Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Value and Practice of a Data Diet: How To Drastically Cut Mobile Data Costs

Over the summer, my family went on a road trip vacation to Yellowstone. On the way out and on the way back, we used quite a lot of mobile data – uploading pictures, downloading park-related apps, looking for roadside attractions, and so on. At one point, my son watched a Netflix movie without realizing that it wasn’t wi-fi. I forgot to turn off background downloading for my podcast listening app. You get the picture.

For the first time ever, we hit our data cap, which, with our plan, basically slows our data to a crawl unless we upgrade our plan. This was kind of a frustration, as it either meant an extra expense or else a lack of data for the remainder of the trip, so we talked it over and forked out the cash for more data.

We were gorging on data, and it was costing us. We needed a data diet.

Mobile data is expensive, no matter how you slice it. Depending on your provider, it can easily cost anywhere from $1 to $3 per gigabyte unless you buy a large quantity at once as part of a broader plan. If you’re using that much data, it’s usually to access paid services anyway.

What makes it worse is that, most of the time, mobile data is chiefly used for entertainment and distraction. You check social media or watch a video or listen to streaming music or visit a few rich websites and, before you know it, your whole data plan has been slurped up.

What this adds up to is that the cute social media and streaming apps on your phone aren’t really free. They’re costing you a surprising amount of money for the data, an amount that rises the more you use them.

(We won’t even get into the question of the actual life value you’re getting from those apps, which is an entirely different ball of worms. How much is Twitter really worth, anyway?)

There are a lot of simple steps you can take to cut down on those costs, however. It just requires some smarter cell phone use and some settings adjustments. Here are 10 strategies you can follow, ones we have been careful to adopt into our lives in the aftermath of our family’s Great Yellowstone Internet Blackout.

Strategy #1 – Turn Off Cellular Data

This one’s easy. Just turn off the cellular data on your phone entirely unless there’s a specific reason to be using it. This doesn’t mean you’re putting your phone into full “airplane mode” – you’re able to send and receive calls and texts – but that your phone is not sending or receiving other types of data with the nearest cell tower. No social media data being swapped in the background, no podcasts downloading when you’re not thinking about it, nothing.

Doing this provides another subtle benefit: it basically eliminates notifications on your phone, which means that you’re far less distracted in the moment. If you want to be in the here and now, one great way to do it is to turn off the cellular data. All of those email and social media and other alerts will simply dry up and you’ll be left with only notifications about actual calls or texts. (Of course, you can turn them off too by going into airplane mode – which is nice if you just want to snap a few pictures but want no distractions – or by turning it off entirely.)

You can turn off cellular data on your iPhone by launching the Settings app, tap on Cellular, and then tap the switch next to Cellular Data.

On Android, you can turn off cellular data by pulling down on your notifications bar and tapping Settings, then tap the Data Usage option, then tap on the switch along the top of that screen to turn it off.

Strategy #2 – Don’t Use Standalone Social Media Apps

Social media apps provide a powerful way to constantly keep up to date with the latest postings from your friends and from people you are following, but they are subtle data hogs as well. They’re constantly working in the background, checking for updates on your behalf and slowly chipping away at your data.

One way to avoid all of that while still enjoying social media on your phone is to simply stop using the apps themselves and instead check social media solely within the web browser on your phone. This way, you don’t have the apps quietly downloading and uploading data in the background. You have a much firmer control over the data usage on your phone.

To do this, simply delete all of the apps related to social media services on your phone – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – and instead sign into those services using the web browser on your phone. Use their web interfaces for those services going forward. (Yes, some services like Snapchat insist on app usage, so this isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a pretty good one.)

One change is that you’ll no longer have alerts on your phone the next time that one of your friends posts a picture of their cat, but you can still keep tabs on them via the web browser if you so choose, and you’ll do so with a lot less data usage.

Strategy #3 – Turn Off Video Autoplay

Likely, you’ll keep some of the social media apps on your phone, the ones pertaining to the services you pay the most attention to, because you like receiving those updates. That’s fine – every service you trim will help a little.

However, another nasty data-devouring trick that many apps pull on you is that they autoplay videos as you scroll through the updates. That silly video your friend just shared will start playing the second you scroll to it, without you doing anything to activate it. That, right there, is gobbling data, and gobbling it for the most silly of things.

There’s a simple fix for that: just turn off video autoplay and image preloading on any social media apps you keep using. You can do that by going into the settings for that individual app and looking for options for video autoplay and for image preloading and turning them off.

Those two simple moves won’t cut into your ability to check social media to your heart’s content, but it will stop that crazy political video that your uncle just shared from blaring on your phone and gobbling down your data.

Strategy #4 – Turn Off Background Refresh

It turns out that there are many applications that use background refreshing on smart phones to keep themselves updated. They gobble down data quietly in the background so that you’ll see the latest updates when you open the app, almost instantly.

The problem, of course, is that the background data gobbling is a constant thing. Whenever you’re away from wi-fi, your data plan is slowly being drawn down by all of the background refreshing.

The easiest solution to this is to turn off background refreshing on as many apps as possible. If you don’t really need background refreshing in a certain app, turn it off.

You can do this on iOS by opening up the Settings app, tapping on the General option, then on the Background App Refresh option. From there, you can turn each individual app off and on, or simply toggle the switch at the top to turn them all off.

On Android, you can do this by pulling down the notification bar and tapping on the gear symbol, scroll down to the Wireless and Networks section and tap on Data Usage, then tap on the three dots to the right and tap on Restrict Background Data.

Strategy #5 – Turn On Wi-Fi Only Mode

Another option, one that’s available on an app-by-app basis, is to turn on “wi-fi only” mode. This means that the app will only use data when you’re connected to wi-fi, which means that it won’t gobble through your data plan.

This is a feature that typically has to be set within individual apps, so you’ll have to go into the settings for each app on your phone and see if there is a wi-fi only option for that app. Most well-crafted apps have such an option, but it is far from standardized.

This is a particularly good feature for apps that center around downloading new content when it’s available and storing it on your phone for later consumption, such as podcast manager apps. If you listen to a lot of podcasts on your phone, setting your podcast manager app to only download over wi-fi will save you a tremendous amount of data.

Strategy #6 – Use Opera Mini

If you follow strategy #2, you’ll find yourself switching to using your browser app on your phone quite a bit more than before. Some browsers are more efficient than others in terms of how they use and download data, but there’s a pretty clear consensus that if you’re looking primarily for a browser that excels in minimizing data use over the cellular network, Opera Mini is it.

Opera Mini is designed from the ground up for that purpose – minimizing cellular data use. It uses a number of tricks, such as really intelligent preloading of websites when you’re on wi-fi, to ensure that you use only the minimum amount of data when you’re in cellular range.

Just install Opera Mini on your phone and start using it as your default web browser. You can find it for your smartphone of choice by simply visiting the Opera website; it’ll redirect you to where you need to go.

Strategy #7 – Look for a Browser Data Saver Mode

If you can’t (or won’t) use Opera Mini, one alternative is to see if your browser of choice has a “data saver” mode.

Different web browsers handle this in vastly different ways, and with the wide variety of mobile web browsers out there, standardization of this feature is impossible, but in general, a browser’s “data saver” mode uses a number of clever shortcuts to reduce the amount of data that they use when operating over a cellular data connection.

For example, the “data saver” mode used by Google Chrome routes most of your web browsing through Google itself, which compresses all of the data before sending it across your data connection to your phone, which uncompresses it. Other browsers use other techniques to achieve similar effects.

While this won’t make a world-changing difference in your data usage, it’s a simple step you can take to cut down on your data use without seeing any real difference in how you use your phone or how well it works. You can see if your browser of choice has a data saver mode by exploring the individual app settings for that browser on your phone.

Strategy #8 – Create a Wi-Fi Only Folder for Data Hogs

This is a little trick that makes for a slick reminder of the fact that streaming apps really are data hogs.

All you have to do is simply put all of your streaming music and video apps in a folder named “WI-FI ONLY” so you don’t make the mistake of using them when on mobile. This includes apps like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, Amazon Instant Video, and so on.

This won’t make a bit of difference in your actual data usage except that it will force you to have a little reminder of the fact that those apps will indeed slurp down your data if you’re not careful. Often, such a little reminder can be just enough to convince you to not use that app at all and wait until you’re in a wi-fi area.

Strategy #9 – Pre-Download Rich Media

As someone who listens to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and sometimes watches Netflix videos on his phone, I’ve found that pre-downloading media before I go anywhere is a really good routine to get into.

All I simply do is check my podcast and audiobook apps and make sure that I have some fresh content downloaded before I head out. If I know I might end up with a lot of downtime and might watch a video, I’ll fire up Netflix, choose what I want to watch, and tap on the “download” icon (it looks like a small arrow pointing downward into a tray). That enables me to watch the video wherever I’m at without using my data plan.

Doing this enables me to listen to podcasts or audiobooks in the car without worrying about data, even over a very long car trip. I also don’t have to worry about a poor data signal causing the audio to freeze and for me to lose the narrative of the story. The same is true for pre downloaded Netflix videos – I can watch them anywhere without worrying about buffering and without worrying about data charges.

Strategy #10 – Choose Data-Savvy Smartphone Entertainment

One final strategy to consider is to simply choose data-savvy smartphone entertainment choices, ones that don’t rely on constant data exchange with a remote server.

For example, consider changing your primary source of entertainment on your phone from streaming music to predownloaded podcasts, or switching from data-hungry mobile games to ebooks.

The key here is to recognize that not all apps are the same regarding their data use, and by simply choosing to get your entertainment fix from apps that use less data, you’re going to end up saving yourself quite a lot of data plan headaches.

Final Thoughts

Over the last several months, Sarah and I have been implementing these strategies in our day to day lives, primarily in ways that allow us to do what we want with our phones while simply using less data in the process.

I’ve become much more regular at downloading podcasts before I leave the house, for example, and Sarah downloads audiobooks at home as well. We’ve both stripped several social media apps off of our phones (both for data reasons and for reasons related to wanting to reduce our social media exposure) and we’ve both turned off background data for many apps.

