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Friday, February 23, 2018

On “Falling Off the Wagon”

There have been so many times over the years when I’ve been caught up in the heat of the moment and spent more money than I should have. I either splurged on something completely forgettable or I bought something that I really didn’t need and wouldn’t have even wanted had I given it more reflection.

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into a small pattern of this behavior, when I slip into a little routine of spending money without any real consideration. I’ll buy this thing or that thing and, at first, it’s well within my “hobby money” for the month, but then I’ll just not be paying much attention to it or I’ll be involved in something that’s gobbling up my attention and focus and the next time I really think about things, I’ve overshot my plans by a lot.

It is really tempting sometimes, especially in that moment where I’m realizing how bad I messed up, to just say it’s not worth it. I’m sitting there feeling like an idiot because I spent more than I should have on ill-considered purchases and, undeniably, I’ve taken some backwards steps on my spending. I tell myself that it would all be a lot easier if I didn’t think about this stuff.

But then I think a little more, and a few things come into my mind.

The Actual Impact Is Small

It feels like a big mess in the moment, but when I really step back and look at it, it’s not that big of a mess.

Since I’ve started my financial turnaround, I’ve spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars less than I’ve earned. A bad splurge might be on the order of $100 or, in rare cases, a few hundred dollars.

While the impact of that mistake looks big in terms of my weekly or monthly finances, it’s really not that big in terms of the huge progress that I’ve made over the years.

I like to think of this in terms of climbing a mountain. Over the last decade, I’ve climbed 10,000 feet up a mountain. I just lost my grip and slid about 10 feet down. Is that really an excuse to give up? Is that really an excuse to stop using all of the tactics that got me up this far?

If I look around, I’m still in a good place, just not quite as good as I would have been had I been more sensible about things. If I stay off the wagon, I go down from where I’m at now. If I get back on, I keep going up.

This is an important principle to remember no matter where you’re at on your financial journey or any other major life change. If you back away from the tactics that successfully got you to where you’re at, you’re going to go right back to where you were.

The key, as always, is to remember that past mistakes don’t really matter too much other than informing us on how to avoid them going forward. We can’t reclaim the past. We can’t relive a moment in which we made a mistake. All we can do is move forward from the place we’re at to a better place using what we’ve learned from those mistakes.

Thankfully, most mistakes really are small ones. A $100 financial misstep isn’t going to drown the financial progress of most people. While it is unquestionably a step in the wrong direction, it’s not back to square one. The same thing is true when it comes to a dietary mistake or breaking a bad habit. You are not back to square one. One mistake in the last six months is still light years better than where you were at.

Now, what are you going to do from here?

It Might Be a “Relief” in the Short Term, But…

During those moments when you realize that you’ve fallen away from your good habits and you’re feeling guilty about all of your missteps, there’s this voice in your head that’s telling you that this really isn’t a mistake, that it’s a good thing, that it’s a relief to not have to be the “better” person, that it’s far more enjoyable to do things in this “worse” way, that it would be such a relief not to have to follow those hard habits.

It’s a really compelling argument in the short term. This line of thinking absolves you from the guilt of your mistakes and gives you internal permission to just completely give up on your progress. In this moment, people often go over the top in their indulgence. People go on spending sprees, rebound from their diets, completely stop going to the gym, and so on.

The thing to remember is that this is purely the short term part of your brain talking. While it might be enjoyable on some level to just completely undo your positive progress, you’re quickly going to be right back where you started, with all of the old stresses and worries that you were trying to escape in the first place, except that now you’re even older and it’s even harder to climb out again.

Your brain is shouting out all of the short term benefits of your bad habits from the past while ignoring all of the stiff long term consequences of those bad habits. Don’t buy into it. Step back and breathe for a while, and give yourself a chance to think of the long term. Where were you at a year ago? You were most likely in a worse place than you are right now. Do you want to go back to where you were a year ago? I really, really doubt it.

If you focus yourself on the short term when it comes to your personal habits and routine choices, you’re almost always going to wind up in a very bad place. We only make good choices when we consider the long term with at least as much weight as the short term.

The short term thinking stays in bed instead of getting up to go to the gym. The short term thinking gobbles down another piece of pizza instead of recognizing that they’re not hungry any more. The short term thinking spends money on forgettable things because it’s an expression of “freedom.”

Why Did It Happen? How Can I Make It Not Happen Again?

Whenever I find that I’ve fallen “off the wagon” on a personal journey that I’m on, the first question I usually ask myself is why did this happen. Why do I now find myself in this position, when not too long ago things were moving along wonderfully? What changed? Where was that bump in the road that I hit?

When I find myself here, I go searching for solutions. I want to know why things went wrong. I want to know what kind of conditions caused me to give up my good habits and resort to bad ones.

Then, I want to know what exactly I can do to avoid recreating those conditions. What exactly can I do to ensure that I don’t wind up right back in the situation and the mindset that cause me to “fall off the wagon”?

Was I influenced by certain people? Maybe I need to reconsider my friendships if they’re discouraging me from being my best self, and consider new ones. It may be time to actively start seeking out new relationships and friendships that build me up into the person I want to be. It can be hard to find them, but a good place to start is at community events and meet ups, such as ones hosted by the local library, local churches or other religious groups, or Meetup.com.

Was I influenced by excessive “discipline” or denial of things I enjoyed? Maybe I need to consider “ratcheting up” my standards in a particular area. What I mean by that is that if I feel extremely denied in one area of my life and it’s making me feel miserable, it’s probably worth it to loosen things up in just that specific area. Spend some time really thinking about how you can do things differently in a way that makes you feel happy.

Was I influenced by other challenges in my life and used this overspending as a stress outlet? Maybe I need to investigate new methods for handling stress. (For me, the most effective methods are plenty of sleep, a daily mindful meditation session, daily journaling, and intentionally saying “no” to less important tasks.)

Was I influenced by certain places and situations? If so, I need to figure out how to avoid those places and situations. It might involve simply no longer shopping at a certain store, or avoiding certain activities. I had to drop my “after work” drinks with friends that I used to indulge in because I found that those places and situations were dragging me in a very bad direction.

This kind of thinking requires time and evaluation, but it’s well worth it. You’ll almost always lead yourself straight to a better solution to the struggles you’re facing.

My Favorite: What Would The Person I Want To Be Choose To Do?

This is hands-down my favorite approach to the “falling off the wagon” problem.

Falling off the wagon of any self-discipline doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly altered your ideals in any way. What it means is that, for a while, you didn’t live up to the standards of the person you want to be.

The person you want to be has their head on straight. The person you want to be makes wise financial choices and wise health choices. The person you want to be does a lot of things well.

Think about the person you want to be. Would that person do the things you’re doing? If not, then why on earth are you doing them?

Here’s the nice part: the more you try to emulate the actions of the person you want to be, the more you become the person you want to be. The emulation becomes more and more natural over time.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect at it. None of us ever are. I don’t think anyone on earth ever gets to be exactly the person they want to be.

It’s the effort that matters, though. Few things in life feel better than realizing that you’ve basically been living up to the standards of the person you want to be. It’s not about the individual things you’ve done, but the simple fact that overall you’ve been living up to your principles and standards for yourself. That feels good. That feels really good.

Whenever I fall off the wagon of any discipline I’ve chosen for myself, whether it’s good spending habits, being a great parent, achieving long term goals, whatever it might be, I ask myself what the person I want to be would do right now. What would he do? Then, I do just that.

Because I want to be that person. After all, he’s the person I want to be. I start by acting just like him, and that choice is always the choice I’m facing right now.

Freedom

This goes back to the short term versus long term idea expressed above, but it’s so important that it deserves its own section.

So often, when we fall off the wagon, it’s because we desired some sort of short term freedom that we felt was missing in our life. We want to have control over our situation in that moment, and we often feel like the best expression of that control is to do something that seems to be the most purely enjoyable option.

We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is staying in bed instead of going to the gym. We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is buying that thing that we want so much instead of just walking on by it. We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is eating that last slice of greasy pizza instead of putting the napkin on our plate.

The thing is, freedom is already there; the simple fact that we do have a choice is what freedom is. Freedom is having the option to stay in bed or to get out of bed. We’re free to choose. Freedom is having the option to eat that piece of pizza or not eat that piece of pizza. We’re free to choose. Freedom is having the option to buy that thing or not buy that thing. We’re free to choose.

However, the choice to buy that thing has an impact on freedom. When we choose to spend our money on something we don’t need, we actually reduce our options. We essentially give up all of the other things we could have done with that money and, very likely, we also give up some future options as well.

If I take $40 and buy a cool new board game, that means I no longer have access to the other options that the $40 represents. Since I didn’t put it away for the future, I also reduce my options down the road.

When I step back and look at the big picture, I realize that freedom is the choice itself, the fact that I can choose to spend or not to spend if I want to. When I choose to exercise the option to spend, I’m actually cutting off some of my future choices. I better be quite sure that I’m making the right choice, but making up my mind about that has nothing to do with personal freedom.

I always have the freedom to choose. Choosing to spend isn’t an expression of freedom any more than choosing not to spend; in fact, it might be a less free option over the long haul.

