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Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Look at My Eleven Frugal Hobbies and Whether They’re a Good Fit for You

One of my most recent interests has been time tracking. I’ve been enjoying tracking my time use as accurately as possible using Toggl and looking at the data that’s produced from doing that over a period of time.

One of the big things I’ve discovered in this process is that I actually have a fair number of hobbies that I devote time to, but they tend to overlap with other areas of responsibility in my life – parental, marital, social, familial, and so on. I started figuring out ways to label various time uses so that they’d show up both as hobby time and as “family time” or “social time” because I really wanted to see how much time I devoted to various hobbies.

Last month, I took a look at what hobbies of mine I spent at least one hour on during the month, and I came up with a list of eleven of them (I combined a few similar time uses into one single group in a few cases). Every single one of them is what I would consider a frugal hobby.

A few days ago, I posted an article entitled The Happy Life on the Path to Your Financial Goals, and one of the big suggestions I made in that article is to find free and low cost things you enjoy doing and dive deep into them if you find them enjoyable.

I thought it might be sensible for me to share a brief description of my eleven frugal hobbies and how I practice them inexpensively. I’ve written up a few of these in detail in the past, but this is intended to be more of a smorgasbord of ideas where you can choose which ones you want to try.

(Note: there are a few practices I do every day like meditation and journaling that could probably count as a hobby, but I chose to exclude them to focus primarily on recreational activities.)

Hiking

By hiking, I simply mean going into natural areas on foot and exploring, whether it’s walking along a quarter mile nature trail in a state park or backpacking in the backcountry of a national park and anything in between. If you’re on foot exploring a natural area, I consider it “hiking.”

This is a wonderful and peaceful hobby that has little cost associated with it. You just need a nice park or nature preserve near you that offers areas for nature walking or hiking.

Hiking provides fresh air and sunshine, exercise at any level of intensity that you desire, and a great way to escape the bustle of everyday life and simply appreciate nature. There’s also a subtle but notable psychological benefit from spending time in nature, too. Hiking provides all of these things.

Low-intensity hiking can be done with virtually no expense using the shoes and clothing you already have. If you get into it and ramp up in intensity, you’ll need a bit of equipment, but nothing too egregious and it’s all stuff you can continuously use. I have a nice pair of hiking shoes and a backpack which were more than enough to tackle several day-long hikes at Yellowstone.

A while back, I wrote a beginner’s guide to hiking and nature walking at minimal cost if you want more information.

Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight exercise basically includes any form of strength-building exercise that doesn’t require additional equipment and thus relies on the weight of your own body for resistance. Thus, bodyweight exercise includes things like push-ups, sit-ups, squats, planks, and so forth. There’s an infinite variety of these exercises out there, so you can try lots of them and find ones that really work for you and achieve what you want to achieve.

My main interest in terms of bodyweight exercise is to mostly improve my core strength and balance. I tend to mix up things like planks with things like balancing on one foot with my leg extended, something I’ll get back to in a bit. I also really enjoy stretching and increasing my flexibility, so I also do some yoga (which is definitely a form of bodyweight exercise that targets the core, improves flexibility, and improves balance). I also enjoy rucking, which I tend to think of as more of a bodyweight exercise than anything else.

I try to put aside at least fifteen minutes a day for stretching and some form of bodyweight exercise. I usually do the daily workout from Darebee (which is free) or one of my bookmarked favorite routines from them, such as the Justice Served workout. Again, the goal for me is to improve my balance and core strength and (secondarily) work other muscles and improve cardio without feeling miserable, and this does the trick.

The nice thing about bodyweight exercises is that there’s no cost associated with them. You can just do them at home, any time you want, at no cost whatsoever. Plus, time spent exercising is going to reduce long term health care costs and extend your life, so it’s time spent likely saving money as well as improving quality of life. Not only that, I usually feel great after doing it.

Taekwondo

This is definitely an activity that has a cost associated with it, but I consider an activity to be “low cost” when the out of pocket cost for me is less than a dollar per hour that I spend on it, and taekwondo definitely meets that target.

I participate in taekwondo because it’s an easily available (meaning there’s a class fairly close to where I live, close enough to walk there if I’m okay with a long walk) exercise class with a focus on self improvement, balance, core strength, and technique. I get a killer workout whenever I go to one of the classes – I usually leave with my shirt soaked with sweat.

The cost of the classes themselves exceed that $1 per hour metric that I note above, but the classes basically come with “homework” – there’s almost always something you can be working on at home, whether it’s working on exercises to get your kicks higher, mastering certain moves through repetition, or something akin to that. I spend some time each day working on taekwondo exercises, particularly on days without classes, and adding up all of the invested time pushes the cost well below $1 per hour.

Most of what I said about bodyweight exercises holds true here. It’s a great way to get a workout, which is good for your current quality of life and for reducing long term health care costs. There is a cost associated with taking martial arts classes, but if you actually follow the suggested exercises, the cost per hour of the classes (especially if your school allows for unlimited class attendance) ends up being quite low. See if there are any martial arts classes in your area for adults and sign up.

Check with your local parks and recreation department and see if they offer any inexpensive martial arts classes.

Making Fermented and Pickled Foods

One of my favorite activities is making fermented and pickled foods in my kitchen. Rare is the day when there’s not something fermenting or pickling somewhere in our home, whether it’s cabbage turning into sauerkraut, pickled eggs, preserved lemons, pickled cucumbers, kimchi, pickled garlic, and even drinks like kombucha or kefir.

The process is really easy and requires minimal equipment. I typically use a gallon jar with a special lid that has a small hole with a rubber gasket in it, into which I put a small air lock. The total cost of this lid and the bubbler was about $5, and I’ve used it on dozens and dozens of batches of food. I also have a few glass weights that I picked up somewhere years ago that are useful for weighting down the food and keeping it below the level of the brine.

Mostly, I just cut up a bunch of vegetables or other items that I want to ferment or pickle, add an appropriate amount of salt and, if needed, water, and pack everything down in the jar with the weights on top, then I simply seal it up and wait until the air lock stops bubbling. This general procedure has some variations depending on what exactly I’m trying to do, of course, but that’s the general framework. When a batch of food is finished, I usually keep a container of it in the fridge and I often give some of the product away to friends and family.

It’s a pretty low cost hobby, considering that the ingredients are almost always less expensive on the store shelf than the finished product. I can often buy three heads of cabbage for less than a dollar and turn it into many pounds of sauerkraut by just adding salt and a little water, for example.

In fact, if you like sauerkraut, it’s incredibly easy to make at home and it’s incredibly inexpensive, too, because cabbage is always pretty cheap. This is a great beginner’s guide for making sauerkraut.

Making Homemade Beer/Cider

This is definitely a subset of fermenting foods, but in this case my approach is a little different (and the whole process is a little more expensive). Essentially, all you’re doing is adding yeast to a sweet liquid. The yeast then eats the sugar and converts it to alcohol. When this process is finished up, you move that liquid into individual bottles for long term storage. That’s pretty much it.

Having said that, there are some startup costs. You do need some kind of large vessel to actually make the beer or cider in – a five gallon food grade bucket is great to start with and can be found pretty cheap. You’ll also need a pretty good sized stock pot to actually cook things in and some empty bottles, and each batch of beer or cider that you make will require some basic ingredients (sugar and things to add flavor). This hobby can definitely turn into a “rabbit hole” of expenses if you’re not careful, but if you stick with basic equipment, you’re fine.

This is a great hobby to get into if you enjoy drinking craft beers or cider. You can save a little money over the normal cost of craft beer by home brewing if you keep up with the hobby, but this isn’t a “free” hobby.

If you want to get started, my suggestion is to start saving old bottles until you have several empty six packs, then stop by a local homebrew supply store and get a beginner’s kit with a capper and some caps. The expense will be a little stiff at first, but you’ll refill all of those empty bottles with your product and you’ll have some fun along the way.

Reading

Reading has been a major part of my life since I was a young child, and even today I put time aside each day to sit down with a book of interest and read a chapter or two. Most years, I finish somewhere between 50 and 100 books.

Reading is one of those hobbies that can range from absolutely free (if you rely on your local library for your books) to a fairly expensive hobby (if you buy every book new and buy more books than you’ll actually read, though this tends to segue into collecting books more than reading). If you apply some basic smart principles to the hobby, such as sticking heavily with what’s available at the library and not buying books unless there’s an extreme sale or you’re absolute sure you’re going to read the book immediately, it can be a very inexpensive hobby, since most books take several hours (at least) to read.

A good way to begin with this hobby is to simply go to the library with a topic in mind (if you want to read nonfiction) or a genre in mind (if you want to read fiction) and explore those sections of the library until you find something that looks really interesting. Grab it off the shelf, take it home with you, and dive in. For me, I find it most effective to read fiction when I have a large block of time and can get absorbed into the story, whereas I tend to read nonfiction in little bits throughout the day and let my mind ruminate on what I just read.

