Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why Does Spending Cheer You Up? How To Break That Connection.

Retail therapy is a real thing. I’ve felt it, and most likely you’ve felt it, too.

You’re in a down mood. You’re unhappy about some aspect of your life, or perhaps just feeling glum all over. Your solution? You go buy something. In my case, I’m very likely to go to a bookstore or a board game store. Others might head to a clothing store or a hardware store or an electronics store.

You find something that looks fun and you buy it. The whole process feels like a big rush and it really does elevate your mood.

Not too long afterwards, however, the sad mood creeps back in. You’re still unhappy about some aspect of your life, or still in a somewhat down mood.

That doesn’t change the fact that, for a while, you felt good. Knowing that the trick works, at least for a while, is why we often turn back to it.

But why does it work? There are actually a few documented reasons for that.

The big one is that retail therapy gives us a sense of choice and control that we perhaps don’t have in other areas of our lives. In the paper The Benefits of Retail Therapy: Making Purchase Decisions Reduces Residual Sadness, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014, the authors, Scott Rick, Beatriz Pereira, and Katherine Burson, directly connect the positive feelings we get from buying something to a sense of a restoration of personal control in our life. It’s not what we’re buying so much as the sense of control that comes from being able to choose amongst items and select one (or more) for ourselves.

Another big factor is the “promise” of happiness. Many products are promoted and advertised as bringing happiness into your life or solving some sort of problem you have. It’ll make you seem more attractive! It’ll help you take on some task that you don’t enjoy! It’ll relieve your stress! Often, we are thinking not of the transaction itself, but of the positive result we hope to get from whatever it is we’re buying, which often turns out to not be quite as amazing as we thought.

Those two things, over the course of many years, creates a mental connection for us that connects buying things – particularly fun and unnecessary things – to a burst of happiness. We feel a sense of control in those moments, and we’re envisioning this wonderful outcome, and it just feels so good.

The problem, of course, is that it’s expensive, and it usually doesn’t last. We quickly find ourselves right back where we started, except with less money than before.

Before we continue, let’s make it absolutely clear that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to solve sadness in the short term. That is a perfectly fine thing to do. Pairing it with plans for solving that feeling over the long run is even better. The key thing we’re examining here is how to solve unhappiness in the short term without resorting to retail therapy.

The Need for Choice and Control

One of the things that drives people toward “retail therapy” is the sense that we don’t have control and choice in other aspects of our lives, and the act of shopping gives us that sense of control and choice. Naturally, one powerful solution to this problem is to cultivate the presence of choice and control in our lives. We do this by downsizing elements of our life where we lack choice and control and upsizing elements of our life where we do have choice and control.

There are a lot of tactics for doing this. Here are seven that really work.

Work on personal relationships. Frustrating relationships in our lives can make us feel like we lack control and choice. The truth is that we can’t control what other people think or do, no matter how much we try or no matter how much we want to.

One way to reduce the sense of a life without control or choice is to step back from controlling relationships. If you have relationships with people who make you feel out of control or bring about feelings of intense sadness, step back from those relationships as much as you can. Those types of relationships tend to cultivate a very strong sense of being out of control of one’s own life, and that can often encourage retail therapy as a quick fix to feel better.

Stop worrying about the past. Many people get stuck in a pattern of worrying about the past, about relationships left unbuilt and opportunities left undone and mistakes that seem to loom large. While reflection on the past can be useful for informing your choices today and for reminiscence to build on relationships, that’s largely where the usefulness ends. In other words, the past cannot be changed, so don’t worry about it. Focus instead on what you can do today to make the path forward better.

So, let’s say you feel a great deal of shame about a series of mistakes you made in the past and you feel that they have shaped the circumstances of your life. You can’t get those past mistakes out of your head. Rather than letting those past mistakes control you, look at what you have now and think in terms of what you can do with the assets and opportunities you have right now to build a better life going forward. Looking at what happened five years ago won’t make your life five years from now any better.

Don’t worry about the future, either. Just as it is easy to get lost worrying about the past, it’s also easy to get lost worrying about what might happen in the future. It’s easy to foresee a lot of bad outcomes to things in your life and to envision what might go wrong. Rather than worrying about them, instead think about what you can do right now – the part of your life that’s actually under your control – to reduce the impact of that negative event.

For example, if you’re worried about getting fired, what can you do right now to cement your job? What can you do right now to improve your resume? Those are things you can control, whereas the decision of an employer isn’t something you can control. Focus on what you can control in this scenario and don’t worry about what you can’t.

Take control of your health. If you don’t feel as well as you otherwise could, you can sometimes feel trapped by your own body or mind, and that lack of a sense of control over simply feeling healthy can steer you down the road of retail therapy. While there are undoubtedly physical and mental maladies that you can’t control, there are many things that you can control.

Start by doing something – anything – that will move you in the direction of feeling better. Go on a walk. Do something that puts you out of breath. Make a really healthy supper. Show yourself that you can do those things. Then do it again. And again. And again. You control those choices.

Get a really good night of sleep. One big element of spending money to cheer oneself up is that it’s often the output of a depleted self-control aspect of your mind. You have only so much capacity for controlling your behavior and choices, a capacity you deplete throughout the day and recharge while sleeping.

Thus, one of the effects of a lack of sleep is a depleted sense of self-control. As that self-control declines, we operate more and more on instinct and impulse, which often leads to bad results.

The solution? Sleep, and plenty of it. Strive to get a good night of sleep, tonight and every night.

Go for a walk in nature. The concept of “forest bathing” – simply walking in a forest or other natural setting for a while – is a hot idea these days, but there’s a deep historical tradition to it as well. Think of books like Walden, for example, that touched upon this same phenomena 150 years ago.

Here’s the thing: simply walking in nature has a clear calming effect and a minor cheering effect on our minds and bodies. The choice to do so is in itself powerful, as this type of an experience is a direct replacement for retail therapy. Go for a walk in the woods instead of a walk through the racks at Nieman Marcus.

Have a repertoire of “little happiness” activities. Everyone has little things in their lives that bring them a burst of happiness. Identify ones that click well for you and have a repertoire of them on hand whenever you start feeling glum and are thinking about buying something for that cheering effect.

For me, for example, I usually have a small treat or two in the fridge that I save for glum moments (like a Baby Bel disc of cheese or a bottle of Spring Grove soda). I play a computer game for a little while, or I read a book, or I listen to some uptempo music that I love. I know I can draw on those things when a momentary cloud passes through my life.

The Desire for Lasting Happiness

Those earlier steps are effective in terms of things you can do rather quickly to elevate your mood without having to resort to buying things, but it is lasting happiness that really puts a stake in the heart of retail therapy. If you already have a lot of sources of joy in your life that you’ve already cultivated, retail therapy becomes a needless thing.

Here are five things you can do to cultivate a life that consistently generates joy on its own.

Maintain positive relationships and develop new ones. It takes a lot longer to build up a relationship than it does to back away from one, but the effort in building up a positive relationship is well worth it. Having a friend that actually listens to you and wants to be a positive part of your life is invaluable.

You can start by making it your goal to participate in events that line up with your interests in your community. Find individual people who seem to be passionate and caring and work to establish friendships, one at a time. Often, it won’t work; sometimes, it’ll work just fine. Don’t sweat connections that don’t work out and relish the ones that do. Having positive relationships in your life is well worth trying to meet a lot of people and having few real connections – those few connections are the ones that matter.

Incorporate daily meditative and reflective practices. Daily meditation is something that has helped me a ton with mild anxiety and made me feel far more in control of my life, but it doesn’t help immediately. It takes a lot of repeated practice – you have to do it every day for a while and then some of the anxiety slowly melts away and you slowly start to feel more in control of things. This is particularly true if you’re often distracted.

A daily reflective practice, whether it’s formally writing in a journal or simply a pattern of thinking about your day as you’re getting ready for bed, can also help you feel more in control of things. Ask yourself what went well and what you did to cause that to happen. Ask yourself what didn’t go well and what you can do better in the future to reduce the chances of that happening. Both questions are valuable and can lead to some really great insights, ones that make you feel more in control of your life over time. Much like meditation, this isn’t instant magic, but it builds over time into something powerful.

Choose a more active lifestyle. While things like going for a walk and moving around more are good short term mood lifters, the benefits become more sustainable and more powerful if you choose them every day. Set a reasonable fitness goal for yourself, like simply taking 10,000 steps a day, and work on hitting that for an extended period of time.

