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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Personal Finance Success and Directionlessness in Life

A few days ago, I received a handwritten letter from an old acquaintance, someone I hadn’t seen in a healthy handful of years. The letter was full of reminiscence, but then it moved onto a request for some advice on some issues that he didn’t know how to handle.

The advice request started out in the domain of personal finance, but as he wrote more and more details, it became clear that the real problem in the whole picture wasn’t just financial.

The key issue was a sense of directionlessness.

The person who wrote the letter was fairly insightful regarding that sense of directionlessness, too. He was aware that he wasn’t being particularly challenged at work and that was provoking a fairly strong sense of frustration. His main financial issue was really rooted in that same sense of directionlessness, as it boiled down to a choice between a smarter short term decision and a smarter long term decision, a fact he already recognized.

The whole letter brought to the forefront a major truth about personal finance: it is really hard to make good personal finance decisions without some sense of direction in life. If you don’t have any idea where you are headed, making the right financial choices becomes essentially impossible.

For many people, this kind of directionlessness in life ends up manifesting itself as financial inaction. There’s no sense of where you’re going, so a lot of financial articles seem to make little sense and it becomes easier to just do nothing and assume that when things become clear in the future, then you’ll make good financial choices. In fact, that was part of what was going on in this letter – the person in question was making some good financial choices in terms of actually putting money into a 401(k), but in terms of other choices, like figuring out whether to rent or to buy, he was stuck, paralyzed by a lack of direction.

So, if we accept the basic idea that directionlessness makes it much harder to make optimal personal finance choices, how does one break through? How does one move from a sense of personal and professional wandering to a state where there’s at least enough forward direction to make some smart choices?

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, from years of working through these kinds of challenges in my own life.

Picture of the Future

My default strategy when it comes to solidifying some idea of the future is what I call the “picture of the future” strategy. I’ve tried lots of different techniques to come up with at least some idea of where I’m headed and nothing has worked nearly as well for me.

This strategy is simple. Just pick a particular point in the future – five years from now, ten years from now, whatever – and think about what you would like your life to be like at that point if things went reasonably well for you. Don’t visualize yourself becoming a world-breaking success and don’t imagine pure failure, either; instead, imagine modest success. Also, try to imagine a life you’re happy with – don’t imagine a life that just carries forward things you dread about today.

What does that look like? What is your job like? Your career? What are your main relationships like? Where are you living? How do you spend your free time? What about that life would make you jump out of bed in the morning with a smile on your face?

Give it some real thought. Don’t jump on board the first set of cool ideas that you have. Think about whether you really want those things. Think about the elements of your life that you want to maintain, and which ones you would really like to improve and what that improvement would look like five or ten or twenty years from now.

I actually do this exercise pretty regularly, at least once every few months. I visualize things at different points, too.

Now, one thing you’ll realize when you’re doing this is that any picture you paint in your mind is not set in stone. It’s not certain at all, especially when you dig into details.

So, why dig into the details, then?

The real purpose of this exercise is to establish the kind of things you want from your future, the kind of things that you’re going to be willing to work for. That doesn’t mean you’ll wind up with those things, but there’s a good chance that, if you set those things as your goal, you’re going to wind up with something similar to those things.

I’ll use myself as an example. Around the time of the birth of my first child, I envisioned myself with some sort of job where I worked from home so I could be there when they got off the bus. This was important to me. My mother was always there when I got off the bus and, looking back, it was a great thing to have that friendly smile and greeting and a snack waiting for me when I came in the door, almost every single day. I wanted that for my own kids.

At the time, I thought I would probably be consulting or something in the field I was in at the time, but I knew that whatever I did, I’d be looking for some sort of path forward that offered that kind of flexibility.

Flash forward to now. I never expected I would wind up being a writer of personal finance and personal growth material, but I did expect that when my kids got off the bus, they’d run home and a parent would be there for them with a snack and a friendly ear that was ready to hear all about their day at school.

It was holding onto that desire for truly flexible hours, however, that led me to where I am today. I am sure I could be making more money doing other things if I so chose, but a big part of what I wanted to do with my life during the years where I was a parent of young children is to be there at home when they got off the bus, and that principle, which I recognized by doing these kinds of pictures of the future, helped guide me here.

Another example: for years, I visualized eventually being a homeowner. I visualized lots of houses, none of which were particularly like the one we live in now. The only certainty I had was that I wanted to live in an area with a lot of stable families nearby for my children to grow up with. Simply knowing that I wanted to become a homeowner had an enormous impact on my finances over the three years leading up to our home purchase.

The purpose of this picture isn’t to map out exactly what your future will be like, because it probably won’t be exactly like that. The purpose is to fill in lots of details so that, through those details, you begin to really understand the broad strokes of your future that are really important to you.

If you’re visualizing a life where you greet your kids where they come home off the bus, you’re probably wanting a future with employment with flexible hours.

If you’re visualizing a life where you have a nice large home, you’re probably wanting to eventually become a homeowner, probably in a place with a relatively low cost of living so you can afford that home.

If you’re visualizing yourself spending your time on particular projects, you’re probably either going to want to steer your career in that direction or else start building a side gig that takes you there or else commit fully to the idea of your job being mostly a support for that greater interest.

The weather that you visualize probably shapes where you’ll live, too. I often visualize chilly fall weather when I think about the future, where there are leaves falling and a strong chill in the air and maybe even some snow, but not blistering cold. Thus, the upper Midwest or New England make sense for me.

The whole purpose of these kinds of pictures is to fill in many of the broad strokes of where you want to go in life so that you have a framework to use when making professional and financial and personal decisions going forward.

If You Don’t Like How Things Are Right Now, Start Doing Something Different

Quite often, directionlessness comes from a life with which you’re very happy with some aspects but generally indifferent to many others and unhappy with still others, and there’s an underlying gentle fear that making big changes will cause you to lose the elements you’re happy with.

Maybe you have a stable job that pays well, which you’re happy with, but you yearn for new challenges and those new directions are stifled. You don’t want to lose the stability that you value, but the happiness of that stability is counterbalanced (or more) by the yearning for new challenges.

Maybe you have a family that you adore, but you utterly loathe your overall career path, but you have this underlying fear that making a radical change to that path will undermine your family’s happiness. Or, maybe you’re single and you love your social and cultural life, but your career makes you feel empty.

Maybe the reverse is true – you have a job that you really love, but you have this underlying sense that it’s everything to you and you don’t have any room for anything else in your life. You don’t want to sacrifice this job that you deeply enjoy just to find more enjoyment in your other areas of life.

Our tendency as humans is to simply hold things in place out of fear of losing what we love about our lives, so we wind up tolerating the things we don’t like about our lives. In other words, we resist change, and when resisting change means a life with some aspects we don’t enjoy, that can really end up feeling like directionlessness. “I don’t fully like where I’m at, but I don’t want to lose what I have, so I’ll just stay put.”

The problem is that in accepting that kind of directionlessness, you abandon the search for better things in those areas that you’re lacking. That, of course, means that those things will never get better.

The best solution here is to never stop looking for ways to improve the areas of your life that you’re not happy with. Ever.

If you’re unhappy with your financial life, start looking at how you’re spending money. How much of your money is spent on unimportant things that really have no lasting impact on your life? Cut all (or at least most) of that out of your life.

If you’re unhappy with your job, start looking for ways to improve that situation without rocking the boat. Use your downtime to build something new, or if you’re in an overstuffed job, focus on tasks that are really resume-worthy and keep that resume polished up. If you’re in a job that seems to absorb all of your time even though it’s pretty flexible, consider some new approaches within that job, like forming new sub-groups of people to work with or building new relationships with people you don’t know as well.

If you’re unhappy with your social life, start checking out meetups, just to see what’s out there. Go to a few, even if you’re nervous about the prospect. Make an agreement with yourself to stay for a certain period of time, and to have a meaningful conversation with at least three people.

Obviously, these kinds of changes are good things, but how do these changes help with an overall sense of directionlessness?

First of all, if your life is in a good place, a direction forward comes almost automatically. If you like how things are, you’re going to want to make choices that preserve and enhance your current life and set the stage for things that are clearly coming down the road. Dealing with the aspects of your life that you’re unhappy with directly can really help.

Second, making attempts at solving what seems like the biggest problem in your life can sometimes expose the real problem, which isn’t immediately obvious. Digging into a career dissatisfaction issue might uncover that the real problem is the lack of meaningful social connections, for example; you’re digging for more meaningful work relationships that just aren’t there in order to make up for having fewer meaningful relationships outside of work, which is what you really need to work on.

