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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Eight Ideas for the 78% of Americans Living Paycheck to Paycheck

This week, Harris Poll released the stunning results of a survey that indicated that a whopping 78% of Americans currently live paycheck to paycheck. Some of the other stunning findings from this survey:

+ Nearly four in ten (38%) of Americans don’t participate in a 401k, IRA, or similar retirement plan.
+ More than half (56%) of American workers feel they will always be in debt
+ More than half (56%) of Americans also save $100 or less a month
+ Almost one in ten (9%) of American workers making more than $100,000 per year are living paycheck-to-paycheck

Perhaps just as amazing is this Bankrate survey, which indicates that 57% percent of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 unexpected expense, and that half of Americans with an income of over $75,000 a year don’t have enough cash to cover such an unexpected expense.

Here’s the reality: the vast majority of Americans are completely unprepared for any kind of unexpected financial event. Something as simple as a failed car starter can send their financial life whipping in the wind, without a clear path for handling it. Something like a job loss or a major unexpected illness will bring about very rapid changes in their entire way of living.

That’s a bleak picture, no matter how you slice it. It’s also a picture that many Americans simply refuse to face. Instead, it often sneaks up on them in the quiet moments of reflection: in the shower, on the subway, while driving kids to soccer practice, in bed just before sleep. It’s also there, in the background of life, as a constant shadow.

I used to be in this exact boat. We had tons of consumer debt. Our non-mortgage debt was in the six figures. I remember that exact feeling all too well: the feeling of subtle dread at getting the mail, the feeling of worry when I was in the shower, the desire to buy things a little more and party a little harder just to prove to myself that life was okay.

It wasn’t. We almost fell off that proverbial cliff.

Fast forward to today. We’re debt free. We own our own home without even a mortgage. We have more than adequate savings for retirement, healthy savings for our children’s education, a huge emergency fund, and extra savings beyond that for things like car replacements. We’re on pace to retire early.

The difference is night and day, not just in terms of our finances, but our overall quality of life. There were definitely moments that were not easy along the way, I would not trade my current life for my old life for virtually anything.

Here’s the thing: most Americans are where I used to be; relatively few Americans are in the financial place that my family is at today. Between the two groups, there’s a field that looks quite treacherous and challenging, but it’s actually not nearly as bad as it seems.

Here are eight things I want to shout across that treacherous field, ten things I want to shout to my past self and the 80% or so of Americans that are in that same boat.

“If you’re convinced you have to spend money to enjoy life and that more joy comes from more spending, you’re making the single biggest financial mistake you can make!”

You don’t have to spend much money to enjoy life. There, I said it.

Study after study has backed up this fact. Once you meet a certain income threshold, one that’s somewhere between $30,000 and $70,000 a year depending on where you live, additional income doesn’t add any additional happiness to your life.

Why? The purchases you make beyond those covering your basic needs do not add any sort of lasting happiness to your life. Any quality of living improvement that comes from spending money beyond that basic level is eaten up by the stress brought on by having less financial flexibility and more career dependence.

Let’s put it a different way. Let’s say you make $60,000 a year. $35,000 or so covers your basic living expenses – basic shelter, basic food, basic clothing, basic utilities, a small amount of entertainment. You have some choices with the remaining $25,000 a year, but the reality is that if you spend that money on things that will bring you some degree of happiness, that happiness is counterbalanced by the stress of spending everything that you earn.

You put yourself on a financial tightrope where one misstep can send things in your life crashing to a halt.

But wait a second – doesn’t it feel really good to splurge?

“You really don’t need most of the stuff you spend money on – it just provides those little bursts of happiness that don’t last and leave you feeling miserable!”

The reality is that most of the things that we spend money on beyond our basic needs provides a little burst of momentary joy that quickly slides away and leaves us roughly at our base level of happiness that we were at before.

Think about it. You buy a new television for your family room and the process is really fun! You love having this big, bright new television in your family room! It feels great!

Flash forward three weeks and it’s just a device sitting in a corner on which you watch the same old television programs that you were watching before you spent $1,000 on that new television.

You go out to lunch with coworkers and it’s fun! You have a few laughs together and you drop $30 on the check.

Two days later, no one can even remember where you ate. Why not just eat with the same crew out of a brown bag in the office or go to a park or something and save yourself the $30?

This happens over and over again. You buy some item and have a burst of fun doing it, but then that new purchase is forgotten or becomes part of the normal landscape of your normal unchanged life. You’re doing the same things you do every day without any real change.

That’s the reality of most of the things we spend money on beyond our basic needs. They provide a little burst of happiness that simply doesn’t last. It vanishes, and we’re left with the same life we had before. Often, we completely forget the purchase at all.

But what we don’t forget is the stress from not having enough money to feel secure or to make ends meet. We spent our money on a bunch of forgettable stuff, and now we stand in the shower hoping that the car will start this morning because there is no way we can afford this right now. Even if the car starts, the whole thing is still stressful.

The vast majority of spending beyond our basic needs matches this pattern. It gives us this little burst of happiness that fades so quickly, and we’re left in slightly worse shape than before.

Most people get on board with the idea of constantly buying things. They want constant little bursts of pleasure in their lives and keep riding that wave, but underneath that is a bedrock that’s wearing away. It’s not built on anything, and when it crashes, it crashes hard.

“Your reward for working hard is low stress and fun! Neither involve spending money!”

“I work hard! Shouldn’t I have fun?”

Absolutely, but fun does not have to equate with spending money! Spending money and fun are two completely different groups of things with some overlap, but the amount of fun things to do that doesn’t involve any significant spending money is enormous.

Everyone’s different, of course, but I can literally list hundreds of things I enjoy doing that involve very little spending. I love to read. I love to go on hikes. I love to go to the park and play soccer. I love to make meals from scratch. I love to play board games with my friends. I love to go to community events. I love to watch occasional television, but I’m really picky about what I watch and I don’t bother with just anything. I love to do a slow Wikipedia crawl where I’m learning about new things. I love doing some types of exercise (again, some things I don’t enjoy, while others make me feel great). I love doing things with my family, even simple things like just going on a wandering walk.

I can go on and on and on like this. There really is no such thing as boredom in my life.

The thing is, unless I’m specifically choosing to do so, none of those things involve spending money. I mean, I can always buy a new board game, but I don’t need to – I have a lot of games on my shelves. I can always buy a new book, but I have a ton of them already and a ton more are available at the library.

However, fun is about doing things, not buying things. It’s about using the things you have to have a great experience, not simply buying more stuff that you may or may not have time to use or enjoy.

I don’t want to buy books, I want to read them. I don’t want to buy games, I want to play them. I don’t want to buy sports gear, I want to play sports. I don’t want to constantly upgrade my camping equipment, I want to go camping.

Fun comes from doing, not from buying. The little burst of pleasure that comes from buying doesn’t last long and you’re right back where you started, except with a little less money in your pocket. However, the experience of delving deep into doing something you truly enjoy is something that lasts and lasts and it costs almost nothing at all.

“A lot of modern culture works to confuse your sense of needs and wants!”

I’m not even talking about advertisements. I’m talking about much of the actual culture – television programs, magazine articles, news reports, music, films, everything. The vast majority of it depicts aspirational lifestyles adorned with products of all kinds that are put there to convince you that you need those things to have the great life that’s being depicted.

There’s a rich, well-dressed, beautiful family on television. In the back of our minds, we want to emulate some of the things that they do in order to be more like them… and the easiest thing to do is to buy some of the stuff they have on the table.

There’s a news report about the benefits of some life-changing product. It sounds great. We want some of those benefits, so that product gets lodged in our heads and nudges us toward a purchase.

A new restaurant opens in town and receives breathless media coverage, even though the food and ambience really isn’t anything new. You hear about it and suddenly you want to go, to enjoy what you think will be a great meal and be a part of something.

It’s subtle, but it’s constant. We are constantly being pushed to spend money on something new, on something more than what we have. We are constantly receiving hints that in order to be happy, in order to be smart, in order to be beautiful, we need to buy this new product. Every single psychological button we have is being pushed, leaving us feeling somehow inadequate if we don’t buy.

It’s hogwash, every single bit of it. You already have a rich life. You don’t need stuff to make it rich. You don’t need expensive “experiences” to make it somehow great – it already is great.

Don’t let the airbrushed images of what someone else wants to sell you convince you that your life isn’t already amazing.

“Most of the things that create lasting happiness don’t involve spending money!”