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

It is really easy to fall into a mindset that a single mistake means the end of everything you’ve worked for. If you screwed up for a day, you tell yourself that it means that you can’t really do this, that you’re not good enough.

What you’re missing out on is the fact that you’re saying that perfection is the only possible way forward, and that just isn’t true for anything.

Perfection is basically unattainable for anyone. No one is truly perfect at anything they do. People stumble and fall down all of the time, even if you don’t see it. In fact, usually you don’t see it, because people rarely show their faces of weakness to the public. They want to show their strengths.

You are doing good. One misstep in, say, two months is incredibly good, especially compared to where you were at. Saying that the only acceptable pace is no missteps ever is basically a guarantee that you’re going to fail in your initiative.

You messed up once in two months. Think about where you were at a year ago or a few years ago. How often did you mess up in a two month period. Can you really compare the two and say that you are not doing quite good right now? Can you really say that you’re a “failure” after doing that well?

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. You’re doing good, you’re doing far better than before, and that’s a far more healthy standard than perfection.

The Journey Isn’t Complete

One final thing to consider when you’ve fallen off the wagon is that your journey isn’t over yet.

Think about your journey as being like a pioneer crossing the plains in the 1800s along the Oregon Trail. You started off in Independence, Missouri and are aiming to eventually arrive in your Willamette Valley.

Right now, you’re somewhere past Fort Kearney, in the wilderness, and your wagon just hit a bump. Are you going to give up and stay here, so far short of your goal, with no idea of the lay of the land? Or will you repair that wagon and keep going westward, heading toward that Willamette Valley of your dreams?

If you prefer, you can also harken back to that mountain climbing analogy from earlier. You’ve scaled up several thousand feet… but have you really achieved what you came here to do? Is this really the spot where you’re going to give up, when you know you have the tools to keep going?

If you’re going to fall short of your goals, do it for a real reason, not just because of a momentary setback or a bump in the road. That’s an excuse. Your true destination lies ahead of you, and it is far closer than it was when you started. In fact, if you’ve been making good financial moves, you’re probably accelerating toward it on the back of fewer debt payments and more returns on your investments.

Your journey isn’t finished yet. The finish line is closer than ever. Don’t give up now.

Final Thoughts

Whenever I hit a bump on my path, I usually find that some combination of these tactics works well for me. Personally, I get a lot of value out of thinking about what the ideal version of me would do, but all of these strategies have helped me at some time or another.

The key thing to remember is that a bump in the road is just that, a little bump. It is not the end of anything. It’s just another part of your journey.

Good luck!

The post On “Falling Off the Wagon” appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

How to Get Maximum Value out of a Personal Finance Book

My preferred way of preparing new ideas and posts for The Simple Dollar is that, once a week or so, I head off to the local library with a notebook in my backpack. I’ll go to the new release section and grab any books remotely related to personal finance that I see there, and then I’ll snag a book or two from the personal finance, business, and psychology sections that look interesting (along with the latest issues of any financially related magazines). I’ll reserve a study room for a few hours, go in there, get out my notebook and pen and a bottle of water, and just start reading.

My goal, of course, is to extract ideas that I can either research further or think about further or try to implement in my life to see whether or not they work. So, I’ll often browse through the books, reading different passages that look interesting, and write down an idea or two in my own words as anything pops out at me. If I start quoting an idea or I feel it’s really novel, I’ll write down the name of the book and the page I found it on so I can mention it in an article or look it up later.

At this point, I have a very, very good understanding of the basic personal finance advice that I’ll get out of any book. What I’m looking for now are related ideas and fresh takes and approaches that maybe I haven’t considered before.

That wasn’t always the case, though.

It wasn’t all that long ago when personal finance seemed basically impossible to me. I mean, I intuitively understood what you should be doing – a person needed to pay their bills and so on, and there are a lot of opportunities to spend money in stupid ways – but those ideas didn’t really click together into anything meaningful. Instead, I found myself slipping deeper and deeper into a financial mess.

A little later, I was in the same boat when it came to investing. I understood basic ideas like “buy low and sell high” and that you could make money in the stock market, but how did one do that and why? My first baby steps into investing were, at best, stumbles.

In both cases, I managed to figure out my path forward at the local library. Back then, there weren’t many personal finance websites out there that provided things on a level that really clicked with me, so I turned to books. I still think that books are unmatched for learning about a new subject, as they collect and organize the basics of what you need to know about a topic better than anything else, but the internet can definitely supplement that when needed.

The thing is, when you are feeling really uncomfortable about personal finance and go to the personal finance section of your library and look at those books for the first time, it’s intimidating. How do you even know what to pick? And once you have it, how do you not just feel overwhelmed by it?

That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Picking a Good Personal Finance Book for Your Needs

So, you’re standing there at the personal finance shelf at your local library, or in front of the shelf at your local bookstore (if you’re there, I’d encourage you to go to the library instead, but to each his own), or looking at the endless listings on Amazon. How do you figure out which book you should even read?

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want out of this book. Where do you want to be when you’re done reading this book? Do you want to have a plan in place for getting rid of debt? Do you want to have a bunch of ideas on how to cut back on your spending? Maybe you just want to understand where all of your money is going and why. Maybe you just want to try to get rich.

Whatever the reason is, figure that out before you ever start looking.

People come to personal finance books for a lot of different reasons, and your reason is no more right or wrong than anyone else’s. The thing to remember is that just as people come to personal finance books for a lot of reasons, the books are written for a lot of reasons. Some books are really focused on how to get out of debt. Some books are really focused on helping you build better spending habits. Others are focused on simply forging a better connection between your money and your life choices. Others really focus heavily on wealth building.

Here are a few of my own recommendations for specific niches.

If you’re looking for a book on paying off debt above and beyond anything else, I’d point to The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, which I discussed in a 12 part series in the past.

If you’re looking for a book on building a stronger connection between your life choices and your money, I’d point to Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, which I discussed in a thirty (!) part series in the past.

If you’re looking to learn the basics of investing, I’d point to The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing by Mel Lindauer, Taylor Larimore, and Michael LeBoeuf, which I reviewed at length in the past.

If you’re looking for a book to help you teach your kids about money, I’d point to Raising Financially Fit Kids by Joline Godfrey, which I also reviewed at length in the past.

These aren’t the be-all-end-all of choices, either. These just happen to be ones that I found a lot of value in when looking at finances from a particular angle, and they’re certainly not the only ones that are good in those niches. The key is to figure out what you want and pick a book that matches.

The truth is that most of the books you’ll find in the personal finance section of a library are going to offer solid advice that’s perhaps simply tweaked to aim at a particular problem or at a particular type of reader, such as women or young adults or seniors.

There are a few things I recommend avoiding, however.

Don’t bother with books that have outsized claims on the cover that seem beyond reasonable possibility. Books that claim you’ll be a millionaire in short order are probably not worth your while.

Don’t bother with books that “predict” things about the future, like a huge stock market surge or a complete collapse of some market. Those things might be interesting, but they shouldn’t be the basis for sound individual personal finance.

Don’t bother with books that really strike you as targeting people besides yourself. If you’re younger, don’t read a book obviously targeting retirees. If you’re older, don’t read a book obviously targeting people in their twenties. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I’ve found a surprising number of people read a personal finance book that isn’t even trying to speak to them and then wonder why it isn’t helpful.

Almost everything else you’ll see in the personal finance section is probably a worthwhile read. Choose one that seems to speak to you and check it out.

Getting the Most Value Out of That Book

So, you have this great personal finance book at home, but what now? It looks long and fairly intimidating, with a lot of pages and probably some charts here or there.

Over the years, I’ve read tons of books covering topics that intimidated me and I’ve figured out a few ways to turn them from intimidating tomes into something really useful that I’ve been able to base a lot of ideas and personal choices on. My goal with such books is always to absorb as much information as possible into my way of thinking, even if it takes quite a while. It can sometimes take me a long while to read a book I’m really trying to understand and absorb, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s what library renewals are for.

Here’s what I do.

I set aside some time each and every day to read the book. Every single day, there’s a chunk of time I’ve set aside for reading a book that I’m trying to absorb and understand; usually, it’s a book that’s verging on “over my head” when I pick it up for the first time. I set aside an hour each day for this because it’s really important to me. If this isn’t something that’s natural for you, I suggest setting aside 15 minutes a day to start with. Set a timer for this if you think it’ll be helpful – pretty much any smartphone in the world can do this. Also, regarding your smartphone – put it in “do not disturb” mode (here’s how for Android and for iOS) and put it screen-down on the table so you’re not distracted by it.

When you sit down to read, grab a notebook and a pen and have them open beside you. The reason for this is that you’re going to be writing down things in your own handwriting. You’re not going to type them or just try to remember them. Why? Taking notes by hand has a huge benefit for absorbing the information into your thinking and recalling it later. It absolutely blows away not taking notes at all. It absolutely blows away taking notes by typing. Do it by hand. It’s worth the time.

As you read each section of the book, start a new section in your notes. If the book is broken down into short chapters, have a section for each chapter. If the book is broken down into longer chapters with subsections, have a section for each of those chapter subsections. I usually just write down the name of that section and draw two boxes around it so that it stands out as a new section in my notes.

