Saturday, May 5, 2018

Inspiration from Nick Bostrom, Sarah Sellers, Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Bush, and More

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

1. The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

This is a animated video adaptation by CGP Grey of a highly renowned philosophical fable of the same name by the esteemed Nick Bostrom (his book Superintelligence is a very worthwhile read if you’re concerned about artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence). It is one of those rare beautiful things that manages to be entertaining and incredibly thought provoking both for adults and for children.

This video (and the actual essay itself) has been the centerpiece of a bunch of discussions in our family. We’ve watched it several times, noticed tons of little nuances, and talked over and over about what the different elements might represent and what the overall meaning is. Not to spoil too much, but our general family consensus is that the dragon represents “potentially preventable things that cause death,” which is a huge subset of things – cancer, acts of violence, and war, among others. We’ve dug into the nuance of what the train is, who the king is, and so on. We’ve even noticed a number of little details in the video (I’ll give you a hint as to one of them: watch what the queen is doing and where she is throughout the video).

If you found the video enlightening, I strongly encourage you to read the essay that it’s based on. It’s the same story, but the essay goes in a few different directions that work better with the written word than in video form.

This video, to me, is an example of why the internet exists, or at least an example of the best part of it. It lit a spark for our family, even our youngest child, to engage in some powerful philosophical discussions while also being entertaining. It’s not something that would have ever been widely distributed even a decade ago. With all of the challenges in the world and the bad things we might notice, let us never forget all of the great things we have and the good things in the world.

2. Chris Rock on helping yourself

“I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.” – Chris Rock

The other day, I was attempting to explain to my youngest son, who is now in second grade, why he should do homework. He didn’t see the purpose in doing homework if he already knew the topic.

The argument that finally got to him was essentially the same one as the Chris Rock quote above. Doing a homework assignment isn’t just about learning the material. It’s about showing the teacher that you’re trying to learn, and if you’re trying to learn, the teacher is much more likely to try to help you when you’re struggling. There’s no better way to show that you’re trying to learn than by doing your homework. If you don’t do your homework, your teacher is going to think, “Gee, that student isn’t even trying, I’m not going to work so hard to try to help him learn this tough subject,” and then you’ll be lost. As is usual, I turned that around on him – does he like helping someone learn something if they don’t care to learn and don’t bother to listen to what you’re saying? I pointed out a recent experience he had with a friend where they got into a fight over playing a fairly complicated video game.

The overall principle here applies to the adult world, too. You’re much more likely to get help from others if you show that you’re trying to help yourself. You’ll almost always see more sympathy for someone trying really hard to get a job than someone who sits around and doesn’t look for one. Your boss will have a lot more sympathy and approval of you if you’re working on something rather than just sitting there watching the clock, even if there aren’t any active tasks to do. People are drawn to help others when they see that other person genuinely trying. Keep that in mind whenever you meet a challenge – you’re a lot better off struggling against it (and you’ll learn a lot more from that struggle) than from just giving up immediately and hoping someone will fix it for you.

3. Handwritten letters

One of my quiet personal projects for 2018 was to write a handwritten letter to one person a week for the whole year, and then maintain handwritten correspondence with them if they wrote back and there was a clear reason to continue correspondence.

Handwritten letters are wonderful, deeply personal things to receive in the mail. Someone spent the time to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper or two and write out their thoughts longhand, solely for you. In that entire process, they were thinking about you and the things they wanted to share with you. The time and thought involved in a handwritten letter, even a short one, is wonderful – I cherish them.

The process of doing this has been interesting. I mostly wanted to write to people in the context of them, not me. I’ve been aiming to ask a lot of questions (hoping to spur a follow-up letter) and to share something I’ve learned in the last few years that might be useful or highly interesting to them. It’s actually harder than it sounds.

Yet, even though it’s been hard, it’s been really rewarding. Several people have written back to me, and almost everyone I’ve written to has expressed some form of appreciation for the letter.

The strange part? It’s been incredibly rewarding for me, so much so that I would have found plenty of value in this if I never sent the letters at all. It has made me think about the various people in my life in a deep way, figuring out what they care about, how (and if) I connect to that, and what I can add to that. Often, in that process, I’ve found a lot of things I care about, and in the process of writing a letter, I’ve figured out things about me, too.

Give it a try. Try writing a few letters to people in which the focus is on them, not you. Ask questions. Share things that are primarily relevant to their life, not yours. It is really hard at first. Push through it. You’ll find it’s really, really rewarding, even before you put the stamp on the envelope and drop it in the mailbox.

4. Arne Garborg on what money can buy

“You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine but not health; knowledge but not wisdom; glitter, but not beauty; fun, but not joy; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness; leisure, but not peace. You can have the husk of everything for money, but not the kernel.” – Arne Garborg

Money can’t buy the important things in life. Money can’t buy peace or wisdom or friendship. The things that you might buy that promise those things don’t actually provide it. Peace and wisdom and friendship and many other things come from within you or are freely given by others.

The only real value that money has is in securing a stable enough foundation to enjoy those important things. It’s hard to enjoy peace or wisdom or friendship if you’re not secure in where your next meal will come from or whether you’ll have a roof over your head.

Beyond that, money just fulfills momentary desires. The things we ache for the most can’t be bought.

5. The quiet hour

Over and over again, I’ve come to realize that the first hour to an hour and a half of my waking day is perhaps the most valuable time I have each day. I call it the “quiet hour,” and unlike the rest of my time, I don’t really schedule anything for it. I usually just go through a morning routine at my own pace, without pushing myself and jumping from thing to thing in an orderly fashion.

I find I like it best in spring, where the “quiet hour” starts when it is still dark or when there’s the first faint hint of light on the horizon. As the “quiet hour” passes, the world slowly comes to life as I’m doing things like stretching and meditating and journaling and planning the day and reading a little. I’ll see the light getting brighter. I’ll hear birds start chirping. Eventually, I’ll hear Sarah stirring, and that’s usually followed shortly by children stirring.

When everyone wakes up and gets dressed and comes upstairs/downstairs to start their day, I feel alive and refreshed and ready to tackle pretty much anything that the world throws at me.

6. Paulo Coelho on opinions and examples

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

Everyone has a vision for what they want the world to be like. Some people manage to actually produce that vision, most on a small scale, but a few on a larger scale. They didn’t achieve that by staying at home. They didn’t achieve that by pontificating their opinions.

They achieved it by doing something. They achieved it, at first, by living their life in accordance with that vision. Later, they busted their tails to share that vision with others through action.

If you want to change the world, don’t talk about it on social media. Go do it.

7. Stephen Covey on listening to understand

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” – Stephen Covey

If you’re listening to someone solely as a courtesy while you wait for your opportunity to say what’s on your mind, you’re not listening. You’re not engaged with what that person is saying. You’re likely signaling to that person that you’re not engaged with what that person is saying. Furthermore, you shouldn’t be surprised when they do the same thing to you in return when you’re speaking.

If someone is telling you something, make it your goal to understand what they’re saying. If it’s complicated at all, repeat it back to them in your own words and ask if you got it right. If nothing else, they’ll know that you were actually listening to them and making an effort to understand them.

Even better is the follow up question. If you ask someone a follow up question, you’re not only listening and demonstrating that you’re listening, but you’re also usually conveying your own thought in there to an extent, because a question reveals what part of what they’re saying is grabbing your attention and interest.

Lately, when I’m in conversation with someone, 80% of what comes out of my mouth are questions. A lot of them are restatements of what they said. Unless there is a big conversational lull or someone has directly asked me a question, I usually am asking questions and listening.

What happens? I feel like I get to express myself more than enough, but more important than that, I feel like I understand the people in my life much better than I used to. The conversations are better and deeper, and I feel like the relationships are stronger, too. Whenever I do say something, people usually listen, because I’ve paid them the same courtesy.

Try it. Listen to understand. Don’t worry about replying.

8. “Cool is an emotional straightjacket.

Those five words really nail a sentiment that I’ve had for a long time, in that if you’re altering your behavior to please others (beyond the relatively minimal requirements for participating in society, like basic hygiene, clean clothes, and a minimum level of friendliness), you’re putting yourself in a pen that no one else cares about. You are far better off being yourself and then connecting with people that happen to click with who you are.

I find that this idea really underlies my parenting practices. I strongly encourage my kids to be themselves, as they feel most comfortable, and then gravitate to people who seem to fit in with that natural comfort and not worry too much about the judgments of others (provided, of course, that my children are handling the basics of being a participant in society as noted above). Don’t worry about being “cool.” Be yourself, and find people who like you when you’re being yourself. Don’t adopt new ideas or practices simply because you see others doing it – think them through first and make up your own mind about them. Don’t do things and think things and feel things just because others seem to want you to. Do them and think them and feel them because you want to.

The idea that “cool is an emotional straightjacket” is something I’ve believed for a long time and used as a parenting principle for a long time, but I’ve not heard the concept expressed so beautifully and succinctly before.

9. Kurt Vonnegut on maintenance and building

“Another flaw in human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Recently, I went out to lunch with an old coworker of mine from more than a decade ago. We caught up on things, as old friends do.

At one point in the conversation, I mentioned that I left my previous job in part because everything was becoming “maintenance” and we weren’t “building” things any more, which was less interesting to me. It occurred to me later that this was exactly what Vonnegut was talking about in this quote.

For me, it wasn’t even so much that we weren’t “building” things, but that as we entered a “maintenance” phase of our project, it was clear that the resources available to us were going to start dwindling and try to keep things held together with duct tape. This is because, not only are individuals not as interested in maintenance as they are in building, society as a whole does not appreciate maintenance as much as they do building.

People are always looking at the new flashy thing. The well built thing that is well maintained and lasts and lasts and lasts starts to be taken for granted. It works, it’s worked for a long time, so why worry about it? It usually works and keeps working because someone is busting their rear end maintaining it, but people rarely see the maintenance.

