Saturday, July 29, 2017

What to Do When a Job Becomes Miserable

Over the years, I’ve had several jobs that went from enjoyable to miserable.

At one job, I had to deal with an utterly toxic coworker that sucked all positivity from my job.

At another job, I wound up spending most of my time doing almost mindless maintenance of a bunch of computer code.

At a third job, I found myself frustrated because I was getting blamed for problems that were completely beyond my understanding at the time.

At a fourth job, I found myself doing endlessly repetitive physical labor, where I did the same four or five tasks, day in and day out.

At yet another job, I mostly sat around until things went haywire, and when things did go haywire, they were extremely stressful, almost to the point of overwhelming.

Finally, I found myself in a position where there was simply more to be done than I had the time to do and the work was interfering with my life.

In all of these positions, the job started off seeming completely reasonable. I was glad to have a job where I was making money to pay my bills and the environment and tasks seemed sensible, manageable, and even fun. Over time, though, either the environment or demands changed or elements that were hidden at first became visible, putting me in a situation where I either had to simply numb myself to a bad workplace environment or search desperately for a way out.

When I was a college student working at part time jobs, it wasn’t a big deal to move onto something new. Later on, though, when I was earning a nice salary and I had a wife and children relying on me, such situations became terrifying. When people become dependent on you or you’re working toward major financial goals, it can often feel like you don’t have a choice but to stick around and numb yourself to a painful work environment. Every other option carries significant risk – you might end up someplace worse, for example, or word of your attempt to find other work might make it back to your current job.

What do you do in those situations when a job has become miserable but quitting and moving on isn’t a viable option, either? At each of those jobs, I developed different strategies for coping – some worked and some did not. Here are the strategies that have actually worked for me in terms of coping with a miserable work environment.

The Poisonous Co-Worker

There are lots of variations on the “poisonous coworker.” Perhaps it’s the person who does absolutely nothing other than suck up to the boss. Maybe it’s the person who constantly gossips and maybe even makes up lies about coworkers. Perhaps it’s the person whose only contributions to most discussions are negative and toxic.

Whatever the case, the poisonous coworker can transform a good workplace into a bad one quite quickly. Here are four tactics that can help when you’re stuck in a workplace with someone who is poisonous.

Remember that you are not horrible, the other person is. No matter how acidic that person is, keep in mind that it is their acidity, not yours. If they’re criticizing you unfairly, it’s on them, not you. Their acid is not a fair or apt description of you. Let your own actions represent you, not their acidic words and behaviors. You are not defined by that poisonous coworker.

Be professional. Treat everyone in your office with respect and courtesy. Interact with others in professional ways. Do your work as well as you can. Build relationships with other positive people in the workplace. In essence, act like you wish all of your coworkers would act, and you’ll find that most of them will act that way toward you.

Don’t give into the temptation to be negative at work. In a poisonous environment, don’t become poisonous yourself. Treat others with positivity and respect in a professional way. Don’t let the behavior of others degrade how you act. If you maintain professional standards in how you act while others do not, then you make the poisonous words seem hollow and false.

Directly involve the toxic person in meaningful discussions. Believe it or not, many toxic coworkers find themselves behaving that way because they feel marginalized. You can remove that source of negativity by simply not marginalizing them. Simply ignore the negative talk and engage them sincerely and professionally. Ask for their input on work projects. Listen to what they say and ask questions. Most people simply desire the feeling of being taken seriously, and that’s something you can provide. Give them an easy path to be taken seriously in a positive way and many toxic coworkers will take it.

The Repetitive Physical Work

What about a job that you don’t strictly hate, but one that just makes you incredibly numb and bored? You find yourself doing the same physical tasks over and over and over again and, after a while, you’re incredibly bored and mentally check out.

I had a job where I worked forty hours a week doing one of four things over and over again: sifting topsoil through a sifter to remove pebbles, ferrying that topsoil up to a planting room, and planting seeds in small planters with that sifted topsoil. Forty hours a week. I filled what seemed like endless racks in a greenhouse with little planters according to this diagram I had been given. Talk about drudgery. Talk about checking out mentally.

The thing is, I learned how to adapt. I did several things to pull that job back from the brink of pure hatred. Here are four strategies that you can employ if you have this kind of job.

Make sure your clothing is as comfortable as possible. Any sort of repetitive physical work is likely going to stress certain parts of your body. Do what you can to take care of those parts. Wear comfortable clothes. Wear good shoes. Wear good gloves. Wear pads or guards. Do what’s needed, because you will quickly grow to absolutely hate the job if you find yourself getting blisters or some sort of repetitive work injury.

Engage your brain on something useful or thoughtful. It was this job that made me fall in love with NPR talk radio, with audiobooks, and with the nascent podcast industry. I found that merely listening to music didn’t really engage me (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a minute), but thoughtful talking kept me mentally engaged. If you have a smartphone with a podcast app, download several hours of podcasts on topics you enjoy (preferably ones that challenge you a bit) and listen to them while working. Another approach is to spend time on self-reflection while working.

Spend time analyzing how you can make the work more efficient. When I was first trained on how to do the work I was doing, the job involved several extra steps that were unnecessary. I was originally told to sift the dirt into buckets, load the buckets onto a cart, take the cart up an elevator, unload the buckets, and use the dirt in the buckets for planting. After doing this for a while, I started to wonder if there wasn’t a better way of doing this. Later that day, I spied a wheelbarrow outside, so I asked the greenhouse manager if I could use that wheelbarrow to ferry dirt. He was fine with it, so I changed the process to sifting dirt into the wheelbarrow, riding the elevator up to the seedling room with the wheelbarrow, and filling planters directly from the wheelbarrow. This actually saved a ton of time – my productivity jumped abut 20% per hour. This gave me some breathing room to look for other productivity tweaks. By the end of my time there, I was probably planting seeds at three times the rate of when I started and my performance reviews were glowing.

Sing. One last tip: either find a radio station or create a playlist on your phone full of music that you know really well and can sing along with. Don’t choose challenging or new music, as it’s hard to get into a groove with that. As the music plays, sing along with it. You’ll find that this is extremely effective at getting you into the flow of even the most boring job. I used to sing along to Pearl Jam albums, myself.

The Repetitive Desk Job

On the other side of the repetitive physical job is the repetitive desk job, the kind of job where you shuffle papers and do small tasks in an endless cycle. Many administrative assistants know what this is about, as do computer programmers who find themselves “maintaining” code.

What I found with this job is that, if you get lost in the drudgery, it becomes incredibly boring and soul-sucking. A much better approach is to take advantage of the relative advantages of white collar work to turn the job into something with a lot of breathing room, within which you have tons of opportunity for self-learning and personal growth. Here are four strategies for doing just that.

Use downtime to figure out how to automate common tasks as much as possible. A lot of office work and computer work can be automated. Almost every task that you take on in front of a computer or involving information has some element that can be incredibly simplified or automated, especially if you have programming skills. Start breaking down the common tasks that you do and look at each specific step. Can you automate that step, or find a way to simplify it? Eventually, you start looking at ways to automatically ferry the information from step to step.

Step back and look at the requirements. This is the next step in the idea of automation. Quite often, office tasks involve some sort of input and some sort of output, with the office worker figuring out how to make that transformation happen. Usually, the process used is one that’s not well-considered – it was designed a long time ago by someone who isn’t doing the task all the time and it might even revolve around technology that’s no longer even in the workplace. Look at all of your tasks in terms of what you start with and what you end with and ask yourself what the quickest path from input to output is.

Do something physical at lunchtime, like taking a long walk. One of the biggest challenges of an office job is what I call the “afternoon doldrums.” It’s easy to slip into a lower level of productivity in the afternoons and sit there in a bored daze. However, that’s usually the best opportunity for doing the kind of automation described above. You can drastically improve your afternoon energy level by spending your lunchtime doing something physical, like taking a long, brisk walk. You’ll come back to the office with a lot of energy which will carry you through the afternoon feeling good.

When your work is efficient, box off time for self-improvement. Many office jobs do involve some downtime, as you’re often waiting for more information to come in. On top of that, if you’ve automated things and made your job more efficient, you likely have plenty of downtime. Take advantage of it. Take some online classes to learn new things. Build a professional network or some transferable skills. Invest in yourself!