What you’ll find is that this also lifts your mood subtly over a long period of time, washing away some of that need for retail therapy to feel good. You just largely feel good – content with the state of your life. It’s not an immediate thing and it’s not overwhelming, but it is there. It’s subtle because it creeps in over time.

Set challenging – but not impossible – goals for yourself, and work toward them daily. While we’re talking about daily goals, having a few strong daily goals and striving to hit them day after day is a great way to feel more in control of your life.

Strive to spend 30 minutes reading something challenging every day with a goal of reading 20 meaningful books in a year. Strive to go on a 30 minute walk every day with a goal of walking 500 miles this year. Strive to lose one pound a week for the next six months (that’s 26 pounds, my friend) by counting calories. Those are all challenging but nowhere near impossible goals.

Goals like this feel good because of both the daily success and the realization near the end that you have in fact climbed this mountain and succeeded at something big. Plus, having a goal in front of you reveals that you do have choices in terms of how you spend time. You can choose to turn off the television or the web browser and just read a book.

Downgrade the digital distractions and live more in the moment. Digital devices are among the most intrusive things in our lives. Checking them becomes almost impulsive, and it can make it feel very hard to stay focused on anything. At times, it can almost make you feel out of control – you must check your phone!

Resolve this by including significant periods in your life where you completely shut off digital distractions. I sometimes will shut off my phone entirely and put it in a drawer for an entire day. I’ve started turning off my computer and leaving it off so that I can’t just sit down at it at any given moment and start surfing. This has helped greatly with my ability to focus, and in doing so makes me feel more in control of my daily life.

Breaking the Chain

A final strategy that makes a lot of sense is to attack retail therapy head on and try to eliminate it directly from your toolset of techniques for bringing temporary happiness. There’s nothing wrong with that feeling, of course, but spending money is an extremely disadvantageous way to do it.

Here are four strategies for directly taking on spending as a crutch for happiness.

Use a “thirty day challenge” to your benefit. Simply choose to spend the next thirty days buying nothing but household essentials. Spend those days enjoying the things you already have and establishing some of the practices above in your newfound spare time. Try new techniques for lifting your mood in the short term rather than relying on retail therapy.

You may just find that it’s not nearly as hard as you think and though you may come back to retail therapy down the road, it doesn’t have the same draw that it once had.

Re-evaluate relationships that encourage retail therapy. If you have friends whose solution to everything is to go shopping and buy stuff, spend some time considering whether or not that is a relationship that is bringing a net positive into your life. Is that person a shopping addict?

While it can be hard to dial down relationships, if such relationships are encouraging behavior in you that you dislike, you owe it to yourself to either address that friend directly or to dial down that friendship (preferably the former, but I know it can be hard). Shopping with a friend is not the solution to life’s problems, and a friend that encourages that behavior is damaging to your pocketbook and damaging to your toolset of dealing with problems.

Take control of your own daily stress levels with a healthier daily routine. Cut out unhealthy things you do on a daily basis, like eat unhealthy foods or drink to excess or smoke, and adopt some of the healthier routines described above, like going on more walks and eating healthier and lower calorie foods. Cut out aspects of your routine that make you feel stressed out and add more things that leave you feeling deeply fulfilled.

Simply finding ways to keep your stress level lower makes you less prone to using easy crutches to quickly lift your mood and hide stress, which is a big factor in why people rely on spending to cheer them up. They’re stressed, and it’s easy. If you can melt away some of that stress, you take away this avenue.

Make shopping more inconvenient. A final tool in your repertoire is to simply make it harder to shop. Stop carrying your credit cards with you everywhere – instead, just carry a small amount of cash for emergencies. Delete your credit card number from your online accounts so you can’t make purchases nearly as easily. Find a new commute that doesn’t take you by endless stores. Delete e-commerce bookmarks and histories from your web browser.

All of those steps add an extra roadblock to shopping, and those extra roadblocks can be just enough for you to realize that you’re using shopping as an emotional crutch.

Final Thoughts

Using spending as a tool to elevate your mood is a powerful mechanism for coping with the daily stresses of modern life, and the easy availability of online retail and the ease of use of credit cards makes it all so easy, too.

However, if you take actions to address both the cause of unhappiness and the actual mechanism of using shopping as a quick mood elevator, you’ll find yourself wasting a lot less money on unimportant things and drawing natural happiness from other areas of your life.

Good luck!

The post Why Does Spending Cheer You Up? How To Break That Connection. appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Friday, December 15, 2017

What Would You Like To Do?

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you had the whole day free today, and you could just call up any friends you wanted and they’d come over – or you can stay alone if you prefer. What would you do today?

Some people might list some sort of fun activity – maybe a solo activity, or maybe one with a group. Others might simply spend a day completely unwinding from life’s stresses. Others might spend it on a hobby. Still others might spend it working on a small home repair or getting their tax documents ready.

I’ve been asking people this very question a lot lately and the answers I’ve been getting almost always come down to two things.

One, people mostly just want to enjoy hobbies they already have that they feel like they don’t have time for. If you’re a reader, the thought of spending an afternoon curled up with a book without a worry in the world sounds like bliss. If you like home brewing, the idea of a few hours cooking up a pot of something interesting and getting it in the fermenter is a wonderful thought. Maybe you have the equipment for a new hobby you want to try but it’s just gathering dust in the closet (like the sous vide cooking tool I got for my birthday… I really want to do this, but it’s just sitting there).

Two, people feel like there is “important but not urgent” things in their life that have fallen through the cracks and they want to take care of them. This undone task is weighing on their mind a little bit, but they struggle to find a block of time that allows them to actually take care of it. Maybe it’s filing a bunch of old bills or drafting a will or fixing a broken doorknob or replacing the faucet on the bathroom sink. There’s just something that needs to be done, but since it’s not screamingly urgent or distracting, they put it off.

Interestingly, almost all of the things that people mentioned to me cost very little money; instead, they cost time.

The deep connections between time and money have fascinated me since the earliest days of The Simple Dollar. Much of what we do in our day to day lives is an exchange of time and money.

We go to work, exchanging a healthy chunk of our waking hours for the money in our paycheck.

We buy fast food, exchanging some cash for a little extra time in the evening.

We spend money on things we desire to spend time using, only to find that we don’t have as much time as we thought.

We have an extra appreciation for well-made handmade items and will often pay more for them, partly because of the time that a craftsman put into it.

Our homes are loaded with costly time-saving devices. Our furnace saves us the time invested in chopping wood. Our stovetop saves us the time of keeping a wood-burning or coal-burning stove going. Our washing machine saves us tons of hours rubbing clothes over a washboard. Our dryer saves us many hours of hanging clothes out to dry.

That deep connection between money and time pops up everywhere.

The thing is, the modern world devours our time. The biggest revolution in day to day living in the last hundred years or so is the absolute abundance of things to do and ways to burn time. Television, smartphones, the abundance of organized activities of all kinds – there’s so much around us to sap away at that time we have, leaving us often feeling as though we have little money (because we spent it all on student loans or on things that save us time that we end up wasting) and little time, too.

Not having the time to just curl up with a book or tinker on something out in the garage or make a huge batch of home-brewed beer or take care of some important task that’s nagging you in the back of your mind is a pretty large negative drain on one’s life. In fact, there’s a pretty significant amount of evidence that digital distractions and being overly busy makes us significantly unhappier.

We long for a lazy day to sit around and read a book, but we never have time for it, and when we do, we’re incessantly checking our cell phone, leaving us no time to genuinely unwind. Furthermore, people often spend money on hobbies that they don’t have enough time for – they’ll buy stuff for something they want to try out, only to find that there’s no time.

It’s an unhappy and expensive picture, isn’t it?

I’m going to propose a solution, one that you can try out yourself in the coming weeks. Many Americans have at least a day or two off during the period between roughly December 22 and January 2. Many of us have multiple days off in that period.

One day, during that stretch, let it be a truly lazy day, with no commitments. Do what you would like to do, with one caveat. Take your cell phone and any other digital distractions that aren’t a significant part of your day’s plans and stick them in a drawer somewhere with the power off. Check them only when it’s strictly relevant to your day; otherwise, just leave them off and go about your business.

