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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Developing a Real Plan for a Better Life

For the last few years, I’ve done something of an “end of the year” review of my life. I take some time to sit down, take authentic stock of my life, look at what the last year has changed about me and my life, and figure out where I want to go from here.

I do this in the form of a written “life plan.” I invest the time to actually write out my thoughts of where I am in each important part of my life and where I want to go in the future (with “the future” being a bit vague but somewhere in the five to ten year range).

The first time I did this, I followed a scripted recipe based on what I picked up from a few personal development books and I didn’t really feel it. In fact, I more or less dropped the idea after I did it – it didn’t really have any impact on me and I just filed it away and went on with my life.

It wasn’t until I tried it again the next year in my own way, and then revised it again in my third attempt the following year, that I really hit upon something meaningful. That third attempt was at the end of last year and I felt that it led me into a deeply meaningful year.

Over the past year, I feel like I’ve really moved forward in positive ways in almost every area of my life, and I attribute that to having made a really great life plan at the end of last year. It’s something that I’m really relishing this year, so I thought now would be a great time to discuss what I did last year, what impact it had, and what I intend to do this year.

My “Life Plan”

In roughly November of last year, I took two half days and set them aside to write a draft of a life plan. The purpose of this plan was to simply outline what I wanted out of life in several major areas.

The actual process was simple. I simply made a list of the major areas of my life and then wrote out where I thought I was in each area – what was good, what was bad, what made me happy, what made me sad.

Then, for each area, I wrote out a description of what my life would look like in five or ten years or so if I saw some significant success in that area – nothing world-breaking, but something I’d be very happy with. I tried to focus on changes that would be largely under my own control.

After that, I tried to make a list of five to ten specific things I need to do to move my life from where it is right now to that vision of a good future. What action steps and projects would I need to take on?

I wrote out this plan entirely in longhand in a notebook, and I did it in mid-November of last year. I then put that first draft of a plan away in a desk drawer and pulled it out a month later, close to the holidays, and I revised it. What I found was that during the month, I actually thought a lot about what I had written and I revised the plan significantly, eliminating some unrealistic bits, adding some details, modifying the action steps, and so on.

I then simply embarked on several of those actions and projects, intentionally choosing ones I was excited about and that hit upon multiple areas at once. I made a big list of about ten of them and decided that this year would be the year of those things.

Each and every day, I took a look at that list of things I wanted to get out of this year. I thought about what I could do today to move each of those things forward. It became something of a morning routine for me.

So, what did I achieve this year? A few tidbits:

We had the best family vacation we’ve ever had, thanks to a lot of detailed planning and extra effort from me.

I lost about 25 pounds and got myself into much better physical shape thanks to starting taekwondo.

I read more books in a year than I ever have before since I started counting them, and many of the books were deep and meaningful.

I built up and reinforced a bunch of relationships and reconnected with several old friends.

I completely revised my professional routines in a way that feels much more fulfilling.

Our family’s net worth hit an all time high.

I attribute almost all of those things to my life plan for the year that I started last November, and now I’m about to start the process all over again.

So, how can you do this? Let’s take a look!

The Areas of Life

The first part of all of this is to commit some devoted time to doing this. While it’s great to give this process some off-the-cuff thoughts, the whole plan turns out far better and far more realistic and meaningful if you actually wall off some time to make a good plan. This year, I’m devoting a full “workday” to writing a first draft and a half day to revising it.

One thing you can do to get ready for your session is to think about the key areas of your life. There are lots of lists of such areas and I think different lists work well for different people. For me, there are ten areas I really care about.

Physical refers to the state of my body. Do I feel good when I wake up? Do I have plenty of energy? Am I happy with how I look?

Mental refers to the state of my mind. Am I content with my life or envious of what others have? Do I have control over my thoughts and emotions? Am I able to focus when I need to?

Spiritual refers to my sense of connectedness to the world and things bigger than myself. Do I understand of my place in the world? Do I operate with a clear sense of values and morals? Do I feel a sense of inner peace?

Social refers to my relationships with others. Are the relationships that matter most to me strong ones? Do I have a lot of solid relationships with a lot of people? Do I have a place in my community that I’m happy with?

Marital refers specifically to my relationship with my wife. Do we have a good marriage? Am I a good husband? Do I take the time to care for my wife in an appropriate way?

Parental refers to my relationship with my children. Am I a good parent? Do I have a strong relationship with each of my children? Am I using that relationship to build a backbone of strong values in my children?

Financial refers to the state of our money. Do we have clear long term financial goals? Are we making long term moves to approach those goals? Are we acting in the short term in a way that moves us closer to those goals?

Vocational refers to my professional career. Am I happy with my work? Is it fulfilling? Am I meeting the needs of the people I work for and work with?

Intellectual refers to the acquisition and integration of new knowledge and ideas. Am I constantly learning new things? Am I integrating those ideas into what I already know? Am I really challenging myself to expand what I know and understand and what I believe?

Avocational refers to my hobbies and interests and leisure time. Do I devote adequate time to my hobbies and personal interests? Am I getting personal value from the things that I do?

Over the next week or two, give some spare thoughts to each of those areas – at least, the ones relevant to your life. What would your life look like in several years if you took charge in that area and really put in the work to achieve some things that you wanted? Let those thoughts rumble around in your brain. (This happens to be exactly where I’m at right now with my latest plan revision.)

Writing a Plan

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a really good idea to set aside some significant blocks of time for actually writing your plan. I’m setting aside a full workday to do this, which may or may not be possible for you.

Take your list of areas of focus and, for each one, write a paragraph or two (or more, if you wish) outlining where you’re at with that area. Think about these questions as you do it.

Are you, on the whole, happy with this area of your life? Do you feel generally good about it, or not so good about it? Why?

What parts of this area are going well right now? What’s good about this area? Try to come up with a thing or two at least.

What parts of this area aren’t going so well right now? You may be able to list a lot of things, which is fine, but make sure you’re not just rewording the same difficulties again and again.

I often adopt three paragraphs for this part in each section, but I’m a writer who likes to go on at length about things. I devote a full page to each one and write double-lined so I can add in notes and changes later on.

I usually go through all of the areas first, writing a “state of this area” section for each one.

At this point, go back to the start and for each area, write a few paragraphs describing what your life would be like in a few years should you find reasonable success from your own efforts in that area. Don’t write about things that would result from events largely or completely outside of your control. Focus on a good life that you could actually build without your fairy godmother visiting you.

Here are some things to think about.

If I put in a few hours a week into this area of my life for the next few years, what might I achieve? For example, if you were to exercise for three hours a week for the next five years, what would that look like in terms of your physical body?

If I put in that effort and had reasonably good (but not incredibly good) outcomes from the things outside of my control, what would things look like? Don’t imagine a series of unfortunate events, but don’t imagine a charmed life, either. Just imagine reasonable but generally positive outcomes from the things outside of your control. For example, if your goal is about dating, imagine that you’re building a meaningful relationship with someone you’d enjoy, but not the most perfect person in the world. If you’re writing about your marriage, don’t envision a perfect Instagram marriage, but a healthy and realistic one with some give and take to it.

You’ll find that, as you’re doing this, some of the sections have some significant overlap. You might be writing about one area but recognize that some aspect is almost as much a part of another area as it is a part of this one. That’s okay. Don’t sweat it. You can include the same part in both sections if you want. For example, if I write about hiking, it can pop up in multiple sections at once – physical, avocational, mental, spiritual, and even social.

Once you’ve written a couple of paragraphs about your view of the future of each area, go back to the beginning and do a read-through and revision. Edit the areas by eliminating stuff that doesn’t make sense and adding things that you thought of later on while writing about other areas.

Once you’ve done that, go back through each area and make a list of ten to fifteen actions or projects that would help you move from where you are now to where you want to be in that area. What can you do over the next few years that will help move you from point A to point B? Focus on your actions; don’t think about things outside of your control.

You’ll notice that some of those things you come up with touch nicely on multiple areas of your life. That’s great, but it’s not strictly required.

What will happen as you move through this process is that you come up with a lot of things you could do to build a better life – an overwhelming number, in fact. Don’t worry about it yet – you’re not done.

Let It Rest

The best thing to do at this point is to simply let the whole thing rest for a while. A month is a good period of time.