Playing Board Games

Once a week or so, I go to a local community board game night where two dozen people or so meet up to play board games. The group is almost entirely professional adults, with a few college aged people and a couple older children accompanied by their parents. People bring whatever games they happen to have and then people just divide up into groups to play them.

In addition to that, Sarah and I host a board game day at our house about once a month for several of our adult friends. We get together to have a potluck dinner and play games until late in the night.

Board gaming is another hobby that can be expensive if you move away from actually playing games and focus more on collecting them, but if you keep the focus on simply playing games rather than buying them, it’s a pretty inexpensive hobby all around. The best strategy for keeping it inexpensive is to get involved with a local community board game night (check Meetup, as they’re often listed there) and just show up and play. If you eventually do pick up a game or two, bring it along with you and play it with friends outside of that group as well.

Playing Digital Games

I enjoy playing deep strategy computer games and puzzle games; I’m much less interested in games that require lightning reflexes. I like games that force me to think while I’m playing and make hard choices that run the possibility of backfiring on me later.

I mostly play games like Civilization (which is basically a slow strategic reenactment of the history of human civilization) and Stellaris (also a slow strategic game, but focusing on humankind spreading across the galaxy) and Factorio (a logistics game where you try to run an ever-more-complex factory) and SpaceChem (a puzzle game where you try to build a molecule factory).

Those games individually aren’t free – some of them are actually a bit pricy. However, I tend to research games obsessively when I’m considering buying one and I wait for sales on very specific titles before buying. I usually do this by using Steam and waiting around for their semi-regular sales to see if any of the titles I’ve looked into are on sale.

My goal with such games is to get the money I’ve invested in them below $0.50 per hour of play. I don’t buy a game unless I’m quite confident that I’ll be able to reach that level.

I tend to play such games in bite-sized bursts. Most of them are turn based (imagine a board game with an extremely large board and lots and lots of choices to make) and I’ll occasionally load up a game and take a few turns. When I was younger, I used to play in much longer sessions, but now I’d rather take two or three turns and go on a walk.

Solving Combination Puzzles

A combination puzzle is perhaps best illustrated by an example – the Rubik’s Cube is a perfect example of a combination puzzle. They’re usually handheld puzzles that you rotate in some way in order to solve them and typically take a fair amount of spatial reasoning to solve them.

I greatly enjoy learning how to solve such puzzles. At first, I’ll tackle them completely on my own, trying to figure out how to solve them without any assistance. If I struggle to the point of frustration, I’ll go look for help on the section I’m struggling with. Eventually, I’ll solve it, and then I’ll mix it up again and solve it again. I try to get to a point where I can do it fairly quickly without long pauses, and then I’ll move onto another puzzle (there are many in the genre, often appearing to be more complicated versions of a Rubik’s Cube using different shapes and more faces). It’s a nice hobby as well because you can pick up a puzzle and work on it for just a few moments here and there, or you can sit down and really try to master one of them over a longer period of time.

I find this to be a great mental workout, plus learning the skill of solving such a puzzle is a neat party trick. It’s also been a great tool for bonding with my oldest son, who’s into speed cubing (basically solving some of the most common puzzles, like the Rubik’s Cube, as fast as possible). As you might guess, this hobby is in part fueled by family bonding, as most of our family can now solve the 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube and a few other similar puzzles fairly quickly.

It’s a pretty inexpensive hobby, too. You can actually buy off-brand puzzles very inexpensively online (they actually tend to work better than the name-brand Rubik’s puzzles and are less expensive, too) and they’ll provide many hours of entertainment if you enjoy these types of puzzles. For example, my son received this set of four puzzles for his birthday at a cost of less than $20 and he has invested countless hours into solving each one – in fact, he’s still working on the 5x5x5 puzzle. All you need is the puzzle itself and perhaps a few easily-found online tutorials.

Studying a New Subject

One of my favorite activities is to simply bury myself in learning about a new topic, usually starting with a general Wikipedia entry or a free online introductory class on the topic. I’ll usually pull out a cheap notebook and pen and start going through the materials online, taking notes as I go.

For example, let’s say I wanted to learn more about philosophy. One great place to start would be Wikipedia’s general entry on philosophy, then dive into each of the sub-pages listed on the menu over on the right, which will give me a good background and avenues to dive further into specific areas that interest me. Another approach might be to listen to the lectures of a free online class, like this introduction to philosophy course from MIT for which the full lectures are online.

Again, as with many of the other hobbies listed here, this is a hobby that can be broken down into bite-sized chunks. I actually like to use that approach because it gives me time to think about what I’ve just read or listened to. I’ll usually read a section of a Wikipedia entry or listen to about a fourth or a fifth of a lecture, write down the big ideas from that, and then go do something else for a while, letting those ideas percolate in my head.

This is one of the most beautiful things about the internet – it provides almost endless opportunities to learn, absolutely for free. The only cost I’ve incurred with this approach to self-guided learning is that I’ve blown through a lot of cheap notebooks and pens, but I can usually get quite a few hours out of both the notebook and the pen, meaning that the cost per hour for this is on the order of pennies.

I suggest doing the same for your topic of interest. Just visit Wikipedia and look up the general page on that topic. Go through it slowly and take notes as you go, and stop regularly so you can process what you’re learning as you do other things. If you prefer to listen, see if you can find an online course related to that topic with free audio or video lectures.

Gardening

The final hobby on this list is one that tends to eat up a lot of time in the spring, a little time in the summer and fall, and zero time in the winter. We simply have a couple of small vegetable and flower patches on our property that we plant in the spring, maintain in the summer, and harvest and winterize in the fall.

It’s a peaceful and pretty low cost activity that gets us outside during the most beautiful seasons of the year (fall and spring) and puts a lot of fresh vegetables on our kitchen table while also making our property look nice. It gives us a chance to work the earth and get our hands down in the soil. Usually, we garden as a family, with several of us out there weeding and turning the soil over and planting all at once.

It’s an inexpensive hobby to get started. You can get started with any available area of land or a large pot with some soil in it, along with a few tools and some seeds. Prepare to do a bit of homework, though, as you figure out how to fertilize the soil (I like to use compost and “compost juice”) and how and when to plant. The internet is a wonderful resource for gardening questions, however.

Once you have a good system in place, the costs are pretty minimal and you’ll find yourself with an abundance of vegetables and/or flowers throughout the seasons.

Final Thoughts

This post isn’t intended to be a checklist of hobbies that everyone should try. Instead, I recommend a “pick and choose” approach – read through the list, find one or two that might be of interest to you, and dive into them. Most of these hobbies are very low cost, and every single one of them has provided me with many hours of joy over the years.

Good luck!

The post A Look at My Eleven Frugal Hobbies and Whether They’re a Good Fit for You appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

How to Overcome Projection Bias with Your Finances

One of my favorite exercises for planning ahead for the future is for people to make a detailed picture of what their future will look like. It’s a practice I do all the time.

In that practice, I just sit down and think about the future I’d like to have five years from now (or ten or twenty or whatever my timeframe is) in as much detail as possible. I make the assumption that things will go well, but not unbelievably well. It usually incorporates some significant degree of success on the goals I’m working on.

That type of visioning has a few powerful purposes. The biggest one is to somewhat clarify what goals are most important to me, because success with those goals tend to be the first elements I think about in that vision. A secondary benefit is motivation, because I’m visualizing a great outcome to a goal.

Still, there’s a pretty big problem underlining this practice, and that problem has a name: projection bias.

Projection bias is pretty simple to understand. When people think ahead to their future, they often make a ton of assumptions that center around their life being pretty much exactly the same as it is right now. This heavily extends to their current emotional state – if you’re upset, your projection of the future will have a negative tinge to it. If you’re happy, your projection of the future will have a positive tinge to it.

Wikipedia offers a solid explanation:

Projection bias is the tendency to falsely project current preferences onto a future event. When people are trying to estimate their emotional state in the future they attempt to give an unbiased estimate. However, people’s assessments are contaminated by their current emotional state and thus it may be difficult for them to predict their emotional state in the future an occurrence known as mental contamination.

In other words, we tend to visualize our future self as being much like the person we are now, with similar preferences and interests, but that visualization is often strongly tinted by our current emotional state.

So, if making a detailed picture of your future is shaded both by your current preferences and by your current emotional state, what value does that picture have? I argue that a detailed picture still has a lot of value, but there are a few caveats that should be attached to it.

First of all, you should make projections for the future on a regular basis, not just once. If you make a picture of what your future looks like just once and then try to stick with it over time, you’re going to find yourself working toward a future that probably isn’t really what you want, and it’s a picture of the future that you’ll gradually drift away from over time.

