Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inspiration from Agnes Obel, Marcus Aurelius, Kurt Vonnegut, and More

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

1. Friedrich Nietzsche on friendship and marriage

“It is not lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

My wife is my best friend in the world. The thing that makes our marriage work isn’t romance, but the fact that we enjoy hanging out together and doing things together. Yes, I absolutely still get that little flutter in my heart when I see her smile or when I hold her close, but that flutter isn’t the real glue that holds things together. It’s the friendship.

I can talk to her about anything, literally anything in my life. I’m the type of person that likes to resolve things on my own by thinking and writing about them, but when I need someone to talk to, she’s there, constantly. She’s the person I most want to spend leisure time with or do fun things with. She’s the person who I want to hang out with in the evenings, even pulling myself away from doing something I’m personally enjoying solo just to do something else with her, because her presence makes that thing much more fun.

This is the one lesson I would give to anyone regarding marriage. Don’t marry someone merely because the fires of passion and physical attraction are hot. They will ebb and flow over time. Marry someone because you have that fire and because they’re your best friend, too. Marry the person you’re as happy to see in the morning as you are to see them in the evening. That marriage will last.

2. Agnes Obel – Tiny Desk Concert

From the description:

Agnes Obel, a Danish singer and writer of deeply alluring music, brought her work into what you could call its opposite — an office in the daylight. While the setting is a bit contrary to her carefully plotted, vocally dense songs, she mapped out a strategy which included her own reverb and monitor mix in the (successful, I think) hope of giving the Tiny Desk an aesthetic more suitable to these focused and powerful songs.

And so, today we have Agnes Obel performing three songs from the enchanting Citizen of Glass [album] alongside her band — keeping it sonically spare with just the right touch of keyboard and cello.

I’ve always been a fan of these kinds of smaller musical performances, where the musicians are in a small space and the listeners are very close to the musicians. Arena concerts and music festivals are fun, but I’m often so far from the musicians that I might as well be at a club somewhere.

Agnes Obel is amazing. I heard her for the first time on a radio show recently and I’ve found myself listening to countless recordings and performances of her work. The way her voice merges in with that cello is just stunning. It’s one of those things that I could listen to all day long.

3. Stephen Hawking on three keys to life

“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.” ― Stephen Hawking

Be curious. Do something. Cherish love. If you can follow those guidelines every day, you’re going to have a pretty good life, I think. It goes along well with Jim Valvano’s three elements of a great day: you laugh, you cry, you think.

Think about your best days. I’ll virtually guarantee you that the best days of your life include a lot of those elements, or one or two of them in incredible abundance.

Think about your rough days. I’ll also bet that a lot of those elements are missing on those days.

Cultivate those things. You’ll build a better life if you do.

4. The 4 conundrums of the universe that lead to all [cognitive] biases by Buster Benson

Simply put, these four conundrums are:

1st conundrum: there’s too much information
2nd conundrum: there’s not enough meaning
3rd conundrum: there’s not enough time & resources
4th conundrum: there’s not enough memory

Those are the four real problems of the modern world as we embark on the information age, and the only tools we have to handle those conundrums inside of our head were ones that we evolved in the stone age. In other words, our brains aren’t made to handle the flood of information and options in front of us, especially given that we don’t have the time and resources to really explore all of those options or to really figure out what they all mean, and we certainly don’t have enough space in our head to store all of it.

So we use shortcuts – cognitive biases. We find ways to chop off large pieces of these conundrums to leave us with a decision that we can deal with. We quickly eliminate 95% of the dozens of laundry soap options at the store with barely a glance so that we can make a more narrow decision between two or three options. We only notice new options. We assume our gut instinct is right and just trust it. We edit our memories in our head and generalize our ideas.

Every single human alive does all of those things. It’s how we survive. Personally, I know I heavily edit my own memories, compressing them down into some fundamental piece that exists to retain the essence of the moment but is often inaccurate in the details.

Things like this fascinate me and inspire me to learn more about how my brain actually works.

5. Marcus Aurelius on the quality of one’s thoughts

“The happiness of one’s life depends upon the quality of one’s thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius

This quote left me thinking quite a lot over the last month. What exactly does he mean by “the quality of one’s thoughts”?

After a lot of thought and a healthy amount of additional reading, I’ve come around to the idea that he’s referring to the fact that we choose what we think about, and that by choosing worthwhile things to think about, we build a better and more joyful life.

If you spend your time thinking about negative things and about how horrible others are and never think deeply about anything, you’re not really going to have that happy of a life. Everything is horrible.

If, instead, you make the conscious choice to see positive things in people, to look for things that we have in common rather than the differences between us, to see the beauty in the world, and to think deeply about things so that you understand them better, you’re likely going to have a much happier life.

That choice is up to you. Only you have the power to choose what you think about. You decide whether your thoughts are negative or whether they’re positive. You decide whether your thoughts center around tearing people down or building people up, tearing yourself down or building yourself up.

6. Sue Klebold on her experience as a mother of one of the Columbine shooters

From the description:

Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters who committed the Columbine High School massacre, murdering 12 students and a teacher. She’s spent years excavating every detail of her family life, trying to understand what she could have done to prevent her son’s violence. In this difficult, jarring talk, Klebold explores the intersection between mental health and violence, advocating for parents and professionals to continue to examine the link between suicidal and homicidal thinking.

Being a parent myself, I cannot imagine the difficulty of seeing a child that you’ve raised and poured so much love and effort and care into doing something so destructive. It’s beyond any realistic imagining that I’m capable of producing.

The most good that I can do is to keep a close relationship with my children and keep my eyes wide open regarding their physical and mental health. If I see things that aren’t adding up, then I need to intervene and get help. That’s my role as a parent.

Yet, even given that, I have absolutely no illusions that it will be easy to do this. I know it will be hard. I know that it’s quite likely that I would see signs of negative mental health and not recognize them. It’s hard and frankly a little intimidating.

I am inspired by Sue Klebold’s courage in standing up and talking about her experience. That, in itself, is incredibly inspirational.

7. The criticism cycle

This is almost something that could be a regular post on The Simple Dollar, but I haven’t quite codified it into a real full article yet, just a recent tactic that I’ve found really working wonders in my life.

Whenever I’m excited about something that I’m about to commit a lot of money to or a lot of time to, I stop and intentionally go and read a negative article about that thing. I’ll read a negative review of a game or a negative description of a journaling system or a negative writeup on a particular piece of software. Whatever it is I’m thinking about investing in, I don’t start investing until I’ve read criticism of that thing.

What I’ve found, time and time again, is that the criticism strongly inflames concerns I already hold in my heart. On some level, some of the criticisms were things that I was already wondering about a little, but the anticipation and hype was completely overwhelming them in my heart and drowning out all critical thoughts.

The simple cycle of stepping back, breathing for a moment, and reading some criticism first has kept me from buying several items recently and, in at least one case, has kept me from investing a bunch of time into something that wouldn’t have worked well for me, either.

I find that when things survive that onslaught of reading thoughtful criticism, I’m recognizing on some level that the benefits of the thing truly do outweigh the drawbacks. That doesn’t seem to happen very often so far, and that’s a good thing. It means I’m being more careful with my choices, even in the area of my hobbies and personal interests.

8. Arthur Schopenhauer on talent and genius

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Once, I overheard a thoughtful friend of mine say that talent answers the questions, wisdom writes the questions, and genius discovers the questions. I love that analogy.

It is my belief that talent can be cultivated, but genius can never be cultivated. You can create an environment where that spark of genius is more likely to occur, but you can’t sharpen a person and get them to the point where genius comes easily. It never does.

The problem, of course, is waiting for those key moments of genius to strike. Is it better to wait ten years for one truly original idea? Or to spend those years developing talent that can do the things that are known exceedingly well?

It’s a great question to think about, and those always inspire me.

9. RescueTime

One of the big things I struggle with is professional distraction during my workdays. I try very hard not to get distracted, but often I’ll be reading financial news or someone’s self-improvement blog and then I’ll find myself going down a rabbit hole of links and information and sites and then an hour later I realize I’ve done very little. I’m trying to guard myself against that.

That’s where RescueTime is coming in handy for me right now. I’ve been using it to track my time and I’m frankly stunned how much of it is spent on what I view as unproductive sites and tools. I go through long periods where the only thing open is my writing tools, but then there are periods where I’m flashing from website to website, looking at social media, and so on and so forth. It’s those periods that I really want to concentrate on.

I honestly view RescueTime as being the equivalent of having a pocket notebook that keeps track of every dime that I spend, except that RescueTime is looking at my time use when I’m working. That, to me, is incredibly useful.

I’ve been using the “free” version of the tool – it’s one of those “freemium” things – but I’m strongly considering buying the full version of it because it’s been so useful thus far. I used it many years ago, but it had substantially fewer features and I don’t think I was quite ready mentally to be using the data it provides. Now? It’s invaluable to me.

10. Charles Wadsworth on parents and children

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.” – Charles Wadsworth

I don’t know if that’s perfectly true, but I definitely understand Wadsworth’s sentiments here.

When I was in my late teen years – especially when I was in college – I found conversing with my parents to be very difficult. I had this overriding sense that they didn’t understand me and that anything I might want to talk about with them would be a futile effort, so when I visited home, I mostly just read books and didn’t say much.

Now that I’m older, it’s completely different. I now see that they have incredible amounts of wisdom to share with me, wisdom that they were sharing all through my life, even when I wasn’t really listening to it. I now call them quite often for advice on various things, not because they’ll perfectly understand every nuance, but because I know they’ve thought through situations like this before and I know that they’re going to give me their unvarnished opinion on what I should do and why they think so.

Even if it doesn’t match up perfectly with what I’m seeing, that advice is valuable. It’s one of the most valuable resources I have in my life, and it’s one that I wish I had the maturity to understand and appreciate when I was at earlier stages in my life.

I know quite well that my kids are going to go through the same growing cycles. They’re going to be experiencing so much of the world in the next decade or so of their lives and, in many ways, it will be hard for them to communicate that discovery with me.

Our relationship is a strong one, though. I’m pretty confident they’ll come around. I actually look forward to being the “parent” in the parent/child relationship that I now have with my own parents. It just might take a while to get there.

11. Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan

The Buena Vista Social Club was a members-only club in Havana, Cuba back in the 1930s and 1940s. After the revolution in Cuba, social clubs like the BVSC were closed down and the musicians largely put down their instruments and found other avenues of work, only playing in their spare time. In the 1990s, however, Ry Cooder (an American guitarist and record producer) went to Havana to work on a music project and, in the process, found some of the people who used to play at those old social clubs, particularly a group of musicians that played at the original BVSC.

