Saturday, June 9, 2018

Ten Inexpensive (and Quick) Ways to Liven Up Cooking at Home

One of the biggest money savers that Sarah and I have ever incorporated into our lives is to make cooking at home normal. By “cooking at home,” I don’t just mean throwing a prepackaged meal in the oven, either. I mean pulling ingredients out of the pantry and fridge and putting together a meal, usually out of fresh ingredients and other basic items.

Of course, at the same time, we’re incredibly busy. Our monthly calendar often looks like an explosion of overlapping tasks and events. Our evenings can sometimes feel like a well oiled machine as everyone hops from one task to another, finding small windows in which to enjoy a family dinner together.

When you try to combine a desire to have a home-cooked family meal each night with a very busy schedule, what ends up happening is that Sarah and I fall back on some very familiar meals and recipes to keep up this pattern, things we can fix without skipping a beat. Homemade pasta. Grilled burritos. A really simple stir fry or curry. Grilled burgers and vegetables. A simple soup or casserole. Those kinds of things become the backbone of our diet because we can fix them so automatically.

Over time, however, it can become a little stale and boring. It can feel like we’re eating the same ten or so meals in an endless cycle, and that kind of meal boredom can often turn into a nudge in the direction of just eating out or getting takeout, which turns into an expensive proposition.

To head off that expense, we have a number of tools that we use to keep our meals fresh and simple. Here are ten things that we do to keep our home cooking varied and flavorful without breaking the bank and without spending a ton of money.

Visit an international/ethnic grocery store

We shop at the same discount grocer virtually every time we buy groceries. This is a good thing, on one level – we know that the prices are good and they have all of the staples we need for a lot of the meals we make. However, there’s not a lot of variety at that discount grocer – it sells a pretty basic selection of many foods and doesn’t offer much in the way of exotic.

Sarah and I solve this problem by shopping occasionally at an ethnic grocer that’s about twenty minutes from home. We’ll go there once a month or once every other month and buy a bunch of spices and other items that are substantially outside what we would normally cook. We’ll buy containers of spices, jars of sauces, and other unusual items under the assumption that we’ll find fast recipes for them. Often, we’re using our phones to look up what these things are and how to use them in a quickly prepared meal.

After we visit this shop, our normal pasta sauces take on different flavors that are distinct to other parts of the Mediterranean. Our curries taste quite different. Our simple burrito recipe takes on more of an El Salvadoran flavor due to the seasoning choices. We’ve wound up making things like atakilt wat in the slow cooker because we found a seasoning packet for it and then just made it in the slow cooker ourselves without that kit, discovering something we would have never otherwise tried. A trip to an ethnic grocer ended up with us making shawarma sandwiches with pita bread, lettuce, tomato, and seasoned batches of chicken and mushrooms.

We often leave with bags of spices and other things, along with a bunch of new ideas drawn through our filter of “must be quick.” Many of these are just variations on things we’ve made before, but we almost always leave with some idea for something completely new from a cuisine we’re unfamiliar with.

Just go to an international/ethnic grocery store and wander through the aisles. Look at the items for sale there. If you don’t have any idea what they are, look them up and give them a try. You might be surprised to find something completely new to you or a new variation on something you love.

Make some stock

There’s almost no savory dish that uses water as an ingredient that isn’t made better by using stock instead of the water. Soups, stews, casseroles – all of it. The catch, of course, is that simply buying stock is a pretty expensive proposition, one that we often skip just because we don’t want to spend $8 on the liquid in a meal.

So, we make our own. We keep it in pint Ziploc bags in the freezer, each containing a premeasured pint of stock, and we just pull one or two out whenever we need some for a soup or a stew or a casserole to really amp up that flavor.

Making stock is simple. Just save all of your raw vegetable scraps and your cooked but unseasoned (salt and pepper seasoning is fine) vegetables in a bag in the freezer. When you have a gallon or so of scraps, you’re ready. You can also make stock whenever you have a few beef bones or a chicken carcass, though I’d supplement it with a smaller amount of leftover vegetables.

Just put the bones (if you’re making a meat-based stock) and/or the vegetables in a slow cooker and add enough water so that it’s covering the contents of the pot by about three inches. I’d also suggest adding some salt and some whole peppercorns. Then, just turn on the slow cooker to the “low” setting and let it run for a long time – 12 to 24 hours. When you’re done, strain the contents of the slow cooker and save the liquid. As noted above, I recommend freezing it by the pint in pint-sized Ziploc freezer bags.

I actually prefer the vegetable stock rather than the beef or chicken stock because the vegetable stock works in almost any kind of dish, whereas there are situations where you just don’t want to have beef or chicken flavor.

Anyway, when a recipe calls for two cups of a liquid, just replace that with a pint of your stock if the flavor seems remotely appropriate. You’ve just added a gigantic flavor boost to that recipe for very little effort.

Make a large batch of quick finger foods you like

I love pickled things. Pickled cucumbers, pickled peppers, pickled hard-boiled eggs – I’ll eat any of them. They’re easy to make, too – you basically just put the item in question in a mix of 1 cup of water, 1 cup of vinegar, and 1 cup of kosher salt, with maybe a few peppercorns tossed in, too. Close the container loosely, then let it sit in the fridge for several days and you have pickled items.

You may like different finger foods and quick snacks. Sliced fruit is one that many people enjoy, including my kids – just slice up pretty much any fruit, put it in a container with a little bit of lemon juice evenly spread around, and put it in the fridge. Keep your favorite vegetable sliced up in a container in the fridge. Sometimes, I’ll even make huge batches of particular finger foods, like little wontons, and just keep a big container in the fridge for a while.

The thing is, if you have some of those bite-sized items on hand and you like them, put one or two on your dinner plate. It doesn’t have to perfectly accompany the meal – it just adds something that you’re guaranteed to like to your meal, which will raise your feelings about the meal.

I’ll often snag a pickled egg or a couple pickled cucumber or onion slices to put on my plate for many meals. I love their taste and simply having them on my plate makes the rest of the meal more enjoyable.

Clean out the fridge

One of my favorite methods for livening up home cooking is to simply clean out the refrigerator. This takes a bit of time, of course, and is probably a good weekend task, but it almost always results in some food creativity, for several reasons.

One, I almost always find an item or two that’s still good that I want to cook with quite soon. I’ll find a piece of cheese or a ginger root or something that just slipped my mind and when I see it I’ll want to use it.

Two, having a fridge that’s cleaned out gives you space that, for me, is a motivation to try something new. I’ll want to make some pickled eggs or start marinating some vegetables or something like that.

Three, I’ll have several ingredients out that are needed for a particular meal, so I’ll just leave them out and immediately start making that meal, saving me the effort of loading the fridge back up just to unload it again.

Plus, the fridge is clean and there’s no longer anything mysterious in an opaque container or a bag sitting in the back any more.

Clean out the pantry, too

I get the same kind of inspiration from cleaning out and organizing the pantry. Going through dry and nonperishable items often offers the same benefits as going through the fridge.

In the pantry, however, I often find a lot of things that make me want to try a new meal or make an older one again. In fact, I usually make a meal plan while I’m cleaning out the pantry, with meals that utilize the things I find in there.

The big thing for me is spices. I’ll almost always find bags or small containers of spices that were purchased for a particular meal and then put aside, but when I find it again, I immediately want to use it for a new meal so that I get value out of it before it gets old.

Go through your pantry and make a meal plan based on what you find in there. Not only will it make for some inexpensive meals for the week, you’ll likely find the ingredients for meals you intended to make (and can thus make now) or ingredients that you partially used for a meal last month and forgot about the remnants, opening the door to a meal right now.

Use a slow cooker

There are many food ideas we have that we really like to make that just aren’t feasible on a weeknight. Soups and stews that require hours to simmer, casseroles that have to bake for long periods, and so on – those things are normally off the table on a weeknight.

Unless you use a slow cooker, that is.

A slow cooker enables you to start a meal just before you leave for work and come home to a meal that’s basically ready to eat when you get home. It’s basically a small cooking crock inside of a heating element (like a toaster), often with a timer and a heat adjustment dial on it. That’s it.

It is a great way to make a soup or a stew or a casserole or to slowly cook a roast – basically anything that would cook at a relatively low temperature for a long time in your oven or on your stovetop will probably work in some way in a slow cooker. If you have a particular item you want to make and you think it might work in a slow cooker, just Google it and see how to modify it to make it work in a slow cooker.

Most of the time, you just put ingredients in the slow cooker, set the timer and temperature appropriately, and then just leave for the day. You’ll come home to a mostly- or entirely finished meal.

