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Saturday, May 26, 2018

How I Get Things Done

One of the most regular questions I get from readers centers around how I manage my time and focus. The questions tend to focus on some specific element of my overall system for managing all of the things that I need to get done in my parallel roles of writer, father, husband, coach, involved community member, child, and all of the other roles I fulfill in a given week, along with some time left over for self-care.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to juggle all of those things. There are constantly things to be done, appointments to remember, places I’m supposed to be, tasks that need to be done. It is utterly relentless.

Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics and techniques for managing my time and focus and energy to get as much value out of each day as possible. My systems for doing this have evolved over time, in ways I’ll mention below, but here is my system for getting things done and staying sane.

Key Principles

Before I dig into the specific tools I use, here are the five key principles that underlie the entire system. All of the tools and practices I have follow these five key principles. If I try something and it doesn’t measure up to these principles, I don’t keep it.

Full trust I absolutely have to trust the systems I’m using. If I find that I’m trying to remember tasks or appointments or other things rather than fully trusting my system, then something is wrong with the system.

The entire purpose of all of the things below is to make sure I don’t have to waste any of my thinking on trying to remember appointments and tasks and other random pieces of information. They don’t have to enter my mind, ever. I know that everything I need to know is stowed away in my calendar, my to-do list, or in an inbox that’s about to be entered there.

If I ever doubt that feeling, then something is broken in my system and needs to be fixed. I absolutely have to fully trust it or it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Positive value Every single element in my system must give me positive value for the time and effort I put into it. If I spend fifteen minutes a day dealing directly with managing my to-do list and calendar, that time better be repaid in efficiency throughout my day (it clearly is, as I’ve discovered when trying to manage life without those tools).

I use this rule of thumb for every single thing I try to add to my life for the purpose of being more productive. Is it a net positive in terms of productive time? Does it make it easier for me to have time left over for self-care? Does it make it easier for me to get everything done in the allotted time I have each day? If the answer is yes, I’ll keep it. If the answer is no, or even if the answer is unclear, I’ll ditch it.

Managing energy above all else The truth is that all of the things I’m describing here manage my energy more than anything else. It’s all about organizing my day so that there’s something to fill the time no matter where my energy level is or where my focus level is.

I know from experience that my focus for writing and other “deep” tasks peaks between 8 AM and noon each day, so I do those kinds of “deep” tasks in that time frame. Before that, I know that my brain is creative and fairly “off the rails,” so I use the early morning time for brainstorming and brain dumping and some small bites of learning. In the early afternoon, I’m often dull and tired, so I do mindless tasks. In the late afternoon, my focus and energy come back somewhat, so I address the class of things I consider “important but not urgent” in my life.

Almost all of the things I mention here allow me to take advantage of the moments in my life when focus is strong and to get the most out of times when focus isn’t as strong. They form a structure in my life where productivity comes naturally to me.

Self care is not optional Spending time and energy ensuring that I am healthy and rested is not wasted time. In fact, it is the most valuable time. It is the time that needs to come first.

I block off time for things like exercise and making home cooked meals and simply enjoying my hobbies, and those times are sacrosanct. They are among the most uninterruptible times on my schedule. If I have a block set aside for hobbies, it doesn’t matter how much I have undone in other areas, I set those tasks aside and go read a book. The same is true for exercise.

This is difficult, don’t get me wrong, but I recognize that self-care and managing core relationships is pretty much the embodiment of “super important but not urgent” and I intentionally make sure I always have room for them. They come first. It’s not that much different than a “pay yourself first” financial strategy.

Always aim for the “flow state” The “flow state” is when you’re so mentally (and sometimes physically) engaged with what you’re doing, you lose track of time and place for a while and just do it. I find that any time I spend in a flow state is incredibly valuable and highly productive time. I get fantastic results from almost anything I do in a flow state.

Thus, a big part of these tools and this system is to nudge me into flow state regularly. The fewer distractions I have and the sharper I am, the more likely I am to fall into a flow state, so this entire system is all about minimizing distractions and getting me mentally sharp.

There are other secondary principles that I use that will come out in the following sections.

Key Tools

Here are the tools that I use to keep everything going. Note that the specific tool of each type is just one that I prefer for my own needs. There are lots of different digital calendars, for example; try some and use the one that works for you.