Why do this? Why not take action now when all of this is fresh? The reason is that while this plan might be exciting, it’s also still fairly rough. It’s full of great ideas in the moment, but you shouldn’t commit your future to something you considered deeply only that day. Your plans will fall flat if you do that.

Instead, let it rest. Give some of the sections a thought in your head, but don’t brood over it. A lot of the work here will be done subconsciously.

You might have a big revelation or two during that month, and that’s great. Just pull out your draft and jot down that idea, then put the whole thing away again. Wait. Give it time.

Revise the Plan

After a month or so has passed, it’s time to revise the plan a little and then tie it all together. Give yourself an afternoon to do this.

First, simply sit down with your plan with a pen in hand and read through it. Whenever you see something that strikes you as not quite right, edit it. Strike out sentences. Replace words. Add new sentences.

What you’ll find again and again is that your first draft was good, but not great. It took you to a point that was in the ballpark, but it wasn’t quite there.

That feeling comes from the thinking you’ve done over the last month, where you internally refined your thinking. That refinement is invaluable. It takes something that’s merely interesting and solid into something that really strikes a deep chord with you.

You might even find that a couple of passes through the whole document is the right thing to do here.

At the end, it’s time to come up with a conclusion. Go through all of those action steps and choose ten or so big things you can work on in the next year or so to move you forward in the various areas of your life.

Look for ones that really ring out to you as exciting and meaningful. What ones really seem as though they’d produce great results? What ones seem like they’d be incredibly powerful to actually execute?

Action steps that line up with multiple areas are good, of course, but, again, they’re not necessary. However, you’ll likely find that most of the ones that really ring your bell are ones that have a lot of overlap across spheres of your life. If you nail that action, you’ll move forward in several areas at once.

When you’ve chosen ten or so, make a nice, clear list of those actions. Consider these your goals for the coming year. It’s a good idea to make sure these subscribe to the “SMART goal” rubric: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Is it very clear what you want to do? Can you easily measure your progress (an easy way to do this is to have the goal involve a number)? Is it something you can actually pull off in a year?

Implement and Review

Take those concluding ten or so big actions or projects and print off a few copies of them. Put them in several places around your home.

Each and every day, at the start of your day, look at those ten big things. Ask yourself what you can do today to move forward on each of them today.

For example, one of my big initiatives for the last year was to meditate for ten minutes each day for spiritual and mental benefits. Whenever I looked at my big list, I simply added “meditate” to my to-do list for the day. I thought about how it was really important to me and I blocked off time for it.

Make these a big priority in your life. Spend less time on “time wasting” things and make sure that you’re doing something each day to move forward on these things. Remember, of course, that at least one or two of these things should be heavily avocational, which means that you should be filling at least some of your time with things you purely enjoy, and other things should be deeply fulfilling. This should not feel burdensome, but exciting (at least, that’s how it’s been for me). I usually enjoy doing those things and I feel like I’m really making my life better on the whole when I move forward on each thing.

Once a week or so, review the full plan. Read through it and give it some thought as you go about your day. This only takes ten or fifteen minutes or so – I often do it on Sunday morning.

What I’ve found is that after several months, the plan does fade a little bit. I’ve changed a little. The circumstances of my life have changed a little. I might have completed some of the actions, and some may now be completely normal parts of my routine. Most of the actions are still relevant, of course, but it’s clear that they’re starting to get stale.

That means it’s time to revise the whole thing. In the past, I’ve just tossed out the whole plan and started from scratch, as I’m doing now.

Final Thoughts

This process has been one of the most meaningful things I’ve done for myself over the last several years. It’s helped me fill each day with meaningful things I’m excited about doing. It’s helped me feel as though I’m really moving forward with my life in directions that I want to be going in.

Most importantly, I feel like I am in a better place right now than I’ve been at any point in my adult life when considering all of the areas of my life as a whole. Things are good, and I attribute a big part of the growth over the last few years to this type of planning.

Give this a try. This is the perfect time of year to do it, as it sets you up for a new year of new things, but you really can do this any time.

Good luck!

The post Developing a Real Plan for a Better Life appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Credit Card Tips to Help Shoppers Celebrate the Holidays Frugally

Learn the strategies to maximize the money you spend on gifts.

With the right strategy, a credit card can help you maximize every dollar you spend on holiday purchases — and even earn some of them back. But what type of card should you choose?

A store credit card and balance transfer card combo is usually the scenario that offers shoppers the most benefit. The process looks like this: Shoppers sign up for store credit cards, like the Amazon Prime Store Card or Target REDcard, to capitalize on high-rate rewards; usually 5%. Then, they sign up for a balance transfer card to avoid paying interest. (Many store cards don’t offer introductory 0% APR periods. And if they do, it often comes with a minimum spending requirement.)

That’s not a steadfast rule, though. Depending on how much you plan to spend, regular rewards cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card might deserve a second look.

Here are the most popular holiday retailers and their cards:

Store Card In-Store Rewards Rate Special Financing*
Amazon Prime Store Card 5% 6-, 12-, and 24-month
My Best Buy Credit Card 5% 6- and 18-month
Lowe’s Advantage Card 5% 6-month
Target REDcard 5% None (23.90% APR for purchases)
TJX Rewards Credit Card 10% off your first in-store purchase, then 5% None (27.99% APR for purchases)
Walmart Credit Card 3% None (23.90% APR for purchases)

* Special financing refers to zero-interest promotions or offers that are available to cardholders.

Crunching the numbers

The National Retail Federation surveyed 7,349 shoppers and found that on average, each one planned to spend $967.13 on gifts this year. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical scenario based on that average and compare the value of our two holiday shopping strategies at Target.

Target REDcard vs. Chase Freedom®

The REDcard earns 5% back on most Target purchases, so you’ll earn around $48 in store credit. If you don’t plan to pay your balance in full by the end of the month, you’ll need to conduct a balance transfer to avoid paying interest. (We passionately recommend only spending what you have the ability to pay off immediately.)

The earns only 5% on rotating categories, so unless Target is one of them, you’ll only earn 1% on your purchase. But here’s where it gets interesting: If you spend $500 in purchases within the first three months, you’ll earn the $150 signup bonus. Note: You can redeem rewards for cash back and travel, not just store credit.

Summary: You’ll earn $102 more with the thanks to its signup bonus, and you’ll have more flexible redemption options too.

A note about rotating categories

Many cash back cards have schedules that outline which purchase categories earn a certain rewards rate. (It’s usually around 5%.) The categories rotate every three months and often require manual activation — you have to log into your card’s portal and activate the rewards category.

Here’s a breakdown of a few top cash back credit cards that earn 5% this quarter:

  • – 5% cash back at Walmart and select department stores (not including supercenters, discount stores, or specialty stores) on up to $1,000 in combined purchases through December.
  • – 5% at Amazon.com and Target on up to $1,500 in purchases through December.
  • Citi® Dividend – Earn 5% cash back at Best Buy through December up to $300 in total cash back per calendar year.

Choosing the right strategy for you

A rewards card like the isn’t always the most beneficial strategy. Here are the two most important things you should consider as you determine the right credit card strategy for your holiday shopping:

How much will I spend?

This is ultimately the most important question of all. Rewards cards generally won’t match a store card’s high-rate rewards. (Unless the store happens to fall into your card’s rotating category, of course.) So if you’re considering a rewards card, make sure that you will be able to spend enough to earn the signup bonus.

How do I want to spend my rewards?

Most store cards have high-rate rewards, but it’s important to remember that those rewards exist as a store credit. With a rewards card, you will have far more flexible redemption options, like vacation packages, airfare, cash back, and statement credits.

It’s also important to recognize the implications for people who plan to shop at multiple merchants. You might have thought, “Why can’t I open up store cards everywhere I go and consolidate my debt with a balance transfer?” You could, but by spreading out your spend, you also spread out your earnings. Having $10 of store credit at five different locations might not be as useful to you as having $50 in one location.

Paying off a big holiday spend

Here are two of the best balance transfer cards for holiday shopping:

The Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer card has a generous 18-month intro 0% APR period for balance transfers and no annual fee. You’ll have to pay a 3% balance transfer fee, but its zero-interest period is one of the best out there. On top of that, you can earn 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target through December, on up to $1,500 in purchases after you activate.