Finally, trying new approaches to one’s life problems often uncovers new sources of happiness and joy that you didn’t expect. Going to a meetup might expose you to a new hobby that you deeply enjoy, or helps you find a new circle of friends. Pursuing further education through your workplace might light a fire in your life that wasn’t there before because you’re engaged in the new topics so deeply.

When You’re In Doubt, Choose Flexibility

Even if you apply the above strategies, you still might find yourself less than sure about what to do going forward. I know that I oscillate back and forth between having a really clear direction for the future and being less certain about things, even though I’m pretty happy with how things are and I know generally where I want to go from here all the time.

If you find yourself uncertain as to what the future might hold for you, my honest suggestion is to choose the path forward that offers the most flexibility.

What does that mean?

For your living quarters, lean toward renting over owning. Renting usually has a lower monthly cost and it is much easier to extract yourself from a rental situation than a house with a mortgage on it. Homeownership is a great way to build equity, but it only really begins to click after you’re in the house for a few years, the growth in the value of the house has compounded a little, and you’re past the worst part of your mortgage (when payments are almost entirely going to interest). If you’re not sure where you’re going to be living in the next few years, rent, don’t own.

For your savings, lean toward options that are low risk and fairly liquid. In general, when you raise the risk level of investments, you increase the chance of losing money in the short term so that you have a better average annual rate of return in the long run. For example, compare a savings account to investing in the stock market. A savings account is going to return a boring 1% per year, but it’s not going to lose money no matter what. Stocks might average a 7% annual rate of return, but some individual years might see losses – even big losses. 2008, for example, saw a huge loss in stocks.

As for liquidity, lean towards things where you can extract the money quickly and use it for other things. Again, savings accounts are pretty strong here, as are stocks; things like real estate are a bit harder to quickly liquidate while maintaining your gains.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t save for retirement. Take advantage of a Roth IRA, and especially take advantage of any matching money you might get at work into a 401(k), 403(b), or TSP available there. You will virtually never regret putting away money for retirement. All of us are going to grow older.

For your job, keep your resume and skill set polished at all times. Keep a copy of it on LinkedIn with fresh updates so that people can find you if they have opportunities. Focus on things at work that will directly bolster your skill set and enable you to actually add meaningful things to that resume. Look to add education to your resume as well (though that’s something you should always be doing). In short, put yourself in a position where doors might open easily for you elsewhere, even if you don’t intend to jump right away.

In your social life, focus on connections that may provide a professional springboard or directly lead to new opportunities in life. It’s great to have old friends, but those old friends generally don’t open new doors in life, which is what you need to have if you’re feeling directionless. Don’t toss aside old friends, but put in the effort to build new friendships, ones that might potentially open new doors for you.

If you’re actively taking steps in your life to find a direction, the advice here will work well until you find what you’re looking for, at which point things begin to change. You may start making some longer-term commitments, like buying a home or investing for the long term. You may get more involved in local communities that are focused on improving things locally, like a local church or city or county governance or a civic organization. You may end up shaping your career going forward to meet the specific needs of your current employer.

Final Thoughts

Even at this stage in my life, there are definitely moments where I feel directionless, where I don’t know for sure where my life is headed. In those moments, I take a lot of the steps above: I visualize where I want to go, I look for ways to seed my life with the opportunity for change, and I plan for the prospect of short term change as well.

It’s when those things take root and I begin to feel more direction that I begin to make specific plans to push myself in those directions.

That transition is rarely easy, and it is rarely quick, but it’s well worth working towards.

Good luck.

The post Personal Finance Success and Directionlessness in Life appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Earn Cash Back with the Top Holiday Toys of 2017

If you’re the type who likes to plan ahead, chances are you’re already trying to strategize how to get the best Holiday gifts at the lowest prices. And Walmart’s trying to appeal to early shoppers: The retail giant has recently released its list of the most popular toys for the 2017 Holidays.

Sales are great, but if you’re looking to take your savings even further, a cash back credit card might be the most powerful tool in your wallet. We’ve calculated the total amount of Walmart’s list — which includes Hatchimals, Fingerlings Interactive Baby Monkeys, and the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit — to be $597.67. We’ve measured that amount against our list of the best cash back credit cards of 2017, to show just how much you could save.

Note: For toys with multiple prices, we’ve selected the average amount. Cash back is rounded to the nearest cent. Pricing does not include shipping and handling costs.

Credit Card Cashback Rate Total Return
Discover it® – Cashback Match™ 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else $5.98
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express 6% at U.S. Supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% on everything else $5.98
Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card 3% on gas, 2% on grocery stores, and 1% everywhere else $5.98 + Bonus
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card 1.5% on all purchases $8.97 + Bonus
Chase Freedom® 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else $29.89 + Bonus
Barclaycard CashForward™ World Mastercard® 1.5% on all purchases $8.97
Chase Freedom Unlimited® 1.5% on all purchases $8.97 + Bonus
Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card 1.5% on all purchases $8.97


The Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card, Chase Freedom® card, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® each offer a $150 signup bonus when cardholders spend $500 or more within a specified amount of time. 

Breaking it down, card by card

Earn 6% at U.S. Supermarkets, 3% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, 1% on everything else

  • While cardholders earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, American Express considers Walmart a “superstore” instead of a grocery store, so cardholders only earn 1%. But if you spend $1,000 in purchases within your first three months of card ownership, you’ll earn $200 back. That’s an impressive savings. And rewards dollars can be redeemed as statement credits, good for any purchase.

Earn 5% for rotating categories, 1% on everything else

  • The card offers 1% cashback on all purchases, as well as 5% cashback on purchases made within select categories that rotate quarterly. Through December, that includes 5% cash back for purchases made through Amazon.com and Target. (Discover members should be sure to activate their 5% bonus through their account.) It’s possible that cardholders could find more value at either Amazon or Target as opposed to Walmart. And don’t forget about the dollar-for-dollar cashback match at the end of your first year of card membership!
  • cardholders earn 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter (so long as they activate via their Chase profile). From October to December, that includes 5% cashback at all Walmart stores and other department stores. Otherwise, cardholders earn unlimited 1% cashback on all other purchases.

Earn 3% on gas, 2% on grocery stores, and 1% everywhere else

  • If you’re a Bank of America® customer, and you participate in Preferred Rewards, the holds the most value for you. In addition to the 1% cash back you’ll earn on Walmart purchases, you’ll be able to earn anywhere between a 25-75% customer points bonus! That’s in addition to the $150 online cash rewards bonus earned after spending $500 in the first 90 days of card membership.

Earn 1.5% on all purchases

  • The offers one of the simplest, highest reward rates of any cash back card. Cardholders earn 1.5% cashback on all purchases, period. Combined with no annual fee, this is one of the most no-frills, flat-rate credit cards available on the market today.
  • The is a useful cash back card for stacking rewards. Cardholders earn 1.5% cashback on all purchases throughout the year. Every time you redeem rewards, you’ll earn a 5% cash reward bonus toward your next redemption. That’s a solid, consistent bonus that lasts past the holidays.
  • The card combines a 1.5% cash back flat rate with a $0 annual fee and a 15-month 0% intro APR period. Customers can earn rewards without accruing interest or fees, making this card a perfect choice for anyone looking to open a new card during the holidays. And you can redeem rewards at any time.
  • The offers a straightforward, flat-rate 1.5% cash back for cardholders. It’s designed for those with average-to-fair credit and can help build up your credit score over time. (As a bonus, cardholders get 50% off of a Spotify subscription.)

Lastly, consider how you’ll use your card post-holiday. Cash back credit cards offer differing rewards rates based on spending habits: Some are optimal for spending in specific categories, while others are optimal for everyday expenses. For more info on the cards in this list, and to see which card is right for you, check out our list of the best cash back credit cards of 2017.

 

The post Earn Cash Back with the Top Holiday Toys of 2017 appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Guanxi: Thoughts on Building Relationships for Professional and Personal Success

Over the years, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some great friends from other cultures. Back in the late 1990s, I was lucky enough to have my time on this earth overlap with a wonderful guy from China, a guy whose laughter could fill a room at certain times, a man who would have your back whenever you needed it, a person who always seemed to have the right question to ask, an individual who seemed to click in any group he was in.

Most of the time, when I spent time with him, he would dress very casually and seem very loose and humorous. He usually wore a rumpled sweatshirt and blue jeans. At other times, I’d see him with other groups and he might be dressed to the nines in a business suit and seem as serious as can be, or I might find him with a group of his peers, dressed in sharp business casual clothes while engaged in thoughtful conversation.

I asked him about it once and he told me that the most valuable lesson he learned from his parents is that it was always well worth his time to put himself in positions where the people around him felt comfortable with him as a peer, because from there he could start building relationships that felt equal on both sides. For him, that often started with clothing.