If you see a new idea you want to remember, write it down in your own words. Don’t just copy it out of the book. Think for a bit about the idea and read it a few times if needed, and then write it in a way that feels more natural to how you describe things. This will make you think about the idea and that will embed it in your brain. I usually start off the writing down of a new idea with just a little dash to separate it from other notes.

If you have a thought that you come up with on your own, write that down, too. So, if you’ve read a few ideas and they’re clicking together with something else in your head, write that down, too. I usually preface those with a + sign instead of a dash, because that means it was my ideas crossing with what I was just reading about.

If you see something you want to take action on, write that down, too! Noticing a theme here? As before, when you see that idea that you want to take action on, rewrite it in your own way so that it makes the most sense to you. I preface these things with a big ! so I can look for things I might actually do later on.

If you have a question or a word that you don’t understand or an idea you want to know more about, write it down. Lead that one off with a ? so you can quickly see that it’s something you don’t know about.

At the end of a section or a short chapter, summarize it in your own words. I usually do this by writing SUMMARY and surrounding it in a box, then following that up with one or two sentences outlining the main point of that section in my own words. A lot of personal finance books like to include a summary at the end of a chapter, and that’s fine, but it’s still worthwhile to do it in one’s own words.

When the timer goes off, stop. You can keep going to an obvious stopping point if you’re close, but at that point, just close the book and notebook and put them aside.

Sometime later on, when you have a few minutes, look through your notes. Look up the answers to any questions you may have had and jot down an answer in your own words near that question. If you have any potential actions, add them to your to-do list or take care of them. Other than that, just read the notes.

Then, just repeat all of this, each day.

When you’re done with the whole book, put the notebook aside for a week or so. Return the book and let it breathe.

Then, spend some time going back through all of the notes after a week or two has passed. Think about all of that stuff, and then, at the end of all of your notes, write several sentences summarizing the book as a whole.

If you do this, you are going to remember the book really well. The ideas in it are going to burrow deep in your head, and you’re much more likely to start taking natural action based on the ideas in the book. That’s exactly what you want from a personal finance book. You want it to alter your thinking a little and move you to a natural mindset that’s more responsible when it comes to your finances.

The thing is, this takes time and patience. At fifteen minutes a day, this will take a few months to get through a reasonable book. That’s fine. It’s not a race. It’s far better to actually read and absorb one good book than it is to flip through the pages of ten without remembering anything about it.

When I’m completely finished with a book, I’ll often take pictures of all of the pages of notes and save them in Evernote for long-term storage. Evernote makes the notes searchable. I have an Evernote notebook for almost every nonfiction book I’ve ever read since I started doing this. It also means I don’t have to physically keep the notebooks if I don’t want to – I usually just fill them up and then toss them.

Final Thoughts

Remember, the purpose of reading a book is either for entertainment or to absorb the ideas, or possibly both. I’ll assume that if you’re reading a personal finance book, you’re probably looking to absorb ideas, and if that’s the case, this structure will do a fine job of that. It works incredibly well at embedding ideas in your head that will stick around for the long haul, which is what you really want when you’re trying to make changes to your financial life and gain a deeper understanding of your finances.

This process will take time, but you’re going to get far more value out of the time spent really absorbing one book than the time you would spend rapidly reading two or three books. Do a deep dive – you won’t regret it!

Good luck!

The post How to Get Maximum Value out of a Personal Finance Book appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Half-Price, Not Half-Baked: Save a Fortune at the Bakery Outlet

Every couple of weeks my partner visits what he calls “the used bread store.” That’s wiseguy-ese for “bakery outlet,” and those visits save us a ton of money.

Multigrain bread for $1.50 (and sometimes less). An 18-pack of good-quality hamburger rolls – not the gummy supermarket-brand ones – for $1. Flour or corn tortillas almost always on a “buy one, get two free” special, which means getting up to five pounds of tortillas for a dollar. Giant bags of restaurant-style white corn tortilla chips for 50 cents.

Why is this stuff so cheap? Two words: supply, demand.

When bread products don’t sell fast enough, markets return the overflow to the bakery. Although bread can taste fine close to its best-by date, consumers tend to go for the longer-dated stuff.

Not that you’re seeing only “old” bread at bakery outlets. Sure, some is within a day of its sell-by date. Yet we routinely buy breads and rolls with four to six days left on the clock. Not that it matters, since we throw it into the freezer and take it out as needed.

You can save some serious coin this way. Suppose your household goes through two loaves of multigrain bread each week and you’re paying $3.29 per loaf at the supermarket. Now suppose you could get the same brand of bread for $1 a loaf.

Do the math: $4.58 times 52 equals a little over $238 in savings per year – and we haven’t even gotten to the fun part of the store yet.

Cheaper Treats

Maybe you have a weakness for English muffins or raisin toast but can’t justify spending $2.99 per package or per (smallish) loaf. Perhaps the only way to get bagels in your area is to buy ’em by the bag. Could be that you have a secret weakness for chocolate doughnuts, Twinkies, or Little Debbie snack cakes but can’t stomach the cost. The bakery outlet can hook you up.

Not that you should make a steady diet of sweets, but what’s life without a little sin? If you’re anything like me, you hate to pay retail for dietary transgressions.

You never know what you’re going to find at the bakery outlet. Ours has bags of coffee beans at a price almost as good as Costco’s; sometimes they go on sale, which is when we stock up. When one-pound packages of Twizzlers showed for 50 cents each, we bought 30 pounds — we may have overbought somewhat. (Each of my nephews will get a package in his Easter basket. Dude heaven: a pound of strawberry Twizzlers, and no pressure to share with your brother!)

My partner’s son once found sardines canned in tomato sauce for a buck a can (a very good price here in Alaska, and maybe elsewhere, too). He asked if he could buy all the cans they had for a flat fee. The manager said, “Sure, why not?” and he found himself in possession with a lot of shelf-stable protein. Sometimes haggling works.

Outlets carry a wide range of non-baked goods, too. I’ve seen spices, frozen foods (burritos, barbecued ribs and the like), fish and chicken breading, condiments, grains, and gluten-free baking mixes.

Like salvage grocers, bakery outlets may pick up products that didn’t sell as well as expected, especially seasonal items or those associated with movies. In recent months we noticed an influx of “Star Wars” cookies and ice-cream cones stamped with images of Minions from “Despicable Me 3.”

One of my favorite things about bakery outlets, though, is the chance to try new varieties of bread without much cash outlay. If it turns out that onion dill rye bread sounded better than it tasted, you’re out only a buck or so.

And by all means do try new varieties. Different flavors of breads keep that brown bag lunch interesting.

Where to Find Bakery Outlets Near You

As baked-goods companies reorganize or simply get more efficient with their supply chain management (leaving them with less nearly-expired bread to unload), it’s getting a little harder to find bakery outlets. But the following locations all sell multiple brands of baked goods:

Aunt Millie’s: A Midwestern brand with shops in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Bimbo Bakeries USA: Outlets in 44 states; brands include Arnold, Ball Park, Boboli, Earth Grains, Entemann’s, Freihofer’s, Marinela, Mrs. Baird’s, Oroweat, Sara Lee, Stroehmann, Thomas, and Tia Rosa.

Franz: Stores in Alaska, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho; labels include Seattle International, Seattle Sourdough Baking Co., Alaska Grains, New York Bagel Boys, and, of course, Franz.

Holsum: Outlets in Louisiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, and Colorado.

Oroweat: Locations in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

Pepperidge Farms: Outlets in Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Schwebel’s: Stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.

In addition, do a search for “bakery outlet [your city]” since regional bakeries may have second-run locations.

Some Pro Tips

Ask about loyalty cards. In my Seattle neighborhood, the outlet had a punch-card system. When the card was filled up, you got a free loaf of bread.

Look for special deals. That same outlet had “senior day” and “double punch Wednesdays.” Plan your shopping accordingly and stretch your food dollars further.

Improvise. When my partner found bags of hoagie rolls for 50 cents each (eight per bag), we started cutting hamburgers in half and eating them on long skinny rolls instead of round ones. Nobody died. Another time the outlet had a screamin’ deal on big bags of tostada shells; he bought a couple, broke them into pieces and ate them with sandwiches, because ounce per ounce they were cheaper than tortilla chips.

When in doubt, add tortillas. A bowl of leftover chili becomes a heartier meal with the addition of some warm tortillas. Do a search for “dessert quesadillas” and create super-cheap sweets. Flour tortillas can also be used to make pinwheel sandwiches for a potluck, or for a brown bag lunch. Recently we ran out of those hoagie rolls so I ate the last burger between two corn tortillas, which was a little slippery but very tasty.

The Bottom Line

Obviously you don’t want to buy stuff that’s too old to be palatable. Generally speaking, you can save a lot of bread at the bakery outlet. The only difference between those discounted hoagie rolls and the full-price ones at a nearby supermarket was the price. I see no reason not to save 75 percent on the same product.

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Big Cutback: The Value of Longer ‘No-Spending’ Challenges

During the early days of our financial turnaround, Sarah and I often did “money-free weekends,” where we would simply go for a weekend – from the time we got off work on Friday until we returned to work on Monday – not spending any money at all. We lived on the food we had in our home and enjoyed free entertainment or the items we already had on hand.