The “Panic Mode” Job

Another type of miserable job is one where things coast along calmly for a while and then suddenly switch into complete “panic mode” where you’re handling a very stressful crisis. Those waves of stress can be very hard to deal with, especially if they come with any degree of rapidity.

I once had a job where I mostly just dealt with three or four minor crises a day and one major crisis about once a week. The rest of the time was largely downtime, yet the job was extremely stressful because of the pressure put on us when a crisis would happen. Here are four techniques I used to deal with it.

Spend your downtime preparing resources to be used in panic moments. Crisis moments are much easier to deal with if you have tools ready to go for the next crisis (just ask a fireman if you doubt this). Spend the time between crises preparing tools to handle the next crisis as efficiently as possible. Make backups. Make sure spare parts are available. Prepare a “go” bag, if necessary.

Encourage coworkers to do similar preparation, and even help them in doing so. If you handle crises as a team, you’re going to be relying on your teammates to handle their part of the crisis resolution. Make sure they’re prepared, too. Help them with their preparations if necessary. Walk them through what they need to do to get ready for the next crisis so that they can see for themselves how much the situation is helped by proper preparation.

Build up strong communication and rapport with your coworkers. Crises are much easier to handle and far less stressful if you know how to communicate well as a team. Do everything you can during your downtime to build up a strong relationship with your coworkers, particularly those you will be interacting with in a crisis. I have found that playing games together, both cooperative ones like Pandemic and competitive ones that require some cooperation like fantasy football, is a great way to build rapport, friendships, and communication.

Create written, detailed plans of attack for the most common crises. If you face similar crises on a regular basis, make sure that you have a written plan of attack spelling out how you handle such crises. Write all of it out, then share it around the group for feedback. Make sure that it includes everything. Why is this useful? It gets everyone thinking about the process, it gets everyone thinking about how to improve the process, and the resulting document is extremely useful in helping get new team members up to speed (which can be very stressful in a crisis environment).

The “Too Much to Do” Job

Quite often, people find themselves with far too much to do than they can possibly get done in a reasonable amount of time. The tasks pile up and it seems like it never really abates. You’re constantly doing task after task after task without a breather of any kind and eventually you feel overwhelmed and burnt out.

For this type of job, I have five suggestions.

Identify which tasks aren’t mission critical and put them on the back burner. Use your time, energy, and focus on the tasks that are actually important for your organization and for your role in it and let the other things dangle. Focus on your key deliverables above all else, and make sure you deliver quality there. If you deliver good things on the things that actually matter, skipping the minor tasks isn’t really a problem.

Identify which tasks can be delegated to others and start delegating them. What things on your to-do list can be handed off to others with relative ease? Look for tasks that can simply be redirected to others and redirect them. Simply tell your supervisor that you are focused on delivering quality results on this task and that you need to hand that task over to this other competent person who can handle it.

Write out workflows for your most common tasks and look for ways to automate them. Quite often, jobs that feel too busy are burdened with lots of tasks that are repetitive and dull. Although it might be painful to do so, step back when you can and look for ways to automate or speed up those repetitive tasks. Shaving five minutes off of a task you do three times a day saves you more than an hour every single week, and that can make a big difference.

When you need to get things done, disconnect from email, texts, calls, and other distractions and close your door or relocate. Just turn them completely off. If something is truly urgent, you’ll hear a knock on your door or someone will come and find you. By disconnecting, you enable yourself to focus directly on the larger task at hand that you need to complete, and applying that focus means you will make far faster progress than you would in an environment full of interruption.

When you do feel overwhelmed, say “no” to some things and demand self-care time. If you never say “no,” you will keep getting stuff piled on your back until it breaks. You are far better off saying “no” to some things. You are also far better off standing up and insisting on some self-care time – vacation time, in other words. Take time off to recharge, because without it, you’re going to actually be a far less productive employee over the long haul.

The “In Over My Head” Job

This type of misery comes when you’re placed into a position where the skills and knowledge that are expected of you are beyond your current abilities. You get lost in conversations where the other person takes for granted that you understand what they’re talking about. Things that are expected to be very simple for you feel overwhelming.

Many people fall into a pit of stress and personal frustration in jobs like this. I know I did. I was asked to essentially launch, manage, and write much of the code for a large software development project that was orders of magnitude larger in scope than anything I had ever worked on, using a programming language I didn’t know, a database system I didn’t know, and software development methodologies I had never used, and, oh yeah, I needed to have a fully functional demo in about two months. (I later learned that this project was literally set up to fail.)

I was incredibly stressed and frustrated at first, but then an old mentor took me out to lunch and gave me four pieces of advice. I managed to deliver that demo on time and with a well-organized codebase behind it.

Ask questions. Lots of them. Ask and ask and ask and ask. If you don’t know something, stop and ask what they mean. Yes, you might look “dumb” in that moment, but that’s a small price to pay to gain knowledge and to be able to follow the conversation and the points being made. If you sit there nodding your head while being completely lost, you’re actually going to leave in far worse shape than you started, as the other person now has false expectations of you and you don’t even understand what they were telling you. Ask questions. Learn all you can. If you don’t know, ask.

Whenever you encounter something you don’t understand, don’t keep pushing through; stop and educate yourself. Use that “question” method whenever you’re reading, too. When you get to a word or a sentence that doesn’t make sense, stop. Figure out that word or what that sentence means. If you keep going, that sentence is going to be used as a foundation for later stuff and you’re going to get more and more lost. Yes, this means that some of your early reading is going to be incredibly slow. That’s fine. You’ve got to build that foundation rapidly.

Take notes on what you’re learning, as it serves as documentation of a lot of your effort as well as a valuable learning tool. When you have a conversation where you learned things, take notes on them and fill in any blanks you still have with your own research. Take notes on your reading. Take notes in meetings. Take tons of notes on anything you don’t fully understand, and even on things you think you do fully understand. Not only will the notes help you figure things out, it’ll provide evidence of your hard work in educating yourself on what’s going on. I wound up with several notebooks full of notes in just a few weeks!

Get involved in writing down standard procedures for common tasks. One of the best ways to really understand what’s going on at work is to document, in detail, some of the tasks expected of you. Write down each step in the process, then add a note explaining why you’re doing that step. If you don’t know, figure it out by… you guessed it, asking questions and doing research. By doing this, you’re working out the processes of your workplace and the reasoning behind them, which makes you far more ready to deal with the complexities of your job.

Some Final Thoughts

While I haven’t covered every possible bad job situation, the key message to take home here is that every miserable job has some action you can take to relieve the misery. The thing to remember is that when you’re miserable, your productivity isn’t very good, and when your productivity isn’t very good, you’re not nearly as valuable to the organization, you’re not going to get raises or promotions or opportunity, and you’re not going to have the kind of security you want, anyway.

Yes, your job might not be fun, but when you seek to make lemonade out of those lemons and succeed even a little bit, it has nothing but upside for you. It increases your security and likely opens up opportunities that didn’t exist before.

Good luck.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Bearing the Burden Today

Over the last month, I’ve had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time with many relatives and friends older than myself. Some are retired already. Others are close to retirement. Still others are at all sorts of various points on their financial journey, from a person facing an unexpected unemployment and career change to another person trying to continue to do a physical job with a damaged body.

Throughout all of these stories and throughout all of these lives, I couldn’t help but notice one consistent thread: sometimes life goes really well, and at other times life throws you curveballs when you don’t quite expect them. A person who has been really successful for years might suddenly find themselves jobless. Someone who has been doing a hard physical job for a long time might find their body no longer cooperating like it used to. Someone may find that their skill set is no longer needed in their field.

It happens. It will probably happen to you at some point.

What makes it even more challenging is that, when such events happen to you later on in your life, you’re often not as prepared to handle them. You simply don’t have the raw mental or physical stamina you once had. You may have life commitments that you didn’t have at an earlier stage in your life, like an ailing parent or a vital community leadership position or a marriage. When disaster strikes, it can be far harder to pivot later in life than it is earlier in life.

My takeaway? I need to bear the burden today.

Right now, my life is pretty good overall. My family is all reasonably healthy (there are some minor health issues that I don’t discuss on here, but they’re being managed well). My wife has a very stable job, and I seem to have some professional stability, too. We have some money in the bank. We own our house. My work commitments give me some pretty nice time flexibility. We’re both still relatively young, too.