He called this “guanxi,” and spelled it out for me. I jotted it down in my notebook next to his own beautifully written characters, ruminated on it, and then eventually it spilled from my mind.

The other day, I was leafing through some of my old notebooks and found that page of notes. All it said there was “guanxi,” along with the term written in simplified Chinese characters that he’d written on the page for me. Back then, I wrote it down with the intent of remembering it and looking into it later… and, I guess, almost twenty years after the fact, “later” has finally come around.

Wikipedia offers a great introductory explanation of guanxi: “Guanxi (Chinese: 关系) describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence (which can be best described as the relationships individuals cultivate with other individuals) and is a central idea in Chinese society. In Western media, the pinyin romanization of this Chinese word is becoming more widely used instead of the two common translations of it – “connections” and “relationships” – as neither of those terms sufficiently reflects the wide cultural implications that guanxi describes.”

It goes on: “At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon, that is, one’s standing with another. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another.”

“Guanxi also refers to the benefits gained from social connections and usually extends from extended family, school friends, workmates and members of common clubs or organizations. It is customary for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships, which may expand in a huge number of directions, and includes lifelong relationships. Staying in contact with members of your network is not necessary to bind reciprocal obligations. Reciprocal favors are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, while failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offense (that is, the more one asks of someone, the more one owes them).”

To summarize, guanxi refers to the network of relationships you have with people and the reciprocal favors that are done within those relationships.

As is natural when one learns about something like this, I immediately translated this into my own life.

I have a pretty wide social network, encompassing people in a lot of different locations, with different backgrounds, in different career paths, and at different socioeconomic levels. If needed, there are several dozen people I feel like I could tap for a personal or a professional favor and reasonably expect it to have positive results. Most of those favors are on the back of favors done in the past, often a chain of favors that we’ve shared over the years. Those favors and relationships add up to a lot of value, something I can tap if I ever need to do so.

This brings me to a few observations.

First of all, it’s almost always worth my while to do a favor for someone else, particularly when the favor has low cost for me personally. If someone I know needs help and I can provide that help without exceptional effort, I almost always do so without even thinking twice about it. I’ll offer advice in an area I know well. I’ll introduce people. I’ll lend a book. I’ll give a recommendation or write one. I’ll listen to their story and give the best suggestions I can. I’ll help people with tasks like moving furniture or boxes. You get the idea.

I do those things without any specific reciprocity in mind. I don’t expect anything for doing things for other people, not at all, unless there’s an extensive personal cost of time or money or energy for me. When someone needs a hand, I give it.

Sometimes, those favors are in fact completely invisible. I have recommended friends without their knowledge. I help friends out of trouble without their asking. I’ll sometimes just offer things if I see that they’re needed. I don’t just wait to be asked, and I sometimes do positive things without the person even knowing about it.

I come to view people I help as then being part of my larger social network. If we’re not already friendly, I expect that we will be if I’ve done a favor for you. If I see people I’ve helped in public and they’ve not wronged me, I’ll greet them.

Of course, when the time comes and I need help, I feel okay asking almost anyone in my network for a favor, though I try to look for someone for whom the favor is low effort. If I need someone to watch my children for a bit when I get off the bus, I’ll ask my neighbor. If I need help with dog care, I’ll talk to my dog lover friend. You get the idea.

I don’t mind it if complex favors are declined, but if simple ones are declined, I begin to doubt the relationship. If I ask for something from someone and the favor seems trivial and they just don’t bother without a very clear reason, I tend to start to view them as someone who wants to just use me, especially if the lack of reciprocity is repeated.

That’s how I view practical guanxi in my life.

Now, guanxi isn’t a cultural thing in America as it is in China. It’s merely something I value personally. I think that many relationships are often made of a long series of small favors, and that those favors actually add up to a lot of value, because favors are usually things that are hard for the person asking but easier for the person that’s asked. Over time, if you have a lot of people who you’ve built relationships with who are willing to do favors for you, things that are hard for you but easy for them, you’ve got a lot of value in those relationships. It doesn’t need to be a cultural thing.

So, how do you cultivate this in your own life?

First of all, treat others as you’d like to be treated and help them, especially when the required effort is low for you. If you can do something that will really help someone and it doesn’t take a lot of time, effort, or money, then you should do it almost without thought. Not only does this build your relationship with that person, it puts them in a better place. You’re helping to raise the tide, and a rising tide lifts all boats, yours included.

Seek out potential friendships in your own life and don’t be afraid to be the first to help. Put effort into building real-life relationships, even if it’s uncomfortable. Go to community events, especially ones where you will have the opportunity to meet people. Don’t sweat meeting everyone, but focus on building just a few relationships each time. I’m an introvert, so in those situations, what I usually do is just commit to having a meaningful conversation with at least two people, enough so that I might have something to follow up with. That’s the start of a relationship, and I’ve built many over the years that have blossomed into great community relationships and even some lifelong friendships.

Put yourself in positions where you can start building relationships without crossing a cultural bridge. This is one of the interesting lessons my Chinese friend taught me. You’re going to always find it easier to connect with people if you’re willing to bend a bit to their cultural expectations. If you want to “challenge their expectations” and change their mind, you’re going to have a much better chance at it once your relationship is already established. Start by being palatable – dress appropriately for the situation, don’t throw up controversial opinions (even if you harbor them), and look for commonalities. Build the bridge first before you cross it. For me, that does mean that sometimes I keep my mouth shut when I might express a particular viewpoint, and that does mean that sometimes I dress in ways that aren’t perfectly comfortable for me.

Accept that some relationships aren’t equal and reciprocal ones. Most relationships you have in life are going to be fairly equal, where people help each other out from time to time in a roughly reciprocal fashion. Some relationships are even ones where the other person is incredibly giving. Both are good. However, not all relationships are like that. Sometimes, people take and take and don’t give back. Unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise, you should de-emphasize such relationships in your life. There are times when friends are down and you need to give far more than you receive, don’t get me wrong, but there are relationships in which otherwise normal people do nothing but take and take, and you should divest yourself from those relationships. It’s not a relationship, then; you’re merely a tool to be used, and no one deserves that.

In the end, I appreciate guanxi as a personal principle, even if it’s not a truly embedded cultural one, and practicing it in my life has been a huge personal and professional boon. I’ve developed great friendships and relationships, saved a ton of money and time over the years, had some career doors open up for me, and been a positive influence in the lives of a lot of people around me, putting all of them in better places in both large and small ways. I now have a large circle of people I know I can ask when I need help, which is incredibly valuable. All it really took was doing favors, particularly ones that were easy for me but really helpful for others, and doing it without question.

It turns out that maybe I did remember guanxi after all.

The post Guanxi: Thoughts on Building Relationships for Professional and Personal Success appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Art of the ‘Dump Meal’: Nine Super-Simple Ways to Get Maximum Efficiency and Value from a Slow Cooker

One of the most efficient ways for a family to save money is to simply eat meals at home as often as possible. Feeding three or four or five people with take-out or at restaurants all the time becomes quickly expensive, even if you choose super-cheap options, and if you consider the health impact of eating restaurant-prepared food, it becomes even more costly. (Research suggests that home cooking is a key part of a healthier diet, simply because you control what goes into the meals and you’re usually using better ingredients.)

The counterbalance to that is our busy lives. For many people – myself included – preparing a meal at home becomes yet another task in a day that’s already filled to the brim with tasks. After a long day at work followed by parental responsibilities and marital responsibilities and community responsibilities and a pile of household chores, simply being able to offload the task of meal preparation can seem like a huge breather.

So, the problem is this: Meal preparation at home is cheaper in the moment and healthier over the long term, but it requires a larger time and effort commitment. That’s an equation that becomes particularly tricky when you’ve got a highly committed life.

Our solution to that has been to find ways to reduce the time and effort it takes to prepare meals at home – in other words, to reduce the friction of meal preparation.

We use a lot of tactics for this. We make meals in advance on the weekends, often by planning a “meal prep day.” We make convenient spice mixes so that it’s easy to just add several dashes to a dish to make it come together quickly. We keep the ingredients for “staple meals” on hand for when we need something we can prepare on autopilot – for example, we always have a box of pasta and a jar of marinara sauce in the pantry and a bag of flash-frozen vegetables in the freezer.

Last, but not least, we have a slow cooker. The slow cooker is probably our most valuable tool for reducing the time and energy investment in meal preparation on busy evenings.

Our favorite use for the slow cooker is in preparing what we call “dump meals.” A “dump meal” is one where you can just “dump” several ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low (or program it to turn on low in a few hours), and then just let it sit there all day. When you get home and are ready to eat, the meal in the slow cooker is all ready to go.