Cook things that have a strong aroma that’s pleasing to you

One of my favorite things to do is to take very ordinary pasta sauce and, while the pasta is boiling, sauté some diced onions and green peppers to go in the pasta sauce.

Why go to that extra effort? Well, for one, it means I can buy a cheaper pasta sauce and still have something amazing, but the real reason is the aroma.

When I’m sautéing onions and peppers and garlic, the whole house smells amazing – it’s just mouth-watering. It convinces you that what’s going to be on the table is going to be delicious.

I use every chance I have to cook things that have a strong aroma, like aromatic vegetables, curries, and other things. In the fall, I love to cook apples and pears in the slow cooker with a bunch of cinnamon (to make cider) and the whole house just smells unbelievably good.

It’s pretty easy to do this. Just fire up the skillet and cook some pre-diced onions and green peppers (you can buy them flash-frozen in your grocer’s freezer section at a great price) when there’s an opportunity, or cook anything else that puts off a great aroma.

Make deglazing your pan a routine action.

Another trick I love to use when I’m cooking onions or green peppers or garlic or mushrooms or meat in a skillet is that I deglaze the pan when I’m finished. I simply add a little bit of liquid to the hot skillet after I remove whatever I’m cooking and let that liquid run around and sizzle, then I add a little more, then a little more until it’s not immediately boiling off. I then pour that liquid right into the dish – and it tastes amazing.

It’s such a simple trick! I do it with all kinds of dishes that involve ingredients cooked in a skillet. It’s a great way to boost the flavor of anything you make.

My mother’s favorite trick? She’ll make a simple gravy while something is cooking in the skillet, then deglaze the skillet right at the end and add it to the gravy, which is then poured over mashed potatoes or the meat itself for an incredible and easy flavor.

Another advantage? It makes the pan easier to clean later on because most of the stuff that would otherwise be dried onto the pan is gone. It actually saves time to do this.

Learn what different herbs and spices actually do to foods instead of just following a recipe

One thing I’ve done over the years is simply learn what the flavor of each and every spice is on its own so that I have a good sense as to what to add to things.

I start off with something really basic, like a scrambled egg or some plain tomato sauce, and I’ll add a single herb or spice to it and see what that tastes like. The next time, I’ll add something different. And then the next time, add something different.

At first, this doesn’t result in amazing flavors, but what starts happening after a while is that you start recognizing the taste of particular herbs and spices. You begin to understand what they each do, and then you can start combining them to bring out all kinds of flavors.

Once you really know what different herbs and spices and seasonings actually do, it becomes a whole lot easier to make almost any dish amazing without having to follow a recipe. You just have to start from scratch and really figure out what they all taste like on their own. This might result in some dull meals, but it pays off big time.

Add a splash of something acidic, like lemon, vinegar, or tomato juice, to bland things

If you taste something and it’s just bland for reasons you can’t figure out, try adding something acidic to it. My usual go-tos for this are lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, or tomato juice, depending on what I’m trying to improve.

With many soups, I’ll just add some tomato juice to it. With fish, I’ll splash a lot of lime juice or lemon juice on it and cook it just a bit more. With salads, I usually turn to vinegar of some kind to amp up the flavor.

An acidic addition to a dish almost always adds a new level of zing on the tongue that sharpens and brings out all of the other flavors along with it. It’s like a secret magic trick for bland foods.

Final Thoughts

These strategies all work in concert to ensure that there’s more variety in our meals prepared at home than one might initially think.

In our home, we do rely on “framework meals” – basic recipes that Sarah and I can make almost blindfolded – but by incorporating lots of these tricks, we add tons of variety and flavor to these framework meals by changing up the seasoning, changing up the ingredients, and adding little side elements to the basic meals.

Something as simple as a basic noodle soup becomes something intensely flavorful with the zing of some added vinegar and some deglaze from the vegetables. Even things like scrambled eggs transform into something interesting and delicious with salt added early and tarragon added while it’s cooking, with some sautéed onions and peppers added.

You just need to know some basic recipes and have a little repertoire of tricks to amp them up.

Good luck!

The post Ten Inexpensive (and Quick) Ways to Liven Up Cooking at Home appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, June 8, 2018

The Gap Between Your Goals and Your Actions

For me, the biggest challenge of any major life change, whether it’s financial in nature or health-oriented or something else, is handling the gap between your goals and your actions.

Let’s say you’ve decided that you’re now going to turn your finances around. You’ve sat down with a good personal finance book or two, read through them, dived deep into the archives of The Simple Dollar (and perhaps some other personal finance sites), and you deeply understand the value of turning your finances around. You’re deeply committed to this goal. Let’s do this!

Yet, just a few days later, you take actions in your daily life that head in the exact opposite direction of that goal. You go out with friends and spend a bunch of money. You stop for a sugary coffee drink or for takeout or buy another Kindle book.

And then, a few hours later, you’re wondering why on earth you just did something so blatantly in opposition to your big goal.

Why did I buy that? Why did I spend that money? Why did I eat that?

You might feel stupid. You might feel like a failure. You might even just give up on your goals.


The reason there’s a gap between your goals and your actions is because the principles and goals that guide your actions in the short term aren’t lined up with your long term principles and goals.

I’ll give you an example.

In the long term, my goal is to build financial independence by spending significantly less than I earn and doing something smart with the rest. That’s a great goal with a good principle to guide me there.

The problem is that, in the short term, that principle stands along a big mix of other principles and desires and goals. Yes, I want to spend less than I earn and be frugal with my money, but I also want this new board game to play with my family and friends because I enjoy playing those games, having fun, and cementing a bond with my family and friends, and I see that game as a route to those goals. “Hey, buying this game checks off these three boxes, but not buying it only checks one box… I’ll buy it!” is basically the thought process of my subconscious mind.

Don’t feel bad when something similar happens to you with whatever long term goals you have. It’s a natural response.

The catch is that you have to treat it as a sign that there’s a lot more to work on regarding making progress on your goal. It’s not a sign of failure of yourself or of your goals. It’s a sign that you haven’t quite put all of the pieces for success into place yet.

There are four things in my life that I’ve found that offer real help with shrinking the gap between my big long term goals and my daily actions.

First, I try to keep my long term goals present in my mind as much as possible. I actually wrote about the power of long term thinking and how to encourage it very recently, and everything I said in that article rings true here.

You have to have your long term goals as front and center in your mind as you possibly can. The most effective method I’ve found for this is to just build up some daily, weekly, and monthly routines that force me to think about the longer term future and what I want out of it. I regularly write out detailed pictures of what I want my future to look like at different times – a year, five years, ten years, and so on. I consciously plant lots of seeds for the future. I spend time when I’m driving thinking about very specific long term goals, like “how can I improve my core strength over the next year” or “how can I maximize my children’s college savings by the time they go off to school.”

The more you do this, the more you nudge yourself to take the long term into account with all of your decisions. Your long term goals start to loom larger in your mind and thus you naturally consider it when making choices.

Second, I try to seek out routines that match my short term desires and my long term goals. I will go to great lengths to find things that match what I want in the short term (usually immediate enjoyment or time saving) with what I want in the long term and then add them to my routine.

I’m constantly trying out new foods because I want to find a wide roster of healthy foods I like so that I can eat a healthy diet without just repeating the same four or five things over and over again. I’m constantly trying out new low cost or free activities or hobbies because I want to find a wide repertoire of enjoyable things to do that don’t cost anything. I’m constantly trying out new fitness ideas because I want to find exercise that I enjoy doing in the moment that also improves my long term health.

Just try new things that match your long term goals and might click with your short term desires. If you find something that clicks, add it to your repertoire; if it doesn’t click, discard it and move on to something else.

Eventually, you’ll find that you have tons of options that fulfill your short term desires and your long term goals, thus drastically shrinking or even eliminating the gap between your goals and your actions.

Third, I try to find friends who have similar long term goals as myself and accentuate those friendships. My closest friends in the world – the people I enjoy spending time with – are all committed to pretty frugal lifestyles in an effort to eventually become financially independent. Most of them are really into keeping their spending low. Thus, it feels comfortable to do low cost or free things with them, and they often suggest low cost or free activities to do together.

This is true for almost every long term goal you have. If you want to eat a healthier diet, accentuate your relationships with people in your life who are healthy eaters. If you want to get more fit, accentuate your relationships with people in your life who are fit. If you want to quit smoking, accentuate your relationship with people in your life who don’t smoke.

If you don’t have friends or family members who meet these criteria, seek them out by going to community events or getting involved in civic groups or meet ups that would attract such people. See what your town really has to offer, then use those opportunities to build relationships.