Instead, you should visualize the future in detail regularly. This corrects both for your emotional state as well for your other changing preferences in life.

For example, let’s say I’m visualizing the future when I’m in a mood where I feel like my relationship with one of my children is a bit strained, as I had to take away a privilege from them due to some behavioral problem and they got really upset. That feeling will probably have an impact on my vision for the future, even if I’m aware of it.

It’s a bad idea for me to bank all of my plans on that vision of the future. It’s not going to be very accurate in terms of my likely relationship with my child at that point.

Instead, what I should do is re-visualize the future on a regular basis. I do it about once a month, where I write down all of the details I can think of about where I want my future to be headed. The actual goals I’m working toward are something of an average of those visualizations over the last year or so. If there are consistent threads that show up over and over again, I know those are important to me. However, if something pops up only once or twice, I know those things are probably just tied to my emotional state and my focus at the moment.

In terms of specific, concrete plans, stick to what you know will happen. You know that you’re going to get old and you know that there will come a point when you physically and mentally don’t want to work at your current job, so plan for that. You know that your children are going to grow older and you know that, no matter what career path they might choose, they’ll probably need at least a little financial help with the education needed (whether it’s a trade school or a community college or a university). You know that you’re going to eventually have to replace your car. Those things are about as guaranteed as possible, thus it’s okay to make concrete financial plans for them.

You should be saving for retirement. You should be saving for the future education of your child (assuming, of course, you believe you should play a role in helping to pay for it). You should be saving for your next vehicle, provided you have any sort of need to drive anywhere. You should have an emergency fund. Those things cover issues that you know are going to happen.

The same thing is true for other aspects of long-term planning. You know you’re going to get older and thus more susceptible to declining health, so it’s a very good idea to be proactive about your health starting right now so that you’re not stuck in a bad situation later on.

What about the other plans you might have for the future? If you’re not dead certain something will occur, plan for it in a flexible way.

For example, let’s say that you intend to move to a new house in five to 10 years, ideally one that you build in the country. There are several ways you can start preparing for this.

One way is to simply start saving for that goal. Start putting aside some money each month for a down payment on the land and the expense of building the house. That’s a good approach.

Another approach is to start shopping for land right now and, if you find a decent piece of land, take out a mortgage on it right away and start making mortgage payments. That’s a bad approach.

Why is the first one good and the second one bad? With the first approach, if your goal changes, you still have a big pool of cash in savings with which to use for your new plans. With the second approach, your money is tied up in a chunk of land with a mortgage on it and most of your mortgage payments have gone to just pay off the interest and you’ve been footing the property tax bill, too. Because you locked into a specific plan early, you’ve been pushing your money into a mortgage for years and property taxes for years and your only hope is that the value of the land has gone up a lot.

The thing to remember here is there are a lot of ways that this goal could go off the rails. You might have been intending it as a retirement home, only to get divorced or to have one of you pass away unexpectedly. You could simply decide together that you don’t want a house in the country any more. Maybe a job offer takes you away from realistically being able to live in the country.

The moral of the story? Stay as flexible as possible with your savings as you work toward a big goal that isn’t a guarantee. If you’ve got a big goal that’s five or 10 or 20 years down the road and it’s not something that’s guaranteed to happen, you should be saving for that goal in the most flexible way possible, so that those financial resources can be used for other things. This is why people often save for big goals in a normal taxable investment account that can be used for anything when the time comes. Other accounts, like a Roth IRA or a 529, are designed for tax advantages when used for specific purposes (retirement and college education, namely) but usually have a tax penalty if used for other purposes.

So, let’s summarize what’s going on with projection bias.

It’s a good idea to visualize your future because it helps you see things that are coming down the road and to set long term goals for yourself. However, those visualizations are often at least somewhat flawed thanks to projection bias. You can work around those flaws by only making specific plans and taking specific actions for things that you know are coming, like your own aging, and being much more general in your savings plans for all other goals that could change over time as your life situation and perspectives change.

No matter what, it’s a good idea to save for the future, because you’ll always have big things you want to achieve. It’s just a good idea to not lock down those future plans unless those big goals are inevitable.

Good luck.

The post How to Overcome Projection Bias with Your Finances appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

25 Free and Simple Things to Do That Will Make Your Life Better

Unless I happen to slip into a flow state where I’m so focused that I lose track of time on a task, I find myself needing a break about ever hour or so when I’m trying to get something done. My focus wanes and I need to do something that recharges me a little bit.

It’s during those little breaks that I might be tempted to play a game on my phone or play a quick computer game or do some online shopping or something like that, but I find that when I do those kinds of things, I don’t really feel refreshed to go back to whatever task I was working on, and sometimes I’ll even have spent some money.

Instead, I’ve come to fill the little cracks in my day with little free and simple things that simply make my life better. They don’t cost money and they usually don’t take very long, but they provide a nice little perk to my day. I usually do one or two of these things whenever I take a break from working or any bigger task I’m involved with, and on lazier days I often do several of these things scattered throughout the day.

I find that on days when I do these things, I find myself in a better and more focused mood later in the day, which often gives me the energy to do things like make a great dinner for my family, be present with them throughout the evening, enjoy time with my wife after the kids are in bed, and even dabble in some of my hobbies with a clear mind.

Here are 25 free and simple things to do that will make your life just a little better.

Sit outside for five or 10 minutes without any distractions. Leave your cell phone inside and go outside to a comfortable spot with a nice view. Plop yourself down and just look around for a while. It’s often pleasant to do this with a beverage in hand – a glass of water or a cup of coffee works really well. Look at the world around you and notice little details like your neighbor giving his daughter a hug before she goes off to camp or a rabbit hopping across the yard or a little kid learning how to ride his bike or the warmth of the sun on your skin. You’ll feel better and more connected to the world.

Go on a walk around your neighborhood. A walk is a great form of low intensity exercise. It’s not intense enough to leave you sweaty or anything, but it gets your blood moving and your heart rate up a little bit. That little bump in blood flow, plus the fresh air and sunshine that you’re getting, plus the ability to simply explore the area around you and see/greet neighbors makes a short walk around the neighborhood a great little break in the day.

Go on a nature walk or hike in a nearby park. Take the walk around your neighborhood a step further and head to a local park to take a nature walk. This combines most of the benefits of walking around your neighborhood with the known calming benefits of being in nature. The practice of “forest bathing” – simply spending time in a forested area – has a number of known short term and long term health benefits.

Drink a big glass of water. Most of us can afford a little bit of additional hydration throughout the day. Simply drinking a large glass of water can help all of our body’s systems function properly, plus it can help stave off hunger and help us feel more sated. I often genuinely feel better after drinking a glass of water if I haven’t had any water in a while. It seems to awaken me.

Stretch out your body by stretching your various muscle groups for five or 10 minutes. Simply stretching out all of your muscles feels incredible. It’s a pretty low intensity thing to do – I often do it while listening to a podcast or audiobook – and it leaves you feeling more flexible and just feeling good all over. I generally follow Bruce Lee’s stretching routine to the best of my ability. I’ve been doing this for several months and have seen gradual improvements in my flexibility, plus it just feels good to do it and it provides a moment of calm in the day. Note that it’s a good idea to warm up a little first before stretching by doing some jogging in place or jumping jacks.

Clean out the inside of your car. Over time, most cars collect little pieces of detritus – a wrapper, an empty beverage bottle, a forgotten bag, a receipt, a forgotten folding chair in the trunk, a bit of grass from a hike, some dust on the dashboard, and so on. That little bit of messiness can contribute to a small negative feeling when you get in the car, a feeling that can be easily washed away by spending 15 minutes clearing junk out of your car. Clear everything you can off of the floorboards, give them a quick vacuuming, and wipe down the dashboard and panels to remove fingerprints and dust. This little task can make your car feel fresh and new again and you’ll feel good when you get in there to drive next time.

Eat something really healthy, like a piece of fruit or a vegetable. Grab a banana or an apple or a stalk of celery and just munch on it. This is a great thing to do in combination with just going outside and sitting down and looking around for a bit. I’ll often grab an apple and just sit on the front step in the sunshine eating it, watching the life around me. Eating a quick healthy snack usually helps you feel better in the moment and fills you up with something truly good for you, which can take the edge off of cravings for lower quality food.

Document a day in your life (or in the life of someone in your immediate family). Spend a day in which, every 15 minutes or half an hour or hour, you take a picture of whatever it is you happen to be doing at the moment. You can do this with a loved one, too, if you’re spending the day with that person. You can do a selfie or a picture of your environment or whatever. I do this every once in a while, just fully documenting a day. When I’m done, I’ll stick all of the pictures in a document somewhere and add captions explaining it. It’s enjoyable to put this together because it provides a nice meditation on how I actually spend my time. It’s also really fun to go look at older documents like this. It can turn a completely ordinary day into something surprisingly thoughtful and memorable.