Right now is the perfect time for me to step up and bear some of the burden for that point later in life where things aren’t as good. When my work situation changes, or my wife’s situation changes. When someone falls ill. When I get older and my mental or physical stamina starts to slip. When my parents or my wife’s parents begin to really struggle and need our help.

What can I do?

I can put aside some of my work now for a future when I can’t work. On a good writing day, I strive to set aside an article for the future for when I won’t be able to work. While not every job enables that kind of flexibility, you can still find ways to go far beyond the minimum today so that the people around you give you some leeway when you’re not able to perform as well. Be open about it – you’re putting in extra effort now to earn yourself some breathing room when you’re not able to keep up later on.

I can take on more work to build more income streams. If you have consistent spare time in your life – or when you ever feel that sense of boredom – you’re in a situation where you have time to invest in things like building a side business or taking a part time job or building an income stream by writing a book or making websites or creating a series of Youtube videos.

I can invest time and energy to live much more cheaply now and sock away the difference. I can make my own meals instead of eating takeout. I can clean my own house instead of hiring a maid. I can do my own laundry instead of using a laundry service. I can fertilize my own yard instead of hiring a lawn care service. I can grow my own food instead of turning to the produce section for every need. I can put aside my own food for the winter. I can make many of my own household supplies. Why? I have the time and energy to do so now, so why not do it?

I can resist the temptation to dive into expensive luxuries when they’re really not needed. I have willpower, which means I can resist putting the money I earn into temptations that I don’t need. Instead, I can enjoy the many simple pleasures of life: reading a book from the library, going on a hike in the woods, learning something new, playing a board game with my wife and children, going to community events, and so on. Those things don’t require a huge outlay of money.

I can build things that will save me money over the long term, reducing my monthly living costs by exerting extra effort now. I can do things like install some additional insulation or make cloth napkins or make a giant batch of homemade laundry detergent, projects that will save money over the long haul but require time and energy investment now. Those things are a wonderful way to “bear the burden” today so that things become easier later on, as projects like these tend to slowly spool out the savings over months endears.

I can raise my children to the best of my ability so that they will be strong and independent later (or have a better chance of being independent, at least). Investing extra time and energy into cultivating children with a growth mindset and characteristics of self-sufficiency and independence might be an extra burden today, but it’s a burden that pays off enormously later in life.

I can strengthen my marriage now so that it remains strong during times of trial. Similarly, investing time and energy into my marriage right now means that it is strong at later times when our marriage runs through a difficult challenge, as all marriages do at one time or another.

I can give to others now in building strong relationships so that I can rely on them a little when things aren’t going so well. Just as one invests in one’s children and one’s marriage with time and effort, one can invest in one’s social network with time and effort, too. Doing so gives you a larger and stronger set of social connections, which can really come in handy when life goes in an unexpected direction. Invest in your friendships and professional relationships now so that they’re strong when you need them later.

In short, I can bear extra burden now when I am strong and the path is flat, so that I don’t have to bear as much later on when I am not as strong and the path is uneven. I can do that with every single financial and professional and personal choice I make. I can put in the time and energy to build career stability and build a healthy bank account and build a strong social network and build a low cost lifestyle, all of which will really come in handy when I’m not as strong.

What I have right now is physical and mental health and energy, something I may not have in the future, as well as a fairly stable life. That enables me to bear some real burdens. It’s time for me to bear a little more burden today so that I don’t have to endure misery tomorrow.

Does this mean that life is joyless today, pushed down a life of burden, carrying the weight of both today and tomorrow in an endless trek? Absolutely not. The truth is that there are limits to how much you can bear at any time and learning how to recognize those limits – and how to maximize them by supporting them with adequate rest, good nutrition, exercise, and healthy amounts of leisure and self-care time – is vital to modern life. An overworked life is actually far less productive and beneficial than a well-considered life that includes a healthy workload balanced with other elements of a healthy life. Overburdening yourself is never the answer – finding that maximum peak is always the right answer. If you feel overburdened at any point in life, it’s time to step back a little and find that optimal point.

In the end, today is the day to step up to that challenge. Right now, you’re as young as you’ll ever be, likely with more natural ability to focus and work than you’ll ever have again. Use it. Don’t let it go to waste. There will come a day when you’re not able to bear as much, and by bearing it today when you’re strong, you’ll ensure that you’re still able to walk upright with pride later on when you’re not as strong.

Good luck.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

How to Assess Your Financial State Without Frustration or Jealousy

My family has had the wonderful opportunity to visit a lot of remote relatives and friends over the past month or so. We’ve visited their homes, stayed in guest bedrooms, camped in yards, taken meals in their kitchens, and had wonderful conversations that lasted well into the night.

Whenever you visit the home of a friend or loved one, it’s hard not to compare that home to your own on some level. Perhaps the home you’re visiting is bigger, or maybe it’s smaller. Perhaps you like the layout of the visited home, or perhaps you vastly prefer your own home’s layout. No matter what you conclude, though, the truth is that you’re comparing a big aspect of your own financial state to theirs.

We fell into this trap ourselves. We stayed at the home of one of my cousins who has a very large portion of her net worth tied up in her home. She lives in a beautiful large home in the outer Chicago suburbs, one that dwarfs our own home. It was easy to compare this house to our own and feel somewhat inadequate and, perhaps in some ways, a bit jealous. Just a few days later, we visited someone who lived in a small old house that was substantially smaller than our own, giving us the opposite feeling.

In reality, both comparisons were really worthless. Neither one really said very much at all about our true financial health. Seeing that someone else had a larger home with more expensive furnishings didn’t make us financial failures, and seeing that someone else had a smaller home with less expensive furnishings didn’t make us financial successes.

The same thing is true when it comes to cars. I’m still driving a SUV that I bought off of Craigslist almost eight years ago. I’ve kept good care of it, but there are a few little problems cropping up – it needs some shock work done on it, there’s a little patch of rust near the gas port, and the passenger headlight cover needs replaced. It’s definitely an older car at this point.

When I pull up next to someone else’s rusty car, that doesn’t make me a financial success. When I pull up next to a brand new model, that doesn’t make me a financial failure.

Why? The truth is that the financial state of others has almost nothing to do with your own personal financial state. What others do with their money really doesn’t matter at all in regard to whether you’re prepared for emergencies in your life, whether you’re prepared for unexpected unemployment, whether you can provide for your needs and some of your wants, and whether you’re getting ready for retirement.

All of those things are on you. They have nothing to do with what some other person is doing with their money.

Let’s step back for a second and look at that person you know with the fabulous house. Perhaps you look at that house and wish that it was your own house, or you feel guilty because you don’t have that kind of success.

For one, do you have any idea as to what kind of debt load that person is carrying? How big are that person’s monthly mortgage payments? How big is their tax bill? How are they able to afford that and make ends meet?

Perhaps they have a great job. Well, what did they sacrifice to get that job? How many years did they spend in training and education for that job? How much of their life did they spend studying and preparing and networking to have that great job?

Maybe their parents helped pay for it. What kind of family dynamic is that like?

The thing is, no matter what you see on the surface, the underlying realities of the lives of other people are left unseen. You don’t see the struggle to keep the bills paid. You don’t see the career stress. You don’t see the family dynamics. You don’t see the hard choices. You just see the house.

Because that story and that set of hard choices is bound to be substantially different than your own, it’s almost impossible to realistically compare your own situation and your own choices to it. You can’t really judge your own life by the gorgeous house that your cousin has. It doesn’t make any sense. Their entire life follows a different course than your own.

You might be jealous of some aspects of someone else’s life, but it has nothing to do with your financial health whatsoever. Comparing your financial state to someone else’s simply has too many life variables for it to be meaningful in any way. They have invested their life’s energy in far different ways than you have. They have had different opportunities than you. They’ve also had different setbacks than you. They have different interests and different responsibilities than you. A straight comparison means little.

Instead, the best place to make a financial comparison is to your own past. There is no one on earth that is closer to your investment of life energy, opportunities, setbacks, skills, interests, and responsibilities than your past self. Your past self is the best point of comparison you have.

Here’s why.