If there’s one key truth I’ve figured out in my adult life, it’s that the only way to anything approaching lasting happiness is contentment with yourself and your life. If you’re content with what you have – if you aren’t constantly seeking more, more, more – you’ll find that happiness naturally bubbles up in your life.

My happiest moments in the last few months came from feeling a lack of major stress in any area of my life. It came from doing something simple that I really enjoy, like curling up for three hours with a great book or going on a six mile hike through a gorgeous park. It came from spending time with people whose company I deeply enjoy.

Those experiences were on top of a foundation of life meant to produce contentment. It came from taking simple steps to keep my stress low – meditating every day, putting aside devoted time for hobbies, keeping my body in decent shape through exercise and better diet, and so on. It came from staying on top of known stressors in my life and taking care of them before they got out of hand.

Part of that, of course, is taking care of money.

“Being in bad financial shape adds constant stress to your life, which contributes to feeling absolutely awful!”

Financial uncertainty provides a cloud of constant stress over your life that drags down everything. It is really, really hard to find a state of contentment when you are living under a constant cloud of financial threats due to living paycheck to paycheck. Without that contentment, it becomes even more tempting to just spend money to have that burst of joy, to feel good for a while.

It’s a cycle, one that’s very hard to break, of course.

When I was stuck in that cycle, I constantly felt a glimmer of worry about finances. I was often afraid to check the mail. I wanted to avoid bills. I sometimes had to juggle credit cards to avoid public embarrassment. I wondered at night if I was ever going to achieve any of my dreams. My thoughts in the shower were about how things felt directionless.

And that’s just when things were flowing along normally.

Anytime anything went even slightly wrong, the panic and worry crept right up on me. I would get upset so easily at unexpected financial events because they usually meant some sort of crisis. Almost always, I had to juggle things very carefully to avoid a meltdown.

Sometimes, I did melt down. I remember some very painful moments along the way.

All of this added up to a lot of stress, and that stress subtly wreaked havoc on my health. I gained weight. I didn’t feel good. I got sick quite often. I felt like I was completely lacking energy.

Yes, some of the stress was professional, too, but that was also led by the financial stress. I couldn’t mis-step at work. I couldn’t afford the risk. Standing up for myself at work was a very risky proposition, especially after our child was born.

Stress was eating me alive. It was making me unhappy. Poor financial decisions were right near the core of it.

“When in doubt, cut out expenses! You can always bring them back later!”

What can you do? Cut the expenses! Cut, cut, cut! Cut out everything that isn’t essential and build back from that later on!

Empty out your closets and sell off everything that you’re not currently using or going to use in the very near future – if it’s just sitting in storage, it’s just locked-up money. Don’t dream of using it – sell it and use the money to patch up your finances.

When you move, move to a smaller place, not a bigger one. It’s cheaper, there’s less to upkeep.

When you replace your car, get a late model used one – or consider whether you can live life without one.

Cut your cable bill. Cut your cell phone. Cut your internet. If you can’t imagine living without those things, try. Turn them completely off for a while and find out that your life won’t fall apart without them. It won’t!

Eat at home! Make your own meals! If you want to eat outside the house, pack a picnic lunch, toss it in a bag, and go eat somewhere beautiful! Eat your lunch under a tree in the park! That’s far better scenery than a $100 restaurant!

Dig into hobbies that involve doing things rather than buying stuff. Read books that you borrowed from the library. Go to free community events. Start a garden. It goes on and on. Cut back on your hobby spending that isn’t associated with the multitude of free things.

Cut, cut, cut! When in doubt, cut! Sell that stuff! If you end up really regretting one or two of those choices later on – and, trust me, you won’t – you can always get it back.

“When in doubt, ask yourself if you’ll remember this when you’re eighty!”

This is the one question I’ve come to ask myself when it comes to purchases. Will I really remember this purchase when I’m eighty?

It’s such a powerful filter. It gets rid of so many meaningless day-to-day purchases. I won’t remember this candy bar when I’m eighty, so why am I buying it?

Here’s what I will remember about the food I eat when I’m eighty. I’ll remember maybe one or two meals eaten at restaurants with great friends and family – and that’s fine. I’ll remember a few meals that I made myself from scratch for a dinner party at home with friends. That’s it. Everything else? Why bother spending more than the minimum on it?

What will I remember about the cars I owned? I barely remember anything from the car cycle that I owned before our current one. Honestly, it’s nothing more than a tool to get from point A to point B, so I just buy the one that does it at the best bang for the buck with reliability.

The only thing I’ll remember about my television is the programs I watched on it. I won’t remember the stunning glory of 1080p versus 1080i. So, I get a television upon which I can watch the shows I want to watch at the lowest price. (In fact, if I lived alone, I wouldn’t own a television at all.)

I won’t remember these things when I’m eighty. What I will remember is the great moments with people, the moments when I don’t feel any stress and I’m completely in the moment with someone I care about. What I will remember are some of the great books I read and some of the amazing hilltop views I hiked to.

Everything else is just details. Why throw money at it? Why spend myself into stress and worry for things I won’t remember when I’m eighty?

Final Thoughts

I wish I could shout all of these things to myself as I was about to graduate college. So many of the choices I was about to make in the next several years were just farcically bad. I spent piles of money on things that I can just barely remember if I really try to. They have no impact on my life.

What does have an impact, even today, is all of the money I wasted. If I hadn’t wasted that money on stupid things and properly used it, I would not be working right now, at all. I would be fully retired, filling my days with fun and people and almost no stress at all.

Don’t let the constant pursuit of stuff and expensive experiences fill your life with stress. Don’t put yourself on an employment and lifestyle tightrope that fills you with unbelievable stress every time it jiggles. Don’t believe that the things you buy will bring you any sort of lasting happiness, and instead seek it from within. Erase those financial worries by spending less than you earn, wiping out your debts, and building such security that it no longer matters too much if you get a pink slip. Relish the natural joys that life has to offer.

The paycheck to paycheck lifestyle is a trap that leads almost inevitably to stress and unhappiness. Get off that train, the sooner the better.

Good luck!

The post Eight Ideas for the 78% of Americans Living Paycheck to Paycheck appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Best American Express Credit Cards for 2017

If you like rewards, you’re going to love American Express. Depending on which American Express card you choose, you can earn cash toward your statement, Delta SkyMiles®, Hilton Honors™ points, Starpoints® to use on the Starwood hotel network, a certificate toward the purchase or lease of a Mercedes-Benz, American Express Membership Rewards® Points, or Plenti® points.

So which card should you choose? If you read that list of rewards and immediately thought “I stay at Starwood hotels all the time!” or “I want Plenti® points!” then your decision will be obvious. For the rest of us, I examined American Express’ 12 credit cards and their reward options, and came up with five top picks:

The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks


  • Best for cash back

  • 0% interest and great rewards
  • and The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express*
    Best for points
  • Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card
    Best travel perks — but only on Delta

Although all of American Express’ cards offer rewards, I focused on the ones that either offered rewards that would appeal to the largest group of people (not everybody’s going to be interested in the Mercedes-Benz Card from American Express, for example) or that offered high-value rewards, such as a free companion flight every year.

Best for Cash Back

If you’re hoping to earn cash back on your purchases, you want one of American Express’ Blue Cash credit cards.

If you make a lot of purchases at U.S. supermarkets, U.S. gas stations, and select U.S. department stores, the might be worth the $95 fee. Let’s say your grocery budget is $700 per month; 6% of that gets you $42 cash back a month, so you’d earn back the cost of your annual fee in just over two months. Everything else is just gravy — but you should do the math on your own purchase history to determine if the is right for you.

0% interest and great rewards

With the , you’ll earn $100 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. Other perks include earning 3% at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases — beyond that, you’ll still earn 1%.

In addition to these cash back rewards, the also boasts no annual fee.

Be aware that all of the cash you earn from both Blue Cash cards comes in the form of statement credits, which means you can only use it to pay down your statement — that $42 from the example above you’d use on your next credit card bill. (Occasionally, though, American Express may give you other ways for you to redeem your cash back rewards, such as merchandise or gift cards.)

Best for Points

If you’re looking to rack up American Express Membership Rewards® Points, get your hands on .

This card is designed to help you earn Membership Rewards® Points, which can be used to help pay off eligible charges. Membership Rewards® Points can also be used to make purchases via American Express Travel, buy gift cards, and more (you can check out American Express’ Membership Rewards® site for the full details).