Digital Calendar
My preferred tool: Fantastical as a front end for Google Calendar

The purpose of my digital calendar is to organize my day. This doesn’t mean just managing appointments, which is of course vital, but organizing my day into blocks of time that I use for different tasks.

Most days, I have blocks of time for exercise, for family, for writing, for brainstorming, for a morning routine, for an evening routine, for household tasks, for self-care, for flex time (to make up for unexpected events), and for sleep. I do my best to actually stick to that schedule each and every day. (I’ll get into the specifics of this again in a little while.) It makes for a calendar that looks quite full, but it really doesn’t feel that full in practice.

The real purpose is that at any given time during the day, I can look at my calendar and know what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t have to think about it. My thinking in terms of deciding what needs to be done is mostly done well in advance and reviewed the night before and in the morning. I don’t have to think about it during the actual day – I just get stuff done.

Having a digital calendar means that it’s loaded with all kinds of reminders that tell me when I should be switching from one task to another and sometimes with advance alerts of things I need to know are coming up in the next hour or two (like going to my child’s school for a parent/student lunch or something like that). My calendar is one of the few interrupting distractions that I allow, and it also functions as a timer of sorts that tells me when it’s time to switch to something else.

Digital Task Manager
My preferred tool: Omnifocus

A digital task manager is basically just a fancy to-do list that allows me to categorize tasks and move them around without having to erase and recopy tasks in a paper planner. The real purpose is to simply keep track of the multitude of tasks that need to be done.

I keep all of my tasks in various categories that match up with the blocks of time I have during the day. I have a “Work” category, a “Household Tasks” category, and so on. I even have categories for things like “Family/Friends” and “Self Care” and “Hobbies,” though the tasks in some of those areas tend to be sparse much of the time. I will also sometimes make up sub-categories under these for tasks related to specific projects, like planning a trip or something like that.

Most of the tasks have a due date associated with them, and I usually assign a high priority to tasks that I really need to get done today (I do this during a morning review, which I’ll talk about in a bit). My task manager makes it easy for me to find these things.

Again, a key part of what makes this work is trust. I trust that everything I need to do is in my task manager. Without that trust, it’s not a very efficient tool. When I don’t have that trust, I’m always trying to remember things I need to get done. When I have that trust, I don’t think about that at all, just the task at hand. Thus, trusting my to-do list means I can focus much better on the task I happen to be working on, and that means it gets done much more efficiently and with higher quality results than if I didn’t trust my system.

Pocket Notebook
My preferred tool: Field Notes with a Uniball Signo 0.38 mm black pens

One of the big challenges with to-do lists is that I’ll often be in the middle of one task and I’ll suddenly recognize something I need to do in the near future. I’ll be writing an article and it will suddenly occur to me that we need to get some nails to re-shingle our rabbit hutch for our children’s pet rabbit, or I’ll be doing the dishes and see that we only have a little bit of dishwashing detergent left and realize that we need to get more.

For those moments, I keep a pocket notebook in my hip pocket at all times, along with a pen that won’t break or leak. When that fresh idea or task or whatever pops into my head, I pull out that notebook, write down the idea or task or whatever it is, and then go right back to work.

Later on in the day – usually in the evening, but sometimes I’ll do it during the day, too – I’ll pull out that pocket notebook and go through it, copying everything over to where it belongs. Appointments go in the calendar. Tasks go in the task manager. Ideas go in my idea repository (literally the next section in this article). I cross them out as I go along and when everything is crossed out, I move on with life.

This pocket notebook is key. It is a big part of ensuring that things don’t slip through the cracks. It ensures that I don’t forget ideas in the moment and that I don’t lose focus on my current objective while trying to remember them.

Electronic Document and Note Storage
My preferred tools: Evernote and Dropbox

Evernote and Dropbox are my storage solutions for all kinds of information. I use them because they’re easy to access from pretty much anywhere and allow me to organize things how I want them.

I mostly use Evernote for text-based ideas with maybe a few pictures thrown in here or there. I use it as an idea repository for my writing, as I have folders for things like potential article ideas or things I should read or follow up on. I use it as an idea repository for most other projects in my life, too.

