Saturday, January 13, 2018

50 Excellent Free Books from Project Gutenberg (and How to Easily Read Them)

A few months ago, I briefly wrote about how to download and read free books from Project Gutenberg on your phone, tablet, or computer. For those unaware, Project Gutenberg is a collection of books in the public domain, made available for convenient reading on digital devices completely for free. Here’s what I wrote:

The Project Gutenberg website isn’t too bad to navigate once you know a few tricks (it’s vastly improved from some of the earlier versions). My preferred way to find and read classic books from there is to visit their mobile site, http://m.gutenberg.org/, which has a very nice mobile interface. I prefer it to the desktop one by a large margin unless you’re actually at a computer with a huge screen and, honestly, even then, I still use the mobile site and just make my browser window small.

When visiting the site on mobile, you actually have a lot of options. Let’s say you’re looking at the mobile page for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. The easiest way to read immediately is to just click on the “HTML” link, which opens the book in your web browser and you can instantly start reading it by scrolling downwards. The full book is one giant HTML page.

A much better option, if you’re on your phone or a tablet, is to click on the “Kindle (with images)” link. If you have the free Amazon Kindle app on your phone or tablet already, you’ll be prompted with a link to open the book in the Kindle app. Do so and the book will be in your Kindle app, for free, ready to read.

This mailbag response generated a lot of feedback from several readers asking for reading suggestions. I’ll share Stan’s message as an example:

Loved loved loved your answer last week to the question about Project Gutenberg books! Always wanted to know how to do it! Followed your directions and downloaded Pride and Prejudice in seconds and started reading it in the Kindle app!

Do you have any recommendations from Project Gutenberg? Give me a big list of stuff to read from there!

Sure! Here are 50 great books that you can download from Project Gutenberg right now for free and immediately start reading! Every single one is linked right to their book’s page, along with a convenient mobile link if you’re looking at this on a tablet or a smartphone. These are all books that I love that come recommended by me personally.


Wuthering Heights (mobile) by Emily Brontë is the prototypical Gothic novel, centering on the lives of two young lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine. When Catherine chooses to marry another, Heathcliff plots and takes revenge on Catherine’s family and the family of her husband.

Pride and Prejudice (mobile) by Jane Austen focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, the oldest daughter of a 19th century English family who is facing considerable family pressure to marry. The book centers on her growth as a person as she is courted by Mr. Darcy, a rather aloof fellow whom she initially doesn’t like.

Jane Eyre (mobile) by Charlotte Brontë focuses on the titular orphaned girl, who struggles to get an education on her own at a harsh boarding and eventually winds up as a governess in a family with quite a few secrets.

Sense and Sensibility (mobile) by Jane Austen tells the story of the Dashwood sisters who live on a tiny cottage on the land of a wealthy relative due to some life misfortune. Most of the novel focuses on their character growth, particularly the younger one, and how they figure out love and their place in the world. The character growth of Marianne Dashwood is wonderfully told, both in terms of enjoyment of the book and in terms of giving the reader something to think about.

Great Expectations (mobile) by Charles Dickens is a coming-of-age novel about Pip, an orphan who opens the novel as a young boy but grows into adulthood throughout the story. This one has all of the great things about Dickens’ novels – memorable characters from all walks of life that grow and change throughout the novel, a great sense of humor, and some great food for thought about divisions in society snuck in there with the action and story.

Dracula (mobile) by Bram Stoker is perhaps the greatest novel of gothic horror, telling the classic story of Count Dracula, a vampire who has moved to Transylvania in order to spread his undead curse, and the group of villagers who fight against him, most notably Professor Abraham van Helsing. Almost everything one could expect to find in a great horror novel is right here.

Les Misérables (mobile) by Victor Hugo is a powerful novel describing a long cat-and-mouse game between suspected criminal Jean Valjean and Javert, the inspector pursuing him, with many side adventures and tales of people from all levels of society. The opposing characters of Valjean and Javert, particularly the growth in Valjean throughout the book, has made this a timeless tale enjoyed by millions of readers.

Persuasion (mobile) by Jane Austen tells the tale of a family who rents their home out to a couple, only to discover that the daughter of the family used to be engaged to the brother of the wife who is renting that house. Austen pretty much defines “romantic comedy,” and this is right in line with her other works, with this one standing out because of the relative maturity of the protagonist, which is in line with the relative maturity of Austen herself when she wrote the book.

Anna Karenina (mobile) by Leo Tolstoy focuses on an affair between the titular Anna Karenina and the rather wealthy Count Vronsky. The book twists and turns as it describes the ins and outs of their relationship and how Russian social standards and the Orthodox Church and the societies of other parts of Europe (especially Italy) reacted to their affair. The growth and change in the characters makes this a great read, especially with how the author deals with the title character as her life is in flux.

David Copperfield (mobile) by Charles Dickens covers the life of the title character from childhood to maturity through all kinds of ups and downs, and like any good novel by Dickens, the story is loaded with interesting and memorable characters, such as the morally dodgy financial secretary Uriah Heep and the comically eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood. Dickens’ magic is in his characters, and that’s on full display here.

The Woman in White (mobile) by Wilkie Collins is a truly fun crime/mystery novel with a really imaginative caper at the center of it, one which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who might read it. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy mystery/crime novels with unexpected twists and a few memorable characters, you’ll find a lot to like with this one.

The Brothers Karamazov (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky led me to think more deeply about faith, judgment, and human reasoning more than any novel I’ve ever read. The novel focuses on the tense relationship between a family patriarch and the interconnected lives of his four sons and the different moral and social paths that their lives each take. Dostoyevsky is brilliant at bringing out the moral ambiguity in people’s characters, where they have enormous blind spots regarding their own failings as people, and this novel is rife with that. The characters end up being incredibly rich because of it and you’ll be left thinking about this for the rest of your life.

The Time Machine (mobile) by H.G. Wells is a great science fiction novel about a man who travels 800,000 years into the future to discover that the upper class and the working class of humankind have become two distinct species, with completely different attributes and societies. Wells keeps the story moving along rather than dwelling too long on the implications of the societies, giving just a great little story and leaving you thinking and wanting more when you close the book.

Bleak House (mobile) by Charles Dickens is about an ongoing legal case regarding conflicting wills with different beneficiaries and the petty infighting and completely comical and ineffective and corrupt legal system in which the case is being tried. As always with a Dickens novel, the story rushes along and is filled with comical characters and people of all levels of society and character.

Crime and Punishment (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the tale of a poor ex-student who plots to murder a rather sleazy pawnbroker and steal her money. The student dreams of the good things he could do with that money rather than the slimy things he perceives the pawnbroker as doing, but eventually his own conscience and the events of chance interfere with the planned crime. As with Dostoyevsky’s other works, this one thrives on morally ambiguous characters and situations that leave you thinking long after the cover is closed.

The Importance of Being Earnest (mobile) by Oscar Wilde is a comedy centered around a group of people who use pseudonyms and false identities to dodge their social obligations. As one can imagine, it’s thick with unexpected meetings and interactions and all kinds of awkwardness, wrapped up in a hilarious package.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (mobile) by Oscar Wilde has a much different tone than Earnest; here, a rather nasty individual named Dorian Gray manages to seemingly never age and keeps his youthful appearance, but this is due to the granting of a wish: his true appearance is kept locked in a painting, which ages horribly over time.

Moby-Dick (mobile) by Herman Melville is one of those books that everyone ought to read simply because of how often it shows up in popular culture in various ways. The core of the story – Ahab, captain of the Pequod, is obsessed with a great white whale that bit part of his leg off in a previous whaling trip – is well known, but the specifics draw you into a dark tale of obsession.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (mobile) by Jules Verne is a prime example of how wonderful late 19th century prototypical science fiction can be in the hands of someone who can write well with great imagination. Here, Verne imagines a rather advanced submarine, captained by an enigmatic fellow named Nemo who sails the seas for his own unclear reasons. The mix of the enigma of Nemo’s character with the wonderful descriptions of the submarine and its capabilities make this incredibly fun to read.

Heart of Darkness (mobile) by Joseph Conrad tells the tale of a man journeying up the Congo River to visit an enigmatic ivory trader who has apparently built up a rather dark cult of personality around himself. This is a dark book, but one that, if you pay attention, will make you think a lot about the world around you.

The Awakening (mobile) by Kate Chopin tells the story of Edna, a woman in Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century who is struggling to balance society’s view on women and their roles with the reality she is experiencing and observing in everyday life for herself and the women around her. Edna’s tale is harrowing and heartbreaking as she is constantly torn between what is expected of her and what she feels is the right thing to do.

The War of the Worlds (mobile) by H.G. Wells is a brilliant tale of an invasion from outer space by seemingly all-powerful aliens. This story is the baseline from which pretty much every hostile alien invasion story is sprung; it is a great work of imagination with Wells’ great descriptive talent at work.