It’s often a running joke that in IT departments, the best-run IT departments don’t look like they are doing anything because everything is running well. A department with a strong dedication to maintenance is doing it quietly and nothing is breaking, so it often looks like they’re not doing much – they’re not replacing stuff, they’re not installing new systems, we rarely see them, they must not be doing anything, let’s cut their resources and staff and salaries.

The message here? Appreciate those who are quietly maintaining the things you rely on. Don’t cut their budget because they seem invisible – if they’re invisible, that probably means they’re doing a really good job of keeping the things you rely on working without you having to think twice about it. Thank the person that cleans your office if your office is always clean enough that you just don’t notice it at all. Thank your IT department if your computers and other resources just work without skipping a beat most of the time.

Maintenance isn’t attractive, exciting work. Done well, it attracts no attention at all. And that’s a shame.

10. WALL-E in seven different genres

This video simply takes clips from the Disney/Pixar film WALL-E and re-edits them into seven different previews for the movie. The interesting part of this experiment is that the previews are for movies in entirely different genres.

One of the trailers makes WALL-E appear to be a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style of film. Another trailer makes it appear to be a romance. Another switches it into a pure horror film. One of the trailers makes WALL-E appear to be a presentation by Apple designers.

The trick? It’s all about film editing. The order of the scenes shown, the way the film cuts between scenes, and the music used all alter how we feel about what’s on the screen. Is it joyful? Is it sad? Is it scary? Is it persuasive? It all depends on the order of the scenes, how they jump back and forth between each other, and what the music is like.

This is a pure appreciation of how important editing is in terms of making a good film come to life.

11. Barbara Bush on regrets

“At the end of your life you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent.” – Barbara Bush

At the end of your life, you will regret the truly important things left undone.

In the busy parts of our lives, we tend to focus on the urgent things – the things that scream out “I need to be fixed!” Those things grab our attention and time.

What we often let slide are the important but not urgent things – things like playing a game with our kids or having a long phone conversation with our mother. Those things might not be exciting and they might not be urgent, but they’re important and they’re deeply fulfilling in a way that few things are.

Make time for them. Wall it off. Turn off your phone. Turn off your distractions. Give into the moment and do the important things. You will never regret it.

12. Yuki Kawauchi and Sarah Sellers


Yuki Kawauchi is a full time school teacher in Saitama Prefecture in Japan. Sarah Sellers is a full time certified registered nurse anesthetist at a hospital in Tucson, Arizona.

So why am I talking about these people?

As a part time hobbyist runner training solely in his spare time, Yuki Kawauchi won the 2018 Boston Marathon men’s division. (He is apparently considering becoming a full time runner after his win, though not immediately.)

As a part time hobbyist runner training solely in her spare time, Sarah Sellers finished second in the 2018 Boston Marathon women’s division.

These two are not full time runners. This is not their career. It is their passion, something they fill up their spare time with. And yet they’re both unquestionably among those at the top of their sport.

If someone with a full time career who is just training in their spare time can do that at the Boston Marathon – not some small marathon in the middle of nowhere, but one of the prestigious marathons in the world – why can’t you do what you dream of?

(Please note that I am not undermining the performance of the other top finishers, particularly the women’s elite winner, Desiree Linden, who turned in an incredible performance. I was just captivated by the personal stories of Yuki and Sarah and the fact that they managed to do this as a side gig, which puts my own commitments into question and challenges me greatly. The performance of top level marathoners, whether full-time professional or as a side hobby, is incredibly impressive and takes an unbelievable amount of work and dedication. Yuki, Desiree, Sarah, and all of the top finishers are amazing. Frankly, in my opinion, anyone who gave it a serious try is amazing.)

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Friday, May 4, 2018

Letting Go

I’m sitting here looking at my bookshelf in my office. It’s completely full of books.

Some of those books are there for reference and regular re-reading. Those are ones I’m keeping. Let’s say they make up 10% of the books on my shelf – that’s a good estimate.

There are a lot more that I picked up somewhere and read once, extracted the core ideas or the story, and will almost assuredly never read again. I liked them. I like seeing them there on my shelf. But if I’m really honest with myself, I’m not going to pick up that book again. There will virtually always be a new book I’d rather read or a genuine classic I’d rather reread. That’s another 60% of the books on my shelf.

There are quite a few more that I haven’t read at all. Books found at library book sales or given as gifts or found in little free libraries, books that seemed interesting that I thought I might read someday, but I always find something else to read. There are probably a few I will actually read sometime soon, and a few more I might read within the next several years, but the rest won’t get read. That’s the remaining 30% of the books on my shelf.

As I look at them, I want to keep all of them. I have fond memories of reading a lot of the books on my shelf, and I remember the excitement of finding and picking up many of the remaining books. It feels good to look at that shelf of books.

On the other hand, those books take up a lot of space, and there are a lot of them. There are only so many books I can read at a given time. Moving with this many books is a hassle. Some of them probably have some value, too, even if it’s just a swap at a used book store. The most painful thought, though, is that these books are just sitting here unread on my shelf when there’s likely someone in the area who would absolutely love to be actively reading that book, and if I’m never going to read it, why shouldn’t I send it on its way to find that person?

It’s time to let go of a lot of my books, and then it’s time to think a little differently about how I refill these shelves and what I choose to hold onto in the future.

* * *

Most humans in the Western world collect physical things. We fill up boxes and bins and closets and shelves with the stuff we accumulate.

We collect other things, too. We collect friendships and other social relationships. We collect slights and hurts. Almost everything I’m saying below applies to collecting those things, too.

Whenever we add a new item to our life without eliminating one, we’re actually adding a problem to our life as well. Every time we take on a new item, we further divide up the time we have to spend on the items we already have, and the bigger and more unwieldy our collection becomes.

If I have 10 books on a shelf that are unread and I add yet another one, I now have even less of a chance of reading the ones I already have. There simply isn’t time, even if I spend a lot of time reading. I can commit to a full moratorium on buying new books and even on going to the library, but I still have more books on that shelf than I’ll be able to read in quite a while. In all truth, what I’ve done is reduced the likelihood that I’ll read any of the ones already on my shelf while simultaneously adding another book that has a relatively low probability of being read unless I make some sort of firm commitment to it.

That’s true for everything. Clothes in the closet. Small kitchen appliances (more appliances but the same number of meals means all appliances are used less while taking up more room on the whole).

The more we have of something, the less time and energy we actually have for each of the items, and that means we get less value from them. We’re getting less value for the money we spent on every item on the shelf.

Yet, there’s still the problem of having a bunch of items that we like having but still don’t really have time for.

I call it the “letting go” problem.

* * *

The reality is, I would have never brought any of those books into my home if I didn’t want them on some level. Each book on my shelf wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t some excitement in my life, at some point, for reading that book.

When I look at the book cover, I get a twinge of that feeling again. I remember being really excited about the book, and I feel a little excitement again. I’ll tell myself, “You know, I might just read this sometime… I’m going to hold onto it.”

But then I’ll see the next book and feel the same way, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the reality of my life is that I don’t have infinite time to read, and even if I did, it’s very likely that I’m not going to give that time to a lot of these books. I’m not going to re-read most of the ones I’ve read, and I’m honestly not going to read most of the unread ones, either.

It’s that twinge of feeling, though, that makes it hard to let go.

But it’s just a twinge. If I listen to that twinge alone, it’s enough, but if I step back and look at the bigger picture, I might just come up with a different answer.

* * *

As I sit here looking at my bookshelf, the reality is that on some level I don’t want to get rid of any of them. I don’t want to let go of them at all. In the end, there are really only three big things that actually work as a motivation for me to let go of some of these books.

One, if I’m not likely to read that book any time soon and I can get a little value from it, I can use that value elsewhere in my life. If I can sell that book for 50 cents, then that’s 50 cents that I can use elsewhere.

Two, those books really do take up a lot of space. I don’t mind having a nice bookshelf full of the books I truly love, but having shelves stuffed with books I read once and probably won’t read again or books that I’m fairly likely to never read? That’s a lot of space for those things.

Three, and this is the big one, if I let go of a book, it’s likely to find its way into the hands of someone that will appreciate it. The idea that one of those books that would otherwise just sit on my shelf for years might end up making a difference in someone else’s life really sways me.

So, what am I doing? I’m purging the books. I’m selling off some of the ones that individually have some significant value. This turns some items that were just sitting on my shelf into money that I can do other things with. It’s very likely that said money will wind up in a Roth IRA, honestly.

I’m donating most of the rest to the library. With some others, I’m sticking them into Little Free Libraries in the area.

* * *

Still, it’s hard to let go sometimes.

I decided I was going to put a few particular books in a nearby Little Free Library, because I thought there might be some people in the neighborhood who could get some value out of them.

I bundled up the books and walked over there, but as I was sticking them in there, I began to question it.

Do I really want to let go of this book?

I liked that book. I really did. It was a joy to read. There’s some small chance I might read it again.

In the end, though, would I actually read it again? And wouldn’t it be better for this book to wind up in the hands of someone else? And won’t I be glad to have some free shelf space in my office?

I slipped that book into the Little Free Library and closed the door.

* * *

It’s hard to let go, but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

I Want To Improve My Finances, But I Just Don’t Have the Time…

I’ve written in the past about the “sandwich generation” – the group of people who are “sandwiched” between their children (the younger generation, or the lower crust of the “sandwich”) and the cost needed to raise them and their parents (the older generation, or the upper crust of the “sandwich”) and the costs and effort needed to help them in their later years. I’ve also offered some direct financial advice for people in that situation.