Comparing your current financial state to that of your past usually indicates some form of positive progress. For most people, their financial state is slowly heading in a positive direction once they are finished with schooling. It might not be a rocket ship, but it usually takes the form of steady progress with some hiccups.

Since there’s nothing hidden, you can clearly see the impact of your own good financial moves; it’s hard to see that when you’re comparing yourself to others. All you really have when you compare your financial state to that of your friends are the visible signifiers of wealth. Your car. Your house. Your clothing. Your gadgets. None of those things represent the health of your bank account or the balance of your retirement fund, which are true signifiers of financial health. Remember, a person can have a giant house and still have a negative net worth if they’re up to their eyeballs in mortgage and student loan debt, while a person driving a beater and living in a tiny apartment can be a millionaire.

It’s hard to be jealous of yourself. Many of the negative feelings we feel when we compare ourselves to others simply disappear when we focus on self-comparison. It’s hard to feel jealous of ourselves. We might feel frustrated, but that frustration comes only from a sense of knowing that we can make better choices for ourselves. We can’t feel frustrated about the special advantages that the other person has when that other person is us.

The frustrations you may feel when examining yourself are ones that you can resolve through action. Any time that you do any type of self-evaluation, you’re likely to run into some frustration. You’re not performing as well as you’d like. You don’t have the results you want. That’s okay. The reality is that such frustrations are far easier to manage if you’re comparing to your past self than to others because the one big variable there is your behavior. You can choose to make different choices and you will see different results, because you’re comparing yourself to a version of you that perhaps didn’t make the best choices. In the end, nothing stands in your way but your own choices.

So, the key question here is this: how does a person use themselves as a basis for determining their own financial health?

It’s actually pretty simple. Just go back to the central tenet of personal finance: spend less than you earn. If you are consistently doing that, you are headed in a healthy financial direction, and you can make sure you’re doing that by comparing your current financial state to your past financial state.

How do you make that comparison? There are a number of ways to do it.

Compare your overall debts. Simply add up your debts that you owe right now, then pull out some older statements (say, from six months ago or a year ago) and add up that total, then compare the two. Have you spent the last six months or a year making positive progress on your debts?

Quite often, what you’ll find here is that your large debts, like student loans or a mortgage or a car loan, have seen a drop in balance, while smaller and more flexible debts, like credit card debt, may have gone up and down. Over the course of a longer period of time, though, most people see a gradual decline in their debt load with an occasional big spike when they make a major purchase.

Your goal, if you want to improve your financial health, is to make that steady decline go even faster by focusing on debt repayment, or to make those spikes smaller by saving in advance for upcoming big expenses (like saving up for a car or for a house down payment).

Compare your account balances. In a similar fashion, simply add up the balances of your current savings, checking, investment, and retirement accounts, then go find your older balances and do the same. You can also add in the value of your major assets, like your home and your car. Have you spent the last six months accumulating wealth in a noteworthy fashion?

Again, what most people will find when they do this is that their accounts are slowly rising over time, though their frequently used accounts (their checking account, for example) fluctuates a great deal. This indicates positive progress over time, but is it enough?

Your goal, if you’re seeking to improve your financial health, should be to find ways to increase your contributions to your accounts. Bolster your savings with some extra cash for your emergency fund. Sock away a higher percentage of your income into retirement savings. Those types of moves will see your account balances increase at a faster and faster rate.

Compare your net worth. Of course, you can combine the first two numbers here together to get a picture of your net worth. Simple take the value of all of your accounts and assets and subtract from that the total of your debts. That’s your net worth – how much you’d be left with if you sold everything.

Again, a financially healthy person should see a slow and steady rise in their net worth. Debt reduction can push it forward, as can further contributions to your accounts. Additional efforts in either area will see your net worth begin to accelerate in a positive direction.

Compare your monthly cash flow. A fourth strategy is to look at your monthly cash flow. How much money do you bring in each month? How much money goes “out” each month – meaning how much money is spent? You keep the money, in effect, when you put it into savings or retirement or some other investment meant to return money. Everything else just goes away.

How is this useful? If you have a positive cash flow, then you can actually withstand a reduction in income pretty easily. If you have an enormous positive cash flow, you’ll likely be able to easily handle a sudden career change or other major lifestyle change without skipping a beat. Without much monthly cash flow, you’re walking a tightrope where lifestyle and career shocks can send lots of things tumbling.

Obviously, the better your monthly cash flow, the better off you’re going to be. You can drastically improve that cash flow by paying off debts, cutting back on spending, and contributing more to retirement on a regular basis. Over time, you want your cash flow to be more and more positive.

Compare your total monthly income. Another thing to consider is your total monthly income, which is basically all of the wages, interest, dividends, royalty checks, and other earnings you bring in during a given month. This can be useful if you’re focused on building your career, building a business, or building lots of income streams for you and your family.

Just go through your various accounts and take note of the deposited money in each one. How much pay did you bring in? How much interest? How much in dividends? How much in monthly ad payouts for your website? How much in royalties for your books? How much in Patreon support? Don’t worry about the increase in the value of your assets – if you have 20 shares in a mutual fund and they go up $2 a share, don’t count that $40. Focus instead on income generated by your work or by your previous investments of money, time, and energy.

This is a valuable thing to track when you’re trying to really push your career or get a side business going. It can show you the reality of your progress.

Which number should I use? It really depends on your personal life goals. If you just want an overall assessment of financial health, use your net worth. If you’re focused on accumulating savings for retirement or for other goals, focus on your account balances. If you’re wanting to eliminate your debts, focus on your debt balances. If you’re worried about day-to-day financial stability and planning for major life changes in the near future, track your cash flow. If you’re focused on your career and business growth, keep an eye on your monthly income. Not everyone has the same goals, so not everyone should use the same numbers for tracking.

If you’re unsure what to track, a person’s net worth is a really good single number to track. It’s just the sum of all of your assets minus all of your debts. That number alone is a pretty good indicator of financial health, and when that number grows, you know you’re making financial progress no matter which way you choose to track it. However, there is some “noise” in that number, so if you’re really focused on one area, using a number targeting that area makes far more sense.

The best way to get started is to start recording those numbers right now. You might not necessarily be able to access the older numbers needed to make these calculations today, and that’s okay. What you can do is write down the numbers you want to focus on now and then compare back to them in a few months.

Since you’re just writing down balances, I suggest using a tool like Google Docs or Google Sheets to record those numbers. Simply write down the date and the number that you’re keeping track of. In a few months, do it again, and then compare that fresh number with the older ones. Are you making progress? What can you do to accelerate that progress?

This is how you can fairly assess your financial state. You’re slicing through all of the unfair elements that come with comparing your financial state with other people. You don’t have to account for differences in life history, differences in luck, or anything else. Your comparison point is now you. You can’t be jealous or frustrated with yourself in any destructive way. Instead, you can channel any negative feelings you might have directly into personal change, which is the true key to financial success.

Good luck on your financial journey going forward! May it involve far less stress, frustration, and jealousy than before!

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Why Making Trade-Offs Is the Most Important Financial Lesson I Learned

As an ’80s baby born to an insurance salesman father and a stay-at-home mother, I grew up watching my parents scrimp and save. My mother stayed home with the kids while my father worked, which meant we were constantly looking for ways to stretch a dollar. We always had life’s necessities (food, clothing, and a roof over our heads), but I rarely had the best toys or new clothes.

Until I became a teenager, I hardly noticed the disparity between my belongings and the belongings of some of my friends. But, around age 15 or 16, my attitude changed. Since my parents were still frugal, I learned I had to work if I wanted new clothes or a car of my own. I got my first job at the age of 15 – a food service gig at Waffle House. While I never earned a lot of money, it was enough to buy new clothes and pay for fun. As a teenager, that’s all I really wanted anyway.

By the time I graduated high school, I honestly believed my parents were cheap and clueless. They never spent their money on the things I wanted, and they went without “stuff” they probably wanted, too. They drove older cars, used appliances and furniture as long as they could, and avoided restaurant dinners in favor of frugal meals at home. As a teenager, I found their frugality unnecessary and absolutely boring.

Even on the rare occasion we did dine out, they took us to discounted buffets and made us drink water. Oh, the horror!

I knew back then, at the ripe age of 18, that I wanted more than a lifetime of scrimping and “making do.” I wanted a new car, a nice house, dinners out with my friends, and new clothes all the time.