The Scarlet Letter (mobile) by Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the tale of a forbidden romance between a woman and a pastor in a colonial American community, where the woman is shunned for her choices by the values of that community. The basic outline of the story is well known, but it is in the specifics and the characters of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne that this really clicks.

The King in Yellow (mobile) by Robert W. Chambers is a truly classic collection of interrelated horror stories that all touch upon a play called The King in Yellow and some of the supernatural elements surrounding the performance of the play. This novel often ties into the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but I think Chambers’ writing exceeds Lovecraft’s.

The Sign of the Four (mobile) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the truly great Sherlock Holmes stories, along with the following one. As with most mysteries, it’s not really very fun to spoil the story or the outcome; suffice it to say, you’ll be glad that you read it if you enjoy mysteries.

A Study in Scarlet (mobile) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is probably my favorite of all of the Sherlock Holmes tales, as this one builds on the characters of Watson and Holmes so well within the telling of a well crafted detective story. Again, I don’t wish to spoil a good mystery!

Silas Marner (mobile) by George Eliot is one of my favorite novels ever written, but it’s surprisingly under appreciated today. The novel centers around a very down-on-his-luck linen weaver who seems to be the recipient of a series of very unfortunate events. I once tried to write a modernization of this, but found it beyond my abilities as a writer (though I still have my notes somewhere). Something about the title character’s experiences just really speaks to me.

The Idiot (mobile) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky focuses on the titular character, who is such an earnest and good man in a society filled with… questionable people that much of society interprets him as being unintelligent. Is it right to interpret earnestness and goodness as a failing? I don’t think so, but it’s a question that runs through this book. As always with Dostoyevsky, you’re left thinking about the rights and wrongs of human society.

A Tale of Two Cities (mobile) by Charles Dickens is probably his greatest novel. It tells the interconnected story of several families and individuals between the cities of London and France during the years leading up to the French Revolution and how their lives were tossed into tumult by those events. The characters are rich, as one expects from Dickens, but the backdrop of two societies going in somewhat different directions and how that affected the lives of ordinary people makes this one exceptional.

Middlemarch (mobile) by George Eliot tells the story of the interconnected lives of a number of people living in the fictitious English town of Middlemarch in the middle of the 19th century. The reasonably large cast of characters and how they interact and line up with one another gives a picture of a rich community that I wanted to stick with long after the novel was finished.


The Republic (mobile) by Plato is a discussion of the meaning of justice and how one could design a city or a state centered entirely around the concept of justice. What would that look like? Would it be a place worth living in?

Meditations (mobile) by Marcus Aurelius is a series of notebooks/diaries by the Roman emperor in which he reflects on how he mentally prepares himself to do the best job he can as emperor, which was quite good – Marcus Aurelius is widely considered one of the great Roman emperors. This is considered one of the landmark works of the philosophy of stoicism.

Utopia (mobile) by Thomas More describes an island society that has adopted a simple orderly life that seems like it would be very pleasant to be a part of, but would it work as a place to live in? Is it really a utopia? That’s really a question for the reader to decide.

Tao te Ching (mobile) by Lao-Tzu is a work that I was unsure whether to categorize as “religious” or “philosophical” as it really straddles the fence between the two (as do some items in the “religious” group, below). The book focuses on the idea of virtue and how to practice it in life in a very lyrical way that presents ideas, seemingly contradicts them, and then reconciles the contradictions.

On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation (mobile) by David Ricardo is an economics book that delves into the reasons behind a lot of simple economics that we take for granted, like why rent goes up in highly populated areas and how machinery and automation benefits everyone except for the people on the bottom of society (somewhat). Ricardo’s writing is pretty easy to translate directly into modern situations, like the expensive rent in New York and San Francisco.

Critique of Pure Reason (mobile) by Immanuel Kant essentially argues that reason, logic, and data is insufficient to gain a thorough understanding of the world. It’s a pretty heavy philosophical work, but if you go through it with patience, it will leave you thinking quite a lot about how people make decisions and some of the broader trends of society.

On Liberty (mobile) by John Stuart Mill argues that the only way to balance authority and liberty is to look for solutions that have maximum utility; in other words, neither strict authority or complete freedom is the best solution in all situations, but that individual situations may tend more in one direction or another.

Beyond Good and Evil (mobile) by Friedrich Nietzsche centers around the idea that a good person isn’t necessarily the complete opposite of an evil person and that they often operate on the same basic impulses, with “goodness” representing a refinement of those impulses. For example, a person who acts altruistically and a person who acts cruelly may be seeking the same benefit, but just have different approaches to acquiring that benefit.


Leaves of Grass (mobile) by Walt Whitman is perhaps my favorite work of poetry ever written. I often quote Whitman in my pieces of inspiration columns, and many of his best works come from this book – and it’s free.

Poems (mobile) by Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, is a largely complete collection of her works. I often think of Whitman as being a poet about the “outside” – the world at large – whereas Dickinson often strikes a chord with the “inside” – the internal world. That’s not a strict line, of course, but it’s a description of how each makes me feel.

Essays / General Nonfiction

Walden (mobile) by Henry David Thoreau tells the tale of a two year period in Thoreau’s life in which he lived largely in solitude in the woods near Walden Pond in a house he built himself. The book is highly introspective, as one might expect; Thoreau uses the opportunity to reflect inwards on himself and his character as well as outwards on society as a whole.

Essays (mobile) by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a large pile of wonderful essays by one of my favorite writers of all time. I covered one of his essays, Self-Reliance, in an in-depth three part series a few years back, but that essay just scratches the surface of the great things one can find in this volume. As always with a book of essays, it can easily be read in small pieces, broken up at your convenience.

The Education of Henry Adams (mobile) by Henry Adams is a wonderful book about the power of self-directed learning and education through a mix of books and experiences. Adams looks at himself under a microscope to figure out what he has done to acquire knowledge and arrive at his current understanding of the world, and in doing so imparts a lot of very strong ideas about self-education and opportunity.


The King James Bible (mobile) might not be the best translation of the Holy Bible into English, but there are portions of it that are almost stunning in the beauty of the language. It’s the translation most often quoted in literature and popular culture and for good reason. This is worth reading for cultural understanding and for pure literary appreciation, regardless of your beliefs.

The Qu’ran (mobile) is in much the same boat as the Bible – regardless of your particular religious beliefs, it is worth reading as a cultural document and as a tool for better understanding of a religion followed by billions. As with the Bible, there are sections that are incredibly beautiful and lyrical that will touch your heart and spirit.

The Bhagavad Gita (mobile) is a Hindu scripture that takes the form of a dialogue between a prince and his charioteer as they discuss fighting in an upcoming battle. Is it more important to be chivalrous or to fight to win if you believe your cause to be right? The entire work is beautiful and lyrical and centers on a powerful question.

Analects (mobile)by Confucius is one of the central works of Confucianism and consists of a number of sayings and ideas attributed to him. This work really feels like a general guidance on how to live a reflective and patient and morally cultivated life, which is needed to be part of a good society.

Rámáyan of Válmíki (mobile) is an epic poem that is a key work in several religions (Hinduism, Jain, and Sikh) and several cultures in south Asia. The poem focuses on how to be an ideal person no matter your role in life – the ideal servant, the ideal wife, the ideal brother, the ideal father, and the ideal king, among others, and how they relate to one another.


Democracy in America (mobile) by Alexis de Tocqueville is a powerful interconnected series of essays about America and how it self-governs. The book is positive but realistic and insightful, and it provides some incredibly worthwhile reading for anyone troubled by the current political state in American and wanting to get in touch with the grand American political experiment.

The Histories (mobile) by Herodotus is an ancient work describing the clashes between the various societies of northern Africa and Greece during the 5th century BC. It describes the rise of the Persian empire and many small wars, and interestingly intermeshes Greek mythology with the conflicts of humans.

Whew! If you can’t find something to read in there, you’re not trying!

The post 50 Excellent Free Books from Project Gutenberg (and How to Easily Read Them) appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Self Control Is a Limited Resource. Here’s How to Use That Fact Effectively in Your Financial Life.

Once upon a time, I had a very cognitively intense “nine to five” job – in truth, I worked from about 7:45 AM to about 4 PM many days – and, when work was over, there were many days in which I was completely mentally spent. Even on days when I didn’t feel that way, I could still tell that I was no longer on top of my game mentally.

On my route home, I passed by a number of businesses, but one that always tempted me was that bookstore. Once or twice a week, I’d stop at that bookstore on my way home, just driving into the lot and walking in there without any real conscious thought process involved in the decision.

Once I was in there, my brain would almost completely turn off in terms of good decision making. I’d find two or three books that looked interesting and walk them to the checkout almost in a daze, without really considering seriously whether I really wanted them or not or whether there was a better way to buy them or whether I should just go to the library.