However, as I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of quite a few of my friends who also find themselves in this “sandwich generation,” one of the biggest issues working against us is time. Our careers need time and attention. Our children need time and attention. Our parents need time and attention. We need to give time and attention to our own basic needs – personal health, mental self-care, basic physiology like sleep and eating. That can lead many in the sandwich generation to often feel like they don’t have time for anything, because all of those things listed – career, children, marriage, parents, and basic self care – can easily grow to eat up all available time, leaving you with almost nothing.

The Two Element for Taking Care of What Matters

Time and time again, I’ve found that if there is something truly important in your life that you really want or need to make room for, you need two key ingredients to make that happen: commitment and willpower.

Commitment is simply a recognition that the thing that you truly want or need is more deserving of your time than some of the other ways you’re using your time. What are you committed to that’s more important to you than your financial future? If there are things you are committing time to that are less important to you than stable finances, then cut enough of those things so that you have time to devote to patching up your finances. If you can’t find anything, then you should accept that finances simply aren’t important enough to you to make a commitment to them.

Willpower is the ability to stick to your commitments. You might commit to something in concept or on paper, but actually making it happen in your life is hard. What are you spending your money on that’s more important to you than your financial future? What are you actually spending your time on that’s more important to you than your financial future?

So, how do you actually do this?

My practice, as I’ve mentioned before, is to block off time for things I care about and stick to that schedule. If something is important to me, I block off time for it.

I have a block of time for work each day, but when that block is done, I don’t let it bleed into the rest of my life. I usually leave an untouched block in the evening and I’ll pick up work in the evening if something else needs to be done. I block off time for my kids. I block off time for my wife. I block off time for my hobbies and a bit of self-care. I block off time for household chores and for managing my finances and for doing frugal tasks.

Those things are all important to me, so I literally schedule them each day and stick to that schedule. When “work time” ends at about 3:30 on a given day, I stop working and I do whatever’s next on my schedule (usually time with my kids). At 4:30 or whatever, I move to the next thing I have scheduled (usually making dinner). I sit down each Sunday and roughly block out the week, then I sit down a couple times each day and smooth out any rough edges. That’s literally how I enforce my commitments to myself – I trust my schedule and live by it, with time blocked out for the things I’m committed to.

Other systems might work well for you, but it’s that system that works for me. It helps me make sure that I’m making time for the things that are really important and I don’t let them slack off over time.

It is through commitment to something that’s important to me (personal finance, in this example) and the willpower to stick to a schedule that provides time for it, that I find time to improve my financial state.

This might sound reasonable on paper, but how does it actually work in practice? Let’s run through five actual examples of how this works in my life – and I’m sure that many of these will feel similar to your life, too.

Example #1 – Meal Time!

There are times when it is extremely difficult to come up with a meal for everyone in the family. Our daily schedules are sometimes nightmarish – we often can’t fit a single week’s schedule on a full sized whiteboard. The easy solution here is for each parent to just grab takeout food when there’s an opportunity in the schedule and let each person eat when they can. The problem, of course, is that’s an expensive proposition.

Commitment Sarah and I made a commitment very early on in our parenting adventure that we would have a nightly family dinner if at all possible, and if not, we would have two family dinners in the evening, each one with whichever kid was available. We achieve this almost every night, as we find a block or two of time during which we can all eat together at home. Eating a meal at home saves us money, particularly when that meal is prepared at home – there is financial value in the family dinner as well.

This, of course, doesn’t solve the issue of actually getting that meal prepared in that narrow window. In order to do that, we have to tap a repertoire of tricks. We often have a bunch of frozen homemade meals in the freezer that we move to the refrigerator a day or two beforehand which can be easily cooked in the oven. We use our slow cooker a lot and our rice cooker a lot, as those can be set in advance and provide ready to eat food when we need it. We have a repertoire of simple meals that we know how to cook almost on autopilot, with the ingredients always on hand (spaghetti night is very popular here, for instance).

Willpower The challenge, of course, is actually doing this. One technique we’ve found that really helps is taking some of the steps for the meal in the morning as everyone’s getting ready for the day. The kids are often eating breakfast and watching me fill up the slow cooker, or else helping me find ingredients in the pantry, or something like that.

Often, many of the basic steps are done before the day begins – pots and utensils are out on the table, the table is often set for dinner, sometimes food is in the slow cooker or rice is in the rice cooker already, a meal might be thawing somewhere. The point is that by doing these tasks in the morning, I’ve already reduced the workload of that evening, plus I’ve already invested effort in the meal, which means I don’t want that effort to be wasted and so I’m likely to just follow through with it.

Another piece of this puzzle is that I’ll sometimes spend lazy Sundays making some meals in advance to store in the freezer. I’ll cook four simultaneous pans of lasagna, for example, and freeze three of them, having the fourth for dinner that evening. The other three are pulled from the freezer when a convenient meal is needed.

Another part of maintaining willpower is having an easy meal plan to follow. I can just glance at it and see what we’re having for meals each day and when things need to be pulled out of the freezer.

By having the commitment to keeping food costs low via eating at home and then having the willpower to find ways to make it work, we save quite a bit of money on food. This helps us quite a lot with our financial goals.

Example #2 – Going To the Grocery Store

When you realize you need a grocery or household item – like a gallon of milk or new trash bags – the best option for overly time stressed people is to just solve this problem as directly as possible. Go to the store, get the items that are needed, snag items for the next few meals while you’re there, get home, get onto what’s next.

While that seems efficient, it’s actually pretty inefficient, particularly in terms of money. An unplanned grocery store trip is typically loaded with a lot of unplanned purchases, many of which are needless calories and many others that just go to waste because they don’t fit into any organized meal. It also doesn’t save any time over the long run versus simply blocking off time to do one big shopping trip every week or two with a clear plan in hand.

Commitment The strategy of going to the grocery store infrequently, but doing it in a way that involves making a meal plan, assembling a grocery list based on that plan and a quick home inventory, and then going to the store based on that list takes commitment. You have to plan ahead for that block of time (or split it into two smaller blocks of time). It turns the grocery store from a place where you stop incidentally a few times a week to a place you go once a week (or less often) for a big trip.

I block off two hours a week for grocery and household shopping. During that time, I assemble a meal plan for the coming week based on the grocery flyer (so that the meals are naturally centered around sale items) and sometimes plan for some make-ahead meals as well, make a grocery list based on that meal plan accounting for what we have on hand and what household items we need, and then go to the store and shop using that grocery list as my focus point. This ends up eating less time during the week than two or three unplanned and unfocused stops at the grocery store, and it saves a ton of money.

Willpower The key, as before, is actually following through with this plan. As I noted earlier, I actually block out time for this, usually on Sunday early afternoons or Monday afternoons. I schedule a two hour block on my calendar and when that time block comes around, I move through each step in our meal planning routine, from making a plan to building a list based on that plan to heading to the store with that list.

When I’m at the store, another element of willpower comes into play – keeping my focus on that list and nothing else. I know what I actually need, as it’s written on that list, so wandering down the aisles and looking at the shelves just means I’m buying stuff we don’t really need at home. Instead, I keep my nose to the grind and watch that list carefully, because doing so saves me both time and money in the store. The time I save in the store is at least somewhat matched by the time spent planning the trip, but the money savings, both from the planned grocery list and the willpower to stick with it, is tremendous.

By having the commitment to only shopping with a smart plan and having the willpower to actually assemble that plan before shopping and avoid temptations in the store, we save a ton of money in the store without actually spending more time overall.

Example #3 – Dead Tired After Work

You come home from work. You’re dead tired. The last thing you want to do is look at finances or make supper or anything else. Nothing sounds better than sitting in a chair and reading social media or watching Sportscenter or something like that.

I feel that very feeling a lot of days. Most days, I start the clock at 5:30 and by the time the children are home from school and settled in, it’s 4:00, I’ve worked a full day and taken care of a bunch of other responsibilities, and I’m beat. The last thing I want to do is think about more chores. I want to zone out for a while. I’m often sorely tempted to just curl up with a book.

If I’ve learned nothing over the last few years, it’s that hour or so of “dead” time in there where a lot of the difference is made. Rather than just let that time go to waste and not get any genuine rest, I do one of two things: I either rest or I do something mindless that needs doing.

Commitment As there is for many people, there’s an hour or so in the afternoon where my energy level is low and I’m burnt out from the day. My commitment is that I either use that hour for genuine rest or I use it for a mindless activity before the busy-ness of the evening begins.

If I choose to rest, I literally go take a nap, giving my children an hour or so of free time. They usually engage in hobbies during that window. I’ll set my alarm for an hour later and try to go to sleep within ten to fifteen minutes, which usually gives me a nap that’s a perfect 45 minute sleep cycle. I wake up feeling refreshed.

If I choose not to rest, I spend the hour on activities I can do with my brain nearly shut off. I’ll do things like clean the living room or empty and reload the dishwasher or get the mail or mow the lawn. Those are things that I can do with limited mental engagement, and they usually involve me moving around which helps get me geared up for what’s to come later in the day. More importantly, it gets tasks that need to be completed out of the way, so it becomes much easier to pencil in activities on the weekend or on other weeknights because I’m “ahead” on household tasks.

Willpower The trick, of course, is that when the clock reaches 4 PM, I actually choose to rest or to do a mindless task rather than sit in a chair and stare at my phone (which ends up not being restful or useful). When the kids are home from school and the homework and after school snack is completed, I have to have the willpower to either choose rest or mindless activity, even if vegging out is more tempting.

My rule of thumb is this: if doing a mindless activity sounds truly horrible, then I need to rest. I go upstairs and just lay down for a while. If it doesn’t sound that bad, then I start on something immediately before I can talk myself out of it.

Remember, the goal here is to fill that time with something useful rather than just wasting it “vegging out” after work. Genuine rest is really useful if I’m beat.