I use Dropbox for documents of all kinds that I want to have access to everywhere I’m at. Photos, PDFs, and all kinds of other things are stored in Dropbox in a file folder structure that I understand well. I can find almost anything within a few clicks in Dropbox because I have it organized in a way that makes sense to me.

Every sort of document or note that I want to keep around winds up in Dropbox or Evernote, depending on what type of document it is. When I have tasks in my task manager or appointments in my calendar that require notes or documents, I know I can just find them in Dropbox or Evernote.

Paper Journal
My preferred tools: Leuchtturm 1917 dotted medium journal and Uniball Signo 0.38 mm black pens

The purpose of having a paper journal is for reflection and what I like to call “sharpening the axe.” I use it in both the morning and evening to reflect and brainstorm on my life and get things out of my head that aren’t always easy to extract. For me, it’s less of a recording of the events in my life than a way to make sense of and clarify the mishmash of thoughts and emotional responses in my head so that, when I’m done with the journal, my head is clear and focused and ready to deal with the day or sleep in peace.

There are three big things I do with the journal regularly, usually every day.

First, I write three morning pages. It’s basically just three pages, written by hand, on whatever is in my head. I just dump out whatever is on my mind at the moment onto paper. I don’t question it or guard it, I just let it come out. I find that forcing myself to think about those things at the pace of my handwriting brings a ton of clarity to the ideas I’m struggling with or the life issues I’m trying to figure out. I do this in the morning, usually before anyone else wakes up – I consider it a part of brainstorming.

Second, I go through a modified practice that I learned from Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith. In the morning, I simply write down a list of things that I want to be working on today. These aren’t necessarily tasks, but ways in which I want to behave and interact with the world. I want to do something to encourage my physical fitness. I want to eat healthy foods. I want to write well. I want to spend as little money as possible. I want to work on my virtues. I write each of these as sentences describing what I’m going to do today. In the evening, I review each of those and give myself a score on how I did today on those things. I usually keep them up for at least a week at a time and then reconsider them each week during a weekly review. This is so powerful in terms of nudging me to be a better person.

Finally, I go through a series of eight questions suggested by Michael Hyatt. I usually do this in the morning as well. The biggest one for me is his question of “what lessons did I learn from yesterday?” I usually note a few lessons, but I usually take one and tear it apart, doing an after-action review of it in detail.

I won’t lie – this takes a long time. I probably spend an hour, and sometimes more, doing this each morning (usually from about 5:45 to 6:45 AM) and probably another 10 to 15 minutes in the evening. That seems like a ton of time, but what I’ve learned is that when I’m done with this practice, I am absolutely ready to nail the day. I have a sense of mental clarity about what I should be doing and a great ability to focus for most of the day. On days when I don’t do this, I often feel like a lumbering sloth meandering through the fog in comparison. I more than make up that hour spent on journaling on days when I journal compared to days when I don’t really get it done.

So, how do I actually use these tools?

“Ideal Week”

It starts off with the “ideal week.”

Each week, I spend about an hour or so on Sunday reviewing the week and getting myself prepped for the next week. One part of doing that is reading through my journal for the week. I also go through my to-do list and see if there’s anything really vital that was left undone.

Perhaps the most important part, though, is the “ideal week.” I plan out my week to come, starting off with a calendar template that I call the “ideal week.”

Basically, this just consists of a whole lot of repeating events in my calendar that specify what I would be doing each hour of each day assuming that I am going through an average week that’s going along perfectly with minimal interruptions. Assuming everything was perfect in my normal life, what would an “ideal week” look like? I basically just fill that out in Google Calendar and set every single block of time to repeat every week.

So, on Monday, it starts off with a block for sleep starting at 10:30 PM Sunday and running to 5:30 AM Monday. That’s followed by a block of “morning routine” and journaling from 5:30 AM to 7 AM, followed by half an hour of getting the kids ready for school, followed by another half an hour of “morning routine” (I’ll get back to that in a second). After that, I have a four hour block of “writing” scheduled, followed by “lunch,” followed by “exercise,” followed by “other work tasks,” followed by “deep reading,” followed by “flex time,” followed by “family time,” and so on. You get the idea. I just block out my whole day with what I will ideally be doing during each hour.