Curl up with that book. Make that batch of homemade sauerkraut. Fix that doorbell. Take a long nap. Make that picture frame. Whatever it is you long to do on a true “day off,” do it.

You likely won’t spend any money that day. You’ll also find that, when you go to bed that night, you feel pretty refreshed and that sense of refreshment will stick around. You’ll feel like some silent burden has been lifted from your shoulder, and that feeling will persist for a while. Trust me – it happens to me every time I do this kind of thing.

Carry it further. Commit to doing this one Saturday a month. Block it off on your calendar and just do it. (I actually block off every single Sunday afternoon for this exact purpose of unwinding, myself, and I firmly believe that it’s one of the big reasons I stay sane and happy.)

Carry it even further. If you’re getting together with family for Christmas, give the gift of a day off like this to someone you love. Take on whatever burden they are carrying for a day and a night, whether it’s watching a baby or a toddler or caring for an ailing relative. Give them a letter telling that that you WILL do this and you want them to do it as soon as humanly possible. Try to schedule that day as you’re sitting there with them at a holiday event. It won’t cost you anything and it will be one of the most valuable and meaningful gifts you can possibly give to an overburdened person.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what I’d do if I had a full day free of responsibility like that? I’d spend a few hours getting stuff done, go on a mid-morning hike, spend the early afternoon reading, and then invite some friends over to play a board game or two.

Good luck!

The post What Would You Like To Do? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Build a Really Effective and Meaningful Home Exercise Routine You’ll Actually Want To Do

I’m not going to slice and dice it: If you want to get into good physical shape, the best way to do it is to get a gym membership and hire a personal trainer who will cultivate a plan for your fitness and stay on top of you to make sure that you achieve that plan. Your trainer appointments become a part of your calendar and your life.

The guidance of a good trainer and the equipment and change of scenery of a gym are incredibly powerful tools for helping you improve your physical fitness.

The problem? They’re expensive. Really expensive. Unless you’re lucky enough to have some kind of free or discounted gym membership or trainer, you’re going to be paying a lot of money for this.

I recently got quotes for a gym membership and a twice weekly session with a personal trainer (for the purposes of this article) and… wow. I was expecting it to be costly, but the average numbers were incredible: For a gym membership and twice-weekly hour-long trainer sessions, $300 a month was the average fee.

That’s a lot of cash. There are many people out there who can’t afford it, and quite a few more who could afford it but aren’t willing to do so.

The question then becomes: What are the other options? What else can you do to get in shape and stay in shape?

Over the years, I’ve talked about a number of options that have worked for me at various times. I’ve written about five inexpensive/free home exercise programs that I’ve used, about hiking and rucking, and about general approaches I use for fitness.

Yet, it was a recent reader mailbag question that really inspired this post. It was a nice question from someone who was earnestly asking for advice on how to get started exercising from home, and I gave what I considered to be a good simple answer. I pointed him toward the Darebee 15-minute morning workout as a good starting point. Just do that routine every morning until it becomes easy.

That question of his really stuck in my mind, though. What exactly does a person do if they’re out of shape and don’t have the financial resources to commit to paying for a gym membership or hiring a personal trainer often enough to really make an impact?

Here’s the only solution that has ever really worked for me in terms of solving this problem.

Figure Out What You’re Doing and Why

This is the first step in this whole process. We’re not even looking at specific exercises here, but simply why you want to exercise. What’s your reason for wanting to do so?

In my experience, the best way to make goals tangible is to specifically imagine the life you want to have in the future. What do you want your life to look like in six months or a year or five years, whatever your time horizon might be?

If your vision involves losing weight, then I’m here to tell you right now that the most effective thing you can do, by far, is to watch your calorie intake like a hawk. Download a calorie counting smartphone app and count literally every calorie that goes into your mouth. Calorie-burning exercise will help, but it’s just one smaller piece in the puzzle.

If your vision involves being able to do some specific activity without feeling like you’re dying or getting out of breath, then your exercise should center around that activity or around exercises that will directly prepare you for that activity. For example, if you want to go on a hilly hike without stopping for air every five minutes, then you might want to consider things like walks that take you up hills or walking up and down stairs in your own home.

If your vision involves being able to take a strenuous yoga class without making a fool of yourself, then your routine should be about working on basic yoga routines at home and learning how to hold difficult positions.

If your vision involves six pack abs, then you’re going to want to focus heavily on ab exercises at home – stomach crunches and so on.

Focus on your vision of yourself in the future and think about what things you can be doing to take you from where you’re at now to where you want to be. That vision of yourself in the future becomes a direct motivator because it’s directly tied to the types of exercise you want to do.

Write down that vision of the future somewhere where you’re going to see it every day, and leave some space below it for now.

Schedule It and Make It Non-Negotiable

You have some sense of what your big goal is. Now, you have to make sure that you’re doing something on a very frequent basis to move toward that goal, and that’s where exercise comes in. Daily exercise, or at least several-sessions-a-week exercise, is the key to achieving most of the big visions for the future that people have regarding their fitness.

One of the big reasons that people find success with a trainer or with going to the gym is that it becomes an appointment for them. They have to meet the trainer at 10 AM. They have to go to the gym at 4 PM. This literally becomes part of their calendar and they treat that appointment as very important.

However, that type of “appointment scheduling” does not have to be restricted to meetings with a trainer or visits to a gym outside your home. You can schedule a time on your own to exercise anywhere. The key is to treat it as untouchable, just as people often do with their trainer appointments.

If you decide to start a daily exercise routine, it needs to become a dead-on requirement that you at least do something with regards to exercise. Put it on your daily calendar at least several times a week, if not daily, and don’t miss that appointment. If you treat it as something unimportant that you can just skip, you’ll never achieve your goal.

This takes discipline, and discipline is hard. I’d argue that the single most challenging aspect of exercise is the discipline needed to consistently do it. That is the key ingredient and, in the end, that’s up to you.

My own strategy for this is very straightforward. Exercise is a scheduled thing for me – it happens at a certain time, each and every day. This is on my calendar. I also have a personal ongoing goal to actually do that exercise 25 days out of the month, and my bigger goal is to do that every month for a year. That’s 300 exercise sessions, and that’s going to make a big difference.

Finding the Right Exercises

Another major key to successfully exercising without paying for the gym or for a trainer or for a bunch of equipment is to find exercises that are actually enjoyable for you while also moving you toward whatever your big goal/vision is.

In other words, start off with the vision you have for where you want to be in the future and select exercises that seem at least tolerable that will move you toward that goal.

I’ll use myself as an example. Some of the things I want to do in the next few years include some very long walks, a long-ish hike up a fairly steep incline, continuing taekwondo with my family, and being agile enough and have enough cardio health to be able to help my kids get ready for their soccer seasons.

If I take those visions of the future as my goals, then I start to look into and choose exercises that move me toward my goals.

For example, it’s clear that I’m focused on distance walking, with both hiking and long-distance walks, and I also need to improve leg strength and cardio for hiking up hills. Both taekwondo and soccer call on flexibility-related exercises as well as exercises that improve balance. Taekwondo also calls on core strength a lot, as well as arm strength to an extent.

So, what I’m looking for are exercises I enjoy that involve strengthening my legs for walking and going up inclines, improving flexibility and balance, and improving cardio and core strength with a bit of arm strength work as well.

What can I do for those things that I’ll actually enjoy?

Well, for leg strengthening, I can go on walks, particularly ones that involve inclines. Stair climbing will also help.

For cardio, I can do pretty much any vigorous exercise that puts me out of breath.

For core strength and arm strength, I’ll just follow the recommendations of my taekwondo instructor, who tells me that the best things I can do are leg lifts, planks, squats, and push-ups.

For balance and flexibility, I’m looking straight at yoga. My son’s soccer coach also recommends that I do lunges to help with my children’s soccer preparations.

So, based entirely on my goals and what sounds interesting, my exercise is going to include stretching, long walks, stair climbing, vigorous cardio routines, leg lifts, crunches, planks, squats, push-ups, yoga, and lunges.

Those exercises all draw on specific things that I need to do to improve my overall health and also improve on the specific things I want to be doing in life.

How do you do this type of translation for yourself? Ask. Ask friends who are physically fit for exercises that they would do if they were a beginner and hoping to achieve a certain thing. Find fitness message boards online and ask.