Several times, we extended this to a “money-free week,” where we essentially did the same thing from getting off of work one Friday to getting off of work the following Friday. That longer period was harder, as it usually required some planning ahead for food, and we did make the strict exception of putting gas in our cars to make sure that we were able to commute to work.

Twice, I took on a “money-free month” – a 30-day version of this challenge. Here, the only exceptions were putting gas in my car and buying fresh foods. I could have done this without the fresh foods, but the latter half of the month would have involved a lot of canned and frozen imitations of fresh foods, so I decided that it was silly to make that choice. Basically, I just bought fresh versions of things I could have had on hand in frozen or canned versions. It turned out that this was much harder, and it was in those challenging moments that I learned a lot about my relationship with money.

For starters, I felt really, really deprived in the middle of that challenge, but that sense of deprivation started to fade a lot near the end. At the start, I was rather inspired by the challenge, but after about 10 days, the challenge started to feel really restrictive and I began to feel like I had no freedom at all. I felt pretty miserable for a good two weeks in the middle of both of the 30-day challenges.

The funny thing was, near the end of the challenge, this feeling of being deprived faded away. For the last week or so of both challenges, I actually felt pretty happy with things, and it wasn’t because the challenge was coming to an end.

The truth was that I hit some kind of “breakthrough” point where my mind really switched to finding happiness in what I had rather than disappointment in what I didn’t have. I felt really excited to go home and read a book that had been sitting unread on my shelf for a few months. I went on some really long walks with my son around town (at the time I first tried this, my second child – our daughter – was on the cusp of arriving and our first child was a toddler) where I pushed him in the stroller and we just went wherever we wanted to go. He’d point in a direction and we’d go that way and then I’d say, “Let’s go this way!” and he’d smile and we’d go this way. I played all the way through one of my favorite old video games. I spent a lot of time working on The Simple Dollar, which was still in its infancy.

At the time, I didn’t really notice that the switch had happened. I only noticed it later, when I read my old journal entries and realized that near the end of those months, my entries got really bright and sunny and happy, even though I was still a good week away from the end of the challenge, and they stayed that way, and even at the end of the challenge, it was a long while before my spending really picked up again.

This brings me to a few additional interesting notes.

Shorter challenges didn’t really bring about any changes in our spending that really lasted. We saved some money by not doing any spending for a weekend and especially for a week, but our old habits returned after that short break. After my longer breaks, I found that I kept going with a lot of the new routines I’d figured out. I had “broken” at least some of the spending habits I had earlier – not all of them, but a lot of them. I never returned to some of them. A few others slowly came back later, and a few others came back in modified form.

Basically, the longer spending challenge actually created some real permanent change in my spending habits, in a good way. The things I ended up cutting were things that were genuinely unimportant in my life, so I didn’t really lose anything. I just hadn’t given those “bad” spending habits the kind of real reflection that they needed to realize that they weren’t really adding much value to my life. It took cutting all of those habits out for a while for those habits to break off.

The month-long “no spending challenge” also was a stark reminder that I used spending as a crutch in many ways in my life. I used it as an emotional crutch, to just buy something that would serve as a quick pick-me-up rather than actually fixing what the problem was. I used it as a convenience crutch, buying something that I thought would save me some time or effort. I used it as a tool to hide areas of my life that were out of balance, like a dog tossing leaves and dirt over his mess. Spending allowed me to hide all of those things.

With the emotional pick-me-up, buying something often simply served as a quick emotional lift. I’d feel good for a bit after buying a coffee or – my personal little treat of choice at the time – a slice of pizza and a Gatorade from the convenience store near our apartment. I’d feel happy for a little while, drink or eat or otherwise enjoy my treat, sigh, and ride that little emotional lift as long as I could (which often wasn’t as long as I’d like).

What I found during the challenge is that I could often find the same little lift in something free or nearly so. I’d find it in doing things like stopping work for a while to stretch, or going for a barefoot walk on a sunny day, or drinking some ice cold water. It might not necessarily lift me as “high” as other options, but it didn’t come with the “drag” of being yet another expense.

Furthermore, I came to realize that such treats were often just covering up some problem in my life. Why was I sad enough that I needed a little treat to lift me up? There were a number of things going on, largely revolving around my professional life and some familial concerns, that were causing me to feel a little less happy in my day to day life, and I often relied on those little bursts of happiness to help get me through the day. Simply backing off of those not only led me to some free solutions, but it also led me to actually addressing those concerns.

Regarding spending for convenience, I learned during the longer challenges that the “convenience” reason for unnecessary spending was often just a cover-up for my ineptness. I wasn’t very handy in the kitchen, so cooking simple meals seemed intimidating, so I’d back away from the challenge with restaurants, takeout, and prepackaged food. The longer challenges forced me to cook actual meals for myself, day in and day out, and I found that the more I did it, the easier it got. Now I’m not afraid to cook anything and most of the time I’d rather just do it myself because it turns out better in terms of what I like and it’s not much more effort, either, plus it’s far cheaper.

So, what can you take home from this experience?

Firstly, a long “no spending” challenge – say, for 30 days – is incredibly useful in terms of digging into your money habits. By the end of those 30 days, you will have learned a lot about how you spend money, whether it’s for convenience, for entertainment, or for other purposes. It’ll also nudge you into finding new things in your life to appreciate.

The reality is, however, that most people will never take on such a challenge, so what else can be gleaned from this?

A lot of money we spend on things that are convenient are mostly there to cover up the fact that we’re not very skilled at something. A lot of people spend money on convenience foods because they’re not adept in the kitchen, either at cooking or at efficiently cleaning up, for example. Many people spend money on entertainment because they’re not adept at finding other forms of entertainment. When you spend money on a convenience or something non-essential, consider for a moment what skills of yours that this expense is compensating for and consider whether there’s value in sharpening that skill.

Even more money is spent on things that are meant to provide a short term relief to a personal pain of some kind. We buy a treat to forget our cares for a while. This is a twofold problem. First, there are usually a lot of free treats that can have the same effect. There are a lot of wonderful free things in the world to appreciate and enjoy and even distract, without the expense. Second, treats don’t actually solve the problem, whether they’re free or not. If you find you’re indulging with any regularity in a treat or a vice, ask yourself what you are distracting yourself from and consider whether or not you’d be better off just working on solving that problem directly instead.

You can learn a lot in 30 days. Good luck!

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How to Get a Spring Break on Caribbean Travel

A Caribbean spring break may get pricey for college kids heading to resorts, but anyone shivering and shoveling their way through winter can get a spring break of their own on the cheap.

The Caribbean was hit hard during last year’s hurricane season, but a big part of the recovery process involves assuring potential visitors that all is well and that there’s a reason to come back. This year, that means there are deals.

“As much of the Caribbean was unaffected by the fall storms, travelers will find most destinations are open for business now and are ready to welcome travelers for their peak travel season,” said Brooke Ferencsik, senior director of communications for TripAdvisor.

That peak season starts in December and January, but can stretch into April. Humid weather typically forces prices down from June through October, as does the start of hurricane season. Ed Perkins, a travel analyst with TripAdvisor-owned SmarterTravel, notes that the biggest lull in the Caribbean travel calendar stretches from September through November as hurricanes blow through, but notes that resourceful travelers can find some deals scattered throughout the spring.

If you’re looking to book a trip during actual spring-break season, you’re likely too late. Maddi Bourgerie, spokeswoman for vacation rental site HomeAway, notes that travelers should book spring-break excursions by the end of January if they want to get the best deals and beat the crowds.

However, TripAdvisor notes that a week in five Caribbean destinations — Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Puerto Rico — costs less than $2,000. All five have hotel deals under $250 per night, while travelers can save 33% on accommodations when they pick the least expensive week to go.

For the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and hard-hit Puerto Rico, that discount week is April 30 though May 7. Hotel rates range from $175 a night in Martinique to $244 in Puerto Rico.

Round-trip airfare, meanwhile, is as little as $208 to $218 from Atlanta to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, respectively. However, even passengers from Los Angeles and San Francisco can reach those destinations for a round-trip price of $330 to $526.

Amanda Norcross, features editor for travel site Family Vacation Critic, notes that those destinations can be fairly family-friendly as well. “The Dominican Republic offers a wide selection of all-inclusive resorts, including Nickelodeon Hotels and Resorts Punta Cana, which is offering a kids-stay-free promo for spring break,” she says.” There are also some really great adventure activities in the Dominican Republic, both in and out of the water: everything from sailing and surfing to zip-lining and canopy tours.”

In Curacao, April 23 through 30 is the magic week, with the average hotel room going for $189 a night and airfare as low as $323 round-trip from New York’s JFK airport. However, there’s a reason why a week there costs an average of $1,646.

“In general, islands that have frequent and inexpensive air service (such as Nassau and the Dominican Republic) get more visitors, while islands that are more expensive or difficult to fly to (like Curacao or Grenada) will see fewer visitors,” says Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of SmarterTravel. “If you’re willing to pay a little more or take a longer flight, you might have a better chance of avoiding crowds.”