When I add events to my calendar, those are deviations from the “ideal week.” During my weekly review, I look ahead and try to resolve any conflicts for the next month or so between my “ideal week” and the things I add to my calendar, usually giving the appointments priority. I figure out what needs to be moved around and make room for the appointment. What am I giving up? I decide that then.

Most of the time, this is pretty easy. I’ll usually shrink down a few things and then expand them on the weekend, which is mostly made up of self-care, family and community commitments, and flex time. For example, I’ll often shrink down my daily “deep reading” (basically research or trying to learn a new topic) and then expand that very activity on the weekend.

I usually try to keep my morning routine and writing routine sacrosanct unless weeks are very exceptional, like family vacations or holidays. Even then, I’ll often still do some smaller form of those routines.

“Morning Routine” and “Evening Routine”

So, what exactly are my morning routine and my evening routine?

My morning routine is the big one, and it usually eats up about two hours of my day if I do it in full, with journaling taking up about half of that or a little more. The rest of that routine involves reviewing my calendar and to-do list (and picking out a few high priority things to be done today), doing some basic morning hygiene, meditating for fifteen minutes, exercising a little (this is mostly stretching and a bit of calisthenics in the living room, usually stuff to supplement my taekwondo classes), and doing a bit of reading.

My evening routine is basically a review of the day. I write in my journal a little bit, peek at my calendar and to-do list, and get ready for bed with some evening hygiene (brushing my teeth and so on). I just try to do the same four or five things every evening so it feels completely natural.

I tinker with the exact contents of my morning and evening routines regularly, but they’re largely settled at this point. My “tinkering” mostly involves messing with the order of things, changing up my exercise tactics, or trying out a new element for a while.

Going Through the Day

During the day, I mostly just follow my calendar, which is usually made up of time blocks. During those time blocks, I follow what’s on my to-do list associated with that time block.

So, when I’m in the midst of a “writing” block, as I am right now, I’m basically just going through my list of to-dos related to writing. Those usually involve drafting a specific article, then editing and formatting that article (a separate task, because I give it some breathing time between those two steps), then scheduling and posting that article, along with some brainstorming tasks and reminders to check the various places where readers send messages. I have other work tasks, but those are the ones really associated with The Simple Dollar directly in terms of what you guys read. I spend my work block mostly doing those kinds of things in 50 minute stretches, with 10 minute breaks to stretch and go on a short walk around the block.

The same is true for other blocks. During household chore blocks, I go through my list of household chores and just knock off as many as possible. During focused family time blocks, I try to do things with my family with all digital distractions shut off. You get the idea here.

If something pops into my head that I want to deal with later, I just pull out my pocket notebook and write it down. This keeps me away from digital distractions. About once a day, as part of my evening routine, I copy everything over to my other systems as described above.

I usually have timers that go off at the end of time blocks, letting me know it’s time to switch to other things.

A big part of this system is freeing myself up to get into a “flow state,” as I mentioned earlier. If I can slip into a flow state during any one of those blocks, it’s going to go really, really well. If I can do it several times during the day during various different blocks, it’s going to be an amazing day.

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

This system might seem complicated at first glance, but it works extremely well for me. It enables me to keep my mind very sharp throughout the day – my mind doesn’t wander due to having things on my mind. I do focused things when my energy and focus levels are high and do less intense things when my energy and focus levels are low. It enables me to prioritize self care without letting go of all of the other things that I’m responsible for in my life, so that I can continue to be responsible for those things into the future.

That being said, I’m not perfect with this system. There are days when I don’t execute perfectly. I don’t write in my journal some days, though I try to at least get something down every day. I don’t exercise as much as I should every day. The one element I really strive to be perfect on is to keep my calendar and to-do list as trusted as possible by writing things down in my pocket notebook and adding them to those tools as needed, but pretty much everything else will sometimes slide if I’m not feeling 100%.

That’s okay. The perfect is the enemy of the good. A bad day doesn’t mean I discard the system and give up and think of myself as a failure. It just means that I do better tomorrow.

I do know that when I nail all of this stuff, I feel practically superhuman in terms of how much I can get done in a day. My mental clarity in the middle of the day if I’m nailing all of these things is just incredible. I genuinely feel like there were earlier parts of my life where I was practically working in a fog at half speed all the time. It’s those ideal days, when I am constantly slipping into a flow state and really getting lots of things done, that makes all of this worthwhile, because those days are amazing and they happen surprisingly often.