That group of older musicians recorded an album, entitled Buena Vista Social Club, and then later performed a few concerts which were recorded and released as a documentary also called Buena Vista Social Club. This is a video of one of the songs from this album, one that managed to stick its fingers into my heart in the 1990s and still resides there today.

Something about this song simultaneously feels very… passionate and loving while also being sad and haunting at the same time, like a song you would dance to with the love of your life and hold that person just a little bit closer without really knowing why. Amazing, amazing music.

12. Kurt Vonnegut on handling the hardness of the world

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The world can be a hard place, but never forget you have the power to decide whether or not it hardens your own heart. You decide for yourself whether to see the ugly in the world or whether to see the beauty in the world. You decide, every day, whether you want to contribute to the ugliness or the beauty of it.

What do you choose?

The post Inspiration from Agnes Obel, Marcus Aurelius, Kurt Vonnegut, and More appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

How to Turn a Cupboard Cleaning Into a Great Meal Plan

Once every six months or so, I get really frustrated with the organization of our pantry and cupboards. Over the course of those months, Sarah and I have bought ingredients for various recipes and meals and simply tossed them in the pantry approximately near where they should be. That’s a convenient move in the moment, but over several months, it results in a complete lack of organization and an overstuffed pantry and cupboards. It’s hard to find anything and the it becomes really easy to re-buy things we already have.

I get frustrated, and then I spend a long afternoon pulling everything out and putting those things back in a sensible order.

Obviously, this process is pretty helpful when it’s completed. It’s now much easier to find things in the pantry – spices, pasta, flour, beans, rice, and so on. There are usually a number of things that are either combined or tossed, like combining two bags of dried black beans or tossing a mostly-empty container of ancient dried-out flavorless spices, so there’s now substantially more room in the pantry, too.

But that’s not the big money saver. The big money saver is that a pantry clean-out usually turns into several weeks of meal plans.

Here’s what happens, over and over again. I’ll pull out an ingredient that’s been partially used and think to myself, “What did we use this for? Oh, yeah, that dish we had back in January. That was pretty good… I’d like to make it again, or some variation on it…”

That single step is the foundation of a meal at some point in the next few weeks.

In fact, I’ve actually turned the whole process into a rather slick system for walking away from the big cleanup with a bunch of meals already in place and our pantry well-organized for those meals. Here’s exactly what I do.

By default, we save our grocery bags. When we buy groceries and unbag them, we save any bags that we accumulate under the sink (most of the time, we use reusable bags at the grocery store, but sometimes that doesn’t work out and we wind up with some bags). These come in handy during this process.

Obviously, I start by pulling everything out of the cupboards and pantry and spreading those items across the kitchen. I’m usually trying to group things in this step, putting similar items next to each other. All of the herbs and spices go in one area, all of the beans go in another area, all of the dried rice goes in another area, and so on. I’ll usually wind up with groupings all over the kitchen and in the dining room.

Then, one by one, I start putting those groupings back, except I start with the groups that will provide the backbones of meals. In other words, I start with things like rice and beans and pasta and unusual ingredients and save things like flour and spices for later on.

Whenever I grab an ingredient that could be the key part of a meal, I stop and ask myself what kind of meal I’d like to prepare with that ingredient. So, let’s say I grab a bag of dried black beans. I’ll ask myself what kinds of things I might like to make with those beans.

Maybe I’ll want to make black bean enchiladas. Perhaps I want to make some kind of chili with black beans in it. Maybe I have some weird idea in mind, or maybe I’ll just turn to Google and see what I find.

Through some method or another, I’ll come up with a recipe using those black beans. Then, I’ll look around the kitchen for the other ingredients for that recipe. I’ll gather everything together for that recipe into one place and even measure out the ingredients.

Then, on my phone or my tablet, I’ll start making a meal plan of sorts. I’ll open up a new note in Evernote or something similar (or just use a whiteboard, though I usually fill up more space than our whiteboard can handle) and list the recipe, a link to that recipe, and then follow that with a list of the ingredients I don’t have on hand.

At this point, I’ll pull out a plastic grocery bag and put all of the ingredients I already have for that recipe into that bag. I’ll measure out the spices and put them in a small container in the bag. I’ll measure out the beans and put them in the bag. Basically, I wind up with a grocery bag that has everything I need for the recipe already in it.

Once I have a completed “meal bag,” I set it off to the side and keep going through the same process. I grab another item that can provide the backbone of a meal, think about what I can do with it, look up a recipe (if needed), note that meal in my meal plan along with any extra ingredients I need, and then put all of the ingredients I already have into a single grocery bag.

If I’m pretty sure I’m going to wind up with more than ten bags, I make simple masking tape labels for the bag by wrapping a piece of masking tape around one of the handles and making a “tag” of sorts. On that tag, I write what the recipe is for, so that I can go through the bags quickly and find the bag I’m looking for.

Eventually, a large portion of what belongs in the pantry and cupboards winds up in these bags. I’ll often wind up with 20 or 25 “meal bags” during this process and a document with the same number of meals already listed along with the extra ingredients we still need to buy.

From there, I can start making some real meal plans. I pull down the whiteboard in our kitchen and plan out meals for the next week using this list of meals I’ve constructed. I’ll choose five or six of those meal ideas, list them out, and then construct a grocery list out of the items that I still need for those meals… which I’ve already noted for each recipe!

In other words, once you’ve done the pantry cleaning and meal listing and bagging steps, actually constructing meal plans becomes really easy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’m cleaning out our pantry and I find a bag of elbow macaroni. I decide to make a vegetarian goulash that we’ve enjoyed before, so I look up the recipe for that. I put the right amount of elbow macaroni into a container and put that container in a grocery bag, then put all of the needed spices into a different container in that same bag, along with a couple of cans of diced tomatoes. At that point, all I need is one or two more ingredients that we don’t seem to have, so I list those below the recipe in my list of meals. I make a quick “masking tape label” for the bag by wrapping a piece around the handle and then write “veg. goulash” on the masking tape. I sit that bag off to the side.

Later, when I’m making a meal plan, I’ll look at that document listing all of the meal bags we have and I’ll think to myself, “Gee, that vegetarian goulash would fit perfectly on Wednesday,” so I’ll add that to our meal plan for the week and add just the needed ingredients to our grocery list. (I usually mark meals like this with a giant B to indicate that most of the ingredients are in a meal bag.)

That’s it! After several weeks, I’ve blown through all of the “meal bags” and we have a pretty bare bones pantry, so at that point, we start filling it up again. I’ll buy staple nonperishable ingredients in bulk and other odds and ends as we need them and then, slowly, over few months, the pantry fills up with partially-used items until one day, I’m frustrated with the overstuffed pantry again and I do this whole thing over again.

There are a few really big advantages to this process that I really like.

First, our grocery costs for the month or so after this kind of pantry/cupboard cleanup are really low. We’ll spend as little as $50 a week on groceries for the next month with a family of five, and we rarely eat out. That’s a pretty nice chunk out of our food bill.

Second, not much goes to waste. I know that if I put a partial package of something nonperishable in the pantry, I will see it again in a few months and use the rest before it goes bad. We actually don’t throw out very much at all when we clean out our pantry and cupboards because we do it regularly.

Finally, it makes meal planning and meal prep a lot easier while we have these meal bags. I usually just need to grab a meal bag and maybe one or two items from the pantry (if I didn’t actually put those needed ingredients right in the bag after grocery shopping, which I sometimes do) and I’m already jumping right into the cooking. It makes things a lot quicker.

I really like this system. It feels like very little goes to waste and it provides a nice “reward” for reorganizing the cupboards in the form of a month of easy meals and low grocery bills. If you ever find yourself with overstuffed pantries or cupboards, consider using a system like this when you clean things out.

Good luck!

The post How to Turn a Cupboard Cleaning Into a Great Meal Plan appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 29): Handling Changing Goals

31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

Last time, we discussed the “long valley” – the period when the “honeymoon” wears off during a personal change yet you’re still far from your goal. That period can be incredibly psychologically trying, so having tools in place to help you deal with that long and often unexciting journey is incredibly important.

Today, we’re going to take a deep look at a major problem that often happens when you’re journeying through the “long valley” – a change in goals. What exactly do you do if you’re well into your financial journey and you suddenly realize that you no longer want to achieve the goal you’ve been approaching for so long? What about all of your progress? How do you reset?

I’ll share a bit of my own story in this regard. In about 2004 or 2005, I honestly believed I’d be working in a research lab for the rest of my life. I genuinely, truly loved the work that I was doing and the people I was working with at the time. I was planning my life accordingly by building lots of good relationships with people in the field. I was considering going to graduate school while working in that lab, too, and actually had a plan in place to finish my master’s degree and even work toward a doctorate.

Over the next three or four years, everything changed.

For starters, my wife and I had a child, then another child. I suddenly became far more aware of my travel and how much time I was spending away from my children.

The nature of my work changed, too. The level of bureaucracy rose substantially as the amount of maintenance involved with my project went up and the relative level of innovation went down. I enjoyed the innovation part; I didn’t enjoy the maintenance part.

The Simple Dollar also happened. I started it as a complete side gig in 2006 to chronicle my own financial journey and something about it clicked with an audience. That meant it was bringing in some solid revenue, if not enough to replace my normal income, within a couple of years.

When 2008 rolled around, I began to realize that my long-term goals were drastically changing. My goals were now very oriented around my children and around building The Simple Dollar and retiring early, rather than around what was presumably my main career at the time. My financial goals had shifted from having a super house to things like financial independence.

How did I deal with those changes? Well, let’s talk about what I learned from that experience.

Exercise #29 – Handling Changing Goals

People change over time. We have new experiences. The contours of our life change. People come in and people go out. We learn new things. The world changes a little – or sometimes a lot.

In the midst of all of that change, it’s not surprising that our goals sometimes change. The things we viewed as central goals a few years ago might drift away. They may still seem important, but other things have become the central priority.

This happened with me when my children were born. They became a higher priority for me than many things that had existed before in my life. That change wasn’t immediately clear, but it came into focus slowly over their infancy and toddler years. My family began to supercede my career path, in other words.

Those kinds of changes are wonderful, but they can also be very challenging when they clearly represent a change in goals you’ve been working hard to achieve over the past several years. I worked hard to build a strong reputation and foundation for a career. Would it all just go away?

What good is working toward a big goal if it will just change and fade away as I grow?

Here’s how to tackle that conundrum.

Reassess your goals frequently. A month in your life should not pass without spending some time thinking deeply about your goals. Where do you want to be a year from now? Five years from now? Ten years from now?