This was ego depletion at work, which is a topic I’ve touched on before at The Simple Dollar. In the words of Wikipedia:

Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired, which would be considered a state of ego depletion. In particular, experiencing a state of ego depletion impairs the ability to control oneself later on. A depleting task requiring self-control can have a hindering effect on a subsequent self-control task, even if the tasks are seemingly unrelated. Self-control plays a valuable role in the functioning of the self on both individualistic and interpersonal levels.

In other words, as we go through our day and make tons of decisions and exert lots of self-control to stay focused on our work or on our daily tasks, we gradually use up that limited pool of mental resources that we have in a given day. When we make decisions after that point, they’re often not the best decisions, as we have used up our daily batch of self control.

So, in my story earlier, I would work all day, exhibiting mental self-control to stay on task and making lots of decisions. Over the course of that day, I would drain my pool of mental resources for the day. When I left work, my brain was on “empty” or close to it in terms of my ability to make good snap decisions and to stay focused.

You can see the problem with that scenario. If I put myself in a tempting position where willpower and self-control are warranted, then I’m much less likely to make the “good” choice when my pool of mental resources is depleted. In other words, when I went to the bookstore after work, my brain was toast, so I made bad choices and bought unnecessary piles of books.

This idea was reinforced to me by a recent research summary by Christian Jarrett in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, which summarizes Ego Depletion Reduces Attention Control: Evidence from Two High-Powered Preregistered Experiments, a prepublished paper by Katie Garrison, Anna Finley, and Brandon Schmeichel. From the summary:

Garrison and her colleagues followed this format. In a first study with 657 student participants, the first task involved either writing for five minutes about a recent trip (easy version) or writing about a recent trip without using the letters “A” or “N” (i.e. a more difficult version requiring more self control). The writing task was followed by one of two versions of the Stroop task: either participants had to name the ink colour of colour-denoting words, such as the word “red” written in blue ink, or the ink colour of emotional or neutral words. It takes a degree of self control to ignore the meaning of colour words, or emotional words, and focus on the ink colour.

Participants who completed the more difficult version of the writing task responded just as fast, but made more mistakes on the Stroop tasks than the control group. “This pattern represents unambiguous evidence for poorer attention control under ego depletion,” the researchers said.

A second study was similar. Over 350 participants completed either the easy or difficult writing task and then the Attention Network Test, which involves repeatedly indicating the direction of target arrows on a computer screen, while ignoring the direction of adjacent, distracting arrows, which either face in the same or a different direction (the task is trickier when they face in a different direction). Participants who completed the harder writing task made more errors on the Attention Network Test, which is again consistent with ego depletion theory.

The idea of ego depletion not only matches up really well with my own life experiences (and financial mistakes), but it’s also pretty well supported in psychology research, too.

So, what can we do about it? While the papers don’t offer great evidence on the topic, they do offer some hints at better behavior which line up well with my own practices for simply and effectively managing ego depletion. Here are six things I do to help:

I try to do all shopping early in the day and avoid spending money after lunch. If I’m going to spend money, I try to do it early in the day. I have a general rule that, if it’s after lunch, I’m not going to buy anything unless I already decided on it earlier in the day. It’s such a simple rule to follow and it shuts down a lot of potentially awful decisions that I might make.

I try to have a strong plan in place for supper early in the day, ideally with some steps already done. The reasoning here is so that I don’t find myself later in the day making a decision about what to do for supper when my cognitive pool is drained. At that point, I’m very prone to use takeout or delivery as a simple way to handle supper, even though it’s an expensive way to handle supper. If I actually plan out supper ahead of time and put things in a position so that it’s easy to complete a great family supper, then I’m much more likely to stick with that plan later in the day. That’s why I often do a lot of initial supper prep in the morning, such as putting a meal in the slow cooker.

I save mindless household tasks for the evening where there isn’t really a window to make major errors. When I’m trying to decide what to do now and what to do later today, I put off tasks that are very mindless and not very prone to error, such as doing dishes or doing a load of laundry or doing some household cleaning chores, and I’ll choose to do tasks right away that involve financial choices, like shopping or paying bills. Thus, you’ll usually find me in the evenings doing things around the house rather than anything that involves my wallet.

If I leave the house in the evenings, I leave credit cards at home and take only needed cash with me. Sometimes I go out in the evenings. When I do, I typically figure out a budget for my activities and take only enough cash to cover it. I’ll take my wallet along, but I’ll usually just have my driver’s license in it. That way, I won’t find myself in a situation where I’m just spending money like a fool.

I generally save major financial decisions for the weekends and make them in the mornings. I don’t make decisions regarding my retirement accounts or big expenses during the week at all if I can avoid it, and I definitely don’t make them in the evenings unless I’m absolutely forced to. Instead, I set them aside until a weekend morning and then I evaluate those decisions. That way, I’m approaching those choices with a maximally fresh mind and full cognitive pool.

A good night of sleep is a high priority for me. There is nothing better that we can do to recharge our cognitive pools and fill them up to the brim than getting a good night of sleep. I consider good sleep to be one of the foundational tools of good personal finance and career management. If you’re cutting out sleep because you have too much to do, then you need to be cutting back on your commitments because you’re likely making poor decisions for those commitments due to tiredness and depleted mental resources.

These strategies line up well with the findings in the literature and, in practice, help me greatly in terms of avoiding foolish spending when my mind isn’t at the top of its game. Most of these things are basically effortless, too, as they’re all about moving financial decisions to the earlier part of the day and keeping them there rather than taking on a big new project. I hope these strategies will help you manage your own impulses just a little better!

The post Self Control Is a Limited Resource. Here’s How to Use That Fact Effectively in Your Financial Life. appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Handling the Extra Challenges of Escaping the Poverty Trap

Several months ago, I made an offhand reference to the amazing article Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years of Nothing Going Wrong by Gillian White in The Atlantic. It was one of those articles that just hit me in the gut and significantly redirected my thinking. I found my mind slipping back again and again to the ideas in that article.

Last summer, I ended up reading the book The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy by Peter Temin, which is heavily referenced in the article. The book largely expands upon the issues in the article, which can be summed up as saying that the factors that put someone in an impoverished situation keep them in that impoverished situation.

I want to go over a few quotes in the article. First,

Temin identifies two types of workers in what he calls “the dual economy.” The first are skilled, tech-savvy workers and managers with college degrees and high salaries who are concentrated heavily in fields such as finance, technology, and electronics — hence his labeling it the “FTE sector.” They make up about 20 percent of the roughly 320 million people who live in America. The other group is the low-skilled workers, which he simply calls the “low-wage sector.”

Temin basically divides America into two groups based on the type of job they have. Does the job require significant personal skill and tech savvy, or does it require very few skills going in the door? That’s the key dividing line. The skilled, tech savvy jobs tend to earn a good salary and have good benefits, while the unskilled jobs – not that they don’t require skills, but that those skills aren’t required to come in the door – tend to earn low salary and have poor benefits.

This matches up well with my own experience. The only exceptions to that rule are jobs that have a high stress or personal threat level, such as that of a prison guard. Those jobs often pay fairly well and have good benefits while not requiring a strong skill set or tech savvy coming in the door, but they come with a ton of stress and threat. In other words, if you don’t have tech savvy and extensive skills, the only way to quickly get a job that pays well is to take on some other form of stress or threat.

Another quote:

And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. That’s a 16-year (or longer) plan that, as Temin compellingly observes, can be easily upended.

Education is the key for moving from one group to another. In general, the only way to really pull this off in a lasting way is through one’s children, which is a multi-decade process. A really concerned parent in the lower group can actually push their child into the higher group.

This is what my parents did for me. My father was a factory worker and a jack-of-all-trades, but he was not a skilled or tech-savvy laborer beyond what he picked up in his workplace (I’ll give him credit, though – he was open to a lot of training that his coworkers were not and this opened some avenues for him as his factory became modernized later in his working years). My mother was a homemaker. My family growing up was clearly in the “lower” group.

However, my parents did everything they possibly could to set me up to be in the “higher” group. They stretched every dollar to give me tools for learning and access to every learning material they could easily grab. They basically shoved me out the door to college and insisted that I build a social network there made up of people on a track to success. I owe them more than I can ever measure.

A third quote:

For minorities especially, this means contending with […] trends Temin identifies earlier in his book, such as mass incarceration and institutional disinvestment in students, for example. Many cities […] lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities.

(Note: I edited this quote a bit to keep the discussion on track, as this begins to touch on huge societal issues that are far outside the scope of a personal finance site. I’m trying to keep the focus on things that individuals can control to improve their destiny and the destinies of those in their immediate family.)

There are many areas of the country, both rural and urban, where there is simply a lack of investment in schools and in infrastructure, which makes it hard to receive any kind of competitive education in that area. Beyond that, there often aren’t transportation options to be able to take a child to another area where better educational options are available.

Often, the parents in those situations are working, but they’re not making enough to be able to afford to move to a higher cost of living area and they don’t have the spare time to take their kid across town to a different school every day when they’re working two jobs. So, the child goes to the decrepit school near their home, surrounded by kids in similar circumstances along with a lot of kids coming from backgrounds where there is very little structure at all. Those schools are underfunded, too.