As a result, we’re simply gobbling down less data than before by a surprisingly wide measure without really changing much about how we actually use our mobile devices. Thanks to that shift, we’ve actually been able to downgrade our data plan, which provides substantial monthly savings.

Data diets can really pay off.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Building a Smart Job Loss Plan

Imagine that tomorrow – or your next day at work – you go into your workplace only to find a pink slip waiting for you. You’re done. Your employer heard some horrible rumor about you, or maybe your organization is downsizing, or maybe you made a big mistake recently and it’s caught up to you. Whatever it is, your job is no longer yours. You have 15 minutes to clean out your desk and half an hour at HR to sign some papers and then you’re out on the street.

What now? What do you do?

For many Americans, this scenario is a total nightmare. Remember that 78% of Americans live a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle – they’re running into major financial trouble if they miss just a single paycheck (here’s the scoop on that frightening statistic). The idea of a sudden job loss can feel almost overwhelming, and it’s often those big overwhelming things that we push to the side and try not to think about.

As with most big fears in life, however, an unexpected job loss can be made much more tolerable by having a plan in place for what to do if and when it happens, and then taking action on some of those steps now rather than later, because actions on those steps will often help you now.

Here are six things you can do right now to prepare yourself for the possibility of a job loss and make the impact far less painful. These steps lead directly to actions you can and should take as soon as you find yourself without work.

Step 1: Keep your resume updated all the time.

Your resume should always be ready to hand to someone, regardless of how you feel about your job security, because you never know when an opportunity will pop up, just as you never know when you might lose your current job. A resume is a tool that you need for both positive and negative unexpected events.

Your resume should be intentionally geared toward getting the job that you would like to have if your current job vanished. Would you be aiming for the same type of position? Something a little higher on the career track? Something decidedly different? Whatever that target is, design your resume to sell yourself for that job.

Make sure that your resume is loaded with things you’ve actually achieved and skills you can clearly demonstrate that all indicate competency and qualification for that job that you want. Remember that general skills, like leadership and organization, are generally always welcome. If you load it down with irrelevant things, you’re making it harder to get that job.

How do you get those things? You should be aiming to do as many resume-worthy things in your current job as possible. Make a conscious effort to work on things that you’d want to list on your resume, and try to get involved with tasks that make for good material for your resume.

The document itself should be continuously updated, too. Keep it somewhere where you can grab it in a pinch. Keeping it updated on sites like LinkedIn is a good way to keep yourself open for opportunities.

Step 2: Keep your training and education current, preferably using current workplace resources.

The “training” and “education” sections of your resume should be as fresh as possible and directly applicable to the things that people are looking for right now as they search for professional candidates to fill positions.

If you don’t know what’s in demand right now, do the homework. Look at the exact job listings for positions you might want to fill and ask yourself if you have everything that they’re asking for in a reasonably current form. If not, then you have a checklist of things to work on.

Right now is the right time to start working on this, because there’s at least some likelihood that you can take advantage of workplace resources with your current employer to obtain that training and education. Does your workplace offer any resources or funds for additional training? Do they offer flexibility for increasing your education? Talk to human resources and know what’s available to you.

Keeping these parts of your resume fresh will go a long way toward not only opening up opportunities for you today, but ensuring that you’re ready to go should a job loss come your way tomorrow.

Step 3: Have a set of strong professional contacts in place; do favors and make sure those relationships are strong.

Who do you know in your field that would be able to quickly connect you to another position should your current one dissipate? Which people are working at companies that are actively hiring? Who do you know that’s a high performer in your field?

Cultivate those relationships. Have lots of conversations with those people. Go out to lunch with them. When you hear that they need a favor, step up to the plate, particularly if it’s a “multiplier favor” – the kind of favor that’s far more valuable to the recipient than to the giver (you should always give out multiplier favors in any and all situations) – and don’t expect anything in return immediately. These relationships become ones that you can tap when the chips are down. They’re also relationships that sometimes pop up in your life with great opportunities.

Build those contacts. Invest the time to keep them strong. This means sending emails and Facebook messages and tweets. This means going out to lunches and participating in professional groups. This means even going to conferences and conventions. Those are things you should always be doing to maintain professional relationships.

Step 4: Have a very healthy emergency fund.

Having enough cash sitting in the bank to sustain you for a month or two without a job is another key step in preparing yourself against a potential unexpected job loss. That money can sustain you for a few paychecks while you find new employment opportunities.

Not only that, a healthy emergency fund is able to assist you in other life emergencies, such as a car breakdown or a need for emergency travel. Those expenses can come out of nowhere and cause all kinds of personal crises.

Doesn’t a credit card work in this situation? A credit card works as long as your identity is secure and the bank is willing to extend credit to you. In an credit card fraud or identity theft situation, your credit card is useless; if a bank happens to be reassessing credit limits, your credit card can become useless. Don’t rely on it for genuine emergencies. Cash is king.

Getting this started is easy. All you have to do is set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings where a small amount of money is moved each week – say, $20 or $40 or whatever you’re comfortable with. Set it up and forget about it and you’ll have thousands set aside within a year or two.

Step 5: Know exactly what benefits you’re due if you were to lose your job and how to get those benefits.

What exactly is due to you should you lose your job for some reason? What benefits does your contract provide if your employment is terminated for various reasons? What benefits are available to you outside of your workplace in that situation?

You owe it to yourself to know what these benefits are and how to access them. It’s well worth the half an hour of research needed to find that information and store it someplace secure, such as in a note on your phone.

If you’re not sure where to start in terms of finding out that information, your human resources officer is the right person to ask. Simply ask the questions and, if asked for a reason, state that you’re simply reviewing your finances because you want to get all of your ducks in a row (which is the genuine truth).

If you do find that you are suddenly unemployed, having the phone numbers to call all ready on your phone makes the crisis a lot easier to deal with. It’s likely that you’ll be emotionally fraught at that point, and it’s also likely that human resources may suddenly be less cooperative with you than before. Ask the questions now. Get the information straight now.

Step 6: Have a list of people to contact immediately to start finding another job.

If you’ve lost your job, what do you do next? For many people, this is a panicky crisis and they’re likely to not make the wisest of moves in those first days after a job loss. That’s why it pays to give the matter some thought now when you are calm, cool, and collected.

Who exactly would you call first if you lost your job in order to start moving toward your next employment opportunity? If you’re not sure, give it some careful thought. Who are your first contacts? Who’s likely to return your call and actually provide genuine help?

Make a brief list of these people and their contact information. That way, if you do find yourself in this situation, you know who to contact quickly and efficiently. Again, this is a good “note” to have on your phone for just such a situation.

The key lesson here extends beyond mere job loss.

The key lesson is that thinking about life’s potential problems now and coming up with solutions in a rational and calm way, then taking steps to make those solutions easy to execute in a crisis, goes a long way toward making any and all crises in life much easier to handle.

The little steps you take now, handled with rational thought and just a little effort and a little money, can save you enormous headaches and a great deal of money down the road when an unfortunate event does occur. Preparing for a job loss is just one example of this powerful life strategy.

Good luck!

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

‘I Don’t Want to Save! I Want to Live and Have Fun!’

The latter half of January each year brings a lot of people who are finding that it’s difficult to stick with a New Year’s resolution. Often, breaking a big resolution that you thought about a lot and tried to keep requires some internal justification. Why are you giving up on this big plan?

I see this effect occurring in the form of messages from readers, who typically write in with reasons for why they should give up on their big financial plans and seem to want me to approve of their change in direction. They’ll tell me that being financially responsible is adding a great deal of misery and even suffering to their lives. I’ll hear about how their lives are now devoid of all fun and pleasure. Some will ask if it’s okay to just go on a giant spending spree, as though I am responsible for giving permissions in their adult life; others will just tell me that any information I’ve shared about financial success is misleading or a lie or something.

Whenever I hear from someone who has made an effort to find a new financial direction but has found it to not be enjoyable, I point them to six key principles. Not all of these principles will ring true for everyone struggling with a better financial path, but at least some of these principles will hit home.

Here are six principles to think about when you’re finding that you want to “live” and “have fun” rather than be financially responsible.

Principle #1: Bad Feelings Usually Come from a Misstep, Not a Wrong Direction

Typically, when a person feels as though they need to “live” or “have fun,” it means that they’re resisting some of the changes they’ve made in their life. More specifically, they’ve made a spending cut or two or three that turns out to be a cut into something they really value, and because they miss whatever that handful of things are, they feel as though financial progress as a whole is flawed. Their view becomes centered around that little handful of lost things and they use that to drive themselves into a state of misery so that backlash is inevitable.

If you feel like financially responsible choices are making you miserable, rather than tossing the baby out with the bathwater, stop and consider what specifically is making you miserable. What exactly do you feel that you’re really missing out on? Make a list of those things that you have cut that are making you feel as though your life is miserable. Rank that list – think about which cuts sting the most.

Then… are you ready for this… undo the top two or three cuts on that list.

If you’re feeling like financial sacrifice is pure misery because you’ve given up that daily latte at the coffee shop next to work, bring back that daily latte at the coffee shop next to work.

If you’re feeling like your life is miserable because you said no to a couple of social invites in the last few weeks, stop saying no to so many invites.

These feelings are a perfect indication of how the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you make a ton of changes to your life in order to be “perfect” in terms of your financial choices, only to find that a few of those choices are making you miserable, go back on those few choices. Aim for “very good” rather than “perfect” and don’t cut the things that you truly value most.

While you’re doing this, of course, it’s always wise to keep looking around your life for unnecessary or excessive spending in other areas. You may find some areas where you’re needlessly spending money that push you back in the other direction at the same time, balancing out the restoration of the thing you cut that made you miserable.

Principle #2: Every Dollar Spent Represents Lost Opportunities

This is all about a concept called opportunity cost, which is defined by Wikipedia as “the value (not a benefit) of the choice of a best alternative cost while making a decision. A choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives; assuming the best choice is made, it is the ‘cost’ incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would have been had by taking the second best available choice.”

In other words, whenever you spend a dollar, the hidden cost of it is that you’re losing the opportunity to do whatever the next best thing you could have done with that dollar is.