Be helpful to someone who needs help, without expecting anything in return. If you see someone that needs a hand, whether it’s someone at the grocery store or someone in your apartment complex or someone at the park or someone in your house, just give that help without question. Load someone’s groceries into their car for them and return their shopping cart. Help your neighbor lay bricks for his new patio. It just takes a few minutes and you’ll be incredibly glad that you did this.

Fill up a bag of items to give to Goodwill. This is a wonderful way to declutter your home quickly and get rid of items that you’re not going to use any more. Just get a big canvas bag and fill it up with items that you don’t use any more that someone else could probably use, then drop off the contents of that bag at Goodwill (or your preferred place to drop off secondhand items) the next time you’re nearby. In one swoop, you’ve cleaned up your living quarters and reduced the amount of stuff you have to maintain and pick up and deal with while also being charitable.

Read a chapter or a section of a really thoughtful book. Check out a book from the library on a topic that you’ve always been curious about, and then in short bits throughout the day, read a chapter or a section of that book. The goal is to read just a handful of pages so that you’re not reading for an extended period. With a thoughtful book, you’re probably going to have a few new ideas to think over after reading that chapter, so you can let those ideas percolate in your head as you go about your day. It’s a great way to slowly digest and learn a new topic, which is a great way to understand the world a little better.

Take care of a task that’s nagging you in the back of your mind. We all have lists of undone tasks. Right now, the faucet on the sink in the upstairs bathroom needs replaced, as does an infrequently used light fixture on the main floor, and I’d like to do some rearrangement in one of the other bathrooms, and there are some closets that need rearranging… it’s quite a list! Just choose one of the things on that list and either complete that task or make a serious start on it by ordering the supplies you need or taking some other first step on that project. You’ll feel like you made real progress on things left undone and that will feel quite good indeed.

Go through your print photos and digitize and organize them. This is a great ongoing project if you have a large collection of photo prints just sitting in a box or an old photo album. Start digitizing them now before they degrade too much and then you can make prints whenever you like, plus you can use those old photos for digital picture frames and screensavers and other tasks. All you really need is a flatbed scanner, which is inexpensive these days, and some time. This is a project that you can do in ten minute chunks over a long period of time – just leave out a box of photos near the scanner and spend a few minutes scanning a few pictures here and there and saving them to your photo archives.

Go through your digital photos and organize them, too. Similarly, if you have a giant collection of digital photos, spending some time organizing them can be a great help when trying to find a photo. A good tool for doing this is Google Photos, where you can easily add descriptions to your photos so that you can search them and quickly find pictures of your aunt Mildred. You can also keep a full copy of all of your photos on your computer, of course, and by using Google Drive, you can share your full photo archive with all of your devices automatically. This is another task that can be done in short batches when you have a few free moments and it’s one of those tasks that becomes more and more valuable the more pictures you’ve described.

Send a quick appreciative message to someone who helped you recently. If someone helped you out or did something thoughtful for you in the recent past, take a moment to send that person an email or a text genuinely thanking them for their help. When people help others, it feels good to feel appreciated for that effort and it takes just a moment to give that kind of appreciation. Not only that, it feels good for you to have given thanks for something good that happened to you.

Write a letter to someone who was a great mentor to you when you were younger. This is just an extension of the previous tip. Rather than simply giving a quick thanks for someone who did something for you recently, take some time and write a letter to someone who really helped you in the past and express your sincere gratitude for that help. Spell out exactly how they impacted your life in a positive way. Writing a letter like this is a great task to do in little pieces, especially if you want to write a draft or two to make sure it’s perfect. A letter like this can be hugely meaningful for both the person writing it and the person receiving it.

Explore your local library. Many people have the impression that the library is just a building full of books. While the library is definitely that, it houses many, many more things. Most libraries have audiobooks, DVDs and Blurays, free internet access, study rooms, meeting rooms, equipment you can check out, community meetings, presentations, and many other things going on there. Trust me – it’s an underappreciated feature of your town. Take a few minutes and see what your local library has on offer.

Fill up your backpack or a basket and go on a picnic. This is a great way to turn that walk around the neighborhood or that walk in the park into a longer adventure without breaking up your day. Just fill up a backpack or a picnic basket with the items you’d need for a picnic lunch and take it with you on a walk. Find a comfortable place to sit and spread out, then enjoy a meal in a natural setting. Better yet – don’t bring any distractions along with you. Leave your cell phone at home or in the car and just enjoy the environment. You’ll end up feeling subtly relaxed and walk away feeling much better about the state of things in your life.

Close your eyes and focus on your normal breathing for five minutes. This is my basic meditation technique that I use at least twice a day to calm my mind. It’s a subtle effect, but it works wonders over the long term with regards to calming anxiety and feeling more aware and in control of your life and just generally content with things. Just find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and focus your mind on your natural in-and-out breathing. If you notice your attention slipping away and drifting into random thoughts, bring it back to your breath. Do this for five minutes. You might not notice a huge change from doing this, but over time there’s a real positive effect in many subtle ways.

Take a longer than usual shower or bath. A daily shower or bath is a hygiene routine that most of us follow, but most of the time it’s a quick and automatic task to be done at the start of the day or the end of a sweaty activity. Rather than just making that task automatic, instead consider a long and luxurious shower. Let yourself soak in the water and carefully scrub every inch of your body. You’ll walk out of the bathroom feeling wonderfully invigorated.

Do some simple bodyweight exercises for five or 10 minutes. This is a great way to improve your fitness in just a few minutes a day. The seven minute workout has become quite popular in recent years and for good reason – it’s a good way to exercise all of your body in just seven minutes. You don’t have to follow that exact workout, but by simply devoting five or 10 minutes to a fairly vigorous set of calisthenics that works all of your body, you’ll get your blood flowing and your endorphins rushing in your veins. You’ll feel quite good when you’re done and you’ll gradually get yourself into better shape and thus more able to tackle an array of everyday tasks in your life.

Make a really great meal for you and your family. Most of the time, we prepare simple meals for ourselves and our family. Rather than going the simplest route, invest a little more time and effort to make something better. Rather than just dumping in a jar of pasta sauce, saute some onions and peppers in a skillet and add the sauce to those. Rather than just grilling something, put it in a marinade an hour or two beforehand to add a ton of flavor. It takes just a few minutes to jazz up a meal, but it almost always pays off in terms of flavor and family appreciation and a general sense that you can, in fact, make amazing meals at home.

Read the archives of a really good blog. Pick out a blog you really like – such as, say, The Simple Dollar – and start digging through the archives. Start from the beginning and read all of the entries over time until you catch up to the present day. It can sometimes be hard to find the earliest entries, so dig around a little. You’ll often find really fascinating nuggets and ideas in the earlier writings of your favorite sites, and you’ll also often see an evolution in writing style and changes in the writer’s life. Since each article on most blogs can be read in just a few minutes, this is a great way to read a site one bite at a time.

Think about something in your life that you’re grateful for and reflect on it for a minute or so. Just consider something that makes your life better – whatever it might be – and think about how much it really adds to your life for a good minute or so. Think about a loved one or your favorite chair or a really great book or one of your personal skills or something as simple as warm sun on your shoulders. You’ll find that such a practice is really effective at brightening your whole day.

Pick a spot in your home that’s messy and clean it for 15 minutes straight. Simply cleaning up one of the messy areas in your home by clearing out all of the junk, getting rid of the useless things, and putting other things back where they belong makes such a huge difference in making your home feel more organized and livable and presentable. I’ll stop and do this with things like my office desk or my office bookshelf and I’ll quickly feel a lot better about the space around me. I also regularly find things that inspire me or things I’ve left undone and forgotten about that I should pick up, which again leads to a greater sense of contentment and control over my life.

But all this stuff is BORING! Whenever I make a list of frugal tips or things to do, I often hear from a reader or two who tells me that everything on my list is boring or somehow not applicable to their life.

If you feel this way, I have two suggestions. First, recognize that perceiving things as boring is very much a “cup half empty” way of viewing the world. We all have the capacity to choose how we see the world, and choosing to see only the negatives in the options before you tends to produce general overall unhappiness. Instead, evaluate the options before you with a nod toward the positive aspects rather than the negatives. What’s good about this option? Ask that question instead of focusing on the negative. Second, lists like these are like a dinner buffet – you should choose the ones that click for you and not worry about the rest. Everyone is different, and different things click with different people. Rather than trying to do all of them, pick out five or ten that seem like they might click well for you or are simple and short enough that you can try them without much risk and just see how it works out.