Finally, I do at least one detailed “after action review” each day. An after action review simply means that I take something I did recently – a choice I made or some action I took – and I tear it apart in detail, deciding for myself with more detailed thought whether it was really the right choice to make considering my long term goals and other factors that I might not have considered in that moment.

For me, an after action review is simple. I think about a recent event that I’m not sure I handled well, and I start asking myself questions about it. What was the situation? Who was there? What exactly happened? How was I feeling? How were the other players involved actually feeling? What did I want? What did they want? How should I have ideally handled it? What can I do to make sure the next time this happens, my reaction is closer to the ideal?

For example, I was at the store and I bought a box of a particular kind of tea because I’d read a few articles about it and heard a podcast episode on it. I’ll break that down – should I really have bought that tea at all? Why did I buy it? Could I have bought it elsewhere? Did I really think it through at the store?

It takes me a little while to think through those thoughts. Sometimes, I’ll write it out in a journal. At other times, I’ll just think it through in my head while driving somewhere.

Often, I do after action reviews on little things that might seem like they don’t really deserve a second thought. However, what they reveal is my principles and instincts in action, and it’s a good way to check my principles and instincts and make sure they’re really working for me in the way I want them to work, in the service of my long term goals.

The thing to remember is this: the closer your everyday actions are to being in alignment with your long term goals, the easier it becomes to just march straight to those goals. That sounds easy, but it isn’t – we’re often driven by short term impulses that aren’t in alignment with our goals, and there’s sometimes a really big gap there. The challenge is to figure out how to massage that gap by considering our goals and our short term impulses and nudge them closer together so that our short term actions and impulses are much closer to our long term goals. This makes it far easier to march toward whatever big goals we have for ourselves.

Good luck!

The post The Gap Between Your Goals and Your Actions appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

How to Plan a Really Cheap Weekend Getaway

Every once in a great while, I’ll send my wife a message like this:

Don’t plan anything this weekend & try to not bring any work home.

My wife, being who she is, will immediately want to know what I have cooked up. Usually, it’s a weekend getaway of some kind that I’ve whipped up on the spot, something that she’ll almost assuredly like.

Whatever it is that I’ve come up with, though, isn’t breaking the bank. It’s usually surprisingly cheap.

Here’s how I do it.

Identify Target Dates

The first part of this equation is to simply watch the calendar for weekends that are free – or relatively free – of conflicts. These types of getaways work best for us in the late fall and the early spring, for example, because those weekends rarely have any sort of conflict going on, or if they do have a conflict, it’s minor.

If I’m really eyeballing a particular weekend, I’ll throw something on our shared calendar that indicates that the weekend is busy. I’ll usually make up some reason for it, but the goal is to keep the weekend locked down while I plan out the other details of the trip. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just delete that event from the calendar.

I usually end up identifying six to eight weekends a year where this might work out, of which one (at most) ends up working out due to the other elements involved in the planning. I just keep an eye on the calendar for the coming month or two and try to lock down a weekend every once in a while.

What you need to do: Choose a few upcoming weekends that might work for a getaway, but don’t peg all your hopes on one particular weekend. Don’t overplan and make it essential that you find a deal on a particular date.

Clear Child and Pet Care

We have three relatively young children. They’re old enough that I feel okay leaving the oldest in charge while I go to the grocery store, but they’re nowhere near old enough to leave at home alone for an extended period of time. Thus, child care is a requirement, and I need inexpensive options.

My first option is to check with grandparents. Both my parents and Sarah’s parents are supportive in this way and are quite happy to have the grandchildren visit for a weekend every once in a while. My first step, if a weekend is looking clear, is to check with both my parents and Sarah’s parents to see if they’re willing to watch the grandchildren for the weekend. I can also check with one of Sarah’s sisters – the “cool aunt.”

If that doesn’t work, we do have a couple of friends in the area who would be willing to have our kids over for the weekend; we’ve reciprocated in similar circumstances. I’d also check with them, but I’d be more likely to want to leave that kind of favor for a genuine emergency.

It is not a cheap getaway if I’m having to pay for child care, so if our only option is some sort of paid child care, a weekend getaway is out of the question.

In the next few years, this will become a much less important option as our children become old enough to be able to stay at home alone. The reality is that our oldest is approaching high school and his younger siblings are nipping at his heels.

It’s also worth noting that we have a couple of pets that need care while we’re traveling, but we have neighbors who will step up and help in those situations. Feeding and checking on pets a few times over the course of a weekend is a favor we constantly trade back and forth.

So, our first objective is to find free child care. This eliminates a significant cost of the weekend for us.

If you don’t have access to such care, start building relationships with people you trust that might lead to this type of care. Offer to take care of their children/pets, and swap child/pet care with them for gradually lengthening periods of time until such a request becomes feasible. This is the value of having a strong social and familial network.

What you need to do: Make sure that you have plans for any ongoing responsibilities, ideally plans that don’t involve significant additional expense. Is there care for your children? Is there care for your pets? Is there care for any other people you may be responsible for?

Consider Getaways within Driving Distance

Before you move on, consider whether or not there are any weekend getaway locations that are within driving range of your home. This is often the most frugal option for a weekend getaway.

If I’m considering driving for a weekend getaway, I’ll start looking at options within five hours of home, because we can and have driven five hours on a Friday evening in order to enjoy a little getaway. What kinds of points of interest are available to you within a four or five hour driving radius?

Google can be a great tool for this. Just Google for day trips or weekend getaways from your location (or, preferably, the metro area closest to you) and see what turns up. For example, over the years we’ve mined this list of weekend getaways in Iowa, along with some great places not on that list such as Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun Lake.

What you need to do: Look for interesting getaway locations within a few hours of your home, one that’s drivable on a Friday evening after work. You might be surprised at the options available if you do some searching!

Look for Travel Deals

If I have a weekend blocked out and I know child care is available and I want to go somewhere further away than the driving radius, I start by looking at cheap last minute flight options. I will start hunting for these several weeks out, but I won’t lock anything in until I either find a really good deal or we’re down to the last week, in which case I either find a pretty good deal or I give up on the plan.

At this point, I am not concerned at all about the destination. What I’m looking for are cheap round trip flights to anywhere, ideally departing from Des Moines (the only decent-sized airport near us), but flights departing from Minneapolis are also okay.

This is where price comes first. What’s a cheap flight that departs in the evening on Thursday or Friday (depending on the specifics of the weekend) and arrives back home on Sunday or Monday (again, depending on the specifics of the weekend)? Most of the time, I’m looking at a late Friday flight and a mid-day Sunday flight, but that can vary if there’s a special weekend coming up in terms of our personal schedule.

Believe it or not, if I’m careful with the hunting, I can often find last minute flights well below $100.

I use a number of tools for this, including Kayak, Hipmunk, and FlightScanner. I just check them regularly and have them set to give me alerts if cheap flights pop up in my search criteria. These sites all have smartphone apps that will pop up alerts for you. When I’ve identified a good potential weekend, I start searching all of these sites and a few others all at once.

In terms of planning flights, include all airports that you could reasonably use for a weekend getaway, not just the one that’s closest to you. For example, I know that Minneapolis flights are cheaper for us but a bit logistically harder, while Des Moines flights are going to cost a little more but be logistically easier. I’ll watch for deals from both airports, though.

Also, don’t lock onto a particular destination. You’re looking for deals on any flight, and you’ll want to choose among the least expensive options that appear. My recommendation is to scoop flights that are less than $100 to an interesting destination, with perhaps even a lower threshold if you have several airports nearby.

What you need to do: Once you have a weekend in mind, use airline search tools to start finding cheap flights for that weekend to anywhere from any airport near you. Don’t obsess over a particular destination – let serendipity rule here.

Look for Housing Deals in Possible Target Areas

As soon as a cheap flight pops up or you’ve decided on doing a more local getaway by car, immediately start looking for cheap lodging in that area for the weekend. I usually aim for anything that’s low cost that doesn’t have disastrous reviews associated with it – the cheapest price I can find on a hotel or Airbnb that doesn’t have reports of bedbugs or other significant problems.

Again, I use a variety of tools for this. I use Hotels.com, Airbnb, Kayak, and so on. If I’m going to a remote destination, I look for anything that’s in that metro area. If I’m using the radius around us, I usually have a handful of possible places in mind and look for housing deals near any of them to see what’s inexpensive and available.

Yes, sometimes I’ll find that everything in an area is booked up or the few rooms that are available are super expensive. Guess what? I just don’t go to those destinations that weekend. It’s okay. A big part of all of this is flexibility, and that means dropping plans if they don’t work out.

