Remember, there are few “bad” ways to eliminate credit card debt. All of the options above can help to save you money and may potentially improve your credit scores.

2. Zero-Interest Balance Transfer Options

It is no secret that the interest rates on credit card debt are notoriously expensive. Even if you’ve begun to scale back your spending and are paying off your debt as aggressively as possible, high interest rates can slow your progress. For this reason many people will opt to use a zero-interest balance transfer as part of their credit card debt elimination plan.

If your credit is in decent shape, you may be able to qualify for a new credit card with an attractive balance transfer offer of 0% interest for some period of time, normally six to 18 months. In fact, some of your existing accounts may even have balance transfer offers as well. Without the burden of added interest, each payment will make a bigger dent in your debt. You may need to pay a balance transfer fee in the neighborhood of 3%, however, so make sure you can pay down the entire amount transferred within the interest-free introductory period to make it worthwhile.

Remember, though, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to a low- or 0%-interest balance transfer option, you need to stay committed to your newly formed good habits. Slip back into your former tendencies to overspend and you could find yourself in worse shape than when you started.

3. Personal Loan

Personal loans represent another potentially smart move when you are tackling a credit card debt problem. A personal loan might not save you as much money in interest fees as a zero percent balance transfer; however, your new lower rate will not have an expiration date either.

Additionally, when you pay off high-risk revolving debt (credit cards) with low-risk installment debt (personal loan), your credit scores are likely to see a near immediate boost as an added bonus. Of course, for this or any other debt elimination strategy to work effectively, you’ll want to avoid charging up new balances on your freshly paid-off credit card accounts.

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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 Three Credit-Boosting Ways to Tackle Credit Card Debt appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Your Financial Independence Day

“The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too they would never forget.”
― David McCullough, 1776

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I find the words of the Declaration of Independence to be incredibly inspiring. You have a group of people who are dissatisfied with their lot in life, who recognize that they have the ability to build a life for themselves that’s closer to their ideals, and they’re stepping forward and taking action based on that ability.

They knew it meant big changes. They knew it meant a rough road ahead for them. They knew that many people they once considered allies and friends were going to laugh in their faces and possibly even work against them.

Still, they persisted on. They dreamed of something more for themselves and their countrymen.

On this day in 1776, our founding fathers declared it to be their independence day.

When will it be your independence day?

When you make the choice to turn your financial life around, you are a revolutionary of sorts. You’re making the active choice to step away from the financial train wreck that many Americans find themselves heading toward, even though those changes aren’t easy and definitely aren’t supported by the culture of the day. That’s an act that takes a great deal of courage, especially when you persist with it.

The lessons of the American revolution shine through brightly on the path to financial independence.

The path to financial independence requires you to want a new direction so badly that you’re willing to make fundamental changes to your life.
In the revolutionary years, the colonists were willing to give up all of the safety and protection given to them by the British Empire in order to be able to establish their own path in the world. They were willing to give up quite a lot of safety in order to achieve the liberty they wanted.

It wasn’t easy. It was far easier for them to simply remain a part of the British Empire, to continue to pay the outrageous taxes that King George demanded, to enjoy the benefits of being a part of the British Empire. The desire to be free simply was too great for them, and they signed that declaration on that fateful day.

What do you want? What are you willing to give up for it? What are you willing to change about your life for it?

Just like freedom, financial independence isn’t a right, nor is it a gift given to you by others. It’s something that you have to work for, or else you find yourself right back under someone else’s control. Do you want to be steered by the whims of your employment for the rest of your life? Or do you want to be captain of your ship, steering it where you want to go?

The path to financial independence means giving up some of the easiest grooves in the road ahead.
It was undoubtedly more convenient for the colonists to set sail and do business under the flag of the British Empire. It enabled access to ports and kept pirates at bay. It enabled favorable trade with a lot of people. It enabled a free flow of many types of luxury goods. Throwing off those conveniences definitely meant a convenient and pleasurable life, in the short term.

But at what cost?