For me, though, these little perks add a great deal of my value to my day without costing me anything other than just a little bit of time. They put me in a positive mindset about my work, leave me feeling energized even late in the day, and contribute to an overall sense of living the good life without emptying my pocketbook one iota. That’s a pretty great thing, in my opinion.

Good luck!

The post 25 Free and Simple Things to Do That Will Make Your Life Better appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Why Are There So Many Student Loans on My Credit Reports?

Regardless of what you studied in college, chances are you never took a course that explained how your student loans would impact your credit after you walked across that stage and got your degree handed to you.

Yet, it’s very important to understand exactly how student loans will affect your credit and, by extension, your ability to borrow money, finance important purchases, or potentially even to land a job in the future. Your student loans are serious business.

Why Multiple Accounts?

The first surprise in store for you may be that your student loans will likely show up as not just one, but actually multiple accounts on your three credit reports. This is true even if you only receive a single monthly bill or only make a single monthly payment to your student loan servicer.

The reason this occurs is because your student loans are normally reported to the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) on a disbursement by disbursement basis.

Here’s how it works. Each time you took out a new student loan — as often as every semester for some graduates — a new and separate account was opened. By the time you graduate, you could have as many as eight individual loans now showing up on your credit reports for a standard, four-year undergraduate degree. One degree, up to eight separate loans appearing on your credit reports.

How Student Loans Impact Your Credit

When you take out a student loan, it is virtually guaranteed to find its way onto all three of your credit reports because of the Department of Education’s credit reporting requirements. The impact your student loans will have on your credit reports and scores is going to depend entirely on how you manage the accounts.

Student loans have the potential to help you build positive credit, provided you avoid making late payments. On the other hand, student loans can inflict a lot of damage on your credit scores if you don’t pay them as agreed – damage that could be magnified because your loans are reported separately to the credit bureaus.

If your student loans are combined into a single billing group, whenever you make a payment to your student loan servicer, that payment is divided and distributed among each of your individual accounts. So when your payment is received on time, all of the loans are reported as “on time” or “pays as agreed” to the credit bureaus.

However, if don’t send a payment into your student loan servicer on time, then you could wind up with late payments reported on not just one account, but on every student loan on your credit reports.

Consolidating Your Student Loans

Combining your multiple student loans into a new, single account through consolidation can often be a smart move for your credit scores. For starters, reducing the number of accounts on your credit reports with outstanding balances will often impact credit scores to the good side.

The second benefit consolidation may offer you is defensive in nature. Consolidating your outstanding student loans into a new account may help to protect your credit from the possibility of multiple late payments in the future.

Of course, if you want to maintain good credit scores, then you need to keep paying all of your bills on time, every time. Still, combining multiple student loans into a new account may enable you to play a little credit defense, just in case.

And, if you want to be even more strategic, you could pay off your student loans with a newly opened personal loans. Personal loans are statutorily dischargeable in a bankruptcy, while student loans are not. And while nobody wakes up thinking, “I’m going to file for bankruptcy one day,” at the very least you’ve now got that as a safety net in case you ever needed it.

Related Articles: 

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Strategies for Financial Success on a Very Small Income

Most of the articles I write for The Simple Dollar are targeting people who make somewhere in the ballpark of the average American income with some breathing room on either side of that. If I’m aiming at people who make between $35,000 and $150,000 a year, I’m covering advice that works for most of America.

That advice doesn’t cover everyone, however.

There are many people who struggle to get by on a lower income – sometimes a much lower income. Maybe they’ve become suddenly unemployed and are struggling to find work. Maybe they’re in an area where it’s very difficult to find a good job. Maybe a disability or another life requirement is restricting that person’s options.

Whatever the reason, not everyone is in a situation where they’re earning a strong annual income, and having a low income puts a certain restriction on people’s options. Advice like “cut out this daily $5 expense” or “cut back on your $100 a month cable bill” isn’t helpful because they can’t even afford those expenses in the first place.

I’ve been in that boat before. It’s not easy. I grew up in a household where only one parent worked outside the home, at a job that sometimes featured layoffs. We would survive for months at a time on the back of whatever my father might earn from side gigs. In college, I stretched my dollars so tight that eating a dollar menu fast food meal was an enormous and rare treat.

Today, I’m thankfully no longer in that boat, but I know many people in my local community are in that boat and millions of Americans struggle in poverty and near-poverty, too. Yet, that doesn’t exclude them from having financial goals and plans and dreams for the future.

Here are some of the best strategies I know of for people in that situation, people who have mined almost every frugal tactic and aren’t even in a situation where trimming down most expenses makes sense.

If you are eligible for assistance of any kind, take advantage of it. If you’re eligible to get SNAP benefits, take advantage of it. If you’re eligible for WIC benefits, take advantage of it. If you’re eligible to get food at your local food pantry, take advantage of it.

Do not let those benefits just sit on the table unused because you’re too “proud” to take advantage of them. Our nation and our local communities have put those resources aside so people in a difficult position can pick themselves up and move forward with the hope that you will move forward. Accept that help, and then pay it back when you’re in a better position.

This is perhaps the single most important advice that I have for anyone in a low income situation. See what programs you’re eligible for and take advantage of as many as you can.

Collaborate openly on bulk purchases with your friends. If you have a friend that has a warehouse club membership, collaborate with that friend on bulk purchases of items that you both use. Basic food items and household supplies are usually available at a great price per unit at warehouse clubs, but there are a few catches. For starters, those items come in sizable bulk, which means that the sticker price of the actual purchase can be high.

For example, you might be able to buy a box of spaghetti for $2 at the regular store, whereas at the warehouse club a bundle of six boxes is $9. Per box, the price is $1.50, but coming up with the $9 is hard. On the other hand, if you and two friends go together to buy that bundle, you’re spending $3 apiece on that bundle and getting two boxes of pasta, a much better deal than a single box for $2.

If you stick with the store brands at the warehouse club – Member’s Mark at Sam’s Club or Kirkland Signature at Costco – you’ll generally find a really good product at a great price per unit. If you can work with a friend or two to cut the investment in a bulk buy down, you can trim a lot off of your typical grocery bill.

What if no one has a membership? Consider splitting the cost of one and sharing that membership.

Collaborate with friends on tasks that would otherwise create an expense, like food preparation and child care. A tight circle of friends can be a huge money saver when money is tight. If you can work out plans together where you take turns having “dinner parties” where you prepare meals for each other (enabling the ingredients for a meal to perhaps be bought in bulk, saving some money, and creating a convenience for the other family) or take turns taking care of each other’s children so the other family can work (drastically cutting or eliminating child care costs), then you should take advantage of those things.

Move in this direction in a stepwise fashion, because each step will save money for you and for the other family. For example, is there an evening or two each week where one of your friends really struggles to get dinner on the table? Just create a standing invite for them to come to your house for dinner instead. If they want to repay you, look for a weekly evening where it would be helpful for you if they reciprocated and propose that idea. That system alone enables both families to turn an expensive meal option into a cheap meal option once a week.

If there’s a time in which you can watch a friend’s child while they’re working, don’t hesitate to do so. In return, ask for some regular child care during another part of the week or at another time when it’s really helpful for you. Again, it’s all about the collaboration – you’re both saving a lot on the cost of child care just by having a friend.

Look for any and all opportunities to carpool. If you and a friend both go to the grocery store that’s 10 miles away on Saturday afternoon, start going together and alternate who drives. If you and a friend work fairly close to each other, alternate driving to work when your shifts overlap. If you’re going downtown, text your friends and see if any of them are headed that way, too, and catch a ride together – you can drive sometimes, while at other times they might drive and you get a free ride.

Actively seek out these kinds of exchanges with all of your friends. The more opportunities you have for free child care, for free meals (repaid by just making one big meal when you otherwise would make a normal one), for free transportation, and so on adds up to a lot. Don’t be afraid to give a little more than you get, especially at first and especially if the giving is at minimal cost to you. You’ll find that most people are happy to reciprocate if you’re asking for things that are minimal cost to them.

Do the best possible job you can at work. I can’t stress this enough. You have to treat the job you have as though it’s not just a way to get a paycheck, but it’s also a stepping stone to something better because that’s exactly what it is. Every time you’re at work is an opportunity to learn a new skill, to impress your boss, to click with a customer, to be a natural leader in the workplace.

You don’t want to be working at your same low income job a few years down the road. The only way you’re going to climb up the ladder and either get promoted or move on to a better job is to demonstrate, through your actions at work, that you’re ready for that better job and that you have the skills for that better job.

You do that by not slacking off at work. You do that by finding things to do that need to be done and doing them without being told to do so. You do that by talking to your supervisor about what the concerns of the business are and doing what you can to alleviate those concerns. You do that by doing everything you can to be positive towards customers and make sure they have a great experience so they’ll come back (and they’ll think positively of both you and the business). You do that by taking advantage of every opportunity to formally learn a new skill or get a bit of education or take command of a project, all of which becomes great fodder for your next interview.