This actually doesn’t take very long at all once I have a destination or two in mind. Since I’m usually doing this just a week or two in advance (or sometimes less than a week), I usually find that either an area seems to be highly booked up, or else at least a few lodging options are offering really cheap rates for the weekend. If everything’s booked up, I move on; if not, then I’ve got a cheap hotel.

If you find a bunch of great deals, look at the extra perks offered by the lodging options. A continental breakfast is a huge perk, as one can utilize that for brunch and take some fruit along with you, drastically reducing food costs on the trip. A true bed and breakfast is similarly nice.

Another option, of course, is to consider camping as a weekend getaway, but this likely reduces the range of travel as you’re going to have to be able to set up camp at your destination in the dark if you go too far. This might not be a problem for some, but could be a deal breaker for others.

What you need to do: Once you have a cheap flight (or you’ve decided to drive to the weekend getaway), start looking at a wide variety of housing options. Airbnb should always be considered, along with hotel searching tools like Hotels.com. A hotel with a continental breakfast or full breakfast at no noticeable additional cost is a big perk, as you can use that as brunch and take some fruit with you.

Look for an Interesting Centerpiece, and a Deal Associated with That

You have low cost transportation to a low cost destination. Great. Now, what are you going to do when you get there?

This is the time to start researching the area you’re planning to visit. There are a lot of different tools for this, starting with the tourism guide for the area, but also using tools like Atlas Obscura.

When you’re doing this, prioritize cool things that are free or extremely low cost, especially if they’re irregular events. Maybe there’s some kind of free concert or free arts festival going on in the area that weekend that you can check out. Maybe there’s a special exhibit at an art museum or something like that, or perhaps there’s a limited time art installation in a park. Look for things that you’d both be interested in that fall into this category.

What I’ve found is that, if I find two or three things like that, that’s good enough. Those things serve wonderfully as the centerpiece of a weekend getaway. The rest of the time, trust in serendipity. Go there, get up without a plan other than visiting a particular park at a certain time or something, and then wander to your heart’s content.

One challenge on such a trip is food. What we usually do is eat at one or perhaps two cool restaurants in the area and go super cheap on the rest of our eating. I really like hotels with continental breakfasts, as we’ll often eat at them fairly late in the morning and treat it as a brunch, put a few fruits in our bag that we take out for the day, maybe have one small treat from a street vendor during the day, and then eat somewhere cool for dinner.

Thus, I’ll typically try to figure out a good deal on one interesting meal in that city or area. Check out sites like Restaurants.com or BlackboardEats.com for bargains on dining if you’re flexible. You’re probably not going to end up going to a hot and mega-exclusive restaurant this way, but you’ll probably find something good and interesting at a very good price. Try to target something vaguely near your hotel or near the area where you’ve found something interesting to do.

What you need to do: Scour travel guides for low cost or free cool things to do in the area, particularly ones that only happen that weekend. Let most other things happen by serendipity, but check out restaurant deal websites for at least one planned meal at a discount.

Don’t Sweat Transportation Unless You’re Getting Out of the City

One thing I’ve discovered is that, unless you’re getting out of the city, you’re far better off simply using mass transit to get around rather than the expense of renting a car. Most of the interesting things you’re going to want to do can be reached easily on foot from a mass transit stop, so, assuming the destination city has a decent mass transit system of some kind, I just rely on that to get around.

In a pinch, I’ll use Lyft or a taxi service to get back to our hotel or something like that if we’re out late, but mass transit usually takes care of all of our travel needs.

There’s an additional factor in that, if you’re planning on an out-of-the-city destination that also requires a flight, you’re likely leaving yourself rather little time for a weekend getaway. I prefer either a drivable destination or one where I can fly and then rely on our feet and public transport along with a Lyft or two.

What you need to do: If you’re flying to a remote city, study the public transport in that city and use that if at all possible. Focus on activities that are walkable from your hotel or are easily accessed via public transportation. Try to avoid getaways that require both a flight and a car rental.

Final Thoughts

The thing to remember about a weekend getaway is that most of the fun of such a getaway really boils down to exploring a new place with a loved one along with time for romance, away from the distractions and challenges of your everyday life. It doesn’t have to involve an expensive resort or a perfect weekend. Just focus on finding cheap travel options, then plan around wherever that cheap travel option takes you. You can make memories and romance almost anywhere you go.

Good luck!

The post How to Plan a Really Cheap Weekend Getaway appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Worth It: Seven Frugal Bloggers Reveal What They’re Willing to Splurge On

From lowering grocery bills with coupon clipping to eliminating cable to moving across the country to a less-expensive city, frugality and personal finance bloggers are happy to share every single way they’ve cut back on spending and reduced financial debt in their lives.

What we wondered, though, was if they would also share one or two specific things that they are willing to revisit their budget for every now and again, because, as Trent wrote earlier this year, not all splurges are wasteful splurges. (Some are very strategic. And some probably are worth curbing.) As Trent says, “A good, sound financial life isn’t about denying yourself all splurges and all pleasures. It’s about finding balance. It’s about knowing when to splurge and knowing when you’ll regret it.”

We spoke with seven frugal bloggers, Instagrammers, and YouTubers from all over the U.S. about what they OK for the splurge category of their tracking spreadsheets. Read on for their answers and then drop us a comment below on what you’re willing to shell out a little extra for, when, and why. (For the record, like Trent, I often splurge on books. I use all the free resources at my library as much as possible, but there’s still just nothing like a hard copy of a title I really want to dig into and revisit for years to come.)

Personal finance blogger Justin Weinger of So Over This, where he writes about moving beyond a life of debt (though intentionally while not living like a monk), says his big splurge is on vacations. “Experiences are worth so much more than ‘items.’ I prefer to upgrade to Delta Comfort or the Big Front Seat on Spirit, as I don’t particularly enjoy flying. Also, I will splurge for a larger room with more space and a view. With daily stress at work, I want to make sure I enjoy my time off as much as possible.”

Self-described debt-free goal crusher, wife, and work-at-home momboss Kim, of the popular three-times-a-week Free to Frugal YouTube videos, agrees with Justin. “I’m willing to splurge on a good rental car and decent hotel when traveling. I have a family and we don’t travel much, but when we do, we want to enjoy it and be comfortable,” she says.

Anchorage, Alaska-based personal finance journalist and author Donna Freedman, founder of Surviving and Thriving and a regular contributor here at The Simple Dollar, says she also splurges on travel — to see family. “I’m willing to splurge on visits to my father, who’s 83, and to my daughter in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s important to me to spend time with them, and, in my father’s case, I would rather go for a visit than a funeral,” she says.

Of course, Freedman adds that she does still approach these trips as frugally as she can. “A friend of mine works for an airline and gives me ‘buddy passes,’ which are good for up to 90 percent off airfare. Since I live in Alaska, it’s always expensive to fly; these buddy passes are greatly, greatly appreciated.”

Kristen Cross, aka The Frugal Girl — an East Coast blogger, DIYer, and mindful spender who lives “frugally and cheerfully” with her husband and four homeschooled children — also focuses on family and friends with her extra dollars.

“I’m willing to splurge on ‘things’ that foster important relationships in my life,” she says. “Though they’re not cheap, things like family vacations, trips to see friends, or a night out with friends all feel worth it to me because they facilitate something priceless: relationships.”

“Confidant spender” Leah Ingram, New Jersey-based author of 15 books — most recently The Complete Guide to Paying for College — has one particular item she’ll spend a bit extra on. “The one thing I’m willing to splurge on — and have splurged on — is good shoes,” Ingram says. “I have hard-to-fit feet and I do a lot of walking. I have two dogs that are used to getting three to four walks per day, so comfort and shoes that last are both very important to me. Also, when you have wide feet, it’s not easy to find shoes, so I’ve come to shop at Zappos and Nordstrom pretty exclusively. Expensive? Yes. But great customer service and great quality products that last.”

Lydia Senn, who has been sharing videos on saving money, getting out of debt, and simple living for more than a decade at the Lydia Senn YouTube Channel as well as blogging on the same topics at Frugal, Debt Free Life, lets her taste buds determine her splurge.

“The one thing I’m willing to spend money on is good coffee grounds,” Senn says. “I only drink coffee from home, unless I’m gifted a gift card, and I love good quality coffee. I’m willing to spend more on quality grounds to get a better cup — or three or four — from my home coffee maker. It’s still loads cheaper than a coffee shop but tastes so much better than cheap coffee brands.”