By having the commitment to not just vegetate during my afternoon energy low point and having the willpower to actually go take a brief nap or do something, I can transform that low energy moment into time later on when I’m more focused and alert and I can make meaningful financial decisions and take on other projects that might save or earn me money.

Example #4 – Kids With Too Many After School Activities

After that little lull, things often get crazy in our home. Our three children have disparate interests. While none of them are individually overfilled with activities, having three children that are into very different things (one is into soccer, another is into music, and so on) means that getting them to and from a variety of different things is a challenge. Add onto that the time and planning needed to be an active part of the community and maintain some social relationships and the schedule gets very tricky, very fast.

It can often feel like the evening hours are just as jam-packed and relentless as workdays and it can also give the sense that there is no time in the evenings for the important things, either, because you’re constantly running around to different events and putting out urgent fires.

Here, the trick isn’t so much to impose commitment and willpower on yourself, but to bring it about for everyone in the family together.

Commitment Simply have everyone in the family start putting a reasonable cap on their evening activities, capping things down to one or two core things they’re passionate about and letting go of less urgent activities (unless they’re at home and self-directed activities). Finding strong success in one or two areas is often as valuable (or more so) than finding middling success in a lot of areas, and the logistics of it are much easier to manage.

This may require some family soul-searching, but it’s a worthwhile process. We chose as a family to continue our shared family activity – taekwondo – and have each person choose one additional activity they could be involved with, excepting activities that require no extra logistics from other family members. At this moment, all three of our children have chosen soccer – but, of course, they’re in different soccer leagues. Still, it’s far better than it could be, and that makes our evenings at least somewhat easier.

Willpower The key here going forward is to not allow any other commitments to sneak in the door unless you let go of ones you already have. If you’re in soccer, you can’t add something else without dropping it; if you’re on a community committee, you can’t add something else without dropping it. That takes willpower.

The advantage, of course, is obvious – it keeps everyone less busy and lets each of us focus on being excellent at one or two things instead of filling our schedules with an overabundance of commitments, while freeing up time and energy to take care of the important but less urgent things in our lives. It’s just hard to choose between a handful of things that you care about – that takes willpower.

By having the commitment to choose a limited number of evening activities and having the willpower to actually stick to a smaller number of commitments, one spends less money and time on extracurriculars and provides focus, enabling excellence in one area instead of spreading out reduced efforts across a lot of things. Plus, it frees up time and money for other things in life.

Example #5 – The Job That Never Ends

Sometimes, it can feel like work follows you everywhere. There’s something that needs to be done in the early morning. There’s something that needs to be done in the evening. A client or a customer calls you at some absurd hour. It can feel like your job never ends, because work always grows to fill up all of the space that you give to it.

That, right there, reveals the truth of the matter: if you let work grow to fill all of your time, then it will fill all of your time.

The key thing to remember here is that the more hours you throw at a project, the lower the quality of each hour becomes. You only have so many hours of quality output a day and when you get beyond that, your work becomes very low quality, whether you realize it or not. Rather than squeezing in another hour to limp across the finish line with slow, unproductive work, you’re far better off simply ignoring it entirely until you’re fully rested, at which point you’ll finish off your project in short order.

How do you do that? It’s actually pretty easy, and it works at virtually every job. If you choose not to do this, it’s your choice, but you’re choosing to give your job priority over everything else in your life.

Commitment When your work day ends, turn off your computer. Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your email. Turn all of it off and focus on the other important elements in your life. If you miss an important email, it can wait.

Yes, there are jobs where you do need to be on call during certain periods, but when you are not strictly on call, you should turn off your computer and your email and your work notifications entirely.

Those things are unimportant. You already give half or more of your working hours to work. There is more to life than your work, plus you can’t produce work very well if you’re exhausted and don’t recharge. The only way to recharge is to turn entirely away from that work sometimes – or else accept that your entire life is work. If you simply cannot turn off notifications and work alerts, then your life is work, period, and it is the only priority. That’s not a healthy long term situation as it’s virtually guaranteed to throw your whole life out of balance – trust me, I’ve been there. It will collapse, and it will be disastrous. You are far better off learning how to shut things off for a while now than to wait until you collapse or you’ve taken on more than anyone can simultaneously handle, because that will be a far, far worse situation for everyone involved.

Willpower Of course, the trick is actually doing it, and it’s scary to do it at first. You feel like there’s so much to do, or that there will be this urgent email that must be handled immediately.

Guess what? If you work on that big pile when you’re already worn down, you won’t make much of a difference to that pile and the work you produce will be mediocre, plus the multitude of other things in your life will sit around untouched, too. If you miss that urgent email and don’t answer it until tomorrow morning, the world is not going to end (again, unless you’re on a strict on-call situation that’s a normal part of your work).

By having the commitment to turn off work some of the time and give your complete focus to other parts of your life and having the willpower to actually flip that “off” switch regularly, you’ll free up your sanity and your ability to engage with the other parts of your life. Not doing this results in not only a high chance of financial failure, but failure in almost every other sphere of your life.

Final Thoughts

The reality is this: if you truly want something in life, you will only achieve it with commitment and willpower. You have to commit to making this a priority, and you have to have the willpower to make it happen. Without both, you won’t be able to achieve financial change in your life – it will always be secondary and you won’t achieve big success.

For me, the most powerful tool in commitment is my schedule. I block off time for everything that’s important to me, and many of the tasks listed above are ones that I find important enough to block off time for. Quite often, that time is recouped from other places by being organized – I genuinely feel like I spend less time taking care of my priorities because I have that calendar that helps me figure out what to do throughout the day. Again, you may find a better approach than this that works for you, but look for some system that helps you manage your commitments to the things that are most important to you.

The most powerful tool for willpower for me, honestly, is being present in the moment. My calendar tells me what I should be doing right now, but am I actually present in the moment? Am I focused on what I’m supposed to be doing and doing it well? The better I am at being present in the moment, the easier it becomes to achieve all of those little financial steps that lead us to our goals. I “train” this kind of presence in the moment through daily meditation and journaling – yes, this eats up some time each day, but I’m repaid over and over again by my ability to focus in the moment.

Start bringing those tools into your life. Find ways to bring commitment and willpower to your financial life. This might involve thinking about your priorities and perhaps de-emphasizing some things in your life, but that’s a natural and healthy process. Figure out what’s important, even if it’s not urgent, and make those important things a priority.

Your finances will thank you. Your whole life will thank you.

The post I Want To Improve My Finances, But I Just Don’t Have the Time… appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Personal Finance 101: How Do I Even Stat With Saving For Retirement?

Mindy writes in:

I know I am supposed to be saving for retirement but I don’t even know where to start. I went to the HR office to ask but the people there just immediately start tossing terms that I don’t understand and Wikipedia does the same.

This is a great question. I’m going to go through this as slowly as I possibly can, in simple language. For some readers, this might be overly fundamental and boring, but I’m trying here to not lose anyone who might be curious about saving for retirement but doesn’t know where to start. I am choosing to simplify things in a few places and focusing on the big picture rather than overwhelming details.

So, let’s get started.

Saving for retirement is really important for most people. Without some retirement savings, people have to rely on Social Security, Medicare, a pension (which is basically paychecks from your employer once you’re retired – most people aren’t lucky enough to have one), their families, and charity. Most of the time, people who don’t have savings keep working until they literally can’t work any more. That’s not a future that a lot of people want.

The first thing you need to know about retirement savings is that any time you put money aside anywhere for the purpose of using that money when you retire, you’re saving for retirement. If you stuff cash in your mattress and intend to start pulling it out when you’re 65, you’re saving for retirement. If you go down to your local bank and put money in a savings account with the intent of pulling it out when you’re 65, you’re saving for retirement. The act of putting money aside for retirement is the single most important part of retirement savings. Everything else is less important; it’s just details and ways to get a little more value for your retirement savings dollar.

The government recognizes that this is a big and important financial goal for a lot of people, so they’ve done a few things to help out anyone who wants to save for retirement. Mostly, they’ve created a few special kinds of accounts for people to put their retirement savings in. These accounts come with advantages, mostly in the form of causing you to pay less taxes and thus keep more money in your pocket.

The most common account, and the one that most people brush up against in their retirement search, is the 401(k). Some employers call it a 403(b) or a 457 or a TSP or other names, but they’re all more or less the same thing. If you ask your human resources officer at work about a “401 K,” they’ll know which particular variation is available at your workplace, if any.

Think of a 401(k) as being like a special kind of savings account. The only difference is that money in a normal 401(k) goes into the account directly from your paycheck before taxes are taken out. Let’s say you make $10 an hour and work 40 hours, so your weekly check is $400. Normally, without a 401(k), you would have taxes taken out on that $400 – if they take out 10%, that means your take-home pay is $360, because they took out $40 for taxes. Makes sense, right?

Well, let’s say you choose to put 10% in that 401(k) each paycheck. That means that instead of figuring out taxes on $400, they figure out taxes on $360. 10% of $360 is $36. So, if you’re putting 10% in your 401(k), first that $40 is taken out of your check and moved into the 401(k) and then 10% of what’s left – $36 – is taken for taxes. Your take home check is now $324, but you’re putting $40 away for retirement. You’re actually paying $4 less in taxes this way – it goes home with your paycheck instead.

What you need to know here is this: when you contribute to a 401(k), your paycheck will go down, but it won’t go down as much as the amount you contribute.

What’s the catch? How can that be right? The trick with a 401(k) is that you’ll have to pay income taxes on that money in retirement. When you take money out of that account in retirement, it’s just like a paycheck and you’ll have to pay taxes on that money then. However, when you’re retired, you’ll probably be paying a lower tax rate, so you’ll still save money in the long run.

Some employers make a 401(k) into an even better deal by offering matching contributions. They’ll put an additional $0.50 or $1 into your account for every dollar you put in. If this is available to you, don’t turn it down because it’s free money for retirement.