Every hour you spend at work isn’t just a little bit more for your paycheck. It’s a stepping stone to a much better job in the future. Treat it like that. Treat it as a gigantic opportunity to build the skills you need for a better paying job, even if it’s just moving from clerk to assistant manager or from waiter to shift manager. Do your job as well as you can, learn what you’ll need to know to do that better job, and be ready at all times for that call or that opportunity. Be patient – it will come.

The truth of the matter is that low income situations are difficult to escape from and the circumstances are different for everyone. The best thing you can do to improve your odds of getting on a better financial track are to take advantage of the benefits available to you, collaborate with friends and family to cut your spending as much as possible, and use your job (whatever it might be) as a stepping stone to a better job.

It won’t be easy, but nothing in life worth doing ever is. Good luck.

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Nothing Cuts Costs (or Carbs) Like Zucchini: Three Recipes for Summer’s Unsung Garden Hero

Zucchini aren’t pretty, don’t stand out in a produce aisle, and don’t get as fussed over in gardens as tomatoes or berries, but these summer squash are peerless in reducing your waistline and budget.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t overly impressed four years ago when my wife told me that she was planting zucchini in our garden. I’d grown up in an Italian-American household in New Jersey where zucchini took a back row in my grandfather’s garden behind tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, oregano, and even mint. If my family could use any other produce, it would, and the zucchini would either wither on the vine or be eliminated from a year of planting entirely.

But today, this versatile fruit is a garden staple in our home and a vital part of both out diet and our weekly produce bill. A summer squash of the curcubita pepo species, the zucchini has its roots in the Americas and was developed in Italy in the early 1900s after being brought over in the mid-19th century, only to come back in its newest form when Italians immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s.

Based on that background, my family should’ve loved it and I should have known more about it than I did during our first zucchini harvest in 2014. My wife had grown a bed of zucchini from a 3-gram, $3 bag of seeds from Territorial Seed and the plants just wouldn’t stop producing. Each day she looked beneath the leaves, another fully-formed zucchini would show up. By the time she reached some of them, they were so overgrown and woody that they were good for little but decor.

We ended up with wheelbarrows full of them, which led to a question: What do you do with zucchini? Well, at their prime eating size, zucchini have all of 31 calories and 7 grams of carbohydrates, with 2 grams of that coming from dietary fiber. They have minimal sugar content, minimal fat, and 58 percent of your recommended daily dose of Vitamin C.

That all sounds great, but we struggled to find a use for them. Cutting them into spears and grilling them was a fine option, but they lack all that much flavor of their own and tended to just turn into seasoned sides. We would bake zucchini rounds as side dishes, but it felt as if we could be doing a lot more. When we decided to start eliminating carbohydrates from our diet, we discovered that we could do a lot more with them.

It turns out that zucchini’s rigid-but-pliable structure makes it an excellent substitute for pasta when drained. Using a spiral slicer (the only one you’ll need is all of $7 on Amazon), we began experimenting with pasta and stir-fry recipes and taking flour and whole-grain noodles out of the equation.

Not only was home-grown zucchini less expensive than a $1 box of spaghetti or linguine at Safeway, but one zucchini (79 cents at Safeway, by the way) produced roughly as many noodles as a pound of pasta while containing a fraction of that box of pasta’s 200 calories and 42 carbohydrates. It also turns out that a simple mandoline slicer ($5 at Amazon) can turn zucchini into flat lasagna noodles without the $2.19 price tag at Safeway or the 200 calories and 42 carbs. While some cooks will note that eggplant can perform the same function as eggplant parmigiana, zucchini doesn’t have eggplant’s 132 calories, 32 grams of carbohydrates, or whopping 13 grams of sugar.

As others note, however, “zoodles” are the least of zucchini’s healthier uses. Sure, it helps a great deal with pasta dishes, but its health benefits extend to riced zucchini (which we’ll admit is second only to riced cauliflower as a replacement), zucchini fries, and, our favorite, shredded zucchini that can substitute for flour ($3.29 for five pounds and 110 calories, 22 carbohydrates) in a baking recipe. We’ve even used them as a substitute for tortillas ($3.99 for 16, with 144 calories, 4 grams of fat, 24 grams of carbohydrates, 293 milligrams of sodium) in enchiladas.

There are a lot of ways to cut the grocery bill or go low-carb, but the zucchini gives you the most for the least. Plant starts are roughly $5 at Home Depot if you don’t have the patience for seeds. Meanwhile, just one plant will produce six to 10 pounds of zucchini in a single growing season.

To give you a better idea of what we’ll be making from our zucchini patch this year and what’s possible from your crop, here are just a few recipes from our recipe book to get you started.

Zucchini Enchiladas

Source: Delish.com

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups chicken
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/3 cup of enchilada sauce, red
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 large onion
  • 4 large zucchini
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, extra-virgin
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup shredded monterrey jack cheese
  • Sour cream for drizzling
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Add onion and season with salt. Cook until soft, 5 minutes, then add garlic, cumin and chili powder and stir until combined. Add shredded chicken and 1 cup enchilada sauce and stir until saucy.

2. On a cutting board, make thin slices of zucchini with a vegetable peeler. Lay out three, slightly overlapping, and place a spoonful of chicken mixture on top. Roll up and transfer to a baking dish. Repeat with remaining zucchini and chicken mixture.

3. Spoon remaining 1/3 cup enchilada sauce over zucchini enchiladas and sprinkle with both cheeses.

4. Bake until melted, 20 minutes.

5. Garnish with sour cream and cilantro and serve.

Thai Chicken Zucchini Noodles with Spicy Peanut Sauce

Source: Joyful Healthy Eats 

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons of grape seed oil
  • 1 lb. of chicken tenders, diced
  • 2 tablespoons of grape seed oil
  • 2 zucchini, inspiralized
  • 1 large carrot, inspiralized
  • 1 red pepper, julienned
  • 1/3 cup of bean sprouts
  • 1/4 cup of fresh cilantro, diced
  • 1/4 cup of green onions, diced
  • Sesame seeds (for garnish)

For spicy peanut sauce:

  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 4 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 3 tablespoons of coconut aminos (or tamari sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons of fresh cilantro, diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes

Directions:

1. In a small bowl, whisk together garlic, peanut butter, coconut aminos, lime juice, ground ginger, and red pepper flakes. Set aside. (Note: If you use tamari sauce, use 2 tablespoons instead of 3.)

2. Heat a large skillet to medium high heat. Add grape seed oil and chicken tenders. Saute each side for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit. Dice when cooled.

3. In the same large skillet over medium high heat, add 2 tablespoons of grape seed oil, zucchini noodles, and carrot noodles. Flash stir fry for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

4. Remove noodles and place in large bowl along with chicken, red pepper, bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, green onions, and spicy peanut sauce. Toss till all noodles are coated.

5. Serve and garnish with sesame seeds.

Cheesy Garlic Zucchini Bread (or Biscuits)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 cup shredded zucchini
  • 3/4 cup shredded cheddar
  • 1/4 cup green onion
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dry dill
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Directions:

1. Set oven to 350 degrees; combine dry ingredients.

2. Combine zucchini, cheese, onion and dill.

3. Toss both mixes together to coat zucchini.

4. Whisk eggs, butter, and milk together. Mix with dry mix until just combined.

5. Bake in small bread loaf pan for 30 minutes, regular bread loaf pan for 50 minutes, or in biscuits on baking sheet for 15 minutes.

Related Articles:

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stories From Our Readers: How Joy finds automatic relief through automatic budgeting

“My goal with money has always been to not have to think about it. I’ve lived below the poverty line, and have had to pay attention to every dollar. I know plenty of people who spend their weekends seeing where they can cut costs or writing out expenses for the following week. I have nothing against that, if it works for them. But I’ve found that automatic budgeting helps us best.

Every so often, my husband and I sit down and do some collaborative thinking about our finances. Once we make decisions about where our money is going, we automate as much as possible. Our savings deductions are automatic. Our charity giving is automatic. Our bills are normalized (electric and gas are both balanced for the year) and automatic. We do use a credit card to balance out the lean and heavy months, but we don’t live on it. We budget with the idea that as long as we’re saving and consistent, everything else takes care of itself.

When we had debt, our payments were also automated. We wrote out our debt and the interest rate, compared to the time it would take to pay off, and drew up a strategy. We utilized a combination of debt stacking (paying off the highest interest rate first) and debt snowball (paying off the lowest amount first). We set the payments, and when one debt got paid off, we focused on the next one on the list. We are now debt free and planning on staying that way.