There’s no doubt that spending money gives us conveniences. The ability to just go to a nice restaurant for every meal spares us having to worry about the effort needed to prepare food. The ability to just buy whatever book we want at any time using Amazon spares us from having to actually go to the library or actually return books. The ability to hire someone to do our laundry or clean our house spares us from the drudgery of those chores.

Yet, when we do that, we are trading financial freedom for convenience. We cede more control over our future to our employers and to our customers. We give them more and more power over our lives in exchange for the ability to not have to cook up a pan of scrambled eggs or do a load of laundry for ourselves.

The path to financial independence isn’t an easy one, but it’s a free one. It’s one where, as you travel down that path, you find yourself less and less under the control of a cruel boss or an unforgiving job market. You control those things now, rather than them controlling you.

Sure, you give up things like some restaurant meals or perhaps your cable bill or maybe you go on a less luxurious trip for a few summers, but from that you gain freedom and lose stress.

The path to financial independence means going against some of the things that society seems to expect of you.
If you paid your taxes and swore loyalty to the crown, you were accepted as a citizen of the British Empire. That’s what was expected of you in the colonies in those days, and to do otherwise meant that you quickly aroused suspicion. Even as the war began, the cities and the countryside were filled with loyalists. Before the revolution? You have to be careful because, as a revolutionary, you were going against the grain of society.

Much like the spirit of 1776, charting your own path to financial freedom means bucking a lot of the prevailing trends of the moment. Modern society is set up to encourage you to spend, spend, spend. Turn on almost any television program and you see people showing off expensive products and doing expensive things and they’re all beautiful and you’re supposed to want to be like them. The commercials are even more geared toward that. Flip through most magazines and it’s the same – lots of articles about spending money on stuff and experiences. The same is true for many websites, too. The core idea of modern America seems to be to spend, spend, spend so you, too, can be beautiful and happy.

Financial independence takes either a great deal of luck or a conscious rejection of that core idea (or both). You don’t need stuff to be happy. You don’t need to be some specific definition of beautiful, either. You just need to be you, committed to some real core values that aren’t centered around an endless array of stuff.

Go against the grain.

The path to financial independence means finding new ways to do things.
Back in those days, the soon-to-be United States acquired most of its goods from other parts of the British Empire, which made it easy to acquire all kinds of things (while stripping America of its wealth through taxation, but that’s a whole different story).

The path to independence for the colonies involved losing those advantages. They could no longer rely on a steady stream of tea or coffee or fruits or anything else they couldn’t grow directly at home. They had to find new ways of doing things – new trading partners, new industries at home, and so forth.

The path to financial independence for you is much the same. If you keep doing things the way you’ve always been doing things, you’re going to get the same results you’ve always been getting. If you want financial independence, you’re going to have to do some things differently.

For most people, that big change is a reduction in spending. Financial independence requires spending substantially less than you earn and saving the difference, and the real impact of that on day-to-day life is less spending on unnecessary things. This means finding new hobbies, rethinking old ones, letting go of some less-important luxury goods, shopping around for things like insurance, and so on. For many people, those are new ways of doing things, different than the patterns they’ve adopted in their adult life.

Are you up to the challenge? George Washington was. Thomas Jefferson was. They walked the path to independence. Will you?

The path to financial independence may require letting go of old friendships.
During those days, the colonists were split among those who were loyal to the British crown and those who wished for independence. Neighbors often couldn’t trust neighbors. Neighborhoods and communities were split. Sometimes, even the people that were most trusted turned out to have unexpected allegiances, such as Benedict Arnold.

As the colonists fought for independence, many old relationships fell by the wayside. In an effort to fight for something new, they had to let go of some old things, too.

You may find the same phenomenon on your own path to financial independence. You may find yourself surrounded by people who aren’t supportive of your goals, who claim that it is impossible. You may find that old friends who once spent a lot of time with you now avoid you because you’re not spending great deals of money on the latest things. Those changes can hurt.

Remember this, however: if a friend ceases to be your friend because you’re working to improve yourself, how good of a friend is that person? If a person was only in your life because of the things you spent your money on, were they friends with you or your money?