As a teenager, I thought I knew everything!

Looking back, I’m now keenly aware I knew absolutely nothing. What I’ve realized over time is that my parents weren’t actually cheap; they were masters of the trade-off. They sacrificed in some areas of our lives so we could afford other, more important goals. It took a while, but I finally understand their decision-making process and why it paid off.

For example:

  • While my parents never spent a lot on entertainment (video games, dinners out, etc.) when we were growing up, they took us on a beach vacation every year. We also visited local theme parks regularly, and even went to Disney World one year.
  • My parents lived frugally all year long, but they were always debt-free, which kept their expenses low and their options open. They also paid off their 30-year mortgage in 17 years, making early retirement more feasible and saving them thousands of dollars in interest.
  • Because my parents didn’t spend lavishly when we were younger, they were able to help all of us kids with college.
  • My parents are now happily retired and comfortable enough that they never have to worry about money. They also travel (sometimes internationally) at least once per year with one of their kids (usually me).

Trade-Offs and the ‘Frugal Magic of Substitution’

Now that I’m adult with two kids of my own, I’m more than happy to make similar trade-offs. We’ve also adopted a minimalist lifestyle, mostly because we prefer experiences over “stuff.”

But, that doesn’t mean living this way is always easy. I have to be honest; it’s sometimes difficult and inconvenient to say “no” to an event or splurge when everyone around you is saying “yes.” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve opted out of a concert or a fancy dinner and stayed home when basically everyone else we know is out having fun.

Sometimes we can finagle a similar experience with the frugal magic of substitution – a concept Trent has written about in the past.

By substituting a frugal activity for an expensive alternative, we can have fun without spending more than we’re comfortable with. This strategy is especially helpful when we’re planning activities with friends. For example:

  • Instead of heading out for an expensive dinner at a restaurant, we suggest a pitch-in or cookout. Everyone brings a dish and we can enjoy the company of our friends.
  • Instead of going to a movie or an expensive event, we often suggest a card night or a movie at one of our homes. This strategy saves even more because we can set the kids up with games and movies so that nobody has to pay for a babysitter, either.
  • We try to do all the “free stuff” we can. That includes swimming at our neighborhood swimming pool, which we already pay for in our homeowners association fees. We also go to free parades and events around town. It’s easier to save money when you stay busy with frugal or free activities.

Why the ‘Big’ Trade-Offs Matter More than Anything Else

While the small trade-offs that affect our social calendars are sometimes difficult to make, it’s the big trade-offs that affect our quality of life the most. Just like my parents, I’ve learned that, if we can sacrifice on some of the “big stuff” in our lives, we can afford more of what we really want.

And really, there’s stuff we want a lot more than expensive nights out with friends, new cars, and excessive consumption.

For example, we love to travel. We always travel frugally when we can, but our adventures are never free. While I never feel bad about our travel spending, the money does have to come from somewhere. By sacrificing most of our “entertainment budget” when we’re home, we build up an annual travel budget big enough to satisfy our wanderlust and allow us to remain debt-fee.

But, we give up more than dinners out at our favorite restaurant. No matter how hard I fight it, there’s always been a part of me that wants a larger, fancier home with a three-car garage and a full basement. I have always dreamed of a huge yard with a giant play set for the kids and a hot tub for the adults. I envision a covered porch with a flat-screen TV and an outdoor bar – me, sitting in the hot tub drinking beer and watching a movie while the jets massage my back. Somehow, this dream of mine has never gone away.

I can afford all those things and more, but something stops me. The thing is, it’s not the money that bothers me; it’s the trade-off. Because we’ve stayed in our average home for long enough, we’ve been able to pay down our mortgage considerably. At the moment, we’re less than a year from owning our primary residence free and clear.

Having our house paid off means only one thing for us: more travel and the freedom to retire a few years earlier.

Would I trade a bigger, fancier house for a few years of retirement bliss with the man I love? Not in a million years. So, we forgo the big house and the common trappings of an upper-middle class lifestyle. After all, I can drink a cold beer in the bath tub for free, right?

The same trade-off mentality applies to the cars we drive as well. When my minivan started having problems, we became a one-car family for the same set of reasons. The money we’re not spending on car payments goes directly toward retirement and our other goals. The new car we never buy could be the difference between retiring a year earlier and languishing at work longer than we wanted.

Like my parents, I also learned to apply the same line of thinking to my kids. Simply put, we don’t buy them a lot of “stuff.”

I buy a lot of their clothing secondhand, mostly because they’re not old enough to care and I consistently find clean, quality clothing for school and play. They ride used bikes and take advantage of hand-me-downs from my sister and other friends. They never have the nicest electronics or games, although they always have enough.

Instead of showering them with stuff, we save diligently for their college education. Because our state (Indiana) offers a 20% tax credit on the first $5,000 we save for college each year, we save around $2,500 annually for each of them in a 529 plan.

If we constantly bought them new clothes, new toys, and new electronics, we couldn’t afford to save so much for their future. Just like everything else, this is a trade-off I’m willing to make. While I want my kids to have everything their hearts desire, watching them graduate college debt-free is a life goal I have been working toward for years. If I bought them all they wanted and more, I would be forced to sacrifice the debt-free future that’s waiting for them.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure my kids will grow up thinking we’re unnecessarily frugal, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Only time and maturity can make you realize you can’t have everything you want as an adult.

For now, I’m extremely thankful for my parents. While they weren’t perfect, they taught me a lot about life through the various trade-offs they made. They showed us how to scrimp on stuff we didn’t care about so we could spend lavishly on everything else. Most importantly, they taught us the lost art of delaying gratification; they showed us how to wait for what we want instead of buying it at all costs.

They also taught us to be happy – not only with ourselves, but with what we have. Ironically, these lessons were the best gifts I ever received – and all of them were free.

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.

Related Articles:

What trade-offs help you reach your financial goals?

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on Tony Robbins

Over the last few years, several people have asked me questions about the financial advice being given out by the well-known motivational speaker and entrepreneur Tony Robbins. In the past, Robbins was mostly known for his motivational books and seminars and infomercials; I myself have read his earlier books Awaken the Giant Within and Unlimited Power, with some mixed feelings (which I’ll touch on again in a bit).

In the last few years, however, Tony has published two different books on personal finance – Money: Master the Game and Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook. Those two books in particular, along with some of the interviews he’s given as well as the recent documentary about Tony (I Am Not Your Guru), have triggered the questions that readers have sent to me.

Honestly, I’ve been putting off those questions because I wanted to give myself the time to actually read some of his books and interviews (and watch the above documentary), and then give myself some time to reflect on all of this and give my conclusions.

I’ll summarize the multitude of questions I’ve been asked about Tony Robbins down to one single question: Does Tony Robbins offer financial or other life advice that’s worthwhile to me?

My short answer? Yes, but the advice he offers can also be found from a lot of other sources.

Let’s separate out a few things here, though.

Tony Robbins became well known due to his earlier books on personal development (the two I mentioned above, Awaken the Giant Within and Unlimited Power, are definitely his most well known) and his series of seminars sharing those ideas.

I won’t get into the specifics of the message that Robbins delivers other than to say it involves a lot of basic self-psychology and reflection. I strongly agree with some of his generalities about self-empowerment, but some of his specific tactics are on shaky ground. For example, neurolinguistic programming (something he apparently doesn’t focus on as much these days) is something that has largely been discredited in the psychology community. If you stick to his broader themes, Robbins is generally on the money.

So, how did he become successful with a general self-empowerment message with a mix of useful and perhaps not-so-useful tactics?

The key to Robbins’ success, and it’s something you can see every time he’s interviewed or when you see clips of him practicing his motivational work, is that he is extremely charismatic, knows how to ask great questions, and manages to emotionally relate to people extremely well. He is one of the most naturally gifted people I’ve ever seen at relating to people. He’s just simply great at appearing likable and making you feel good about yourself. The message itself becomes secondary because of Robbins’ people skills.

To me, this is really the key of his success. I don’t think his ideas are extraordinary at all. For the most part, he preaches standard self-improvement ideas with a few wonky tactics. Where he succeeds is in his charisma, speaking ability, and ability to really relate to others and seem inherently likable. He is really good at that, and that, for some, makes his fairly standard self-improvement ideas much easier to apply when he delivers them.