Even post-debt, my husband and I still used automated budgeting principles. Whenever either of us got a raise, we would slightly raise our individual spending allowance. We could also add some small standard of living increases like furniture or kitchen equipment upgrades. We’re now looking at options for how to be even more strategic and start investing.

Our strategy of automatic budgeting has provided a lot of relief for us. We don’t really think about finances more than once or twice a year. I think it’s most important for people to find their own strategies when it comes to handling debt and spending. While there’s not one method that fits all, budgeting can be worked into any lifestyle.”

-Joy
Lubbock, TX

The takeaways

  • Most recognize that budgeting is important, but starting your own might feel awkward — especially if you don’t think you’re as financially focused as others. The good thing about budgeting is there’s more than one right way to do it. Take a look at 5 simple budgeting methods that you can experiment with.
  • The road to financial independence takes turns that seem difficult at first, but turn out to be liberating. Challenging yourself to cut costs in areas where you haven’t before is a great way to open your budget. One example is cutting the cord on expensive cable bills. See our complete cord-cutting guide.

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Personal finance can be difficult to navigate, and everyone’s story is different. This series is about sharing experiences of people just like you — the good and the bad — to empower the TSD community. Through your stories, voices will be heard, lessons will be learned, and wins will be celebrated!

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The post Stories From Our Readers: How Joy finds automatic relief through automatic budgeting appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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The Happy Life on the Path to Your Financial Goals

I’ve written many times about the value of having long-term goals and plans. Having long-term goals helps you to make choices in your day to day life that will guide you to the big outcomes that you want in life, such as debt freedom or a comfortable retirement or paying for your child’s college education. We all have different goals, but the principle is the same: A goal gives you a framework for your daily decisions and guides you toward daily decisions that will move you toward the big things you want in life.

The thing is, though, goals are extremely difficult to achieve if you’re unhappy with your daily life. When you are missing things that you need to thrive in your daily life, life becomes more about day to day survival and just getting from the morning through the afternoon and the evening than anything else. When you’re in that mode where you don’t relish your life, long-term goals seem impossible because you’re so focused on the bare mechanics of getting through the day.

The best way to achieve your financial goals is to have a life you’re happy with right now that simultaneously points you toward your goals. If you’re happy when you get out of bed in the morning, you have big goals in mind, and you’re making progress toward those goals, then you’ve got a much better chance of achieving the things you want out of life than if you wake up dreading work and dreading your day and feeling miserable about it.

I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m not talking about clinical depression or other diagnosable mental health issues. Those are serious matters that should be handled by an appropriate professional.

Instead, my focus is one simple thing: The best approach for any goal is to make sure you’re living a life that you really enjoy right now that is gradually leading down the path to that big goal you want. Without that day to day life that brings you contentment and happiness, you’re going to find it prohibitively difficult to achieve the things you want to achieve.

If you are trying to achieve a big goal in your life and you are unhappy on your path to achieving that goal, your chances of succeeding at that goal are incredibly slim. Your day to day life is telling you to stop and to do something else with your time and energy, and that’s like water eroding a beach – eventually, your willpower and discipline will give out. Instead, you have to find a path toward your goals that you’re happy with on a day to day basis.

So, how on earth do you do that?

An Example: Debt Freedom

Let’s say your big goal is getting out of debt. You relish the thought of having all of those debt bills be completely gone. That sounds absolutely amazing.

So, how do you get there from here? Obviously, the core of your strategy will have to be centered around spending less than you earn. If you’re spending as much as you earn or more than you earn, you are never, ever going to get your debts paid off.

Taking that as a given, that you need to spend a notable amount less than you’re earning each month, how do you build the best possible day to day life? There are a lot of approaches to that question.

For some people, it might center around throwing themselves into their career or their jobs. Some people deeply enjoy working and being productive and strive to earn more money. This might involve taking on a second job or a side gig, or simply pushing down the throttle a little on your current career path.

For others, frugality may be the key. Some people thrive by finding things that save money without disrupting ordinary life, like buying lots of store brands. Others may enjoy diving into frugal projects, like making meals in advance or installing weatherstripping. Still others might simply enjoy trying lots of free or super low-cost hobbies.

For me, it was a mix of elements. I started a side gig doing something I loved (writing). I threw myself into frugality, both in terms of doing very low impact things to save money and finding low cost things to do that I enjoyed.

The key, however, is to not keep plugging away with the same tactics when you’re miserable. You will fail, and that sense of failure will likely convince you that what you’re trying to do is essentially impossible.

12 Strategies for Finding the Happy Life on the Road to Your Financial Goals

So, how do you pull that off? How do you live a happy life while still spending significantly less than you earn so that you make real progress on your financial goals? Here are twelve strategies that actually work – I should know, because they’re how I’ve found happiness and contentment over the years while paying off tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, several car loans, tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and a mortgage on a nice family home. We’re debt free today. Here’s how I managed to live a happy life through all of that, which helped me stay on track.

Automate your personal finance moves so that you’re not even thinking about them and have to live on what’s left. Choose a bank with robust online banking and make as many of your financial choices automatic as possible. Make your Roth IRA contributions automatic. Set up an automatic transfer into your savings account so you have an emergency fund. Pay your bills automatically and set up an additional automatic extra payment on whatever debt you’re trying to knock down.

You’ll want to keep an eye on things so that you’re aware of how much money you have left over. Part of this strategy revolves around living your day to day life on what’s still left behind in the account – not using credit cards and not overdrafting, either. This can be a learning experience.

However, having everything automatic means that the “path of least resistance” is healthy financial behavior, and you’ve got a lot of freedom regarding what’s left over in your checking account once all of the bills are paid. You can decide for yourself where that money goes with regards to things like food, household supplies, entertainment, clothing, and other such variable expenses.

When you’re feeling in the right mood for it, spend time doing things that will lower your future cost of living. I don’t feel like “being frugal” every day, but when I do, I like to take on things that I know are going to lower my cost of living in the future. Spending a couple of hours doing something frugal usually results in feeling good about the future and feeling as though I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

There are many, many frugal projects you can take on that will cut your spending down the road. You can air seal your home. You can make some meals in advance. You can get your cell phone bill reduced or shop around for a better deal. You can shop around for better car insurance and renters or homeowners insurance. You can install LED lights throughout your home, putting them in any sockets that still have CFLs or incandescent bulbs. You can make a big homemade meal and save several small batches of leftovers. You can make a thorough meal plan and grocery list. You can clean out your fridge and pantry and plan things to do with all of the stuff you find. The list goes on and on and on.

You don’t have to spend all of your free time doing these things, but when you feel in the mood to do so and you take on one of these projects, you’ll feel good. What often causes negative feelings about frugality is when you force yourself to do these things when you don’t feel like it. Don’t!

However, I will suggest this: Reminding and nudging yourself to do ordinary things in a frugal way where there’s no extra time or energy cost is pretty much always a good thing on the road to your financial goals. Get used to buying store brand products, for example, and only switch away from them if they don’t work for you. Figure out the cheapest commute for yourself and use it every day. Those are ordinary practices that simply cut your spending without really changing anything else about your life and thus they’re pretty much always a net positive.

Dabble in lots and lots of low cost and free things to do and pay attention to what you truly enjoy (and what you don’t). There are countless low cost and free things to do out there in the world, and chances are you haven’t tried most of them in a fair way. If you find yourself ever edging towards being bored, simply make the conscious choice to go try out one of the abundant free or very low cost things there are to do in the world.

Here’s a quick list of things to try. These just scratch the surface.

Go on a hike. Start a natural collection of things you find while hiking. Go on a Wikipedia journey on a topic you’re interested in. Read a book from the library. Take a free online class. Write a journal entry. Go on a bike ride. Go to a free community concert. Attend a religious service. Go on a walk. Make an interesting meal or a food item. Volunteer for a political campaign. Volunteer at your local food pantry. Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Do some bodyweight exercises. Find something cool on Meetup and go. Take your child or your nephew or the child of a friend to a park and play with them. Learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

I could go on naming these things for page after page, but you get the idea: there’s an abundance of low cost things to do and try out there in the world. So get out there and try them, even things you think might not be for you!

Yes, some of them will turn out to not be fun. That’s okay. Now you know about them and have made up your mind from experience. Move on to something else.

When you discover low-cost or free things you enjoy, dive deep. Some of the things you try will just click with you. That’s great! Dive deep into them. Build a huge rock collection out on the patio. Read a 12-book series this summer. Make 50 pounds of homemade sauerkraut and swap it with your friends. If you find one of these activities that really clicks with you, run with it. Try new things when the opportunity presents itself or you find yourself edging toward boredom with the other options.