The BankAmericard® Credit Card offers a 15-month introductory 0% APR on balance transfers. It’s one of the most inexpensive options because there’s no fee for balance transfers made in the first 60 days — and there’s no annual fee either. (After the first 60 days, balance transfers incur a 3% fee.)

The post Credit Card Tips to Help Shoppers Celebrate the Holidays Frugally appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

What to Do If You Think the Stock Market Is About to Start Going Down

The stock market has been on an unprecedented run of success over the last decade or so. Here are the average annual returns of the S&P 500 over the last nine years:

2009 – 26.46%
2010 – 15.06%
2011 – 2.11%
2012 – 16.00%
2013 – 32.39%
2014 – 13.69%
2015 – 1.38%
2016 – 11.96%
2017 (so far) – 16.91%

That’s a pretty impressive run. If you put $1,000 in a S&P 500 index fund at the start of 2009 and just sat on it, you’d have $3,442 right now. That’s an amazing improvement!

Here’s how unusual this run is: it’s the second longest bull market in U.S. history (with a bull market being defined as a run of days in which the stock market has not declined 20% from the high water mark of that run).

That kind of correction, where the stock market declines for a while after a run of positive days and years, has always happened at some time or another. Stock markets don’t go up and up and up at a 10% or more average annual return forever. Eventually, something happens: Companies get too greedy, an unexpected major event happens, investors begin to move into other investments for some reason, or something else entirely.

The point is simple: Eventually, the stock market is going to correct – we’re going to see a run where the stock market dips 20% or more. The only real question is when.

Whenever things are this good for this long, people start getting nervous, even if there aren’t any telling signs of a coming decline. I’ve seen that nervousness in play in several reader emails, where people write in asking what they should do if the market is about to drop, even if they have no idea whether it will and have no evidence whatsoever.

Typically, these readers have a significant portion of their retirement savings in stocks and they’re worried about losing value. They picture their retirement savings falling by 40% or 50%, as happened in 2008, and they don’t want to see that happen.

So, what should you do if you think the stock market is about to start going down?

Here’s my answer: Nothing at all, unless there are a lot of extenuating circumstances. Let’s walk through the reasons.

First of all, the stock market is inherently a long-term investment, and this is a short-term factor. Making a big investment choice with a long-term investment based on some hunch that something might happen in the short term is a mistake.

The truth is that, unless you are a day trader or an investor who focuses deeply on the stock market in a professional way, money invested in the stock market should be heavily diversified and it should be a long-term “sit and wait” investment. The reason to cash out of it is because you’ve either arrived at the time where you want to put that money to work or you’re very close to that point. In other words, the stock market’s current activity should never drive the decision of an average person with regards to holding onto their stock investment.

Second, no one can ever really predict where the top of the market is going to be. The longest bull market of all time was several years longer than the current one (1987 to 2000) and this one could be even longer than that. Simply put, no one has any real idea where the top of the market is going to be or how far away it is.

Why does that matter? Let’s say that you sell everything now and move everything into cash, but then the market keeps going up for the next three or four years. Even with a significant correction, you’re still behind compared to just leaving it in place. You simply don’t know what’s going to happen going forward.

Third, even when the market does start to drop, no one can ever really predict where the bottom is going to be. It might be a rapid three-month correction that only drops 15%. It might be a three-year long correction that drops 55%. Again, no one can predict how long it will last and no one can point to where the “bottom” is except for in hindsight after things have gone back up quite a bit.

So, even if you’re completely right and now is the perfect moment to get out, you’re still very likely to miss the bottom of the market by a wide margin.

Combined together, these three big problems with pulling out now if you think the stock market is about to decline result in a situation that, unless you’re lucky, you’re probably not gaining much by pulling out tomorrow, even if some of those guesses go in your favor.

Hold on, though. Didn’t I say that there were a few situations where it’s okay to pull your money out of stocks right now? There are a few reasons.

The first reason is rebalancing. Many people have their retirement savings in a “target retirement” fund which does the rebalancing for them, but if that’s not you, you may find yourself in a position where you want to rebalance things. Let’s say, when you started investing, that you wanted to have 60% of your money in stocks and 40% in bonds. Over the last decade, your stocks have grown a lot faster than bonds, so you might be in a situation where 75% of your money is in stocks and 25% is in bonds. In that situation, it makes sense to rebalance – sell enough stocks to return yourself to the original balance you decided upon. You’re sticking with your plan, in other words.

The second reason is approaching your target date. If you’re getting close to your target date where you actually want to use that money, it may make sense to move some or all of it to something safer. For example, if you’ve been saving up to buy a house and have put some of it in stocks, and the time to buy a house is drawing close, you probably want to pull money out of stocks now because stocks are a long-term investment and you’re now focused on the short term. Note that retirement savings only partially follows this rule – when you retire, you’re likely intending to only spend a small portion of that money in the first several years of retirement, thus most of your money should stay in something aggressive but some of it should go into something safer.

There are other similar reasons, such as changing personal circumstances, where you may want to make a move right now, but the overall matter still holds true: Unless there’s a very good reason to do so, you should stick with your stock investments just as they are and ride through whatever is to come.

Stocks are a long-term investment. Sometimes they go up and sometimes they go down. No one can really predict when the switch between the two will happen. Making a guess can have some pretty terrible results for your investments, and guessing is exactly what you’re doing unless you are extremely gifted at stock investing.

Sit tight and enjoy the ride.

Related Articles:

The post What to Do If You Think the Stock Market Is About to Start Going Down appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Scientific Side Hustle: Plasma Donation, Clinical Trials, and Other Ways to Make Money Off Your Body

When my brother was in college, he loved to send me emails containing the latest jokes, memes, and YouTube videos circulating on the internet. I’ll never forget the first time I saw grape stomp lady, or the QVC guy who struggles with the teleprompter.

Since I was primed to get joke emails, I thought my brother was kidding when he sent a message with the subject line “Donated Bone Marrow Today.”

The email contained a picture my brother’s friend had taken. My brother was lying face down on an operating table while a medical worker inserted a gigantic needle into his back. It looked like it would take two nurses leaning on that beast of a needle just to depress the plunger. It was jarring.

I soon learned that he was not auditioning to be an extra in the next Saw movie. He was simply doing what many thousands of Americans do every day when they want to earn some side cash — using his healthy body to make money from the medical establishment.

From plasma, sperm, or egg donation to clinical trials and psychological studies, there are many ways to do this (legally!), and I’ll cover them in this article. Keep in mind that earning money in this way is contingent on being healthy, qualified, and vetted by a medical professional. If you want less invasive side hustle ideas, there are plenty to choose from.

Bone Marrow Donation

We’ll start with the activity my brother chose to engage in when he was running low on his beer money: donating bone marrow. This is an outpatient surgical procedure requiring an anesthetic. It’s a fairly invasive process, and not for the feint of heart. A doctor will be using a needle to penetrate your pelvic bone and extract liquid bone marrow. The marrow is given to those who are suffering from bone marrow diseases and are in need of a transplant.

Paying people for bone marrow donations was illegal for a time, but a landmark court case back in 2011 made it legal again. You can now get between $300 and $800 if you donate through a private clinic. You can also donate for free, in which case all the costs of the procedure would still be covered.

Blood Plasma Donation

Donating blood plasma is similar to donating blood, it just takes a little bit longer. You get stuck with a needle and then your blood is extracted in a process that takes about two hours. The blood is then spun in a centrifuge to separate out the plasma. The red blood cells are put back into your body using a saline solution so that you can quickly rebuild your plasma stores.

The proteins in your plasma are generally used for diagnosing diseases, manufacturing therapies, or are given to patients in need.

Blood plasma can be donated twice per week, and most facilities pay between $20 and $50 for a sample. You can check this plasma donation site to find out how to qualify and where you can donate.

Egg or Sperm Donation

This category can make people a bit squeamish, but there’s no denying that selling your sex cells can be lucrative business.

A woman can sell her eggs for an average of $7,000, though that number varies a lot based on location, age, history, education, and other factors. My local hospital offers a flat $10,000 to any first-time donor, and they also offer a nice guide on what the process entails. In short, going through the egg donation process is a big commitment and quite invasive. Hence, the big payday.

Donating sperm is quite a bit easier, and you can still make good money. Qualified men in California can get up to $1,500 per month for visiting a facility two to three times a week. A quick Google search will reveal options for your state.