What Can You Take Home?

If you pull out anything from this, it’s that those five key principles are the foundation of everything else I’ve written.

Get things out of your head and into a system that you fully trust. Everything you do should have positive value – it’s either improving you (I put self care and genuine leisure time in here, but not time wasting), improving a relationship, making money, or making one of those other things more efficient. Do high energy and high focus things when you actually have energy and focus; do mindless things when you feel mindless. Do not skimp on self-care, which includes genuine leisure time, good healthy food, exercise, good personal relationships, and adequate sleep. Aim for the “flow state” in everything you do, because you’ll never be better than when you’re so engaged that you lose track of time and place and just get lost in the moment.

All of the stuff in this article is an embodiment of those principles that works well for me. Some of those specific tactics might work well for you, or they might completely fall flat. We all have different minds and bodies that work in different ways. Try things and figure out what works best for you, and use the tactics here as things to try out, not things to blindly follow.

Good luck, and may your days be amazing!

The post How I Get Things Done appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

Meeting an Old Friend: Strategies for Low Cost Meetups

Yesterday, an old friend of mine, one that I’ve known for more than twenty years and talk to online regularly but rarely get to see face to face, came through my area in the midst of a long road trip with his family. We were both excited that our paths were going to cross and we made plans to meet up.

Ordinarily, one might expect that we’d just identify a restaurant somewhere and meet for lunch there. It’d be convenient, right? Well, after some back and forth, we came up with a different plan.

First of all, we decided to meet at a park instead of a restaurant. There were several reasons for this. One, it settled the issue of figuring out a restaurant that everyone would like and that would meet all dietary requirements. Two, it put us in a position where we’d arrive with food already in hand so that we wouldn’t waste our window of time together ordering food and reading menus.

For me, however, the biggest advantage here was that I could just bring a meal made at home. I assembled a sack lunch meal in the morning with stuff I already had on hand and just took that with me. I just made a simple sandwich, took some sliced vegetables and fruit out of the fridge, and grabbed a full water bottle. It was simple, tasty, and incredibly cheap.

That’s really the other advantage of not eating at a restaurant: by not choosing a restaurant, it allowed everyone to choose how expensive they wanted lunch to be beyond the mere choice of what kind of food to eat. I wanted a cheap lunch. Another friend in the area who joined us brought a rather expensive takeout meal, one that probably cost ten times what my lunch did. Our mutual friends had a meal that was likely somewhere in the middle.

It also allowed individual people to consider their own dietary needs and food allergy concerns. This can sometimes be an issue if someone’s on a particular diet and can only eat certain foods or only eat at certain places. This wasn’t a real issue yesterday, but it certainly has been in the past.

Second, it provided a setting to move around. After eating, we went on a short walk together while their child played on the playground. Since they were in the midst of a road trip, it gave everyone in their family a chance to stretch their legs and move around, which felt good.

This was particularly useful for their young child. He seemed to truly enjoy being able to run around in the fresh air for a while and he took full advantage of the playground. (He even convinced the adults to join him on the playground for a while.)

This was the exact reason that we would often stop at parks when our children were younger. It gave them a chance to run around and burn off excess energy from being in the car. They’d run to the playground and wear themselves out with vigorous play while Sarah and I would usually clean up lunch and then take a walk around the park. It gave all of us an excuse to stretch out our bodies after a long car ride and get ready for another leg of the trip.

Third, we could linger for as long as we wanted. At a restaurant, you’re often nudged out the door after a certain length of time, especially if the restaurant is busy at all. At the park, we were free to stay all day if we wished. My sole restriction was needing to get home before my children got off the bus; their restriction was to get back on the road so they could make it to their destination by dark. We were free to hang out on our terms and free to depart on our terms.

We ended up talking for far longer than I expected; I figured they’d want to get on the road quickly, but instead they lingered for quite a while, enjoying the conversation and the nice weather. That probably wouldn’t have happened at a restaurant.

Another big advantage of being in a park is that we could spread out as much as we liked. With a restaurant, you might have a large group jammed into a small booth together or at a small table. At a park, there was no such issue. We spread out a giant blanket near a tree and spread out, with everyone having plenty of elbow room and space.