Turning Exercises Into Routine

The next step is to take all of those exercises and develop some sort of routine that you can follow on a daily or at least several times a week basis. In other words, you’re taking those exercise ideas and translating them into what you actually fill your half-hour or hourlong appointment with.

My strategy has been to use progression as my friend.

What I typically do in a given day is to do the Darebee daily bodyweight workout as a starting point each day. This routine takes about 15 minutes or so and is a simple way to add some variety.

I follow that up by doing a very straightforward routine of all of the things I mentioned above. I do stretching (I actually do the stretching before doing the Darebee daily), stair climbing, vigorous cardio routines, leg lifts, crunches, planks, squats, push-ups, and lunges. (At a different point in the day, I go on a walk because it clears my mind and I do yoga during another break in my writing, a short routine that also clears my mind.)

For each of those exercises, I’m following a progression pattern. What that means is that my goal is to do a certain number of each of those exercises each day, and when I can do that number with ease, I move onto a harder version of that exercise.

Let’s use planks as an example. My goal is to do three 60 second planks of whatever type I’m doing right now, with a 15 second break between them. Thus, I spend exactly three and a half minutes on planks at most. When it becomes easy to do this, then I switch to a slightly harder version of the plank.

The easiest plank is a kneeling plank, where your knees are on the floor, you’re resting your weight on your elbows and forearms, and you’re keeping your upper body as straight as possible. When you can do that fairly easily for 60 seconds, then a 15 second break, then 60 seconds, then another break, then another 60 seconds, then it’s time to move onto a harder one.

There are many websites that list plank progressions and show you how to do a bunch of different plank variations in order from easy to hard. You can also find Youtube videos that show you exactly how to do it correctly. Just watch them and try to mirror them.

So, after I master the kneeling plank, I’ll switch to doing a side kneeling plank, which is a bit harder. After that, I’ll move to a normal plank – knees off the floor! When I can do that three times for 60 seconds with a 15 second break in between, I’ll move to a slightly harder one, and so on.

I do the exact same thing with other exercises. I use a stretching progression and a crunch progression and a squat progression. I find all of these progressions online using Google, and I use Youtube videos to make sure I’m doing them right. All of these things can be done really easily at home with either no equipment or extremely minimal equipment.

The nice thing about progressions is that they slowly get harder without getting longer, and it only gets harder at a pace that’s comfortable for you. As you do things over and over, they gradually become easier and easier and you find yourself moving up the progression until you hit some sort of personal physical limit.

For me, the environment is crucial. I usually turn on some up-tempo music while doing this, and I have a water bottle and a towel right there so I can wipe sweat from my face and keep myself hydrated.

So, here’s what I do each time I exercise. I have a simple checklist that I follow. It starts with getting a towel and a water bottle and the other things that I may need, then I go into the living room in our house which has a lot of open space. I have a checklist that I follow that starts with stretching, moves to the daily Darebee routine, and then follows through a list of progressions – stair climbing, leg lifts, crunches, jumping jacks, planks, squats, push-ups, and lunges. It takes about 40 minutes and I am always sweating profusely at the end.

Each specific exercise takes only a small amount of time and that time never really grows because I’m always just doing the same number of exercises. It’s just that the individual exercises get harder as I get stronger and more fit.

For example, I strive to do 100 squats each day. I recently moved to a new type of squat that involves squatting all the way down so that my fingers touch the floor and coming right back up with my arms extended. Those are much harder than the ones I was doing before, so I give up well below 100. My short term goal each day is to try to beat my previous number by just one. That’s what I want to do today. Once I actually crack 100, then my goal is to do 100 five days in a row. When I do that, then I move to a slightly harder squat, which I’m not going to be able to do 100 of. The longest this exercise will ever take is the time it takes to do 100 squats. Sometimes, it’ll be even shorter.

I try to keep going with an exercise until I’m panting and it seems almost impossible and sweat is pouring down in my face and my muscles are quivering and I’m giving it all I got to just get one more done so I can make today’s goal… and then it’s over.

That’s it! I’m done, I towel off, I take a shower, and then I go on with my day. From the literal moment I decide to exercise to having done all of it and showered and gone back to my other activities takes less than an hour and I am to do it every day, though my actual hard goal is five times a week (there are often days, especially weekends, when I just can’t fit it in).

Setting Up Your Own

There are really three fundamental pieces to exercise.

One, it’s got to be meaningful – you have to be doing exercises that lead to something that has real long term meaning in your life. It is so easy to just get demotivated when you’re doing something that doesn’t clearly lead to something you really want!

So, start by asking yourself what you want. Make that picture of the future where you’re doing some activity at a level that you’d like to be doing it, then dial that back and figure out what daily thing you can be doing to move in that direction.

Two, it’s got to be an appointment. You have to treat the time devoted to this as incredibly important – as important as going to work or as important as taking care of a child. If you view it as something you can easily blow off, you won’t stick with it. It has to be a daily appointment, period. Make that agreement with yourself. Write it down in your own handwriting. Add it to your daily calendar. Put a reminder on your phone. Do whatever it is you need to do to nudge you toward that daily discipline.

Three, it’s got to challenge you but not kill you while still being enjoyable, and that challenge has to grow with you. For me, I find that value in doing progression exercises for specific things that I know will lead to the activities I want in life.

You can achieve all of those objectives without throwing money at a personal trainer or at a gym membership. It simply requires discipline and routine.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy – if it were, everyone could do it. However, it will be rewarding, and it won’t have to drain your finances. In fact, over the long haul, it’s very likely to produce financial rewards in the form of lower health care costs and more life opportunities.

Good luck.

The post How to Build a Really Effective and Meaningful Home Exercise Routine You’ll Actually Want To Do appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Digital Detox: How and Why to Recharge Your Mind With an Unplugged Weekend

On a recent Saturday, I had quite an odd morning. I woke up, reached for my phone to check my email, but stopped myself before grabbing it. I got out of bed and instinctively reached for the Fitbit on my nightstand, but then stopped myself. I didn’t open my computer, log in to a streaming music service, and listen to music as I made a pot of coffee.

I was doing a “digital detox” for the weekend, and within five minutes of waking up I was already becoming more aware of just how large a role technology plays in my life.

Why a Digital Detox?

I was inspired to do a short-term digital detox partly because I like a challenge, and partly because I thought that taking a break from digital technology could have some significant health benefits. It scared me to learn that time spent on your smartphone is a reliable predictor of depression, especially since Americans in my age bracket check their phones, on average, 50 times per day.

We’re also getting worse sleep because of our smartphones, we think we can multitask on a zillion devices but really we can’t, and we’re increasingly becoming addicted to the internet. All of this is scientifically shown to be killing our productivity and making us less happy.

In short, we’ve all gone technology mad. While there are tremendous benefits to the modern, connected world, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

More people are realizing that there are benefits to taking a step back every once in awhile. It can help us gain some perspective on just how much we crave the dopamine hit that comes from checking social media, and whether we can find a new sense of calm by unplugging for a while.

I decided that I would go all out, and ban not just my phone, but all internet- and screen-related technology. That meant no computer, no TV, no Fitbit, no digital music, no internet use whatsoever.

What I Noticed

After my initial disorientation that first morning, I took to the project quite well. My anxiety and agitation quickly gave way to a feeling of freedom.

I’ve been known to do quite a bit of computer work on the weekends, whether on side projects or for my main job. Knowing that I couldn’t work, and not having to feel bad about it, felt like a weight off my shoulders. I felt more engaged with my surroundings, and more able to think about big picture topics, as opposed to fretting about what I was going to do the next hour or two.

I say this not to brag, but to show that I really do think there can be deep benefits gained by stepping out of the unceasing flow of digital information from time to time. And I found that I’m not alone in this regard.

There’s been a growing movement over the past decade geared around the idea of unplugging. It seems like more and more people, from lifestyle bloggers to burned-out tech workers and writers are finding benefits in stepping away from the screens from time to time. There’s even a National Day of Unplugging! (It’s coming up on March 9th.)

The movement is bolstered by the flood of studies that show we’re more productive after giving our brains a break, that spending time in nature and away from devices can improve cognitive functioning, and that giving our minds time to “wander” can improve creative thinking.

That all being said, it’s not like I didn’t think about my devices, or desire some screen time. There were a couple times, especially as I was reading, when I had a strong urge to use the internet. Ordinarily, when I read something I want to know more about, I pop open my computer, head to Wikipedia, and look up whatever it is I want to dig into. I didn’t realize how powerful this urge was until I could no longer do it.