If you can pass a drug test, fill out some forms, and you are over five feet nine inches tall, you should be good to donate (it’s a cold world out there for short guys). One thing to keep in mind is that this is a longer-term commitment. Most sperm banks require a one-year commitment of weekly donations, and you won’t start getting paid until after six months.

Stool Samples

Yes, really. Fecal transplant operations are becoming popular for people who suffer from Crohn’s disease, C. diff, and other bowel disorders. It involves transplanting healthy colon bacteria into the body of someone who is ill.

If you’re one of the 4% of applicants who qualify as a donor, you can make up to $40 per sample and donate up to five days per week. That’s a serious side hustle. At the moment, donors must be local to one of Open Biome’s Boston-area offices, but the program could soon be expanding nationwide.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are used by companies to test things out before they go mainstream. They cover a lot of ground, and participants in the trials can end up being guinea pigs for everything from new drugs to new workout regimes.

The amount you get paid will vary greatly, as some studies require much more time than others. The most lucrative current study I could find is in my old hometown of Madison, Wis. They’re offering adults ages 18-65 up to $6,000 for one study. But, it requires a four-night stay and 11 follow-up visits over a three-month period, which is a pretty hefty commitment.

The government maintains a database where you can find out how to sign up for over 250,000 clinical trials in all 50 states.

Psychological Studies

Psych studies are like clinical trials, but they’re focused on the function of the human brain. They’re usually less invasive and time-consuming than clinical trials.

I used to do these in college all the time. I’d get paid between 10 and 50 bucks per study, most of which required completing a task on a computer and then filling out a survey.

If you live near a university, this is worth checking out, as it’s not only undergraduates who can participate. Many colleges list upcoming studies on websites you can find with a simple internet search. In my area, I see that New York University is currently recruiting participants for over 20 paid studies.

Summing Up

Some of the procedures on this list might make you cringe, which is why I think it’s important to keep in mind that all of these donations are for a good cause. You’re not just making money when you donate plasma or bone marrow – you may literally be saving a life. It requires more of you than selling your old toys on Craigslist, but the payout, both literally and figuratively, can often be much higher.

I should also mention that any money you earn using the above methods has to be reported as income. Just because you’re paid for doing your part for science doesn’t mean you escape the inevitable come April.

Finally, always be safe about how you approach these sorts of things. Only use well-regarded facilities, and research the procedure beforehand so that you know what you’re getting into (There are quite a few women who wish they hadn’t donated eggs, for instance). If you’re at all unsure of what’s healthy, safe, or legal, talk to your doctor. We all want extra cash, but health must come first.

Related Articles:

The post The Scientific Side Hustle: Plasma Donation, Clinical Trials, and Other Ways to Make Money Off Your Body appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Looking Down the Ladder: A Different Perspective on Spending

Several years ago, I wrote a review of Jacob Lund Fisker’s book Early Retirement Extreme and then followed it up a couple of years later. I found – and still do find – the book to be a very interesting mix of personal finance and philosophy, which together spells out a plan for low cost living with a thoughtful discussion of the ideas that underpin that plan.

One idea that really stuck with me, though, was his idea that one’s preferred level of spending constitutes a rung on a ladder. The idea of a “spending ladder” is easier shown by example than by explaining it, so let’s hop right to an example.

The Housing Spending Ladder

One might look at the money one spends on housing through this type of ladder, where housing options are listed by monthly cost:

– A mansion
– An above average house in an expensive neighborhood
– An average house in an expensive neighborhood
– A below average house in an expensive neighborhood
– A very high end apartment
– An above average house in an average neighborhood
– An average house in an average neighborhood
– A high end apartment
– A below average house in an average neighborhood
– An above average house in an inexpensive neighborhood
– A below average apartment
– An average house in an inexpensive neighborhood
– A below average house in an inexpensive neighborhood
– A rented trailer
– A small hardbody camper
– A popup camper
– A tent
– A car
– Couchsurfing
– Sleeping under the stars

You can add many, many more rungs to this with options like condos and townhouses, and they might vary a little depending on the area you’re in and other factors, but this should make the idea clear.

When a person looks at a ladder like this and identifies which rung they’re on, several thoughts might run through their head.

A person might look at higher rungs on that list with envy. Some may wish they had a nicer or bigger house in a nicer area and thus, when they see this list, they feel envy because of all of those options out there that they don’t have.

A person might look at lower rungs on that list with relief and, perhaps, pride. A person might feel relieved that they have the housing that they have and that they don’t have to “settle” for less housing.

What I’ve come to realize over the years is that neither one of those perspectives is really healthy.

Instead, when I look at this kind of “ladder,” I look for the lowest rung that meets my needs. Then, I ask myself why I’m not at that rung. If I am at that rung, great. If not, why not?

So, when I look at that ladder and ask myself what I personally need, it isn’t much. I’m finding that when I consider what I actually need to live a content life, I don’t need a whole lot. This is true for a lot of people who have the capacity to live as a “digital nomad,” where they don’t need a permanent residence or a physical workplace and they don’t have dependents.

However, I do have dependents and that changes things. This paper on how housing affects the well being of children sets something of a minimum rung that I feel is necessary for me to raise my children well.

So, how does that “minimum” rung compare to where I’m at now? Frankly, we have a nicer house than what I consider necessary to meet our needs. We could definitely have a smaller home, although if it were significantly smaller, it would begin to get cramped. We could also live in a less expensive area without a significant detrimental effect (though on a national scale we do live in a pretty low cost area).

So, in terms of housing, we’re a few rungs above what i would consider the ‘minimum rung’ that I would want to have with three children under our roof.

Why does that gap exist? We purchased our home before I really started thinking about things in that light, and the cost savings of downgrading is relatively small enough compared to the time cost and additional financial cost of moving that I don’t believe it’s worth it. If we were several rungs higher from where we’re at, I would strongly consider downsizing.

Let’s look at another example.

The Transportation Spending Ladder

One might look at the money one spends on transportation through this type of ladder, where housing options are listed by monthly cost:

– A personal private jet and a chauffeured car
– First class plane tickets and a chauffeured car
– First class plane tickets and a new luxury car
– First class plane tickets and a new high end car
– Coach plane tickets and a new luxury car
– First class plane tickets and a new mid-class car
– Coach plane tickets (and we’ll assume everyone below this flies coach) and a new high end car
– A new mid class car
– A new economy car
– A late model used luxury car
– A late model used high end car
– A new motorcycle
– A late model used mid-class car
– A late model used economy car
– A heavily used luxury car
– A late model used motorcycle
– A heavily used high end car
– A heavily used mid-class car
– A heavily used economy car
– A heavily used motorcycle
– Mass transit
– A bicycle
– Your feet

Again, one might quibble with the exact ordering of rungs on this ladder, but the general idea is pretty clear.

For us, we’re currently sitting on the “heavily used mid-class car” (a decade-and-a-half old Honda Pilot approaching 200,000 miles) and “heavily used economy car” (an almost-decade-old Toyota Prius with around 160,000 miles on it) rungs. Our belief is that we’re at the rungs that meet our needs.

The thing to remember is spending ladders like this exist for almost everything we purchase. We look at spending ladders for everything from garbage bags to sports equipment, from restaurants to clothes, and so on.

How is this model useful, though?

Looking Up the Ladder

As I mentioned earlier, there are several ways to look at the ladder, and one common way is to spend most of your time looking up the ladder. You spend your time thinking about a nicer house, a nicer car, and so on. You feel envy towards those who have such things and some sense of frustration that you do not.

Channeled correctly, this perspective can be heavily motivational. If you want things, that desire can motivate you to work incredibly hard to get them.

The drawback, however, is that the higher rungs on a purchasing ladder are almost entirely external motivations, and external motivations need to be incredibly strong to push you toward sustainable long term behavior. It doesn’t take long for an external motivator to start losing power unless it is extremely disruptive and demanding, and the simple lust for a thing typically only continues to motivate if it’s paired with other motivations, often internal ones.

You don’t need a giant house. You might want one, but a big part of that motivation is to impress others.

The only time that changes is if a higher rung on a ladder represents an authentic need to be met, such as if you’re unable to provide adequate housing for you or your family. That transitions the whole thing to an internal motivation until you reach that rung.