If you can afford the $95 annual fee, you’ll get significantly more benefits with — and since you can use Membership Rewards® Points for everything from charitable donations to Uber rides, it might be worth the annual fee if you’re committed to getting as many Membership Rewards® Points as possible.

Here’s just one example from the vast Membership Rewards® Points catalog: You can get a $25 Home Depot gift card for 2,500 points. So, if you had , you could earn that $25 gift card by spending $834 on groceries and earning 3 points per dollar. If you had , you’d have to spend $1,250 on groceries to get your 2,500 points and your $25 gift card.

Here’s the real question: Is it better to get an American Express card that gives you rewards in cash, or in points?

I’m always in favor of cash, simply because I know what the value of cash is. I also like the idea of earning simple statement credits, instead of navigating the overwhelming amount of options that you can purchase through the Membership Rewards® catalog. It’s also worth noting that the Blue Cash cards let you earn extra cash back at department stores, and the Amex EveryDay® cards don’t — so I’m slightly partial to Blue Cash.

Best Travel Perks

American Express offers three different Delta credit cards, and the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card hits the sweet spot between the perks you’ll receive and the annual fee you’ll pay for the privilege.

The Platinum Delta SkyMiles® will cost you a $195 annual fee, but you get the impressive list of benefits mentioned above.

If you’re not into that $195 annual fee, you can apply for the instead, but you’ll lose the 20% savings on in-flight purchases and the domestic round-trip companion ticket. (You know that ticket is going to be worth more than $195.) The base mile earnings are the same — 2 miles per dollar on Delta purchases, 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases — but you’ll earn smaller mile bonuses and won’t get the Annual Miles Boost™.

If you want to max out your Delta SkyMiles® experience, there’s always the Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express, but be careful — this one comes with a $450 annual fee and the perks are only slightly better than the perks you’ll get with Platinum Delta SkyMiles®. Your mile bonuses are higher with the Delta Reserve Credit Card, and you’ll get free access to the Delta Sky Club® lounge, but that might not be worth the extra cost.

This isn’t the only travel card American Express offers. If you’re a Hilton Honors™ member, you’ll definitely want to check out the Hilton Honors™ Card from American Express and the , and it also has the if you want to earn Starpoints® toward hotels in the Starwood network. However, I chose to highlight its Delta cards because I like cards where you can see the tangible value of what you’re getting — like a free flight, free checked bags, and 20% off in-flight purchases — instead of cards that put you into a sometimes confusing points system.

Heads-up: American Express also offers three “charge cards” in addition to its 12 credit cards.

With a charge card, you can charge as much as you want to your account — as long as you pay it off in full every month. , the , and the each come with their own rewards and perks, so check them out if you’re interested in learning more about the charge card experience.

The Bottom Line

All of American Express’ credit cards have lengthy and sometimes complicated rewards systems, so read through everything carefully before deciding which card is best for you. Remember that American Express wants you to earn rewards, so they’ve set it up to make sure you get something from nearly every purchase — it’s up to you to decide what that something should be.

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Finding the Motivation to Change

For many people, the desire to change inches up on you. You have this sense in the back of your head that you need to make a big change to your spending habits or to your dietary habits or to your exercise habits or to your work habits, but you push them aside and continue in your bad routines because, to put it simply, the desire to change isn’t strong enough to overcome the momentum of ingrained habits.

In my experience in terms of implementing significant changes in my life, there are really two big factors that are vital in making change happen. First, there’s the desire and motivation to change, that feeling in the back of your head and sometimes in your active thoughts that you need to change at least some of your routines. Second, there’s the resistance to change, which is the ingrained habits in your life that make you want to stick with what you’re doing now because it’s convenient or easy or safe.

The key to making change happen in your life is to find a way to raise that motivation high enough so that it overcomes the resistance. That also comes in two parts – lifting up the motivation and lowering the resistance.

Once your motivation is high enough to overcome the resistance, it’s often like water over the top of a levee – it just starts flooding in and you find yourself really diving deep into change.

Over the years, I’ve tried to make many major changes to my life. Some have been incredibly successful, like our financial turnaround. Others perhaps not so successful, like my continued attempts to get in great physical shape. What I’ve learned along the way is that a big part of getting started is simply pushing that desire to change over the top of the levee of resistance. (After that, it’s a matter of figuring out how to channel that flood into a new permanent direction in life, which is a completely different bag of tricks – today, we’re just focusing on bringing about the flood of change.)

There are five steps I’ve found that really help in terms of raising the desire to change and lowering the resistance to change. Combining them together usually results in that initial flood of action rather than merely daydreaming about change.

First, make detailed pictures of your future both with and without the changes you have in mind. What will your life be like five years or ten years from now if you commit to this change that you are considering? What will your life be like in the future if I don’t change? I try to make this picture as detailed as possible.

Almost always, the future with the change in it is a better future, and I find that the more details I add to that future picture, the stronger my desire to chase that better future becomes. I don’t want the bad future – I want the good one.

So, let’s take debt repayment as an example, and roll back the clock to the day when I had six figures in debt. If I stayed where I was at, I likely would still be living in a small apartment or a rented house in a neighborhood less conducive to families. I would likely still be at my old job and dealing with the stress it was pouring on my plate at the time. I’d be in worse physical shape – even without trying, I weigh about 40 pounds less than I did the day I left that job, mostly thanks to stress. On the other hand, my life today involves home ownership without a mortgage in a family-friendly neighborhood, a career path with relatively low stress, and better physical shape and health – I simply feel better these days.

The more details I add to those pictures, the more I prefer the better one. In fact, after a while, that desire for the better picture becomes fairly urgent – I really don’t want the “bad” future compared to the “good” future.

Second, intentionally create some open space in your life. Even if you’re not committed to change just yet, make the effort to clear out the time in your life you would need to make this change. The fact that change is barking to you in the back of your head likely means that something is out of balance in your life, and freeing up time to take on some kind of change is really worthwhile.

Figure out some of the ways that you commit time and energy in your life and de-commit from those things. It might be as simple as cutting out an hour of your routine three hours of television / web surfing each night. It might be a decision to not run for a committee seat when re-election comes around. It might be a choice to drop a time-sucking hobby, or at least cut back on it.

When you find yourself in a situation where you know you have time and energy free to commit to a change, it becomes much easier to make that commitment.

Third, surround yourself with change. If you’re reading this article, there’s probably some sort of change that you want to make that’s lurking in the back of your head. That’s good, particularly if it’s a financial change!

“Surrounding yourself with change” means that you’re seeking out lots of input in many areas of your life that are nudging you toward change. That means doing things like reading blogs about the topic, joining message boards about the topic, and finding friends or offline communities centered around the topic. The goal is to fill the inputs of your internal life (reading, media consumption) and the inputs of your external life (communities and people) with those who are nudging you to change.

Become a daily reader of The Simple Dollar (Yay for self promotion! But, you can honestly choose any personal finance site that’s updated daily for this, assuming your change is related to finances.) and/or other financial sites. Listen to podcasts about the change you want to make while you’re commuting. Check out a book or two from the library about this change you want to make and make those books into your bedtime reading. Join a message board or other online community related to the topic and read what others are saying and sharing. Feel out your friends and see if any of them are on the cusp of change or actually on that journey. Look for groups in your offline city that are engaged in the change you’re trying to achieve.

Surround yourself with the change you want and it becomes much easier and more natural. Doing this not only raises your desire, but also lowers the resistance at the same time.

Fourth, find a partner or two or three. A partner is simply someone you’re accountable for for the change. Don’t broadcast it to your entire social circle on social media; instead, choose a very small number of people who you think will actively help you make the change.

Talk this change over with that person. Talk about the benefits you perceive and the challenges you see. Sincerely ask for their help, both as a sounding board and as a cheerleader.

If they say yes, they’re probably going to start pushing you toward that change, providing a new kind of motivation. It can be frustrating at times, especially if your own internal motivation is starting to slip, but a caring friend can sometimes help you keep going when it becomes really hard. They can be a voice in the night when you’re struggling and someone to really celebrate with you when you achieve a big win.

Finally, take a real first action. Commit to doing one thing today that’s oriented toward the change you want to see. Maybe it’s simply choosing to spend very little today by eating a brown bag lunch and preparing your dinner at home. Maybe you’re going to walk up the stairs to work and park on the far side of the parking lot to get some more walking steps in.

Whatever the change is, take action. Do something. Choose something that isn’t insanely intense, but something that requires a change in your routine.