For example, a $20 meal and drink at Applebees means that there’s now $20 you don’t have for going to a movie with your friends. Spending $15 on a book instead of checking it out from the library means that you have $15 less to save for a car down payment.

Is the way I’m choosing to spend my money right now that much better than the other things I could be doing with that money? Because, like it or not, spending that money comes with the cost of shutting the door on that other opportunity. If I spend $50 of my hobby budget on a new board game, I’ve shut myself off from quite a few other hobby experiences and items. Is that worth it?

This alone isn’t a great persuasive argument, but is foundational for the other ones to make sense. A lot of smart personal finance relies on the idea of an opportunity cost.

Principle #3: Not Having a Strong Financial Foundation Adds Stress to Everyday Decisions

Over time, financial missteps and unexpected events and big upcoming expenses can add up to a ton of stress.

It is stressful to not have enough money to pay the bills. It is stressful to be facing retirement without adequate savings. It is stressful to face a life emergency without having money in the bank.

The stress of not having enough money is an “opportunity cost” associated with spending money freely. When you spend money on “fun,” part of the cost of that “fun” is the stress that comes from not having money when you really need it.

For example, you might buy a $20 dinner at Applebees, but when you spend that $20 on something relatively unimportant, you’re also buying stress down the road. That’s part of the opportunity cost of that meal.

I like to think of it this way: whenever I put money aside for the future, whether it’s in an emergency fund or in a car savings fund or in retirement savings, I view it as actually buying a reduced sense of stress in my life. What I’m paying for is not having to worry. What I’m paying for is knowing that when things go bad in my life, I have the resources to just handle it, which means I’m not worrying at night about that funny noise the car is making and I’m not completely freaking out if my car gets damaged in a hailstorm or if my transmission fails.

All of that stress just vanishes if I have money in the bank, so, in essence, that’s part of what I’m buying when I save for the future. I’m buying stress reduction along with (eventually) buying a transmission and also avoiding interest payments that would come with having to buy a transmission in an emergency. (Of course, a transmission is just an example here – it could be almost anything you need in the future.)

Principle #4: The Vast Majority of Short-Term Pleasures Fade Quickly Into Nothingness

Can you remember what you did for fun a month ago? What about a year ago?

I know that I went out to eat at least once in the last month or so, but I honestly don’t remember the meal or where we even ate. I know at some point in the last few weeks, I picked up a breakfast burrito because I was really hungry and driving somewhere. I can’t really remember if it was good or not or even for sure where I bought it. Were those choices really an effective use of my money? No, not really. They’re just forgotten, money that just floated out of my fingers.

I often find things that I’ve purchased in the past, barely used or not used at all. Sometimes, I don’t even remember buying them. Did I get this as a gift? Did I buy this at some point? I really can’t remember at all.

Sometimes, I’ll look through credit card receipts and find little expenses, like $6 spent at a gas station or $10 spent at Target, and I literally don’t remember what I spent that money on. What did I even buy? Why? It was some momentary pleasure that was forgotten almost as soon as I spent the money.

Many pleasures slip right through our fingers – entertainment products we don’t use, forgettable movies, an expensive latte that we gulp down and forget, overpriced meals gobbled down in a hurry, dinners at mediocre forgettable restaurants, and so on. We spend money on something that’s pleasurable in the moment, but we almost completely forget about it within days.

Yet, we continue to pay the opportunity cost for those expenses. Since we have less money put aside for the future, we’re more prone to worry and stress about unexpected expenses and about retirement – and what if one of those bad events actually happens? Furthermore, we’re not making much progress toward our positive goals, either – there’s less saved for that dream vacation, for example.

That stress and worry persists. Is it really worth having that momentary pleasure, the thing you forget practically as soon as it’s bought or consumed, when it causes that continuation of stress and worry and that distance between where you are and where you want to be?

Most of those forgettable pleasures really don’t have a lot of upside outside of the next few minutes. Make sure they’re really worth it.

Principle #5: ‘Living’ and ‘Having Fun’ Are Not Predicated on Spending Money

What exactly does a person mean when they talk about “living” and “having fun”? Is it really just spending money? Is spending money the primary source of “living” and “having fun”?

If the only way to “live” and “have fun” is to shell out cash, you’re locking out a lot of opportunities in your life.

Try to seek out things that you consider to be “living” and “having fun” that don’t involve spending money. I have a long list of things I enjoy doing that don’t involve spending money and that’s what I tap for my own leisure time.

Here are 10 of those things:
– I enjoy reading books I’ve checked out from the library.
– I enjoy hiking in the parks and wooded areas near my home.
– I enjoy going to a community board game night in my area.
– I enjoy making food at home, particularly fermented foods like sauerkraut and homemade items like pasta.
– I enjoy having potluck dinner parties at my house.
– I enjoy looking at the community calendar and doing something pretty much at random in my community.
– I enjoy doing exercises in my living room.
– I enjoy working on lettering and calligraphy.
– I enjoy gardening.
– I enjoy learning about new topics from Wikipedia or from free online classes.

Come up with your own list. If you have a repertoire of things to draw from that are enjoyable and free, it becomes a lot easier to find something to do at any given moment.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that every fun thing that involves spending money is now off limits – that’s an absolutist black-and-white view that people use as an excuse to avoid self reflection. It’s simply a reminder that things that are all about “living” and “having fun” that are also free do not come with a stressful opportunity cost. If you make an effort to identify things that are low cost and free that equate to “living” and “having fun,” then you drastically reduce the long term stress in your life.

Principle #6: Every Decision You Make Is Shared By Your Future Self

The decisions I make today aren’t just about me in the here and now. They’re also about the person that I’m going to be in the future.

Your future self is a stakeholder in every decision that you make. You are making choices always on your future self’s behalf, from how you spend money to what you put in your body to who you spend time with to what things you read and learn about.

Consciously recognizing your future self as a part of every decision you make, along with a recognition that it’s often a good idea to make a choice that really benefits “future you,” is a great way to approach the whole idea.

For example, let’s say I’ve got a friend coming to town and he wants to go out and eat somewhere for lunch – “nothing fancy,” he says. I remember the type of foods that he likes – Mexican and spicy. I look at the places nearby to choose from. One I exclude because it’s rather expensive and about as “fancy” as one can get in that particular niche. However, I also eliminate another because they serve fairly greasy food. I end up choosing a low cost place that’s known for their spicy rice. When we get there, I end up ordering their daily special, which is reasonably priced and seems pretty healthy, and I focus instead on the conversation with my friend.

With almost all of those decisions, my future self is a big part of the decision making process. I’m choosing a reasonably priced place. I’m avoiding a very unhealthy place. I choose a reasonably priced and reasonably healthy dish. I focus on my friend and building up that relationship rather than the food.

None of those things are preventing me from having fun in the moment, but every decision is one that’s better for my long term self. I’m making lower cost and healthier choices. I’m focusing on building a relationship instead of momentary pleasure. My pleasure today is perfectly fine, but my future self is happy, too. I’m not sacrificing my future self just to get a tiny bit higher today, especially since that “tiny bit higher” is likely to be forgotten.

Just keep your future self in mind when you make decisions. What choice could you make today that will have the best impact for you five or ten years down he road? Give that choice a little extra weight.

Final Thoughts

“Living” and “having fun” are great, but they begin to fail you when you ignore the cost of some avenues of “living” and “having fun.” The best avenues I’ve found for “living” and “having fun” are ones that come without those costs, or that minimize those costs.

Yes, there are absolutely times when the fun choice in the moment is the right call, but putting in the time to recognize that the most benefit sometimes comes from the choice that isn’t the most pure fun in the moment is a powerful step on the road to a better life.

Good luck!

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Four Money Basics My Mother Couldn’t Teach Me – Because She Didn’t Know Them Herself

When I have questions about money, I just Google the answer. My Mint app tracks my budget, Digit stashes money away for me automatically, Wealthfront invests some money for me here and there, and I can check websites like The Simple Dollar to figure out what an IRA is and how I’m supposed to get one started.

My mother, meanwhile, had no such guidance when it came to money. She was about my age now when our family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. Although it was only a 10-hour plane ride to JFK in New York, when we landed, my mother said it felt like a different universe.

She suddenly found herself in one of the biggest, brightest cities in the world, with limited English, a hysterical child to consider (that would be me), and a new life to navigate.

For the first few years while we were figuring things out, my family shared a studio apartment. I sat outside my mother’s English classes because we couldn’t afford childcare – I had only ever heard of “babysitters” on TV. Despite having a college degree, my mother picked up shifts cleaning houses so we could make ends meet. Forget Google or budgeting apps; she’d never even seen a credit card in real life.

Stories like this one are pretty common — immigrants make up nearly 14% of the U.S. population — that’s 42 million people who are likely unfamiliar with the nuances of American personal finance.

And the largest cohort of immigrants are millennials, a group that’s dealing with their own financial issues. Carrying an average student loan debt of $17,000 and earning 20% less than previous generations did in young adulthood, many millennials are struggling to navigate the realm of money management regardless of whether they were born here.

Moreover, only five states in the U.S. require high school students to take a personal finance course, making it all but certain that financial basics remain completely foreign to those of us who may not come from money-savvy homes, even in the technological age.

I recently had a long conversation with my mother about the lessons she had to learn — often the hard way — when it came to her finances. So many of the things she struggled with were the same ones I still experience confusion over myself. What surprised me, however, was that many of my friends and peers of different backgrounds are also finding difficulty understanding these four basic money matters:

How to Pay for College

My mother told me her biggest money regret was not saving adequately for me to go to college. Having come from a communist country that didn’t charge for education, she was completely overwhelmed by the loans, percentages, and repayment terms associated with higher education in the U.S.

She had never even heard of CDs or high-yield savings accounts, much less 529 plans. As a result, my first time hearing about all of this was after college, when I started interning at The Simple Dollar. I felt so overwhelmed by the number of entirely foreign concepts and terms that I spent my first weekend reading dozens of articles and trying to make sense of them. When applying to graduate schools, the mere thought of paying for the programs made my head spin.