A child has to have an extremely motivated parent (and some luck, and probably a few caring teachers willing to stick it out in a district like that) in order to build a brighter future for themselves.

A final quote, and this is the key one:

He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress [the] poor [and] minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility.

These are great moves for a society focused on maximizing opportunities by those trapped in poverty, but no matter how much the government helps, it comes down, at least in part, to helping yourself and helping your family. Someone might give you the best ladder in the world, but it’s still up to you to climb it.

Obviously, at first glance, what you’ll see in Temin’s proposals is that they’re oriented toward a better society in a broad sense where there is something closer to equality of opportunity.

However, if you really look at those steps for a moment, it’s pretty easy to translate those steps into individual action. Those things are steps that anyone who is self-motivated to improve their situation can start taking today.

I’m going to be the last person to claim that it is easy to do so. It’s not. When the deck of societal infrastructure is stacked so strongly like this, it’s going to take a lot of personal work to overcome it. The recipe is there, though.

You can translate almost every elements into individual behavior that can help you improve your current situation now, without waiting around for society to fix itself.

Here are six key steps for handling some of the extra challenges that are part of escaping the poverty trap, both for yourself and for your family.

Get an education.

As the article makes clear, one of the key differences between the low-income group and the high-income group is education. People in the high-income group bring skills to the table that companies are willing to pay well for, and the only way to get those skills is through education.

How do you do this, particularly in an area where tuition at a university is almost backbreaking in its cost and takes years and years to complete? That shuts out many people in the low income group, right there.

The best route is to take on a serious pattern of lifetime learning in your own life and direct that learning at a specific job you can see in your own life. Go to your workplace and see if you can identify people who are working at jobs that are in the high-skill high-pay group. Who are the people making decisions? Who are the people handling the highly technical tasks? Go up to those people and start a conversation. Ask what you really need to know to have a job like theirs. Ask, very directly, what you can do to get your foot in the door there.

Take what they tell you seriously and work at it. Devote time every single day to acquiring those skills that they’re talking about. The thing is, you have the resources available to you to do this. You have the internet, you have free public libraries. You just have to use them.

Start learning. Read the books they suggest. Work on the skills they suggest. Don’t worry about getting a formal education; that might come down the line, but it doesn’t need to happen quite yet.

I recommend setting aside at least an hour a day for devoted, focused learning. If you’re struggling with a topic, back up and read about the basic things that you’re not understanding. Put the things you’re learning into practice as much as you can. If you struggle with the literacy aspect, practice and practice and practice some more by reading books of all kinds that push you just a little and then just a little more so that you’re caught up, even if this means starting with a simple book. That’s fine. If you dedicate an hour a day to learning, you’ll improve faster than you expect.

More importantly, do not be afraid to ask for help. Ask questions of all kinds. Never stop asking questions. When you get an answer, try to process that answer and incorporate it into what you know.

This isn’t naive advice. I witnessed a janitor become a computer programmer mostly because he read books in his spare time and asked questions all the time. I witnessed a fast food worker become a regional manager. How? She read books and asked questions all the time. Both of those people chose to educate themselves outside of the classroom using free resources, and their genuine desire to learn became obvious to those around them, and that’s something that employers want.

There will probably come a point where additional formal education is necessary, but it is definitely not necessary to climb up the first few rungs on the ladder until you’re at a point where you can actually obtain that education realistically.

Focus your financial choices on foundations rather than frills.

The key to financial success is to make every single money choice in terms of what will benefit yourself five years in the future rather than yourself right now.

For example, buying some frivolous item at the store benefits you right now, but it does absolutely nothing for yourself five years down the road. On the other hand, making an extra debt payment doesn’t really benefit you right now, but it enormously benefits you down the road.

This seems so easy, but in truth it’s actually pretty hard. Our mind screams for the short term. It demands that we do the things that seem enjoyable right now, because our brains have a hard time instinctively seeing past the next few weeks. It’s because of that “feature” of our brains that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

Make every possible choice you can in terms of what benefits “future you” the most. Use that as your rule of thumb for every dime that you spend. That means buying a lot less unnecessary stuff. It means buying store brand versions of necessities. It means making meals at home largely out of inexpensive staples – beans and rice should be your friends. It means living in a cheap apartment and driving a beat-up car. It means paying down your debts as fast as possible and building an emergency fund in a savings account (or under your mattress, if you’re locked out of the banking system for now). It means keeping your bills paid, but finding ways to cut down on your bills along the way.

This is hard, and you’re going to make the wrong choice sometimes. Just remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you only accept perfection, then you’re going to fail. What you want is to be making the better choice more often than you once were, and that your bad choices aren’t completely destructive.

Build your social and professional capital.

It is often said (and is originally attributed to Jim Rohn) that you are the average of the five people you’re closest to. This is because our routines and habits tend to line up with the people we’re closest to in our life.

Thus, it makes sense that if you make a conscious effort to build strong relationships with people who are in a better situation than you and have better life skills and habits than you, that they will help lift you up, if for nothing else than the fact that some of those skills and habits will rub off due to your regular exposure to them.

What does that mean for you? It means making a conscious effort to try to build good, strong friendships and professional relationships among people who are closer to where you want to be in life rather than where you currently are in life.

You can do this by joining civic organizations and building friendships there. You can do this by consciously connecting with people at the next step up in your workplace. You can do this by focusing on strengthening friendships with the most successful people in your life. You can do this by trying to strongly connect with the successful people in your family.

Build relationships with these people – real relationships, not just ones where they give and you receive. Help them out at least as much as they ever help you, because the reality is that most “help” that people give in social structures is amplified, meaning that the amount of effort given by the helper is much smaller than the perceived benefit by the helped.

Give without expectation of anything in return, and you’ll find that when you need things – advice, a word of reference, and so on – some of those people are there for you. You’ll also find that the more you associate with successful people, both personally and professionally, the more their habits that have led to success will rub off on you and the more ideas you’ll learn along the way. That’s value, and it takes time to build.

Avoid dependence and vices.

When you rely on a substance to help you manage the challenges of day to day life, you’re giving up a lot of your personal freedom for momentary peace of mind. The resources – time, money, energy, health – you give to that vice make your problem worse, and all you get in return is a few fleeting moments of an altered state. It’s an exchange that simply isn’t worth it.

One of the single most powerful steps you can take toward escaping the poverty trap is to simply eliminate your dependence on any vices – alcohol, cigarettes, opioids, marijuana, other drugs, anything. If you consume something that isn’t necessary to continue your life and do so as a matter of habit, it is taking you away from where you want to be in life because of the resources it consumes. Not only that, vices typically alter your mental state, causing you to make poor decisions while under the influence of that vice.

It can be very hard to break away from an addiction, but one thing you can do that helps is to start building new relationships in your life and, at the same time, start de-emphasizing relationships with people who share that vice. When you spend time with people who have a particular vice, you’re often drawn to share in it; when you spend time with people who do not have that vice, you’re less incentivized to continue, not just because of the social aspect, but because of the patterns you observe.

If you find yourself indulging in vices when alone, seek help. Talk to a medical professional and do whatever it takes to break your personal connection to that vice.

Use your employment as a stepping stone, not as a destination.

Many people caught in the poverty trap look at their job as solely an exchange of time for money. They do not see the additional benefits they get out of their time at work.

Rather than looking at it as simply an exchange of your time and energy for money, where you do the minimum tasks you’re instructed to do and collect a paycheck, dig deeper. Do the tasks you’re assigned as well as you possibly can. Look for ways to do more. If you’re not sure what to do, talk to your supervisor and ask questions about what can be done to improve things, or ask about what concerns the supervisor has regarding the workplace in general.

At every opportunity, you should not just use your job as a way to make money, but as a stepping stone to a better job. Every job can and should be treated this way. What can you do in this job that will set you up for a raise or for a promotion? What can you get out of this job that will set you up for a better job when you switch employers?

Reliability is one big factor. Doing what you’re asked to do is another. Looking for things that need to get done and just doing them is another. Asking good questions and learning more about how the business operates is another. Incorporating that info into better choices at work is yet another. Showing up is important, but what you do when you show up is important, too.

Take the long view.

None of these solutions are going to provide an automatic ladder right out of the poverty trap. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be in a clearly better place if you execute well today. Instead, you need to take the long view.

Remember earlier, when I discussed making financial decisions that are best for that “future self” version of you, the one that’s five years in the future? You should be making most life decisions oriented around that person, in every area you can. Is consuming that vice going to help your future self? No. Is skipping work going to help your future self? No. Is showing up to work and doing the bare minimum going to help your future self? No. Is sitting around all evening snacking on unhealthy foods and watching television going to help your future self? No. Is hanging out with the same old people who are heading nowhere going to help your future self? No.

Make choices in every aspect of your life that are geared toward making a better life for your future self, and you’ll find that a few years down the road, you’re going to have a better life. You built the foundation for that life with the choices you make today.