What you’ll find is that it feels good to do something positive for yourself that moves you in the direction of the change that you want. When you go to bed tonight, reflect on that step you took. It wasn’t hard, was it? It didn’t leave you miserable. Also, repeating that step on most days, and adding other steps, will lead you to that better life you envisioned.

Go to bed with that thought in your head and you may just wake up in the morning with more motivation than ever.

Whatever change you’re considering in your life, think about these five steps. Use them to help you set the foundation for change and push yourself over the levee of resistance.

Good luck!

Related Article:

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10 Simple Ways to Feel Better for Free

Some days, when you wake up, you just don’t feel so hot. Maybe you haven’t been eating so well as of late. Maybe you got a terrible night of sleep. Maybe stress has been weighing down on you. Maybe you’ve just been overstretched for a while.

The result is that you wake up and start going through your day, but you just don’t have any gas in the tank. Even worse, this often seems to happen on days when you have a lot on your plate.

Sure, you can temporarily fix it by throwing money at the problem. You can buy some super-caffeinated beverage to give you a quick pick-me-up. You can go get a massage or go to the gym for a physical pick-me-up.

However, each of those cost money and some of them have additional problems, like the crash after falling off a caffeine cliff when you’re already not feeling 100%.

My solution to this problem is to have a series of “power ups” that I turn to when I have a day like this, when I’m not feeling so hot and I can’t afford to just lay in bed and read a book all day long. These “power ups” are all free – or close enough to free that the cost is truly negligible – and almost always help in lifting my mood and physical well-being. I find that if I take a little time to incorporate these into my day, particularly right at the start, I end up feeling a lot better physically and mentally and

(In case you’re wondering, today is one of those days for me. I just got back from some travel where I didn’t get much sleep, I have the vaguest beginnings of a cold, and my seven year old woke me up in the middle of the night. I don’t feel the best, but I have a list of things I need to get done.)

Here are my ten “power ups” for a day like this. (I’m borrowing the term “power up” from a similar usage by Jane McGonigal in her wonderful book SuperBetter.)

Drink a tall glass of water. Water helps with mild dehydration, which often sets in overnight or in a dry environment or when you simply haven’t had enough water to drink lately. Mild dehydration can make you feel tired and lower your mood, according to this study, and simply drinking some water can alleviate that.

Whenever I wake up in the morning and don’t feel great pretty quickly, I turn to a tall glass of water rather than a dose of caffeine. Typically, the “blahs” first thing in the morning are somewhat due to dehydration, and a caffeinated beverage rarely solves that problem.

Take a longer-than-usual shower. The warmth and humidity of a shower has a lot of positive impact on how we feel. The biggest impact is the simple warmth on our body, which reduces pain signals from nerves all over our body and encourages muscle relaxation. The humidity of a shower also feels quite good on the skin.

Lingering in the shower – rather than taking a power shower – is a great way to encourage feeling good.

Take a “power nap.” If you’re feeling tired, don’t push through it. You’ll do terrible work while you’re tired. Instead, simply go take a nap. Find a comfortable spot to lie down and allow yourself to sleep for a while. Set an alarm if you must, but if you allow yourself to wake up naturally from a power nap, you’ll get far more value out of it.

Power naps are incredibly useful if you find yourself without something incredibly urgent on your plate, but you are facing important tasks by the end of the day. It can eliminate an overall feeling of tiredness with surprising effectiveness.

Do one minute (or more) of vigorous exercise. Do push-ups rapidly until you can’t do any more. Do a one minute elbow plank. Jog up several flights of stairs. Do something for a minute or two that gets your heart beating rapidly and gets you out of breath quickly. This causes tons of biochemical changes to your body, almost all of which result in you feeling better, both in the short term and in the long term if you do it frequently.

My preferred quick exercise these days is a bicycle sprint. I hop on my bike and pedal as fast as I can for a few minutes. My goal is to complete a two mile ride as fast as I can, as I have a pretty safe and usually pedestrian-free two mile ride near my house.

Meditate for five or 10 minutes. This one’s easy. Just pick one single thing to focus on within your body and mind and then focus on that one thing for five minutes. I tend to choose my breathing; others might choose a prayer or a repeated word or something. Whenever you notice your attention drifting from that point of focus, bring it back gently.

Meditation tends to bring about a calm, peaceful, and focused state in most people, which helps them to tackle the challenges in their life. The better positive effects tend to build over time through repeated meditation on a daily basis, as it can help reduce the negative effects of stress and anxiety.

Give someone a genuine compliment or thank you. This might seem unusual, but give it a try. Think of someone in your life who has done something meaningful for you to help you out, then take the time to thank them for it. Give that person a call, or write them an email, or a Facebook message, or perhaps best of all, a handwritten note. Tell that person what they did to help you and how it affected your life. Alternately, you can simply look for a great positive trait in someone you know and give them a sincere compliment.

Almost without fail, this simple act makes you feel good. It provides a quick burst of happiness that fades, but doing these kinds of things consistently leads to a higher state of life contentment.

Go for a walk, particularly through a wooded area. Simply taking a walk in the woods can lead to decreased stress, mood elevation, and even a stronger immune system. The effect is called shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term that means “forest bathing,” and it’s incredibly easy to feel the subtle effects.

Just go for a walk – ideally in an area that’s forested. Go at your own pace. Breathe the fresh air around you. Look at your environment and see what little things you can notice. You’ll feel better having done so, especially in a park setting.

Eat a really healthy meal. A healthy meal is generally one consisting of mostly plants and mostly ingredients that haven’t been heavily processed – something like a grilled chicken breast, baby potatoes, and baby carrots, for example. Eat until your body isn’t telling you that it’s hungry any more, then stop (rather than eating until you feel “full”).

Meals like this tend to fill you with a lot of energy rather than with lethargy, and that energy tends to last for a while – a couple of hours is typical.

When I do this for breakfast, I usually eat steel-cut oatmeal with just a bit of honey along with a couple of hard-boiled eggs and a piece of fruit. It adds up to about 350 calories and leaves me feeling great in the morning.

Do something purely fun with someone I love. If I’m feeling down emotionally, one of the best things I can do is simply do something fun with someone whose company I truly enjoy. I play a board game with my wife. I go on a jog with my son. I draw something with my daughter. I play disc golf with my best friend. I typically do this without distraction, meaning that I turn my cell phone off.

Doing this makes me feel much more connected to the person I’m with and reminds me that there is great joy in life. It’s perhaps the single most effective mood-lifter I’ve found that can be quickly deployed.

Delete distracting games and social media from my computer and phone and take a big break from screen time. If you have games or social media apps on your phone, delete them. Delete them all.

Having fewer distractions on your phone means you’ll be more focused on the world around you. In addition, social media, when used heavily, has a known negative impact on your mood. So dump the social media and the games. You’ll be better off.

And, with that, I’m going to go complete some of those “power ups” right now.

Related Articles: 

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

How to Prepare for a Potential Economic Recession

Over the last few weeks, I’ve come across a number of articles predicting an upcoming recession: The Winter Is Coming: A Case For A Recession from SeekingAlpha, Is a Recession Coming? from Forbes, and There’s more than 60% chance of a global recession within the next 18 months, economist says from CNBC, among others, are all in agreement that a recession is coming.

But what does that mean for most of us? Here’s what being in a recession means for the average American.

There’s a higher risk of job loss. During a recession, companies and organizations often cut back due to slowing revenue growth or even revenue shrinkage. They’re not making as much money, and one way to continue to make ends meet and make their stocks still look good is to cut employees.

It’s harder to find a job. Unsurprisingly, companies don’t hire as much in a recession, meaning it’s harder to find a job, and the jobs you do find often don’t pay as well on average.

The value of investments in the stock market will drop, as will the value of your home (most likely) – and other markets may drop, too. The stock market usually begins to downturn once signs of a recession become evident, which can have an adverse effect on retirement savings and other investment goals. Other markets may also enter a decline – recessions often have a negative effect on housing prices, for example. Some markets tend to go up during a recession, but they’re less predictable.

These changes alter life patterns and cause family stress. A job loss or an inability to find work or a sudden drop in retirement savings can rapidly change family dynamics. There’s suddenly more money stress on the table, and things like vacations and other enjoyable major expenses suddenly become a lot more risky.

None of these outcomes are pleasant ones, but they’re the economic reality of all Americans during an economic downturn. That’s the new financial landscape.