I also noticed that I really wanted to glance at the TVs playing in restaurants. I didn’t care if they were playing a C-SPAN rerun of a city council vote on zoning issues. Some deep part of me just wanted to see pixels on an LCD screen.

So, after making it all the way to Sunday night without faltering, I will admit that I stole a glance through a window while walking by a bar. I saw one play of a football game: A running back ran left for one yard. I can’t think of a less satisfying way to break a digital fast. The experience reminded me that most TV can be safely ignored without fear that you’ll miss something interesting.

Tips for an Unplugged Weekend

Based on my experience, I’d offer the following advice to others who want as smooth an unplugged weekend as possible:

Let people know that you’ll be unavailable. I emailed my immediate family and told them to contact my wife should something urgent come up. If you’re a more social person than I am, you might also want to make a Facebook post telling your friends that you’re not mad at them if you don’t respond to their texts for the next 48 hours.

Minimize your social engagements. I attended a party the Friday night before I started, so I felt like I got some human contact in before the detox began. I made no plans the weekend I’d be tech-free. I didn’t want to be trying to coordinate with friends without a cellphone. I know people used to do it all the time, but I still don’t know how. I figured it’d be easier to have a low-key introspective weekend.

Have a few physical books handy. I checked out several books from the library in different genres, and ended up reading large chunks of each of them. I would have gone a bit stir crazy if the only reading material in the house was books I’d already finished and whatever junk mail showed up.

Turn off your phone and computer and put them out of sight. My phone was off, but I left it out on the kitchen table all weekend. Every time I passed it, I was tempted to do just one quick pass of Instagram. This would have been less of a problem if it was buried in my closet.

Pick a weekend with nice weather. I ended up spending a ton of time outside, as it made it easier to avoid the siren call of my computer and Netflix. It helped a lot having beautiful weather.

Summing Up

I’m not going to pretend like I went through a profound transformation. It was just 48 hours, after all. But, I had a good enough time that I’m planning to incorporate a few of these unplugged weekends throughout my year. Maybe even one per month. It was that nice.

Finally, the experiment made me think of how we all intuitively know that exercise is useless if you never let your muscles recover. No one in their right mind would train with heavy weights for eight hours a day, seven days a week. You’d simply get burned out.

Yet, we put our brains through the equivalent of an exhausting physical workout, day after day. The constant stimulation from our phones and computers never gives our minds a chance to truly rest. Maybe it’s time we think of our brain more like a muscle, and give our noggins some downtime. If you do, you might be surprised at how refreshed and energized you feel.

Related Articles: 

The post Digital Detox: How and Why to Recharge Your Mind With an Unplugged Weekend appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Site Redesign Announcement

We love personal finance, and we know that you do, too! That’s why we’re proud to announce a new look for The Simple Dollar, which was designed with you in mind.

The redesigned website gives you all of the personal finance information, resources, and tools you love in an easy-to-use format. Our goal was to provide a better user experience with a clean and modern design. The new design allows for more streamlined menus, better organization, a more robust user experience, and an enhanced mobile experience. We’ve also added new interactive tools to provide even more value to the content you love.

Yes, the site looks a little different, and things have changed, but we will continue to provide you the same great content to help you fight debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future.

Whether you’ve been with us for a decade, or this is your first time visiting the site, we hope you enjoy the new user experience and site redesign. If you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to email us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com.

The post Site Redesign Announcement appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

How (and Why) to Build a House Book

A week or so ago, I shared an article about my friend’s sudden heart attack. The positive feedback and comments via email and social media was tremendous, with countless kind words for my friend, his family, and myself, and all were appreciated.

One particular comment, from a user identified as threeoutside, really stuck out, and I wanted to share it here:

“I’ve been thinking I need to update my House Book so all the information in it is current; I remind my son (who lives half a continent away) of where it is every time I’m with him. I also need to update my will. It’s easy to put that off because I have to find a different lawyer and well, what a pain. Thanks for this heartfelt essay. I’ll get on it ASAP.”

The idea of a “house book” is something I’ve covered in the past. A few years ago, I assembled a binder containing a number of important documents regarding my assets and my estate plans. I intended that binder as a one stop shop for everything that a person might need to know to close out my accounts and make sure that my family has easy access to all of the assets and insurance that they were due should I pass away suddenly. All they have to do is grab that binder and all of the key info is right there.

Inside that “house book” is contact information for the various businesses I have contracts with, information on all insurance policies pertaining to me, a copy of my will and Sarah’s will, an inventory of the valuable assets around our home with serial numbers, and a few other personal items, such as letters for my children to read when they’re older if I’m not around to be there for them. It starts off with a brief note suggesting things to do first, such as contacting insurance companies and notifying my business associates.

Unfortunately, as I leafed through the book again, I quickly realized that the book was already outdated, so I spent a few hours over the following days making it current.

As I look at that thin binder now, fully updated, I feel incredibly good. I know, just looking at this binder, that if something were to happen to me, the transition to what comes next in the life of my wife and children will be as smooth as possible.

My belief is that if you have any dependents in your life or if anyone you know and care about will have to deal with your possessions when you pass away, creating this kind of “house book” is not only invaluable for them, but it’ll be surprisingly helpful for your own peace of mind. I recommend you give it a shot.

Here’s what you need to do.

Before anything else, decide how you’re going to store this. I have mine stored in a three ring binder with a bunch of transparent document holders, so I can easily change the documents without worrying about punching holes. The binder fits quite easily in a safe deposit box and protects the pages. You may want to do things slightly differently, but that’s my recommendation.

First, make sure that all of your estate documents are present. Do you have a copy of your will? What about other estate documents, like trust documents? Collect all of these together before you do anything else and make sure that current copies of all such documents are in the book.

Second, gather together all of your insurance documents and information on all accounts that have significant assets. Make a list of these accounts, who’s on the accounts, who the beneficiaries are, and who to contact for each account. You want to make it as easy as possible for someone to take care of these most important steps. Include this information as a single page or two at the front of your house book. It’s also likely worthwhile to include information about your employer here as well.

Third, gather information about your significant assets. If anything has significant resale value in your home, what are the serial numbers of those items and where are they likely located? I have inventories of things like my small trading card collection, my family’s inherited coin collection, and some other things. I also have suggestions on how to liquidate those items.

Finally, include some personal materials. Write that letter to someone that you were never quite brave enough to send during your life. Write a final letter to your children and to your spouse, letting them know how much you love them and how proud you were of them and how you want nothing more than for them to move on and have a wonderful life. It will help more than you can imagine.

Collect all of these items together in a binder and then store that binder in a very safe place, like a safe deposit box held at a bank. Tell a trusted friend, likely the executor of your will or someone else of deep trust, how to access that box when the time comes.

Once every year or two, update that binder. Stop by the bank, pull out the binder, and update it. You’ll be able to make some changes in pen, of course, but when the updates begin to make the documents messy, it’s best to retype them from scratch. This used to be one of my annual tasks but it slipped through the cracks the past few years; it’s back on my annual list now.

This task takes a few hours to complete, and perhaps an hour a year to revise. However, simply knowing that this document exists and that, if something happens to you, your family will be able to move on easily is deeply satisfying. Putting together such a binder becomes a truly meaningful task if you keep in mind the stakeholders for which you’re making it.

As I rebuilt my “house book,” I thought of my three children. I thought of the promise they hold for the future, and how my passing might derail it, and then how this binder might just help to keep it on track. I thought of my beautiful wife and how I would not want my passing to leave her struggling beyond the emotional loss and how I want, more than anything, for her to deftly pick up the pieces and move on. If this binder can help with any of that, then it was worth the investment.

If you want to do something quietly meaningful for your family this holiday season, put together a “house book.” Gather up these documents, put them together, and store them somewhere safe and secure but quite accessible when the time comes. As you’re doing it, keep those key loved ones in mind and remember that you’re doing this for them. You’re doing it so you can help them through a difficult moment, one final time. It is an act of meaning; an act of love.

Good luck.

The post How (and Why) to Build a House Book appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Christmas Gifts That Matter: Buying for People in Tough Times

Every November and December we’re bombarded with gift-giving options. However, such ads generally focus on people who are doing just great, thankyouverymuch. When was the last time you saw a marketing campaign aimed at people who are:

  • Unemployed
  • On fixed incomes
  • In low-paying jobs and/or just getting started in life
  • Setting financial goals (e.g., debt paydown, getting a reliable car)

Does that sound like anyone on your list? If so, consider the bigger picture this holiday season.