Schlicter notes that quiet, romantic islands like St. Lucia (a traditional honeymoon destination that averages $3,750 from April 30 to May 7), St. Kitts and Nevis (lightly visited and too pricey for spring breakers at $4,831 a week from April 30 to May 7), and the Cayman Islands ($5,155 from April 30 to May 7) tend to draw fewer spring breakers even at their peak. That makes them great for couples, but also for families who aren’t looking to contend with the noise or mayhem.

“Grand Cayman is a fantastic island for family vacations because it offers something for every age,” Norcross says. “World-renowned diving, bioluminescent kayaking, Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City (where you can actually swim with stingrays) are among the highlights.”

But if you want to trim those prices down even further, SmarterTravel’s Schlicter suggests getting creative. Be flexible with dates if possible, but also consider vacation rentals and guest houses when looking for accommodations.

In the Cayman Islands, for example, the average nightly hotel rate during its cheapest spring week is $674. If you can get a group of 10 down there, a five-bedroom, five-bathroom villa on HomeAway with an infinity pool, hot tub and its own boat can be had for $166 per couple per night, or $83 per person. Oh, and the minimum age for rental is 25, which leaves spring breakers out of the equation.

In Barbados, where round-trip airfare is as little as $206 from JFK but average room rates on its cheapest weekend (again, April 30 to May 7) are $436, a vacation rental that sleeps six goes for $454 a night. The three-bedroom, three-bathroom villa with an outdoor living room overlooking the sea is on the Royal Westmoreland Golf Course and has a pool, a private cottage, a tennis court and a lenient policy toward children.

We’ll warn that this won’t work with every destination. When hotel prices average $198 a night in Guadelope and $175 in Martinique, a vacation rental will do little to offset airfares from Dallas that are $1,382 and $1,094, respectively. In that case, SmarterTravel’s Perkins says, your best option may be a hotel, flight, and car-rental package where discounts on the room and vehicle offset the ticket price a bit.

“As always, the only way to be sure is to compare,” Perkins says. “Packagers are often a better last-minute source than airlines and resorts directly; they may have availability when individual airlines and hotels say ‘sold out.’”

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Twelve Key Principles for Financial Success in Today’s World

Whenever a person makes a thoughtful decision, it’s usually based heavily on a set of internal principles, whether that person can spell out those principles or not.

Principles are simply sets of internal rules that you live by. They’re usually just a reflection of the things that you value, described in a way that guides your behavior clearly toward the values that you hold dear.

One of my journaling exercises as of late was to make a giant list of all of my principles. I wound up listing about ninety of them over the course of several days. After I finished dumping them all out on paper, I went through them and sorted them out a bit and I found twelve that applied strongly to personal finance (and quite a few more that did in a more secondary way, but if I included all of those, this article would turn into a book).

(An aside: a daily journaling practice is a really, really good practice for ferreting out exactly what you value and working through some of the unanswered questions in your life. My practice as of late is simple – I just open up a journal and write whatever comes into my mind until I fill three pages. It might be inane, it might be thoughtful, it’s usually a mix. Sometimes, I’ll get into a groove and continue a theme over several days, like this listing of principles; at other times, I jump from thought to thought with every other sentence. It always helps me feel more clear.)

What follows are those twelve principles, along with some additional thoughts on each one. These principles are ones that I was forming during the earliest days of The Simple Dollar, more than a decade ago, and every single one of them holds true today. They all help to guide me toward continuous improvement in my financial state.

The specific application of each principle might change over time, but the core principles remain the same.

Principle #1 – Spend less than you earn over any given period of time.

You should be striving for this over any period of time as long as or longer than a single pay period. It should be true over a pay period, a month, a quarter, a year, a decade – no matter how you slice it, you should be spending less than you’re earning.

Now, this is tricky to actually pull off and almost no one is perfect at it, but I will say that whenever you fall short on that principle, there’s almost always a financial problem lurking there that you can solve. It might be a problem of inadequate planning or a problem of too much impulsive spending or a problem of inadequate emergency preparation, but if you can find a period of time in which you’re spending more than you earn, then there’s a problem.

“But what about times where you’re traveling?” Yes, you’re probably spending more than your most recent paycheck on a well-planned trip, but a well-planned trip involves spending money that you put aside for that purpose earlier on. You should be spending less than you earn each period including your savings for future expenses, and then when those future expenses come along, you don’t actually count the money you’re spending from your savings. You effectively already “spent” it the moment you put it aside for that upcoming expense. We’ll get back to the importance of planning ahead shortly, but when you put aside money for a future goal, you’re effectively “spending” it now.

“But what about when I’m retired?” At that point, you should stop thinking at all about your retirement savings and instead apply this rule simply to the money coming in regularly. Your pension check, your Social Security check, your payouts from your 401(k) and so on should all be a pool of income, and you should strive to spend less than you’re “earning” from that pool. If you do that, you’re probably going to be fine for the rest of your life.

Principle #2 – You are never making a mistake by paying down a debt.

It is never a mistake to pay off debt. If you are unsure as to your next financial move, paying off debt is always at least a good move. It may or may not be the absolute best thing you can do, but it’s always a worthwhile choice.

Yes, there are situations where you have a debt with very low interest and you might earn more interest by putting that money in an investment or a savings account, but there are still two advantages to paying off debt that the other options won’t give you.

First, when you pay off debt, you’re reducing the future interest you’ll have to pay on that debt. You do not have to pay taxes on that reduction. On the other hand, you do have to pay taxes on any gains you make on that investment. So, for example, paying off a 5% interest loan is better than making a 5% return on an investment because you don’t have to pay taxes on the reduced interest whereas you would have to pay taxes on the 5% return.

Second, when debt is eliminated, it directly improves your monthly cash flow by eliminating a required monthly bill. When a debt is gone, you no longer have that bill coming in the mail and you have the freedom that comes with less money that you have to spend each month. This gives you options with that money, a power of choice that you didn’t have before.

Principle #3 – You are often making a mistake by taking on a new debt, so think very carefully before you do.

While paying off a debt is always a good thing, actually taking on a debt is often not a good thing. The reasons for this mirror the reasoning above.

First of all, it means that you’re saddling yourself with a new required regular bill. This means that even more of your income is tied up in required spending than before, which means that a higher level of income is required from you just to keep the bills paid. If you want to be tied to your job, the best way to do it is by pulling out the ropes of debt. Your life’s flexibility is reduced.

Second, almost all debts come with interest, which means that you’re going to be paying back more money than you borrowed. That’s not a good financial choice, as over the long run it comes down to overpaying for something.

This doesn’t mean that debt should be avoided, but that it should be taken on carefully and with great consideration to ensure that the benefits really are worth that cost. Sometimes, they are, as in the case for student loans to earn a degree that will lead to a huge increase in income. Often, they’re not, as in the case of a credit card balance rolled forward or a loan for a replacement car because you didn’t bother to save at all for it (so, in reality, your loan is used to pay for an inflated lifestyle that you already enjoyed before signing the car loan).

Principle #4 – The more you splurge, the less value each splurge has and the more money you’ve spent overall, so spread them out as much as possible.

If you buy something you really enjoy once in a great while, buying that thing is a treat. You’ll enjoy the anticipation of it, the experience of buying it has heightened enjoyment, and you’re much more likely to invest a lot of time and energy in actually enjoying that specific item. You get a lot of value out of your $5 or $20 or $100.

On the other hand, if you buy something you enjoy on a very frequent basis, that sense of a “treat” goes away. It’s still enjoyable, but it becomes much more ordinary. There’s almost no anticipation, no extra joy from actually choosing the item, and you’re probably not going to spend nearly as much time or energy enjoying the thing you purchased. After all, it’s just another thing, much like all the others you’ve bought. You’re getting a lot less value out of that $5 or $20 or $100.

Even more than that, you’re finding that you have to spend many multiples of that $5 or $20 or $100 to get as much joy out of one single expense if you keep those splurges frequent and routine.

Spread them out. Let your pleasurable spending be an oasis of joy in your life, one that gives you joy from anticipation and from the experience of actually doing it, and then because you don’t have nearly as many things competing with it, you’ll spend a lot more time with it afterwards, too.

Principle #5 – Ratchet down your spending on everything until you feel unhappy with the change, then ratchet back up just a notch. And then do it again a year or two from now.

Almost all people with some level of financial flexibility – the vast majority of people in the western world – end up spending an inflated amount on almost everything in their lives compared to what they actually need to get tasks done and feel fulfilled. We do that for tons of reasons: we’re influenced by the media and advertisements, we follow word of mouth (which was originally influenced in the same way), we take the most convenient or most familiar choice at first glance, we just keep doing what we always did.

The thing is, on so many things, we’re spending more than we need to just to meet our needs or fundamental wants for that item. For example, for the vast majority of household and nonperishable food items we buy, the store brand is perfectly fine for meeting our needs, but for a myriad of reasons, most people buy mostly name brands.

There’s a simple way to fix this. Go through your life regularly and ratchet down your spending on everythingif you discover that something hurts, rebound. Bring that thing back. Start ratcheting up that spending slowly until you find a level you’re happy with. If you stay in a state of “misery” because you “have to,” it’s very likely that you will rebound.