Personally, I have a cycle of hobbies that come and go in my life. I’ll go through periods where I’ll devour books like a madman – two or three a week. I’ll go through periods where I’m obsessed with exercise, and then other times when I really get into long walks. I’ll make many batches of fermented foods, then I’ll grow bored with it. It’s cyclical, and when I start feeling bored, I move onto trying something new or back into something else I enjoyed in the past and am thinking about revisiting.

Between revisiting old low-cost hobbies and activities that I’ve enjoyed in the past, exploring new ones, and diving deep into ones I’m currently excited about, I really have no chance to be bored and I don’t have to spend much money to feel constantly engaged with plenty to do.

Spread out your treats a little, but don’t go without if it makes you feel unhappy and miserable. Some people envision a frugal life as being an endless wasteland of pleasureless living, a joyless life without any of the pleasures one once had. That type of mindset almost always leads to a backlash and a glut of overspending.

A much better approach is to not give up those treats, but to instead spread them out a little more. Instead of getting a cup of coffee every day, get one three times a week or so, or maybe even a little less often than that. Rather than going out for dinner three times a week, cut it back to a special treat one weeknight each week.

The advantage here is that you’re not giving up the treat, but instead just adding a little bit of anticipation time in front of each treat, so you have some time to anticipate it and think about it and look forward to it. Looking forward to a treat is quite fun, but if the treat becomes so routine that it’s just completely normal and you don’t actually have any anticipation, you’re losing some of the fun and spending more than ever.

There’s a perfect point that balances out those conflicting desires, where you enjoy a treat infrequently enough that it seems special and there’s some sweet anticipation, but it’s not so rare that you feel like you’re depriving yourself. Try to find that sweet spot and stick with it. On many things in life, we can find ourselves diving into a treat too frequently because we do enjoy it, but in doing so, we lose that wonderful anticipation, but the thought of cutting back is a visualization of the opposite extreme. Find that magic point in the middle where you enjoy a bit of anticipation but you don’t feel deprived. That’s the real sweet spot for getting the most out of your little pleasures.

Look for things about yourself that you’re happy with, and accentuate those in your day to day life. We tend to be much more prone to overspending when we’re not happy with ourselves. If a person has a sense of inadequacy about themselves, marketing tends to work very well because we want to believe that some product or service will make things better.

One of the key principles of stoicism is the idea that you have control over what you think about. You decide what occupies your mind and you decide how you respond to it.

If you carry that principle over to the problem of feeling inadequate, a pretty smart solution appears. Simply think about the positive aspects of yourself and accentuate them instead. Perhaps you’re unhappy with your job and with your weight, but you do think you’ve got a good sense of humor and are a good storyteller. Think of those things. Think of the joy you bring to others and to yourself when you tell a good joke or a story. Take pride in yourself as a storyteller and focus on that. Don’t waste your free time thinking about what isn’t right when there’s a lot that is right.

Accentuate your positives. Don’t stress about your negatives unless you’re actively working to change them and that’s part of your long term goals.

Look for things about others that you like, and accentuate those; diminish those factors and traits you don’t like. Just as you’re going to minimize financial costs by accentuating your positives and not worrying about your negatives unless you’re actively fixing them, do the same with other people. Look for the good things about them and make those good things your focus; don’t sweat the bad things.

How does this help with a happy life? It helps reinforce the truth that the people around you are good people. We live in a society where there is often an overarching sense that other people are somehow bad and not to be trusted. That creates a sense of negativity about the world and a spiraling sense of negativity about everything, which, as I mentioned earlier, makes people very prone to marketing messages. It also means a generally unhappy life, and for no real good reason. Yes, people out there might be different than you and they might not agree with you, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. It just means they’ve lived a different life, experienced different things, and learned different ideas. That’s something to learn from, not something to fear and dislike.

Look for the good in others. Look at them as a source for learning about the world. Look for the good that they bring into the lives of others. You’ll have a happier life if you do.

Watch for moments where you’re thinking negative thoughts, then counteract them by intentionally looking for the positives in that situation. Again, it’s all about harnessing your mind to seek out positive thoughts, not just about yourself and not just about the people around you, but about everything in life. Even the worst situations can have silver linings, and even though that shouldn’t overwrite a difficult situation, it can make it seem a little less bad.

Just keep an eye on your mind for negative thoughts about anything and when you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts, try to look for the positives in whatever it is you’re thinking about. Think of two or three good things about whatever that negative thing is and see if it at least becomes somewhat positive in your mind.

I often do this when dealing with things like feeling worn out after exercise, or feeling as though I’m depriving myself of something I want. If I’m worn out after exercise, I think of the good I’ve done for my body and how I’ll genuinely feel a lot better over the next day or two and a little better over the long tail. If I’m feeling deprived, I’ll think about all of the things I already have in my life – and sometimes I’ll even treat myself a little, as discussed earlier.

Keep other areas of your life strong (without just throwing money at it and not actually making it better). If you find yourself becoming overly focused on one area of your life, you can let other areas of your life slip away from you. Make sure that you’re giving some time and energy to all areas of your life.

What are you doing for your health, for example? Are you eating good food? Getting a bit of exercise? Getting good sleep? Are you in a good state with all of your close relationships? Do you have an outlet for expressing your feelings, and do you use that outlet regularly? Are you giving some time each week (at the very least) to the hobbies you care about? Is your job going well? Do you have a good relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your customers or clients?

While you’re working on your finances, you shouldn’t be neglecting those questions. They deserve answers, too, even if they’re not your main focus. Furthermore, if you start to let a few of them slide, you’re going to feel bad about the state of things in your life even if your finances are in great shape.

Consciously build up friendships that aren’t centered around “retail therapy” or other expensive activities. It can be hard to develop new relationships as an adult. Many of us continue to rely on relationships formed earlier on in our lives or spend social time with people of convenience, like coworkers or others in our field, but those friendships tend to last for only a season and then they drift away as people move and circumstances change.

In some ways, however, that transient nature can be an advantage. Rather than just hanging out with whoever’s convenient, put some effort into filtering those people a bit and then put effort into building genuine long-lasting friendships with a smaller group of them. I have an old coworker that I haven’t worked with in ten years that I met for lunch less than a month ago.

Invest that effort. Seek out people already in your life – coworkers, people at your church, people in the professional and social groups you participate in – who seem to share many of your goals and at least some of your interests. Build up a friendship with them. Invite them for coffee. Have them over for dinner. Help them with a project. Be there whenever they need a hand. You’ll be glad you did.

Start each morning by thinking about five things you’re grateful for, and think about how great those things are for 30 seconds each. This is a simple little practice to start your day that makes a surprising difference. You can do it while you’re getting dressed in the morning or taking a shower or even brushing your teeth. (I often do it while brushing my teeth – I have a toothbrush that vibrates every 30 seconds while brushing, so I think about one thing I’m grateful for between the vibration.)

Just think of five things you’re grateful for. When one comes to mind, think about how great it is for thirty seconds or so, then think of another one. When you’ve done that five times – literally two and a half minutes of thought – you’re done.

There’s no right or wrong answer. Just think of things you’re grateful for in your life. Maybe it’s someone you love. Maybe it’s something good that happened to you. Maybe it’s something like warm sun on your skin or green grass under your toes.

It seems simple, but what I’ve found time and time again is that it contributes a level of contentment to my life that isn’t there if I don’t do this regularly. If I start the day feeling good about what I do have, it is far less likely that I begin feeling bad about what I don’t have later in the day.

Focus on experiences and achievements over possessions. Rather than focusing on the size of your book collection, focus on adding to the list of books you’ve read. Rather than focusing on having more and more clothes, figure out smart ways to mix and match the things you do have. Rather than having a huge amount of camping equipment that you’ll barely use, go on lots of weekend camping trips with minimal gear.

In other words, focus on experiences over stuff.

I keep a list of books I’ve read. That fills me with far more pride than a shelf full of books and it’s far less expensive thanks to the library. I keep a list of places I’ve camped. My screensaver consists of pictures of places I’ve hiked to and I love adding new pictures. We have a sizable “found” rock collection in our front garden. Those things are collections, sure, but they’re all based on experiences and they involve very little spent money.

Keep your attention and focus on the things you’ve experienced and achieved. Don’t worry about accumulating stuff.

Final Thoughts

The path to financial success is a long one. If you’re unhappy with your day to day life along that path, you’re going to constantly find reasons to undermine your attempts at financial success. It’s much harder to find those reasons if you’re happy with the state of things in your life.

So, start by making your day to day life as happy as possible. Focus on finding things to do that you enjoy that don’t sap your money. Master some basic mental techniques for seeing the positives above the negatives in yourself, the people around you, and the day to day routine of your life.

What you’ll find is a more content life, and it’s that contentment that will help you stay on the path to financial success.

Good luck!

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The post The Happy Life on the Path to Your Financial Goals appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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