Much of the first part of this 31-day process was centered around the process of figuring out and defining goals, but that’s not just a single one-time process. It’s a process that needs to be revisited regularly. It’s not something you just “do” once and then walk away from it. It’s something that you think about and come back to and keep in touch with.

Why is this kind of reassessment so important? It allows you to really deeply understand your goals and feel strongly motivated by them, for starters. The more time you spend without thinking deeply about your goals, the less relevant they become and the easier it becomes to start living life without any direction in mind.

Perhaps even more important, however, is how such reassessment helps you be aware of how your life is changing and enables you to start tweaking and even changing your goals so that they remain relevant in your life. Part of the reason that goals become stale without regular reflection is that those older goals are actually just the goals of an older version of yourself, not the version of yourself that you see today. The more time you wait, the greater the difference beween the person who defined those goals and the person you are right now.

So, here’s your action point. At least once a month (and hopefully more frequently), spend some significant time thinking about your goals and whether they still make sense. You don’t have to sit at home in some meditative state to do this. Just do it when you’re commuting or when you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. However, it should be real time and not just a cursory thought. Ask yourself what you want your life to look like in the future at various points, and whether you’re doing things that make sense with regards to that picture.

If you sense your goals are changing, that’s okay. It is quite possible to transition the progress for most goals into something useful for your new goals.

Another key element of this is to understand the key elements and values in your life to which your goals are anchored. In other words, what values have you held true for your entire life? What has remained important to you during that entire process?

For me, two things have really remained as solid values throughout my entire life.

One is strong family ties. I still feel really close to my parents and value time spent with them and the wisdom they impart. Even as a child, I wanted to have a strong close-knit family around me, a feeling that has never wavered and is stronger than ever.

The other is self-learning. I have loved to learn new things, ever since I was tiny. Some of my earliest memories are of reading books or learning things from my parents. I relish self-education and self-improvement and I do not view a day as really complete unless I’m engaging my mind in learning something new or fleshing out a skill. Again, this has held true throughout my life.

If I look at my life through those lenses, almost every goal I have ever held for myself has been anchored firmly by those two values. My career choices, my personal choices, and almost everything else have been oriented around my love for close family ties and my love for self-learning and self-improvement. I can’t see them ever changing (though they might morph a little bit over time).

Knowing that, I know that I am pretty safe when I do things that are oriented toward stronger family ties and that are oriented toward self-learning and self-improvement. Almost any goal that I choose for myself in life will be strongly tied to those factors going forward, so when I choose to strengthen those things, I know I’ll continue to appreciate that choice in the coming years, even if the specifics of my goals change.

So, here’s another action point for you. What are your anchor values? What things have you really held to be true and important for you throughout your life? They should be things that other people expect from you or things that feel like burdens. They should be things that you feel naturally, magnetically drawn to. They should be things that you feel are unquestionably true for you. They should be things that you have always felt as true and have never wavered in that. They should be things that keep popping up again and again in your choices, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Whatever those things are, you know that you have a strong foundation for understanding what all of your life goals have in common, now and in the future, and you know what elements of your life you can always work on and develop regardless of how the specifics happen to change in your life.

As you’re planning for any goal – and taking actions to make that goal successful – keep in mind that the best steps you can take early on in working toward a goal are transferable steps.

What are “transferable steps”? They’re the elements of a plan that can easily be used to provide equal progress toward other goals. Some things you do in life are very transferable, whereas other actions aren’t nearly as transferable.

When you figure out what your goals are, one of the first things you’re going to ask yourself is what you can start doing right now to achieve that goal. There will usually be lots of options before you. It’s smart to prioritize the choice that will apply well to lots of other goals.

Again, I think an example makes a great deal of sense.

Let’s roll the clock back to 2003 or 2004, when I was really focused on the dream of building a career in my particular research field. What things could I be doing to build that career? Obviously, earning a higher degree in that particular area of research would be one powerful step. Making lots of friends within the field is another powerful step.

There are lots of additional steps, too. If I’m looking at graduate school as an middle-term goal for myself, then saving up some money for graduate school is a smart move. Keeping myself educated on changes in my field is a smart move, too, and it offers the additional benefit of sharpening my self-education and lifetime learning skills.

(I could list a lot of potential things I could do, but this handful is enough to illustrate the point.)

At the time, I put a strong priority on building relationships within my field. I joined some professional organizations and scored a really nice committee spot that helped me build some great relationships with some real leaders in my field.

However, that step didn’t provide a whole lot of help with my goals when they started to change. It helped me build some communication and relationship-building skills, but the actual relationships weren’t particularly valuable when our life paths started to move in different directions.

Instead, what I should have done is put a high priority on the things that would have transferred well. I should have focused on getting myself financially ready for a few years in graduate school, because the financial preparation and money that I saved would have been very useful regardless of what I chose to do. I should have focused on keeping on top of changes in my field, as that would have sharply honed my lifetime learning skills, which have been useful in almost every transition in my life.

In short, actually spending less than you earn and improving your financial state is a killer preparation step regardless of your specific goal. You are almost never going to fail your future by getting rid of debt and putting aside money. There is almost no goal you could have going forward that doesn’t shoot off like a rocket due to having that in hand.

In general, the more specific you get with your savings strategy, the less useful it becomes to shifting goals. If you’re saving for education or retirement, for example, and lock your money into education or retirement accounts, you’ll face a financial penalty if your goals change. That’s not to say you can’t do this, but generally such specific accounts offer tax benefits for using the money in that account toward that specific goal and tax penalties for using that same money toward other goals. So, in general, it’s a good idea to focus on things like debt repayment during the early steps of progressing toward a goal because debt freedom helps with almost every goal under the sun. If you’re ready to save, give some priority to more flexible savings options. Yes, you might miss out on some tax advantages, but you’ll avoid some big tax disadvantages. Don’t lock into advantaged accounts until you’re strongly confident of your direction.

Similarly, steps that build transferable skills are always strong preparation steps regardless of where your goals may lead you. Transferable skills include things like knowing how to teach yourself a new topic, time management skills, information management skills, personal organization, self-motivation, writing skills, public speaking skills, relationship building, conversational skills, and so on. You’ll use those skills in almost everything you do in life.

What about relationships? Relationships can be valuable, but the most valuable relationships you can build are with people who have stature in multiple communities that you’re connected to. For example, if you know someone who has a strong presence in your workplace and also participates in a civic group that you’re in, that’s a person to build a relationship with. If you know someone who is active in your house of worship and also active in another group that you’re in, get to know that person well. If you see someone popping up in the community a lot under different contexts, reach out and start building a relationship. Those relationships will continue to have value even as your goals transition.

You can find these people by getting more involved in diverse groups. Don’t put all of your social eggs into one basket. If all of your relationships are related to your current career path, you’re in a bad situation if your goals shift away from that career path. If all of your relationships are connected to your house of worship, you’re in a pickle if your beliefs begin to change. Take the time to join a variety of groups. Be involved in groups connected to your profession, as well as groups in your physical community. Join a civic group and check out groups on Meetup related to your personal interests.

So, here’s another action point. Look at your goal through the lens of transferable steps, and take action on those steps first. What things can you do that move you toward your goal but will still be helpful if your goal changes over time? Make those things your first steps.

Pay off your debts. Optimize your bills. Save in ordinary accounts that can be used for any purpose without penalty. Build up transferable skills. Build relationships with people that have stature in lots of communities. Get involved in lots of groups so that you can build relationships with people that you have multiple things in common with. Those steps will help you no matter what your specific goals happen to be.

If you take those steps in accord with goals that are well-anchored in your life, you’re going to find that you’re ready for anything that happens. As your goals change – and they will – you will start to have this strong sense that you’re already halfway there with regards to that goal, because you are halfway there.

I like to think of these steps as building a strong foundation. You can build all kinds of different houses on a really well built foundation, and if you ever decide you want a different house, you can continue to rely on that foundation. It means that half the work is already done and half of the cost is already invested in that new house.

On the other hand, if you take actions that are all about the house and not about the foundation, when you decide you want something new, you have to start from scratch all over again.

Start with the foundation. You’ll make real progress toward your goals, but just as important, you’ll make real progress toward any goal you might have going forward.

Next time, we’ll take a look at getting your partner and your family on board with financial change.

Related Articles:

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The Art of the Email Auto-Reply (and 10 Ways to Have Fun With It)

Americans tend to behave like they’re being naughty when they take vacation, as if five workdays off in the middle of summer were stolen cookies, and they’re toddlers with their hand in the proverbial jar. But in fact, vacation is far from frivolous. Research shows that taking time off improves mental and physical health, productivity, even our attitude toward work – and subsequent shot at getting promoted.

And to really take a vacation, you need to unplug completely. That means no Skyping in to the weekly meeting, no taking phone calls from the boss, no answering emails by the pool.

To do that effectively, you need several things. Most important is a boss who’s got your back. Next: time management skills, and the will to power through all the prep work that taking vacation entails. Last but not least, you need a killer auto-reply message.

Wait, what? It sounds trivial, but it’s true. The right auto-reply can mean the difference between spending your vacation acting like a switchboard between clients and the folks covering you, and getting some actual time off.

A good auto-reply message includes the following things:

  • The dates when you’ll be out of the office.
  • The name and contact info of anyone who’s covering you.
  • A clear set of expectations. If you’re not checking email – and again, you shouldn’t be – specify under what circumstances the emailer should contact the employee covering for you. Also, let them know that you plan to reply, and when to expect that email when you return.

Of course, not everyone sticks with these rules. Some people like to use their auto-reply messages to have a little fun — it’s vacation, after all. Would we recommend you do the same? Not necessarily, unless you’re good at conveying the information above in a funny and charming way.

But for entertainment’s sake, here are 10 fun, clever, or outright insane email auto-replies culled from social media that are worth a look — if only to remind yourself why an informative auto-reply is important:

* * * * *

“I’m away until [date], and will be attempting to stay off email. You’ll know how successful I’ve been if you hear back from me before then.” (Confession: This one is mine. I give you full permission to use it if it’s helpful.)

* * * * *

“I will be on holiday from [date] to [date]. Each person may send me one email while I am gone. I will randomly delete multiple emails from you until only one is left. You have already sent me one email.” (via Quora)

* * * * *

“The Rapture is real.” (via Facebook)

* * * * *

“If you’re reading this, the train wasn’t able to push the Delorean up to 88 mph, and I’m stuck in 1885. I won’t be able to respond to emails until exactly 8:30am on Wednesday, October 12 in the year 2011. If there’s an emergency, or you need to contact [name] for an urgent matter, please telephone the office at [phone number].” (via Reddit)

* * * * *

I just got one recently that said: “I do not check emails. If your email is urgent, contact coworker ABC at abc@company.com.” I email coworker, get message: “I do not check emails. If your email is urgent, contact coworker XYZ at xyz@company.com.” It was an infinite loop!! (via Facebook)

* * * * *

“Thank you for your email. I am going cray-cray and tearing s**t UP in m******g VEGAS. I will be back on April 8th. See you b****s then.” (via Facebook. Editor’s note: Do not use this email auto-reply if you like your job or being employed generally.)