This should be a somewhat continuous practice, too. Every year or two, you should experiment with ratcheting down spending in each area of your life where you spend money, just to see what spending you’re actually getting value from.

Principle #6 – You’re better off owning a small number of well-made and reliable possessions that you use regularly than with a large number of possessions that you rarely use.

Let’s break this principle down into pieces.

First of all, a smaller number of possessions requires less living space, which means that your housing costs are lower and your utility costs for that space are lower, too. Consider how much of your living space is actually just used to store stuff. Having less stuff means having lower housing and utility costs. It also means lower costs for moving as well.

Second, a smaller number of possessions means that you actually get more use out of each one. Things don’t get shoved to the back of the closet because you’re actually using the stuff you have.

Third, higher quality possessions means that you spend a lot less time maintaining and replacing them. If you’ve made the decision to actually buy something, that means you’re intending to use it quite a lot, and a well made version of that item with low maintenance means that it’ll last a long time and you’ll spend less time keeping it in good working order.

Taken together, this means that the best route for spending on possessions is to own a smaller number of higher quality items rather than a larger number of lower quality ones.

Principle #7 – Consciously investing adequate time and energy into every part of your life cuts off a lot of destructive spending urges.

A lot of spending that people do comes from an underlying feeling that their life is out of balance. Sometimes, it’s easy to identify why – you’re not spending enough time with your kids, for example – and at other times it’s not so clear.

Many people handle that feeling of imbalance by throwing money at the element that feels underserved. If you’re not spending as much time as you’d like with your kids, you buy them things and take them on great experiences to “make up” for all of the things you missed. If you’re not spending as much time as you’d like on your hobbies, you buy more hobby items than you can possibly use. You get the idea.

Often, what’s going on is that you’ve allowed one or two areas of your life to expand and expand until it’s choking off the air from other areas that you care about, and that reckless spending is that section of your life gasping for air.

I’ve found that one really good financial practice is to simply give all areas of your life the air they need to breathe. Literally wall off time each day or each week for all of the major areas of your life – physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, marital, familial, social, intellectual, vocational, hobbies, and so on. What do you do on a regular basis to feed each area of your life? Wall off that time. Schedule it and make it sacrosanct, and if that means letting some other things go in your life, that’s fine.

If you don’t give every notable part of your life some love and care and attention, that part will start screaming for help, and you’ll often end up throwing resources at it in a haphazard way that will probably come with a financial cost. Don’t let it happen.

Principle #8 – If you see an expense coming in the future, even if it’s far off, start preparing for it now.

You know you’re going to have to replace that car in a few years. Start saving for it now so that you can just pay cash for it rather than taking on a car loan.

You know you’re going to pay for at least a part of your children’s college education. Start saving for it now so that you can just pay cash for some portion of it rather than cosigning on a loan.

You know you’re going to need to pay for insurance at some point, property taxes at some point, and so on. Again, save for those things now so that they’re not even a slight concern later on.

It’s easy. Just figure out how much you need to set aside each month to make sure that you can cover each of those expenses. Total it up and then start transferring that amount to your savings account each and every month. Make it automatic if you can; ask your bank to transfer that money automatically. Then, when the expense comes around, take the money you’ve already put aside out of your savings account and just pay for it directly. No debt, no worries, no stress, no anything – it’s just handled.

Not only does that policy avoid a lot of stress, it avoids a lot of debt, too. It also helps ensure that you’re always spending less than you earn (I count money put aside like this as money already “spent”).

Principle #9 – Don’t rely on your future self. Help your future self.

Many adults, particularly younger adults but a surprising number of older adults, assume that they’ll just take care of some issue down the road instead of worrying about it now. My “future self” will handle retirement savings. My “future self” will handle that car repair. My “future self” will actually do some professional development.

Here’s the truth. Your “future self” is going to be older. They’re going to have less energy than you do. They’re likely to have experienced some kind of misfortune. They’re going to look back at the most wasteful moves in their life with regret.

Right now, your life is quite likely in a better state than it will be for your “future self.” Rather than adding even more burdens to your already tired future shoulders, choose to shoulder some of those burdens now when you’re young and can handle it.

Don’t put off saving for retirement so you can do something frivolous. Don’t put off professional development so you can sit at your desk reading Facebook. Don’t put off that car repair because you’d rather go out with your friends a bunch this month – figure out some cheaper stuff to do with them instead.

Put as little burden as possible on your future self. Handle as much of it as you possibly can now without making your life miserable. Take pride in the fact that you’re making your life easier going forward. You’ll never, ever regret it.

Principle #10 – If you’re married, be open with your spouse about every dime spent and make that principle clear before you’re married.

There should be no hidden spending anywhere in your marriage, aside from perhaps some mutually agreed upon private discretionary spending in equal amounts for both of you so that you’re not quibbling over things like buying a morning coffee or how a gift could have possibly been afforded.

As soon as you start to hide expenses from each other, you end up putting a financial burden on your partner that he or she probably doesn’t want. You’re also damaging the trust in your relationship, and you’re almost always guaranteeing a huge fight as soon as that expense is uncovered.

There should never be hidden bills. There should never be hidden receipts unless it is directly due to a surprise using money that’s from agreed-upon discretionary spending. If those things are happening, then there’s a fundamental trust problem.

Obviously, as with all relationships, people can enter into different agreements from the outset, but communicating about money is vital in all relationships and such expectations should be clearly communicated from the start. This type of completely open approach is a great starting point because it ensures that everything is clear, open, and honest from the very beginning.

Principle #11 – Life is going to hand you unexpected events. Be prepared for them.

Your life is not going to go the way that you expect that it will. There are going to be unexpected successes and unexpected failures. There will be joy and pain and opportunities and challenges that you can’t possibly foresee. How can you possibly prepare for them?

One vital step is to have an emergency fund. It’s simply a pool of money that you set aside and feed regularly that is used solely for unexpected life challenges. I strongly encourage people to set up an automatic transfer from their checking account to their savings account, moving at least $20 a week into that emergency fund. That’ll save up more than $1,000 a year, which is going to really help when your car won’t start or the washing machine unexpectedly dies or you have to suddenly fly to Atlanta to visit your ailing father.

Another useful tool is insurance. It exists to handle unexpected events in your life – you pay a little each month and then when that type of event comes along, it steps up and helps pay for it. Most Americans have some form of medical insurance, and homeowners typically have homeowners insurance, and automobile owners usually have auto insurance. In addition, you should consider a term life insurance policy for anyone in your family whose passing would cause an undue financial burden on those who remain.

Life is going to go in unexpected directions. You can take care of at least a few of the worst potential zig zags now, and you should, because the cost of not doing so is very high.

Principle #12 – Treat everyone in your life as you wish you would be treated.

How is this a financial rule? It’s a financial rule because a good personal and professional network has a tremendous positive impact on your financial life.

A good professional network constantly opens the doors to new opportunities and help when you need it. If you decide it’s time to move to a new challenge or get a better paying position, your professional network is probably how you’ll get your foot in the door. Treating your coworkers and others in your field as you would like to be treated is a good way of facilitating that. Ask yourself how you would like to be treated by other people in your field and by those you respect, and attempt to always treat others in that way while attempting to connect with as many people as you can in a meaningful way.

A good social network is similar, but it comes through in much different ways. Good friends come through for you when you want social experiences and companionship. They come through for you when your life hits a real challenge, often filling in many gaps that would otherwise have to be filled with money.

If you stick to a fundamental principle of treating others as you would like to be treated, you’ll find that it’s quite easy to build a strong professional network and a strong social network, and both will provide real benefits to your life as long as you keep sticking to that principle. Others will often follow your lead in how you act toward them, after all.

Final Thoughts

If you live by these twelve principles, you’ll find that your financial life will flow along quite smoothly. You’ll find yourself with low expenses, the money to handle unexpected expenses when they come along, and a nice safety net for the curveballs that life throws at you.

Good luck!

The post Twelve Key Principles for Financial Success in Today’s World appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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My Credit Card Issuer Lowered My Credit Limit – Why?

It may come as a surprise, but credit card issuers have the flexibility to modify the terms of your account after it’s been opened. While that fact may be understandably unsettling, there’s not much you can do about it. And one of the most common ways a card issuer will change the terms of your account is by lowering your credit limit.

Your Credit Card Issuer Is Watching You

The Fair Credit Reporting Act defines who can request your credit information from a credit reporting agency. You know lenders are going to request your credit information whenever you apply for new financing. What might be news to you, however, is that your current creditors are allowed to continue checking your credit long after your account has been opened.

Most credit card issuers will perform an “account maintenance” check of your credit report and score from time to time, perhaps even monthly. Since a credit card issuer is essentially loaning you money over and over again, they need to be sure that your level of credit risk remains the same.

If the condition of your credit worsens, then they may no longer want to continue doing business with you or they may, at the very least, decide to adjust the terms of your account more in their favor.

Reasons Your Credit Limit Might Be Lowered

In most cases, a credit limit reduction is a putative measure imposed upon you by your credit card issuer. In other words, you have done something which has increased your risk in the eyes of your lender and has caused the lender to react.