So, a 401(k) is just a program operated by your employer that lets you save money for retirement by taking it directly out of your paycheck. There’s a bit of a tax advantage for doing this compared to just saving it yourself. Plus, some employers offer additional bonuses or match your contributions.

Next, let’s talk about what “Roth” means. If you see an account with the word “Roth” before it, it means that it deals entirely in “take home” dollars, after taxes are already paid on it. Some employers offer a Roth 401(k) option.

Let’s go back to that $400 example. You earn $400. You want to contribute $40 to to your Roth 401(k) at work each paycheck. First, taxes are taken out of that paycheck as above, leaving you with $360, then the Roth 401(k) contributions are taken out, leaving you with $320 that you take home.

You’ll probably notice that contributing $40 per paycheck to a Roth 401(k) leaves you with less money in your paycheck ($320 in this example) than contributing $40 per paycheck to a normal 401(k) ($324 in this example). What gives?

It’s because of that word “Roth.” Roth 401(k) plans allow you to take out all of your contributions tax free when you’re retired. You will never, ever have to pay taxes on that money, provided you simply wait until retirement. You don’t have to pay money on the interest earned while it sits in the account, either! It’s all tax free when you take it out. You just pull the money out when you’re retired and don’t worry abut the taxes because there are none.

Regardless of whether you’re considering a Roth 401(k) or a regular 401(k), you’re almost definitely saving at least some money on taxes. That’s the advantage of such accounts. Now, which one you choose is another matter, but I am of the belief that it’s almost impossible to say which one is “better” because no one knows what tax rates will look like in 20 or 30 years. So, you really shouldn’t worry too much about it. My gut instinct is that for most people making under $100K, Roth accounts are probably better, but that’s simply a feeling.

What if your workplace doesn’t offer any sort of account like this? Your best option is probably a Roth IRA, which is kind of like a do-it-yourself version of a Roth 401(k) as described earlier. You can sign up for a Roth IRA with many, many different investing firms just like you would sign up for a bank account (I personally use Vanguard for mine – there are many other good companies out there, though, like Fidelity, for example) and you deposit money much like you would into a savings account. Today, this is usually done electronically – you sign up to have money automatically taken out of your checking account once a week or once a month and put into your Roth IRA. Just as with the Roth 401(k), when you reach retirement age, you can take money out of the Roth IRA completely tax free, even on the money you gained while it was in the account.

The important thing to note here is that with all of these different options (which really aren’t all that different – they’re all just accounts), you are given a lot of options once the money is actually deposited in the account. You can choose what the company managing your account does with that money, and it’s often that point that people struggle with. You’re given the option to invest in stocks, bonds, and many other things, and the more you study those options, the deeper the rabbit hole seems to go.

First of all, the simple act of putting the money in the account is the most important thing you’ll do, period. What option you choose is of far, far less importance than the choice to simply save for retirement at all. Do not get stressed out over the options. You basically can’t make a wrong choice. Think of it as being like a menu at a restaurant where everything’s pretty good – you can basically close your eyes and point at the menu and you’ve got a worthwhile meal.

If you’re not sure what to do, the easy answer is to just choose a Target Retirement fund. Figure out what year you will be 70 (take your birth year and add 70) and then choose a Target Retirement fund that most closely matches that year. Let’s say you were born in 1983. Add 70 to that, giving you 2053. You’d probably want to choose a Target Retirement 2055 fund. Put all of your money into your chosen fund and don’t worry about it.

Obviously, you can keep going on and on and on and on with details about what account is best and what investment to choose. The truth is that the differences between them don’t matter a whole lot unless you have a very large balance in the account. It’s honestly not worth worrying about it, especially if worrying about it means that you wait even a day to start contributing.

I want to finish by repeating what I said earlier:

The act of putting money aside for retirement is the single most important part of retirement savings. Everything else is less important; it’s just details and ways to get a little more value for your retirement savings dollar.

Just save. Don’t get hung up on the details too much. If your employer has a 401(k) account or something like it, sign up. Contribute what you can afford, especially if your employer matches it. If you don’t have a 401(k) or something like it at work, sign up for a Roth IRA on your own – it’s really not hard – and contribute a little each week out of your savings account. When you decide what investment option to choose, choose a Target Retirement fund. That’s all you really need to do. Every little bit helps.

Good luck!

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The One Discount That Won’t Save You Money

Have you ever told yourself you’d go to the gym after just one episode of a TV show, only to end up watching five episodes and then skipping the gym altogether? If so, you’d be exhibiting a type of behavior that economists label “discounting.”

Discounting refers to the fact that we’re wired to highly value the present and care less about what happens in the future. We “discount” the future by placing less emphasis on it. We know that going to the gym will bring benefits, but those don’t come until much later, and after much effort.

Evolutionarily, discounting makes sense. The future was never guaranteed to our ancient ancestors, who lived in a much more dangerous environment. Their survival largely depended on thinking in the now.

But people in today’s advanced societies live, on average, into their late 70s. Given that, discounting can cause us to behave in ways that make our future selves quite upset over the laziness of our past selves.

Why Discounting Is a Problem

Discounting represents one of many cognitive biases that induce us to make poor choices with our money. It’s an especially pernicious bias because it is so prevalent. It rears its head whenever we’re faced with situations that require discipline, planning, and delayed gratification.

I got a chance to speak with Jeff Naecker, an economics professor at Wesleyan University, about the effects of discounting and how we can structure our lives to mitigate its negative consequences. Naecker called discounting “one of the most important applications of behavioral economics in our day to day life.”

To see its effects in action, consider an example from the research literature. One experiment on discounting involved asking subjects a version of the following question: Would you rather have $100 today, or $120 in a week? The majority of people chose the immediate $100.

To most people, a week feels like a long time. Who knows what could happen? They want that cash in hand as soon as possible, even though waiting just a bit longer would net them 20% more money – a return any investor would envy.

The mindset of wanting the $100 immediately is analogous to the example laid out at the start of this article. At the moment you finish watching that first TV show, you really value watching the next one. After all, that episode will provide an enjoyable hit of dopamine right away. So, you keep watching, foregoing whatever future benefits you might have gained from going to the gym.

Now that we know the problem, what can we do to stop it?

Commit to Something

I’ve found that the best way to hack this cognitive bias is by making myself pre-commit to stopping points when I engage in activities that I know can be all consuming. In essence, I make rules and stick to them. If I want to watch less TV, I will make a rule that I can only watch one episode per night, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Hard and fast stopping points are so helpful because we are always going to be untrustworthy in the future. That sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. Discounting ensures that you are going to really want to watch that next episode, play that next level, or take your whole paycheck instead of putting aside a set percentage into your 401(k).

Naecker noted that while discipline on its own is commendable, it’s not going to work well unless you take it a step further. “Commitment must have a well defined incentive,” he said. “Money works well for most people, but you want to use whatever is valuable to you as the incentive, whether that’s money, losing access to resources, or losing out on a prize.”

Money is very motivating to me, so it’s clear that my efforts at self discipline would be improved if I imposed a fine on myself every time I watched too much TV. Or, if you’re addicted to your phone, you might want to use access to your phone as an incentive. You could promise to give up your phone for a week if you don’t meet your goals.

Another compelling bit of research out of Harvard and MIT shows how effective commitment can be in changing discounting behavior, specifically in a financial setting. The researchers offered 700 clients of a bank the chance to use a product that would purposely restrict access to their savings accounts. Only 202 accepted, which is understandable, because who wants a bunch of New England nerds meddling with their money?

Well, the group that agreed to be restricted apparently understood the power of a commitment contract. After 12 months, those who used the restrictive technology had 81% more money in their savings accounts than the group that could raid their accounts at will.

Use Your Imagination

I first learned about the power of imagining the future as a way to curb bad habits while reading the neuroscience book “The Hungry Brain.” It shows that if we take some time before eating to visualize how we will feel when we’re done with the meal, we tend to eat healthier than we normally would. An honest visualization will reveal that our future self will feel better after eating broccoli as opposed to Cheetos, for instance.

Visualization has been shown to help us be better long-term planners, and not just with our diets. The same idea applies to financial matters. There’s a reason it’s so effective to ask yourself a series of questions before making any purchase. Two of the most important questions are, “Do I need it?” and, “Will this improve my life enough to be worth the cost?”

Both of those questions force you to slow down and actually imagine yourself in the future. Sure, your current self really wants that shiny new iPad, but you might want it less once you take the time to imagine yourself struggling with bills the next month, having put yourself further into debt just to buy a really big version of your phone.

Through imagination, you can know yourself better, and through that knowing you can improve your ability to counteract your innate preference to discount the future.

Summing Up

When battling the effects of discounting, it will help to have defined incentives, a visualization practice, and a commitment. Those tools can help tie us to the masts when the siren calls of procrastination get strong.

In order to keep yourself focused on discounting the future as little as possible, you might want to make use of an online habit-building tool that utilizes commitment contracts. Your future self will thank you.

Related Reading

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

When Everything You Want – or Want to Do – Is Expensive

James wrote in with an interesting question:

If you had enough money to buy whatever you want, what would you do with it? Would you still be frugal?

For a while, I started making a list of things that I’d like to have that I can’t justify based on price.

I’d love to go on some international trips with my family – ideally, I’d like to visit an area or two on each continent in the next several years as they grew up.

I’d consider buying or building a home in the country with some timber behind it, because I grew up in such an area and one of the greatest joys of my childhood was wandering in the woods… and it was my wife’s childhood joy, too. I’d like to have a big barn/workshop.

There are some smaller items, too. I’d love to have a good electric pasta maker and a few other odds and ends.

In the end, though, I don’t want these things – at least not enough to spend the money on them. I prefer the other things I can do with that money, such as retiring early and the security that comes with having some savings. Those things, to me, are more valuable than the things and experiences I might buy.