It’s tempting – and so easy! – to give another “Doctor Who” T-shirt to your proudly nerdy niece (who has a ton of student debt) or a new IPA to your craft-beer-loving brother (who was unemployed for four of the last six months). This year, though, think about giving gifts that make a difference.

Some of the following categories overlap, which means that some gifts will overlap as well.

Gifts for the recently/currently unemployed…

Make a utility payment. If your brother has mentioned falling behind on the electric or gas bill, offer a chunk of change against it – or, if you’re in a good place financially, pay off the whole thing. And speaking of utilities…

Spring for a phone. Maybe you can add the person to your family phone plan, which can cost as little as $10 per month. Or buy him or her a pay-as-you go cellphone, or purchase some minutes for an existing phone.

Match a Roth IRA. Your brother finally got a replacement job, but is convinced he can’t afford to save for retirement just yet. Tell him that he can’t afford not to save, and then offer this deal: For the next few months (or for as long as you can swing it), you’ll match up to X dollars that he puts into a Roth IRA.

Gift some wheels. If you live in a bike-friendly city and your recipient rides, offer to lend – or give – that bicycle you’re not using enough. Along those lines…

Give four wheels. If you’re in the market for a new car, you might get some trade-in value for your old vehicle. But if at all possible, offer to give it to someone who’s struggling. Not having a monthly car payment is a tremendous gift.

Buy lunch. Your unemployed sister loves McDonald’s fries but is currently eating all her meals at home (and basing lots of them on dried beans). It’ll feel like a real luxury to receive a fast-food gift card to Mickey D’s or any other place she enjoys.

Buy some extras. Your brother and sister-in-law want the best for their child but can’t always keep up. Offer to pay for sports or scouting fees, music lessons, or whatever sounds good.

Gifts for low earners and/or those just getting started in life…

Make a student loan payment. Find out what the monthly installment is and offer the money to cover it. If you’re flush, make more than one payment. A recent study from the Student Loan Report notes that nearly 70% of borrowers would prefer a student loan payment over an equally valued gift, and that nearly 6 in 10 planned to put any holiday cash they receive toward their debt balances.

Lend a deposit. Your baby brother is moving to a new city for a new job. If you can, lend some or all of the deposit he’ll need for utilities and/or an apartment.

Pay some rent. Offer a week’s worth of rent, or more, to a recently divorced sibling. If possible, you can…

Share your space. Let that sibling (or whoever) stay in your spare room or even crash on the couch for a while, to facilitate saving up for a place. To forestall misunderstandings (willful or otherwise), put some specifics in writing: Bro or friend can stay up to X months and will be responsible for X chores/groceries during that time.

Pay insurance. A newly launched relative who’s renting might not have thought about renters insurance, but it’s essential. Not terribly expensive, either; if you can afford about $150 for a gift, get him an annual policy. But even a few months’ worth of coverage is better than nothing. You could also offer to spring for a few months of car insurance.

Cover commuting costs. Give your hard-working but underemployed sister a transit pass or one of those E-Z passes to cover tolls.

Buy personal finance books. Not sexy, but maybe life-altering – you’re giving someone the tools he needs to change his money management. If you’re not sure which ones to buy, check out some Simple Dollar book reviews.

Give the gift of bulk buying. Got a relative or friend with a big family and a low salary? Provide a one-year membership to a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club. Milk, flour, sugar, produce, beans, and other staple foods will be more affordable.

Provide family fun. That low-earning or paying-off-debt family might love an annual pass to a zoo, an aquarium, a museum, or some other fun place. Or cover the parking pass to a popular trailhead in the area.

Cover child care. Go in together with other relatives/friends and pay for a month (or more) of the day care center or family day care. That will give

Gifts for people on fixed incomes…

(Note: This category includes people on disability as well as retirees.)

Pay medical bills. Not all costs may be covered, even if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid. If a relative or friend has a balance, put some money toward it. Or pay it all off, for a very Merry Christmas and a less-stressful New Year.

Buy entertainment. If that fixed income isn’t keeping pace with inflation, the “fun” category of the budget has probably shrunk (or disappeared). Give a movie gift card, or tickets to a play or upcoming special event. Bonus mensch points if you include a ride to and from the entertainment.

Offer your phone. Upgrading your still-in-good-shape unit? Maybe someone on your gift list could use it.

Give some fuel. If your recipient drives, wrap up a gasoline gift card.

Offer yard work. Your grandparents can’t keep up with mowing, shoveling, and cleaning out the gutters, and you don’t have cash for a gift. Promise to do the outdoor chores as needed, all year long. Then keep that promise.

Do some batch cooking. If you’re one of those folks who cooks and freezes a month’s worth of meals in a single afternoon, suggest this deal: You come help me with the cooking and I’ll send you home with some grub for your own freezer. While you’re chopping, sautéing and baking, you’ll have time to catch up on each other’s lives – what many people consider the best gift of all.

Buy the Y. If there’s a YMCA near you, give an annual membership. People who have trouble making ends meet probably can’t afford a health club, and the Y will let them swim, use exercise equipment, and socialize.

Gifts for those with specific financial goals…

This might be the younger brother digging his way out of credit card debt. But it might also be someone who wants to live lean to realize a dream, such as entrepreneurship, at-home parenthood, or early retirement. A bunch of the hacks noted above will work for these folks. So will these:

Tender a standing dinner date. The brother who’s paying down debt might love a weekly invite – especially if he’s sent home with the last two pieces of chicken or a container of your famous chili. The socialization might be as important as the supper, especially if you invite him to share his progress and tell him how proud you are that he’s taking charge of his cash.

Teach a skill. Veggie gardening, couponing, sewing – whatever you do well that will help the recipient stretch the dollars. Or you could…

Offer a skill. Handy folks could help relatives or friends work on that fixer-upper home, change out snow tires, install a washing machine, plant trees, or do whatever needs doing. Those with truly specialized skills could defrag a computer, help them set up an LLC, keep the books, or babysit once a week so the entrepreneur parents could work on their business. Find out what’s needed and see if you can fill that need.

Provide a ride. Does your brother work close to where you do? Invite him to carpool without chipping in for gas.

Give groceries. That could be a gift card to his or her favorite market. Or invite the recipient to accompany you on a trip to Costco or Sam’s Club, and, after checking out, either take $20 less than the food actually cost or refuse reimbursement entirely. Every dollar someone doesn’t have to spend on food is a dollar that could go toward a dream.

Finally, a word about pity

You may feel sorry for a relative or friend who’s had a bad year, or a bad run of years. Don’t let that seep into your giving strategy.

Gift-giving for someone in tough financial straits can be touchy, for two reasons:

  • Some people have a lot of pride and might see a well-intentioned gift as patronizing.
  • Someone who can’t afford to give gifts might be embarrassed to receive one.

You wouldn’t dream of saying, “Gosh, Jane, what a crappy year you’re having, what with losing your job and then having those big medical co-pays when your husband got sick. Everybody feels really sorry for you!”

But that might be how your gift feels to the recipient. Put yourself in her shoes:

“Everyone knows how we’re struggling just to keep the lights on. We’re going to have to go to Toys For Tots if we want anything under the tree for our kid. Why can’t the holidays just be OVER, already?”

Include a brief note with your gift or be ready with verbal sentiments like these:

“I want to practice mindful giving. While a gasoline gift card isn’t the sexiest present ever, I know it’ll be used. Bonus: You won’t have to dust it or wonder where it will go in your house.”

“Nephew: Student loans are a bear, especially right when you’re just starting out. Had some of those myself, which is why I’d like to cover three months’ worth of loan payments. And if you feel a bit odd about this you can always pay it forward, 20 years from now.”

“Hey, Sis, you’ve done an awesome job keeping things on an even keel for the kids after being blindsided with divorce papers. I’m glad you felt you could confide about being behind on the utility bill, and I hope you’ll let my husband and me pay off the balance as our holiday gift to you.”

Give with care and concern, to make a big difference in either the short or long term. That’s much better than a Doctor Who shirt.