It’s not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s just going to take a lot of time, and success won’t arrive immediately. Just trust in the process. Know that if you make most of your decisions solely to benefit your future self, your future self is going to have a far better life. If you make your decisions mostly to make things somewhat more pleasant in just this moment, you’re not going to head anywhere good in the future and you’re not going to be escaping the poverty trap.

There may come a future where the opportunities are more clear for everyone, but that day isn’t here yet. Today, you need to take matters into your own hands.

Good luck.

The post Handling the Extra Challenges of Escaping the Poverty Trap appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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My Five Favorite Services for Streaming Free Music Online

At the start of a new year, I always want to listen to a lot of new music. I’m a total sucker for the slew of “best album of the year” lists that drop every December. As I read them, I find myself making lists of artists and songs I’m excited to check out.

If you’re anything like me, you might be interested in trying out a streaming music service. The radio is great and all, but the lack of control is a big minus. There are now tons of great options for those of us who want a steady stream of new music that can be customized to our exact tastes.

Here are the five top options for streaming free music online today, along with the prices for each service’s premium offering. If you go premium, you unlock more features — the most important of which is that you don’t have to listen to advertisements.


Best for: those who want the biggest selection, the smoothest interface, and also enjoy collaborating on playlists.

They’re the current market leader among streaming music services, and for good reason. They have the biggest selection of songs and the best user interface. As was the case when the iPhone burst onto the mobile phone scene, people are drawn to the service because it’s just downright intuitive.

They’re also quite good at recommending new music, as their “Discover Weekly” series gets great reviews. This is a feature where Spotify’s machine learning algorithm sends you a few songs you might not have heard before, but will probably enjoy.

Finally, Spotify is the best service for collaboration. They make it easier than any other service to create a playlist that can be modified by multiple users. It’s sort of like the Google Docs for playlists, and it’s super fun to use when prepping for a party or a road trip where multiple people are going to want input.

If I could do it again, I would even consider creating a collaborative Spotify playlist for use at my wedding. At the end of the night, I was letting guests use my laptop to pick their favorite songs from my Amazon music selection. This process would have gone a lot smoother if I’d let people add songs to a Spotify playlist beforehand.

Spotify’s premium service costs $9.99 a month.

Google Play Music

Best for: those who are embedded in the Google/Android ecosystem or heavy YouTube users.

While it isn’t as well known as some of the other services, Google Play is quietly becoming a force. Their free service gives you access to 40 million songs, and you can also upload 50,000 songs from your personal collection at no cost.

From my experience, they also have the best algorithms when it comes to creating new playlists from scratch. They have a borderline magical feature where you can click any song and create a playlist from it: Within seconds, it creates a huge playlist of similar songs, with a nice mix of artists you know and stuff you’ve probably never heard of before.

Google search fans will also probably appreciate their “I’m feeling lucky” feature, whereby you click a button and get sent to a random song. All bets are off in terms of quality, but it’s fun to use from time to time.

If you choose to go premium ($9.99), you get access to a service called YouTube Red, which means ad-free YouTube. You also get to watch some exclusive content, but unless you’re a 13-year-old social media addict, you probably won’t find it very interesting. The lack of YouTube ads is great, though. This is an underappreciated aspect of a Google Play subscription.

Amazon Prime Music

Best for: Amazon Prime members who also crave high-quality playlist recommendations.

This is my current go-to streaming service. I value its simplicity, its wide selection, and its recommended stations that are continuously updated as my tastes and listening habits change. The home screen of both the desktop site and the mobile app does a great job of displaying playlists based on what it thinks I might be interested in at that time.

Sometimes its recommendations are so good it can feel a bit creepy. I’ll open the app and it will suggest I unwind with some acoustic indie, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I admire the technology behind it, and I take their advice on what to listen to more than I’d like to admit.

As with most things Amazon related, the service just works. This is just my opinion, but I find them to be the most reliable option in terms of load time and download speed. Those little things matter when you’re excited to get your music playing!

The service is free for current Amazon Prime members; their premium streaming service, Music Unlimited, costs $7.99 a month if you’re a Prime member, $9.99 if not.


Best for: those who miss the “radio” aspect of internet radio, as you’re not allowed to select individual songs, just stations.

Pandora was the first online streaming service to gain real, mainstream traction, and they were able to build a huge user base. They rode that high to becoming a publicly traded company. Unfortunately, they’ve hit rocky times with all the competition you see above, and their subscriber rates are falling.

Still, Pandora is great at fulfilling its core mission, which allows you to feel like you’re listening to a radio station designed just for you. They pride themselves on being able to analyze songs based on hundreds of criteria, and then using those specifications to tailor stations to each user.

You pick a song, artist, genre, or any combination thereof, and Pandora generates a never-ending playlist based on those initial selections. It works wonderfully for those who want to take a hands-off approach.

And Pandora is pretty great for discovering new music, as you never know what’s coming on next. Because you have the ability to fine-tune the station as time goes on, giving certain songs a thumbs up or down, the system gets better and better at serving up music you’re going to enjoy.

Pandora charges $4.99 a month to remove ads, and $9.99 a month for on-demand streaming of individual songs.


Best for: those who want to discover up-and-coming artists.

All of these streaming services are fantastic for discovering artists who aren’t already signed to a major label. But for those of us with a hunger to hear cool new music our friends have never heard before, SoundCloud is the destination. They have over 200 million active users, many of whom are musicians submitting their latest content.

SoundCloud won’t be for everyone, as their recommendation system is a bit hit-and-miss. You can easily go from listening to an amazing new band to hearing a low-quality song by a 15-year-old singer/songwriter that sounds like it was recorded in a bathtub.

But if you’re looking to find a new favorite band that makes you look cool in front of your friends, I can’t imagine a better service. SoundCloud’s premium service costs $9.99 a month.

Don’t Forget the Good Ol’ Public Library

While it’s a bit of a cheat, since they’re not an online streaming service per se, I couldn’t leave the library off this list. I just love the library!

My hometown New York City public library system allows people to check out digital albums and download a wide selection of songs to any device, free of charge. You can also check out CDs (if you’re really old school), but the beauty of the digital system is that you can get access to full albums without having to make a trip to your library, or being placed on a waiting list.

If you use your local library, it’s worth asking about their digital music services.

Introductory Offers and Other Ways to Save

There’s almost always a way to try the premium version of these services for free, and if you don’t want to pay, the patient consumer can usually find a discount.

A free trial month is standard across all streaming services, and throughout the year each service tends to offer great promos from time to time. I was able to snag six months of Amazon’s service for just 99 cents, and Spotify is known for promotions that will give you three months of premium for 99 cents. That’s a pretty typical deal across the board, and if you’re vigilant about staying on top of things, you’ll almost certainly come across something similar.

You can also create your own deals if you split the cost of the service with your friends or family. Most services offer a family plan, allowing six people to use the service at once, for $14.99 per month. If you split that with a half dozen friends or family members, you’d have millions of songs at your fingertips for just a couple bucks per month.

Summing Up

There are tons of great options when it comes to music streaming, so I’d recommend you pick any service from this list and try it out. Honestly, while they each have slightly different features, they’re all pretty similar at heart.

You’re going to get your choice of songs or music style, you’re going to have playlist making capabilities, and you’ll have to listen to short ads from time to time. But compared with FM radio, with its repetitive nature and minutes-long advertising breaks, you really can’t go wrong with any streaming service.

Related Articles:

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

10 Excellent Online Courses I Highly Recommend (and They’re All Free!)

Ever since the start of the recent boom in free online college classes several years back, I have almost constantly been enrolled in or following at least one course, and often two or three at once.

Free online college classes are exactly what they sound like. A college simply records the lectures of a particular class and puts most of the materials for the class online for anyone to use for free. The catch, of course, is that they don’t actually advance you toward a degree; instead, they’re typically used for personal enrichment. Many courses offer the ability to pay a small fee in order to earn a certificate demonstrating that you successfully completed the course, which is nice and perhaps useful for a resume in a specific area, but most courses are available completely for free without a certificate.

My reasons for digging into these were straightforward. Sometimes, I dug into a class because it enabled me to gain a broad overview of a subject that I didn’t understand well, such as music theory. At other times, I dug into a class because it enabled me to start digging deeper into a few specific areas of personal interest, such as machine learning.

Along the way, I took some very good courses with instructors who did a great job of explaining topics and an abundance of materials online to read and follow. I also took some really awful courses with poorly recorded meandering lectures and no materials to help.

What follows are my ten favorite free online courses I’ve taken over the years. If you’re interested in the specific topics, I highly encourage you to give these free online classes a chance.

Introduction to Computer Science
Harvard University
Many people assume that computer science means learning how to program, but that’s not actually what it is. Perhaps the best description of computer science is figuring out ways of processing information and how to make those ways scale up. In essence, that’s what a computer does – it processes information.