However, I didn’t always feel this way – and I know that many others don’t feel that way, either.

Many people have big dreams filled with things they want to buy or experience, and often that longing can be a negative disruption to life. If you’re at a point where you feel like the only things you want are too expensive to afford, it can stick you in a pretty negative spiral, one that often ends with some financially destructive behavior.

I bumped up against credit limits quite often during my early professional days, and doing so filled me with negative emotions. What right did that bank have to tell me what I could or could not buy?

I often dreamed of really expensive things, like a huge house to live in and a brand new car to drive. I longed for those things and that longing – and the realization of my growing inability to have them – put me in a bit of a downward spiral regarding my life.

It’s not surprising that this happens to people (myself included), for several reasons.

We’re naturally wired to want things we don’t have. This is particularly true when we’re young, but it persists throughout life. We want things and experiences and relationships that we don’t already have. The hot new thing is desirable. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” It’s a common theme in the experience of most people – we often want what we do not have.

Often, we don’t have the resources to have those things. The reason that we often accumulate those wants is that we simply don’t have the resources needed to add those things to our life. We don’t have the money, or the time, or the social skills, or the charisma, or whatever it would take to have that thing that we want. Money is often the real limiting factor, but not always.

Constantly sitting around with unrequited desire is pretty unpleasant. When you want something and you can’t have it, it’s not a joyful thing. The more your mind centers on the things that you want and cannot have, the more of a damper that it puts on your mood and your personal happiness. All of us have longed for something out of reach, and most of us know that the more we allow our minds to rest on those out of reach things, the less happy we are.

The experience of shopping and the anticipation of buying brings a certain level of joy. This provides a strange counterbalance to the unhappiness of unrequited desire. Once we’ve decided that, yes, we can afford this, that unhappiness flips right around and we start really enjoying the process that leads up to fulfilling a desire. Most of us enjoy shopping for something we really want – it’s the reason “retail therapy” is a thing – and the anticipation of deciding what to get and finding it at the right price can be really enjoyable, too. Anticipation is pleasurable.

However, the actual act of purchasing can be disappointing. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve purchased something and really been excited about it and then I’ve taken it home, used it once, and felt a strong twinge of sadness or disappointment. That negative feeling sometimes grows when I realize the expense of the item and the fact that the money can no longer be used for other things.

Objects wear out their welcome. Some call it “habituation.” Economists might call it “declining marginal utility.” The phenomenon is the same – things wear out over time. They either truly wear out, meaning they literally become less usable, or we simply grow used to them and tired of them, such as when a person wants to redecorate a room full of perfectly good items.

Together, these factors paint a difficult picture. We often find ourselves longing for things that we cannot afford. Even when we do acquire those things, there can be a hint of regret when we do. What’s the solution to all of this? How does one find contentment and even happiness when our desires run contrary to a healthy long term picture?

I’ve only really found one solution to the problem of having everything you want being out of reach.

The Best Solution I’ve Found – Inexpensive Experiences with Social Threads

Simply put, I consciously seek out low cost experiences that I can share with people in some way. That’s it. I constantly seek out these kinds of events and experiences, repeating ones that I really enjoyed and moving on to new things to replace ones that didn’t click.

Let’s break this down.

I seek out experiences. In other words, when I have free time, I consciously seek out things to do, even if it’s not something that initially seems exciting to me. If I don’t know of anything I’ve done before that seems exciting, I seek out something new to try.

The truth is that 99% of the time, this leads me to actively engaging in a hobby or something that I’ve done before. I pick up a book and read it. I play a board game. I head to the kitchen and cook something. This isn’t always true – sometimes I do want to do something different – but usually I end up going back to an experience I’ve loved many times before.

The twist, of course, is that I engage in a variation on that experience. I cook a new dish. I read a new book. I play a new game with the same people or a familiar game with new people.

The advantage of an experience is that it requires me to be doing something, and that means my focus is no longer on my desires but instead on the thing I happen to be doing. It cuts desires off at the roots and keeps them from growing into vines that will entangle my happiness.

Ideally, the experiences I choose are active ones, either in a physical sense or a mental sense (or both). I’m either up and about doing something, or I’m doing something sedentary that engages my mind (like reading a challenging book).

I seek out low cost experiences. My biggest filter for those experiences is that they simply have to be low cost. That really doesn’t restrict a lot of experiences – the biggest common thing that it sweeps off the table is shopping. Most of the things I might want to do in a given moment are low cost or free, and that gives me a wide variety of options.

Even as I sit here, I can think of a bunch of low-cost things I’d enjoy doing. I could make an interesting dinner. I could read a book. I could go to the park and go on a trail walk. I could work on mastering how to solve a Rubik’s puzzle (which is the big shared hobby/fad in our house right now). I could work on my taekwondo forms. I could work on an ongoing art project. I could play a solo board game. And those are just things I can do entirely by myself; when I consider others, even more options open up.

The key is to consider all of the things you might want to do, filter it a little by eliminating expensive options, and then choosing one of them. Even if it’s something simple.

I seek out low cost experiences with social threads. The real clincher here, though, is incorporating social threads into this decision making process. Almost every time, even the most mundane experiences are made memorable and enjoyable with social elements mixed in.

Want to go on a hike? Call a friend and see if they can go with you.

Want to make a meal? Call a friend and turn it into a meal prep and dinner party, or make it together with your family.

Want to watch a movie? Call a friend and have a movie night together tonight.

Don’t think your friend are always available for such serendipity? Plan ahead for some of it. Make a plan to do some of these things. That way, you get the pleasure of anticipation, too.

What about purely solo things reading? Even reading can be social, as much of what I read has a social context with what I read, whether I’m in a book club, reading a book recommended by a friend so we can talk about it, learning something that will be of use, or something I can directly apply in social situations. Even when I read things solely for personal pleasure or enrichment, I like having more books that I can comment on or share with others when I’m finished.

There are definitely times when I like to be alone to socially “unwind,” but I find that too much solo time often results in that spiral of unrequited desires that ends up causing me to spend more money than I should on stuff I don’t really need.

In the end, I get far more joy out of doing a relatively mundane thing with a friend or loved one than I ever do out of spending a bunch of money on something.

Getting Started

So, how do you incorporate this easily into your own life?

For me, the trick is to constantly push myself to try out and discover new low-cost things to do, ideally with a friend or a family member. I’m always asking friends to teach me their hobbies or to do something fairly ordinary together because I know that a lot of the magic happens in that shared experience. Even when I’m alone, I’m often trying to do things that I know I’ll be able to talk about and share with my friends later on.

One way to get started is to consciously commit to trying out one new low cost thing each week, ideally with a friend. Set aside a block of time to do this. As time passes, keep a big list of ideas of things you might like to try doing. Maybe you’d like to go on a hike. Maybe you’d like to read a philosophy book. Maybe you’d like to go to a free concert. Maybe you’d like to try out disc golf down at the park. Maybe you’d like to try out a hobby your friend dearly loves that you’ve never tried. Maybe you’d like to get involved for a season in the community theater. Just keep your eyes open for things to do that are low cost and are just simply new to you.

A key part here is to not pre-judge the things you learn about. Don’t decide that something will be un-fun. Give it a sincere try. If nothing else, you will know first hand what it’s really all about and can decide based on your own experience whether it’s something you want to dive into more often.

It is through this exact thing that I have added a ton of low cost things to my repertoire. I love things like disc golf, hunting in the woods for mushrooms, soccer, origami, chess, solving Rubik’s-style puzzles, and many other things. Every single one of them is something I enjoy not just as a solo activity, but usually as a social one, and even when I do enjoy them solo, they end up producing things I can talk about and share socially. I would likely have not tried some of these things completely on my own.

If you’re nervous about suggesting things like this, simply ask a friend to teach you their favorite hobby or ask someone else if there’s anything that they’ve always wanted to try that wasn’t too expensive, and just go along with it. Go for the ride and decide afterwards if this is something you’re into or not. If nothing else, it will be a shared experience you have with a friend.

If you’re alone, just dive into things you haven’t tried before and enjoy the experience. It will give you something to share socially in the future (or even to share right away, if you wish).

So, consciously select something low cost to do, even if it’s not something you’re excited about, and try to do it with a friend if possible. If you can’t do it socially, file the experience away in your back pocket as a social thing you can reference in the future, whether it’s a good or a bad experience.

You’ll find that if you do this consciously over time, you’ll find that you build up some strong social connections and have a great deal of fun without spending a lot of money. Even things that you wouldn’t normally enjoy becomes pleasurable because of the social aspect and the fact that it becomes an experience you can reflect on and share in the future.

Good luck!

The post When Everything You Want – or Want to Do – Is Expensive appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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To Catch a Scammer: Here’s How Credit Hackers Try to Steal Your Money and Identity

Debt makes people desperate, but you should never be desperate enough to click the e-mail address of one of the debt “hackers” promising quick credit score fixes in online comments fields.

My editors at The Simple Dollar do their best to moderate the comments fields and make sure that spammers and frauds aren’t preying upon you and trying to stealing your identity, money, and other valuables. However, that doesn’t stop shiftless cretins like “Eagle Eye Hack” from trying to sneak through.

Every so often, this individual (or someone purporting to praise his services) posts a comment in our fields claiming that he can fix anyone’s bad credit after just a quick e-mail conversation. Using the name James Todd and a fabricated e-mail address, we contacted “Eagle Eye” and asked for help. The first response read as follows:

I could repair and fix your credit permanently in 3 days and I’m gonna remove every negative/bad stuff on your credit report. All I need to get the hack done is your full name, SSN [Social Security number], and billing address. I am capable of breaking into the credit bureaus and can guarantee you a golden score higher than the 750 excellent grade. This service will cost you a little. Get back to me with the required info so we can get the hack started immediately

Adam Levin, founder of online security and credit-protection firm CyberScout and author of the book “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves,” says that e-mail alone is a giant warning sign. There are legitimate credit repair organizations that exist under the Federal Trade Commission’s Credit Repair Organization Act, but they typically won’t ask you for that level of information up front.