In the end, though, self-improvement comes down to you, not to Tony Robbins. No matter how good he is as a people person, it still comes down to your own willingness to make changes in your life. If you’re not willing to do that, then no motivational speaker is going to change anything about you. It all comes from you.

Tony Robbins is an incredibly gifted motivational speaker, but there’s nothing magical about his self-improvement ideas. It’s mostly fairly typical motivational stuff. If you succeed by following his tactics, that’s because you chose to do it. He just pushed a little in the right places.

This brings us around to personal finance. Is Tony Robbins bringing anything valuable to the table with his personal finance books?

In all honesty, Tony Robbins’ personal finance message is pretty standard stuff. Let’s walk through some of the core principles he talks about.

He’s a strong proponent of spending less than you earn – ideally, far less than you earn. Over and over again, he keeps coming back to the fact that you cannot build wealth if you’re spending everything you make. You either have to significantly cut spending or you have to find ways to make more money, period. There is no magic solution to this.

He’s a strong proponent of seeking out investments with low fees. Avoiding fees is a key part of his financial advice, actually. He’s very wary of 401(k) plans because of the fees (unless they offer you matching funds, which more than overcomes the fees). He encourages readers to shop around for other investment vehicles (Roth IRAs, 529 plans) based largely on fees.

He’s a strong proponent of indexing and diversification. He argues on behalf of simply buying a few index funds that are very diversified and have minimal fees and just putting your money in there so that your money is diversified amongst a lot of different assets.

He discourages risky investing. Basically, his philosophy seems to be that if there is even a small chance of losing money over your time period, you shouldn’t be investing in it. Stick to things that have a proven history of returning money over the time you intend to be invested. If you have 25 years until you want to retire, then you should stick to things that will almost assuredly build your money over 25 years (like diversified, indexed stocks). If you’re five years away, stick to things that will build your money over five years with little risk of losing the balance (like bonds).

In summary, Tony Robbins offers an investment perspective for individuals that strongly matches that of John Bogle and Warren Buffett. All of them advocate for investing your money in low-cost low-fee index funds and by living frugally in order to get money into those funds.

I found this perspective to actually be rather refreshing. Quite often, motivational speakers who endorse an investment strategy tend to come out in favor of strategies that are very risky or flawed. Robbins is actually advocating for a very sensible strategy, one that’s based on very solid principles.

So, what’s wrong with this?

The problem I had with the material that I read – and it’s the fatal flaw that keeps me from endorsing his books wholeheartedly – is that Robbins constantly plugs for a particular investment firm that I won’t bother to name here. Suffice it to say that Robbins family has a business relationship with this firm (Robbins openly states that he has been in discussions with that firm for business relationships, but doesn’t give specifics) and that the firm’s version of these investments aren’t particularly strong as compared to the market leaders. There are many firms that offer low-cost index funds with low fees – I personally use Vanguard, but you can find low-cost index funds from Fidelity and even firms with traditionally high-fee investments like Schwab offer some very nice low-fee index funds.

In other words, Robbins hits the principles firmly on the head, but the specific firm he endorses doesn’t seem to follow those principles all that well, at least from my vantage point. Rather than bashing a company, I will say that if you choose to follow Robbins’ advice on investing, be sure to actually do the research on specific firms and the fees they charge before investing your money with them.

Aside from that specific issue of investment house choice, the principles Robbins is advocating for are widely shared in the personal finance community.

Of course, that’s true with Robbins in other areas of self improvement: the broad principles he gives out are quite valuable, but sometimes there is some trouble in the details.

I admire greatly Robbins’ ability to communicate with people and motivate them to make stronger choices that empower themselves. I think that he shares helpful broad principles for self-improvement. However, when it comes down to specific tactics, you’re always better off doing your own homework and getting advice from a lot of sources and knowing how to interpret the advice and the data.

Of course, that philosophy is true when it comes to advice from anyone. Never make money moves based on the advice of someone who doesn’t know your specific situation intimately, and even in that situation, don’t hesitate to get second and third opinions. There’s nothing wrong with using the advice of others as a starting point, but be your own advocate and do your own homework.

Let Tony Robbins be your motivator, but even he says that he is not your guru. Do your own homework when it comes to specific decisions as to what to do with your money – and if you’re not sure how to do it, take the time to learn by reading lots of different personal finance and investment books and articles from a variety of writers. Don’t let any one person do all of the work for you.

Good luck!

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Three Healthy, Cheap, and Exotic Foods to Expand Your Culinary Horizons

Most people are familiar with the common staple foods of the frugal community. Rice, beans, pasta, corn, and lentils are rightfully touted for their versatility and affordability. Or maybe you’re in college, and your cupboard is stocked with Top Ramen. (Don’t worry, it gets better.)

As great as those foods are, I like to mix things up by eating three other, lesser-known staple foods: plantains, cassava (yuca), and sorghum. These foods are widely eaten across the world, but relatively underappreciated in mainstream America.

They’re just as cheap as our American favorites, but they have added benefits. For one, they offer variety. Even the most simple eater gets bored every now and then and wants to try something new. Furthermore, they provide a different balance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than you’d get were you to stick to a more basic diet.

Here’s a bit about the history and makeup of these exotic staples, as well as some tasty recipes.


My personal favorite of this bunch is the oft overlooked plantain. I say overlooked because they can be easy to confuse with bananas, and are sometimes even referred to as “green bananas” or “cooking bananas.” While plantains are a cousin of the banana and technically a fruit, their texture and high starch content lead them to be treated more like a potato than a banana.

Plantains are originally from Southeast Asia, but they’re now widely consumed all over the world, especially in Africa. In some African nations, plantains provide more than 25% of the calories for over 70 million people.

Since they’re feeding that many people, it’s good to know that plantains are packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, and iron.

While very ripe plantains can be eaten raw, most people cook them because of their starchiness. I used to be a fan of boiling them and eating them plain, so my mind was blown upon discovering fancier ways of preparation that tasted much better. Baking is an especially delicious and common preparation method.

This baked plantains recipe is always a hit in my house:

Baked Plantain Chips


  • 2 pounds green plantains
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • Salt and granulated garlic, to taste


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Divide plantains between two rimmed baking sheets. Toss with oil, then arrange in a single layer on sheets. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until golden and crisp, 30 to 35 minutes, rotating sheets and flipping plantains halfway through. Drain plantains on paper towels. Serve with pico de gallo, if desired.

Cassava (Yuca)

Cassava is a starchy tuber (root vegetable) that is widely eaten in the developing world. It is known as “yuca” in America, but cassava pretty much everywhere else in the world. The fact that America uses a different name feels like the vegetable equivalent of our refusal to adopt the metric system. We Americans love confusing people!

Whatever you call it, cassava is a major source of calories for over a half a billion people worldwide, from Nigeria to South America to Thailand. It’s also a vitamin and mineral powerhouse, with particularly high amounts of vitamin C, folate, manganese, potassium, and choline.

As with all staple foods, cassava is versatile. Anything you can do with a potato, you can do with cassava. It can be fried, baked, boiled, mashed, powdered, and everything in between.

This recipe for boiled cassava with mojo sauce is easy and delicious:

Boiled Cassava with Mojo Sauce


  • 3 pounds of yuca
  • 4 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice (about one-half of an orange)
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (about one lime)
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Chopped parsley, oregano, or cilantro for garnish (optional)


  • Peel the yuca and cut into 2-inch pieces along its length. To safely peel the yuca, cut off the end to create a flat, round base. The yuca should be firm and white inside. Stand the yuca on its base on the cutting board for stability to remove the peel with a knife.
  • Cut each 2-inch long piece of yuca in half to form half-moon shapes. In a large pot, cover the yuca well with water, by a couple of inches. Bring to a gently rolling boil. Gently boil the yuca for 50 to 60 minutes until it is cooked through. A Cuban trick is to shock the yuca halfway through the cooking time by adding a few cups of cold water and allowing it to come to a boil again. The tradition states that this helps yuca properly open up.
  • To make the mojo, or garlic sour sauce: Mix the garlic, salt, cumin, orange juice, and lime juice in a small mixing bowl. Add the olive oil to the bowl and set aside.
  • When the yuca is finished cooking, drain and place in your serving dish. Remove the fibrous core that looks like a thick string. While yuca is still hot, pour the mojo sauce over the top. Serve hot. Garnish with a freshly chopped herb sprinkled on top if you’d like.