Some friendships may fall, but thankfully many will remain true.

The path to financial independence likely requires building new friendships, too.
It wasn’t too many years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence – just thirteen years, in fact – that the colonies were at war with France (via the French colony of New France) in the French-Indian War. For American independence to succeed, the colonists had to find new friends in unexpected places and the French were chief among them.

Not too long before, the French were the sworn enemies of the colonists. Scarcely fifteen years later, people like Lafayette and Rochambeau were essential pieces of America’s fight for independence.

Just as with those colonists, your path to financial independence may find you forging new friendships as well. You’ll find that, as you engage in new activities and learn new ways of doing things, you meet new people who appreciate you with fresh eyes, and you may even run into old acquaintances who now see you differently.

Welcome those new friendships. Let them become a part of your life. You’ll find that these new friendships are powerful ones, as they’re founded on the basis of the values of freedom and independence upon which you now base your financial aims.

The path to financial independence means having courage and not being afraid of change.
There are many moments during America’s Revolutionary War that show incredible courage, but I want to mention one in particular, Joseph Plumb Martin. Martin was a light infantryman during the Revolutionary War who later published a narrative of his experiences, which can widely be found under the title A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier.

His book isn’t one of heroics. Instead, it’s about ordinary life as a Revolutionary War soldier. He doesn’t talk about the people we think of as Revolutionary heroes. Instead, he elevates the role of the regular soldier, putting the spotlight on the huge individual sacrifices and pains and challenges that so many anonymous people accepted in those years. It’s about courage and guts in the face of change and in the face of challenging events.

It is hard to muster courage when the road is hard. It’s easy to want to quit and to take a simpler path, but the simpler path rarely leads to anything more than regret at a chance missed.

Don’t let your life be a chance missed. Put on your courage and march down a different path. When challenge faces you, push through it. Make the most of it. Push for something bigger. You don’t have to be anyone special to do this, just a person with some fire in their belly. Just like Joseph Plumb Martin.

The path to financial independence means charting your own path, often beyond the familiar patterns.
Out of the ashes of the Revolutionary War, the citizenry of the United States, without any form of active government in place, came together to unite under a collective governance, writing their own Constitution. Such a thing had never been accomplished before – constitutions before then, when they existed, had always been created by those already in power rather than by elected or nominated representatives of the citizenry.

They forged a new path, different than all those before them, and the document they created endures today.

Today, we live in a nation where three quarters of the people don’t have any sort of emergency fund and a strong majority have no retirement savings beyond what Social Security can provide for them. The mere thought of having enough money to retire early or to live financially independent of the need to work sounds preposterous to most citizens.

And, yet, it’s a path that some among us still try to accomplish. It is a rarely-trodden path. It’s likely far different than the path of many around you. Yet the way forward is clear, if you take the time to look around you, evaluate your options, learn good strategy, and take that first step.

The path to financial independence is a long one that requires patience and will include many difficult battles.
The path to independence for the colonists was not an easy one. The war was nearly lost more than once. Many hard winters were faced. Many challenges were overcome. It took thirteen years from the signing of that Declaration for our nation to form, with many of those years in outright warfare and others spent trying to form a nation out of a bunch of fiercely independent colonies with wildly divergent ideas.

Those individuals, however, were driven by a desire to have a life different than the one they once had, a life that enabled them to pursue their dreams without a burden upon their shoulders. They were willing to fight and sacrifice for that opportunity.

Your path will not be a short one. It will take many years to achieve your big financial goals. There will be moments when it is incredibly hard. You will face challenges, and it will be up to the quality and determination of your character to overcome them, to achieve your dreams.

Are you up to that challenge?

Take the path set before you.
Today, you may find yourself celebrating the independence won by the generation of 1776. As you enjoy your cookout and your fireworks show, may it remind you of the ideals they cherished, the challenges they faced, and the great victory that they won.

And as you drift off to a pleasant sleep afterwards, ask yourself whether you’re ready to take up their standard and make today your independence day.

Good luck.

The post Your Financial Independence Day appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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