Even now, as a completely fluent English speaker with more experience in finance, I still wasn’t sure how to properly fill out a FAFSA. Turns out, I wasn’t alone — 18.9% of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who didn’t submit the FAFSA say it was because the forms were too much work. That’s one in five people who may not receive the financial aid they’re qualified for simply due to the complexity of the process.

Credit Cards

When it came to credit cards, my family didn’t understand how, or why, they would be allowed to spend money they didn’t have.

My mother thought her credit card limit was supposed to be the money she had in her bank account, and was worried that the credit card companies had made a mistake. My grandmother kept asking, “But why did they give me money? That’s not my money.”

To this day, my grandparents cannot bring themselves to use credit cards without being afraid that they’re doing something wrong and will have to pay more later. Needless to say, this lack of understanding with our credit system can create tremendous problems.

While we were fortunate enough to exercise extreme caution, it very well could have gone the other way. A whopping 38.1% of U.S. households reported having credit card debt in 2015, and although credit scores are available with most major card providers, the terminology is often technical and confusing.

I have had countless conversations with friends who have zero clue about how to open a credit card account or make their spending work for them. Most of my friends rely on their checking accounts exclusively, or opt for a card with the lowest interest rate, thinking that things like points and rewards are a scam. They aren’t, of course, and with the right amount of planning and discipline, credit cards can be a very helpful tool in budgeting and saving money.

Saving Money

The biggest financial culture shock my mother recalled was the way her income was appropriated. In the former USSR, ‘renting’ an apartment and paying for things like utilities was unheard of. Rather, the bulk of her paycheck would go toward food and personal items like clothing.

In the U.S., when she found herself struggling to have money left over after paying for rent (granted, we lived in New York City), she had to completely restructure her spending habits.

One thing I distinctly remember about growing up in an immigrant community was the lack of ownership. I didn’t know anyone with a house or a car they owned, and my mother to this day has never purchased property. Instead, there was a stronger focus on material status symbols – grooming, clothing, and organic food were prioritized over long-term savings.

I notice the same thing happening with my millennial peers. Rather than save for a house, which would take years and produce no immediate gratification, we choose to spend our money on Lululemon, Starbucks, and going out (guilty).


In the USSR, the elderly lived exclusively on pensions that were provided by the government. Expenses in old age, such as assisted living or costs associated with funerals, were nonexistent. As such, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I only learned what a 401(k) and IRA were recently, when I was filing taxes on my own for the first time.

I mistakenly thought retirement savings was something automatically taken out of my paycheck, and therefore didn’t realize that I needed to be actively saving for it myself. My grandparents are still living on Social Security – which, if no changes are made, could very well be depleted by the time my generation comes to depend on it in retirement.

According to a survey by the Insured Retirement Institute and the Center for Generational Kinetics, 70% of millennials projected they would spend less than $36,000 per year in retirement, a figure that’s entirely unrealistic considering the average annual spending in 2013 was $46,000. Not only that, 15% believed that winning the lottery was an adequate strategy for retirement. This ludicrous notion points to just a few of the many misconceptions young people have when it comes to their future.

Final Thoughts

Coming to America was one of the hardest things my mother ever had to do. She was young, with limited resources, and needed to navigate a completely new environment and economy.

Unfortunately, many young Americans are experiencing similar difficulties navigating our financial system, despite having been raised in the U.S. Rather than dismiss millennials for being wasteful or entitled, it’s important to help build a better understanding of basic personal finance.

Related Articles: 

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Power of Deep Prioritizing

Not too long ago, I spent an entire workweek without writing a single word for The Simple Dollar or any other writing project for that matter. Yet, this wasn’t a week of vacation or sabbatical or anything like that.

What did I do, then? I spent an entire week reading a few relevant books and a stack of articles. I took a lot of notes. I did a lot of brainstorming and very vague outlining. I tried out a few interesting things that I thought were perfectly suited for articles.

From a short-term perspective, this was a disaster. This produced nothing in terms of having articles for The Simple Dollar, and an entire week was down the tubes. However, it was incredibly valuable and efficient in terms of a longer-term perspective. I had the raw materials to quickly finish a good month’s worth of articles fairly quickly.

The truth is that the “deep priority” of The Simple Dollar – or at least my part of it – is ideas. What can I observe or write or learn about that is an interesting or useful perspective on the challenges of personal finance? The core idea and the basic outline is the really valuable part, and it’s the long-term value of the site. It’s why readers seem to come back.

Here’s the kicker: Everything has a “deep priority.” Everything has one or two key elements to it that makes the whole thing move over the long term, and when you really focus in on those key elements, everything else just kind of follows along in its wake. If you take a long-term perspective on those deep priorities, then you’re setting yourself up for a great life.

“Deep prioritizing” is a term that I’ve been using to describe this very practice of using the key part of long-term aspects of life to prioritize everything. It must be SUPER URGENT for a short-term aspect of life to overcome a long-term aspect.

You might recognize this idea to an extent from Stephen Covey’s excellent book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. It’s a book with a handful of really sharp ideas in it, and one of those sharp ideas is that everything we do in life breaks down into four key groups. Everything is either important or unimportant, and everything is either urgent or not urgent.

Most of the time in life, we prioritize things based on urgency. If something is urgent, we do it first. Deep prioritizing is about choosing things based solely on importance and only using urgency as a second factor at best.

When I choose deep priorities for The Simple Dollar, that usually means ignoring the urgency of getting my next article up and instead handling the important task of ensuring that there’s a large supply of useful ideas to write about. While it is important that I get my next article up in time and it does become somewhat urgent as the deadline closes in, it’s more important that I have a large reservoir of ideas to draw from so I’m not stuck there idling in place when I really do need an article. A single article is urgent but relatively unimportant; a big pool of good ideas is rather important but not as urgent. When I deep prioritize, I’m making sure that the big pool never runs dry.

If I ran solely based on urgency, I’d try to constantly write toward the next deadline, but there would come a point where I ran out of ideas and the wheels would fall off. Ideas are the deep priority and I make as much time for them as possible.

The idea of “deep prioritizing” shows up over and over again in life.

In food, one sees it in terms of deciding whether to eat healthy foods or convenient and purely tasty foods. Healthy foods are the “deep priority.” If they happen to be convenient and tasty, great, but the deep priority is your health.

In parenting, the deep priority is building long-term character for your kids. Often, that runs counter to what’s convenient in the moment or what will bring about short-term happiness. The “deep priority” is shaping your children to be functional independent adults. If it happens to be fun and make everyone happy, that’s great, but the deep priority is character building.

In careers, the deep priority is building a skill set and a set of achievements that will make you incredibly employable. While it might be more fun to blow off an afternoon reading celebrity gossip on your phone, you’re better served attending to your deep priority of building a career at every opportunity.

In social life, the deep priority is building lasting meaningful relationships. While it might be a short-term priority to hang out with whoever’s doing the most fun thing at the moment, that rarely leads to building a deep relationship with someone. Deep prioritization means watching your friends’ children in an emergency or being there when they really need you instead of going to a party you’re invited to. Deep priorities build lasting relationships.

Almost everything in life can be considered in this fashion, even leisure time. What can I do with my leisure time that really adds more meaning and understanding to my life while still being relaxing? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately, and I’ve come to several conclusions that work for me.

If you turn the idea of deep prioritization to money, it means frugality. It means finding efficient spending in the short term, of course, but also figuring out what will get the job done in the long term. It means saving up for long-term goals as a top priority. It means figuring out how to spend money in an optimal way to produce joy. It also ties into the career moves discussed above, as earning more always helps, but frugality always plays a role.

What are your deep priorities? What kinds of things do you want in your life beyond the next few months? What choices can you make in the moment that makes that long term better? Those are your deep priorities. Strive to make them more central.

There are other benefits of using deep prioritization throughout your life.

It makes your days feel more meaningful. If you spend a day really focused on deep prioritization, you go to bed feeling great. Whether we consciously realize it or not, we all have a lot on our plate in the coming years, and a day spent lightening that incoming load is a day that feels deeply meaningful.

It puts your life on a constant slow upward trajectory as the deep prioritization starts to pay off. You begin to feel like your life is simply headed in a better direction whether you’re consciously doing anything that day to steer it that way, and it becomes more and more obvious the more you deep prioritize.

It becomes a very useful filter for what to do when you’re faced with a decision. If you just learn to ask yourself, “What choice makes my life better five years down the road?” then a lot of decisions actually become really easy. Even when you clearly need to focus on the here and now, that filter can still help you figure out the best choice amongst similar options.

For the next several days, try letting deep priorities guide you. See what life looks like when you simply ask yourself what the true priority is in this situation, and if you’re unsure, ask yourself which option pays off the most for you five years down the road. You’ll often have a gut response to that question that you can act on immediately, and then you can think about what the deep priority that you’re addressing is later on.

Start with money. Consider each dollar you spend this week through that lens of how it will help you five years or ten years from now. What can you do with it that really pays off in that time scale?

It won’t always be easy or obvious. Nothing worth doing ever is. However, it will end up slowly putting you on a better road going forward.

Good luck

Related Articles: 

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Raising a Kid Costs How Much? Ways to Whittle Down the Costs of Parenthood

You may have heard that the cost to raise a child to the age of 18 have surged to a staggering $233,610. That’s according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), who has meticulously tracked the prices of everything from housing to healthcare and childcare throughout the years.

If you don’t have kids, this statement probably sounds preposterous – or even impossible. If you do have kids, on the other hand, you’re likely keenly aware of just how realistic this outrageous, nearly quarter-of-a-million-dollar figure is.

Between paying for a larger home to make room for extra bedrooms, a bigger car to haul your kids (and their gear) around, more food, childcare bills, clothing, school supplies, and the crazy costs of kids’ sports, it may even be surprising that it doesn’t cost more to raise your little ones.

How to Save on Raising Kids Every Step of the Way

But, here’s the thing: The numbers from the USDA and other organizations are just averages. Depending on a wide range of factors such as where you live and your spending style, you could pay a whole lot more – or a lot less – to cover the costs of child-rearing to age 18.

If you live in an expensive city like San Francisco, you can only imagine how your housing costs would dwarf those of someone living in St. Louis, for example. And if you’re the type of parent who buys their kids designer clothes and a new car on their 16th birthdays, well, you should plan on forking over more than most.