* * * * *

“I stayed at a motel last night because of the weather, and my cat ran under the bed, which is bolted to the floor. I can’t ask the chambermaids to help me catch the cat, because I’m not supposed to have a cat in here. As soon as the cat comes out, I’ll be back in to work.” (via Quora)

* * * * *

“If you have problem with A, email person X. If you have a problem with B, email person Y. If you have a medical problem, dial 911. If you have a problem and no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… the A-Team.” (via Facebook)

* * * * *

“I am out of the office from mm/dd to mm/dd and will not be checking email. It’s likely your note will be swallowed in a sea of inbox banality, never to be seen again. If you require a response, please re-send your email after mm/dd. (via Quora)

* * * * *

And finally, Troy McClure of the Simpsons is always the right answer:

Hi, I’m Troy McClure! You may remember me from such classic Out of Office Messages as “I’m At Outside Lands Watching Metallica” or “Visiting My Family in Florida.” I’m here today to talk to you about Paul Sokol, and the email you just sent him.

(Enter Billy, 8 years old, doe-eyed)

Billy: Mr. McClure? Why is Paul not answering any emails right now?

Troy: The answer is simple Billy: Paul is in San Diego this weekend providing support for an event and nowhere near his work email.

Billy: When is he going to be coming back?

Troy: He will be back on Monday morning.

Billy: Is he going to reply to the email they just sent?

Troy: If it warrants a response, Billy. If it warrants a response…

(Exit Billy)

That’s all for now. Watch for me in the upcoming Out of Office Message “At a Wedding,” coming this winter!

(via New Relic and Paul Sokol, Campaign Builder “Mad Scientist” at Infusionsoft)

* * * * *

What’s the funniest, best, worst, wackiest, or most memorable out-of-office message you’ve ever received? Let us know in the comments.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Revisiting My Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe

One of the most popular articles I’ve ever written for The Simple Dollar is Making Your Own Laundry Detergent: A Detailed Visual Guide. In it, I very carefully described my recipe at the time for making homemade laundry soap.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, that recipe is amazing. It costs just a little under three cents per load and gets clothes quite clean. My homemade soap recipe cleans clothes at least comparatively well with Tide and other store brand detergents and soaps, and Tide is well over 20 cents per load and even store brand soaps and detergents cost at least eight cents per load.

We have a large family. If you figure that we’re doing one load of laundry per day on average around here, which isn’t too far off of the truth, that means that using homemade laundry soap is saving us about $62 per year over Tide and about $20 per year over store brand laundry soap.

My original recipe, however, was a bit of a convoluted affair. It involved grating bars of soap up in a box grater, boiling those soap flakes in water, mixing a big solution together in a five-gallon bucket, and keeping that bucket in the laundry room.

The truth? Most of those steps are unnecessary. In the last several years, I’ve improved the whole procedure quite a bit. Here’s what we do now.

These days, I have a small reusable plastic container with a lid that I keep sealed. The container holds several cups of powder and a tablespoon in our laundry room. Whenever that container is empty, I simply put in two cups of washing soda, one cup of borax, and two cups of soap flakes, then shake the container around real well. It takes maybe 30 seconds.

Each time I do a load of laundry, I scoop out a single roughly level tablespoon of this mix and add it to the load. That spoonful is two parts washing soda, two parts soap flakes, and one part borax, as noted above.

That mix lasts for about 80 loads. I have to spend 30 seconds making a new batch of it once every two months or so. I actually keep the borax, washing soda, and soap flakes in a shelf in the laundry room so that I can just mix it in there without going anywhere else.

The results are exactly the same as I got with the more complicated mix in my earlier post. It cleans everything pretty well, even taking mustard stains out of shirts. If I need to work on a tough stain, I’ll get a little bit of water and a tiny bit of this mix together to make a paste and rub it into the stain and it seems to work really well.

Okay, so where do you buy this stuff? I usually buy Arm & Hammer washing soda and 20 Mule Team borax at my local grocery store, which stocks these products in their cleaning section, just as I did in the previous post. I still shop at the Fareway depicted in that article, in fact.

The big change is that I no longer buy bars of soap. Instead, I spend just a little more and buy soap flakes, which appear to be of a store brand variety. I can get a one-pound bag of soap flakes for about $10, which lasts for a very long time. Soap flakes are deceptively light – it looks like you have a ton of them but they feel like they weigh almost nothing.

You can buy all of these ingredients on Amazon quite easily. Here’s comparable soap flakes, Arm & Hammer washing soda, and 20 Mule Team borax.

These are larger containers than I usually buy, but I’ll say this much – you’ll make a ton of soap from these. My back of the envelope estimation is that those ingredients combined would provide somewhere on the order of 500 to 600 loads of laundry, with some borax and likely some soap flakes left over. That means you’d be paying about four and a half cents per load and have some extra borax and soap flakes for the next time. (Remember, each load is using around a teaspoon of the contents of each container, and there are 48 teaspoons in a cup, so each load is using only a tiny amount of this stuff.)

For comparison’s sake, the best price I could find on Tide powder on Amazon is about 19 cents per load. Other brands can be found that are cheaper, but nothing gets down into the 4 cents per load range like this recipe.

So, what changed from the original recipe? Really, there are only two key changes.

First, I realized that I didn’t need to have liquid soap. I used to go through a process where I boiled the soap flakes and then mixed everything together to make a large amount of liquid laundry soap. This required a lot of extra effort, including having a giant five-gallon bucket in our laundry room.

I just skip all of that now. The reason is that the washing machine provides all of the water I need when the laundry begins to wash, so there’s no need to use a ton of water in making liquid laundry soap. I let the washing machine do the dissolving instead of me.

Instead, I just “mix” the powders by putting the amounts I need into a container with a lid and then just shake it for 30 seconds or so, tossing it around really thoroughly to get the powder mixed well. That provides all of the mixing I need. To my eye, only the soap flakes are visually distinct in the mix and it looks like they’re spread out pretty evenly, so I call it good enough and just use a teaspoon of this in each load.

Second, I realized that grating bars of soap was one of those “unnecessarily frugal” activities. Yes, buying a cheap bar of soap and grating it produces cheaper soap flakes than buying a bag of soap flakes. A bag of soap flakes costs about as much as four to five bars of cheap soap, which means that the bag of soap flakes is more expensive per pound. However, it’s not that much more expensive, especially when you consider the time spent having to grate five bars of soap. I’m quite willing to pay a couple of dollars extra to skip out on most of an hour of grating bars of soap.

Because of those two changes, I’ve eliminated most of the time commitment of my previous recipe. Now, I literally just put two cups of washing soda, two cups of soap flakes, and one cup of borax into a box, shake it, put the tablespoon in it, and sit it in the laundry room. Whenever I run a load, I just scoop out a tablespoon of this stuff and use it just like normal laundry soap.

This, to me, is frugal success. There’s almost no additional time compared to buying Tide at the store; instead of buying a new package at the store, I just mix together some stuff in thirty seconds in the laundry room. It’s arguably faster and, at worst, not much slower.

The best part? It’s way cheaper. I’m saving $60-$80 per year because of this change without expending any significant amount of time (I actually think I’m saving time, but I know it’s pretty close). My clothes still get perfectly clean, I’m buying in bulk and being far less wasteful with packaging, and it’s all so incredibly easy!

Give this recipe a shot. For the cost of a large container of normal laundry soap, you’ll have everything you need for several hundred loads of laundry. If it works for you, then you have enough for many, many loads. If you use it a bunch of times and decide that it’s not right for you, then you can easily switch back to normal detergent and use the ingredients for other home cleaning recipes (for example, there are dishwashing soap recipes that use these ingredients, too).

Good luck!

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How Comprehensive Insurance Saved Me From a ‘Bad Gas’ Nightmare

On Jan, 6 of this year, something crazy happened to us that I’ll never forget. After finishing up a week in Puerto Rico for winter break, we were driving home to Noblesville, Ind., from Chicago O’Hare airport when all hell broke loose.

Our kids were watching movies in the back of the car when my husband stopped off at Paylow gas station in Merrillville, Ind., to fill up. He turned on the pump and got back in the car, but the numbers on the gas tank would barely budge. Where it normally pumps several gallons per minute, the gas was basically dripping into our tank. But, since it was less than five degrees outside and he didn’t want to stop again somewhere else, he finished pumping and we left the station.

Within five minutes of pulling onto the interstate, our car was breaking down on the side of the road. Unfortunately, we were between interstate exits by the time it completely conked out. Worse, we were miles from anything – let alone someone we could ask for help.

Our car became freezing cold in a hurry. We tried calling Allstate Motor Club for help (we’re members), but couldn’t get a human being on the phone. Since we were still two hours from home at this point, we didn’t know a soul who could pick us up or help in a reasonable amount of time.

By the time my oldest daughter started crying, I knew it was time to call for help. So, I called 911.

The county police picked us up off the side of the road, along with our suitcases from vacation, then dropped us off at a local Holiday Inn. While I was embarrassed to call 911 for this “non-emergency,” the friendly police officers said we did the right thing. Because the weather was so cold, we could have frozen to death. Plus, it was completely unsafe to be in a tiny car on the side of the road for too long – especially at night and with our kids.

Once we got to the hotel, we called a tow truck and had our Prius taken to the local Toyota dealership. A full $120 later, our car was at the dealership, but we were still stranded.

Fortunately, my brother came and picked up me and the kids the next morning. My husband, Greg, stayed behind to see what was up with the car. At this point, we had no idea what was wrong – other than our car had broken down and wouldn’t start.

Finding Out We Got ‘Bad Gas’

Since we didn’t have an appointment with the Toyota dealership, it took the entire day for them to inspect our car. But once they started digging in, it only took them a few minutes to figure out what was wrong – bad gas.

Unbeknownst to us, the gas we pumped at the Paylow station in Merrillville was contaminated. The Toyota dealership took samples of the gas and gave my husband the bad news.

At first, our repairs were limited to draining our tank and cleaning the guts of our car. But after that didn’t work, they found they had to replace the spark plugs as well. They did these repairs over the course of several days, which meant my husband needed a rental car, too. When all was said and done, we had paid over $750 to the Toyota dealership.