The question is, how does the average American deal with those changes? More importantly, as we sit here with months or perhaps even years to go before a recession sets in, how can the average American prepare for those changes?

Here are some simple strategies for getting you and your family ready for all of these scenarios.

Preparing for Increased Risk of Job Loss

One of the biggest risks to come with a worsening economy is an increased risk of job loss. Think about it in simplest terms: if the unemployment rate is rising, that means that people who were once employed are becoming unemployed, which means that there’s a rise in people who once had a job who no longer do so.

Being laid off or fired doesn’t just happen to “bad” employees. It can happen in any organization where a decision has been made to downsize a department or “reorganize” in order to remove positions.

Here are five things you can do to prepare for this.

Make sure you’re meeting your performance standards. Most workplaces offer some form of regular performance review. Take that review to heart. Take a look at your most recent performance reviews and see how you’re doing with regards to the standards being presented there. Are you meeting or exceeding them? Are you documenting how you’re meeting or exceeding your goals?

Since an economic downturn is still on the horizon, it’s worthwhile to start keeping track of things now by using your performance standards as a guide and documenting your efforts as you’ll likely have additional performance reviews between now and when job loss might become a serious risk.

Build up a strong emergency fund. Having a few months of living expenses sitting in your savings account makes the stress of job loss much easier to handle. You don’t need to have a new job the next day to avoid a personal crisis – instead, you do have a little bit of time to find a new job while you live off of your savings.

The best way to start (if you haven’t already) is to instruct your bank to start transferring money regularly from your checking to your savings automatically. If your bank doesn’t allow such an automatic transfer, open up an online savings account at a bank like Ally or CapitalOne 360 and set up that transfer yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Work on building a strong reputation of positivity and trustworthiness. Positivity and trustworthiness are two traits that tend to improve a person’s value in the workplace. People who don’t cut each other down are great to have around because of the positive value they bring to office culture; they keep people out of management’s hair. People who are trustworthy tend to deliver when they make promises and tend to have the respect of those around them.

Combine those two traits and you have a valuable employee, one that makes consistent positive contributions to the workplace and one who other employees will vouch for.

Become a key part of important, high profile projects. When there’s a major project going on at work, get involved with it if at all possible. Become a part of that team and bring your traits of positivity and trustworthiness to the project. Make real contributions along the way.

While this might be somewhat stressful in the short term, what it does for you is demonstrates that you can handle high-impact situations productively, which is what most employers are looking for in their employees. An employee who steps up to a difficult challenge and manages to be a useful member of the team is one that they’re not going to want to cut loose unless they have to.

Make your boss’s priorities into your priorities. A final strategy that works well at almost any job is to step back and look at your job through the eyes of your boss. What does your boss want to get out of your position? What does your boss care about the most?

Then, do your job in such a way that it provides maximum value to your boss. You want to make sure that your performance ensures that the boss reaches his or her objectives with a minimal amount of fuss from you. Bosses (usually) notice when things are done well and they don’t have to worry about them at all, and that type of notice will make you golden.

Preparing for a Tougher Job Market

What if you’re going to be seeking a new job? How do you prepare for a job market that’s about to become significantly more difficult? Here are five things you can do to prepare yourself for a time when it might be harder to find a new job.

Focus on resume-worthy uses of your time and energy. Ask yourself whether you’re using your time and energy on things that can bolster your resume or not. Are you taking on tasks at your current job that can be added to your resume? If not, make an effort to prioritize them. If you’re not currently employed, or not working in the field you want to be working in, what are you doing every single day to add something of note to your resume?

Take classes. Get involved with projects that use your skills. Get involved with resume-worthy community projects. You need things that will help you stand out from other candidates. Make sure you’re spending at least part of each day doing just that.

Build up your network of strong professional contacts. Quite often, jobs are obtained because you have your foot in the door in a positive way with someone already in the organization. Get your foot in the door by building and reinforcing a network of professional contacts.

How do you do this? One of the most powerful ways is to attend professional meetings in your area. See if there are any meetings of professional organizations in your area and start attending and get involved. Similarly, check out Meetup.com and see if there’s anything relevant in your area.

Of course, there’s also the internet…

Make yourself known in the online community of your profession. Many people build out their professional network by getting involved in social media in their field. They use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and even things like Instagram to get to know people in their field better and engage in conversation. Many people start a blog that allows them to share knowledge with the world under their own name, associating that knowledge with them and further bolstering their reputation.

Use social media to seek out online communities for your field. Keep looking until you find interesting and relevant conversations, then join in consistently. Use those conversations to make yourself better, but also use it as an opportunity to share your knowledge with others. Every person that you help is another step toward having a healthy online presence with a lot of connections, and those connections can prove invaluable when you need to change positions.

Get education and certification that’s valuable in your field. Take a look around your field and see what certifications and education are expected from someone with your experience level who might be looking to move up or even to move sideways, then make it your priority to obtain those certifications and that education.

One great place to look is at the job listings for the positions you’d like to have. What skills and certifications and education are being asked for over and over again? Those are things that you, too, should have. Make sure you’re checking as many boxes as possible on other job listings.

Take on leadership opportunities in your current position. Look for any and all opportunities in your life and in your current job to step up to the plate and take on leadership positions. Leadership demonstrates a willingness to take on responsibility for larger tasks and to handle their organization, both of which are appealing to most organizations hiring anyone above a pure entry-level position.

If there’s an opportunity at work to help lead a project or a group, stand up. If there’s an opportunity at church to be a leader, stand up. If there’s an opportunity in a community group to be a leader, stand up. You’ll be glad you did.

Preparing for a Drop in the Value of Investments

Another big factor in an economic downturn is the reduction in value of investments. Most recessions start off with a big hit to the stock market, and many other markets – real estate, bonds, and other things – can also go through some awkward stages as well. Here are five things you can do to prepare your finances for an economic downturn.

Reassess your financial plans regularly, independent of market changes. Sit down and really consider why you’re investing and what your goals are, particularly regarding the timeline. Are you investing for retirement? How far off is retirement? Are you investing for a house? How far off is that house purchase?

The thing to remember is that the further off your goal is, the more risk you can tolerate regarding that goal. For example, if your goal is only a year away, you probably shouldn’t be investing in the stock market to achieve that goal, and you should be pulling money out of the stock market if you can’t handle any volatility between then and now. On the other hand, if your goal is twenty years away, sitting on an aggressive stock market investment makes sense.

Don’t try to “time” the market. Many people get swept up in the idea of “buying low and selling high” and try to “time” the market by guessing when it will peak and when it will hit bottom.

The problem is that when you do this, you almost always miss the peak and miss the bottom, which eats up an awful lot of what you might gain from market timing. Add in the fact that you miss out on dividends along the way, are paying transaction fees and taxes, and so on, and it’s generally not worth it to try to time the market. Instead, let your investments ride and only make changes if there are non-timing reasons to do so.

If you’re investing for retirement, strongly consider having your money in a Target Retirement Fund. The advantage of simply having your money in a Target Retirement Fund is that it automatically handles investment shifts you might want to make as you approach retirement and want to dial down the risk a little. Most Target Retirement Funds gradually start moving into bonds and cash as retirement comes closer, which naturally mitigates the risk of a stock market downturn.

See if your retirement plans offer a Target Retirement Fund and strongly consider simply putting all of your money into that fund. It might not be perfect, but it’s a pretty efficient solution for someone who doesn’t want to study investments deeply.

If you intend to start withdrawing in the near future (less than ten years), make low-risk additional contributions. Some investments, such as retirement investments, involve making withdrawals slowly over a long period. That means you want to have some of your investment in a long term investment (like stocks or real estate) and some in a short-term investment (like bonds or cash).

As you’re contributing money toward that big goal, it makes a lot of sense to gradually move your contributions from the long term investments to the short term investments. That way, when you start taking out money, you have a mix of short term and long term investments because you’re going to want some of the money in the short term (the first ten years of retirement or so) and some in the long term (everything after that). You want a balance.

If you don’t intend to touch anything for more than ten years, leave things alone. It can be very tempting to move money into a safer investment when you’re looking at a potential real estate or stock market downturn, but if you don’t intend to touch a particular investment – or part of that investment – for ten or more years, leave it alone and let it ride out the storm.

Remember, market ups and downs are a normal part of investing. You shouldn’t make moves based on those normal fluctuations, and recessions and stock market dips are completely normal.