Thus, the actual study of computer science often catches people by surprise. Rather than learning how to write code, computer science treats code as a pretty secondary thing. Instead, it’s all about processes and how to do them as efficiently as possible. If you have 100 files to alphabetize, how do you alphabetize them the fastest? Solving that problem on its own is the backbone of computer science; translating it to code is something of a secondary step.

This course lays out the basics of computer science in a very approachable way. I took this myself as a “refresher” as I studied computer science in college twenty years ago and I found it to be clear and interesting and engaging, more than I did back in the day. Perhaps I grew up, or maybe this is just a good class; either way, I found it really worthwhile.

Introduction to Political Philosophy
Yale University
Political philosophy is essentially the study of how groups of people come to govern themselves, determine right from wrong within the group, and develop appropriate benefits and consequences. This course goes through the long history of the development of political philosophy, from early experiments in democracy in ancient Greece and Plato’s writing on the subject all the way up to the modern day.

What I enjoyed most about this course is that the instructor was pretty non-judgmental about the topics. He mostly wanted to lay out some of the major ideas in political philosophy and chose to do it in a chronological order so that the student can see how one idea led to another. I didn’t notice a strong bias in his teaching and there were definitely ideas that would support all kinds of modern political persuasions.

If you’re interested in the “why” of how governments work and how people cooperate in large groups, you’ll find this to be well worth your time. A point of advice: do the readings along with the lectures here. Most of the readings are in the public domain and can easily be found online, though.

The Science of Everyday Thinking
University of Queensland
This is a rather practical psychology class that delves into how we all think in terms of everyday activities and choices. Why do we react like we do? Why do we make the decisions that we do? What basis is there for the seemingly rational and seemingly irrational decisions that I make? And, to a small extent, how can I make better ones?

This class delves into a lot of those ordinary decisions in depth, discussing things like how we process information presented to us, how we decide what and who to trust, and how to transition to slower and more reasoned and logical thinking for decisions rather than fast, instinctive choices.

The class is very practical, arguably the most practical one on this list. Much of the class deals with psychological blind spots that many of us have, particularly in terms of what things we choose to trust and how we make bad decisions. Quite a lot of it overlaps with personal finance decision making. It’s presented in an easy to digest manner and will leave you thinking quite a lot about your own behaviors.

Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
University of Pennsylvania
This class is a survey of American poetry over the last hundred to 150 years. The class centers around reading quite a lot of poetry and then delving into it to find deeper meanings and themes.

I took this class on a whim, mostly because I have always really enjoyed reading the poetry of Walt Whitman. His poems seem to have always been able to scratch some sort of itch on my soul and I wanted to understand his poetry better, so this class was recommended by a friend.

What I gained was a much deeper appreciation of poetry, not only in terms of appreciating the poems that others have written, but also appreciating the craft that went into them. I discovered the poetry of several others that I quite enjoyed and dug much deeper into the poetry of many that I was already familiar with. I now adore Dorothy Parker’s poetry, mostly thanks to this class.

Learning How to Learn
University of California San Diego
This class focuses on methods for self-learning and independent learning outside of a classroom setting. How does a person figure out how to tackle a topic, find trusted sources of information, and then integrate that information into one’s own knowledge in a meaningful way? That’s the key question that this class tries to answer.

As a sometimes meandering lifelong learner, this class was extremely useful to me as it helped me to direct some of that passion for learning in a more sensible way. I moved beyond merely reading tons of Wikipedia articles and piles of books – although I still do that, I now use several methods to extract more from those books and articles and really integrate the ideas within into my thinking.

These practices are things that are incredibly useful for students, of course, but they’re very valuable for anyone who has to learn things in the course of their work. Being a lifelong learner is invaluable in almost every career path these days and this class is all about effective techniques for the lifelong learner. I’m incredibly glad I took it.

If there is a “most universally practical” class that I’ve chosen for this list, it would either be this one or The Power of Everyday Thinking, listed earlier.

Machine Learning
Stanford University
Machine learning is a field within computer science that is focused on how computers can learn without being explicitly programmed to do so. Generally, this is done with computer programs that can evaluate large sets of data and find interesting and potentially hidden patterns within those sets without human intervention.

This is a topic area I dabbled in during my professional career and have always had a personal interest in, and over the last few years I’ve had an intellectual desire to get back up to speed on the topic. This course, along with a few books, was incredibly valuable in that regard.

I found the course to be surprisingly approachable, although I wouldn’t make this a “first taste” of computer science. This is a great follow up to the Harvard computer science course mentioned earlier in this article if you’re interested in the idea of machine learning.

Programming for Everybody: Getting Started with Python
University of Michigan
Naturally, with this interest in computer science, I also wanted to get back up to speed on how to actually write computer programs, and I chose to do this by learning Python. Although I wrote a lot of code back in my college years and early professional days, I didn’t use Python as a programming language at all.

This class was a really good introduction to using Python as a language, both for someone like myself with some background in programming in other languages, but also for someone who is completely new to programming. I watched portions of this class with my preteen son and he was able to pick up on most of what was going on and experimented with Python on his own.

You don’t need any software to try out the things described in this course – all of it is freely available and you can likely set it up easily on whatever computer you have access to. This makes it nice and easy to try out things on your own, which is most of the fun!

How to Write an Essay
University of California Berkeley
I took this course as part of an continuing effort to improve my own writing ability, with the goal of improving my ability to lay out a clear set of ideas that are enjoyable to read. After all, that’s essentially what I do for The Simple Dollar almost every day! This type of course is practically “continuing education” for someone like me.

As with most of the other courses here, I found this one to be extremely approachable. I found that many of the ideas presented were things that I felt in an intuitive fashion due to my own independent efforts and practice. At the same time, though, the course offered quite a few ways to improve those intuitive practices I had built up.

If you find that you need to write at any significant length for your work, or even wish to do so for pleasure, this class will offer quite a bit of value to you. I found myself even drawing upon this class when reading essays later on, as I could see many of the tactics and principles from this class being put to work by other writers.

Music Theory 101
Before taking this class, I knew next to nothing about music aside from what I “liked” and what I “didn’t like.” As a curious person, I find such a lack of depth of knowledge about a subject to be frustrating and I wanted to correct it.

This class certainly solved that problem. Music theory is simply the study of how musicians and composers make music, and it breaks down into a rather large number of interrelated ideas, from music appreciation to understanding musical notation to understanding how music triggers emotions and ideas. All of that and much more is presented in this course.

While it is accessible, I found myself going very slowly through this course because the sheer number of topics that I was unfamiliar with led me to go down a lot of different rabbit holes on my own. The material is presented well, but there is just a lot of material on a lot of areas. Still, by the time I completed the class, I felt that, between the class and my many side journeys, I had a much deeper understanding and appreciation of music than I had before.

American Government
Harvard University
This final course is a great accompaniment to the course on political philosophy mentioned earlier in this article; in fact, I’d actually recommend going through the political philosophy class first, because a major portion of this course ties in very well with political philosophy and how American government is an expression of many aspects of it. In other words, taken in tandem, you get a very nicely integrated “how” and “why” for American government.

I felt that this class spelled out exactly how America’s system of government works in a pretty even-handed fashion, covering both how it functionally works today (and, to an extent, over its history) along with a lot of the major debates on how it should function. This is another class where the recommended readings are very, very useful in terms of understanding the lectures in depth.

If you have a deep interest in how American government works or, perhaps more accurately, why it works the way that it does, this one will deeply scratch that itch.

Good luck in your journey for a deeper understanding of the world!

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How Hiring a Housekeeper Saved My Sanity and My Marriage

I remember the day we hired a housekeeper like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday and I should have been spending time with my kids. Instead, I was busy quietly mumbling and crying while I cleaned toilets, dusted blinds, and completed chores I’ve loathed for years.

I worked full-time then just as I do now, but I didn’t think we could afford to pay for bi-weekly or monthly housekeeping. I was also stubbornly resistant to the idea of paying someone to do work I could do myself. By cleaning my own house, I was saving at least $80 or $100 every two weeks.

But, on this particular day, I totally snapped. I was angry that I was cleaning while my family sat cozily on the sofa downstairs. I was angry at my husband for not helping, even though I knew deep down he was a hard-working man who deserved a day off, too. I was angry that, in addition to that weekend morning, I had already cleaned up a few times that week.

Most of all, I was just angry at my life. I worked too hard to spend my Saturdays scrubbing floors and cleaning counters, or at least I thought I did. And I was tired of doing the bulk of household chores just because no one else would.

Revelation #1: Maybe I Was the Problem

At one point on that particular day, I remember seething at my husband for playing UNO with the kids while I slaved away on our home upstairs. If I was cleaning, then he should be right here with me folding sheets and scraping the toothpaste out of the bathroom sink.

I cried as I put toys away and threw laundry in the washer, mostly because I felt like I was the only one who cared.  When did this house become my sole responsibility to take care of? Also, how could my husband relax so peacefully when there was always so much to do?