“FrugalKittens” Michelle and Daniel have been on a journey since 2016 to eliminate more than $200,000 in debt, and recently the 20-somethings moved from Los Angeles to Minnesota specifically to cut their costs. (To date, they’ve paid off nearly $100,000, a figure they update regularly on their Instagram account.) Their splurges, Michelle says, focus on one particular family member.

“We splurge on extracurricular activities for our daughter. We want her to grow confident and strong, and I personally believe that sports and programs like Scouts help facilitate those traits,” Michelle says. “We invest in one sport at a time for each season: softball, gymnastics, and snowboarding. Throughout the year she also gets to participate in Girl Scouts and we volunteer at a food bank weekly. These activities are all ones that interest her and make exercise fun. This would be our greatest splurge during our debt-free journey and I believe it’s important to allow kids to do activities like sports… as they help nurture confident and strong kids.”

Tell us, frugal readers: What are you willing to splurge on?

Related Reading:

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

I’d Rather Read a Book Than Live in a Mansion

I’d rather play soccer at the park with my kids than drive a Lexus.

I’d rather eat homemade rice and beans for supper than go to the fanciest restaurant in town.

I’d rather take a nap in our backyard hammock than go to Disney World.

The key? I want to do all of those things without money stress and without job stress seeping away at the edges.

That’s my financial goal. I want to be able to do those ordinary things without worrying about work or about money or about any of those stressors. I want to be able to wake up in the morning and do whatever I wish to do without worrying about the professional or financial ramifications of it.

If I took the leap right now, I could do that for a while. I could simply stop writing and live for a number of years without any financial or professional concern whatsoever. However, I would eventually hit a wall and my retirement would consist of Social Security and a small amount of remaining retirement savings. I would have to live incredibly lean for the rest of my life, and it wouldn’t take much of a bump in the road for me to have to be right back in the workforce. That’s the result of twelve years of careful financial choices.

That’s not where I want to be, though, and the road ahead is still a long one.

I want to never set an alarm unless it’s to wake up early to do something awesome like watch an early morning meteor shower or spy on the transit of Venus.

I want to never have to worry about having writer’s block and how it might affect my family’s finances.

I want to be able to take on big projects because they excite me, not because of whether they’ll make financial sense. For example, I’d love to be much more involved in the management of a few local charities that I already have done a small amount of volunteering for, but time restrictions make that essentially impossible.

I want to do all of those things while knowing that my children’s future is secure and my wife’s future is secure.

The type of financial success I want doesn’t end with a huge house with a wonderfully landscaped yard and an expensive European car in the driveway. Those things might be beautiful, but I do not want them for myself. If someone gave me those things, I would sell them, bank the money, and buy something more modest.

The type of financial success I want is to do the things I enjoy doing now on a slightly bigger scale, without the worry of finances or professional needs interfering with that at all. I want minimal stress in my life.

This is the vision of my future that drives me.

This is the vision of my future that nudges me to buy the store brand dish soap.

This is the vision of my future that convinces me to wait for a book I really want to read by adding myself to the waiting list at the library rather than just hitting the bookstore.

This is the vision of my future that causes me to make a bunch of meals in advance so that we’re not tempted to eat out on a busy weeknight.

This is the vision of my future that has me sitting up at 11 o’clock taking notes out of a personal finance book so I can write a better article next week.

I know perfectly well that my vision of the future is a realistic one. I’ve run the numbers – I know very well that this vision is reachable if I make smart moves, and it might even get here a little early if I get a little lucky.

There are a few catches, though.

The world isn’t going to hand me this vision of the future on a silver platter. I’m going to have to work for it. I’m going to have to constantly choose to head for that vision. I’m going to have to say no to a lot of short term temptations to get there.

You have to be content with most of the ordinary aspects of your life. If you’re not happy with the people around you or the things you can do on relatively simple means in your free time, then this isn’t a path to happiness. In other words, if you’d rather live in a mansion than have regular lazy afternoons to read a book (or whatever your hobby might be), that’s perfectly fine, but you’re going to want to set different goals for yourself. I’m content with this nice and relatively small house we live in, for example; I personally wouldn’t find joy in living in a much larger house.

You have to be able to distinguish between what actually matters to you and what really doesn’t matter, and then be willing to cut those things that don’t matter down to the barest essentials. Name brand versus store brand products are a great example here. When it comes to things like hand soap in the bathroom, I care about one thing: does it get my hands clean? The least expensive soap option goes next to the bathroom sink, regardless of what’s on the label. When it comes to things like laundry soap, I care about one thing: does it get my clothes clean? I go for the cheapest option that gets my clothes clean (a powdered mix of equal amounts borax, washing soda, and soap flakes, with one teaspoon of that mix per load). If something really doesn’t matter to you in terms of your quality of life, then let it truly not matter. Cut it down to the barest minimum.

The entire world tries to trick you into wanting things, so you have to learn to ignore the noise. Many, many aspects of modern life try to nudge you toward wanting things that you don’t actually want. Advertisements are the obvious part, but they’re only one piece. That kind of nudging happens in the news articles you read, the things your friends talk about, the product placement in your favorite television shows. All of it works together to imply that your life will somehow quickly be better if you simply bought things that you don’t currently have. The reality is that there are very few things you can buy that will have a genuine and lasting positive impact on your life. Almost everything you buy just gives you a short burst of happiness and… that’s it. You can get a short burst of happiness just running barefoot through the grass or playing a game of fetch with a friendly dog. You don’t have to spend money to fulfill short term wants – all they’ll give you is a little burst of happiness, and you can find those happiness bursts for free.

You have to drop some of the expensive things you might want. In a perfect world, I’d have a wonderful house out in the country on a bunch of acres of wooded land. There’s part of me that quite wants that type of idyllic place to live. The question is, what do I want more? Do I want that piece of land with a house on it with all of the needed utilities there? Or do I want to have that kind of freedom I described above several years earlier? I’ve chosen the second option over the first, and I’m fully okay with that.

Those five things alone become a pretty powerful filter. Many, many people are unwilling or unable to do those things, and because of it, they find themselves stuck in a paycheck to paycheck loop, daydreaming about a future where they don’t have work stress and money stress bearing down on them, hoping that their ship will come in, and working solely for the weekend without aiming for anything more.

Don’t let yourself get caught in that loop. Figure out the small handful of things that really matter to you in life, cut the rest down to the bone, hold on tight to the most powerful plans that you have, and drop all of those other daydreams. If you do that, then you start heading directly toward that dream. You break out of that endless paycheck to paycheck cycle. Best of all, you don’t give up anything that you truly care about.

In the end, I’d rather read a book than live in a mansion, and I’m doing everything I can to head in that direction.

What’s your direction?

The post I’d Rather Read a Book Than Live in a Mansion appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Goodwill vs. Old Navy: Which Is the Better Option for ‘Cheap’ Clothes?

Shopping for clothes on the cheap is easy, but picking the right cheap option isn’t.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve taken an almost relentlessly frugal approach to buying clothes. My best suit was made in 1947 and purchased at a vintage store for $150. My most durable pants are Kirkland Jeans purchased at Costco for $13. My wardrobe is filled in with socks, t-shirts, button-downs, and other articles purchased at stores that, for several reasons, weren’t their first destination.

While dabbling in clothing from Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and Ross, I’ve since settled on two primary sources: vintage stores and Old Navy. The latter is the lowest tier of the Gap empire and has saved me everywhere I’ve lived. It was a regular stop for clothing when I was at school and going to my first jobs (a copy editor’s dress code is fairly lax). It was where I could pick up summer clothes cheaply in New York’s Herald Square when I was housesitting for my sister in Queens and ambushed by summer humidity. It was where I could refresh clothing quickly after downsizing from an apartment in New Jersey to a room in Boston.

But once I moved out to Portland, Ore., near-ubiquitous vintage and second-hand clothing stores — coupled with the city’s emphasis on local shopping and reuse — altered my approach. Vintage stores curated their selections and minimized pricing — with one shop in particular finding me a large, pristine Brooks Brothers French-cuffed shirt for $35 — while Goodwill shops had a larger presence in the area than most clothing chains.

About a week ago, and for the first time in about six years, I found myself in an Old Navy again. It occurred to me that, as a value proposition, the vintage stores and Goodwill shops I’d frequented in Portland weren’t always superior to what a low-rung, fast-fashion chain like Old Navy offered. There are trade-offs with each, but here are just some of the advantages and disadvantages of cheap first-hand vs. abundant second-hand clothes.