What this often does is that it lets Sarah or I actually prepare dinner right in front of the kids as they’re eating breakfast. I’ll talk to them about their day or about current events or about what books they’re reading at the breakfast table while actively assembling supper in the slow cooker. I’ll flip it on “low” just as they’re walking out the door and put any dishes or utensils I may have used into the sink or dishwasher. Supper prep is complete – all I have to do is serve it that evening!

For us, these “dump meals” are worth their weight in gold. They enable us to have a great family meal together on even the busiest nights, and they make it easy for us to eat in two separate groups when that doesn’t work out (we usually try to make sure that at least one parent eats with each child when they’re eating dinner, so we might have one kid eating with one parent at 5:30 and the other two kids eating with the other parent at 6:15 on super-busy evenings).

Another advantage of “dump” meals is that you can prepare most of them well in advance by putting most or all of the ingredients together in a gallon freezer Ziploc bag or another freezer-safe container and just freeze them until you’re ready to use them. Most of the recipes below work perfectly well in that environment, particularly the soups and stews.

Interested? The first thing you need is a slow cooker, and pretty much any slow cooker will do. I prefer ones that actually feature a crock on the inside and I generally don’t bother with ones with lots of electronics, because that seems to be the element that fails first. My suggestion? Go to your local Goodwill or other secondhand store and find a used slow cooker there. If you can’t find one, then I recommend this 7-quart manual Crock Pot, which is a great slow cooker at a nice price.

It’s also useful to get an outlet timer (like this one). This enables you to plug in the slow cooker and walk away even if the cooking time is shorter than the length of your day. Just set the timer so that there’s no power running to the crock pot until you want it to start cooking. That way, if you have a recipe that requires six hours on low, you can set the timer to turn on the outlet at noon and then the recipe will be done at 6 o’clock.

Here are nine of our favorite “dump meals” – some vegetarian, some otherwise. Most of these boil down to simply adding a bunch of stuff to the slow cooker, turning it on low, and walking away.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Beef Stew

When Sarah and I were first married, this was our traditional Tuesday night meal together during the winter months. We would make a pot of this, and then we’d have leftovers on Wednesday and Thursday to take to work.

Ingredients
– 2 1/2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 celery ribs, sliced
– 30 baby carrots, approximately, or 2 cups sliced carrots
– 5 small red potatoes, cut into small bite-sized cubes
– 1 cup frozen corn
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 6 oz. can tomato paste
– 1 32 oz. container beef broth
– 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried parsley
– 1 teaspoon dried oregano

Directions Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker and set it on low for ten hours. That’s all.

If you want your stew to be a bit thicker, about half an hour before it’s finished, mix together 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water and mix it into the stew – you can do this right when you get home.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Lasagna

This recipe structure works with all meat, all vegetables, or a mix of the two. You can use almost anything there – in fact, just a few days ago, our vegetables consisted of just quinoa. Four cups of it. It was delicious.

Ingredients
– 2 24 oz. jars of your preferred pasta sauce
– 1 box lasagna noodles, uncooked (don’t need the “oven ready” ones)
– 2 cups cottage cheese
– 1 egg, beaten
– 1 tsp. oregano
– 4 cups chopped vegetables of your choice (almost anything works) OR 4 cups chopped cooked meat of your choice (again, almost anything works) OR mix and match the cups
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
– olive oil

Directions Coat the inside of the slow cooker with olive oil. Put about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the slow cooker. Add a layer of uncooked noodles, breaking them so that they fit – it doesn’t have to be perfect. Mix the oregano, egg, and cottage cheese together, then add about 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix as an even layer on top of the noodles. Add about 1/3 of the meat or vegetables as the next layer, then a layer of 1/4 of the mozzarella. Repeat the layers twice more, starting with the sauce – 1/2 cup sauce, followed by layer of noodles, followed by 1/3 of the cottage cheese mix, followed by 1/3 of the meat/vegetables, followed by 1/4 of the mozzarella. Add a final layer of noodles on top, cover it with just a bit of sauce, and put the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan on top. Cook on low for 5-6 hours, using a timer if needed.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chili

This is a fall and winter classic at our house, and it’s so simple that our 11-year-old has actually prepared it before. I told him that if he wanted chili for supper, he could make it himself, and I handed him the recipe card for it. He put it together and started it himself and it turned out wonderfully. The optional ingredients at the bottom are purely to taste, as chili has infinite variations.

Ingredients
– 1 pound uncooked lean ground beef or turkey OR 2 15 oz. cans black beans OR 2 15 oz. cans red kidney beans OR 1 can each
– 1 15 oz. can red kidney beans OR 1 15 oz. can black beans (in addition to the first ingredient)
– 1 15.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes (28 oz)
– 2 cups water
– 1 medium onion, finely chopped
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
– 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)
– 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (optional)
– 1/2 cup leftover dry red wine (optional)
– 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
– 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce (optional)
– A dozen chocolate chips (optional)

Directions Mix everything together and cook on low for 8 hours. Remember, use one can of beans only if using meat; use three cans of beans total if making a vegetarian version.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Pot Roast

With this recipe, it’s well worth your while to get a good roast. Chuck roast works best, but you can substitute a beef brisket or a round roast if you don’t have a chuck roast available. If you’re pulling the roast from the freezer, make sure it’s fully thawed before using this recipe or else it won’t be fully cooked.

Ingredients
– 2 to 3 lb chuck roast
– 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
– 1/2 medium bell pepper, chopped (any color will do)
– 2 stalks celery, chopped
– 2 large potatoes, chopped into bite sized pieces
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 1/2 cups beef broth (or 2 beef bullion cubes and 1 1/2 cups water)
– 1/2 cup tomato sauce
– 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Directions Place the roast in the bottom of the slow cooker. Place the vegetables on top of and around the roast. Add the other ingredients on top of the vegetables. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Chicken or Vegetable Tetrazzini

This recipe does require a bit of extra effort in the morning before you leave – you need to boil up some pasta and put it in the fridge! You’ll add it right at the end, within a few minutes of actually serving it (I like to add the cooked pasta just before setting the table for dinner, then put the crock directly on the table after the table is set).

Ingredients
– 2 pounds chicken breasts, sliced into 1″ thick strips, OR 4 cups vegetables of your choice (for a vegetarian version – I like using just a standard frozen vegetable mix)
– 1/2 small white onion, diced
– 8 button mushrooms, sliced
– 1 cup broth, vegetable or chicken
– 3 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
– 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
– 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
– 1 8 oz. package cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1/2 to 1 pound spaghetti noodles, cooked to package directions

Directions Put the cream cheese, mozzarella cheese, and cooked spaghetti noodles in the fridge for later. Add the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker and cook on low for eight hours. About ten minutes before serving, add the cream cheese to the slow cooker, then use two forks to shred the chicken breasts, then add the pasta. Just before putting it on the table, put the mozzarella cheese on top.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Potato Soup

This is about as easy as it gets. Can you chop a few potatoes? Can you cut cream cheese into cubes? Can you put ingredients into a slow cooker and turn it on? Then, my friend, you’re in for some delicious potato soup!

Ingredients
– 8 small yellow potatoes, cut into bite-sized cubes
– 1 small onion, finely diced
– 4 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
– 1 tablespoon salt
– 1 tablespoon black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon paprika
– 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
– 2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, cut into small cubes
– 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Directions Put everything but the cream cheese and the cheddar cheese in the slow cooker and turn it on low for 8 hours. Before serving, stir in the cream cheese until melted. Serve with the shredded cheddar as topping. If you wish to thicken it, add a tablespoon of corn starch or flour and stir when it’s hot and repeat until it’s at your desired thickness.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Frittata

I like this recipe because you can pretty much use any ingredient you want and come out with something tasty. It is super flexible, and it’s almost never failed me as long as I stick to something that at least seems reasonably palatable. I sometimes make this before I go to bed and then start it when I first wake up on a Saturday morning so we can have it for breakfast, but it also works well for dinner.

Ingredients
– 4 cups cooked meats or uncooked vegetables of my choice, cut into small pieces (ham, broccoli, onion, bacon, steak, carrots, spinach – almost anything works)
– 8 ounces Swiss cheese, sliced thin
– 12 eggs, beaten until consistent
– 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
– 2 teaspoons salt
– 1/4 teaspoon tarragon
– 1/2 teaspoon basil
– 1/2 teaspoon thyme
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– nonstick cooking spray

Directions Mix the pepper, salt, tarragon, basil, thyme, and garlic with the eggs and set aside for a moment. Spray down the inside of the slow cooker thoroughly. Add the meats and vegetables to the slow cooker on the bottom, then put the sliced cheese on top of those ingredients, then pour the egg mix on top. Cook on low for three hours, no more.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Red Lentil Curry

This is my wife’s favorite slow cooker recipe of all time. I think she would make this weekly for herself and just subsist off of it if she were single. She always makes a double batch of this and then takes the leftovers to work several days in a row. This is her particular version of the recipe.