You might still have flawless payment history on that specific account, but if you have new derogatory information appear elsewhere on your credit report (e.g., a late payment on a different bill, a new collection account), then your card issuer may feel the need to take action in order to mitigate their risk.

A card issuer may take a variety of “adverse actions” if changes in your credit report or score become a cause for concern. These adverse actions may include:

  • Lowering your credit limit
  • Increasing your interest rate
  • Suspending your account
  • Closing your account

Sometimes your credit limit might be lowered simply because you haven’t been utilizing your account enough or because your account usage patterns have changed. Your level of credit risk might be the same, but the card issuer may opt to lower your limit anyway. It’s annoying, but it’s ultimately their prerogative — as you’re borrowing their money.

How a Credit Limit Reduction May Impact Your Credit Scores

Your credit card accounts can certainly have an impact on your credit scores, especially if your balance consumes too much of your credit limits. Because your credit utilization ratio — the percent of your available credit limit you’ve used up – comprises a big portion of your credit score, lowering your credit limit can

For example, if you have a $500 balance on a credit card with a $5,000 credit limit, your utilization ratio is a healthy 10%. If your credit card issuer suddenly slashes your credit limit to $1,000, however, and you still have a $500 balance, your utilization shoots up to 50% — and that would immediately hurt your credit scores.

The best habit when it comes to credit card accounts is to pay them in full each month. To take this habit one step further, you might consider paying off your credit card balances a day or two before the statement closing date – this way, those accounts will always show a $0 balance on your credit reports.

If you maintain $0 credit card balances on your credit reports, then no credit limit reduction is going to harm your credit scores, because you’re still using 0% of your available credit.

Can I Prevent My Card Issuer From Accessing My Credit Reports?

In short, no. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows a creditor to review your account, and there is no language in the FCRA giving you the right to restrict them from doing so. In fact, if you read the language in your cardholder agreement you’ll see that you’ve affirmatively given them permission to access your credit reports and/or credit scores.

But at least you can take solace knowing that, when an existing creditor accesses your credit reports for account management purposes, that credit inquiry won’t have any adverse impact on your credit scores.

Related Articles: 

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

The post My Credit Card Issuer Lowered My Credit Limit – Why? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Questions About Flying, Subscription Boxes, Credit Unions, Mass Transit, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. International flight questions
2. The New Global Student?
3. More retirement contributions
4. Investing in cannabis
5. Asset allocation question
6. Career regrets
7. Banks versus credit unions
8. Subscription boxes
9. The Tyranny of Convenience
10. Financially strong employees
11. Is mass transit really cheaper?
12. Vegetarian help

Due to some personal changes, I’ve found it much more efficient to switch around my sleeping schedule a bit, going to bed closer to 9 PM each night and getting up closer to 4:30 AM each morning, whereas before this I stayed up until about 11 PM each night and got up at about 6:30 AM each morning.

The biggest reason for this shift is that I found I was often struggling during weeks when children were home sick from school. That simple change would basically wipe out a day of work for me, which as someone whose income is based on consistent production rather than hours worked, was a real problem. I don’t simply write fewer posts when I lose a day. This shift enables me to have a couple hours of work pretty much every day, with the cost of not staying up as late in the evenings, which is time that I used to just largely spend on hobbies.

I’m very much a “morning person” when it comes to writing. After I’ve been awake about 9-10 hours, my ability to write declines rapidly. I start making bad word choices and so on.

Before the change, I’d fall off that cliff at about 2 PM or so on an average day. Now, I fall off that cliff at noon.

I’m effectively now working from about 4:30 AM to about 12:30 PM each day rather than from about 6:30 AM to about 2:30 PM each day, which is what I used to do. So, for me, that leaves most early afternoons free as a blank of time. I find that I’m filling them with essential household chores and with some hobbies. Basically, I’m shifting my old 9 PM to 11 PM block to 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM or so, and shifting my old 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM block to 4:30 AM to 6:30 AM, and shifting that old block to 9 PM to 11 PM.

I’ve been joking with Sarah about how this is kind of like what it is like for people who switch shifts. They have to get used to having their free hours at a completely different time than before.

Q1: International flight questions

What are your thoughts on international flights? Is it worth it to pay more for a non-stop? Do the amenities and reliability of a traditional airline (ex. American Airlines) outweigh the value and hassles of a budget airline (ex. Wow Air)?
– Andrew

It really depends on what you need to get out of the flight.

If you have a very strict timeline for your trip, then the most reliable and direct flights are probably worth the premium. For example, if you’re going to a location and have to leave at X time and arrive by Y time or else the whole trip is a waste of time, a direct flight with a highly reliable airline is probably worth the premium.

On the other hand, if you’re flying for personal pleasure and a delayed flight isn’t going to bring you to crisis mode, then you’re better off hunting through the bargains for the cheapest way to get there.

I tend to think the direct flights with a reliable airline are probably worth the premium for professional travel unless you have a TON of breathing room on your schedule, or for an extremely short personal trip when you just need to be there for one specific event at a very specific time. If you’re going for a relatively lengthy (more than a day or two) personal trip without any major events to be present for or you have breathing room on both sides of the trip, then I’d bargain hunt.

Q2: The New Global Student?

I have children about the same age as yours and remember back to a book review you did years ago for “The New Global Student”. Have your thoughts on this book changed as your kids age?
– Gina

Here’s my review of The New Global Student, a 2008 book by Maya Frost that, in my own words from that review, argues that “the ‘traditional hypercompetitive SAT/AP/GPA path’ can be easily dumped and a new path to educational success can be found.”

I still agree with that core premise. As I said back then, “time and time again, throughout my college career, the people that seemed to have the best grasp of what they needed to do to succeed and the value they could get out of college were people who came in from outside that treadmill.” The people who came in for just a year or two to finish up a degree and already knew what they were doing and where they were headed on the back of life experience, community college classes, international experiences and classes, and so on tended to be very efficient at their studies and were usually set up for great jobs after graduation, too.

While I think that the book offers a great recipe for that kind of approach, it is just one recipe, and the book is ten years old at this point. The specifics of what she describes in the book have definitely changed, so you’ll want to supplement the details of the program with some effective internet searching.

My wife and I are still talking about what we want our children’s lives to be like in the years that lead up to college. We’re not sure yet, but we’re in agreement that we want to shield off a lot of the pressure of the SAT/ACT/college entrance pathway for them. I don’t think it’s a net benefit in the life of a teenager who hasn’t figured out their direction yet. I’m definitely not 100% sold on the idea that they should immediately go to college after high school. I know I wasn’t ready for it then – I would have received much more value from college if I had spent at least a year having other life experiences.

Q3: More retirement contributions

With the new federal tax laws I noticed my most recent pay check had less federal withholding taken out. I know that this tax law change also bumped me down from the 25% tax bracket to the 22% bracket. I have no debts other then my mortgage and student loans which are low interest. I already have a nice emergency fund. I have been contributing 18% to my 401k. When trying to determine how to best allocate this tax money my thought was since I am in a lower bracket now this is a good opportunity to take advantage of the Roth 401k that my company offers. What I am not sure about is will splitting my contribution to 9% 401k and 9% Roth 401k actually change my take home pay or should I be increasing my contribution as well. What do you think?
– Alex

Without additional numbers, I can’t comment as to whether your take home pay will change with this contribution shift, but my rough suspicion is that you will see a very slight decrease in take-home pay, on the order of less than 1%, as compared to your pay prior to the changes in federal withholding (and not including raises).

I also suspect that the splitting you’re doing here would be roughly the same as raising your 401(k) contribution to 19% or 20% or so. The Roth 401(k) contributions will obviously be better in terms of taxation in retirement.

In other words, no matter which of those two options you choose, I suspect that your take-home pay will end up being about the same and you’ll have a little bit more income from your retirement accounts when you retire (or retire just a bit earlier).

Q4: Investing in cannabis

I’m a 40 year old schoolteacher, planning for my retirement. I have an annuity that I save for retirement in, as well as a pension that my district will provide. My question is, do you think it’s a good idea to have some of my annuity invested in the cannabis industry? It is taking off obviously.
– Sara

Unless you are a full time investor or have some detailed knowledge of a specific industry, I think it’s a poor idea to ever invest in specific stocks or commodities. The reason is that as a “regular person” outside of the industry and without enough investment resources to deeply study things, it’s really hard to assess what the future looks like. It’s really hard even for people within that specific industry.

My consistent advice for everyone when it comes for investing for retirement is that unless you have very deep knowledge of a particular sector, all of your investing should be done in a very, very broad and diversified way, and the easiest way to do that is through a broad based index fund like the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, or whatever the equivalent offered by your retirement plan is.

Investing in everything minimizes your risk by reducing the impact on you from changes in any specific sector. If you invest in a specific sector, you’re betting your retirement on the idea that nothing bad will happen in that sector or that other sectors won’t do substantially better, which is almost never a sound bet unless you have a ton of knowledge backing it up.