Furthermore, there’s the issue that higher rungs on a purchasing ladder are flat-out more expensive than lower rungs. You either have to take away from other purchasing ladders and settle for lower rungs or you have to push yourself to earn more and more money to maintain your level on all of those ladders while moving up on some of them.

Looking Down the Ladder

On the flip side of all of this comes looking down the ladder, which is an entirely different set of motivations.

On one hand, a person looking down the ladder can feel a great deal of contentment at their current position. It can be a constant reminder of the blessings you have in life and how much you really do have. This perspective generally makes it easier for people to move down a few rungs, whether by choice or necessity. I consider this to be the healthiest perspective in terms of the purchasing ladder – if you must look, look down with a sense of contentment with what you have.

A look down the ladder can also be disdainful, as you evaluate situations (and people in those situations) with a negative viewpoint. Why couldn’t they climb as high as I am? Often, this viewpoint causes people to look upwards on the ladder, as they often want to climb as high as possible.

The advantage of looking down rather than up, particularly if done from a mindset of contentment rather than disdain, is that it directs your mind to choices that conserve money for other uses while also focusing on your actual needs and wants rather than aspirations and envy.

What about motivation, though? Looking up the ladder is a much more obvious source of motivation and encouragement to work hard. Doesn’t looking down encourage the opposite?

For me, looking down the ladder always comes paired with other life moves. When I move down, something else in my life is moving up, and I often look at that change in position as a net gain. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Where Are My Needs and Wants?

A big part of this way of looking at spending is that it’s all about assessing one’s needs and one’s wants. What exactly do you need with regard to a particular item? In essence, you’re asking yourself what the bottom acceptable rung on that particular ladder is.

For example, I might look at the ladder of options for cleaning clothes and recognize that my only real need from that project is to get my clothes clean, and that my clothes are generally not filthy. Because of that, the lowest rung that actually gets my clothes clean – not the rung that includes lots of scents and a comforting name brand, but a much lower rung – is the bottom rung, and that’s simple homemade laundry soap.

However, what do I want from a laundry detergent? Convenience is definitely one piece of the equation, as is a fresh smell. If I decide that I really must have those things, then I’m climbing up the ladder, which is fine.

Whenever you climb up one ladder, though, you’re climbing down another one. Which one will it be? What are you giving up for that want?

It seems difficult to navigate, but it’s actually quite easy if you apply a couple of core principles to the whole situation.

First of all, unless you have a particularly deep feeling about a particular type of purchase, stick solely to addressing minimal needs. This is why I simply buy store brands for most things. Those items handle my needs, so why do I need to buy a name brand item?

The second principle is where things get interesting.

Applying the Ladder Everywhere

As I touched on earlier, the reality is that we are on a ton of purchasing ladders at the same time. Every single item that we buy with any kind of regularity is one where we’re trying to balance wants, needs, and price, and it’s almost always a balancing act.

What I’ve found over the years is that if I apply the first principle in earnest – sticking to just covering needs unless there’s a genuine reason to do otherwise – there are always resources available for the things that I care most about. That’s the second principle: if you stick with your needs on most things, you almost always have plenty of money available for your wants when it counts.

So, I go through the store and buy store brands. I live in this relatively modest house. I drive a fourteen year old car with almost 200,000 miles on it. I make almost all of our meals at home. None of those things really bother me at all. There’s no real “want” in my life that those choices are opposing.

However, what I do have money for is saving for an early retirement. I want a life where I can wake up in the morning with the full canvas of a day in front of me to do almost anything I want. Read a book? Sure! Go on a hike? Sure! That’s something I deeply want, so I’m pretty high up on that spending ladder, socking money away left and right for it.

I have money for a handful of hobbies I really care about. I don’t have qualms about buying myself a new board game every once in a while, as long as it’s within budgeted reason. Again, that’s a ladder where I’m pretty high up because that’s one that really means something to me.

When you focus in on just one ladder and you’re down near one of the bottom rungs, it can feel like deprivation. You look up at all the options that are pricier and (theoretically) higher in quality. You’re able to appreciate those options. And, as mentioned earlier, you begin to churn up some emotions that push you toward moving up.

When you step back, though, and look at all of the ladders in your life, you begin to realize that some of them really matter and some of them do not.

If the only ladder in my life that I focused on was dishwashing detergent, I’d probably buy an amazing premium detergent. However, it’s not a purchasing ladder I care about in any real way, so we buy a dirt-cheap dishwashing detergent that gets the job done well in our dishwasher. That way, the resources that I’m not spending on Cascade Ultimate (or whatever would represent a high rung on that ladder) can move elsewhere.

The truth is that out of 1,000 purchasing ladders in my life, I really don’t care about 990 of them, at least not nearly as much as I care about my top few. They just don’t matter that much to me.

So I’m content with a very low rung on most of those ladders. In fact, I often seek out ways to move down a rung or two if possible without sacrificing the need that’s met. That’s frugality in a nutshell. I want to be as low as possible on the spending ladders of things that are of low importance to me.

Everyone’s Ladders

The thing to remember is that everyone has these ladders in their life. We’re all choosing which ladders to climb and which ones not to climb, and none of us are making the exact same choices.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing individual ladders. If I compare my housing ladder to the housing ladder of a particular friend, with no other context, I’m going to feel jealous. I have a great friend who owns a $600K house – and the house is gorgeous.

The thing is, if I step back and look at our broader ladders, I see that he’s at a different place on a lot of ladders than I am, and that on the ones that I truly care about, I’m at a different place than him. I’m where I want to be on those ladders.

So rather than feeling jealous, I simply react with happiness for my friend, as I hope he’s at a place on his ladders that he’s truly happy with. He takes great pride in his home, fixing it up constantly and posting pictures of DIY projects on social media, so I certainly believe he’s happy with his house.

The thing to remember is that the handful of ladders I care most about are not the ones you care most about. Thus, you’re probably not going to be on the same rung as me on the ones I care most about, and I’m almost assuredly not going to be on the same rung as you on the ones you care most about.

That’s completely okay. In fact, that’s a good thing.

In the end, the only ladders that should really matter to you are your own. I care about what my friends have done with their money only in the sense that they’re happy with their choices and have happy and fulfilled lives. I don’t need to have everything that they have, nor do they need to have everything that I have.

Final Thoughts

The idea of “purchasing ladders” really helps put a number of things in perspective. It reveals the value of seeing the glass half full in life rather than the glass half empty. It reveals the danger of becoming obsessed with just one ladder, because climbing one ladder means going down another that you might just care about more. It helps put jealousy of what others have in a unique perspective, too. It can even help with a whole life approach to personal finance.

I use “purchasing ladders” as a model in my mind for how we spend money, how my friends spend money, and how the levels on the various ladders are highly connected to personal happiness. For me, the route to happiness comes from being at the lowest reasonable rung on 99% of my ladders so that I can climb freely on the 1% I truly care about, and I put that in action when I act frugally. I encourage you to find a similar balance in your own life, because it puts a lot of things in perspective and makes a lot of decisions very easy.

Good luck!

The post Looking Down the Ladder: A Different Perspective on Spending appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Take Our Credit Card Rewards Quiz

Find out if you prefer points, miles or cash back rewards programs.

Credit card rewards come in many different forms. Some rewards programs grant points on purchases made with a particular credit card. Other programs forego these credit card points in favor of rewarding “miles” to a cardholder making eligible purchases. And then you have the cash back credit card with which cardholders can earn back a certain percentage on their purchases.

What’s the difference between these programs? How are credit card points different from cash back or even miles? Let’s explore the difference to find out which is better!

What is a cash back credit card?

A cash back credit card lets you earn back a small percentage of any eligible purchase you make with the card. In the past, we’ve covered our top picks for best cash back credit card. An example of this would be a credit card that offers 5% cash back for every dollar you spend on gas at the pump. If you charged $50 to that card, you would actually get back $2.50 back.

The case for cash back credit cards

You tend to have more freedom in how you spend your rewards when it’s cash back. A lot of rewards programs that rely on the accrual of points and miles can limit you to their storefronts or purchase portals. Cash back also isn’t nearly as complicated a currency as points and miles which can fluctuate or sometimes feature a baffling rate of exchange.

What are credit card points?

Credit card points are a kind of alternate currency you accumulate from charging purchases to a points-based rewards system. For example, a credit card offering 2x points for every dollar spent on gas would yield 100 points back for $50 of gas. These points can then be exchanged for cash back or put toward purchases within a credit card providers shopping portal.