You’d think this one would go to Goodwill in a walk, and you’d be right on most days. Depending on their condition, used Old Navy clothes sell at ShopGoodwill, Goodwill’s online store, for $4.99 to $9.49. That’s a great deal when Old Navy jeans sell for $20 to $35 and dresses sell for $19 on sale, but not so much when that same sale includes shorts, shirts, and swimwear (which Goodwill has a limited selection of) for $5 to $10. This is what keeps customers coming back to what’s been long dubbed “disposable fashion.”


This easily goes to Goodwill for an obvious reason: Goodwill can carry anybody’s products. Meanwhile, if you find a Goodwill Outlet and don’t mind rummaging through bins, you’ll not only find a broader selection, but you may come away with a better price as well.

As noted by Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” much of the clothing from stores like Old Navy, Forever 21, H+M, Diesel, and other discount retailers will end up at Goodwill anyway, sometimes with the tags still on them.


This is a big issue for Goodwill and other second-hand and vintage stores: The size on the label does not always match the size of the item, which someone may have donated solely because it shrunk and not longer fits properly. However, the spectrum of sizes at these stores also tends to be larger for that reason, which offsets some of the issues with proper fit.

Besides, it isn’t as if something brand-new at Old Navy is a sure fit either: As Lifehacker points out, Old Navy clothes tend to run large to accommodate their customers — which doesn’t always work out. At best, this is a draw.


This depends largely on the garment being purchased. I still have at least three T-shirts from Old Navy that I purchased back in 2004, but that wouldn’t lead me to call Old Navy a durable brand. Old Navy jeans wear out quickly even compared to $13 Costco jeans, and I use the latter solely for yard work. Their button-down shirts, meanwhile, don’t take well to washing and regularly end up misshapen or misaligned even when closet-kept.

Meanwhile, the fact that most clothes are in a Goodwill in the first place means they’ve survived a whole lot just to get there. You can develop an eye for quality clothing and brands and learn to spot especially durable brands and clothing that will last for years. I stand by Old Navy t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, shorts, and even swimwear, but if it’s something you’re going to wear year-round, a savvy shopper will get more for their money at Goodwill.


Unsurprisingly, second-hand goods don’t have all that great of a return policy. Goodwill will not issue a refund and only offers store credit to folks returning items. Oh, and be quick about those returns: You have only seven days to make up your mind. While Old Navy items have to be returned unwashed and unworn, you have 45 days to do so. That said, some of Old Navy’s cheapest “final sale” items can’t be returned or exchanged at all.

Final Tally

There are going to be instances where Old Navy and other stores like it come in about as cheap as what you’d buy second-hand at Goodwill. There are also going to be times when you’ll want a moment to think over a purchase and reserve the right to return it more than a week later.

However, if you are frugal and value the price you’re paying up front over all else, Goodwill remains the overall better option. You can mix and match, but if you’re looking for a broader selection of more durable clothing that fits well, Goodwill is more likely to fit your specific needs and style.

Related Reading:

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Power of Long Term Thinking – and Strategies for Encouraging Long Term Thinking

It was early July 2006, and my wife and my infant son and I were traveling to Minnesota for a camping trip. We had just begun our financial turnaround and, instead of going on the expensive vacations that had filled the summers of the early years of our marriage, we were simply driving a few hours north to visit family and do some super-inexpensive camping in a public park.

That day, we listened to a radio program that really influenced my thinking over the last decade or so. It was an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation featuring Daniel Gilbert as a guest for one segment, in which he discussed how our brains are wired to consider and respond to short term threats and problems and give a lot less importance in the moment to the long term.

Here’s that very episode, if you want to listen to it or read the transcript. I think this is the real core of the segment:

[Host Neil] CONAN: As you point out in your piece, our brains are exquisitely tuned to, if we see a baseball coming at our head, get out of the way.

Prof. [Daniel] GILBERT: Exactly so. So that’s one of the features of climate change that makes it such an insidious threat, is that it’s long-term. It’s not something that threatens us this afternoon, but rather something that threatens us in the ensuing decades. Human beings are very good at getting out of the way of a speeding baseball. Godzilla comes running down the street, we know to run the other way. We’re very good at clear and present danger, like every mammal is. That’s why we’ve survived as long as we have.

But we’ve learned a new trick in the last couple of million years – at least we’ve kind of learned it. Our brains, unlike the brains of almost every other species, are prepared to treat the future as if it were the present. We can look ahead to our retirements or to a dental appointment, and we can take action today to save for retirement or to floss so that we don’t get bad news six months down the line. But we’re just learning this trick. It’s really a very new adaptation in the animal kingdom and we don’t do it all that well. We don’t respond to long-term threats with nearly as much vigor and venom as we do to clear and present dangers.

Gilbert’s point is simple: humans, just like many animals, are really good at identifying short term dangers and challenges, and we’re pretty good at avoiding them. At the same time, humans have a fairly weak but still present ability to place ourselves in the future and think about that future and how it will impact us, but those thoughts are minor and weak compared to impulses in the present and very near future.

In other words, most people look at their jobs most of the time in terms of getting through it to enjoy the weekend. We do have occasional long term thoughts about our job and where we’re headed, but those thoughts are pretty minor and are usually drowned out by the short term.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how this applies to personal finance.

The concepts of personal finance aren’t hard. You spend less than you earn and do something productive with the difference. Do that over and over again, each pay period, and you’ll wind up in a good place. Everything else is just details on top of that core point.

The problem is that there’s usually no life-or-death need to do this in the short term. If a person’s bills are paid and they have enough money in their pocket or breathing room on their credit card to get to the next payday… why think beyond that? Why think beyond the weekend or the next paycheck?

Most of us do think beyond that, at least a little, but that thinking is often nebulous, and it rarely results in any kind of real action that might actually impact that long term path.

Sound familiar? It’s exactly how most of us work in most aspects of our lives. We respond to the hot flame, not the gradual change. It’s how most people handle finances. It’s how most people handle their health. It’s how most people handle their relationships. It’s how most people handle their time.

If you step back, it’s easy to see how it costs us tons of money. Almost every unnecessary use of our money comes from a short term impulse. We see something and without really thinking it through, we buy it. At the same time, we’re aware of long term expenses that are coming down the road – a vehicle replacement, retirement, and so on – but most of us don’t save for those goals at all.

How does a person change that natural tendency to think about the short term, then?

There’s one simple truth I’ve figured out about long term thinking. Long term thinking is like a muscle: the more you use it, the more natural it becomes to rely on it and use it in the course of your day to day life.

It’s not like a light switch goes off one day and you become this mega-organized long term thinker. That’s never happened for me. Instead, what happened is that, over time, I gradually became more of a long term thinker because I made myself think concrete and specific long term thoughts as often as possible.

To put it in another way, parts of my daily routine require long term thinking, and because I’m doing long term thinking every day, it just becomes more natural to think of all of my life in that way.

How does a person with an ordinary life do that? Here are some strategies that really work well for me.

Every month or two, make a detailed picture of your life at some point in the future.

What do you want your life to realistically look like in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?

It seems like a simple question, one that most of us daydream about fairly often, but the difference between this and daydreaming is that you’re sitting down and sketching out, in as much detail as possible, the realistic but positive vision of the future that you have for yourself rather than just happy glimpses of what might happen.

I usually take about an hour for this, and I do it once a month or so. I start by choosing a time frame – five years, ten years, twenty years – and then I go through each of the spheres in my life and figure out what things look like regarding that sphere.

Physical – How healthy is my body? Am I overweight? Am I reasonably fit for my age? What have I accomplished in this area?
Intellectual – What new ideas have I mastered? What skills have I learned? What have I accomplished in this area?
Spiritual/Philosophical – Have I thought about or had some insight into the purpose of my life? What have I accomplished in this area?
Marital – How is my relationship with Sarah? Is it stronger than it is right now? What have I accomplished in this area?
Parental – How is my relationship with each of my children? Did it develop into a healthy relationship between adults? What have I accomplished in this area?
Social – What kind of social relationships do I have? Do I have strong ones with my current friends? Did I build new ones? What have I accomplished in this area?
Professional – What have I done in my career? Did I successfully retire? What did I achieve? What have I accomplished in this area?
Financial – Am I financially secure? Am I able to retire, or close to it? What have I accomplished in this area?
Avocational – What other major initiatives have I started in my life? What else have I done? What have I accomplished in this area?
Other Areas – Is there anything else I want to consider about my life at that point in time, like where I’ll be living?

I think about all of those questions, and some of the obvious related questions to each one, and come up with a concrete answer for where I’d like my life to be at the point in time I’m thinking about. I aim for “positive but realistic” with these visions. What could I realistically achieve?