Finally, stopping at a park gives one an opportunity to enjoy local flavor and roadside curiosities. While this particular meeting didn’t really allow for such events, I have often stopped at great points of interest on road trips, often meeting friends at such places. It can be a great way to add to someone’s road trip while also giving them the freedom to get out and exercise.

Consider what free points of interest are in your area that out-of-towners who are just driving through might enjoy seeing, then plan to meet friends who are stopping by at those places. They get the joy of seeing you and visiting for a while and also enjoying a low cost meal along with the added attraction of seeing something interesting on their trip for free.

In the past, I’ve done this with things like the world’s largest twine ball in Arthur, MN and the statue of Superman in Metropolis, IL. Both of those involved stops in the middle of road trips that added something special to the trip. In both cases, I enjoyed a picnic lunch there, along with time with friends and loved ones. It really added to the trip.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many such places of interest near me, but there are certainly some parks and stops that are more interesting than others. Taking the time to identify a few can be worthwhile for people passing near you, and researching areas where you might stop to visit friends might give you a very interesting place to stop for such a meetup.

So, what can you take out of all of this?

If you’re on a road trip and thinking of stopping for a break at meal time, consider stopping at a park rather than a restaurant. It gives you the opportunity to get some fresh air and go for a walk as well, and if you have children, they can burn off some of that pent-up energy on the playground. You’ll also be far less restricted on the time for the stop – if you want to make it quick, you can just eat and run rather than having to wait for your food and for the waitstaff, but if you want to linger, you can linger for as long as you want to.

If you have friends stopping by as they go through town, consider suggesting a meetup at a park rather than at a restaurant. Again, this eliminates the need to negotiate what restaurant to choose and saves everyone involved money if they so choose. If people prefer food from a restaurant, they can get takeout from any number of fast food and fast casual restaurants. If people prefer food from home, they can bring food from home. You can even bring food for your friends if you so wish.

Look for interesting parks or free roadside attractions as part of the meetup plans. When considering where to meet, consider things in your area that might be interesting for the out-of-towner to see as part of a quick stop and meet there. If you’re going to meet someone as part of a road trip (or just need a place to stop for lunch), research a good stopping point and look for things of interest in that area. Sites like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura are great tools for this type of planning.

If parks are your game plan, come prepared with food in a cooler. Prepare some meals and beverages the night before your departure and stock up your cooler before you leave. Yes, you can always stop at a fast casual restaurant for takeout or a fast food restaurant or even call for something to be delivered, but that adds a lot of expense to the stop. Instead, aim to include the elements of an inexpensive meal or two in your packing and fill up a cooler with cold items just before you leave.

Together, these strategies will save you some money on your road trip while also giving you ample opportunity to stretch your legs and refresh yourself after part of a day of driving (and potentially get ready for another partial day of driving).

The post Meeting an Old Friend: Strategies for Low Cost Meetups appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

How to Handle a High Stress Work Environment

One wonderful advantage of financial independence (or at least a strong financial foundation) is that you don’t have to deal with stressful or toxic work environments. You can simply start searching for a different job as soon as the environment turns negative and handle any financial bumps in the road that such a search may cause.

However, many Americans aren’t in that situation. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford financial bumps, and other Americans might be in a job that pays very well compared to alternatives or offers some other particular benefit. In both of those cases, sticking with a high stress or toxic work environment might be the only option for them.

If we stick with the assumption that your job is toxic/high stress but a job change is exceedingly difficult right now, how do you handle that challenge?

For a year or so early in my professional career, I worked in a toxic environment. I was in a small group of three people working together tightly on a project and one of those three people was toxic to the point of (I believe) being intentionally so.

This coworker insisted on particular lighting for our shared office that gave everything this strange unearthly blue tint. During our weekly meetings, she would promise to deliver certain things during the coming week, then never deliver them. She would often “work” from home in the mornings (which were times that felt like a relief), but then accuse us of trying to “hack” her laptop remotely, which was her reason for why she didn’t get anything done at home. She would meet with the supervisor of the project privately and tell him that we were conspiring against her, leading him to check in on us and hear our side of the story. (There wasn’t a conspiracy against her – I barely even thought about her outside of direct interaction time. We didn’t have time for a conspiracy due to our project deadlines!)