Of course, the opposite is also true. If you’re conscious about the way you spend on your kids, you could easily whittle down the costs of raising them – maybe even by a lot. And the changes don’t have to be drastic, either; changing some of your small, repetitive spending habits for the better can lead to huge savings over time.

To find out how to save money while raising kids in every age group, we reached out to parenting and frugality bloggers who have mastered the art of raising a family on a budget. Some of their best tips are included below.

Saving Money on Newborns Through Age 5

If you have young children or you’re about to start a family, you may have heard that raising babies is a pricey affair. There are certain costs you only face when kids are young, such as diapers, formula, and the sky-high price tag of newborn daycare. Plus, there’s all the gear to buy upfront – the strollers, cribs, high chairs, bouncy seats, and car seats.

But, there are ways to save on every aspect of having small kids, says money coach and blogger Jessi Fearon, who lives with her husband and three children – ages 5, 4, and 2 – near Atlanta. We’ll start off with some of Fearon’s favorite ways to save on little kids:

Buy used clothes.

Fearon says she and her husband have made a conscience decision to avoid buying new clothes. Instead, they attend clothing swaps at church and shop consignment sales and Goodwill. “Our boys can tear up clothes faster than you can say ‘don’t do it,’ so for us, purchasing them something new makes no sense because it’ll be destroyed or stained up before they’ve even worn them in.”

Limit snacks.

Fearon and her husband have adopted the French model of feeding by only allowing her kids one snack time per day. While the change was hard to implement, she feels it’s worth it. “The issue we had been having was that our children wouldn’t eat all their dinner, but then would be hungry come bedtime. But once we switched to only one snack time a day, they actually started eating all of their dinner.” As an added bonus, this change also led to less food waste at dinner time (saving money) and lower snack spending over all.

Limit toys, too.

“Hands down, toys are the biggest thing that I see parents overspend on,” Fearon says. Fearon says she gives her kids money for savings instead of toys on their birthdays, and they only get one toy for Christmas. “This saves us a ton of money and saves our sanity when it comes to managing all of the toy chaos.”

Save on entertainment and babysitters.

It’s easy to overspend on fancy outings with the kids, says Rosemarie Groner, the blogger behind The Busy Budgeter.  Groner, who lives with her husband and kids — ages 2 and 5 – in North Carolina, says they keep it simple and look for free stuff to do. They buy a year-round family membership to their local aquarium for $80, for example, frequently have play dates with friends, and take turn hosting dinners with other families rather than paying for everyone to eat out. And when it comes to babysitters, they “swap” babysitting nights with other families instead of hiring someone.

Buy less house than you can afford.

We talk about the benefits of buying a smaller house all the time here at The Simple Dollar. When it comes to housing, Groner says they thought long-term and bought a house that was well under their budget but offered room to grow. “For us, that meant moving to a cheaper neighborhood with better schools,” she says.

Don’t buy every gadget in the world.

Blogger Chelsea Brennan of Mama Fish Saves says one of the biggest ways she and her husband have saved on their 22-month-old son and baby on the way is by not buying every last gizmo and gadget.

“We keep the costs of parenthood down by never buying anything as soon as we perceive our son might need it,” says Brennan. “For instance, with teethers, when he was popping a tooth we would try to give him cold washcloths or a carrot from the fridge for a few days. If he still seemed like he needed something after that, we would look on local giveaway groups or give in to Amazon.”

Brennan says that, over the past two years, they’ve realized most “needs” dissipate after a few days and their son is generally happy with Tupperware, spoons, sticks, and books for toys.

Get the kids outdoors.

Eric Rosenberg, the blogger behind Personal Profitability and the father of two girls ages 2 and one month, says he cringes when he sees parents buy young kids new electronics and too many fancy toys. Kids are only young once, and you may be setting them up for bad habits later on if you don’t set the stage for creative play.

“Keep them away from screens as much as you can, and save money with fun backyard playtime and play dates with other kids,” he says. From playgrounds to sledding hills, there’s probably plenty of free outdoor fun in your area.

Use your library.

We’re relentless advocates of public libraries, of course, and they’re especially helpful when you have young children. Use your local library to beef up your book and DVD collection with more variety, and check the calendar for free story times and other kid’s programming that can help entertain your little ones.

Save on diapers and formula.

There are too many ways to save on diapers and formula to count. One of the best ways is to buy generic brands if you can. Both Walmart and Target have quality diaper and formula brands you can try for huge savings over time. Of course, you can also try Amazon Subscribe and Save to get diapers delivered at a discount.

Buying in bulk can also help you save on diapers and formula. If you have a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, see if you can save by stocking up with each trip to the store.

Also, don’t forget you can use cloth diapers instead of store bought. You’ll save money and reduce landfill waste at the same time.

Save on daycare.

This tip comes from yours truly. My kids are 6 and 8 now, but I saved a bundle by avoiding the pricey daycares available in our city. Instead of going with a daycare center that would set us back $300 or more per week, I chose small in-home daycare centers run by people I trusted. I was happy with the care our kids received, and I felt the amount I paid over time was fair.

Buy used when you can.

Remember when we talked about the outrageous costs of baby gear? The good news is, you can buy most of it used. You may not want to buy a used car seat unless it’s from someone you know and less than seven years old, but it’s totally reasonable to buy used swings, baby bouncers, and strollers. Buy from people you know, from Facebook groups, or from Craigslist, and you’ll save a bundle.

Saving Money on Kids Age 5-11

Saving on school-age kids isn’t an easy feat, but it can be done. And a lot of the tips for babies apply here, too. You can keep on buying used clothing for kids in school, either from consignment shops, people you know, or Facebook groups, for example. And if you’re able to avoid moving up to a huge house just because you have kids, you’ll save on housing costs, too.

Here are some of the best ways to save on kids when they’re out of diapers but not quite ready for high school:

Avoid pricey kids’ sports.

One of the most important ways we’ve saved on our children is by limiting their sports to one per child. They each take gymnastics right now, and this particular sport doesn’t require fancy uniforms or more than a few practices per week. Since there are no games or “meets,” we also save by not traveling or having to spend our weekends going to and from sports activities.

Don’t “keep up with the Joneses.”

Jim, who blogs at Route to Retire and has a seven-year-old daughter, says one of the biggest money pitfalls he sees in his area is too many people trying to keep up with the spendy habits of their neighbors.

“Parents want their kids to be happy, but a good majority of them thinks that money is the way to make that happen,” he says. “Spending big money on toys and gadgets, big birthday extravaganzas, and exorbitant Christmas presents is the norm around here.” He and his wife try to keep things simple and avoid spending to keep up with others, he says.

Limit dining out.

Fast food or takeout can be an easy way to get dinner on the table when you’re busy running school-age kids around, says Jim. But that convenience comes with costs — to both your wallet and your health.

To save money and perhaps your children’s health in the future, make home-cooked meals instead as often as possible. For busy parents, have lots of posts on crock pot and freezer meals you can make ahead of time if you need ideas.

Buy the big stuff used.

Blogger Monica Louie says she and her husband have saved a bundle by not overspending on the “big stuff.”

When it was time for her son to graduate to a toddler bed so his baby sister could have the crib, she found a fun fire truck bed for only $25 on Craigslist, she says. A couple years later, they sold that same bed for $25 to someone else on Craigslist.

“When our daughter graduated to a ‘big girl bed’ so her baby cousin could have the crib, we were able to get a nice trundle bed from a neighbor for free on NextDoor,” Louie says.

Harness your childcare savings.

One thing that generally does get cheaper after age 5 is childcare: If your kid goes to public school, a once-hefty pre-K bill simply vanishes, possibly freeing up hundreds of dollars a month. Resist the urge to splurge with that newfound money, and try socking it away for big-kid expenses instead or putting it toward a 529 college savings plan.

Saving Money on Kids Age 12 and Up

Junior high and high school seem to be a big point of contention when it comes to saving money. School activities and sports tend to peak during these years, leading to higher costs than ever. And, possibly for the first time, kids start to care more about what they wear and whether it’s used or not.

Not only that, but kids become more independent and tend to need more spending cash. They may also want to drive, which means higher insurance costs for you and potentially the costs of a car.

Here are some of the best ways to save during the teen years from frugal bloggers in the know:

Buy used sporting equipment when you can.

Miranda Marquit, a money expert who also writes for Student Loan Hero, has a 15-year-old son who’s into many sports and activities. Marquit believes his activities are worth it since they’ll help him get into college later. As a result, she doesn’t want to limit his activities for the sake of frugality. Instead, Marquit says she buys used sports equipment when she can – specifically fencing equipment for her son.

Haggle for a used car.

While having a car in high school is a privilege, not a right, Marquit felt that her son needed a reliable, used car to get to sports and activities. As a result, she haggled to score a 20-year-old car on the cheap, and she uses it to teach her son some valuable money lessons. “He’s responsible for gas, so he looks to do odd jobs and pay for some of his own costs,” she says.

Make kids earn their own spending money.

Once kids are old enough to get a part-time job or babysit, it may be time to let them start paying some of their own expenses. Marquit has used this strategy to teach her son about the importance of money while also keeping the costs of parenthood down.

“He knows that he’s responsible for entertainment, lunch with his friends, and other costs,” she says, adding that “the key is to sit down and be clear about expectations.”

“I know that we’re more fortunate than others in terms of resources, but we still look to be as frugal as possible,” says Marquit.

Watch out for school-related money drains.

Liz Gendreau, who blogs at Chief Mom Officer and has three kids ages 14, 10, and 2, says school expenses tend to be absurd for her 10-year-old — and that they can sneak up on you if you’re not careful.

“Every week it seems his school is sending home pamphlets on fundraisers, things to buy, and the PTO is trying to get us to buy a special ‘fifth grade package’ that’s filled with things we don’t want or need,” she says. “Interestingly I’ve found that this stopped when my oldest son hit middle school. I resist the pressure by simply not giving in to any of these.”

Buy food in bulk.

When you have lots of kids, buying in bulk can be a big money-saver, says Gendreau. This is especially true when it comes to staple items your family eats all the time.