Preparing for an Increase in Family Stress

Financial changes, particularly unexpected ones, can put a real burden on your family. It can cause all kinds of stress, and money stress can be extremely damaging to marital and family bonds.

You can take action right now to head off the negative effects of those burdens. Here are five things you can do to prepare for a potential increase in family stress down the road.

Communicate clearly with everyone involved so that there aren’t any negative “surprises.” If you see a potential difficulty coming, communicate. Be clear with your family what may happen and what the consequences are.

While that may be a difficult conversation, putting it out on the table and discussing what the ramifications are eliminates the surprise. It helps everyone to prepare in their own way for that potential change, and it encourages everyone to work together to minimize the impact of that change.

Find inexpensive ways to bond as a family. The best way to survive a family crisis is to have strong family bonds in place that help your relationships survive a stressful period, and you can start building those bonds now.

All you have to do is make a sustained commitment to spending quality time together as a family. Turn off your devices, get off the couch, and go do something together. Plan weekend hikes. Go to local community events. Play a game. Even things like working on homework together can make a big difference.

Don’t promise expensive plans in the future. If you’re making expensive plans for the future, like a trip to Disney World next summer, minimize the talk of that trip until you’re incredibly sure that the plan is in place. The hotel is booked and paid for, the tickets are bought, the transportation is paid for – that’s when you start talking about it.

Before then, you run the risk of setting up false expectations that you can’t live up to, and when you fail to come through on your pledges and promises, you begin to dissolve trust. Avoid doing that, particularly when heading into a period of uncertainty.

Instead, plan and promise a lower-cost vacation and lower-cost upgrades. A much better approach is to plan for a leaner future in the short term while bolstering your family’s financial security. Instead of promising a trip to Paris next summer, plan a camping trip to Yellowstone. If you decide at that time that you can afford to “upgrade” the vacation, stay a little longer or add on an extra leg at the last minute.

With the money you’re saving from more realistic plans and expectations, you can prepare yourself financially for what may come by paying down debts and building up an emergency fund.

If you have children, make an even larger emergency fund than you would as a single person or as a couple without children. My general advice on emergency fund size is to shoot for a month’s worth of living expenses, then add to that an additional month’s worth of living expenses for each person living under your roof.

So, for example, if you’re single, two months of living expenses is completely appropriate, while a family of five may want to shoot for six months.

Why do this? The more dependents you have, the more likely it is that something will seriously go wrong. It’s also more likely that a job loss will cause a severe crisis that will affect lots of lives, not just one or two. Prepare accordingly, and have a big emergency fund.

Final Thoughts

A financial downturn isn’t something to be scared of. It doesn’t need to keep you up at night with worry. However, it is something that’s worth preparing for, at least a little. Preparation makes it easier to survive a downturn with few scars, and you can get started now with very easy steps.

Good luck!

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Nine of My Favorite Recipes for Summer Garden Leftovers

Even though I’ve wanted a garden my entire adult life, I didn’t take the plunge until around five years ago. Before then, we just didn’t have the space in our yard or the time to get started. But, once we moved into our current home, I no longer had an excuse.

Ever since we started gardening, I’ve looked forward to it every year. I love being able to walk into my yard, pick something fresh, and eat it right away. I absolutely adore my summer caprese salads, fresh basil pesto, and raw vegetables I had a hand in growing myself.

Over the years, I’ve also learned a ton about how to grow my own vegetables, mostly through trial and error. Gardening is also relaxing, as well as a great way to teach our kids about how our food is grown. 

Nine Recipes Perfect for Garden Leftovers

But, if there’s any downside to gardening, it’s this: At least where I live, it’s feast or famine.

You’re either picking 20 cucumbers or zucchini in a week or absolutely none; you’re either overwhelmed with tomatoes or craving them desperately. One way to deal with any influx is to trade with neighbors, which I did just last week. My next-door-neighbor solved my too-many-cucumbers problem by trading for her fresh (and giant!) carrots, which I never grow on my own.

Other than that, you’re stuck giving food away or putting it to good use. Since we’re vegetarian and eat a lot of vegetables anyway, I tend to plan or menu around whatever we have on hand for the bulk of late summer and early fall. Here are nine recipes we rely on to use up garden leftovers every year:

Fresh Vegetable Soup

No matter what vegetables you have, you can turn them into a tasty pot of vegetable soup. I usually use whatever garden leftovers I have on hand (zucchini, tomato, cabbage, etc.) and supplement with fresh vegetables at the store. All you need to make this recipe is fresh vegetables, vegetable broth, tomato juice, and seasonings.

Start by washing and cubing whatever vegetables you have, including any mix of the following:

  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Carrots
  • Zucchini
  • Tomato
  • Cabbage
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes

Remember, this is not an all-inclusive list. You can use any vegetables you have and any combination of vegetables you want. I make this soup different every time, and it’s always good.

Once your vegetables are washed and cubed into 1- or 2-inch pieces, heat two cans of vegetable broth on the stove. Start adding your vegetables and simmer them on medium, pouring tomato juice into the pot as you go.

There’s no right or wrong amount of vegetable broth and tomato juice to use. If you use more of either, you’ll have a “soupier” texture, while less liquid will leave you with more of a “stew.” (You can also add a bit of cream and blend the soup with an immersion blender for more of a bisque.)

As your soup cooks, add salt and pepper, coriander, basil, and thyme to taste. The amount of seasoning you’ll add depends on how much soup you’re making and how much liquid you use. Either way, it’s best to add seasoning slowly and taste frequently to make sure you don’t use too much.

Continue simmering your soup for a few hours and it’s done. Serve with crackers or homemade bread.

Pickled Cucumbers and Onions

If you have a vegetable spiralizer, it’s easy to make pickled cucumbers and onions. Basically, you take whatever cucumbers you have and spiralize them into medium or small noodles. After that, cut up one half to one whole white or red onion and add it to a large bowl with your cucumbers.

In a large saucepan, heat up 2 cups of apple cider vinegar, 1.5 cups of sugar, and a dash of salt and pepper. Once the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is transparent, take it off the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Once it’s cool, pour it over your cucumber and onion mixture and let it sit for 24 hours.

Tomato Sauce

There are lots of different ways to make your own tomato sauce, but this recipe from the New York Times is tried and true. I have made this recipe or a variation of it dozens of times, and it always turns out great.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 5 pounds of tomatoes
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 garlic clove, halved
  • 1 basil sprig
  • 1 bay leaf

The New York Times suggests a three-step process for the perfect tomato sauce. First, cut your tomatoes horizontally and get rid of the seeds. Use a grater to grate the tomato flesh into a bowl until you have around four cups.

Second, heat tomato pulp in a saucepan over high heat. Add salt, olive oil, tomato paste, garlic, basil, and your bay leaf, then bring to a boil before lowering heat. Continue to simmer.

Continue cooking the sauce until it’s reduced by almost half, adding more salt as needed. The Times notes this sauce will last for five days unless you freeze it.

Zucchini Bread

Since my husband loves breads and pies, I have gone out of my way to learn how to make a few of his favorites. Over time, I’ve come up with my own zucchini bread recipe that is flavorful and addictive. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2-6 cups of zucchini spiralized and chopped (it’s up to you to decide how much zucchini to add)
  • 5 cups of flour
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs, whisked
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Add all dry ingredients together in one bowl and all wet ingredients together in another. Thoroughly mix both bowls of ingredients before combining them in a single large bowl.

Use cooking spray to prepare two loaf pans, then split the mixture across both. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour for the perfect zucchini bread. Note: I’ve used up to 8 cups of zucchini in this recipe without noticing a big difference in flavor, so be as generous as you want.

Grilled Zucchini

This recipe is easy and a complete no-brainer if you have a ton of leftover zucchini to use. Simply wash and cut your zucchini before slicing it into ¾ inch slices similar to a “zucchini steak.” Slather both sides with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Grill on your outdoor grill just like you would a brat or a hamburger until the zucchini is completely cooked and slightly browned on the edges.

Eat your grilled zucchini plain or on a hamburger bun with cheese and other vegetables.

Veggie Omelets or Veggie Breakfast Burritos

Veggie omelets and breakfast burritos make it easy to use up small portions of any vegetable of your choosing. My favorite vegetables to add to omelets include:

  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Zucchini
  • Tomato
  • Potato
  • Green or red peppers

Start by cubing your vegetables into one inch squares then sautéing them in a sauce pan on medium heat. Saute with butter or olive oil until your vegetables are fully cooked. Set your cooked vegetables to the side and whisk 3-4 eggs together in a small bowl. Add the eggs to your pan and cook on both sides before adding vegetables to the center and folding in half.