Sorghum is an antioxidant rich, gluten-free, ancient grain. Those are three buzz-phrases in one food, making you think it’s a good candidate to be the next hyped up “super food” (it’s coming for you, kale).

Whether or not it gains wide adoption with foodies and health nuts, it remains a critical staple crop for much of the world, partly due to the fact that it’s drought and heat tolerant.

Sorghum is high in fiber, contains three to four times the antioxidants of some other whole grains, and is particularly rich in iron, phosphorus, potassium, and thiamin.

As with the other foods on this list, the methods of preparation are only limited by your imagination. For instance, sorghum flour is particularly well loved as a replacement for white flour in making gluten-free pancakes. But, as you might have guessed, I like to keep it simple and boil my sorghum. Other fun things can always be added after you’ve got your base.

Here’s the no-nonsense recipe I stick to:

Basic Sorghum


  • 1 cup sorghum grain
  • 3 cups water or stock


  • Rinse, drain, and pick through sorghum. Combine water or stock with sorghum in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil.
  • Cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer until tender, about 50 to 60 minutes. Drain any excess water.

Summing Up

Plantains, cassava, and sorghum aren’t too common in most American cuisine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate them into a healthy, cost-efficient, delicious meal plan. As with financial planning, diversification can help you achieve good long-term results. Whether you want consistent investment returns or consistently tasty meals, mixing in some of the unfamiliar can be a powerful way to improve your results.

Related Articles: 

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

14 Cost-Effective Things You Can Easily Find at a Secondhand Store

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself in several different secondhand stores, wandering about and admiring the goods on display. I often go to secondhand stores to seek out specific things that I’m looking for, but it had really been a while since I simply walked the aisles and looked around at what was on sale there. Along the way, I found quite a few items that were incredibly worthwhile and surprisingly inexpensive.

Many people, when they consider going to Goodwill or another secondhand store, imagine things like ragged sweaters and mildewy couches, but that’s not where the value is. Here are more than a dozen items I saw at most of the stores I visited that actually provided quite a lot of value for the dollar. The best part? If they don’t provide value to you, you can often flip them on Craigslist and get back what you paid for them (which usually isn’t much).

Here are 14 items I’d always look for in a secondhand store.


Secondhand t-shirts can usually be bought for just a couple of dollars. They’re perfect for weekend wear or activewear and then, when they’re completely worn out, you can add them right to the rag bag and use them for cleanup tasks (I really like using them for washing windows, for example). T-shirts are so utilitarian, and that’s why they’re valuable.

When you go to a secondhand store, browse through the t-shirts they have in your size or in the size of your family members. You’ll often find them for just a dollar or two and, quite often, they look practically new. At that price, you’ll feel completely fine getting them dirty on a workday or on a hike and it won’t feel like a big loss when they end up in the rag bag after a bunch of wearings.


The story that one can tell with t-shirts almost exactly replicates itself when it comes to pants. Quite often, pants of various kinds are incredibly cheap at secondhand stores. They’re perfectly fine for weekend wear and for outdoor tasks or other messy tasks. You won’t feel bad when they wear out completely because you only spent a few bucks on them. Not only that, some pants can have a second life in a rag bag, too.

I have several pairs of pants bought for just a couple of bucks at secondhand stores that I wear when I’m working in the yard or going on a hike or just being lazy around the house on a weekend. I don’t ever intend to wear them in a social situation or at a community event. They’re just perfect for messy tasks like cleaning the garage or fixing a bicycle or hiking somewhere or fixing a fountain pen. If I spill some oil on them or stain them, so what? They’re still wearable for weekend tasks.

Name-brand clothing, or clothing with tags still attached

The third category of clothing that I always look for in secondhand stores is clothing that either has a tag still attached or has an easily identifiable brand name on it. I own Ralph Lauren polos that were bought for a few bucks at a Goodwill, for example, and I’ve found several brand new articles of clothing on the racks there.

It’s easy to find items like these. Just look for garments with the original tag attached or for specific design elements. I usually look for items that are clearly made of good material and just fly by everything else – lo and behold, when I grab an item that’s made of good cloth and see that the stitching is well-executed, I’ve almost always heard of the clothing brand. That’s the only stuff I buy at used stores (aside from super-cheap t-shirts and pants that I intend to wear into oblivion on the weekends).


I consider secondhand bookstores – and the book section at any secondhand store – to be a treasure trove for anyone who enjoys reading. If you spend a few minutes there, you can’t help but find treasures that you’re excited to read or books that might be useful for some project or another. For example, I recently found this wonderful older book with amazing full page color sketches of garden herbs that would look gorgeous in a kitchen in a frame. The cost of the book? $0.75.

I almost always make a beeline straight for the book section in a secondhand store. I’ll look at all the titles, find interesting ones for $0.50 or $1, and walk out of there with two or three volumes. Usually, one or two are for reading for pleasure or learning, while the other one is for some kind of reference or other use – a cookbook, perhaps, or a book that I’ll take apart and use the pages in some artistic way.

Pyrex dishes and cookware

I’m often astonished at the amount of dishes and cookware that one can find in a secondhand store, and while much of it is just mishmashed plates, you’ll often find some really high-quality stuff in there. I almost always look for Pyrex items, because Pyrex stuff is practically indestructible in a home kitchen and can often be found for just a buck or two at secondhand shops.

In fact, it’s because of this constant hunting for Pyrex that we have Pyrex baking dishes that we can use for freezer meals. If you can find a Pyrex baking dish with a lid in a secondhand shop and you cook at home at all, it’s probably worth picking it up because it’ll probably have a $1 or $2 sticker on it. You will find uses for it. I find such items every few visits to a secondhand store with a kitchen section.

Cast iron cookware

Another kitchen item that I find regularly in secondhand stores, though perhaps not as often as Pyrex, is cast iron items, whether enameled or otherwise. Almost always, when I find these items, they basically look new but they have a price tag on them that’s about 10% of what they would cost in the store.

Cast iron cookware will basically last forever, so if you can find an enameled cast iron pot for $5-10 at a store, it’s one of the best items you can find. You can use it on the stovetop, in the oven, and in the freezer, and it’ll roll through all of it.

Admittedly, cast iron items are a bit rarer than Pyrex in secondhand stores, but I find them regularly enough that I probably have no need to ever buy anything cast iron again for the rest of my life.

Small kitchen appliances

On the other hand, something more common than cast iron in secondhand stores are small kitchen appliances. You almost can’t go into a secondhand store without finding a bread maker or a food dehydrator or a rice cooker or a vegetable steamer or a stand mixer or a toaster oven, often marked down to just a buck or two. I would almost never buy any of these items new if I was interested in trying one; instead, I’d just visit a few secondhand stores.

Right now, as I type this, there is a loaf of bread in our kitchen being cooked in a bread maker from a Goodwill store. We have a secondhand stand mixer and a secondhand vegetable steamer in the garage as well (we use the garage for a bit of extra storage for these kinds of small appliances).

Here’s the truth: these kinds of small kitchen appliances probably aren’t a wise idea if you’re paying full price (unless you use them constantly and know exactly what features you need), but if you’re interested in trying them and seeing how much time they can save you at home, buying one for $5 at Goodwill is a good bargain. Plus, if you ever tire of it, you can usually flip it and get most of your $5 investment back on Craigslist.

Video games

If you go into a secondhand shop and spot games for a current generation console (PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and Switch, as of this writing), you can almost always flip them for a profit. They’re one of the easiest things to profit from at a secondhand shop – I’ve done it more times than I can count. Just check eBay quickly for current used prices on those games.

On the other hand, I have fond memories of visiting my aunt when I was a child. She had a box that contained a video game console and piles of games for it – sometimes, it was already hooked up and ready to play. It wasn’t a current generation console, but there were so many games to try that we really didn’t care. I later learned that everything she had was acquired for pennies at a secondhand shop. She spent maybe $10 or $15 over the course of a few years and maybe $1 or $2 here and there after that to have an item that visiting children were thrilled to play, always with fresh games to play. If you can find a used console for a few bucks at a store (and the store verifies that it works and would allow you to return it if there’s a problem), pick it up. You can find oodles of games for dollars or even pennies for previous generation consoles at used game stores. Having an Xbox or a PS2 with a dozen games in a box somewhere is going to make visiting relatives love you. Plus, you can eventually flip them back for what you paid for them.