Related Articles:

Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

The post Christmas Gifts That Matter: Buying for People in Tough Times appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Power of Good Relationships and Thoughts on Building and Maintaining Them

A few months ago, a friend of mine was reflecting about finishing up his masters degree in social work. He wasn’t so much worried about finding a job, but more concerned that he was really considering all of the opportunities available to him. Should he try to get a doctorate? Should he work in the field? He was even thinking about things like seminary.

I happened to know three people off the top of my head who had masters degrees in social work, so I contacted all of them and passed along a bunch of general information about my friend. All three of them took the time to give me a really thoughtful response about opportunities they thought might be of interest to him. I just collected all of those responses and passed them back to him, along with the contact information for those who actually suggested that he could follow up with them.

This simple gesture has seemingly opened some doors in his life and put him on a rather interesting path forward, one that was seemingly strongly influenced by the connection I made. I think it’s a good fit for him and his life is going in a great direction.

Here’s another, similar story. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with an old friend who told me that his contract was ending and he was about to be out of a job. I asked him if he had anything lined up and he said he didn’t, but he did tell me to look out for any opportunities that might fit and that he really wanted to stay in his career path.

So, I spent about half an hour getting ahold of several people that I knew that might be in a position to hire someone with his skill set. Did they have any openings that they knew of that would match up with this guy?

It turned out that one person did know of an opening. I then spoke of my friend’s virtues and passed along that job opportunity. As of right now, he’s in the final interview group and I’d say that his prospects are really strong.

Let me flip that script a bit. A while back, my wife and I decided that we wanted to try using a bread machine. We make our own bread without a machine sometimes, but we wanted to try out a machine for comparison’s sake. We looked in a few secondhand shops and couldn’t find one, so I put out a request to some friends and family members for a bread machine at low cost. We had three offers to be given one within an hour.

In all three of those cases, lives moved in a positive direction – sometimes small, sometimes big – simply because of that person’s social network. Here, I’m simply saying ‘social network’ as shorthand for the set of positive relationships with others that you have in your life, whether strong relationships or weak ones.

Those relationships come in handy almost constantly and in every sphere of life – professionally, personally, socially, financially, and so on. Having good relationships can save you money. They can open career doors. They can provide companionship. They can directly save you money.

For example, imagine that you’re a person who is in charge of a hiring committee. You have two great candidates in front of you, but a friend gave you a glowing verbal recommendation about one of the candidates and asked for a bit of extra consideration for that candidate. That might just be enough to tip the scales in favor of that candidate.

Imagine that you’re new in town. If you have a large social network, there’s a chance that you already know a few people in this town to meet up with and get the lay of the land, or at least you know people who are familiar with the area and can point you to things of interest. This can make all the difference when moving to a new place.

Imagine that you need to use a piece of equipment that you’ll probably use once or twice ever. If you have a large social network, you can likely just ask around and borrow that item from someone. If not, you’re probably buying (or, if you’re lucky) renting it.

These types of situations pop up constantly, and they’re all steered by human relationships. All of these things boil down to two key elements.

One, relationships are built by freely giving to each other. This is because the most valuable way to build a relationship is to help a person with something they need. Maybe it’s just companionship or a social connection. Maybe it’s something that can save that person money. Maybe it can help a career. Maybe it’s a shoulder to cry on at a key moment. Whatever it is, you’re giving something at a moment of need, and reciprocity is not what you’re looking for here. Your goal is to lift their boat. Maybe someday, they’ll be able to lift yours, but if not, is it a big loss?

Two, the best gifts to give in a relationship are ones where it’s low effort for one person but high value for the other. This is really where it’s at. If you can do something easily, in just a few moments or with a small amount of resources, that really helps someone else out and provides them with far more value than that, then that’s the absolute best way to give. (This isn’t to say that high-effort gifts are a bad thing, but they don’t provide quite the same multiplication of value in the world.)

If you want a strong set of personal and professional relationships in your life, learn to give without expecting reciprocation and particularly look for opportunities to give in ways where the value of what they receive is very high.

An Introvert in an Extrovert’s World

This is easier said than done, particularly if you’re an introvert as I am. The ability to build relationships and have strong social connections doesn’t always come naturally, and it took me many, many years to figure out how to make it work for myself.

Along this journey, I found two books to be particularly helpful.

The first book is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz, which I covered extensively in a multi-part series a while back.

The core premise of the book is that building a large network of social relationships is incredibly valuable, and being in frequent service of those relationships is the best way to keep that network large and strong. The reciprocal effect of that network will be a huge benefit to your life – you won’t necessarily get out of each relationship what you put into it, but you’ll get more value out of your network as a whole than what you put into it over the long run.

Ferrazzi’s tactics center around using your downtime to keep in touch with all of the people you have relationships with, making sure that you take advantage of your time to either have true solitary downtime as needed or else that you’re building relationships (hence the titular advice of never eating alone), and always being of service to the people in your life in that you should always be willing to give of yourself freely when needed.

The second book is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, which I also covered extensively in the past.

While Never Eat Alone took more of a “big picture” approach to building relationships, How to Win Friends and Influence People is much more focused on the nuts and bolts of actually connecting with people and building relationships.

Carnegie’s advice centers around actively listening and sympathizing with others rather than just coming up with the next thing you want to say. He encourages people to be pleasant in conversation, to encourage others to talk about themselves, and to generally avoid conflict. The book is loaded with specific strategies for these things.

In a way, both books offer advice that can be perceived as “mechanical” in the sense that they tear down human interaction to a list of things you should be doing or tactics you should be trying. For some, that can be a bit… much. For me, as an introverted person who doesn’t feel that socializing comes naturally, the tone is incredibly useful because it doesn’t make assumptions of the reader. Some elements may seem obvious, but it is only through not assuming everything that the advice can be practical for everyone.

How I Maintain Relationships and Build New Ones

Here’s the routine I follow when it comes to maintaining the relationships I have and building new ones. This routine isn’t a big time commitment and the time I spend on it is deeply personally meaningful. While this routine might seem a bit mechanical to some, the purpose behind it is straightforward: it’s meant to ensure that I keep the relationships in my life healthy and still keep myself open to new ones.

Make a giant list of all people, personal and professional, whose relationship you value and that you want to keep in contact with. Just sit down and make this list somewhere where you can easily reference it. I used Evernote to do this.

To make sure I was making a full list, I went through things like the contact list on my phone, my friends on Facebook, my family tree, and the lists of people who were in various groups and organizations I was a part of. I organized people by last name in order to keep them straight.

The goal here is to simply make a master list of all of the personal relationships you care about and that you genuinely want to maintain. It is so easy to let relationships fall through the cracks, not because you want them to, but because you simply overlook them in your busy life. Part of this whole strategy is to make sure that no longer happens.

Add an item to your to-do list each day to keep in contact with a few people on that list. My goal is to have some sort of meaningful contact with everyone on that list on at least a monthly basis. So, what I’ve done is divide that long list up into 30 separate batches, each one with 4 or 5 people in it, and each day I go to the next batch on that list and ask myself whether I’ve kept in touch with that person in the last month. If I haven’t, I do so.

Let’s stop for a minute and visualize this. I have a long list of relationships that I’ve split up into thirty largely random groups. Let’s say I have five in each of those groups – a total of 150 relationships.

I have on my to-do list each day to “Maintain relationships,” so I go check that list for that day. I see five people there that I should check up on. I go through each one and ask myself if I’ve had meaningful contact with this person in the last month. If not, then I contact that person in some way. Is that person doing okay?

It’s straightforward and takes just a couple of minutes. Some days, I’m really feeling social, so I contact people who are coming up or who I am thinking a lot about lately. When their “turn” comes up, I skip them.

Mostly, this whole thing is just a way to make sure that relationships that are important to me don’t fall through the cracks of a busy life. I don’t want to forget to stay in touch with an old friend or a family member or a really great professional peer or a mentor or a mentee just because my life got busy.

For most of the people on my list, I have a few notes about them that I want to remember. Is there some sort of particular concern I want to follow up on with them? Are they in the midst of a job hunt? Are they dating someone seriously? Maybe they’re struggling with an ongoing illness.

Whatever it is, if I have a particular concern about a person or a good reason to follow up, I make note of that in that long list. The truth is that I usually remember those things, but my memory isn’t perfect and, again, I don’t want people I care about to fall through the cracks of forgetfulness.