“We do most of our food shopping at warehouse clubs, where we can also pick up diapers at a good price. We buy meat in bulk from either Costco, a local butcher shop, or at the stores when we find unbeatable sales,” she says.

Gendreau also notes that they have a deep freezer in the basement where they freeze meat and extra goods purchased at the warehouse clubs. She notes that having lots of staples on hand reduces their shopping trips and helps them save money.

Resist the pricey electronics.

As kids get older, everything they want tends to cost more. Nowadays it seems like every kid has a smartphone or an iPad or a brand new video game system – or perhaps all of these things and more. Gendreau says limiting these big splurge purchases is one way they’ve kept their spending under control as their kids have gotten older.

“We have conversations about how when you wait, these things drop in price and more games become available,” she says. Their eldest child is old enough to understand that, and has learned patience and delayed gratification. “These are skills that will serve him well as an adult.”

The Bottom Line

Kids are costly, but most parents would agree they’re worth it. But like everything else in life, spending more won’t guarantee you a better experience. If you want to have children affordably, it pays to think through how you spend your money and when. With enough smart money moves, having kids could actually be a bargain.

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.

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How do you save on your kids? What would you add to this list?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

This Cold House: 18 Ways to Keep You and Your Home Warm Without Big Energy Bills

Like many American households, we dealt with some seriously cold weather over the last week or two. We had multiple school delays and closings primarily due to the cold weather and it wasn’t uncommon to see temperatures far below -10 F, even during the midday.

Cold weather can be a challenge. The simple solution, of course, is to just crank up the heat and not worry about it. That certainly works, of course, but then the huge energy bill comes in a month later, leaving you with a drained checking account and frustration about the expensive energy costs.

Clearly, there is great value in figuring out ways to combat the cold without turning up the heat. How can you keep the chill away without spending lots of money on energy bills?

Here are 18 things that our family does to keep energy costs low, even during the coldest months.

#1: Lower the temperature at bedtime; only raise it when you feel the need to do so.

Before bedtime, we turn the temperature in the house down quite low. After all, we’re all climbing into warm beds with plenty of blankets and covers over us to keep us warm. So we simply turn down the heat so that we’re not heating the house when we’re all in bed snuggled under blankets.

In the morning, when we get up, we raise the temperature a little, but we’re mostly warm in our pajamas, so we don’t raise it a whole lot. We only raise it if someone actually complains about being cold.

This cycle repeats itself each day when the weather is cold. We turn it down for bedtime, raise it just a bit in the morning, and then raise it by a degree or two any time someone mentions being cold, while also suggesting that they do the other things in this thread.

#2: Dress warmly and comfortably around the house.

This one’s easy. Just dress in warm, comfortable clothes around the house. If you feel cool, toss on a hoodie as a layer on top of the t-shirt you’re already wearing. Wear long pants, ideally in layers. Wear socks and slippers. Everything should feel comfortable and warm.

If you’re dressing in a warm, comfortable fashion around the house, there isn’t much need to raise the thermostat to a high temperature. It can stay rather low and you’ll feel fine.

As I write this, I’m wearing a t-shirt, a long sleeved t-shirt, and a hoodie on top, and a pair of sweatpants under my jeans, along with some wool socks. The temperature in our house is fairly low, but I feel great!

#3: Have blankets available in each room.

If there’s a room that you spend a lot of time in, have two or three blankets sitting around that are easily available just to grab if you feel cold. You can put one under you when you sit down and another on your lap. Again, it’s all about feeling warm and cozy, and if you feel warm and cozy due to blankets and clothes and body heat, there’s little need to raise the temperature.

We have a big pile of blankets that we keep in our family room during the winter and, almost automatically, we grab one when we walk in there to watch a television show or play a video game or read a book. It just feels cozy to have a blanket around you.

The key is simple availability. Just have blankets sitting out in a pile in each room. Fold them up when you’re done. It’s just that easy.

#4: Make sure your windows are sealed.

Check each of the windows in your house. Put your hand around all of the edges of the window and see if you can feel any exceptionally cool air coming in. If you do, you have an air leak, and that air leak is costing you money.

Sealing it is pretty easy. All you need is a putty knife with a rounded corner for spreading caulk, a caulking gun, and some caulk. Just put a thin line of caulk along the leaking edge, then spread it evenly with the rounded corner of the putty knife. Boom – the caulk fills the gap and blocks the flow of air.

Cutting out those air leaks means that your house is much more efficient in terms of retaining heat, and when the heat stays inside rather than leaking outside, it’s going to result in your furnace or other heaters running much less frequently to maintain your home’s temperature, which will save you money.

#5: Make sure your doors have weather strips.

Another useful strategy is to make sure that there aren’t any big leaks along the edges of the doors in your home, particularly along the bottom but also along the top. If you can run your hand along the edge of a door and feel the flow of cold air even though the door is closed, you need to be blocking that flow.

Adding a weatherstrip is the easiest solution. They attach very easily to the edges of doors, providing a block against the flow of cold air. Much like caulk around the edges of windows, cold air is kept from flowing in, which means that your house stays warmer for longer without hot air being added by your furnace, which saves you money.

Another thing to note about weather strips and caulk is that they provide the same help in the summer. They keep hot air from coming in during the summer, which means that your air conditioner will work less, too.

#6: If not, make sure your doors have draft blockers.

If you have a big draft through the bottom of a door but aren’t able to install a weather strip, simply block the draft with a large piece of cloth. A rolled-up blanket will work perfectly fine for this in a pinch, but you can also buy (or make) draft blockers that sit along the bottom of doors.

If you want to just use an old blanket, just roll one up in a tube and pin it closed with a few safety pins, then set it along the bottom of the door and stuff it into the crack a bit. That will block much of the cold air with minimal effort, though it’s not a perfect block.

A better solution is to buy a draft blocker that’s filled with material designed to insulate, which will provide a much better block for keeping cold air outside.

#7: Run your ceiling fans on low in a clockwise direction.

In the winter, warm air collects along the top of a room, so the ceiling feels a few degrees warmer than the floor. Ideally, you want that warm air to be circulating in the room, but circulating slowly enough so that you don’t have the cooling effect of moving air that you get from a fan.

The solution is to run your ceiling fan on low with the blades running in a clockwise direction, which is something you can set with just a little switch on most ceiling fans. When you do this and run your fan on low, it gently pulls air upward toward the ceiling, which pushes the air sitting on the ceiling down along the walls. This creates a very slow and gentle flow of air in the room, so subtle that you’ll barely feel air moving at all, but what will happen is that the warm air stuck up near the ceiling will flow around the room.

It’s an easy fix. Just check around the base of your ceiling fan for a little switch that changes direction, then run the fan on low. You’ll be able to lower the thermostat by a few degrees and that will result in a nice net savings.

#8: Eat warm meals.

Winter is a great time to eat warm meals cooked in the home, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, consuming warm foods leaves your body feeling warm, elevating your internal temperature and creating a feeling of warmth. Second, the process of cooking something contributes heat to your house, meaning that your thermostat runs just a bit less. Though your oven and stove top aren’t as efficient for heating as your furnace, it’s far better than in the summer where your air conditioner is fighting against that heat.

Cook up a big batch of hot soup. The heat used in making the soup will radiate out into your home, and when you eat the soup, you’ll feel (and actually be) warmer, too!

#9: Take warm showers or baths.

When you take a bath or shower, make it a warm one. Again, the reasoning is easy – since you want your house to be warm in the winter, the heating of the water is much more efficient than in summer because the heat “lost” to the environment is “gained” by keeping your house warmer, which is what you want in the winter.

Furthermore, a hot shower or a warm bath will make you feel much warmer on a cold day, meaning that you have much less reason to crank up your thermostat for warmth. You can leave it quite low and the warm bath or shower will still make you feel all warm inside.

Hot tip: Have a nice thick towel to dry off with and a warm robe to slip on immediately after the shower. I often actually put the towel near the furnace vent during the shower so the hot air will warm it up for me.

#10: Wear house slippers.

This is such a simple thing that makes such a big difference. The first part of my body that feels cold in the winter is my feet. If my feet start feeling cold, I start feeling cold, and if I start feeling cold, I want to go turn up the thermostat, and that costs money.

Thus, one very smart solution to keeping energy costs in check while still feeling warm is to just keep my feet warm, and there are fewer easy ways to do that than a pair of warm house slippers.

Just find a pair that fits your feet nicely and wear them solely as indoor shoes, around the house. They’ll keep your feet nice and toasty, and if your feet are nice and toasty, you’re more likely to feel nice and toasty, and you’ll have less reason to crank up the heat.

#11: Wear a hat.

This is something I often do during the work day, when everyone else in the house is at work or at school. Some might feel awkward doing it, but I actually like it.

It’s simple – I just wear a hat around the house during the day. It keeps my ears really warm. When the kids leave, I actually keep the temperature really low, and only turn it up just before they’re coming home. I wear warm clothes and have my hat on all day long.

I don’t expect others to do it, but it’s a perfectly fine solution if you live alone or you’re on the same page with others in your house. For me, it makes me feel warm even when the thermostat is low.

#12: Drink warm beverages.

This ties right in with eating warm food, but it’s a very simple way of making you feel warm even on a very cold day, plus it has the same benefit that the excess heat just helps keep your home warm in a slightly less efficient way.

I often drink coffee or hot cider or hot tea during the day on cold days, as it does a great job of warming me up inside. There are few things nicer on a cold afternoon than a hot cup of tea or a hot cup of apple cider or some coffee.

Such beverages are really easy to make, even in the microwave. I make tea all the time in the microwave and use it to heat up cider and cold brew coffee.

#13: Move around, or even exercise a bit.

One surefire way to start feeling cold is to sit around without moving very much. Sitting still will almost always bring out the chills, and when you feel chilly, you want to raise up the heat.

Simply moving around helps a lot with that, especially if the movement is vigorous. Go do a bunch of housework that involves moving around, or even do some basic exercises like walking up and down the stairs several times or touching your toes or doing jumping jacks.

Those moves might seem simple, but they’re going to raise your metabolism up a bit and make you feel a whole lot warmer.