The case for credit card points

In some cases, it can be quite easy to earn tens of thousands of credit card points when you take advantage of a signup bonus. Take the , for example. When you spend $4,000 within the first three months of activating this card, you instantly earn 50,000 bonus points. Those points can be converted into $625 you can put toward travel.

And while charging $4,000 might sound a little steep, you need to consider your everyday spending. Take, for example, our tips for saving on holiday travel. If you were to use a credit card like the on all of your everyday purchases (TV, phone, groceries, gas, coffee, etc.) you would reach this threshold and be able to make the most of this signup bonus.

Another great thing about credit card points is that they are sometimes worth more when you use them through a card provider’s purchase portal. Going back to the , you can redeem the points for a statement credit of about $0.01 per point. However, redeeming these points for travel through their Chase portal means each point equals $0.0125.

What are credit card miles?

Credit card miles more or less operate in the same capacity as points. This is why miles are often lumped together with credit card points. However, there is a subtle difference. Usually, the miles you earn on purchases you make are tied to a specific airline’s frequent flyer program. This can make them slightly more limiting as they can, often, only be redeemed through that airline’s program.

The case for credit card miles

A card that lets you earn miles instead of points or cash back is usually most ideal for frequent flyers. These cards allow you to redeem your miles without having to worry about blackout dates or restrictions on your travel plans. Furthermore, miles can be redeemed for a statement credit on more than just airfare including hotels, car rentals, and more.

Another great thing about most credit card miles programs is that your miles do not expire so long as your account is active and in good standing. This means you have ample time to accrue miles through your everyday purchases you can then put towards a free trip.

Is it better to get points or cash back?

As you might have already guessed, the clear victor in this clash depends solely on your own personal needs and expenses. If you are a frequent flyer or do a lot of business travel, then you’ll benefit more from a rewards credit card that focuses on miles or points. If, however, you like more flexibility in your rewards credit card, then you might want to go with cash back.

Just realize that the flexibility of cash back might fall short of the redemption rates of credit card points programs. In the end, it depends on what you are using the card for. Make sure you take stock of your everyday expenditures and what you would use a credit card most for in your life. Then you can decide whether you want points, miles, or a cash back credit card.

Take the quiz!

Answer a few short questions to find out if your ideal credit card reward is points, miles or cash back.

The post Take Our Credit Card Rewards Quiz appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The War Over Leftovers – and How You Can Win

A few days ago, I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post by Caitlin Dewey entitled “Why Americans have stopped eating leftovers.” The article pointed to a fascinating data set from ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing food waste.

The data presents an interesting picture:

+ The average American produces 3.5 pounds of food waste per week. That’s half a pound per person per day, just tossed in the trash.

+ Of that waste, only a third of it is inedible. Two thirds of the food thrown away is perfectly good to eat.

+ About 40% of the edible food that we throw away is prepared food – food that is actually completely ready to eat if it were simply warmed up in a microwave or on a stove top.

So, if you do the quick math there, the average American person throws away roughly three ounces of prepared food a day, tossing it right in the trash. Three ounces of prepared food is enough to make a small lunch every day, or a decent sized lunch every two days – and the average American just throws it away, choosing instead to pay for that lunch.

Not only is that a huge burden on America’s waste management system and landfills and a huge strain on our food production capacity, it’s also a giant waste of our money. Perfectly edible food, thrown out for whatever reason, amounts to throwing away money.

Why does this happen? The article points to two primary reasons: people either thought the food had gone bad, or people simply didn’t want to eat leftovers.

Here’s how you solve that problem.

First, if you are thinking about what to eat for a meal, or are about to leave for the day and will be eating a meal while gone, look in the fridge for leftovers first. This should always be your first step for many of your meals. It is my first step when considering what to eat for lunch each and every day, and it’s often my first step when planning what to have for our family dinner each and every day.

If you do this, and you see leftovers in the fridge, eat them for that next meal. Take them to work with you for lunch. Make that leftover part of dinner.

There are only two exceptions to that rule that I follow, and they’re minor. The first one is that I’ll sometimes pass over a leftover item if I just had it for dinner the day before, as I don’t always want to repeat a very flavorful meal that quickly.

The second exception?

Plan on having a leftover “smorgasbord” for dinner twice a week or so. If you prepare a lot of food at home, you’ll often have quite a few leftovers. The best way to use those leftovers is to simply have a “leftover smorgasbord” for dinner, where you pull all leftovers out of the refrigerator and allow everyone to make a plate for themselves from those leftovers.

This does often result in some odd flavor combinations, but the thing is, in a multi-person household, you don’t have to put everything on your plate. In fact, in our house, I usually perform “garbage time” duties on leftovers night by simply taking what’s left of the leftovers. Why? I genuinely don’t care that much about having weird combinations on my plate, as long as I keep the contrasting flavors segregated. A bit of lasagna, then some water, then a bit of something completely different like root vegetable stew? Completely fine with me.

One big advantage of doing this twice a week is that you can be sure that none of the leftovers have gone bad yet. There simply isn’t enough time for that to happen if you eat all leftovers within three days of initial preparation and they’re covered and refrigerated, which is what happens when you have a leftover smorgasbord twice a week.

In general, we schedule these on Mondays (because it’s Monday, and an easy supper is nice) and Thursdays (because Thursdays are usually our busiest evenings).

Another useful technique is to package leftovers so that they’re as convenient as possible to take to work the next day, or to quickly heat up for lunch the next day. Take a few minutes right at the end of your meal to package up a leftover container so that it is incredibly easy to grab the next day. If you had meatloaf and mashed potatoes, use a two-section container to pack it up or use two small containers. If you had soup, put a lunch’s worth of soup into an easy-to-transport container.

The goal here is to make it very, very easy to just grab leftovers at the start of your busy day the next day. Try to put yourself in a situation so that, the next morning, all you have to do is open the refrigerator door, grab the already-packaged leftovers, and head out the door.

Another valuable tip is to know how to actually reheat foods. While I was researching this article, I found this rather humorous argument against leftovers entitled “Why I Hate Leftovers and Refuse to Eat Them.” While the article made me laugh, it also made me cringe because it was clear that this person had no idea how to reheat most foods in a palatable way.

Take soups, for example. Soups really are best reheated on a stove top under medium heat and stirred constantly. If you must reheat soup in a microwave, do it in short bursts and stir it between heatings. Doing this keeps the soup from turning to mush, which is what happens if you just toss it in there and nuke it until it’s boiling.

Pasta? You can microwave it just fine, but the secret is to add just a little olive oil to it. This person apparently tried to add water, which just makes it mushy, and also tried what sounds like a whole stick of butter, which would be fine for a buttery pasta but would usually result in something… less than palatable. A small amount of olive oil stirred gently coats the pasta and preserves the structure of the pasta without drastically changing the flavor of the dish.

Chicken? The best way to reheat it is to bake it in the oven. If you want to use a microwave, then coat it with something – yep, even olive oil is fine, but barbecue sauce or Italian dressing also works – and then cover it with microwave-safe plastic wrap or heat it in a lidded container.

You don’t need to remember these things, either – that’s what Google is for. On your way to the kitchen, whip out your phone and Google “how to reheat X” where X is whatever it is you’re trying to reheat.

Hint: Simply tossing stuff in the microwave, hitting “High” and setting the timer for three minutes, then coming back and immediately eating it is probably going to disappoint you, but the truth is you wouldn’t use such a basic technique for the original meal, either. You’d boil some things, but not others. You’d grill some things, but not others. You’d bake some things, but not others. If you try to do the same exact thing to all leftovers, you’re probably not going to be thrilled with the results.

A final tip: It can be a great idea to put some dishes aside for leftovers from your normal meal before adding the final touches. If you add a lot of seasoning or other things right at the end, try taking some out for leftovers before doing this. I often do this with things like steamed vegetables, which are often seasoned just before serving.

Keeping the leftovers plain means that you can season them just before or just after reheating in a way that complements other leftovers that you may be eating. For example, I am going to season steamed carrots very differently if I’m eating it alongside a roast versus eating it mixed in with pasta and olive oil.