Trying to Get Help

By now, we were out a day of our lives, $750 in car repairs, $110 for an overnight stay at a roadside Holiday Inn, and $120 for towing. That’s almost $1,000 we paid out of pocket, right after Christmas, and through no fault of our own.

After we heard about the bad gas, we started calling the gas station in Merrillville. Of course, no one ever picked up. So, my husband stopped into the gas station in person to tell them about the issue.

When he told them about the problem, they said the oil company – Luke Oil in Merrillville – was to blame. They also acted completely indifferent to our troubles, which wasn’t surprising since my husband only talked to a cashier.

From there, my husband was wise enough to call the county’s Department of Weights and Measures to file a formal complaint. After speaking with a woman in the government office, they asked him to submit our evidence via email. So, that’s exactly what we did.

The next day, I called Luke Oil and left a message. After some back and forth, they could tell us that the gas station owner was to blame – not them. Apparently, a bunch of people who bought gas at Paylow that night had the same troubles – bad gas and breakdowns. But Luke Oil hadn’t delivered bad gas; as it turns out, Paylow gas station had some sort of crack in their underground tanks.

At that point, Luke Oil was more helpful than they had to be. Not only did they tell the gas station owner he needed to contact all the drivers who had issues, but they gave me his personal cell phone number. At that point, I figured I would file a claim with his insurance company and get reimbursed… eventually.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. After I didn’t hear from the gas station owner for a few days, I called him. This guy was an absolute lunatic. He sounded drunk, and told me my car issues were my problem. He also said he didn’t have insurance, so he was going to file bankruptcy. Lastly, he accused me of trying to extort him. As he hung up, he screamed, “Suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue me!”

It was obvious I wasn’t going to get anywhere with him. He didn’t care about my predicament, how much I spent, or who was at fault. And, according to him, he didn’t have insurance and was filing bankruptcy anyway.

Frustrated, I called my insurance company – Allstate – to see what they had to say. And finally, I got some good news.

Comprehensive Car Insurance to the Rescue

Once I got on the phone with Allstate, my mind was put at ease. Not only did we have full coverage (including liability, collision, uninsured motorist coverage, and personal injury protection) on my husband’s car, but we had comprehensive coverage as well.

We all know that liability coverage pays for damage to personal property and bodily injury, while collision pays for damage to your own car. Uninsured motorist coverage pays up if you’re hit by someone who doesn’t have proper car insurance, and personal injury protection (PIP) pays for medical costs not covered elsewhere.

The comprehensive coverage we have is intended to cover anything else – things like hail, acts of vandalism, fire, riots, and flood. And, low and behold, Allstate was fairly sure our comprehensive policy covered “bad gas” as well. Since our comprehensive coverage was separate from our regular policy, it had a separate $50 deductible, too.

Once we got that information, we quickly filed a claim with Allstate. This entailed giving the agent our details and faxing copies of our hotel bill, tow-truck bill, and car repair bill. Since we asked the Toyota dealership to document the issues caused by the bad gasoline at length, we sent that paperwork along as well.

Within a week, Allstate called us back to say they accepted our claim. A few days later, we received a check for around $840 – the cost of our car repairs and tow bill minus our $50 deductible. While our hotel bill wasn’t covered in our claim, I was thrilled to get the bulk of our expenses back.

Lessons Learned From Our ‘Bad Gas’ Nightmare

While I had never heard of people getting bad gasoline before, I quickly learned this kind of thing is common. Apparently, oil companies occasionally run into a situation where the gas they deliver is contaminated with water or residue or some kind. Then there are instances like the one I ran into, where the gas station itself had a leak.

Either way, I learned a lot about this issue along the way – including how many things we did right. While I had no idea how to handle this issue at the time, a little voice in my head told me I should document everything. So our big “wins” here included:

  • We called the county’s official department of weights and measures to formally document the issue.
  • We contacted the gas company.
  • We had the Toyota dealership document the issue and save a gas sample for testing.
  • We saved all of our receipts.
  • We had an auto policy that includes comprehensive coverage with a $50 deductible.

The only real “mistake” we made was that we didn’t save our receipt from the gas station itself. We did document our gas purchase with our credit card bill, however. While our insurance company said they preferred the actual receipt, the credit card bill seemed to suffice.

Here’s the funny thing: When my husband stopped by the gas station one last time, it was completely shut down. A sign on the door said, “Closed for electrical problems,” and all the tanks were closed off. A smaller sign on one of the gas tanks said the station was closed until they could receive approval to reopen from the Dept. of Weights and Measures.

In the end, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. But at least I know now that this can happen, and what to do if it does. If you find yourself in a similar situation, my best advice is to save everything and write it all down. Document each step you take, and don’t back down. Lastly, if you don’t get anywhere with the gas station or oil company, call your insurance company for help.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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Have you ever heard of this issue before? Has your car ever broken down because of old or contaminated gasoline? 

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ten Simple Investments You Can Make in Yourself for a Huge Return on Your Money and Time

So often, we think of investments as being purely about dollars in and dollars out. If you put $10,000 into an investment with an average return of 7% a year, how much do you make after ten years? Is it better to pay taxes on that money now when you put it in or when you start withdrawing later?

That’s great, of course, but I like to think of investment in broader terms. For me, an investment is when you spend some resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. – and receive something in return for that resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. In other words, almost everything we do in our daily lives can be perceived as an investment of some kind.

I tend to view a good life as being one that’s full of good investments. If you use your resources (money, time, energy, etc.) in a smart way, they’re going to give far more value back to you in return.

This post actually started as a conversation with my children, where I was explaining to them how some of the things you do in life have at least some value that comes back to you later on, and that the best things in life tend to happen when you’re reaping the rewards of having done a lot of those things and you can live in the moment on the crest of that wave. I’ll give you an example of that down in the conclusion.

First, however, I want to share a list with you of my ten favorite “investments” that I feel give me the best return on what I invest in them in my life. All of these involve spending some resource that I have, but the benefit I get out of spending that resource is far greater than the cost.

Investment #1: Getting a good night of sleep, one where you’re not awakened by an alarm clock
The best night of sleep that you can get is one where you fall into bed and sleep until your body decides it’s recharged and wakes you up naturally. That’s in almost direct opposition to the sleeping pattern of a busy person, which usually involves inadequate sleep and being awakened by an alarm clock that disrupts normal sleep patterns.

The cost: The cost of doing this is losing out on the last hour or two of your day. That’s generally time when you’re pretty tired anyway and aren’t doing anything particularly productive. You might miss out on a window of time to watch a television show or something, but it’s time where many people doze off on the couch or march through some household tasks at a really low rate of productivity.

The benefit: After a day or two of adjustment, you feel substantially better in terms of energy level, awareness, and clarity of thought. The way I describe it is that I swapped eighteen waking hours in a day for sixteen hours with almost double the energy and much clearer thinking. You also lose that miserable feeling of hearing an alarm go off when you’re really not ready to wake up yet, which means that days start off a little better.

Investment #2: Spending some time outside doing something where you move around
What I often do is go on a walk with my earbuds in my ear, listening to a podcast or an audiobook. I go outside, let a bit of sunshine hit my cheeks and hands and arms, and simply move around. I’ll just walk around the block at a steady pace, admire the environment, and then wind up back home half an hour or an hour later, usually having absorbed some of that podcast or audiobook, and feeling a whole lot better. If I can afford it, I’ll go to a park instead and go on a short hike in the woods – it takes more time but it pays even higher dividends.

Why? There are a number of factors. A small amount of sun exposure each day is very healthy as it promotes natural vitamin D production and good serotonin balance in your body. Mild exercise is also incredibly good for you – serotonin pops up here, but there are lots of additional biochemical and psychological benefits. Here’s just a taste of the benefits. You can spend that time learning and keeping your mind active, too.

If you actually have an outdoor task to take on, even better! Get to it! Mow the yard. Rake the leaves. Clean out the gutters. Trim the hedges. Plant something. Detail your car. Anything that gets you outside and moving a little bit each day is a good thing.

The cost: It burns thirty minutes or an hour where you could be doing something else. If that other thing is more valuable to you, then there is a cost to choosing this.

The benefit: There are a ton of biochemical and psychological benefits, as noted in the article above. Vitamin D production, eyesight benefits, serotonin production, improved sleep patterns, psychological health benefits, and the raw benefits of exercise in terms of losing weight and building muscle strength are all part of this. To sum it up: you’ll feel better in almost every way, especially if you make it a pattern, and there are some long term health benefits, too.

Investment #3: Eating simple but varied meals that are mostly fruits and vegetables
There are tons and tons of studies and theories out there on this topic, but there are a few essentials that they all agree on: eat a variety of foods, make the majority of them fruits and vegetables, and try to eat mostly unprocessed stuff. The arguments about whether to avoid wheat and about carb levels and so on are infinite and change all the time, but those core rules seem to stay pretty much the same. So stick to them.

It’s not real hard. Just eat something different at every meal. Switch it up a lot. Try new stuff sometimes to make your palate even bigger. Make sure you’re eating plenty of vegetables and fruits. You don’t have to eat stuff you hate, either. Try to avoid overly prepared or processed stuff, like fast foods or premade freezer meals, but you don’t have to go to absurd lengths to do it.

The cost: I’m hard pressed to think of a cost here. You can’t just endlessly repeat just one or two favorite meals, I guess? It can increase the length of meal prep if you mostly rely on takeout or fast food, too.

The benefit: Consumer Reports sums up the benefits really well: lower blood lipid levels and higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut, which results in lower risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type 2 diabetes. There’s strong evidence of better brain health in a varied diet that includes fish, too. You’ll feel better and think better in the short term, in other words, and it’ll significantly improve your long term health outcomes.

Investment #4: Apologizing when you mess up rather than passing blame
Think about the last time you heard a blatant excuse from someone who had made a mistake and didn’t want to accept any blame or consequence for it. Did it make you think more highly of that person? What about the last time someone genuinely apologized for a mistake and put it squarely on their shoulders? How did that make you feel about that person?

Now, transition those feelings and imagine you’re the person who made that mistake. Your decision about whether to apologize for your mistake or not is going to decide how exactly they feel about you. Are they going to feel like you do when you witness someone blatantly passing the buck? Or are they going to feel the surprise and respect that you do when someone genuinely apologizes for their misstep and looks to make amends?

The cost: It’s hard to do it. It is really hard to confess that we’ve made mistakes to others. It feels far easier to just pass the blame or kick the can down the road. Apologizing for a mistake you made requires swallowing a lot of pride and it may mean some consequences for the error you made, though the penalty is usually substantially reduced when you make an honest apology.