“Don’t go to some e-mail address that is connected to some murkily identified organization and never, ever provide information of a personal information by way of e-mail to anyone,” Levin says.

But not everyone obeys that warning. We dug a bit deeper and asked what “this service will cost you a little” meant. This was their response:

The hack is gonna cost $770 and you’ll be making a down payment of of $540. The down payment you’re making is for me to be able to get the required tools necessary to run the entire hack without the smallest trace and yeah it’s a one time fee.

That’s yet another bad sign. As Levin points out, a legitimate credit repair organization will never ask for money up front, nor will they ask for a “down payment” like a guy in a pool hall who just asked you to make the next game “interesting.” The minute someone asks you for an upfront fee for anything shy of an attorney’s retainer, Levin suggests running fast and far.

“You do not pay money in advance for services,” he says. “If you are solicited by somebody, do the investigation: Go online and research the name of the entity. If they don’t give you an name and only give you an e-mail address, you don’t want to deal with that company.”

The simplest failsafe when dealing with “credit hackers” or anyone else making these claims is to search their name on Google or any other search engine. Actual credit repair organizations have to identify themselves. Even if they have a website, check the formatting and even check the grammar on the site to make sure it isn’t wonky. Even if that all checks out, Levin suggests checking the company’s reviews on other sites. Don’t just look at the good reviews, either: Look at both the volume and content of bad reviews.

“In a world where security breaches are the third certainty in life now, you’re dealing persistent and creative people who count on the fact that we all have day jobs and aren’t focused,” Levin says. “When you deal with someone who is a scammer or identity thief, you are their day job. You’re facing off against somebody who’s pretty good at what they do.”

In the case of our spammer, they were willing to settle for a lesser down payment. However, they also wanted us to pay them electronically, which meant we’d be giving them our name, address, Social Security number, and credit card information all in one package. What made them think we’d do such a thing? The same reason that automated phone scammers call people and tell them they have the answer to their debt issues (whether they have debt or not): They know there’s a lot of debt out there.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York put total household debt at $13.15 trillion at the end of 2017. That included $1.4 trillion in student loan debt (9.3% of it past due), $834 billion in credit card debt (4.6% of it past due), and $8.9 billion in mortgage debt (1.1% past due). According to credit firm Experian, more than 21% of U.S. consumers have “deep subprime” credit scores of 550 or less.

Scammers roll the dice and figure that even if most people don’t respond to their offers, enough people with debt will take them up on it to make it worthwhile. Even if they get less than $400 — as they would have from us had we gone though with the deal — they can find far more value in non-monetary transactions.

“When it comes to a hacker or scammer, every one of us is Kim Kardashian,” Levin says. “We have what they want: We either have money or data, and the data is the new currency.”

That’s why we can’t stress this enough: Don’t buy what they’re selling. If you see these scammers in comments fields, report them. If you see e-mail addresses in their pitches, ignore them. If curiosity gets the better of you, don’t part with any personal information.

We realize that times are tough out there, and that many folks struggling with finances can use all the help they can get. “Credit hackers” aren’t there to help you, they exist to help themselves to the resources and life you’ve built.

“People respond, because often people are desperate,” Levin says, and you don’t need good credit or finances to be a profitable mark for a scammer. “All they want to do is get their hands on your Social Security number, because they can combine that with information from other people, create a subfile and go off to the races.”

Related Reading:

The post To Catch a Scammer: Here’s How Credit Hackers Try to Steal Your Money and Identity appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Questions About Drying Laundry, Blogging, Birthday Parties, Job Offers, 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. Is it time to retire?
2. Money for parties at work
3. Boyfriend kicked me out
4. Great job offer… but scared
5. Dental plans for self-employed
6. Laundry drying strategy
7. Cheap children’s birthday parties
8. Finding people dedicated to saving
9. Starting a free blog
10. Exit interview questions
11. Ending credit card dependence
12. Different writers

My latest frugal experiment is to try to figure out a low-cost balm to use after shaving. For many years, I have applied a small amount of Nivea after-shave balm to my cheeks. A single bottle lasts for a long time, so I don’t think it’s a big expense, but I was curious as to whether I could make something myself for less expense.

Turns out… I can’t. I have tried a few different recipes and mixes and I haven’t found anything that doesn’t either sting like crazy or smell like alcohol.

Although I like to experiment with frugal solutions, sometimes I just can’t find anything that really works better than what I was already doing.

On with the questions.

Q1: Is it time to retire?

I’m 58 and can retire in 2 years. My husband is 59 and can leave now with full retirement (he has to retire in 2.5 years). We have about $800,000 in deferred comp savings plans and will both have pensions when we retire. We have no debt but anticipate replacing 20+ year old vehicles soon and might buy/build a home that fits our needs as we age and use current home as a rental to cover the new home’s mortgage. We’re both in decent health now but anticipate health issues in the next 10 years with high health costs due to family histories. How do we know when it’s okay to retire? We’ve lived well below our income and thought we’d feel confident about retirement. And while we’re far ahead of the norm for retirement savings, we don’t really know if now is the time. What do we need to know/have in place before we walk away from high stress jobs that pay really well.
– Erica

If I were you, I would take advantage of your health insurance and go to each of your doctors and request a very thorough physical, as much as you can get, to assess your current health and the likelihood of major health problems in the next decade or so.

Then, I’d use that assessment to figure out the next step. If you’re very healthy, then I would consider making the leap to be much more safe.

The thing to remember is that you will have Medicare when you retire, and you can buy Medicare supplemental insurance. Your key should be to avoid periods of minimal insurance unless you are strongly assured of your health.

Q2: Money for parties at work

How do (or I guess did) you handle money for parties at work? Like when someone is having a baby and they throw a little baby shower for her at work and ask everyone to contribute $20 for a big gift like last week at work when everyone chipped in for a breast pump machine? Or when they have a retirement party and want everyone to chip in? Or when someone has their kid do a fund raiser? Do you just say no all the time? What about the social backlash? Worth it?
– Emma

I viewed such expenses as the cost of being in an office environment, unfortunately. There are a ton of little expenses like this that come from working in an office – the cost of commuting, (often) the cost of parking, the cost of eating out for lunch with coworkers, the cost of matching office dress code, and so on. I consider little expenses like these to be part of that.

If I were you, I’d budget and plan for such expenses, viewing them as part of professional networking. In the end, that’s really what you’re doing – you’re maintaining relationships at work at a cheap cost, so that Jim from human resources or Nancy from accounting doesn’t think you are a jerk and will work easily with you in the future and won’t spread negative gossip about you.

This is one financial perk of working at home – you don’t have to deal with any of those costs any more.

Q3: Boyfriend kicked me out

I am 26/F and work as a waitress. My boyfriend and I had a big fight before work last week and he said we were through and I thought he was just blowing off steam but I came home and the locks were changed. I got the police and landlord to let me in to gather up my personal belongings but he still have a lot of stuff that is shared and I am living out of my car. I do not make enough to afford an apartment and I have no living relatives to stay with and no friends good enough that I could move in. What do I do?
– Katie

Unless you have some clear documentation of what is yours and can demonstrate that ownership, it’s probably a lost cause to reclaim it at this point. You can make a list of shared items and request that he turn over enough to equal out the value, but if he won’t, your only recourse is to get a judge’s order, which will likely have legal costs especially if you don’t have clear documentation.

As for what to do next, you should consider looking for waitressing work in a lower cost of living area, perhaps one that’s closer to friends where you could “couch surf” for a while as you pick things up and figure out what’s next. This might involve moving to another city, but it sounds like you have no ties where you’re at, so it’s not a big deal.

If I were in your shoes, I’d try to get a few shared items from your ex, sell off what you can’t easily fit in your car, then head to another town where you know people and the cost of living is more palatable.

Q4: Great job offer… but scared

I am 26 years old and live in a house that I rent cheaply from my parents. I started working at my current job shortly after graduation and make about $38K per year. I took it because the experience is tremendous in my field.

My boss has been actively helping me find a better job (yes he’s that kind of guy) and he got me an interview with [a large engineering firm]. I figured I had zero chance but they gave me a job offer. $80K starting, killer benefits, great opportunity to move up from there. My boss says I should negotiate a bit for salary and then take it.

The thing is, i don’t want to take it. I do not know anyone in that city or anywhere close to there. The job seems exciting but really intimidating. I have no family or social structure there. I am afraid my life would become nothing but work and I will burn out and hate my life.

I feel like I want you to talk me into taking this job but I don’t know what to do.
– Steve

OK, ignoring all of the factors outside of the job (not knowing anyone in the city, basically), is this a job you’d be happy with? In other words, if you could magically do this job where you live now, would you take that job?

If it’s a “yes,” then you need to at least give this job a shot. Go there, give it a year, and see how everything works out. If you’re really worried about it failing, talk to your current boss and see whether you can work out a situation where you come back to something like your old job if it doesn’t work out.

When you take this job, go in there with a plan. First of all, take maximum financial advantage of it – contribute to the retirement plan, get every drop of matching, etc. Live in a small apartment. More importantly, make it your goal to find people that you’ll enjoy hanging out with that will become a social circle or “family” for you. Start by hitting Meetup.com and seeing if you can find any groups in that city that might match your interest. Try to make a big healthy list, then check them all out shortly after getting there. Keep going to the ones that click (or seem like they might click) and don’t sweat the others. If you’re religious, definitely join an appropriate group for that.

Do everything you can to start building an independent social circle and life for yourself in this new city. Make it a daily – or at least several times a week – requirement that you’re building a new life for yourself in this city. Put everything you can into not feeling alone and feeling like there’s more to life than just going to work in this city.