Ingredients
– 4 cups brown lentils, uncooked
– 2 onions, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
– 2 tablespoons butter
– 6 tablespoons red curry paste
– 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala
– 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
– 1/2 teaspoon sugar
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
– 2 28 oz. cans pureed tomatoes
– 6 cups water
– 1 cup coconut milk
– rice or naan bread for serving

Directions Add all ingredients but the coconut milk to the slow cooker, stir, and cook on low for 8 hours. If you come home and it looks dry, add more water to your own judgment – different lentils absorb water differently, and sometimes it can end up soaking up all of that liquid. Just before serving, mix in the coconut milk.

Slow Cooker ‘Dump’ Black Bean Soup

Since we just listed Sarah’s favorite recipe, we’ll finish off with mine. I seriously cannot get ENOUGH of this stuff. I love this soup so much I have actually eaten it for breakfast. I will eat it and eat it and eat it and eat it. I love black beans and I love how this soup comes out. (I just wish the rest of my family all loved it, too, so we could have it twice a week.) Plus, it’s really really easy.

Ingredients
– 3 cups dried black beans, soaked in water (see directions)
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1 large yellow onion, chopped
– 1 orange bell pepper, chopped
– 1 red bell pepper, chopped
– 5 garlic cloves, minced
– 8 cups vegetable broth or vegetable stock
– 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
– 2 teaspoons salt
– sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese, to serve

Directions The night before, put the beans in a separate pot and cover them with water so there’s at least two inches covering the top of the beans. Put a lid on the pot and let it sit overnight, at least eight hours (do it in the early evening and you’re fine).

You can do this part the night before, too. Add the oil to a skillet and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the onions, peppers, and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent. Add 1/2 cup of the broth to the skillet while it’s still hot. Save the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid.

In the morning, pour the water off the beans, rinse the beans a bit, and add the beans to the slow cooker. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, and liquid to the cooker, too, along with the rest of the broth/stock, the cumin, and the salt. Cook on low for 8 hours. Serve with the sour cream, tortilla chips, and shredded jack cheese. Eat more of it than you should (wait… that’s my own personal part of this recipe).

Final Thoughts

The best part about “dump” recipes for the slow cooker is that they’re incredibly easy and the actual work can be done in the morning or late in the evening before, so that you’re not rushed at all during the actual meal time. You just come home to a house that smells amazing and serve up dinner for everyone within a few minutes.

These recipes are all very inexpensive compared to going out to dinner and most of them will generate leftovers, even for a family. If you’re not sure if there’s enough for your family, just double the recipe and add a little cooking time.

They’re also healthy, and they manage to be pretty delicious, too.

Slow cooker “dump” meals manage to actually hit the mark for us in terms of fast, cheap, healthy(-ish, in some cases) and delicious, all at the same time. They’re a key part of how we keep costs low, even though we’re busy in the evenings. I hope you find some value in copying these recipes or modifying them to your own use!

Good luck!

Related Articles:

The post The Art of the ‘Dump Meal’: Nine Super-Simple Ways to Get Maximum Efficiency and Value from a Slow Cooker appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Disaster Relief: How to Assist from a Distance

You may be following the news of recent natural disasters from thousands of miles away, wondering what you can possibly do to help. If so, rest assured that the effectiveness of your charitable donations doesn’t necessarily decrease with distance.

A large number of charities and relief organizations are helping victims of Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean, as well as earthquake victims in Mexico. The list includes some of the most respected, highest rated groups in philanthropy, including:

Whether it’s on Main Street or beyond the mainland, the combination of generosity and effective charitable organizations can make a difference in people’s lives. But if you have questions about the process of donating to groups doing good work far afield, we have some answers.

Is international disaster relief tax deductible?

It largely depends on the nationality of the groups rather than the nationality of the people they’re helping.

Many of the nonprofit groups channeling your charity into disaster relief are based in the United States and meet Internal Revenue Service requirements for tax-deductible donations. In the case of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — both U.S. territories — your donations to charities located there should be tax-deductible as long as they meet those same IRS requirements.

Although charitable organizations based in foreign countries generally don’t qualify for deductions, certain Mexican, Canadian, and Israeli charities do.

How do I check a group’s tax-exempt status?

That information should be readily available on the group’s website or in its literature. Signs to look for include:

  • Registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization
  • A statement specifying that donations are tax-deductible
  • An EIN (Employer Identification Number) assigned by the IRS

Also, you can check directly with the IRS using its Exempt Organizations Select Check Tool.

How do I know if a charity is legitimate?

Even though disasters can create opportunities for scams, you have a number of safeguards on your side.

The internet has made it easier for potential donors to do their own detective work and donate safely. You can also check an organization’s credentials with watchdog agencies such as Charity Navigator and GiveWell.

Can I donate credit card rewards to charity?

Many credit card issuers allow you to donate points, miles, and cash back to charity. In some cases, an issuer may offer bonus rewards in exchange for donating to disaster relief.

If you want to donate your credit card rewards, be aware of the card issuer’s guidelines and the intended charity’s guidelines. For example, the value of your points may vary when you convert them to donations.

Also, remember that the IRS typically doesn’t consider such donations tax-deductible. To get the tax benefit in this situation, you would probably need to redeem cash back rewards for a cash payout and then donate that payout to the charity of your choice.

Your support matters, no matter the destination

People in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida still need help with hurricane relief, as do victims of the recent California wildfires. Locations around the country and the world need assistance at any given time. Whether you choose to provide help, and how, is entirely up to you. Just remember that your generosity can cross oceans and span continents, and make a real difference.

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The Most Efficient, Science-Based Way to Learn and Memorize Practically Anything

For the first 28 years of my life, I thought there was only one way to memorize information: brute force repetition. If my schooling taught me anything, it was that the way to do well on tests was to make detailed notes and then read them until your eyes bled.

This style of learning is effective, but only to a point. As we all know, information that was crammed is soon lost.

Much of this forgetting is normal and healthy. Our brains are like computer hard drives with limited storage capacity. There isn’t a need for most of us to remember every capital city in Africa (something I actually had to do freshman year of high school — thanks, Mrs. Heukrodt). Letting go of information is a natural and important process.

But, what about stuff we genuinely care about remembering? What if we need to quickly learn new skills in order to keep up in the workplace? That’s a tall order facing millions of people in today’s ever changing, technologically driven work landscape. When confronting such a challenge, it’s crucial to know the most effective ways to learn.

I found a system that clicked for me when I stumbled upon spaced repetition learning. This system, developed over 100 years ago, was once thought to be the panacea for all struggling students. While it never quite caught on the way researchers hoped it would, it is still used by millions as a way to learn without cramming. Now, thanks to modern technology, there has been a renewed interest in spaced repetition learning.

Let’s take a look at how the system works, and see how the average person can harness its power.

How Spaced Repetition Learning Works

Spaced repetition learning is a system built around the existence of the “forgetting curve,” which refers to how long we can retain a piece of information.

Immediately after learning something, we have almost total recall. Unfortunately, as we all know, it’s a quick downward slope from there. After an hour we remember a bit less. Two hours, less. Two days? Much, much less. This somewhat depressing chart illustrates just how powerful the effect is:

the forgetting curve

Spaced repetition learning tackles this problem head on. It taps into the proven psychological principle of the spacing effect, which states that we remember things better when we learn the information in intervals over a longer period of time, as opposed to cramming it in all at once.

When the spacing effect is combined with knowledge of the forgetting curve, magic happens. That’s because we remember things longer when we’re exposed to the ideas just as we were about to forget them.

Using spaced repetition learning and spreading your study sessions out – in shorter intervals over a longer time frame – can cut the overall time it takes to learn new foreign language words in half.

This incredible effect has held up whether you’re trying to learn a language, memorize body parts while in medical school, study philosophy, and everything in between. It just works. No one is sure what exact mechanism makes it so effective, but it could have something to do with the particular way in which spaced repetition learning promotes neurogenesis.

How to Practice Spaced Repetition Learning

Although I have a tendency to rant against modern technology, there’s no denying it’s caused a revolution in spaced repetition learning. Smartphone and desktop apps, such as Anki and Mnemosyne, help us leverage a a memorization tool we started using in grade school: flash cards.

Apps like Anki allow you to create your own, customizable flash cards. If I were learning about investing, a sample card for me might read: “When interest rates rise, bond prices tend to ____,” on the front. On the back, it would say “fall.” There is no limit to the complexity you can come up with, and you can even draw or insert your own images, if you’re more of a visual learner.