Q5: Asset allocation question

Have you written on allocations recently? I am averaging cash into my retirement portfolios and using this as an opportunity to think harder about allocation. After all, financial research consistently demonstrates that allocation is the most significant determinant of portfolio performance. So, what are your thoughts on allocation in the current market/long term?
– Margaret

I think that asset allocation, at least for long term goals, is pretty well spelled out by the asset allocations you can find in target retirement funds. Figure out the date of your goal, then either just use such a fund or match that allocation. If you want a little more aggressiveness, choose to match a fund with a date a few years further down the road. If you want to be a little more safe, choose to match a fund a few years closer to today. I don’t think an individual can do much better, honestly.

It wasn’t too many years ago when target retirement funds were a really novel thing and I wasn’t sure how their asset allocations matched up, but over time I feel like many have really proven themselves.

If you want one to match with your own asset allocations, I’d use the ones from Vanguard, like Vanguard Target Retirement 2040.

Q6: Career regrets

I’m 34, single, earned a master’s degree in social work more than a decade ago. Never earned more than $36K in a year and that number was reached during years where I had a second job in addition to my full time one. I did have my student loans forgiven. I regret this path, though. Almost every decision is a hard one and I will never have even a small nice house unless I move to another part of the country. Not worth it.
– Jenna

Although I don’t know where you live, it does seem to be in a fairly high cost of living area. My guess is that if you did similar work in a low cost of living area, your income would drop down to something approaching minimum wage.

That’s a challenge, no matter who you are. Unfortunately, social work is widely known to be both incredibly stressful and poorly financially rewarded. It’s a tough career path that people typically choose for purely non-financial reasons. It is a disastrous financial choice to follow almost all career paths within the social work field. You simply won’t make as much money as many other fields. That doesn’t mean that it’s right, but that’s the nature of the situation.

The question you should be asking yourself is whether it’s time for some kind of career change. I can’t answer that question for you, other than to say most paths of advancement in the social work field won’t lead to wealth.

Q7: Banks versus credit unions

What is the difference between banks and credit unions? They seem like the same thing.
– Cleve

The services they offer are similar, but how they’re organized is different. A bank is a for-profit business, intended to earn a profit for the individuals who own the bank. A credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative, usually intended to help build the credit of its members and provide financial services. They usually end up offering the same services with similar rates.

So, which one should a person use? It really depends on what you’re looking for and what you need the most. In general, credit unions tend to be way more forgiving of low balances and people who are struggling financially. Banks tend to provide better services if you’re the type of person who always has a healthy balance in their checking account and savings account and doesn’t have much of a problem with credit.

My advice to most people is to simply look at what each can offer to you as a customer. Treat them all as financial entities where you might take your banking business and compare what they can give to you. If they end up being about the same, I’d take a credit union over a bank for the simple reason that they’re more interested in helping people with past financial struggles and marginal credit and not a lot of money to start building or rebuilding their financial lives.

Q8: Subscription boxes

What are your thoughts on subscription boxes? Good idea?
– Anna

I think that subscription boxes are a really clever idea that treats “surprise” as a big value addition and thus enables the people behind such boxes to sell something at a markup because the buyer doesn’t know for sure what they’re buying.

So, from the company’s perspective, a subscription box is a way to sell something at a customer at a markup by not telling them exactly what it is, and from the customer’s perspective, a subscription box is an overpriced item where some of the value is in the surprise and packaging.

In general, I’m not a fan of subscription boxes. If I have $50 in my pocket, I’d rather buy $50 worth of stuff of my own choosing than $50 in subscription boxes because I know I’m much more likely to end up with stuff I actually want. On the flip side, receiving one as a gift if it targets an interest, like a craft beer of the month club or something like that, is fine. I would give one in the right situation, but I’d be more likely to just research an interest for that person and find something that really clicks for them.

Q9: The Tyranny of Convenience

Thoughts on this article?

The Tyranny of Convenience
– Tara

I think this nails what convenience is. Convenience means that you’re saving time or effort in some fashion, but likely paying for it in some other way, usually with money. For example, a washing machine saves time and effort, but it costs money – you could wash your clothes in the sink by hand and never have to own a washer, but it would take a lot of time and money.

Convenience has some drawbacks, though. It almost always means that you eliminate some of your own knowledge from the process; instead, you just remember how to use the convenience rather than to actually do the task you want. A rice cooker is a convenience, but it doesn’t take long for you to know how to use your rice cooker but not really remember how to cook rice without it. Convenience foods are the same way – your cooking skills atrophy if you rely on convenience foods too much.

There’s also the fact that many hobbies are about intentionally not choosing the convenient path and instead enjoying the process of doing something and making something. You might read a challenging book instead of a summary of it, or you might make a wooden table by hand, or you might cook really elaborate meals.

I think there’s a balance to be found, as there is with almost everything, and I think that there are sometimes errors on both sides of that balance.

Good article!

Q10: Financially strong employees

At work my boss said off the cuff that he didn’t trust employees who were doing well financially because they were likely to “cut and run” and would just run off with any training he invested in them. He’d rather give a job to “someone who needed it.” This seemed wrong to me but as usual I didn’t know how to discuss it at the moment so I said nothing. Is it an employment risk to be in good financial shape?
– Andrew

A person who is in poor financial shape likely needs the job more than the person who is in good financial shape, that’s true. At the same time, that means that the person in poor financial shape is more likely to suffer through some awful job situations in order to keep the pay flowing in. A person who is in good financial shape can afford to start looking elsewhere much more easily.

Your boss, honestly, gives off a vibe to me that he will treat employees pretty terribly at least some of the time. If there’s a crunch, he will put the pinch on employees and expects them to accept it. Likely, at some point, he had employees that were in good financial shape and they simply refused to take it. He wants a lower risk of that.

I don’t buy into the idea that people who have enough self-discipline or other skills to be in decent financial shape are going to make for bad employees. It takes some willpower to achieve financial health, and that’s a sign that an employee has character (not that people who aren’t in good financial shape don’t have character, but that getting in good financial shape and staying there is often a sign of self-discipline).

If I were hiring someone and I saw that someone in good financial shape wanted the job, I’d consider that a bonus in their favor. This would mean that a person with at least some self-discipline was coming my way.

Q11: Is mass transit really cheaper?

When I used to live out in Crystal Lake I took mass transit to work each day. I took a train into the city then a subway and I wound up about 1/4 mile from my office. It worked well and it was definitely cheaper than driving in and out each day and less hassle too.

When I moved to the Houston area for a career shift my new employer was about six miles away from my house and had their own parking lot. I didn’t really think about it because I was about 1/2 mile from the train station and the other train station was about 1/3 mile from my office and the train’s just $1.25.

I started thinking about it though and I’m spending $1.25 to go each way to work and it’s about 6 miles. I still own a car and it’s paid for and I’m going to be paying for registration and insurance no matter what. Isn’t it more sensible just to drive to work?
– Matt

In this situation, where you’re only six miles from your workplace, they have free parking, and you’re going to own a car anyway, it’s almost definitely worthwhile to just drive to work, and it’s probably cheaper, too, unless your car is massively inefficient in terms of fuel.

On the train, you’re spending $2.50 for a day’s ride, which is about 12 miles. If your car gets more than about 15-16 miles per gallon, the gas is cheaper, and if it’s more efficient than that, the maintenance plus gas is likely cheaper, too. Plus, it’s just way more convenient to have your car there, which allows you to leave from home and leave from work when you want and do needed errands along the way.

I’d absolutely switch to driving in your current situation.

Q12: Vegetarian help

I know that you and some of your family are vegetarians and I wanted some help with a few things. My wife and I decided to switch to a mostly plant diet and we eat meat maybe once a week.

It seems like vegetarian meals are a lot more work. Most of the meat I cook mostly involved just sticking it on the grill, maybe with some sauce. Thoughts?

It is definitely cheaper than eating meat, though. I don’t know where the idea that it is more expensive comes from.

Also one thing we have found is that we sometimes feel bloated after eating vegetarian foods. Does that go away after a while?
– Jim

For us, there are some vegetarian meals that are super simple and others that are more complex, just like meals that use meat. A lot of our meals are prepared in the slow cooker, which often amounts to just adding some ingredients, hitting start, and then eating eight hours later. There does tend to be some chopping, but it’s really not any more work than, say, cubing a chicken breast. I think that your comparison is between a simple meat preparation – just putting a steak on the grill – and a complex vegetable preparation – cutting up a bunch of different things and so on. Try grilling a mushroom cap or a baked potato or a sweet potato, for instance, or try making rice in a rice cooker (add dry rice, add water, hit button, rice in 45 minutes).

I find that vegetarian eating is way cheaper than meat. If you go to the store and compare the prices of things like produce and dry beans and dry rice to the cost of various meats, it doesn’t even compare. I have no clue where the idea that being vegetarian or eating a healthy diet is super-expensive comes from.

As for the bloating, it will go away. It’s due to the increased amount of fiber in your diet, which your guts are trying to figure out. When that happens, you won’t notice the bloating much any more. I do suggest that if you’re eating a lot of beans and you’re starting with dry ones, let them soak overnight and then drain off the water and rinse them, as that will really help.

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

The post Questions About Flying, Subscription Boxes, Credit Unions, Mass Transit, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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