The benefit: Respect. A lot of it. Almost everyone tends to gain respect for someone who admits a personal error or failing and asks what they can do to fix the problem, especially when they do it sincerely and directly without even a hint of passing the buck. Virtually every relationship in your life moves in a better direction if you apologize for a mistake rather than passing it on, even if you don’t see it on the surface. That type of respect is the foundation of strong relationships. People who respect you will help you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and you earn that respect through simple actions of strong character like apologizing for your errors.

Investment #5: Genuinely listening to people and responding to them
People like to be listened to. People like to be valued. People like to be remembered. People like to feel important. When you can do that for people, they like you. Period.

It’s not even hard to do. All you have to do is listen to someone when that person is talking. Don’t stand there thinking about what you want to say next. Just listen. Focus on what they’re saying, try to understand it to the best of your ability, and ask follow-up questions to get them to expand on anything that’s unclear.

When you do that, the person you’re listening to and talking to will naturally like you. They’ll value your presence. They’ll usually start asking for your thoughts on things. They’ll respect you a little and will become predisposed to respect you more.

The cost: It takes some time to just listen to someone. It also means you don’t get to contribute as many of your own thoughts to a conversation as you might otherwise, though when you do contribute, that contribution has more value.

The benefit: It strengthens virtually every personal relationship you have. Listening is like magic for building the strength of relationships. It helps your reputation, as well. Furthermore, you often learn quite a lot about things when you’re listening rather than talking because people give out a lot of useful info when talking.

Investment #6: Living in a place with easy access to work and food and social connection
If you live close to your workplace, you can walk or ride a bike to work, which in itself fulfills the second investment above. It’s also far, far cheaper than owning and driving a car. You can even potentially divest yourself of a car. If you live close to a good discount grocer and, even better, to your social connections, those same features repeat themselves. You invest less time and less money going to the places you need to and want to go. That’s a huge thing.

The cost: You might have to give up some other elements of what would make an ideal place for you to live. It might mean a smaller living space or an area that isn’t your perfect ideal. You might have somewhat higher housing costs, too, depending on where your workplace actually is.

The benefit: You slash your commuting costs. You slash the time devoted to tasks like commuting and getting food. You slash your time devoted to meeting up with friends. You slash your social costs because it becomes much easier to just hang out at each other’s houses or apartments. Simply put, this choice saves a lot of money and a lot of time.

Investment #7: Writing in a journal about what’s troubling you in life
Whatever aspect of your life that you happen to be struggling with, time spent seriously evaluating that problem, figuring out what the true source of that problem is, and then developing a plan to fix the source of the problem is incredibly valuable time spent. It costs you virtually nothing other than a bit of paper and ink and it can help you to resolve or eliminate all of the largest stressors in your life.

The cost: It takes some time on a regular basis. You have to be able and willing to criticize yourself.

The benefit: Your stress is lowered. Almost every major problem in your life is reduced, either in a reduction of the size of the problem or in a reduction of its impact on your life. You feel far more in control of things and feel far more ready to handle things that might come at you.

Investment #8: Building a relationship with a mentor
A mentor is simply a person who serves as an example on how to live and can help guide you along the path of your life. A mentor might be a professional mentor, helping you guide your career or business, or that mentor might be a personal mentor, helping you navigate your personal life or spiritual life. Having a strong relationship with a mentor is incredibly useful, as it becomes someone that can help you steer your ship through rough waters and can point you in the right direction at life’s crossroads.

The cost: It takes time and effort and sometimes some money to build a good relationship with a mentor. You’ll want to repay some of the value they give to you, and the way you’ll often be able to do that is through spending time and giving genuine conversation, though occasional errands and gifts may be appropriate. It really depends on the relationship that forms.

The benefit: You have unparalleled personal guidance through almost every challenge that life deals you, from career crossroads to personal challenges, from figuring out your destination to figuring out how to dig yourself out of a mess. A mentor makes every knot in your life a lot easier to untie, and that’s incredibly valuable.

Investment #9: Building a skill that you don’t have but that you desire
No one in the world has the full set of skills that they need to handle all of the challenges that life throws at them. I’m absolutely awful at starting conversations with people I don’t know, for example. There are some professional skills that I definitely wish that I had, such as faster editing skills. I can name a dozen skills I wish that I had, but that I simply do not have.

The cost: It takes time and effort to master a skill, and it sometimes also takes money when you need to hire a teacher.

The benefit: You add a new skill to your repertoire. That skill, if well chosen, will frequently serve you in your personal and professional life, enabling you to take further career steps, build better relationships, complete a wider variety of tasks, and so on. The benefits very much depend on the skill learned, of course. Also, the process of learning a skill improves your aptitude for self-learning, making it easier to continue to add skills.

Investment #10: Taking a day off but using it meaningfully
Time off almost always reaps benefits. It allows you to relax and unburden yourself from a seemingly endless string of responsibilities, at least for a while. However, it’s very tempting to just waste that day off in idleness. There’s nothing wrong with leisure or hobby time, but that’s when you’re actively choosing to do something meaningful to you. Idleness is time spent doing nothing meaningful to you at all. Choose meaningful things, whether it’s personal tasks, hobby time, genuine leisure, or something else – whatever brings the most overall joy from the day.

The cost: You lose a day that you could have devoted to other tasks.

The benefit: It kills stress and worry like nothing else. It can still be quite productive, depending on what you choose. It can absolutely destroy the temptation to buy things, because the desire to buy often springs out of an unrequited desire to actually do something.

Peak Moments

For me, the absolute best that life has to offer comes together when a bunch of your investments pay off at once. Let me give you an example.

A few days ago, I was able to spend an afternoon playing a board game with some old friends. It’s a game we all know and love. I have good relationships with all of those people (investment #5 and, to an extent, #4). I was well rested (investment #1) and felt energetic but not full and bloated (investment #3 and, to some extent, #2). I felt in control of most of my major life worries (investment #7), so I wasn’t stressed out. I was spending that day in intentional leisure with those friends (investment #10) who lived close enough so that they are a frequent part of my life (investment #6). I felt good, I had no real worries, and was surrounded by people I cared about doing something that I enjoy. It was an absolutely marvelous day, built on the back of those investments.

Want another example? How about a professional one, directly tied to not only my income, but the quality of my professional life?

Back in 2007, I was really struggling with the direction of my life. I had started The Simple Dollar in my spare time and it was becoming successful, but it was nowhere near enough to be able to support my family. I was dealing with a lot of frustrations with my main job/career, too; I liked the people and about 20% of the work, but the other 80% was killing my soul and it was straining my family relationships with travel and other responsibilities.

So, one day, I gave my mentor a call (investment #8). He offered to go to lunch with me the next day, so I spent some time the night before gathering my thoughts (investment #2 and #7) and getting a good night of sleep (investment #1) so I could talk to him as clearly as possible. We went out for a healthy lunch (investment #3) and a long back-and-forth conversation with a lot of good questions (investment #5). He gave me the advice I needed to hear, which was basically to make sure I had the skills necessary to build my side gig up (investment #9) and then make that leap and give it all I had.

That lunch changed my life. About a year later, I went full time with The Simple Dollar, mostly inspired by wanting more time with my family, and I couldn’t be happier with the choice.

The real truth? Those individual investments really didn’t cost me much. I didn’t sacrifice a whole lot to get a good night of sleep or to build good relationships. I didn’t really sacrifice too much to build skills or to practice better listening.

Final Thoughts

Over and over again, though, the small investments I have made in my life have paid off tremendously. Those little contributions of time and energy and a little money when needed have transformed into some of the best days of my life, some of the best personal and professional choices I’ve made, some of the best personal and professional relationships I have, and so many more things. Without those investments, I would not have the level of personal, professional, or financial success I have been lucky enough to achieve.

Making great financial choices is a powerful step in life, but it becomes even more powerful when you pair it with good choices regarding all of your resources: your energy, your time, your attention, your personal capital, and so on. Invest all of them wisely and they will pay out dividends far beyond your wildest imagination.

The post Ten Simple Investments You Can Make in Yourself for a Huge Return on Your Money and Time appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Unpaid Taxes and Your Credit

“…but in this world nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.”  –Benjamin Franklin

Welcome to tax season. For many people in the U.S., filing taxes can be something to look forward to, namely those who will receive a refund. For other people, filing taxes can also be a stressful experience if you know you’re going to end up owing your state or the federal government.

Hopefully if you owe taxes, you had the forethought to squirrel away funds throughout the year to take care of your obligation to your state or the Internal Revenue Service (actually, you’d write your check to the United States Treasury).

However, if you’re unprepared you should know that trying to hide from your tax obligation is not a good solution to your problem. Unpaid taxes can lead to a lot of unpleasant consequences, including tax liens which can cause you some significant credit problems if they end up on your credit reports.

Tax Liens and Your Credit Reports

If you fail to pay your taxes, does the IRS report the debt to the credit bureaus just like any other creditor? The answer to the question is no, they do not.

However, before you get too excited, you should realize that just because the IRS or your state taxing authority does not report the debt to the credit bureaus, it certainly doesn’t mean tax liens won’t appear on your credit reports some other way.

Tax liens are different from other negative items on credit reports due to the fact that they are not actually reported to the credit bureaus by the IRS or your state taxing authority. Instead, the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian) proactively seek out information regarding public records by utilizing services such as PACER, which allows electronic access to court records and other public record vendors.

How Long Can Tax Liens Remain on Credit Reports?

When it comes to the negative items on your credit reports, most information – whether reported by a creditor or sought out by the credit bureaus themselves – has an expiration date. That is to say, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) generally places strict and clear time limits on how long derogatory information is permitted to remain on a credit report.

Unpaid tax liens, however, are an exception to this rule. The FCRA never requires an unpaid tax lien to be removed from your credit reports, regardless of its age.

Paid tax liens, termed “released” liens, do have a credit reporting time limit, however. Released tax liens can only remain on your credit reports for up to seven years after the date of release. Unfortunately, during those seven years a released tax lien remains on your credit reports, it may continue to damage your credit scores.

Withdrawn Tax Liens

A few years ago the IRS introduced some new consumer-friendly policies which can apply to many tax liens. The policies, collectively known as the Fresh Start Program, give consumers the opportunity to have certain federal tax liens removed from their credit reports much more quickly than the typical FCRA required removal of seven years from date of release.

Under the Fresh Start Program, taxpayers with eligible liens can apply for a withdrawal of their tax lien under one of two circumstances. The first opportunity to apply for a lien withdrawal is available to taxpayers who satisfy their outstanding tax liens in full. The second opportunity occurs when a taxpayer enters into an approved automatic payment plan with the IRS and has made at least three consecutive payments toward exhausting the obligations. The credit bureaus, as a matter of policy, will remove withdrawn tax liens.