If, after a year, it doesn’t work out, well, take advantage of that parachute and return home.

If you don’t do this, you will always wonder “what if,” and that kind of regret isn’t something you need to have for the rest of your life.

Q5: Dental plans for self-employed

We are self-employed. Do you have any suggestions for what to do for when we need to take a trip to the dentist? Are dental plans a good idea?
– Ava

I’m going to be honest: most dental plans are very limited on what they cover and how much of it that they cover to be worthwhile for most people if they’re paying out of pocket. They usually only step in for disastrous coverage unless you have a very expensive plan.

If I were you, I would “self insure” for dental work. I’d settle into an annual checkup routine paid out of pocket, and then I’d triple that annual cost for both of you and divide it by 12. I would automatically put aside that much for “dental insurance” so that you can pay for dental care out of pocket. Just keep up with routine maintenance on your teeth (brushing, flossing, annual checkups) and you’ll usually be fine. On average, this is far more cost efficient than a dental insurance package out of pocket.

Ava had a second question.

Q6: Laundry drying strategy

Also, I like hanging laundry out to dry if weather permits. Do you know if line-drying laundry instead of using the dryer is significantly cheaper?
– Ava

The energy cost of a dryer load is somewhere around $0.60, although it varies with the age of the dryer and the size of the load and the efficiency of the dryer.

Having said that, there are a couple of additional factors to consider.

One, tumble dryers are hard on clothes and are likely to damage them far more than line drying. In other words, if you line dry, your clothes will last longer. That lint trap in the dryer is little bits of your clothing, after all.

Two, dryers eventually fail and then you have to pay for a replacement. Let’s say you can get 10 years of daily use out of a $500 dryer. The replacement cost of that dryer is somewhere around $0.15 per load in additional cost. That cost disappears with line drying.

Given those factors, you’re likely saving a dollar or two for every load you hang out on the line, or more if you’re hanging out some fairly pricy garments.

Q7: Cheap children’s birthday parties

What are some good ideas for cheap birthday parties for kids? I have a four year old and a two year old and soon birthdays are going to be more than just having grandma over for cupcakes and a couple of presents. Our oldest has already received a couple of invites for parties at the park and she will want something similar when she turns five. How can one keep this cheap but let her have fun with her friends?
– Olivia

One word: sleepover.

Most of our children’s birthday parties have been in the form of sleepovers with a few of their friends. They’ll have several friends come over to spend the night and we basically have a fun dinner of their choosing (often it’s homemade pizza) and then we let them plan out what else that they want to do (a few simple activities or else just free play). We fill up the family area in the basement with sleeping bags and let them watch movies or play video games until late in the night. It’s a super inexpensive party but our children love it.

If we do something more extravagant than that, it is considered one of their birthday gifts and they receive noticeably fewer gifts. We generally only give a few gifts for their birthday anyway, as we tend to lean toward a small number of “good” gifts than a lot of lesser ones, and if they do something besides a normal sleepover, it’s considered at least one of their gifts. Occasionally our children will choose a more expensive activity, but usually they prefer a sleepover.

Sleepovers are fantastic. If you do something like homemade pizza and a simple activity or two, the cost is pretty minimal and the children all seem to have fun. We recently had a sleepover for our youngest child’s birthday in which we just had pizza for supper, a couple of really simple activities, and then let the children just play together and stay up late, and every single child had so much fun that they literally didn’t want to go home the next morning. It’s inexpensive and every single child seems to enjoy it. So, that’s my recommendation for cheap children’s birthday parties.

Q8: Finding people dedicated to saving

How do you find other people who earn a high income and are dedicated to saving a large portion of their income? I make $80K per year and save about 50% of my income. I would like to find friends on a similar career path who don’t spend all of their money.
– David

The best success I’ve ever had at finding people with a similar financial perspective as my own is by going to free cultural events in my area, particularly ones that give windows to socializing.

Book clubs are great, especially ones run by the library so you can just check out the books. Presentations and speeches at local universities and libraries are great. Meetup groups are great. Civic organizations can be great, though they vary a lot in my experience.

Basically, if it’s a social event that doesn’t involve spending money and offers at least some direction toward self-improvement, you’re probably going to find like-minded people there. It’s never a guarantee, of course, but the people in the room are much more likely to be of a “saver” mindset than you’ll find elsewhere.

Q9: Starting a free blog

Where and how can I start a free blog?
– Nancy

I would recommend starting with either WordPress.com or Blogger.

WordPress is a much better tool for blogging. It’s just more robust in terms of actually writing posts and designing your blog than Blogger is, and you’ll find support to be much better, too.

So why use Blogger? WordPress.com is fairly difficult to monetize, especially when you’re starting. In other words, unless you’re fairly popular, you won’t make any income with a WordPress.com blog. (It’s worth noting that WordPress is also a software package; WordPress.com is just a site that lets you have a free blog using the WordPress software. If you later on decide to host the site yourself, then you have much more freedom when it comes to ads.)

Blogger is a solid tool (not as robust as WordPress.com) but it does have the advantage of allowing you to do all kinds of things to monetize your site. It is worth noting that you won’t make much money at first no matter what – it takes a long time to build an audience and they won’t just magically appear.

My recommendation? Use WordPress.com, don’t worry at all about making money at first and focus entirely on building an audience, and then figure out what to do when you do have a healthy number of readers.

Q10: Exit interview questions

I recently turned in my resignation at work, telling my boss I would work as long as needed up until June 15. They’re using me the full time which is fine and they’re putting me on a lot of documentation tasks which is fine. My boss keeps asking me why I quit (better job, contacted by headhunter and got the new job quickly) and I know it will be asked in my exit interview. Do I have to say anything?
– Alan

Your goal with an exit interview should be to leave on a positive note with references and connections to the company intact. You should not be burning bridges on your way out the door no matter what went on there.

I don’t think you need to keep it a secret that you had a great offer from another organization unless there is some hidden legal issue that you’re not mentioning. Most companies will respect that.

I would encourage you to not worry about the exit interview and to be honest but positive during it. Don’t go scorched earth negative if the interviewer asks for criticism of the company – try to state both positive and negatives about your time there. Going strongly negative doesn’t benefit you or the company.

Q11: Ending credit card dependence

I am 26/M married with two kids. I pay for everything by credit card and sometimes overspend what we have and that means we now have about $12K in CC debt. Need to stop overspending with the card. Using only cash makes sense but seems awkward. Using only debit card makes sense but afraid of identity theft and having my bank account cleaned out. Solution?
– David

Cash is inconvenient, but it’s the best solution here. It forces you to stay within your means and it’s impossible to have your identity stolen with cash transactions. Just simply hit an ATM or visit a bank location before you shop for groceries or other needs.

Your goal here should be to train yourself on how to live within your means so that you’re not just racking up expenses on your credit card. For you, that means starting by being very careful about unnecessary expenses for a while until you get a firm grip on how money flows into and out of your checking account. You’re far better off letting a balance build up in that checking account than having it drain to empty every pay period.

You may eventually return to using a credit card, but for now, you should stick to cash and learn the lessons that cash can teach you.

Q12: Different writers

I was disappointed reading TSD’s email this morning. The use of the term mansplaning is offensive, even though the author mentions that it’s not about mansplaning… I knows this article wasn’t written by Trent, and it’s your business to run. But I might not be the only one.
– Troy

I receive an email like this about once a week, so I wanted to step in here and clarify a bit about how The Simple Dollar works.

I (Trent) started The Simple Dollar as a solo project in 2006. For the first several years, all articles on the site were written by me. By the end of 2011, the burden of running the site solo (with a couple of virtual assistants) was more than I wanted to deal with (in particular, Thanksgiving 2011 was a disaster, with a hacker attacking the site and thus directly attacking my family’s livelihood). So, I sold the site to its current owners, who retained me to write for the site for a very long period of time. I am under indefinite contract to write for The Simple Dollar with them, meaning I’ll probably keep writing until I decide not to (which, hopefully, means we’ve reached financial independence).

Now, the company that currently owns the site gives me a ton of free reign to write what I want to, as long as I write consistently. They just say, “You need to write 6 articles per week” and have a certain word count (so that I don’t write two sentence articles and call it good enough). Other than that, they give me almost no suggestion or direction in terms of what I write about aside from occasionally sending me links or suggested books to read in a “here’s something you may want to write about” or an idea for a post, but I’ve never been required to write about any of them.

However, TSD is a business, and having all of the site’s writing come from one person is a risk to that business. If I were to get hit by a truck and I were the only writer for the site, they’d be in a pickle. So, the site has a roster of other writers who post articles with some regularity. You can usually tell who wrote what because the author’s identity is identified at the top of the article (on the website) or the bottom (in the email newsletter). If it doesn’t have an identification, it’s usually written by me (Trent). The site owners simply need to have other writers ready to go in case I can no longer (or choose to no longer) write – it covers their risk.

Obviously, I’m not going to 100% perfectly agree with other writers, nor are they going to perfectly agree with me. We’re going to have different tones and different word choices and different experiences and different ideas. I write with a Midwestern earnest tone that has definitely earned me some good-natured teasing from other writers in the past. I generally write without irony or “snark” (though I definitely can use irony and “snark” if I so choose) and try to be as genuine as possible in what I write. Other writers may do things differently, both in tone and in terms of what they write about.

Rest assured, regardless of your feelings about other writers, I will be writing six articles a week for the site for the foreseeable future. I write a “reader mailbag” on Mondays and regular articles on Tuesday through Saturday, one per day. Though I know that many readers have tuned in to The Simple Dollar since it was a solo site and are mainly here for my articles, I hope that you’ll find things you like by the other writers as well.

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 Drying Laundry, Blogging, Birthday Parties, Job Offers, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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