Cook your omelet thoroughly until it’s ready to enjoy. You can also add cheese if you’d like. If you want veggie breakfast burritos, scramble the eggs instead or just slip your vegetable omelet inside a flour or corn tortilla, then add cheese or salsa and serve.

Veggie Stir-Fry

Stir-fry makes it easy to use up garden leftovers because you can make it any way you want. Vegetables you can use include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Broccoli
  • Onion
  • Peppers (green, yellow, or red)
  • Zucchini
  • Green beans
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots

Wash your vegetables and slice them into 2-inch pieces. Simmer over medium heat in a large skillet with olive oil for around 10-15 minutes. Once your vegetables are about three-quarters of the way cooked, add your favorite teriyaki or stir-fry sauce. Continue cooking until all vegetables are cooked thoroughly (cook less for crisper, al dente veggies), then serve alone or with a side of rice.

Roasted Vegetables

Roasted vegetables are laughably easy to make and a good way to use up garden leftovers no matter what – or how much – you have. My favorite vegetables to roast include:

  • Brussel sprouts
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Parsnips
  • Broccoli

Other vegetables will work as well, and you can even roast several different kinds at once!

Turn your oven to 400 degrees. Wash and cube your vegetables into 1- or 2-inch pieces. Coat all your vegetables evenly with olive oil and lay evenly on a baking pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper or your favorite seasoning. (One of my favorite seasonings for vegetables is Rancher Steak Rub from Wildtree.)

Cooking times will vary depending on the vegetables you’re using and how small you cut them up. Plan on roasting your vegetables anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes.

Vegetable Thai Curry

Like a stir-fry or vegetable soup, Thai curry can handle just about any vegetables you’ve got. My favorite vegetables for Thai curry include:

  • Broccoli
  • Onion
  • Peppers (green, yellow, or red)
  • Zucchini
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots

Whatever vegetables you use, start by washing them and cutting them up into 1- or 2-inch cubes. Heat a skillet over medium heat and cook your vegetables for 15 to 20 minutes with a splash of vegetable oil while stirring frequently.

Once your vegetables are nearly cooked, add a few teaspoons of your favorite curry powder along with a teaspoon of coriander, a tablespoon of minced garlic, a teaspoon of dried ginger, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add a can of vegetable broth to the mix, starting with just ¼ of a cup and adding more liquid as needed. Continue adding spices in the increments above until your curry has just the right amount of flavor for your palate.

Add a teaspoon of red pepper flakes or minced red pepper if you want a spicier curry. Either way, serve your vegetable curry with sticky white rice.

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.

Related Articles:

What’s your favorite way to use summer garden leftovers? What recipes would you add to this list?

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Score Back to School Deals With These Credit Cards

Attention, back to school shoppers: If you didn’t get to everything on your shopping list before the big sales ended, it might not be too late for a makeup exam. Find out if your credit card can help you save some money and earn some rewards points on school supplies and more.

Many school districts and colleges have already started the academic year, and almost all of the state tax-free holidays have ended (think fast, Connecticut). Don’t lose heart, though. Your credit card may have some back to school offers still standing.

Even better, you don’t have to fight traffic and crowds. Just check out your credit card’s online shopping portal for back to school deals on products including:

  • Clothing
  • Shoes
  • Electronics
  • Backpacks and duffel bags
  • New and used textbooks
  • Health and beauty
  • Food and snacks
  • Dorm furnishings
  • Foreign language software
  • General school supplies

Where the deals are

Here’s an example of how to search for back to school deals on your card’s online shopping portal.

If you have a Barclaycard, such as the , log on to Barclaycard RewardsBoost. Click on “Back To School” to check out deals from dozens of retailers and brands good for bonus points, discounts or both. Featured back to school offers from Barclaycard RewardsBoost include:

  • Barnes & Noble (4 points per $1 spent)
  • Kohl’s (2 points per $1 spent)
  • Lenovo (2 points per $1 spent)
  • Nike (4 points per $1 spent)
  • Shoes.com (6 points per $1 spent)

You can use a similar process with other cards and that have online shopping portals. If you have a Chase offering like the , Chase Ultimate Rewards® has back to school deals on these and other brands:

  • Bose (6 points per $1 spent)
  • JC Penney (10 points per $1 spent)
  • Staples (4 points per $1 spent)

What about other deals?

What if your card’s shopping portal doesn’t feature back to school specials? Just look for everyday deals and discounts on items that any student can use, such as clothing and electronics.

For example, cardholders (and those who own other Discover cards) can go to the Discover Deals portal and find deals from brands including:

  • Apple (5% cash back bonus at Apple online)
  • Dell ($150 off select PCs for Students at Dell)
  • Under Armour (15% cash back bonus at Under Armour online)

Clock’s ticking, bell’s ringing

Depending on your card’s rewards program and the kind of purchases you’re making, the points bonuses could help you rack up some impressive rewards.

Look fast, though, and act fast. Many back to school deals expire soon.

The post Score Back to School Deals With These Credit Cards appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Taking Over Your Aging Parents’ Finances

In the year 2011, the Baby Boomer generation started turning 65. Over the next 13 years, 10,000 Boomers will reach retirement age every day.

For the adult children of the Baby Boomers, these are not abstract statistics but real-life turning points that can provoke uncertainty and anxiety. But consider the advice of certified financial planner and author Lise Andreana:

“There is no time like the present to begin preparing for your aging parents’ financial future. Being proactive can help minimize a great deal of stress and uncertainty down the road — for your parents, yourself, and your entire family.”

The Simple Dollar is here to help you begin the journey of guiding your parents through this stage of their lives. We’ll cover how to approach the conversation, documents you’ll need, costs to consider, and more. Let’s get started.

Table of contents

Broaching the subject
Power of attorney
Document checklist
Long-term care costs
The sibling situation
Glossary
Additional resources

The Talk: How to handle a sensitive subject

Every family is different, and yours may have its own quirks or hangups about money. Although no size fits all, here are some suggestions on having The Talk with your parents:

When is the right time?

Many senior care experts recommend following the 40/70 Rule. As you approach 40 and your parents approach 70, it can be the most opportune time to discuss financial issues, as well as long-term care, estate planning and other relevant topics.

It’s better to address the situation proactively than to wait for a crisis to unfold, which could force your family into making decisions on the fly.

Are my parents already having trouble?

Be on the lookout for warning signs that your parent may be struggling to manage his or her finances, which can include:

  • Unpaid bills
  • Bounced checks
  • Calls from creditors
  • Unusual or frivolous purchases

What’s the right approach?

To help prevent conflict with your parents when you talk about finances, consider the following.

  • Keep the circle small.
    Discussions involving a few key people can be less intimidating than a full-blown family meeting that could leave your parents feeling like you’re ganging up on them.
  • Focus on positives, not negatives.
    Don’t frame your concerns in terms of physical or mental decline. Keep the focus on a bright future for the entire family.
  • Treat them as peers and equals.
    Help your parents understand that you’re trying to look out for them, not look after them. Invite them to join an ongoing conversation.
  • Find an ally.
    Your parents might be more receptive if your family attorney or financial planner joins the discussion in the role of an objective third party.
  • Make a show of solidarity.
    This subject presents an opportunity to do a thorough check of your own finances to see that everything’s in order. This way, your parents might not feel that you’re singling them out or passing judgment.
  • Avoid fighting words.
    Certain words and phrases — including always, never and nothing — have a tendency to put people on the defensive and shut down communication. It can happen in any kind of personal relationship, including parent-child.

When in doubt, preserve your parents’ dignity. Be aware of the potential for wounded pride — speak respectfully and tread lightly.

Expert opinion

“Start the conversation early. Put in place a plan your family can follow when your parents can no longer make decisions on their own. … It’s important to ask questions and help your parent come to a decision on his or her own terms.”

Terri Rasp
Director of Sales, Analytics, and Training

StoneGate Senior Living, LLC

Power of attorney

A power of attorney, also called a POA, is a legal document that grants a person or organization (known as the agent or attorney-in-fact) the authority to act on behalf of someone (the principal) in specific financial, legal and health-related matters.

A POA with you as the agent and your parent or parents as principal could play an integral role in helping you protect their financial well-being. With a power of attorney in place, you will be able to act quickly if a parent suffers a medical emergency, for example, or experiences a steep decline in mental competence.