#14: Minimize the time doors are ajar.

Don’t leave doors hanging open for any reason, as doors provide a huge opportunity for cold air to just flood into your home and cause your furnace to start burning money! Keep them closed if at all possible!

I realize that for most people, this is pretty normal behavior, but there are times where doors are left ajar without anyone thinking about it, such as when you’re carrying in items from the car. It is well worth your time to stop for a second and make sure the door is closed rather than letting it hang open because your arms are full. Every second it’s open means that cold air is flooding in and you’re losing heat!

Be smart with your doors. Keep them closed.

#15: Cover windows that don’t face sunlight.

If you have windows in your home that aren’t exposed to sunlight in the winter, put a covering of some kind over them. Draw the blinds and hang up a blanket in the window, if nothing else.

The reason is that if there is no sunlight coming through the window, even if your window is well insulated, it’s likely still an active source of heat leaks. If there are times when sunlight flows in the window, this can help mitigate it, but if there’s never any direct sunlight, don’t let it stay open.

We often draw the blinds on any window that does not have direct sunlight hitting it, and on windows where there is never any sun in the winter, we’ll block off the window as well as we can.

#16: Spend time together in the same room.

One wonderful solution for keeping yourself warm on a cold day is to simply sit close to other people. Stay in the same room with the people in your home so that your ambient body heat helps keep them warm, too.

On a cold evening, I love snuggling under a blanket with Sarah while we watch a movie or each read a book. I love it when all five members of our family are on or near the couch watching a movie. Not only do we feel closer as people, it becomes nice and warm on a cold night.

You don’t have to be that close, though. Just hang out near each other and it’ll help.

#17: Take hot water to bed.

One trick I’ve always loved is to fill up a water bottle with really warm water and toss it under the covers of my bed just before I go into the bathroom to get ready for bed. As I brush my teeth and floss, the water bottle is warming up the blankets on my bed, and when I climb in there, things are warm and that water bottle is like a little furnace.

This makes it much easier to climb into bed on a cold evening with the thermostat down low. It’s really nice to climb into a warm bed; when it’s cold, it can be unpleasant to get in those sheets and blankets at first. That water bottle helps.

It’s easy, too. You can heat up a water bottle in the microwave by just filling up a microwave-safe bottle mostly full with water, microwaving it until the water is hot, then capping it and putting it in your bed. If you’re worried about somehow opening it in the night, you can always pull it out of there just before you fall asleep.

#18: Have warm things near your bed.

One final trick I’ve learned over the years is to always have warm items beside your bed for when you wake up in the night or in the morning. Keep slippers beside your bed. Keep a pullover hooded sweatshirt by your bed. Keep a robe by your bed.

That way, when you wake up in the night or in the morning, the existential dread of leaving the warm covers isn’t quite so intense, and by the time you get those items on and move around for a little bit, you often don’t feel very cold at all so there isn’t much of a rush to turn up the heat.

I have this big green hoodie that I put on most mornings right when I get up in the winter. It’s so warm that by the time I’m downstairs, I feel no need to turn up the heat.

Have a warm night, guys!

The post This Cold House: 18 Ways to Keep You and Your Home Warm Without Big Energy Bills appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Questions About Gratitude, Ramen, Careers, Home Security, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Money focused only at work
2. Peak of the stock market?
3. Emergency fund or Roth IRA?
4. Home security system thoughts
5. Figuring out next career step
6. 401(k) or 403(b)?
7. Handling social spending with grace
8. Feeling deprived
9. Cheap roommate; is this stealing?
10. Found $50
11. Struggling with daily gratitude
12. Car search update

Since the start of the year, what one thing have you done that you’re most happy with in your life and why? It’s an interesting question to think about, particularly at a moment when many of us might be struggling with our resolutions for the new year.

For me, I’m probably happiest about establishing a strong and much better morning routine. It takes time but it is actually making me a lot more efficient in everything else I do during the day and ends up saving me time.

What does my current routine look like? I get up, drink a big glass of water, and do some stretching to limber myself up (mostly, I just lift my foot up on the back of a chair and stretch to touch my toes). I pour myself a cup of cold brew coffee and read for a little while, then I write a bit in my journal until about fifteen minutes before my children wake up. At that point, I go into a quiet room and try to meditate by focusing on the in and out of my breathing, to get myself into a calm mindset, and then I make breakfast and eat with my children.

I’ve stuck with this routine almost every day so far and I find it to be really effective at starting my day off right. After breakfast, I feel ready to tackle whatever’s on the docket that day.

What about you? What are you most happy with so far? What can you do to keep that thing going or to build on that success?

Q1: Money focused only at work

I have an interesting problem that I thought you might help me with. When I am at work I find that I am very money focused. When my thoughts drift to my life I think a lot about how I could save more money etc. and how dumb a lot of my spending is etc. But it’s like a switch flips when I leave work for the day and it’s like my ability to be smart with money just dies. I do the stupidest things with money even though I was just thinking about how dumb this was just an hour ago. What is going on and how can I fix it???
– Jennifer

Right now, you have a mindset that strongly connects your work to your financial state. You’re spending your day on efforts that you don’t want to go to waste, and you view wasting money as being equal to wasting your time at work.

When you’re not working, that connection isn’t there (or, at least, it’s not nearly as strong). You’re focused on connections to other things – free time, relationships, and so on.

What can you do? On each side of that coin, put some “locks” on the other side. For example, when you’re at work, put some “locks” on your ability to spend money easily when you’re not at work. Do things like removing your credit card from online accounts or withdrawing money from an ATM while you’re at work. That way, when you’re not at work and less in tune with your money, you’ve already set up some paths of least resistance that guide you away from reckless spending.

Q2: Peak of the stock market?

I’m starting to feel like the stock market is overpriced and is pretty close to the top. I have 80% of my 403(b) and Roth IRA in Vanguard Total Stock Market Index. What is the best move? Bonds or cash?
– Bill

The best move is to stay put.

The truth is that market timing doesn’t work. It’s not that you can’t correctly intuit when the market is doing well or when it’s doing poorly, but that you will virtually always miss the top and the bottom of the market, which eats up a lot of the advantages of trying to “time” a move. It’s very likely that you’ll miss the top of the market by a number of percentage points and miss the bottom by a similar amount, and those moves, along with the transaction costs, will eat up most of what you might gain by making those moves. You also miss out on dividends paid out by your stocks while you’re invested in something else.

If you feel truly nervous about your portfolio, then the question isn’t timing but whether it exceeds your risk tolerance. If you are strongly tempted to switch around your portfolio based on what the market is doing today or this month, to the point where you’re actually making moves, you need to never again have so much of your portfolio in stocks. If you’re managing to hold off that temptation but barely, switch to making contributions to something safer for a while until you’re less worried about the ins and outs of the market.

Spend some time assessing whether or not you just have too much risk exposure for your tastes and, if so, permanently move away from so much stocks by making further contributions in the form of bonds or cash.

Q3: Emergency fund or Roth IRA?

Should I take money out my emergency fund to max out my Roth IRA for 2017? I have about $9,500 in my emergency fund (with a goal of getting it to $10,000) and in order to max out my Roth IRA in 2017 before tax day, I’d have to move $2,500 out of my emergency fund, leaving me with $7,000. One of my goals for 2018 is to max my Roth out by making steady bi-weekly payments and would love to have also hit that goal for 2017, but I focused 2017 moreso on paying down my student loans — and successfully paid off $10,000! Knowing that I can withdraw contributions from my Roth should I need to (though I have no intention of doing so), makes me think I should go for it. The excellent returns I’ve gotten on what’s already in my Roth also make it so tempting to deposit the money. I would also rebuild my emergency fund to $10,000 throughout 2018. What do you think?
– Kris

If you’re single and $7,000 would cover a month or two of living expenses, I’d make this move. You’re pretty safe from most of the emergencies that would befall you and you have a big enough window to be able to find some form of employment before your funds would run out.

If you have a number of dependents and $7,000 wouldn’t cover a few months of living expenses for everyone dependent on you, I wouldn’t do it. Again, it comes down to employment and the fact that your dependents likely can’t earn an income for themselves. Children change things, as do dependent parents and relatives.

You want to make sure that your emergencies are handled before you save. If you have dependents, that becomes even more important and you should be able to cover living expenses for everyone for even longer.

Q4: Home security system thoughts

My wife and I are debating about a home security system and I want to know your thoughts. We live in a pretty low crime area but several months ago there was a home robbery about a block from us. My wife says she doesn’t feel safe leaving the house because she thinks we will get robbed. She wants a really expensive security system. My thought is that you need just enough security to not be the low hanging fruit on the block. What do you think?
– Eldon

My thoughts on home security are summed up in this article from the New York Times. A few key quotes:

“Mr. Martin said that most thieves wander neighborhoods looking for an easy entry point, like an open window. Your security system would have told you to close that window when you tried to turn it on.”

However, “Wealthier people, though, need another layer of protection since burglaries to their homes are not as opportunistic. Chances are the person who steals your Picasso when you are away did not happen upon your house by chance.”

If you have fairly ordinary possessions, you mostly just want to make sure that your home is not the low hanging fruit on the block. Don’t leave windows open or doors open. Keep things shut and locked when you leave. A simple security camera or two might be okay, too.

If you have a lot of expensive individual possessions, particularly if they’re visible from the street, you may want a better setup.

There’s also the insurance factor – insurance rates are better if you have an alarm system. Often, burglars won’t bother or if they do they’ll strike fast and take fewer possessions.

If I were you, I’d assess your house from the street. Is there anything of notable exceptional value that can be seen walking by your home? If yes, then get extra security. If not, just make sure that your home is not obviously easy to gain access to and a burglar is likely to move on to the next one. It’s not a cost-effective move to spend time breaking into a home with common possessions when there might be a house with a window open down the block or a house with expensive items right inside the window.

Q5: Figuring out next career step

I am 31 years old, single, no kids, not even really dating. For the last six years I have worked for a startup that was purchased by a larger company. I was paid a very nice lump sum during that process that isn’t enough to retire on but close. For the last seven months I have worked for this larger company but I hate it. It is very corporate and there are lots of pointless meetings and no candor and everyone seems practically scared to be themselves at all. Pretty much everyone from the old crew has quit and I am considering it too.