NOTE: While tax liens are currently part of consumer credit reports, the future may hold some consumer-friendly changes. The credit bureaus are currently considering the possibility of removing all tax liens and judgments from consumer credit reports and not ever reporting them again. While this is good news from a credit report perspective, it should not influence your correct decision to abide by your tax obligations.

Related Articles:

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Questions About Treasuries, Beards, Market Peaks, Camping, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Morality of government treasuries
2. Several loans with equal interest
3. Leaving New York
4. Camping or glamping?
5. Journal suggestions?
6. Frugal beard care
7. Worried about market highs
8. Cheap or free fitness suggestions
9. Getting paid less than others
10. “Chaining” no-spending days
11. Advice on trying vegetarianism
12. Podcasts on better financial choices

I get these really weird mild winter colds sometimes. They don’t drag me down into feeling miserable, but they just deliver one or two really annoying symptoms into my life.

I had one earlier this winter that was nothing more than a sore throat that stuck around for several days. Other than that, I felt fine.

This time, I have one that’s just an endless runny nose. Other than the fact that my nose is running like a leaky faucet, I feel fine.

I can’t wait for summer.

Onward to reader mailbag questions…

Q1: Morality of government treasuries

I have been a 60-year-old retiree from government employment for a year now. My retirement income is rather small and is from a previous employer (I’m plan to withdraw that small pension when I am eligible at age 62); so, I’m having qualms about whether or not I should withdraw the money I have in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) sooner rather than later.

My main concern is over how my money in the least risky G Fund is invested, as follows (from www.tsp.gov website):

The G Fund assets are managed internally by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. The G Fund buys a non-marketable U.S. Treasury security that is guaranteed by the U.S. Government. This means that the G Fund will not lose money.

I invested this way because of my age and the fact that I figured that my investment was being put to best. In other words, it would not be used by companies who are pro-abortion and/or who don’t care about protecting the environment; however, the people at TSP don’t seem to be all that knowledgeable when I asked them as to where the money in this fund actually goes.

Do you know if the money in this fund is put to good moral and environmentally responsible use? If I learn that where it goes is against my principles, I can’t, in good conscience, leave it in there and thus will be compelled to take it out now.
– James

The G Fund that you describe here is invested in the federal government itself, not in businesses. In essence, the investments in the G Fund help cover our national debt.

Each year, the United States spends more money than it brings in via taxes. It has to make up for that somehow – it needs to bring in more money so it can keep paying the bills, right? The way it does that is by issuing treasury notes of various kinds. These are essentially promises from the government that they’ll repay you a certain amount of money at a certain time.

For example, a ten year treasury note is an agreement with the government that they’ll pay you a certain amount of interest every six months and then pay you the value of that treasury note in ten years. So, for example, you might be able to buy a ten year treasury note with a face value of $10,000 and interest payments of $100 every six months. The price of that note actually varies, and that’s what might make it a good investment. You might pay, say, $9,500 for that note, and then every six months for the next ten years, you’ll get $100, and then at the ten year mark, you get $10,000. The government gets $9,500 immediately to pay the bills and you get more in return over the next several years.

So, basically, the G Fund just buys a lot of those treasury notes (and variations on that idea, but they all boil down to more or less the same thing). The G Fund basically enables our country to pay down its debt.

Now, here’s the thing: those investments are very important. They provide a very secure place for people to put their money. Since they’re guaranteed by the US government, they’re about as safe as humanly possible. It is very important for the US financial system that the US government continues to issue such investments, and they’d likely continue to issue them even if we weren’t in debt (they’d find some other use for the money, I’m sure).

So don’t think of them purely as “financing the US debt.” The reality is that treasury notes just help our government meet its budget, and they’d do so even if we were bringing in enough taxes to cover our budget because the financial system of the United States needs those kinds of ultra-safe investments. Our nation would find other ways to spend that money, I’m sure.

Is that an ethically sound investment? Really, you have to make the call on that one. I personally feel that, as the ethics of investment options go, treasury notes are pretty ethical. I would not have any personal objections to owning such investments.

Q2: Several loans with equal interest

We are trying to pay off my wife’s school loans and regularly pay double our monthly amount due. We received a bonus this year and will most likely continue to receive that going forward if she stays at her current job. We would like to start putting this bonus $ toward the school loans every year to knock them out even faster. So my question is – does it make any difference, other than psychologically, how we apply this extra payment? Context: My wife has several loans with different balances but the same interest rate of 6%. Does it matter if we put all of the bonus $ toward a larger balance loan or completely knock out some of the smaller loans? Since they are the same interest rate does it make any difference at all?
– Sam

If they’re all of equal interest rate, the best route is to knock out the smaller loans.

The reason is simple: if you get rid of smaller loans, you reduce the minimum monthly payment you have to spend each month. In other words, if things became difficult in your life, you would be facing a smaller slate of monthly bills.

That doesn’t mean you should start budgeting in that way. The best thing for you to do is to not reduce the amount you’re paying in total towards your student loans, and instead convert that extra amount (the amount you would have paid toward student loans that are now paid off) into an extra payment on one of your remaining loans – ideally, the one that now has the smallest balance.

Keep knocking them out like this and you’ll be debt free in no time.

Q3: Leaving New York

I work a location independent job and recently found out that if I were to move, my salary wouldn’t change. I live in a very expensive suburb on Long Island and I feel like I am wasting a ton of money by staying here. New York’s taxes are famously absurd, plus the cost of virtually everything is inflated because that too is taxed. Moving to a state with no income tax would immediately save me over $10k/year, and although those states tend to collect taxes in other ways, all of those taxes are lower than what I’m paying now.

My wife and I are of the mindset that the grass is greener virtually everywhere other than here. But is it? We are concerned that moving would actually cost us money. We moved into our house four years ago, and closing and moving costs were close to $30k, moving again, especially a long distance, would be another ~$10k in closing and moving costs. The house has definitely appreciated since we moved in, but the best I could hope for is breaking even if I sold today.

We also just had our first baby and plan to have a couple more fairly quickly. School districts are going to be a very important factor going forward and I wouldn’t want to move somewhere to save money, only to have to spend that money on private school.

In my head, I feel like I’m looking for this utopia where cost of living is low, taxes are low, schools are great, there’s plenty to do, and we all live happily ever after. It also has to be close enough to a city that I can find work if I ever need to change jobs, and have a major airport nearby because I travel for work.

The bottom line is that we think we should leave NY, but we’re not sure if it’s truly worth it.
– Noah

I am one of the loudest advocates you’ll ever meet for the virtues of the upper Midwest. My opinion is that when you say “this utopia where cost of living is low, taxes are low, schools are great, there’s plenty to do, and we all live happily ever after,” you’re basically describing Minnesota and, to a lesser extent, the states surrounding Minnesota. With 100% complete seriousness, if I were able to choose myself where I could live, I’d choose to live just outside of the metro area on the north side of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It pretty much checks every box you’ve listed there, in my opinion. Honestly, my second choice would be “just outside the metro area on the north side of Des Moines” – and that’s where I happen to live right now.

So, do I think you should move? Yes. If there’s no particular family or social constraint holding you back, pack up the vehicle and get out of the area.

The real question, though, is should you move? I think you need to simply clarify what it is you’re looking for and then start doing some research regarding that. You can start by looking at a comparative list, like this one from US News and World Report. You’ll see both Des Moines and Minneapolis ranked quite high on that list (for good reason, in my opinion), but there are a lot of other options, too.

If you’re unhappy with the total equation of where you are right now, move. If you’re not sure where to move to, figure out what it is that you really want the most – or the handful of factors you want the most – and start doing research.

And then move to Des Moines or Minneapolis. You know you want to.

Q4: Camping or glamping?

I’m a 31 year old who has been dating a 28 year old for two years now and have been considering marriage. I go camping two or three times during the summer in national parks, usually with a base camp that I return to each day after exploring but with some overnight backpacking. I make my own meals over the campfire, etc. but I do rely on some items from my car, so it’s not as “roughing it” as it could be but it’s far from glamping.

This summer is the first time that our schedules line up well enough so that my girlfriend can camp with me. She seems on board with it, but I’m beginning to see that she’s kind of a spender. She wants to “upgrade” all of the camping gear and buy a lot of extra stuff and she’s hinted at the idea of staying in a cabin or some resort instead of tent camping.

All of this deletes the reason this trip is fun and it’s also massively increasing the cost of it. I want just a simple camping trip in my tent where I spend almost all the time just exploring and hiking and building a fire and cooking food over it. I don’t want to stay in a cabin or hotel; that stuff is fine, but it’s not what camping is for me.

How do I address this without causing a big fight? And should I be concerned about the costs and what that might mean for our married life?
– Tony

It seems to me that your girlfriend has a very different idea of what camping should be like than you do. That doesn’t mean that either one of you is “right” or “wrong,” but that you have different visions of what a “camping vacation” actually is. Clearly, your girlfriend has an image of something that involves more creature comforts than what your vision is. That’s okay – neither one of your visions is wrong.

My suggestion would be to simply ask her to let you lead on this first trip. Tell her that you want to show her what it is that you love about these kinds of camping trips, and then plan it in a way that you think will wow her regarding the best of what you like about it.

Keep her in mind when you plan, though. She’s clearly a bit reticent about some of the rougher edges of camping. Don’t plan any super-difficult hikes. Consider what will make your campsite as comfortable as possible. Maybe choose a park intentionally that will be very comfortable and have some amazing views on low-intensity hikes. Push yourself to make some delicious meals around the campfire. Pack along a bottle of wine and drink it around the fire (if that’s her thing). Take along extra precautions for keeping bugs at bay. Basically, plan a trip like you normally would, but add some flourishes that will make this whole thing sparkle for her.

If it’s not her thing, that’s okay. You don’t have to like all of the same things. You might want to consider letting camping be a personal thing for you in the future and allow her to have some personal adventures, too, but that you have other adventures that you share.

Q5: Journal suggestions?

You’ve mentioned a few times in the last year that you journal daily. What specific journal do you use? What do you write about?
– Eric

My preferred journal is just a blank one. I’m not really picky about what kind that I use, but I like it to have reasonably thick paper so that ink doesn’t bleed through to the other side and I can use any kind of pen on it. Quite often, I use gifted journals for this. I also have a pile of gifted (and a few purchased) notebooks from Baron Fig that I use for this, too. To summarize, just use a blank journal.