The fun begins when you start reviewing your deck. I like to steal study time on my morning commute. I take out my phone, open the app, and I’m presented with a flash card. After answering, I must select from three buttons: “Again,” “good,” or “easy.” These selections determine when I’ll next be asked to study that card. If I can easily answer a question, I won’t see it again for days. If it’s hard, I’ll see it much sooner, usually within minutes. The timing and frequency of when you see each card is built into the algorithm, which takes out any guesswork or calculations for the user.

The algorithmic spacing is key, as the app is tapping directly into the forgetting curve. Science has shown that there is a perfect time to practice what you’ve learned. You don’t want to be exposed to concepts too soon, as that would be inefficient. But, if you’re exposed too late, you’ll have already forgotten the concept.

Spaced repetition learning apps help you thread that needle, presenting you with just the information you need to study at the exact right time. As long as the app can tell what you’re struggling with and what you’re mastering, it will present flashcards at just the right time.

The fun thing about learning in this way is that you can build any sort of flash card deck you want. My Anki deck has things like foreign words I want to learn, famous quotes I’d like to commit to memory, and historical facts. It’s a repository for anything I deem interesting and worthy of remembering. The simplicity, and the fact that it’s all stored in my pocket, makes me more likely to actually study.

It’s also convenient that these free apps give you access to hundreds of user-generated flash card decks. These “packs” are voted on by other users, so their quality has been vetted. If you find one that interests you, it can be downloaded in seconds and you can be on your way to becoming a memorization ninja. Success stories on the internet are numerous, with coders finding it particularly helpful for learning new concepts.

Summing Up

Spaced repetition learning is effective, engaging, and easy to use. If I had known about it in college, it would have made my life a lot easier. However, I think it’s important to note that this style of learning isn’t a magic bullet. It still takes diligence and commitment.

That being said, I find it comforting to know that when I really want to remember something, I have access to a tool that’s scientifically proven to be effective.

Related Articles: 

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Double-Edged Sword of Financial Friction

The other day, I was at a home brew supply store. I had stopped in to simply buy some bottle caps with which to cap individual bottles of my most recent batch of home brew. Such a purchase would just cost a couple of dollars.

While I was in there, I found myself admiring their refreshed sale table – items that were on discount. The local store loves to do this – they’ll put items on the sale table all the time, and they put that table right up next to the register to tempt people.

My temptation was a particular book on home brewing that I’ve been looking at for a while, and it was marked at 40% off.

I thought about it for a minute. Did I have enough left in my hobby budget this month to swing this purchase? I was pretty sure that I did. So, after holding onto it for a minute or two (that ol’ “ten second rule” at work), I decided to buy it.

I took the book home and have thoroughly enjoyed it, but that’s not where the story ends. That evening, I looked through my recent transactions on my credit card and I discovered that I had made another hobby purchase earlier in the month that I had forgotten about, another fairly small purchase that just slipped my mind.

Together, those two overshot my hobby budget for the month.

How did that happen? Well, for one, it was my own fault for simply forgetting how much I’d already spent that month.

At the same time, the pure ease of use of that credit card enabled me to make that poor choice quickly and easily.

That’s because credit cards lack what I like to call “financial friction.”

Financial friction refers to the amount of effort necessary to actually complete a transaction. The less financial friction there is, the easier and faster it is to make purchases, but when it’s easier and faster to make purchases, it’s also easier to make a mistake while making a purchase.

Credit card purchases inherently have less financial friction than cash purchases. With a credit card purchase, you simply pull out a card and swipe it – at most, you just think about which card to use. With cash, you get out your cash, count it out to make sure you have enough, choose the bills needed for the purchase, hand them over, and receive your change from the purchase.

In other words, when you make a cash purchase, you are much more aware of the fact that you are actually handing over money to the retailer, as compared with a credit card purchase.

The same thing is true online. Online retailers do everything they can to reduce friction, taking you from a product page to a “Thanks for your order and payment!” page as easily and effortlessly as possible. Amazon has tried very hard to encourage one click ordering so that ordering dissolves down to one mouse click, for example.

On the surface, low financial friction can seem like a good thing. If there’s less friction in a brick and mortar retailer or at a restaurant, you spend less time actually dealing with the transaction. You’re not standing there counting out cash. You’re not waiting for the clerk to count out your change for you. You just swipe, (maybe) sign, and go. Similarly, if there’s less friction at an online retailer, you can spend a lot less time there – you can have your product shipped to you with just a few clicks or taps at most.

Here’s the drawback, though: the less financial friction there is in a transaction, the less you have to think about that transaction, and the less you think about a transaction, the more likely it is that you’re going to make a transaction that doesn’t really fit into your long term plans.

Let’s rewind back to my stop at that home brewing supply store. That sale item was on the table, so I snagged it and headed to the checkout. If I were paying with cash and I kept my hobby money purely in cash form, I would have seen that I didn’t have enough to buy it when I stopped to actually count out the cash. The simple friction of the purchase would have kept me from making that shopping mistake.

Because I didn’t have that friction, because I went for the low-friction purchase with my card, I didn’t have an opportunity to see that mistake. Instead, I relied on my memory, and human memories are faulty beasts. My memory didn’t recall any exceptional spontaneous purchases and quickly concluded that I had a few dollars remaining in my hobby budget that month, enough to afford that book.

The low friction of that purchase led directly to my overshooting of my hobby budget for the month.

Now, I’m not blaming credit cards for this. It was my own fault that I wasn’t fully aware of how much money I had left in my hobby budget. This was my mistake, without a doubt. I could have – and should have – reviewed my hobby budget before ever setting foot into that store so I would know exactly what I could afford to spend.

The truth is that credit cards and one-click purchasing and all other tools retailers use to lower the friction of purchases are like a very sharp knife. It is not the fault of the knife if you cut yourself. Instead, it is the fault of the operator – the operator isn’t mindful enough of the sharpness of the blade or careful enough to avoid cutting themselves. (I should know – I have a pretty significant slice on the tip of my left index finger that resulted from using a bread knife recently without enough mindfulness.)

In the hands of someone who is mindful of what they’re doing, however, a sharp knife is an incredibly efficient tool that makes meal preparation much faster. A sharp knife reduces meal preparation “friction,” in other words; it cuts down on the time one spends chopping vegetables or cutting up meat.

A credit card is very much like this. A credit card reduces purchasing “friction” – it cuts down on the time and thought one spends making a purchase.

Here’s the thing, though – someone who is prone to cutting themselves with a sharp knife should probably consider changing something about what they’re doing. Maybe they can start using some kind of knife guard. Perhaps the right move is to simply avoid cutting vegetables. Maybe they need to get into a habit of being extremely mindful when they’re chopping vegetables. (In my case, perhaps I shouldn’t try to use a left-handed bread knife for the first time without using extreme care when I’m right-handed and have never used one before.)

Similarly, a person who is prone to making financial mistakes with a credit card should probably consider changing something about what they are doing. Perhaps they should restrict their credit card use to only specific kinds of purchases, like buying gas at the pump, and use cash for everything else. Maybe they should delete their credit card information from online accounts. Perhaps I should keep their monthly hobby and entertainment budget in cash form so that they can keep track of how much they have left.

Perhaps most of all, the lesson here is to respect tools in your life that reduce friction. Anything that enables you to do a task faster than before, with less active thought, is very likely to backfire on you at some point. Think about cell phones – how often have you texted someone something that was ill-considered, or posted a social media response that you probably wouldn’t have done if you had more time to give it some thought? That’s low friction at work. Have you ever dashed off an angry email, something you would have never sent if you were communicating by written letter? That’s low friction at work. You might even discover that you make other financial mistakes besides credit card mistakes thanks to low friction, like buying or selling a stock investment online because it’s so convenient when you would have never done so if there was a bit more friction in the way.

The next time you head out to a store where you know you’re going to be tempted or distracted, respect the tool you’re using to make purchases. If you’re going to use a credit card, take extra care to be mindful of potential spending mistakes that you might make simply due to the low friction. In fact, you might want to consider just withdrawing cash beforehand from an ATM, so you know exactly how much you can afford to spend in there. That adds some real friction to the equation.

Good luck.

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Nine Easy Bean Recipes to Save Time and Money

When it comes to cheap meal staples that work for nearly any budget and dining style, it’s hard to beat beans. Whether you crave comfort food, ethnic dishes, or one-pot meals, you’ll find a ton of recipes that feature different beans as the star.

Beans are also a good source of protein and fiber, as well as a great way to get enough iron, calcium, and other nutrients in your diet. Better yet, beans are downright cheap to buy in a can, but even cheaper if you buy them dried or in bulk. And unlike other proteins like meat or fish, they stay fresh for months, making it easier to avoid food waste.