In short, putting in just a little extra effort with your leftovers makes a world of difference and keeps you from wasting a lot of food. Knowing how to use leftovers in a tasty way turns something that’s not exciting and perhaps unappealing into a normal part of your food routine, and it’s far less expensive than wasting the food!

Good luck!

Related Articles: 

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Other Big Data Hacks That Nobody’s Talking About

There’s no denying the fact that data breaches are only becoming more and more common. Target, Anthem, Sony PlayStation, and most recently Equifax have all taken a lot of heat for the massive amount of personal information that was exposed while under the care of these companies.

There are, however, many more data breaches that you’ve never heard about because they weren’t quite as “sexy” to cover. So far in 2017 alone, PrivacyRights.org reports that at least 422 data breaches have been made public. That’s well over one per day. Here’s a sampling of some other big names that have experienced a data breach.

Sonic Drive-In

On Sept. 26, 2017, fast-food chain Sonic, with approximately 3,600 locations across the U.S., announced a breach that affected an “unknown number of store payment systems.” The data hack may have resulted in the sale of millions of stolen credit card and debit card account numbers, according to Krebs on Security.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

On Sept. 20, 2017, the SEC announced that its online database of corporate filings was hacked. Cybercriminals were able to hack into the agency’s “test Edgar system,” designed to help startups learn how to fill out SEC forms without the necessity of making those announcements public. The SEC revealed that the breach of their Edgar system, which actually occurred in 2016, may have resulted in the theft of corporate secrets.

CoreLogic/Credco

On August 29, 2017, Credco announced that between July 21 and August 7, 2017, unauthorized access to the company’s system occurred and that, as a result, consumer information was accessed without proper authorization. The information exposed during the hack included the sensitive stuff typically found on a credit report: names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, account numbers, and the like.

Keller Williams Realty

On July 18, 2017, Keller Williams Realty announced that an unauthorized third party gained access to their network. Types of information compromised included names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and some user names and passwords.

DocuSign

On May 15, 2017, DocuSign, an electronic signature technology provider, announced a computer systems data breach. The breach resulted in a series of malware phishing email attacks — which the recipients would be particularly vulnerable to, since they were already expecting to receive and click on DocuSign email links.

Schoolzilla

On April 12, 2017, student data service Schoolzilla announced a large-scale breach that might have exposed the personal information of some 1,300,000 students. The compromised information included names, test scores, and Social Security numbers of minors enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. However, the data breach was discovered by a computer security researcher, and it’s believed to have been resolved before the information fell into the hands of any cybercriminals.

U.S. Labor Department

On March 27, 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that the agency’s online job portal, America’s Job Link Alliance, was hacked. Some 2,100,000 U.S. job seekers from at least 16 different states had sensitive personal data such as names, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth exposed.

Dunn and Bradstreet

On March 15, 2017, Dunn and Bradstreet, a company that provides commercial data and analytics for businesses, announced a massive data breach that compromised the information of some 33,500,000 employees of various U.S. corporations. The hacked information contains names, job titles, work email addresses, and phone numbers.

Toys ‘R’ Us

On Feb. 2, 2017, Toys “R” Us announced the unauthorized access of an unidentified number of the company’s Rewards “R” Us loyalty member accounts. The exposed information included logins and passwords — which cybercriminals know are often used across multiple accounts — in addition to the names and dates of birth of many users’ children. The company stated that the compromised database did not contain credit card numbers, payment information, or other sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers.

The Tip of the Iceberg

This is just a micro-sampling of the data breaches that have occurred in 2017 alone. There are many, many more well known companies and organizations that have been breached in recent memory (HBO, UCLA, the IRS, the DNC, Instagram… to name just a few).

Point being, while we’re all focused on Equifax, it’s important to recognize that our personal and payment information may have already been exposed, years earlier, by some other breach that has flown completely under our radar.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How to Cut Costs with Tiny Living

Tiny homes aren’t just a fad anymore — what started as a way to lower mortgage payments and utility costs following the Great Recession has developed into a worldwide movement. And Google searches for “Tiny House for Sale” have grown a whopping 900%.

If you’re looking to purchase or build a tiny house of your own, there are a few decisions you’ll need to make: Where do you want to put your tiny house, and do you want to rent the land or purchase it outright? Are you looking to build your house on a foundation, or do you want to put it on wheels and travel from coast to coast with your home in tow?

When compared to a traditional or big house, tiny houses could save homeowners a lot of money. But exactly how much you’ll save comes down to the type of living situation you want. We’ve taken a critical look at the choices that aspiring tiny homeowners often have to make, and how much each option costs when compared to living in a traditional home on a one-month to five-year scale.

Big house vs. tiny house

Here’s a hypothetical:

Kate wants to build a tiny house, while Tyler wants a traditional home. They decide to shop around, find the best options, and see how they compare:

  • Both want their house built by professionals
  • Both want to use existing utility systems (power, water, sewage, etc.)
  • Tyler wants to take out a mortgage, while Kate wants to take out a personal loan.

Here’s how their costs stack up:

Tiny houses infographic

Property Prices

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to build or buy — the land underneath your structure will most likely increase in value over time, and it’s one of the best investments you can make. So even before construction begins, you have to decide where you want to live, and what you’re willing to spend on ownership of your land.

According to a study of land prices by state conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the average land value across all 50 states (as of first quarter 2016) comes to approximately $106,893. And the closer you are to a city, the more likely you are to see that number increase at an exponential rate.

Additionally, between 1978 and 2016, the American house grew 950 square feet, while individual lots have shrunk to 0.19 acres. That’s not a lot of property.

There are a number of factors that go into determining the value of a piece of land: Proximity to major urban areas, the potential for economic growth, and the market value of the land itself. Because this value varies widely from area to area, whether rural or urban, it’s difficult to estimate the average cost of land.

Generally, prospective homeowners face two options when it comes to property pricing: Lease a plot of land, or buy the land outright. Tiny homeowners have a third option: Turn their home into an RV or mobile home, and use their tiny house to travel across the nation.

Whichever you decide, be sure to look up your state and local government’s zoning laws and building codes before you shop around.

Leasing or Buying Land

It’s not uncommon for tiny house owners to live on plots of land owned by friends and family, and pay rent directly to them.

Aspirant homeowners can also seek out properties with an existing accessory dwelling unit (ADU) agreement, which enables homeowners to build a second, smaller dwelling on their property. ADUs often come with system development charges (SDC), which are additional fees that vary from city to city.

But if you prefer more privacy, or you can’t find anyone willing to share their property, you might have to rent a plot of land.

But again, before you do, make sure that local zoning allows the construction of a home on your intended plot. For many locations, the minimum house size is 900 feet.

Websites like Zillow, Realtor.com, or LoopNet can help you find vacant lots available for both sale and lease. Another option is to utilize classified sites, like Craigslist or private social networking services like Nextdoor, to publish inquiries or check for rentals.

Parking a Mobile Tiny House

If you’re looking to bypass land costs altogether, plenty of tiny house owners place their homes on wheels instead of a foundation and make their home mobile.

Mobile tiny house owners face a different set of challenges than their stationary peers. For example, mobile home owners that prefer constant travel are still required to establish a permanent address — which they can do via RV friendly states or mail forwarding services.

It’s easy and cheap to find somewhere to park your tiny home on a temporary basis.There are plenty of RV camps across the nation, and on average rent is about $20 per night. But many states limit the maximum amount of time mobile homeowners can stay in one place.

However, many RV camps throughout the U.S. and Canada are showing growing acceptance of long-term, mobile home parking, allowing for longer stays at reasonable costs.

Purchase & Building Costs

The U.S. Census publishes a monthly update of average sales prices of new (traditional) homes sold within the United States. In September 2017, the Census found that the average sales price of a new home was $385,200 — that’s up almost $20,000 from just one year ago.

Building your own traditional house could be an even costlier venture, with average building costs coming in at $286,909, and that’s before the price of land.

However, the average cost to build a tiny home is only $23,000, before labor costs and not counting the price of land, as we’ve already covered. And the median cost for a professionally pre-built tiny home, complete with amenities comes in around $59,884. That’s an impressive savings, to put it lightly.

So once you’ve figured out where you’re going to live, the next decision you’ll have to make is whether to hire professional builders or do it yourself.

Hiring professional builders

There’s a number of professional construction companies that specialize in tiny houses, including 84 Lumber, New Frontier Tiny Homes, and Tiny Home Builders, while local builders can be found via a quick Google search.