The thing is I don’t know really what I want to do next. I honestly miss the old startup, but I don’t know if I want to jump into another one as the lifestyle is crazy at times. I don’t have enough to retire on unless I move to a small town somewhere. I feel stuck. How do I get un-stuck?
– Devin

If I were in your shoes, I’d quit my current job or take a sabbatical if your employer will allow it. Take some time for yourself to figure out what you’re passionate about, and gear yourself up for that.

The key thing with a sabbatical or a period of planned unemployment is that you should not spend the time idling. Spend the time trying lots of things and see what really clicks with you, then figure out work that involves you doing whatever that is. Treat it almost like a work day, where your goal is to intentionally fill your day with possibilities.

What can you do? Make things. Work for charities. Learn about topics. Exercise. Fill your day as though you were working with all of that stuff. See what clicks. Just. Don’t. Idle. Fill every day with your search for personal meaning and passion. Days like that are never wasted.

Q6: 401(k) or 403(b)?

I am graduating in May. I plan to contribute a lot to retirement right off the bat so I am ahead of the game. I am not sure what the difference is between a 401(k) and a 403(b) or which I should choose.
– David

401(k)s and 403(b)s are similar accounts. 401(k) plans are offered by for-profit employers, generally, while 403(b) plans are offered by non-profit employers, generally. You will almost always have just one or the other available to you unless you’re in a highly unusual situation.

So, your decision isn’t between the two types of accounts, but in the employment opportunities available to you.

What if your employer doesn’t offer either? In that case, you have a number of options, the most straightforward of which is to open up a Roth IRA for yourself through an investment firm of your choosing. Most investment firms offer Roth IRA accounts. Such accounts enable you to save for retirement using money from your take-home paycheck, but the growth in the account is tax free provided that you use it in retirement.

Q7: Handling social spending with grace

How exactly does a person go about telling a friend that they don’t want to spend money? Like, if a friend wants to go do something expensive, what exactly do you say to that? I don’t know how to handle this. I am trying to spend less in 2018 but my friends all want to go do expensive stuff.
– Kathy

Simply say, “I am trying to spend less money in 2018 and that is pretty expensive. I want to do something with you, though, so could we choose something less expensive?” It’s a good idea, if you do this, to have a suggestion in mind if they want one. What would you rather be doing.

After that, you can try suggesting some free things when the option comes up for a social event together, like a movie night or a dinner at your house or something like that. Try to find things that you enjoy doing that you think they’ll enjoy that don’t involve shelling out cash.

Don’t always reject everything that involves spending money, though. It’s okay to do something that costs money once in a while. Demanding absolute perfection won’t do anyone any good and will probably have a big social cost. Just work on balancing things.

This next question touches on similar themes.

Q8: Feeling deprived

I have made some great strides in paying off debt since October but I kinda feel deprived, like there is no longer anything fun in my life. How do you deal with this?
– Lacey

The sense of “feeling deprived” usually comes from completely cutting out something meaningful in your life. It means that you’ve gone too far in an area or two and it’s causing a backlash of negative feelings.

If you’re feeling deprived, you’re probably going to eventually give up being “frugal” because you’ve equated “frugality” with a big negative feeling. That’s silly. Frugality is a positive thing – it’s about finding ways to spend less while enjoying your life, not depriving yourself of joy. Sure, you should try cutting things when being frugal, but if that cut brings misery, you should rewind and find a new approach.

Figure out what’s making you feel deprived, backtrack on that, then find a different approach. I don’t know what’s making you feel deprived, but I do know that if you’re having that feeling, you need to rewind a bit. Frugality should never be about cutting out meaningful things.

Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you’re trying to be a “perfect” frugal person and you’re feeling deprived, then it’s not worth it. Instead, try aiming for being “good” at frugality and feeling abundant in your life rather than deprived.

Q9: Cheap roommate; is this stealing?

In August, I found a new roommate for my 2BR apartment. I knew this person as she was a friend of a friend and figured we could get along, and several people vouched that she was good with money.

So far she hasn’t missed paying a bill or anything, which is great, but she has to be the cheapest person I’ve ever seen.

We have entire drawers full of ketchup and hot sauce and mustard packets that she grabs by the fistful whenever she eats anywhere. She’ll go to Taco Bell and get a single cheap soft shell and grab like 50 packets and take them home and use like two of them and put the other 48 in a drawer.

Her room is entirely furnished by what she calls dumpster diving and what I call practically stealing. If she sees something out on a curb or even just out in a yard anywhere near our apartment she’ll go and grab it and bring it up to our apartment. She has found a ton of lamps and her mattress (YUK!) and a desk and some chairs that way. She uses this cheap Walmart side table thing as a clothes dresser that she found by the dumpster.

She seems to pretty much subsist on ramen with hot sauce packets dumped in it. She buys like 50 packets of ramen at once when it’s on sale and she’ll sometimes add like a can of tuna to it or a hard boiled egg or something.

I don’t mind being frugal but this is ridiculous. I don’t know how to handle it.
– Kerry

To be honest, most of this stuff seems like a non-issue. Why do you care what your roommate eats as long as she’s not messy about it? A steady diet of ramen isn’t particularly healthy, but it shouldn’t cause a personal problem for you.

I might object to the mattress, but only out of fear of bedbugs. If it’s been there for a while, there likely isn’t any problem.

If you think that your roommate has hoarded an excessive amount of hot sauce in a shared kitchen drawer, talk about that specific issue and ask that she cut back on collecting more until this gets used up. That’s a space usage issue, first and foremost.

The things that should actually matter in your relationship with your roommate are things like whether she makes a mess or causes a lot of social awkwardness or doesn’t pay the bills. I don’t see anything like that here. It mostly sounds like you’re worrying too much about what your roommate does personally. If eating ramen means that your roommate keeps paying the bills, then welcome the ramen! It doesn’t mean you have to eat ramen.

Q10: Found $50

The other day I was at a bookstore that has some tables in the back where people can sit and meet and drink coffee and read. I sat down with a cup of coffee and noticed that on the ground under the table there was a $50 bill laying there. I picked it up and tried to decide what to do with it. I decided that just giving it to the barista would mean that she would probably just pocket it. I would like to give it back to its rightful owner but I don’t have the first idea of how to do this. I feel kind of bad just pocketing it though. Suggestions?
– Chad

I don’t think it’s possible to find out who left it with a high degree of certainty. You could contact the store and say that you found something the other day in the coffee area and would return it to the owner if they could identify it, but it’s very likely that the person who lost it has chalked it up to a loss.

If you feel bad about just keeping it, consider using it for some form of charity. Hold onto it and wait for a situation where someone is really struggling or in need and put that $50 into their hand. A good example is if you see a parent at a grocery store struggling to pay for the food they bought, or if you see a particular local charity that really needs help. That way, you’re passing along the money to someone who could really use it.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just keeping it, however, as long as you made some sincere effort to figure out the original owner of the money. The problem with cash, though, is that it’s hard to track in that way.

Q11: Struggling with daily gratitude

I took inspiration from one of your recent “pieces of inspiration” articles and started doing a daily gratitude journal. I find that it is helping me feel more appreciative of how good my life is. I have a problem though and that is that I am always writing down the same things. Like half the time I write about my morning coffee. I have a hard time coming up with other things to mention. Thoughts?
– Melanie

Whenever I’m stuck like this, I have several techniques at my disposal.

The first one I like to call the “zoom in.” What is it specifically about the coffee that I like? The warmth? The flavor? The feel of the coffee cup in my hand? The buzz from the caffeine? The aroma? What specifically am I appreciating?

There’s also the “zoom out.” I like my coffee, but where is it that I like drinking it? Do I like the beverage itself, or the process of making it? Do I like my morning routine as a whole? Is it because I just feel good and healthy right now as I drink it?

Another trick is to try writing my gratitudes in a fresh situation or at a fresh time of the day. Try writing down five gratitudes at lunch or in the early afternoon or when you get home from work and see what other things come to your attention.

A final tactic is to write gratitudes after having a new experience of some kind, and then make a conscious effort to try new things. For example, if you find yourself rolling around in the grass with your niece, the next time you sit down for a minute with your journal, write some gratitudes. You’ll have fresh ideas.

Q12: Car search update

I’d love to hear about your upcoming car search. I have a 2008 uplander with 90,000 miles that I’ve had since 2009. Its been a great car and hopefully will continue to be for a number of years. There are areas that are starting to rust and am therefore starting to think about saving for another car so I have the money when a new purchase is necessary. I’d love to find a decently priced used car that will last me another 10 years or more with minimal hassle and repairs. I’d also like something with all wheel drive if possible. I know that the subaru outback has done well for a number of friends. Honestly my chevy has done very well for me. What kinds of cars are you looking for and why?
– Tessa

We are evaluating our needs now. We want a vehicle that can drive two adults and three teenagers around comfortably for short trips. It will not be used for commuting. We would like to occasionally be able to tow a small trailer.

Our solution is a large minivan or large SUV that has a towing package and ideally can drive well in Iowa winters. Prefer to stick with Toyota, though other makes are acceptable. Aiming for late model used sweet spot.

We’re looking primarily at a 2015 or so Toyota Sienna with a towing package, but we haven’t locked in yet. Once we do, we are just going to submit exactly what we want to several dealerships and see what they can come up with for us in the next month or so. We have no interest in going to lots and test driving cars and hearing pressure sales tactics.

It’s also worth noting that we have saved enough for this purchase so that we can pay for it in cash without skipping a beat. Since we have been driving a fully-paid-for Honda Pilot for about 9 years and saving slowly during that time, it’s not hard to pay for it. If you do the math, you’ll see that we had about 80 months to save for this purchase, and if we’re spending about $25K on the purchase, that’s about $300 a month. Basically, we simply made a car payment each month to a savings account so that we could buy this vehicle now in cash. That way, we’re not paying interest to a lender and are instead retaining that cash for us.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

The post Questions About Gratitude, Ramen, Careers, Home Security, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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