If you’re trying to lower your grocery bill, want to add new recipes to your menu, or simply want to explore cheap foods to see what you like, it’s smart to add beans to your list. Since you can often pick up a can for $1 or less, why not?

Cheap and Easy Bean Recipes Families Love

Before you throw a can of beans in a pot, it helps to have some recipes in mind. With a few simple steps, you can even make a fancy bean-based meal that will wow your family and friends.

Here are some easy and inexpensive recipes to start with — they them as-is, or experiment with variations to fit your family’s tastes:

#1: Sweet Potato and Black Bean Burritos

I cook this recipe at home all the time, although my recipe is constantly changing based on the ingredients I have on-hand. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • 3 medium sweet potatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Cajun or chipotle seasoning
  • 2 14-ounce cans of black beans
  • 1 can of corn
  • Container of cherry tomatoes
  • Bunch of cilantro
  • 2 avocados
  • 2 limes
  • Flour tortillas

Start by shredding the sweet potatoes with a Veggie Bullet, or grate them by-hand. Spread the grated sweet potatoes on a pan and drizzle them with olive oil. Sprinkle with Cajun or chipotle seasoning and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

Add corn, diced cherry tomatoes, diced avocado, and chopped cilantro in a bowl. Stir the mixture while squeezing lime juice over the top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat your black beans in a pain on the stove for 10 minutes while the sweet potatoes cook. Salt the beans to taste.

Once your sweet potatoes are fully cooked, assemble burritos starting with a layer of sweet potatoes. Add on a few scoops of beans then the mixture of corn, tomatoes, and avocados on top.

#2: Beans and Cornbread

This recipe is an embarrassing one to share, because there’s almost nothing to it — but it’s worth mentioning because it’s tasty and so easy to make. In fact, it’s a good one to keep in your emergency food fund to avoid dining out.

Start with a big jar of Great Northern beans. Empty them into a pot and heat on medium over the stove. Then make your own cornbread, either from scratch or with a mix. If you want to go really cheap, you can go with a box of Jiffy Corn Bread mix for around 75 cents. Just add eggs and milk and follow the directions on the box.

This Betty Crocker cornbread recipe is also an oldie but goodie. All you need is eggs, butter, milk, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cornmeal.

When the cornbread is ready, smother it with the beans and dig in.

#3: Cilantro, Black Bean, and Corn Salsa

There are several good recipes for cilantro, black bean, and corn salsa out there, so make sure to find one you like. Personally, I think that simple recipes with fewer ingredients tend to be better.

The salsa I make is similar to this recipe from Taste of Home. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 cans of corn, drained
  • 2 cans of black beans, drained
  • 8 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped – or one cup cherry tomatoes cut in half
  • Medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • ¼ cup lime juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Tortilla chips

Add all your ingredients (minus chips) in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. I also add around a tablespoon of Wildtree Fiesta Salsa Mix to mine. Serve with chips.

#4: Hummus with Vegetables

While hummus isn’t a meal on its own, it’s a great dip to pair with chips or vegetables for a healthy snack. I like to make my own hummus from scratch with just a few ingredients:

  • 2 cups drained chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • ½ cup tahini
  • ¼ – ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Add all these ingredients into a food processor and pulse until you get the texture you want. You can add more or less olive oil for a thicker hummus if you desire. You can also consider adding spices like paprika or cumin. Either way, season with salt and pepper and serve with chips, pita bread, or sliced vegetables like carrots or zucchini.

#5: Baked Beans

Baked beans paired with ham or cornbread can make a hearty meal, but they’re also a popular side dish. Either way, you can buy baked beans in a can or make your own.

If you choose the latter option, I really like this recipe for maple baked beans from Oh She Glows. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 5 cups cooked navy beans (approx. 3 15-ounce cans)
  • 1 large sweet onion (or 1-2 green onions), diced
  • 3-4 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons regular mustard
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • Handful of dried cranberries
  • Maple butter or pure maple syrup

You can make this recipe in a slow cooker just by dumping in all the ingredients and cooking on high for 4 to 5 hours. Once your beans are ready to serve, drizzle with maple butter or maple syrup.

#6: Beans and Rice

There are a ton of ways to make beans and rice, but I make mine in a slow cooker. Add all these ingredients to your crock pot, then heat on high for 5 hours:

  • 2 14-ounce cans of red beans, drained
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped pepper
  • 2 stalks chopped celery
  • 2 teaspoons thyme
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 cup rice

I like to serve beans and rice as a main dish, but you can serve it as a side dish, too. Since this is a slow cooker recipe, it’s also a great meal to prepare in the morning for dinner that night. If you need it to cook during your workday, follow the same directions but set your crock pot on medium for 8 to 10 hours.

#7: Vegetarian Chili

Vegetarian chili can be made in plenty of different ways, and you can even alter your recipe based on what you have on hand. You can also make it in a slow cooker by adding all your ingredients and heating on high for 4 to 5 hours.

I choose to make mine in a giant pot on the stove top. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 large can tomato juice
  • 1 packet chili seasoning
  • 3 cans diced tomatoes
  • 4 cans kidney beans, drained
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes with green chilies
  • 1 medium zucchini diced
  • 1 box macaroni
  • Shredded cheese
  • Sour cream

Heat tomato juice on medium heat on the stove. As you wash and dice onion, celery, and zucchini, add it to the pot. As the mixture comes to a boil, add beans, tomatoes, and seasoning.

Heat on medium for half an hour, adding water as needed. Add box of macaroni and cook another 15-20 minutes, then serve with cheese and sour cream.

#8: Easy Bean Burritos

These bean burritos are hard to mess up. Kids and adults usually love them, and they’re packed with vitamins, fiber, and protein. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 cans black beans
  • 3 cups shredded lettuce
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • Bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • Shredded cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Flour tortillas

Heat your beans on the stove top for 5-10 minutes before assembling your burritos. Start with a tortilla and add a few spoons of beans, toppings you desire, cheese, and sour cream. Serve with a side salad.

#9: Black Bean Burgers

Black bean burgers offer a healthier alternative for the meat lovers in your life. They may also be cheaper, although they’re definitely more labor intensive than throwing a hunk of hamburger on the grill. Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 can black beans, drained
  • ¾ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon chopped oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup cooked rice

Mix all of your required ingredients together in a bowl, taking special care to mash the black beans. Once your mixture is ready, separate and mold into four separate burgers. You can cook your burgers on the grill, in a heated skillet for 5 to 7 minutes on each side over medium heat, or in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Serve on a bun with cheese, lettuce, and tomato if you want, adding your favorite condiments as you go.

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:

What is your favorite recipe with beans? Please share below.

The post Nine Easy Bean Recipes to Save Time and Money appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Getting Through the ‘Sandwich Years’

A few days ago, I was listening to the always enjoyable Talk of Iowa program on our local public radio station. They were having a discussion about growing old in Iowa, covering the fact that Iowa is considered the second best state to grow old in.

What really stuck with me, though, was the ensuing conversation about the challenges of caring for elderly parents. One caller in particular stuck in my head – she called in wondering about what help is available for those in the “sandwich generation.”

For those unaware, the “sandwich generation” refers to people who are simultaneously providing active support and care for both their children as they grow up and into adulthood and their parents who are beginning to need assistance in retirement. I’ve written about the sandwich generation in the past, along with an update in a reader mailbag, but as time goes on, the subject becomes more and more of interest to me.

Right now, Sarah and I have three kids at home. The youngest one won’t graduate high school for another decade, and we’ll likely have some significant role in their lives during their college years (and, ideally, continue to have some role as they grow fully into their adult lives).

At the same time, my parents are retired and my wife’s parents are actively talking about the prospect. My father, who is the oldest of our four parents, is in his seventies and, although he still gets around well, isn’t in the most perfect health any more. If either of my own parents dies, the other one is going to struggle with single life – they are very dependent on each other.

We are the sandwich generation, and we’re figuring it out as we go along.

Luckily, we have learned a few really valuable things already in this journey, things that have already made a huge positive impact on the way things are right now and how things will go going forward. If you find yourself looking down the road to a point where you’ll be in the “sandwich generation,” here are some things to start considering.

First, reflect on what you want.

This is the absolute first step in this process. You need to step back, look at the broad situation, and think about what you want your role to be in all of this.

How involved do you want to be in the care of your parents as they decline? Are you willing to be a caregiver? Are you willing to move into their home, or have them move into your home, during their final years? Are you willing to provide some level of financial support to ease their day-to-day life?

How involved do you want to be in your children’s lives as they go through college and then progress into adulthood? Are you going to be their advocate on difficult issues? Are you going to be their primary support channel? How much financial support are you going to provide for their college education and for their life beyond?