Should I use a lawyer for a POA?

The answer is, most likely, yes. You don’t necessarily have to go through an attorney, but it’s probably the wisest course of action. The power of attorney process can vary from state to state, and trying to go it on your own could result in a costly oversight.

Unless you’re an attorney or a financial adviser, you may not have the expertise to navigate these waters. Also important is the fact that a professional often brings some much-needed objectivity to a situation where emotions can cloud the issues.

Can I get a POA on my own?

Some legal advice websites let you download a printable version of your state’s POA form. However, bear in mind that you’re dealing with the complexities of legal documents and contracts. There’s no shame in seeking the advice of your family attorney, your financial adviser, or both to help you craft a POA that addresses your family’s specific needs.

What’s the best time to get a POA?

The key factor in a child-parent power of attorney is obtaining it proactively, before the parent loses the ability to manage their own affairs.

What kind of POA should I get?

A lot depends on the current status of the parents and when the family wants the POA to take effect. An attorney may recommend a durable power of attorney, which contains a durability provision to ensure it remains in effect if the principal’s condition changes. The change in status could be a sudden medical issue that leaves the parent debilitated or a deterioration in mental capacity.

A power of attorney covering financial affairs differs from a health care POA, which means you’ll need to address those issues separately.

What if my parent has dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Depending on the laws of your state, getting a POA for a parent who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may require a letter from a physician affirming that your parent understands what the POA means and can legally consent. If a parent is deemed unable to meet that standard, another option may be for the child to become an adult guardian or conservator instead — a process that would require a judge’s approval.

Is a power of attorney the same as a living will?

No, there’s a difference. A living will expresses the signer’s wishes regarding medical treatment in the event he or she loses the capacity to make decisions (for example, whether extraordinary measures should be taken to preserve their life or resuscitate them). This kind of document is sometimes called an advance health care directive.

As with a power of attorney, state-specific versions of living wills are available online. Still, it’s wise to consult an attorney about the specifics of your situation.

Obtaining power of attorney: 3 key steps

Power of Attorney: 3 Key Steps

Expert opinion

“Prior to cognitive decline, I advise my clients to help their parents establish the proper paperwork. This includes the creation of a will, durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney, and advanced directives. The power of attorney forms are very powerful documents that should only be in the hands of somebody your parents trust. Whether that is a family member or a professional, it is up to them.”

Nate Byers
CPA/PFS, MBA

JBC Wealth Advisors, LLC

Financial document checklist

Here’s a list of important documents for reviewing a parent’s finances. These records will help you get a better idea of income and financial obligations. Double-check this list with your financial adviser to see if anything needs to be added.

_ Bank accounts
_ Credit card statements
_ Monthly bills (utilities, rent/mortgage, subscriptions, etc.)
_ List of loans and other debts
_ Social Security statements
_ Social Security benefit verification letter
_ Pension, 401k and annuity documents
_ Tax returns (for three to seven years)
_ Investment documents (savings bonds, stock certificates, brokerage accounts, etc.)
_ Insurance policies — life, health, and property
_ Vehicle titles
_ Property deeds
_ Dues-paying memberships (HOA, AARP, clubs, etc.)
_ Birth certificates and marriage licenses

Don’t forget …
_ List of their usernames and passwords for online customer portals
_ Combination/keys to their safety deposit boxes

Expert opinion

“The first thing that children should do is to start aggregating information on the parents’ financial information. Help your parents consolidate their holdings. Fewer bank accounts can save you tons of time.”

Scott W. Johnson
Owner, WholeVsTermLifeInsurance.com

Long-term care costs

When looking at long-term care solutions, be aware that private insurance and Medicare have some limitations. While Medicare and insurance do provide coverage for medical treatment and prescription drugs, custodial care such as long-term care facilities and home health care may be a different story. As a 2013 study points out, Medicare:

  • Pays only for “medically necessary care in a skilled nursing facility” — which is not the same as an assisted living center.
  • Pays for home health care “under very limited circumstances and for brief stretches of time.”

In some unfortunate cases, coverage gaps in Medicare and private insurance can lead to families exhausting financial resources (known as “spending down”) until their parents qualify for Medicaid. To help prevent this worst-case scenario, you may want to consult a financial planner about some proactive options such as:

Long-term care insurance (LTCI)

Expenses covered by long-term care insurance generally include assisted living, nursing home, adult day care, Alzheimer’s care facilities and hospice. The key is encouraging parents to buy coverage early, before they develop health problems.

Pros and cons include: LTCI can be pricey, although it could cover some expenses that Medicare or private insurance do not.

Long-term care benefit plan

This option involves converting a life insurance policy into funding specifically for long-term care. These insurance conversions are also called life care assurance, Medicaid life settlement, or life care funding. It’s commonly used as part of a spend-down strategy to receive Medicaid eligibility.

Pros and cons include: This strategy can provide an immediate source of funding. However, the family will lose the death benefit that an unconverted insurance policy would have provided.

Reverse mortgage

Some aging homeowners turn to reverse mortgages (also called home equity conversion mortgages) to turn their equity into cash while still retaining ownership.

Pros and cons include: Although it can provide a cash infusion, using a reverse mortgage to pay for senior care is a potentially risky, “last resort” type of move. Not everyone will qualify, and defaulting could lead to loss of ownership.

Medicaid

Unlike Medicare, Medicaid is jointly administered by the federal government and individual state governments. As a result, eligibility requirements and other rules vary from state to state.

In general, though, Medicaid recipients must have low incomes and assets with very low value. The program is intended to benefit the poorest Americans, so many middle-class families likely don’t qualify.

To get more information, check with the agency that manages Medicaid in your state. You can also contact an elder law attorney in your state or visit these websites:

Claiming your parents on your tax return

To claim a parent as a dependent, your financial support for them must be substantial — at least 50% of the total cost for housing, food, medical care and other items. Also, the parent can’t earn more than the personal exemption for that tax year (which was $4,050 in 2016).

So, unless your parent has a very low income and you pay more than half the cost of keeping them cared for, they probably wouldn’t qualify as a dependent. If the parent does qualify, you could receive tax benefits such as the Dependent Care Tax Credit and reduced taxable income.

To get definitive answers, ask your tax preparer. You can also call the IRS or make an appointment at a local Taxpayer Assistance Center.

Expert opinion

“When budgeting for an aging parent, Medicare costs need to be factored in. They pay a monthly premium for Medicare Parts B and D for life and then also a Medigap or Medicare Advantage plan to pay for the things like deductibles and coinsurances that Medicare doesn’t cover.”

Danielle Kunkle
Co-founder, Boomer Benefits

The sibling situation

Among adult siblings, the care of aging parents has the potential to spark conflict like few other subjects. Handling parents’ finances is no exception.

It’s not uncommon for someone who takes the lead as caregiver to feel overburdened and resentful toward a sibling taking a less active role. Fortunately, a personal care contract or caregiver agreement can help ensure that the sibling who makes the most sacrifices is at least financially compensated.

Under this type of agreement, parents or other family members agree to reimburse the family member acting as caregiver. Compensation options include:

  • Direct payments (the income will be taxable)
  • An estate plan, or additional consideration in the parent’s will
  • Transferring homeownership to the caregiver
  • A life insurance policy with the caregiver as beneficiary

An elder law attorney can help you draw up a caregiver agreement. As for the form that compensation takes, families should think carefully about options that could lead to future conflicts between siblings (specifically, an estate plan or home transfer).

About those conflicts…

Even if you have a financial arrangement in place, don’t forget that sibling caregivers often have emotional needs in addition to financial ones. Expert tips on how to defuse conflict and increase support include:

  • Stay in communication, even if it’s just a weekly call
  • Arrange for someone else to step in every now and then so the caregiver can have time off
  • Ask for outside help (family counselors, social workers, clergy, etc.) when conflict becomes unmanageable

Expert opinion

“Personal care agreements are valuable for two very different reasons. One is emotional, for the family caregiver to feel as though they have a ‘real’ job and have at least a written record of what they need to do. Many have to cut back on work or stop working during a period of caregiving. The agreements can also serve as a record of the work done for siblings.”

Michael Guerrero
Senior Benefits Adviser

Elder Care Resource Planning

glossary

Additional resources

eldercaredirectory.org

Medicare
Medicaid
State assistance agencies

agingcare.com

Benefits checkup

AARP.org

Public benefits

payingforseniorcare.com

Assisted living

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