I haven’t really found that “pre-organized” journals really click with me. I’ve received several as gifts and the only one that has worked well for me is the Best Self journal, but it’s mighty expensive and I can’t really convince myself to buy more. I could see myself getting hooked on them if I had more of them, as they only last for 13 weeks. Most other pre-organized journals just don’t click with me.

Most of the time, I just write about whatever things are weighing heavily on my mind at the moment. I write about what that concern is in as much detail as I can, and then I burrow into it. I ask myself why I’m feeling this way about it, and then I spend a bit of time thinking about that, and then I just write down my “why” thoughts. I’ll often repeat that a few times. Almost always, I wind up reaching some deeper understanding of the situation and that usually points me to something I can do to improve that situation. I don’t always take myself up on the solution, but I do so often enough that I find real value in the process. Sometimes I’ll do journaling “exercises” that I find, but I usually just go back to writing about a problem or concern and hitting it with a series of “whys” until I find some kind of satisfactory conclusion.

I think that journaling has massively improved my life over the last several years as I’ve really figured out how to do it. Journaling is a lot more than just listing the events of the day. It’s really a tool for reflecting on one’s life.

Q6: Frugal beard care

I started growing a beard after the holidays and didn’t really think about caring for it. I figured I could just trim it with scissors or something. It’s starting to look unruly but decent beard trimmers seem real expensive and then there are tons of other things people suggest buying. How do I do this frugally?
– Marcus

Unless you plan on trimming your beard daily and expect near-perfection with every single beard hair being absolutely the same length, you’re going to be fine with a very low-end beard trimmer. You’ll be just fine with whatever beard trimmer is on sale at nearby stores. If you’re looking for a model to target, I can specifically say that this beard trimmer does a really good job. You’ll still need to use a razor to trim around the edges, though.

So, what about things like beard oil and soaps and stuff? Simply put, you don’t need any of it unless you start to have skin irritation or other issues that actually bother you. Don’t waste your money on it unless you actually need it. That’s not to say it’s not useful for some people, but it’s very much on a case-by-case basis. (Note that things like this do make nice gifts, though.)

Basically, just get an inexpensive beard trimmer unless you plan to be an every day beard-must-be-perfect trimmer, in which case there might be a reason for a higher-end trimmer. When I had a beard, I trimmed it weekly with a cheap trimmer and it was all good.

Q7: Worried about market highs

The stock market appears to be at or near a long term high. Should people “buy low and sell high” and start selling now? Trying to figure out what to do with retirement.
– David

You should almost never make a stock investment move in response to what the market’s current value is. I’d say “never,” but I’m sure someone will come up with an odd case for it, but timing the market like this definitely isn’t one.

If you happened to have a perfect crystal ball and knew the exact moment when it was at a peak and then would also know the exact moment when it reached the bottom, then, yeah, it might make sense to move out of stocks at that very peak and move back in at that very bottom.

The reality is that you don’t know when either situation is going to occur. No one does. Today might be the peak, or it might not hit until June, or it might not hit until 2020. If you move out of stocks into something safe and we have three more years of a bull market, you’re losing a lot of money. The same thing is true at the bottom. If you keep your money somewhere safe because you think the market is still going to go lower, you’re not only probably missing out on the real bottom, you’re also missing out on the dividends that you’d get by being in stocks during that period.

Here’s the truth: if you’re in the stock market for the long haul, meaning that you’re not close to retirement and you’re planning on that money for the backbone of your retirement savings, you should leave it in the stock market and keep buying shares and collecting dividends as it inevitably corrects itself. You’ll earn a lot of dividends on the way down, buy shares as they decline in price, and you’ll be fully in the market when it hits the bottom and you can keep buying and reinvesting dividends the whole way up.

Now, if retirement is getting close, you should probably be considering a move of at least some of your money into something safer, but that switch should not be driven by the current state of the stock market. It should be driven by your evaluation of how much you want to lower your volatility.

Q8: Cheap or free fitness suggestions

So here’s my situation. I want to get in better shape and I have been thinking about joining a gym. My favorite exercise by far is to walk and do light hiking kind of like you do. I don’t like doing “body weight exercise” at home and I talk myself right out of doing stuff like push-ups or squats. I don’t mind jogging but jogging isn’t making me stronger. I think a coach might help motivate me. Do you have other suggestions before I drop the money?
– Jim

My honest suggestion is to try rucking.

Here’s what you do. Get an old backpack that you have lying around the house and fill it up with heavy things. Old textbooks are great. Water bottles are great. A brick wrapped in an old towel is great. Try to get ten or fifteen pounds in it at first; you can up the weight later.

Then just go walking with that backpack on. Go on a long distance walk. What you’ll find is that going at the same pace as usual is hard and will get you out of breath. You’ll also find that your legs and many other muscles are sore when you get home and sore the next day from the extra work.

Over time, gradually up the weight. Don’t go beyond 35 pounds or 10% of your body weight, though, whichever is less.

I’ve found this to be just about my favorite exercise. It seems to combine strength training (my legs feel way stronger as do many of my back muscles) with cardio training (I sweat like crazy and I get out of breath), but it boils down to doing the thing I already love to do, which is walking and hiking.

Plus, it’s super cheap.

Give it a shot and see if it clicks for you.

Q9: Getting paid less than others

I work in an office with several other people doing almost exactly the same jobs. We do a lot of claim processing. I was the first in my group to be hired and it was during a period of a lot of turnover in the HR department so almost all of us were actually hired by different people.

I had a benefits question the other day and went into the HR office and a person was looking at my employee records. She told me quietly that I wasn’t getting paid very well and that they had been openly hiring people for my job at a salary that’s about 10% more than what I’m making with no experience required. I’ve been at the company for four years now.

I am trying to keep calm about this and find the right way to handle it, but I am really angry right now. I could understand new employees making a little more than I did when I was new, but there’s no reason that I’m making less than them with four years of experience and good reviews.
– Pete

First of all, you do not want to bring this up at work when it’s got such a strong emotional impact on you. If you’re going to get emotional or angry when talking about this or thinking about this, you should not bring this up. (However, I will say that if you’re struggling getting this under control, you should look seriously at your ability to keep your emotions in check, as that is a very powerful skill to have.)

Your first step should be to figure out who is in charge of wages at your organization. Who sets the pay? If you don’t know, go to the HR office and ask a few questions. That’s the person you should be talking to.

Schedule a meeting and present your case. Simply state that you’ve had conversations with your coworkers and looked at job postings and you’ve learned that, after four years of experience and positive job reviews, you’re getting paid less than someone freshly in the door and you’re getting paid less than many of your coworkers. Your goal should be to have pay that’s reasonably commensurate with your relative experience and history compared to an entry level employee, so what a new employee might be earning with standard raises over four years.

If they won’t reasonably meet you on this demand, then I would begin looking for different work. Freshen up your resume and start looking for employment elsewhere. If the starting wage is an industry standard, you’ll make more money by leaving anyway.

Q10: “Chaining” no-spending days

Wanted to share with you a strategy for cutting spending that’s really worked well for me this year. I have been “chaining” days where I don’t spend any money together.

Basically, what I’ve been doing is trying not to spend a dime for as many days in a row as I can avoid it. I’ll pay all of my bills and stock up on groceries and that stuff all on one day and I’ll buy a 30 day metro pass and so on and then I will see how many days I can go while spending nothing and living on what I have.

I’ve found that I don’t waste nearly as much money as I used to because on the days where I can spend, I am spending a lot on needed things like bills and food and a metro pass and usually one or two carefully planned fun things and so I don’t feel much need to splurge, and then I don’t splurge at all on the “no spending” days.

Thought I’d share a strategy that’s working for me! Record: 16 days!
– Tammy

This actually seems like a really smart and really fun way to approach overspending.

Sarah and I sometimes do money free weekends and even money free weeks and this just seems to take that and add the “chaining” concept to it by making it into a game to see how long you can make the streak.

Good idea! Perhaps other readers can use it effectively, too!

Q11: Advice on trying vegetarianism

I’m thinking of trying to become a vegetarian for health reasons and money reasons. A vegetarian diet seems pretty healthy and I like a lot of vegetables but I just normally eat meat for my diet. Any tips?
– Amy

A vegetarian diet can be super cheap, but as with any diet, it can be as expensive as you make it. I find it easy to be a cheap vegetarian because I already loved rice and beans. I will seriously eat rice and beans two or three times a day, so switching to being a vegetarian wasn’t really very hard for me. (I was encouraged but not required by my doctor and a dietitian to try it for unrelated health reasons, so I gave it a shot.)

My advice to you isn’t to go strict vegetarian unless there’s a specific additional reason to do so. If your primary motivation is frugality and health, I recommend sticking instead to a well rounded diet made up of inexpensive foods, but stick to staples and fresh foods rather than prepackaged and processed stuff. Buy uncooked rice and uncooked beans and eggs and fresh produce and, yes, even fresh meats, particularly poultry (chicken really is a bargain). Peanut butter is good, too, especially when the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.

Learn how to prepare lots of meals from that basic stuff. Trust me, there are a lot of things you can do with those cheap staples without just endlessly repeating things, especially if you have a lot of herbs and spices and learn how to use them. For that, I recommend this wonderful guide from The Kitchn.

Q12: Podcasts on better financial choices

I listen to podcasts while commuting every day and I find that they influence my thinking a lot. Do you have any recommendations for podcasts that really encourage smart financial thinking / spend less than you earn / financial independence thinking?
– Brad

Here are three that immediately come to mind.

Radical Personal Finance hosted by Joshua Sheats is probably the best purely financially focused podcast out there, in my opinion. Joshua speaks well, treats his topics with care and thoughtfulness, keeps it entertaining, and has a lot of great guests, plus I’m very much in agreement with most of his financial perspectives. If I ever did a podcast again (I made a mediocre attempt many years ago), I’d hope it could be half this good.

The Dave Ramsey Show distributes its full show as a podcast. Dave is an absolute master of the audio format and presents his ideas well. I don’t fully agree with Dave on a lot of things – for one, I think he’s overly optimistic about investments – but he’s extremely strong at feeling like a “coach” encouraging strong day-to-day financial choices.

The Voluntary Life hosted by Jake Desyllas is probably my favorite all-around podcast. It does not have anywhere near a strict personal finance focus – it’s more of an all-around self-improvement show. However, Jake addresses a lot of important life topics that run parallel to financial improvement and discusses them so thoughtfully that I consider this to be an essential listen for anyone addressing their money or their life with a thoughtful attitude.

These three shows – and their archives – should give you a ton to listen to going forward.

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

The post Questions About Treasuries, Beards, Market Peaks, Camping, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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