If you want to imagine what that looks like, imagine that today I go to my list of relationships and I find five entries:

Alan Abernathy – moving to Boston for new programming job in Jan.
Brenda Boxer – dealing with fibromyalgia; caring for mom with Alzheimer’s
Chloe Carson – trying to get paper published on rice genomics
David Dennis – training to break 3 hour marathon time next spring
Elizabeth Eccleston – having a faith crisis and possibly leaving her church

Right there, I have five people I need to contact and a reminder of the big thing going on in their life. I remember all but one of those things anyway, but it’s good to have them there. I just talked to David a few days ago, so I skip him (I move him to another day, actually). I send a text to two of them, a long email to Elizabeth that I’ve already been thinking about, and I call Brenda because I know she’s going to need to vent a little and prefers talking to typing.

That’s it. It takes just a few minutes, but I’ve checked in on five relationships that are important to me.

If you hear that someone you have a connection with needs help and particularly if it’s something you can provide with relative ease, provide it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Most of my friends don’t need much most of the time – they just want to chat or hang out or maybe borrow a book or something. Usually, though, there are a few friends that find themselves struggling, and that’s when it’s good to jump in and offer help, especially if you can do so in a way that really multiplies value.

For example, recently a friend of mine had a heart attack, so I immediately told them that their children could come to our house after school for as long as needed. I took them to a few activities, too. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but it took a giant load off of their plate.

Another close friend of mine collapsed at work about a month ago with mysterious abdominal pain and was taken to the ER. He had me down as his emergency contact at work, so as soon as I heard, I grabbed my “portable office” and went to the hospital. I couldn’t see him for a while, so I just worked in the waiting room for a couple of hours. He was dismissed later in the day and I drove him home and took care of a few small tasks for him. It actually didn’t interrupt my work day that much, but I was able to really come through for a friend.

I mention both of those recent cases because they illustrate two points. One, I didn’t – and still don’t – expect anything in return from those friends, other than a vague sense that my social network as a whole will probably help me in some ways if something difficult ever happens to me.

Two, what value I had to personally give up was substantially less than the value they received from my effort. It wasn’t a big deal for me to just work in a hospital waiting room instead of my desk at home for a few hours, and it was definitely not a big deal to have a few extra kids at home for a few hours each evening for a few days. On the other hand, having someone jump in to take care of you and help you get home and take care of a few surrounding issues when you’re sick is tremendously valuable, and having someone watch your kids without even having to lift a finger or worry about it right after you just had a heart attack is also tremendously valuable.

Taken together, those two points strongly nudge me toward helping friends and relatives and mentors and mentees and professional peers whenever I can and whenever they need it.

Try to do something once a week to add someone new to your list. In other words, go to some sort of social event or community event where you’re likely to meet new people or have an opportunity to build upon your connection to someone you don’t know well. Make it your goal at that event to really connect with one other person or build a weak connection into a stronger one. Don’t worry about anything else at that event. Try to end your interaction with that new person with some contact information and a genuine reason to follow up, whether it’s to pass along information or to invite that person to another event or something else.

When you get home, follow up with that person. Use the contact information to send some sort of follow-up message pertaining to the event, then add that person to your big list of regular contacts. I usually stick them in about a week down the road so that I’m not waiting too long to follow up again.

Don’t be afraid to prune. You may find that some relationships go into decline. Perhaps that person has intentionally cut you out of their life or maybe your efforts at keeping in touch have been met with little or no response for a while. If that’s the case, it may just be that the other person doesn’t want to maintain a relationship. It’s okay – it happens. When it happens to me, I usually slice that person out of my contact list unless I know there’s an extenuating circumstance.

Final Thoughts

The thing to remember about this whole strategy is this: it’s a “safety net” to make sure that relationships and connections that are important to me don’t fall through the cracks or die on the vine due to my forgetfulness or lack of effort. I’ve kept a lot of relationships alive due to this effort and it’s made my social network far stronger than it ever has been before and, as was discussed earlier, a strong social network has countless personal, financial, and professional benefits.

This whole system might seem like a chore, but the truth is that I deeply enjoy knowing that there aren’t important relationships in my life withering due to neglect or due to my own forgetfulness, and I actually enjoy keeping up with all of these people in my life.

I hope this system helps you keep your relationships healthy! Good luck!

The post The Power of Good Relationships and Thoughts on Building and Maintaining Them appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

FICO vs. VantageScore: What’s the Difference?

Since 1989, FICO credit scores, those developed by Fair Isaac, have been commercially available for lenders to use in their risk assessment processes – to help them approve and deny applications.

VantageScore credit scores, meanwhile – developed by VantageScore Solutions – have been commercially available for lenders since 2006.

The two scoring systems have their similarities, and their differences, which we’ll explore here.

FICO vs. VantageScore: The Companies

FICO, an abbreviation for Fair Isaac Corp., is a publicly traded company based in California. Their stock is available for purchase on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol FICO.

VantageScore Solutions is an independent company based in Connecticut that holds the intellectual property rights to the VantageScore credit score. The VantageScore credit score was originally designed and developed by a team of people from the three consumer credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

FICO vs. VantageScore: The Scores

Over their history, FICO has developed many different types of credit scores. Fraud scores, credit risk scores, insurance scores, collection scores, small business scores, medical adherence scores, custom application scores, and bankruptcy scores are just a sampling of FICO’s scoring systems.

VantageScore, at this point in time, focuses solely on credit risk scores. Credit risk scores, the credit scores sold by the credit bureaus to lenders, are the most recognized credit scores as they’re the most commonly used score type.

FICO and VantageScore’s respective risk scores are both scaled with a 300 to 850 scoring range (although the first two generations of VantageScore credit scores were scaled 501-990).

How Many Scores Do We Have?

In short, a lot. Think of scoring systems as iPhones or the operating system on your PC or MacBook. Every few years a newer version is developed and becomes commercially available. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to move to a newer version right away or stop using prior versions.

Under the VantageScore brand there are four generations of scores. Under the FICO brand the number is considerably higher. At one point I was able to identify over 50 different FICO credit score variations, all of them different.

Newer generations of scoring systems pile on top of prior versions, which is why nobody has “one credit score,” but rather dozens of credit scores, which will constantly be different over time as the data on your credit reports change.

Which Credit Score Does My Lender Use?

The larger and more sophisticated the lender, the more complex their underwriting processes. A small bank or credit union may only use one credit report and one credit score type to make all of their lending decisions. A megabank may use data from all three of the credit bureaus and several credit scores in order to make their decisions.

According to FICO, “90% of top lenders use FICO scores when making lending decisions.” On top of that, FICO currently enjoys a virtual monopoly in the mortgage environment thanks to Federal Housing Finance Agency policy, which includes mortgage financing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Meanwhile, according to VantageScore, “More than eight billion VantageScore credit scores were used in a 12-month period in 2015-2016,” and “over 2,400 lenders and other industry participants, including 20 of the top 25 financial institutions, used VantageScore credit scores from July 2015-June 2016.”

So the answer to the prior question is: Unless you’re applying for a mortgage (in which case they’re almost certainly using your FICO score), you won’t know which credit score your lender uses, and you won’t know which of your credit reports they’ll pull. If you’re denied, however, then you’ll get a letter identifying the credit bureau and the score that the lender used as the basis for their decision.

How Can I Improve My Credit Scores?

This is an easy one. While you have dozens of credit scores, you only have three credit reports that matter, one each from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Every single one of your several dozen credit scores is based on the information in those reports.

So, if you can avoid derogatory information like defaults and missed payments, maintain minimal credit card debt, avoid having too many accounts with balances, and apply for credit sparingly — and keep the streak going for a while — then you’re going to have great credit scores.

The answer is so simple is because despite their differences, both credit scoring systems consider the same things. In order of importance, these are: the presence of lack of derogatory information on your credit reports, your debt, the age of your credit report, your pursuit of new credit (in the form of credit inquiries from lenders), and the variety and types of accounts.

As long as you do well in all of those categories, then you can’t have anything other than great scores.

Related Articles: 

John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books on the topic and has been interviewed and quoted thousands of times over the past 10 years. With time spent at Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 230 credit related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit.

The post FICO vs. VantageScore: What’s the Difference? appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

Continue Reading…

Latest Bla Bla's on Fun2Sh

Popular Bla Bla's

Powered by Blogger.
Copyright © Funtoosh Blog