Those are issues you need to decide, and you need to figure out your philosophy on those issues well before you’re actually faced with them. Start thinking about it now, while your children are young and your parents are still in good physical and mental condition.

If you have a spouse, start having very deep conversations about these issues with them and openly share all of your thoughts on these issues. Is it really tenable to have your mother-in-law move in with you? How would that even work in a way that would be tolerable for everyone? Are you on the same page with giving your children money during and after college?

Not only will you discover if you’re in agreement on those issues, you’ll also lay the groundwork for working together to make sure you have an approach that you both agree with, that you can represent together to the outside world, and that you can work on implementing together.

Communication is vital; start it now.

Right off the bat, you need to make absolutely sure that you have open and trusting communication with your parents, your spouse, your children, and other key stakeholders in all of this. None of you should be hiding things from one another, because doing that does nothing but ensure that really poor decisions will be made.

If you’re hiding feelings, if you’re hiding financial truths, if you’re hiding health issues, if you’re hiding academic issues, if you’re hiding professional issues – the end result is going to be that people will be making choices that can result in disaster for all involved.

This can be hard to do because it usually ends up resulting in people admitting their flaws and difficulties. All of us want to put on the best face possible. We all want to look strong and successful and coordinated… but, as we all know, that’s not always true. The strongest person can be hiding a health issue. The most affluent person can be hiding a mountain of debt. The happiest person can be hiding depression. The successful person can be hiding a career in crisis.

The thing is, among those core people in your life, you have to let go of that need to put up a false picture. You have to be yourself and tell the truth about yourself, because without that, you have people that you are deeply trusting making decisions that impact you based on false information about you.

If there’s a recipe for financial and personal disaster, it’s that.

Right now, sit down with your parents and put everything on the table. What do the finances look like? What state are your parents in in terms of being able to support themselves? What state are you in in terms of being able to help them? What health issues are lurking that might change this? How stable is the situation, on both sides? What does the insurance look like?

Furthermore, how willing are both sides? What help can you really provide without creating unacceptable problems in other areas of your life? How involved do you really want to be? (This is something you should be thinking about deeply on your own outside of conversations.) How willing are your parents to accept that help?

This is not a fun conversation. It never is. It’s difficult, and people always put it off far longer than they should, until problems are right on the doorstep. Don’t let it go that long.

Another important thing to remember is that this isn’t a one-off conversation. It’s a starting point, one that should continue as a conversation for the rest of your lives. When things change, you communicate them with the other people who rely on that information.

This holds true for you and your parents, at least, and for your children as they’re beginning their adult lives. Naturally, younger children don’t need to know all of the ins and outs of everything, and there’s little need for children to know the details of their grandparents’ health or financial issues in any detailed way.

Beyond this, there’s a second and third ring of people that need to be involved in conversations. Your siblings should be involved, too, as they likely have a role in caring for your parents as well. What is their role? What can they do? How involved should they be – or do they want to be?

You should maintain contact with other key stakeholders, like the people who would become guardians for your children should you pass away suddenly. They should at least know the basics of what’s going on with your children along the way, though full openness may not be needed.

Plan out different scenarios.

Another valuable thing you can do as you enter the sandwich years is to start planning out various scenarios. If you’re asking yourself “what would you do if…” and then thinking about realistic responses, you’re in the right area.

Here are some to get you started.

What would I/we do if my mother passes away?
What would I/we do if my father passes away?
What would I/we do if my mother needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my father needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my mother-in-law passes away?
What would I/we do if my father-in-law passes away?
What would I/we do if my mother-in-law needs constant medical care?
What would I/we do if my father-in-law needs constant medical care?

What would I/we do if our child gets into a top flight but very expensive school?
What would I/we do if our child doesn’t get into any good school at all and chooses a non-collegiate path?
What would I/we do if our child continues to need financial support to keep themselves fed? How long do we continue to help, and in what situations?

Are all of these solutions compatible with each other? Can multiple scenarios work at once?

You should be planning out these scenarios carefully, not because everything will go exactly according to plan, but because it leads you down a path of understanding what you will need to do when something similar occurs. Some of these things will occur, after all, and having already considered how you will handle those situations will help greatly when deciding what to do as those events transpire.

Get your financial house in order sooner rather than later.

Here’s the cold, hard truth: You don’t want to be in a situation where your parents or children really need your help and you spent it all a few years ago on ski trips or a fashionable wardrobe. That is a position that you will regret for the rest of your life.

Right now, before you’re pressed into the middle of that sandwich, you have choices on your plate that will shape your options when you find yourself there. If you start preparing financially now, you’ll be able to handle whatever is thrown at you in those situations and, if the situations go well, you’ll have plenty of resources left over.

Not only are there financial considerations, there are also quality-of-life considerations. Do you have a career path that has flexible working hours? What about paid family leave? Some career paths even have jobs with child care and senior care benefits. Those should be part of the consideration when deciding on your next career stop or two, not just salary.

On the other hand, if you don’t prepare now, you may just find yourself facing situations that you can’t resolve because you’ve spent so much of your money already on unnecessary things.

All I can say is that right now, on the precipice of a lot of hard decisions, I am incredibly heartened by the fact that we have made choices that will make the upcoming years easier. Our retirement savings is relatively secure. Our children each have savings for education.

Those choices were difficult choices, all the way along. It is really easy to listen to the demands and desires of everyday life rather than pay attention to the big picture. My best suggestion here is to simply keep all of this fresh in your mind. Reflect on it regularly. Ask yourself if the momentary pleasures of today really amount to much compared to that big picture. Don’t deny yourself all pleasures, but toss off some of the smaller ones.

Devote time to self-education for both sides of the sandwich.

Another key part of this is education. Start learning about the realities of both sides of the sandwich.

What are your children’s options going to look like when they approach adulthood? Is college going to be the right choice for them? What are the educational opportunities that they’re going to have before them? What are those educational opportunities going to cost? What kind of financial aid will be available? How much will be expected from you?

There are even more questions to ask yourself on your parent’s side. You’re going to want to know the ins and outs of Medicare, of their various insurance options, of their medical choices. That means staying abreast of the ongoing changes in healthcare law. You’re also going to want to know at least the basics of their finances and who exactly should be contacted (perhaps you) in terms of their power of attorney later on in life. Do they have a will? Do they have a trust, if needed? How do they get those set up?

There’s also you, in the middle. What are your rights and responsibilities as a child when your parents grow old? What about retirement planning for yourself? Insurance options?

There are a ton of things to learn about, far more than I could get into here. I suggest getting started at your local library and checking out some key books like The Family Guide to Aging Parents by Carolyn Rosenblatt and How to Care for Aging Parents by Virginia Morris, for starters, along with volumes like How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

Start reading and educating and thinking now, even if you’re not quite in the sandwich generation yet. If you are, it’s even more important.

Find the right team – and get to know them now.

You’re not alone in this situation. There are a lot of people around you who are going to play a role in the decisions to be made going forward, and you’re better off at least knowing who those people are and making decisions about them now rather than later.

You’ll want to know who your parents’ primary care physician is. You may even want to visit with this doctor so that you know who he or she is, as you may end up interacting with this doctor quite a lot in the coming years.

You’ll likely want to have a family practice lawyer available. If you don’t have a family lawyer, consult your friends and see who they use and recommend. Establish that relationship now so you know who to tap when the time comes.

Other professionals may be of use as well: psychologists, accountants, perhaps even a funeral director. Knowing who to contact in each of those situations and having that information ready to go is useful.

Never forget – you were the child once, and you’ll be the parent someday.

This all seems like an incredible amount of work and worry – and I won’t lie to you, it is.

However, having said that, keep a few things in mind.

First, you were a child once. Your parents did many of these things for you. They thought through these issues when you were bobbing through your childhood and teen years and early adulthood. Most of the time, they did the best they could do to help you. This is now a time to repay some of that to your parents, and to pay it forward to your own children.

Second, you will be old someday. You want to invest in your children now so that they’ll make helpful calls when they’re in the sandwich generation someday. At the same time, your children are watching you to see what you do in this situation. How you treat your parents is going to inform your children on how they should treat you when the time comes.

Third, and perhaps most important, the most valuable thing you can do for yourself is to ensure that you sleep at night with the clearest conscience possible. Yes, this might mean foregoing some pleasures right now. If the choice is between fun during the day or a sound sleep with a good conscience at night, choose the sound sleep at night. You’ll forget about the frivolous things, but the important ones will stick with you.

You were a child once. You will be old someday. Remember what your parents did for you as a child, and strive to do at least as good for your own children. Help your parents now, so that perhaps your children will help you when the time comes.

In other words, if you must be the center of a sandwich, be the best sandwich center you can possibly be.

Good luck.

Related Articles:

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