Board games

Here’s the trick with board games: most of what you find in a secondhand store is utter trash that people simply don’t want to play. What you’re looking for, in terms of flipping or in terms of family fun, are games that you don’t expect to see. Ignore the copies of Monopoly and Scene It! and look for games with less familiar titles. Almost always, these are the most enjoyable games available for sale there, and they’re usually priced for just a dollar or two because the person handling pricing doesn’t know what they are.

Take a peek at BoardGameGeek if you spy an unfamiliar game. That site will tell you quickly if a game is worthwhile – if it has a rating above a 6.5, it’s a well regarded game. Having a few well-regarded board games in your closet for a few bucks is perfect for situations where you have guests or family visiting. Similarly, it’ll also tell you what you might be able to flip the game for – and you’d be shocked how much they can flip for. I flipped a recent board game bought at a thrift store for $3 and received about $100 in return for it.


Many secondhand stores have a robust supply of tools of different times, from simple things like hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and socket sets to small power tools. The best part is that these tools can often be had for pennies, whereas the same item might cost you $10 or so at a hardware store.

If you simply need to have a few Phillips screwdrivers of various sizes around the house for various screws (something that’s a good idea for almost everyone), the place to find them is a secondhand store. Just be patient, as different stores will have different items available. Having said that, much of our toolbox in our garage has been filled with items from secondhand stores.


You can often find many empty photo and portrait frames in secondhand stores, and you’ll sometimes find them with items already inside, ready for display. In either case, it can be a great way to acquire a frame for hanging almost any kind of decoration.

I love it when I can find an 8″ by 10″ frame for a dollar in one part of a secondhand store, and then head over to another part and find a record cover to crop or a book with some beautiful drawings in it that can be removed. For just two or three bucks, you suddenly have a beautiful and interesting and unique wall hanging for your home. The best part? These are the types of hangings that are easy to rotate. Just move the different frames around in your home and put different items in the frames and it’ll look like you redecorated at virtually no cost.


Another item that often shows up in secondhand stores is the humble mirror. You’ll find full sized ones or small ones intended to be hung on the wall. You’ll find ones with ornate framing and ones that have no framing at all. Again, it just requires patience.

Mirrors make for great wall hangings. You can almost never go wrong having a mirror or two hanging in a bathroom or a guest bedroom in your home. In fact, you can find a nice mirror along with a few empty frames and a book with some interesting pictures to cut out and you have the full decor you need for a very distinctive guest bedroom for less than twenty bucks; it’ll be completely unique, very colorful, and convenient for guests, too.


Baskets have so many uses around the house. They’re perfect for storage, particularly when you want to keep a bunch of items together for a single hobby (like, for example, knitting supplies and yarn). They’re wonderful for picnics or other out-of-the-house excursions. They even work well for giving larger gifts, as I’ve given gifts in a basket and included the basket as part of the gift itself (just putting a bow on top of it).

The best part? Baskets show up at secondhand shops all the time. They might be a bit dusty, but it doesn’t take much effort for them to look wonderful once again, at which point they become perfect for all kinds of household uses. They usually only cost a dollar or two as well.

Wooden hangers

A final item that I always look for at secondhand stores is the humble wooden hanger. I hope to someday have nothing but wooden hangers in my closet. If bought new, wooden hangers can be fairly expensive, but they last practically forever (unlike plastic ones, which often break easily).

Quite often, estates will bring in lots of garments on wooden hangers, so if I find a garment on a wooden hanger, I’ll often find a similar garment that I actually want and swap the hangers (the stores typically don’t mind if you ask). That way, I walk out of the door not just with a new garment, but with a very nice hanger that will receive lifetime use in my home.

Some Final Thoughts

Secondhand stores might have a lot of junk in there that you don’t want, but if you go in there with a set of things that you consistently look for that may be useful to you, you can often find lots of insane bargains and items that you may be able to flip at a profit. I always look for several things when I’m in any secondhand store, from books to good vintage games, from Pyrex dishes to cast iron items, from small kitchen appliances I might want to try to tools I may need for my toolbox, from t-shirts to wear into oblivion and use as rags to name-brand clothing items hidden away with lesser materials. I rarely go away from a thrift store completely empty-handed and I rarely spend more than a few bucks on something that’s really useful to me.

May you have similar luck on your secondhand store visits!

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The post 14 Cost-Effective Things You Can Easily Find at a Secondhand Store appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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There Are Some Debts Even Bankruptcy Can’t Erase

Do severe financial issues have you fantasizing about a silver bullet that can make all your debts vanish? While it’s not exactly that easy, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be able to offer you some relief, and may also potentially protect you from your creditors if you’re facing serious debt problems.

There’s no question that bankruptcy can be a powerful tool to help you wipe out certain types of debt, but it’s important to understand that even bankruptcy has its limitations. For starters, bankruptcy can be very damaging to your credit, making it challenging or even downright impossible for you to secure new financing in the near term.

Additionally, there are certain debts your bankruptcy simply cannot wipe out. They aren’t what’s formally referred to as being “statutorily dischargeable.”

Debts Where Bankruptcy May Help

When you file a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, there are a number of debts that will likely be eliminated upon the discharge of your bankruptcy. If you qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy (yes, you have to qualify), these debts may be wiped out entirely. With a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’ll be required to pay a portion of these debts, but the remaining balances will likely be discharged upon the completion of your repayment plan.

Here’s a look at some types of debt that can typically be discharged in a bankruptcy:

  • Unsecured loans
  • Credit card debt
  • Medical debts
  • Judgments
  • Utility bills
  • Evictions/unpaid rent

Debts Where Bankruptcy Probably Can’t Help

Bankruptcy does not eliminate all types of debt, however. In fact, some debts may never be discharged, others may only be discharged if the consumer can prove extraordinary circumstances, and, finally, some debts may not be eligible for discharge if a creditor argues successfully that they should not be eliminated.

Here is a list — though certainly not an all-inclusive one –to help you understand some of the debts that may not be eligible for discharge in a bankruptcy:

Debts That Are Never Discharged, Even in Bankruptcy

  • Child support and alimony
  • Unlisted creditors: Debts owed to creditors not listed in your bankruptcy generally may not be discharged (unless the creditor has knowledge of your bankruptcy).
  • Government fines and penalties
  • Court-ordered restitution
  • Debts arising from DUI-related injuries or death
  • Certain condominium and HOA fees

Debts Only Discharged Under Certain, Extraordinary Circumstances

  • Student loans
  • Income taxes

Debts Not Discharged If a Creditor Argues Successfully

  • Debts you incurred fraudulently
  • Excessive credit card charges or cash advances made shortly before filing for bankruptcy

Bankruptcy and Your Credit Scores

Bankruptcy does have the potential to offer immense relief to consumers who find themselves in desperate financial situations. However, bankruptcy is not a cure-all for your problems either. If you’re considering filing for bankruptcy, it’s important to consider the impact it may have on your financial future.

Even if you’re fortunate enough to have all of your debts discharged when you complete your bankruptcy, this will not actually give you a clean slate from a credit perspective. Instead, when you file for bankruptcy, the actual filing will likely show up on your credit reports in the same amount of time it takes to boil an egg. After all, a bankruptcy is a public record.

Then, the filing will likely remain on your credit reports for up to 10 years. Additionally, each creditor whom you included in your bankruptcy filing will update their debt to show that it is subject to the bankruptcy filing. These debts can remain on your credit reports for no longer than seven years.

While bankruptcy should be your last option, it’s not necessarily the worst option. Some folks just need to hit the reset button, and bankruptcy does just that. And, in some wacky scenarios, the filing may actually improve your credit scores. If you already have very bad credit reports loaded with defaulted debts, the elimination of those debts can lead to modest improvements in your score. But, you’ll still be going from really poor credit scores to, well, really poor scores.

There just isn’t a silver bullet.

Related Articles:

The post There Are Some Debts Even Bankruptcy Can’t Erase appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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