I mean, it wasn’t like the housework was hiding; a few piles of laundry sat plainly on our bedroom floor, splashes of water and who-knows-what sat dried on our bathroom mirrors, and the dust on our wooden floors was too thick to ignore.

I glared at him as I walked through the living room with yet another pile of colors to wash and eventually fold and put away. Our eyes locked and he gave me a look of utter sadness. He felt sorry for me, but not for the reason you might think.

But his thoughts on the whole thing would become apparent very soon.

A little later, he cornered me in our bedroom closet and told me he was going to hire someone to clean our house. “Just every two weeks,” he said. “I’m not going to spend our weekend cleaning, and neither should you.”

He went on to say that maybe my standards were too high, and that I should give myself a break. Maybe the house wasn’t the problem, he said. Maybe I was the problem. And, you know what? Maybe I needed to start caring less about the house instead of insisting he care more.

His words stung, mostly because I knew they were true. I needed to let a few things go if I wanted to work full-time and maintain my sanity. After all, it’s impossible to do a good job at everything – to be a rock star at work, to be a great mom, and to keep the perfect home. If I had to sacrifice something, the dream of a perfectly clean home should easily be the first thing to go.

And, that’s when it hit me. It’s not that my husband didn’t care about dried toothpaste in the sinks or the fact our sheets weren’t washed that week; it was that he wanted to spend his limited free time doing other things. Our kids were in school full-time, and at the time he frequently had to work nights and weekends for his job. When he had a Saturday or Sunday off, he didn’t want to spend those precious hours sweeping floors or vacuuming blinds – he wanted some time off.

Revelation #2: Maybe I needed to listen.

Okay, so maybe I was a little hard on my husband up to that point. Cleaning had never been his strong suit anyway, and I have been a raging clean freak for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t fair to strongarm him into caring about housework that would never be a priority in his eyes.

He’s not messy or dirty – not at all. It’s just that he can accept the fact that the kids leave their toys strewn all over the living room at times – or that the TV has fingerprints on it, or that the kitchen sink is dirty. He’s more relaxed about nearly everything in life, and in a lot of ways, I wish I could be more like him.

Not only that, but I was wrong to be mad at my husband for not helping enough. It’s not like he’s some lackey who never did his part. He isn’t huge on cleaning, but he does the dishes and helps with laundry, and he does more than half the childcare most of the time. He also does all the outdoor work. In 12 years of marriage, I’ve never taken out the trash and I only mow the grass when I feel like doing some forced cardio. He rakes the leaves and shovels and driveway, and he picks up dog waste in the back yard.

He’s also the kind of dad that will get up with his kids and play UNO on a Saturday morning instead of doing something for himself.

With all this in mind, I relented and let him look for someone to clean our home. That night, he put up a message on our neighborhood Facebook page asking if someone had a recommendation for a bi-weekly cleaning service. Even if it cost us $100 every two weeks, it would save me from spending entire weekends cleaning – and him from my wrath.

“Isn’t $200 a small price to pay for household harmony?” he asked.

I went along, but I wasn’t happy about any of it. I didn’t think anyone could clean to my specifications, and I didn’t want to shred $200 or more so wastefully every month. But I agreed because I wanted to stop being so angry all the time. I wanted to spend my weekends like my husband, curled up on the couch or playing board games with the kids without a care in the world.

Revelation #3: Letting go actually feels good.

A few weeks later, the cleaning crew my husband hired showed up at my house to do their work. I worked on my computer in my bedroom while the three-person crew deep-cleaned every room of my house down to the last detail. They cleaned blinds and drapes, made beds, and dusted baseboards better than I ever did. By the time they left, I was actually in awe of the qualify of their work.

When I walked downstairs, I was in shock. There was something strange and exciting about seeing my home so sparkly and clean without having to lift a finger to get there. By the time my husband told me the cleaning service actually cost $120 every two weeks (instead of $100), I was so obsessed with the idea of housekeeping service that I probably wouldn’t have cared if it cost even more.

“This is worth it,” I told myself as I looked around at all the things I wouldn’t have to do that week – the countertops I didn’t have to polish, the floors I wouldn’t need to sweep or mop, and the bathrooms that I might never have to clean again in my life.

As I looked around, I also thought about what the $120 spent actually purchased us. Peace of mind. The household harmony my husband hoped for. But more importantly, it bought us Saturday mornings with our kids – moments in time we will never get back once they’re gone.

When you look at it that way, $120 every two weeks is a small price to pay.

The Bottom Line

These days, I don’t always have the cleaning crew come every two weeks – sometimes it’s every three weeks or every four weeks. Either way, this one splurge has changed our lives. Not only does having a housekeeper save me from many dreaded household chores, but it saves both of us from feeling resentful toward one another.

I no longer spend weekends crying and smoldering at my husband. I no longer wake up wishing I could hang with my kids but feeling like I can’t because there are too many chores to do.

I have peace in my home, and I have days where I wake up with absolutely nothing I have to do. And I have more time with my kids – kids who keep getting bigger with every Saturday that passes us by. If that’s not worth $120 every few weeks, I don’t know what is.

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

Related Articles:

Would you ever pay for household help? Why or why not?

The post How Hiring a Housekeeper Saved My Sanity and My Marriage appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How Mastering These Six Food Staples Can Make Cooking at Home Inexpensive and Super Easy

Over the years, I’ve written several different lists of inexpensive food staples with an eye towards looking for foods that are incredibly inexpensive and yet are flexible enough to go with lots of different meals and foods. I particularly like this one that focuses on foods sorted by cost per calorie.

However, I rarely go beyond that and actually talk about how to really use them at home to save money. Sure, you might know that it’s cheap to buy some of the items on this list, but transforming that into anything tasty, convenient, and meaningful in your kitchen is another story entirely. Particularly for people new to home cooking, a big bag of uncooked rice or a pile of fresh produce seems intimidating. What do you do with it?

Today, I want to talk about six inexpensive staples I actually use all the time at home and some of the simplest ways I know of to prepare them. I hope this guide will help you get started with making foods at home in an inexpensive way.


Rice is the most important grain in the world in terms of caloric intake, making up one fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide. For many, many people, it forms the backbone of their diet. Yet it’s often overlooked in America, which doesn’t have a major agricultural or culinary tradition centering around rice.

Yet, rice is an incredibly inexpensive and incredibly flexible food that works so well in such a wide variety of dishes. It deserves to be a significant part of any frugal kitchen.

First, let’s look at the cost. A pound of dry white rice can be found for $0.69, on average. It triples in size when cooked, so the actual cost of a pound of cooked white rice is somewhere around $0.25, including the cost of the water and the energy to cook it. That’s astounding.

Of course, there are many variations on rice with different price points, but most of them trend toward the very inexpensive end of the spectrum.

The question is what do you do with dry rice once you get it in the home. You’ve bought a bunch of rice. Now what?

The easiest method I’ve found, in terms of pure convenience, is to use a rice cooker. Rice cookers can often be found at secondhand stores for just a dollar or two, so the expense isn’t that great, and they’re incredibly easy to use. Generally, you just add rice, add water up to the appropriate line for the amount and type of rice, turn on the rice cooker, choose the mode matching the type of rice in there, and hit “Start.” At some point in the next thirty minutes to two hours, you’ll have a bunch of cooked rice.

Once you have cooked rice, you can easily store it in the refrigerator for use in the next several days. In fact, I have a friend who just cooks rice as part of a routine three times a week, just putting it in the fridge when done, so that he always has rice on hand for any meal.

One great tip: cooking rice with broth instead of water imbues a lot of flavor into it. If you happen to have some broth on hand, just use that instead of the water and the rice will absorb that flavor like a sponge. (It’s easy to make your own broth, too – just save scraps of a certain type, whether it’s vegetables, chicken scraps and bones, beef scraps and bones, whatever – and put them in a slow cooker all day long when covered with water, then strain out the pieces when done.)

Now that you have cooked rice on hand, what do you do with it? The possibilities are truly endless.

One simple thing to do is to add it to a soup. Rice will bulk up any soup with ease without sacrificing the flavor one bit. Just make a simple vegetable or beef or chicken soup and add some of your cooked rice to it when it’s almost done. Boom – instant heartiness.

You can fry rice really easily in a bit of oil. Just add whatever chopped vegetables or small pieces of meat you have on hand, or else scramble an egg or two before adding the rice. You can easily add any sort of flavorful sauce you wish to the mix before serving it – soy sauce is a good default, but don’t be afraid to try others.

I personally like to make “monk bowls,” which basically consist of putting some cooked rice in a bowl and topping it with my favorite proteins and veggies (or whatever I have on hand), adding a bit of sauce to the top, and warming it up.