Each organization offers a wide variety of floor plans and models, as well as itemized lists of materials and basic home shells, should you decide to go the DIY-route.

Buying a pre-built tiny house means you’re getting a complete home with all appliances pre-installed (which includes microwave, refrigerator, etc.). You’re also able to customize your home just as if you were building it yourself, designing in tandem with the builders.

Though this is the most expensive option available (again, median costs hover just under $60,000), you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying, the cost isn’t as volatile, and you’re guaranteed a professionally built home.

Building your own home

The do-it-yourself spirit is very strong among tiny house advocates: There’s no need to pay for labor costs, and with the right materials, you can reduce building costs to $20,000, on average.

If you do choose to build your own tiny home, and you’re able to build it yourself or get family and friends to provide (volunteer) labor, the only variable in cost will be the quality of materials you choose. The cost of materials varies from area to area, but for an outline of the essentials, check out this list from Tiny House, Giant Journey.

Many tiny home experts encourage aspiring builders to use reclaimed or salvaged building materials — such as reclaimed lumber, wood, or metal for your house’s exterior. Reclaimed materials are often cheaper and sturdier than if you purchased new. Habitat for Humanity ReStores can be a great source for quality recycled building materials, appliances, and more.

Building your own tiny house creates an opportunity for total customization of your home — so if you feel this is the best option for you, be sure to design and plan ahead.

The biggest downside of doing it yourself is that you’ll also have to set up your own utilities. That includes electrical wiring, waste disposal, and more.

If you’re more interested in the personal touches and would like to just build the facade of your house, many tiny house builders offer pre-built kits or shells for sale. Kits give builders everything they need to assemble their house, whereas shells deliver a completed foundation. With a shell, all you have to do is provide the finishing and decorating. Kits can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $35,000, while shells can range from $5,000 to $60,000.

Loans

There’s no way around it: When it comes to borrowing money for traditional housing, you need a mortgage.

With the average price of a house at $385,200 as reported by the U.S. Census and the current mortgage APR of 4.061% as reported by Wells Fargo, the average American owes a total mortgage of $666,926. That’s almost an additional $300,000 in interest.

It’s no wonder that the comparatively miniscule pricing of tiny houses — again, on average anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 depending on labor costs — is so appealing.

Still, $60,000 is a lot of money. And though you may be planning to build your own tiny home, you may still have to pay for a plot of land. Even if you plan on turning your tiny home into a mobile home, you’ll still have to pay for upkeep and licensing fees.

Most banks consider tiny homes too small to qualify for a traditional mortgage, but if you need money to make your tiny home dreams come true, there are other options: Personal loans or RV loans.

Personal Loans

A personal loan is money borrowed from a bank, credit union, or independent lender for a non-specific purpose. This means personal loans can be used to finance a house, pay off debt, start a business, etc.

Like mortgages, personal loans offer fixed interest rates and flexible payment plans. Most personal loans are unsecured, meaning that unlike a mortgage, they don’t require collateral. And some may come at a lower rate.

LightStream, an offshoot of SunTrust bank, is one of the most highly regarded lenders for funding tiny house construction. Not only is it one of our top picks, but it’s recommended by tiny house builders 84 Lumber and Tiny Heirloom.

If you’ve financed your home, but still need money for land, you may be able to take out a “raw land loan.” Because it’s easier for borrowers to walk away from land without property, raw land loans require higher credit scores, down payments, and interest rates.

RV Loans

If you’ve opted to put your tiny home on wheels instead of a foundation, you might qualify for an RV loan. RV loans are personal finance loans available for the different classes of RVs and motorhomes.

RV loans are often unsecured and come with the same general interest rate as a personal loan. In addition to their personal loans, LightStream also offers an unsecured RV loan that covers anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, as well as a secured motorhome loan for anywhere from $54,601 to $1,500,000.

RV loans tend to come with higher interest rates, averaging around 4-7%, as well as a 20% downpayment. In addition, RV loans aren’t designed for primary residencies — so you’ll need a permanent address to apply.

Utilities

Like mortgages, utilities (such as water, power, and waste) are one of the main areas where tiny homeowners can save when compared with traditional homeowners.

Electric costs average approximately 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, or $118 per month, and average water rates go for $68.14 per month. Often, traditional homes don’t have a say in utility prices. But, if you’re an aspiring tiny homeowner, you have two options when it comes to utilities: Plug into an existing grid, or become fully self-sustaining.

Often, location is the primary factor: The more rural the homestead, the more difficult it is to hook into existing municipal systems. But, even urban tiny home owners may choose to go the self-sustaining route for ecological or economic reasons. There are advantages and drawbacks to both.

Using an existing grid

If you choose to plug into existing power and water grids, you will have monthly utility costs — but the good news is utility bills will likely cost under or around $20 per month.

Before you build, be sure that your chosen property has traditional hookups, allowing homeowners to splice into the network with ease. If you’ve opted to stay at an RV park or tiny home neighborhood, you should be able to reach those hookups without any issues.

However, if you’ve chosen to live in a more rural area, there’s a chance those hookups may not even be on your property. You may have to run heavy-duty electrical cords for miles, which can be both dangerous and illegal.

If you do choose to hook into the grid, call your local power company beforehand. It’s the best way to find information on power requirements, costs, and where to hook in. Often electrical companies will charge a flat fee for a certain distance, (ex. 5 miles), and then add charges for anything over that distance.

You may also have access to electricity via electrical co-ops, which are smaller, member-owned power companies. Once you’re hooked in, you become a member and part-owner. However, electrical costs remain on par with traditional housing.

When it comes to bringing in water and removing waste from your home, the grid is your simplest option. If you’re in an urban area, you can splice directly into existing water and sewage systems.

If you’re in a more rural area, be sure to research your local water district for more information on where to hook up into the water network. Again, utility costs may be comparable to those of a traditional house.

Becoming self-sustaining

One of the biggest benefits of owning a tiny home is the ability to generate your own power, water, and waste disposal, living entirely off the grid. Not only does this save almost entirely on monthly utility costs, but it’s one of the most ecologically-friendly living options available today.

There’s another advantage: Choosing to set up self-sustaining utilities is possible no matter where you decide to call home. It’s equally applicable to both urban and rural living situations.

There are a few general disadvantages as well. Upfront costs are likely to be fairly high, and although you won’t be paying a monthly bill, these systems do require monthly maintenance.

Solar power is by far the most popular choice for bringing off-grid power to tiny houses. But there’s more to solar power than just the panels. You’ll also need batteries, a battery bank, and a DC-AC converter. (Plus, a backup generator might be helpful, just in case the clouds stick around.)

The price of solar panels can run anywhere from $340 to $20,000, depending on the size and complexity of the system you choose.

When it comes to bringing water into your tiny house, rainwater collection is a legitimate option. However, storage comes at a considerable cost, and it may not rain consistently enough to meet all of your water-based needs.

Another option is to install a tank-and-pump system in your tiny home, in order to collect, circulate, and pressurize water. The system is relatively inexpensive, water tanks can be found for under $100, and hoses for under $50. Installation and heating may cost a pretty penny, but so long as you refill your tank consistently, you’ll never have to pay another water bill.

There are two different types of wastewater: Greywater, which is water drained from sinks and showers, and blackwater, which is another word for sewage.

Greywater can be collected via a portable greywater tank, and dumped whenever your house is connected to a utilities grid. If you prefer to stay off-grid, greywater can also be filtered and reused to water gardens or lawns.

Blackwater, on the other hand, must either be disposed of at pump stations or via a special composting toilet. This is one of the most cost-efficient aspects of a tiny home — simply sprinkle sawdust over your waste, and add it to a compost pile.

There are also composting toilets that will do the work for you but can cost anywhere from $900 to over $2,000.

Conclusion

Tiny homes are one of the most cost-effective living situations available to homeowners today. Owners can choose to live on-grid and reduce their mortgage and other daily expenses, or they can go the self-sustaining route, becoming an eco-warrior while cutting their living expenses to a fraction of the original cost.

Whichever you choose, living in a tiny home is not impossible. There may be higher upfront costs when compared to a traditional house, but within a few months those costs will begin to even out. And in just a few year’s time, you’ll be amazed by how much you can save.

The post How to Cut Costs with Tiny Living appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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