Usually, from there, I start making some plans for the near future. What do I need to do to make that life happen?

I usually write all of this out by hand. I sit down with a notebook and dig through these questions carefully, writing out my answers and other thoughts along the way.

I find that the simple process if thinking through this carefully hones my mind to naturally think about the future in realistic detail, and it becomes a type of thinking that my mind naturally leaps to. This is particularly true in the next few days after I do this exercise.

At the start of each day, think of one significant thing you can do today that will make your life better a year from now and make that a top priority.

This is part of my morning routine. I wake up and think to myself, “What thing that’s outside of my normal routine could I do today that would have some sort of great benefit down the road in at least a year?”

I call these seeds for the future, and I once made a long list of these seeds. Here are the first ten of them:

Seed #1 – Help someone with a simple errand.
Seed #2 – Help someone move.
Seed #3 – When you see someone struggling, offer to just listen.
Seed #4 – Take care of a parent’s child or someone’s pet when that person is facing a true emergency.
Seed #5 – Sign up for volunteer work.
Seed #6 – Call someone you love and make the conversation entirely about them, by listening and asking questions rather than talking about yourself and your feelings and situation.
Seed #7 – Check in consistently on a friend or loved one who you know is struggling.
Seed #8 – Step in to take over household chores during emergencies and personal crises.
Seed #9 – Give a strong, positive personal testimonial or reference about someone else.
Seed #10 – Offer to review someone’s work before they submit it and review it carefully and thoughtfully.

I list fifteen more in the article.

Simply put, seeds I planted long ago, with no expectation of anything in return other than the hope that someday it might be paid forward to someone, have consistently lifted my life personally, financially, professionally, and spiritually, and thus I put consistent effort into planting more, every single day.

Throughout the day, I keep my eyes open for spontaneous opportunities to do these kinds of things. What can I do to make the future better? I don’t worry about what I might get in return for a little effort or a small expense. I just do those things and assume that good things will eventually happen as a result.

Strive to make the things you enjoy in the short term match up with the things you want in the long term.

In other words, try to make as many of the things you do every day be in alignment with the big things you want out of life.

For example, let’s say you want to be financially successful, but you find yourself spending a lot of money in unnecessary ways that you often forget about completely once you’ve done it. Your focus here should be finding some enjoyable daily routines that take you away from spending situations. Just start tinkering with your daily routine and try to nudge it away from situations where you might spend money as much as possible. Try to find other things to do to fill those times where you’d spend money serendipitously.

For me, one really effective strategy was to alter my commute. I also started making cold brew coffee in the fridge so that I could just pour a great cup in the morning (and warm it up if I so wished) rather than hitting a coffee shop. I tried not to take away the little joys, but find ways to do them in a less expensive way or to find other less expensive replacements.

Similarly, let’s say you want to be in better physical shape, but you don’t really like “exercise” and many of your hobbies are sedentary. The trick here is to just find physically active things to do that you enjoy and just do them.

Try lots of stuff. Go on walks. Do some gardening. Join a martial arts class or some other fitness class for beginners. Just try different things until you find something you enjoy that clicks with you, then stick with it and make it a normal part of your daily routine.

For me, I discovered that I enjoyed walking, then I started taking a taekwondo class which really clicked with me, and it’s provided a great new motivation for me to do bodyweight exercises and stretching at home.

If you want to lose weight, just seek out somewhat lower calorie foods that you really like and make those a bigger part of your diet.

If you want career success, consciously set aside a little time each day to do something that stretches your skills or teaches you a new skill, and aim to get involved with real projects at work.

If you want to be an involved pillar of the community, just start going to meetings of local civic groups or city government and stick with the ones that click.

The key is this: find things to fill your day that you enjoy right now that also have a long term benefit or lead to a long term result that you actually want. Start analyzing your day through that lens constantly, and you’ll find that before long it starts to become natural.

Use your spare time to think about very specific elements of your future.

Whenever I’m driving somewhere, I usually spend that time reflecting on my life. Those reflections take on two forms – an “after action review” where I think through something I recently did and whether it was the best thing to do or what I could have done better, or the more relevant thing, I think about some specific element of my future, what I really want it to look like, and how I could possibly get there.

For example, something I want to do in the future with my family is to go on at least two international family vacations, one to Europe and one to Asia, and perhaps one or two more to other continents if it can work out, before my children get too old to want to go on a family vacation with us. It seems like a nice daydream, but I genuinely want it to be a real thing, one that doesn’t damage our finances.

So, how can I make it happen?

Should I start saving now? Should I consciously take on an extra project solely to pay for these trips? Should we do these fairly shoestring, or fairly expensive? Long or short? What years? When would the children be of the right age to get the most value out of such a trip? Should we consider travel to other areas?

I start hammering out details of things I might want to do way down the road and figure out what’s feasible, what isn’t, and what I need to start doing now to make it realistic.

Final Thoughts

What these little practices do is nudge me to think in a concrete and realistic way about my long term future. This has a bunch of benefits.

First, I actually make good future plans when I think this way. I figure out what I actually want in my future and assemble a good plan for getting it.

Second, by thinking often about the future in a routine way, I begin to make long term thinking a normal part of my thinking process. I find that when situations come up, the long term impact of something becomes a very natural part of my thought process, altering my decision in the moment. This is not something I did when I was in dire financial straits.

Third, I sometimes feel like a good future naturally occurs since I started thinking this way. Many, many things that I wanted for the future have come to pass since I started really incorporating these strategies into my life. It’s not some sort of secret mysticism, but simply the fact that I do more things naturally that nudge these things into being because I’m thinking about them a lot.

Finally, I’m very happy with my day to day life because I can feel the short term perks and have an ongoing sense of the long term benefits. I rarely feel like what I’m doing today is damaging my long term future.

Added together, these benefits make the time invested in thinking about the future pay off in spades. It’s well worth your time to think about the future, plan for that future, and make changes to nudge that future into being, even if that future doesn’t turn out quite right. All of the steps you took up to that point are still beneficial.

Good luck!

The post The Power of Long Term Thinking – and Strategies for Encouraging Long Term Thinking appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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What’s It Really Like to Have the ‘Best Job in America’?

For three years running, career site Glassdoor has named the same job the ‘Best Job in America’: data scientist. With an average base salary of $110,000, high job satisfaction, and a very strong demand in the job market, it’s not hard to see why it consistently tops the rankings.

To me, data science is the new kale. A few years ago I’d never even heard of it, and now, it’s everywhere. But how many of us actually know what a data scientist does?

I decided it was time to find out, so I spoke with Kyle McKiou, founder and chief data scientist at Data Science Dream Job. A former lead data scientist at Anheuser-Busch InBev, McKiou has held several other data science roles as well.

Our conversation touched on what the job entails, the pros and cons of the role, and McKiou’s tips for someone hoping to secure one of these coveted positions.

The Day-to-Day: What Does a Data Scientist Do, Anyway?

DH: What does a data scientist do on a day to day basis? What are their main responsibilities and goals?

KM: The main responsibility of a data scientist is to solve business problems. More specifically, the data scientist uses data, mathematical techniques (e.g., statistical and machine learning models), and computing to solve problems. Typically, the solution involves automating or optimizing an existing process or completing an analysis that creates actionable insights and will increase revenue or decrease costs.

It’s a very applied, “hands on,” role and it doesn’t focus primarily on theoretical research or algorithm design, despite what some may think.

What we do on a day-to-day basis varies a lot, but it generally includes:

  • Meetings with other project stakeholders, IT, product teams, and engineering teams.
  • Internal team meetings to discuss our work, progress, and approach.
  • Meetings with clients (internal or external) to get project feedback.
  • Data cleansing and exploration.
  • Automating processes.
  • Integrating processes.
  • Researching techniques and technologies that may be useful.
  • Building and testing machine-learning models and methodologies.
  • Integrating business rules and requirements into complex mathematical models.
  • Writing and testing code and data pipelines.

The Pros and Cons of Working in Data Science

DH: What do you like most about the job?

KM: It’s a very unstructured job, which leads to a lot of possibilities. The exact approach, tools, and technologies you use to solve problems is up to you. There is nothing that says you have to do things a certain way. This is awesome because it always keeps the job challenging and interesting.

DH: What’s your least favorite aspect?

KM: It’s not a well understood role, which means that you’ll have to spend a lot of time educating other people within the company (and clients) on what you do and why it’s different than the analytics that they’ve been doing for years.

On the Sudden Popularity of Data Science

DH: Why do you think Data Scientist has become such a coveted job?