Another nice trick is to make a casserole by mixing together 2 cups of cooked rice, 1 cup of a protein (cooked chicken pieces, cooked beef pieces, baby shrimp, tofu, tempeh – whatever), 1 cup of a chopped vegetable, 1 1/2 cups of a thick liquid (cream, a soup, something like that), and 1/4 cup of something flavorful like shredded cheese. Put it in a casserole dish or a 9″ by 13″ pan that can hold all of it, put a bit of flavoring on top (like a bit more shredded cheese), and bake it at 350 F for 30-45 min. In fact, I wrote about the greatness of this “flexible casserole” recipe years ago.

In short, if you have some sort of protein – chicken, beef, pork, eggs, tofu, tempeh, whatever – and some sort of vegetable – broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, whatever you like – you can probably make something tasty with rice. It’s just that flexible.

Dry Beans

I often talk about my love of beans on The Simple Dollar. They come in such varied sizes and flavors and culinary uses that you can almost always find at least some beans that you like. The best part? They’re really cheap and really easy to prepare.

Beans can be found for $1 to $2 per pound for most common types of beans, according to the Bean Institute. Beans also double or triple in weight after soaking and cooking, which reduces the cost to $0.33 to $1 per pound for cooked beans, depending on the type, with many beans on the lower end of that range. That’s cheap eating, my friends.

Preparing dry beans is really easy. Just put a sufficient quantity of dry beans in your slow cooker – whatever kind you like – and cover them with water so that there’s about a pinky finger of depth over the top of the beans and let them soak overnight. The beans will swallow up the moisture like a sponge. After that, pour off the water and replace it, then look up how long you need to cook that bean type in a slow cooker to cook it, as cooking times vary. You can find this with a Google search, like “black beans slow cooker time.” You’ll just turn it on low for however long you’re supposed to, drain off the remaining liquid if you so wish, and then you have a big batch of cooked beans!

As with rice, cooked beans can easily store in the refrigerator for a while in a closed container. Cook them now and use them later when you need them.

What do you do with those beans? You can do all kinds of things. Make black bean tacos or bean burritos. Mash them and cook them into refried beans. Mix them in with scrambled eggs and a bit of salsa. Puree them with a bit of olive oil and other flavorful things to make hummus or a bean dip. My favorite? Soups. All kinds of soups, from a thirteen bean soup to a bean-y chili, use beans to great effect.


As with the above items, pasta is something that’s incredibly inexpensive, incredibly easy to prepare, and incredibly flexible on the table. It’s super cheap to buy in the store and, believe it or not, even cheaper and tastier to make yourself, though it takes some time.

In the store, dried pasta can be found for about $1 to $2 per pound and it increases slightly in weight while cooked depending on the variety. On the other hand, a pound of fresh pasta can be made for about $0.50 at home as it requires just eggs, salt, and flour.

Making it yourself takes some time but the process is very simple – you just mix two cups of flour, three eggs, and half a teaspoon of salt until it forms a yellowish dough, then knead it for about ten minutes. Let it sit for thirty minutes, then roll it out flat on a very well floured area. Fold it in thirds, roll it out super flat again, then flour both sides well and roll it up and thinly slice it. Take the individual noodles and toss them in flour and you’re ready to go. (A manual pasta machine makes this easier but costs $20 or so; a fully automatic one makes this way easier but is quite expensive.) The best part is that you can easily sneak in more flavor by adding a bit of very finely chopped herbs or finely minced garlic right into the dough.

Cooking pasta is easy. Boil some water in a pot on the stove, toss the pasta in there, check it every minute or two to see if it’s done how you like it. If it is, drain the water (or just scoop all the pasta out of the water) and serve it as you wish. That’s it. It can’t get much easier than that.

What can you do with it? You can add olive oil. You can add almost any herb you can imagine. You can add minced garlic. You can add chopped cooked meats. You can add all kinds of cheeses. You can add butter. You can add chopped vegetables. You can add chopped mushrooms. You can add any kind of pasta sauce. It’s just so flexible. Just add things that seem tasty to you and you’ll be fine.


Eggs are very inexpensive for the amount of protein and flavor they pack into those thin shells. They’re also incredibly flexible in terms of their uses in foods.

The cost of an egg is really low – about $0.15 per grade A egg is the current national average. Naturally, you pay more for specific kinds of eggs – organic, free range, and so forth.

How do you cook eggs, then? It depends on how you like them, but it’s usually quite easy. Whole eggs can be quickly boiled to make hard-boiled eggs. They can be scrambled by simply cracking a few eggs into a bowl and stirring them vigorously with a fork and a pinch of salt, then cooking them in a skillet with a bit of butter. You can also just crack them right in the skillet and fry them – again, just have a bit of melted butter in there and flip them over when you can get a spatula under them. It takes a little bit of work to learn how to fry an egg or cook scrambled eggs, but even when you mess up, the result is still usually edible and if you mess up too bad you’ve only wasted $0.50 in food or so.

What can you do with eggs, though? The possibilities are almost endless. I dearly love hard boiled eggs and will often boil and peel a dozen to keep in the fridge in a bowl for quick snacks or meals. We often have scrambled eggs for dinner, and we occasionally will have a fried egg for breakfast. Scrambled eggs are fantastic on their own, or as a component in a breakfast burrito (wrap scrambled eggs in a tortilla with cheese, salsa, and/or other things you like). You can chop hard boiled eggs up and make egg salad quite easily. You can also simply cook them in chicken broth and have simple egg drop soup.

My favorite? I fry a couple of eggs in a skillet and then chop them up and mix them in with fried rice and a bit of soy sauce to make a delicious dish by just adding all the rice to the skillet after chopping up the egg with the spatula, then cooking the rice just a bit, then adding sauce and serving it.

Fresh Produce

Fresh produce is a key part of our weekly diet; we usually make meal plans with whatever fresh produce happens to be on sale that week. If you simply follow the sales, you’ll find yourself trying out a wide variety of vegetables and fruits over time, and that gives you a good reason to try them all and figure out what you like.

The cost is obviously variable because of what’s on sale, but you can often find a pound of the produce on special for as low as $0.25. At that price, if you don’t like it, it’s not a big deal.

How do you cook that produce? It really depends on what you have. A lot of vegetables and fruit can simply be eaten raw in a salad or just on their own. Many other types of vegetables can easily be steamed in the microwave using a simple water bath technique, as described in this great article over at the Food Lab.

What can you do with them? Again, it depends so much on the type of produce you have. Vegetables work well as a side dish with basic seasoning or as a salad. Depending on the vegetable, it can be a key ingredient in all kinds of dishes. Some vegetables are delicious if fried; others are great when you bake them; still others are boiled and mashed. The key is to research the type of produce you have and find some interesting way to prepare it. Most preparations are really easy, however. Google, as always, is your friend when looking for basic directions.


My final key kitchen staple is oatmeal, either in the “rolled oats” variety or in the “steel cut” variety. Oatmeal is my morning breakfast most days, simply because it’s so easy to quickly cook in the microwave or prepare the night before in the slow cooker.

How expensive is it? Not much. Plain oatmeal costs about $0.50 a pound dry, depending on the type. Typically, steel cut oats are a bit more expensive per pound, but not overly so. I usually just buy oatmeal from the bulk bins at my local grocer, filling up a bag with the oatmeal of my choosing.

Since oatmeal can double or triple in weight when cooked in water, the cost actually goes down to about $0.25 a pound cooked.

How does one cook it, then? Oatmeal can easily be mixed with water and cooked in a microwave. You can take half a cup of steel cut oats, add two cups of water, cover the bowl with a large plate, and microwave it for five minutes. Stir it, remove the plate, and microwave it again for five minutes. You’re good to go! Rolled oats are similar – just combine half a cup of rolled oats and a cup of water and microwave in a covered bowl for three minutes. That’s it.

Another technique is to just add fruit juice to dry oatmeal and leave it in the fridge overnight, just heating it up in the morning if you like. You can also mix it with yogurt and fruit the night before and leave it all night in the fridge for a “parfait” style breakfast.

However, my favorite preparation is steel cut oats in a slow cooker. You just put the oatmeal in there the night before with some water and perhaps a few other ingredients then leave it on low overnight. Here are the details.

What can you do with oatmeal? Add sweet flavorings to your heart’s content – sugar, honey, and molasses all work. Add spices like cinnamon or nutmeg. You can toss in diced fruits or dried fruits or whatever nuts you like. You can also take it in a savory direction by adding salt or hot sauce or vegetables or scrambled eggs, even. You can also cook it with broth or stock to make a really savory oatmeal that works well for almost any meal.

Final Thoughts

These strategies are the backbone of a healthy and super inexpensive diet – and none of it is hard to prepare. Most of these items can be prepared in a slow cooker while you sleep or are at work. Most of these things can have infinite flavors, depending on what other things you mix with it – sauces, herbs, stocks, other vegetables, and so on.

Because of their low cost and enormous flexibility and easy preparation, these six items form the backbone of our diet. You’ll find at least one of these items – and often more than one – at our table for most meals.

Good luck!

The post How Mastering These Six Food Staples Can Make Cooking at Home Inexpensive and Super Easy appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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