KM: It’s a challenging, exciting job that doesn’t have a lot of boundaries. Also, it can make a massive impact on the bottom line for a company.

A lot of people that come from highly technical backgrounds, especially those stuck in academia, are sick of doing incredible work and then seeing very few, if any, people or companies leverage their results to make an impact. In data science, you get to see your results put into the marketplace to drive real change, which is extremely rewarding.

For example, if you build a model that allows a company to better target customers and this decreases acquisition costs by just 1%, it could mean millions of dollars saved for the company.  Also, it will result in happier customers that now see more relevant messaging instead of being bombarded by irrelevant marketing that they don’t care about all day.

It’s win-win – you get to make life better for your employer and the customers while doing something that is both challenging and interesting.

Tips for Breaking into the Business

DH: What skills should you develop if you want a data science job, and what programming languages should you learn?

KM: First off,  you need to focus on the foundational math, stats, and computer science before diving into all the machine learning algorithms.

As far as programming, Python is the best language to learn, but R is appropriate for some roles and companies. Also, SQL is used pretty much across the board but isn’t always a “make it or break it” skill.

DH: How did you decide to get into data science?

KM: I read an article about how it was a “sexy” job where a massive impact could be made and I knew that it was what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I really struggled to break into the field just like everyone else.

Through months of trial and error, I was able to figure out what companies were looking for when it came to hiring data scientists. I realized it was all about being able to demonstrate that you’re capable of doing the job of a data scientist and presenting yourself and your work in a way that is compelling and relatable to companies.

DH: Do you have any advice for would be data scientists who are trying to break into the industry?

KM: Don’t get overwhelmed by crazy job descriptions or the amount of material that it seems like you need to know. Everybody else is facing these exact same challenges. If you’re interested in a job, then apply for it right now. Push your job search forward by taking action immediately and repeatedly until you are able to identify your weaknesses and then attack those while you continue to apply.

DH: What do you think about tech “boot camps” for data science that purport to teach you everything you want to know in a few months?

KM: I don’t typically recommend boot camps since most of them don’t prepare people to actually get jobs. Plus, there are less expensive ways to learn the technical skills.

Summing Up

Personally, I’m happy I got a chance to talk to Kyle. Now, when I meet a data scientist, I no longer have to secretly think, “I have no earthly idea what you do.” It turns out that data scientists are like most other analysts — they’re just highly trained to use specific tools.

If you have an analytical mind, a technical background, and a strong desire to work in a cutting-edge field, it seems like a path worth exploring. If you’re interested in data science as a career, you can follow McKiou on LinkedIn or sign up for his newsletter. He uses both platforms to offer tips to aspiring data scientists.

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The post What’s It Really Like to Have the ‘Best Job in America’? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Three Ways Student Loan Debt Is Holding Back Home Buyers

Young adults with the American dream of homeownership are increasingly waking up to something else: the reality of the student loan crisis.

A study by the Federal Reserve revealed that for every 10 percent increase in student loan debt a person holds, there’s a one to two percentage point drop in the homeownership rate during the first five years after exiting school. And the Federal Reserve Bank of New York determined that up to 35 percent of the decline in homeownership among adults 28 to 30 can be chalked up to student loan debt.

Some may shrug off those statistics or attribute them to the uncertainty of life and one’s career path in the years immediately after college. But the fact is that 83 percent of people age 22 to 35 with student loan debt who have not bought a house blame it squarely on their overwhelming loans – not their age, and not their careers.

The Federal Reserve points out that as student debt in this country more than doubled over the course of 10 years, home ownership markedly declined.

“I think student loans are our next big financial crisis as a nation,” said Jennifer Beeston, the vice president of mortgage lending at Guaranteed Rate Mortgage. “Student loans are the largest issue I’m currently seeing in potential homeowners. In many cases their student loan payments are as much or more than mortgage payments.”

To be fair, owning a home with a white picket fence out front — and the ongoing maintenance costs — is not everyone’s dream. But for those who do have such aspirations, monthly student loan payments are proving to be a triple whammy.

Debt to Income Ratio

One of the key measures lenders consider when reviewing a mortgage application is an individual’s overall debt to income ratio. With student loan payments eating up a vast portion of the money borrowers have to live on each month, it has become increasingly challenging to pass this test successfully.

“As expensive as college has become, and with as much debt as the average graduate has, it’s difficult to add a mortgage to their monthly payments for the first few years after finding your career,” said Mike Windle, retirement planning specialist at C. Curtis Financial Group in Plymouth, Mich. “The biggest reason why student loans are impacting home ownership is its toll on debt to income.”

The good news is that more and more graduates are landing jobs right out of college, Windle said. However, it still takes most people as long as a decade to pay off their student loans.

Beeston, who has been a mortgage lender for more than a decade, says in recent years the amount of education-related debt her clients walk in with has skyrocketed.

“I spend every day talking to people about their finances. Over the last three years I have seen student loans becoming progressively more of an issue,” said Beeston. “Ten years ago, $100,000 in student loan debt would have been out of the norm. Now I see it every day.”

“I’m seeing people putting off buying a home because of their student loans,” Beeston continued. “This is not just doctors and lawyers facing this level of debt. I’m seeing it across the board.”

Credit Score

While federal student loans can offer some relief in times of financial hardship, such as deferment or forbearance, private loans typically don’t. And often when borrowers can’t make ends meet after college, they let student loan payments slide, falling behind a month or two or neglecting their loans entirely. This is one of the worst things to do if you hope to buy a home in the near future.

“If you default on your student loans, the hit to your credit score can cripple your ability to purchase your first home for up to seven years,” said Windle.

The student loan delinquency rate is currently around 10 percent.

While improving your credit score is typically something that takes time, you can also try providing mortgage lenders a letter of explanation, detailing the circumstances that led to the delinquency.

Saving a Down Payment

Squirreling away the down payment for a home is the third major obstacle faced by those saddled with enormous student debt. With a big chunk of your income getting siphoned off toward student loans, saving up the standard down payment — 20 percent of the purchase price — can become a distant dream, taking years to achieve.

On this front, Windle suggests not rushing to buy a home before you have enough money accumulated. Doing so may be far more expensive. Without 20 percent down, you’ll likely be required to pay PMI – private mortgage insurance, a fee that protects the lender if you stop making payments on the loan. The PMI fee is added to your monthly mortgage payment.

“I tell my clients not to rush. Take the time to save up and accumulate 20 percent so you don’t have to pay PMI,” advised Windle.

For those seeking a way around the 20 percent, Windle suggests researching Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan programs, some of which provide mortgages to those who have as little as 3.5% for a down payment. These same programs often have lower credit score requirements, as low as 580 in some cases.

The FHA offers adjustable rate and fixed rate loans, which allow for financing up to 96.5 percent of the purchase, keeping closing costs and down payments to a minimum.

What’s more, lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also become more responsive to the challenges faced by student loan holders, said Rick Bechtel, executive vice president and head of U.S. mortgage banking at TD Bank.

“This need is known even at those levels,” said Bechtel. “So you will see all kinds of programs today that require three percent down or one percent down. And these are not just programs for low and moderate income people.”

“The programs that existed up until the last year or two would allow for the low down payment only if you were low to moderate income. That was a trick box for many applicants,” Bechtel added. “But now you’re looking at one percent or three percent down programs that are not specific to low to moderate-income borrowers. There’s now a program for everybody.”

Additional Steps to Take

One of the most common pieces of advice offered by financial experts is to refinance your student loans if homeownership is on your to-do list.

A good refinancing program can lower monthly payments, making them more manageable and thus freeing up cash to put toward other things, such as saving up a down payment or paying a mortgage. Federal student loans also offer income-based repayment plans.

“It is hard to believe the number of people who have still not worked their way into an income-based repayment plan,” said Bechtel.

Few people are aware that mortgage lenders will now use the lower, income-driven student loan payment amount when calculating an applicant’s debt to income ratio. That’s a clear departure from previous policy — and a beneficial one if you’ve got student debt.

There was a time when regardless of what the actual monthly student loan payment was, lenders would still determine debt to income ratio based on the total student debt amount averaged out over the term of the student loan, Bechtel explained. The shift to acknowledging the lower monthly income-based payment is a big win for mortgage applicants.

And one last consideration, for the lucky few who have someone in their life who’s generous enough to help with the loans: Don’t squander the opportunity.

“If you have a family member who is willing to pay off your student loans, take them up on it. I often hear, ‘My parents would pay them off but I don’t want them to have to,’” said Beeston. “If anyone is offering, it’s because they know how crippling student loan debt can be.”

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