This finally culminated with her giving a disastrous presentation during our first annual project review, which led to her immediate removal from the project. Our team of three was down to two, but it became far less stressful and actually more productive after that change.

However, getting through that time was very tough. I needed that job. It was my first real professional job after college and I needed it to be a home run. It was perfectly in line with what I studied in college and was clearly going to be a foundational step in my career path because of the skills I could build and the connections I could make.

I was lucky in that my work environment eventually improved significantly. Others aren’t so lucky.

Still, there were a number of strategies I employed that made it possible for me to make it through that period. Not all of these strategies will work for you because not all environments are the same. Instead, consider these strategies a toolbox for handling high stress and toxic work environments.

Connect Strongly with Like-Minded Colleagues

Who are the people in your workplace who have a similar perspective as yours? Who are the quiet people who just seem to want to get their job done without all of the stress and the antics? Intentionally seek those people out and build a positive relationship with them.

The key thing here is “positive.” Don’t make your relationship with them center around negative talk about the workplace. Instead, focus it on the positives of what you’re both trying to do. What are you actually getting done? What are your successes? How can you help each other? What are your common positive interests? Don’t weigh those things down with negativity and complaints about the workplace.

At the same time, try to build those types of positive relationships beyond your workplace. Seek out peers in your field and build positive relationships with them. Share knowledge. Help people. Have good positive conversations. Get involved with your online professional community and any professional groups associated with your career path. Attend conferences and conventions. This takes time – give it time.

Again, the important thing here is “positive.” Look for positive things to day and avoid negativity. Your relationships should be based on positive exchanges rather than just dumping out negative feelings.

Stay Healthy (and Channel Negative Feelings While Doing So)

The stress and toxicity of a negative work environment can feed on itself and leave you feeling miserable. You dread going into work, feel exhausted when you get home, and often find yourself slipping into a routine of bad habits. High stress jobs often correlate with lack of exercise, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of sleep.

Don’t let that happen. Make a conscious effort to maintain healthy habits in your life. Eat well – I trust the simple mantra of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” as general guidance, meaning trying to eat things with a tiny ingredient list, not eating until you’re stuffed and eating only when you’re actually hungry, and eating mostly plant-based items. Get exercise of some kind regularly (I’ll come back to that). Perhaps most importantly, get a healthy amount of sleep – aim for eight hours a night and try to create nights of sleep where you rise naturally instead of at the behest of an alarm clock.

A key point about exercise: it can be a great channel for negative feelings. Over and over again in my life, I’ve found that vigorous exercise just channels away a lot of negative feelings that I have. “Vigorous exercise” means different things for different people – I’d say just find something you reasonably enjoy doing and do it at a pace so that you’re somewhat out of breath for a while. I do this while running/jogging/walking (I just seek a pace where I’m panting but it’s not getting considerably worse or better and stick with that pace) and with taekwondo practice. It’s quite impressive how such exercise melts away stressful negative feelings.

In addition, let me recommend two other practices that have helped me handle stress over the years: meditation and journaling. Meditation basically boils down to spending some time turning off the constant monologue in your head. I do it by sitting calmly in a chair or on the floor for fifteen minutes (you may want to start with a shorter time) and simply focusing on my breathing, in and out, and bringing my mind back to focus on the breathing whenever it wanders. It really calms he mind in the short term and actually helps me focus better over the long term. For journaling, I tend to do a daily “brain dump” where I just write out whatever’s on my mind for a few pages, which is the most stress reducing part of the practice.

Document Everything

Documentation is a good practice for any work environment, but a particularly good practice in a high-stress and potentially toxic environment. Document. Everything.

The best way to do this is to keep a work diary where, each day, you document the tasks you worked on and how you moved forward on them along with any significant interactions with others, particularly ones that were stressful. Write it all down and keep it in a place where you have access to it and it can’t be deleted or removed by IT professionals at work.

This document serves two purposes. First, it clearly outlines your positive efforts at work in rather intense detail. It’s pretty hard to argue against a lengthy work diary that correctly outlines your efforts over a long period of time. Second, it provides documentation of potentially negative relationships that dip into extreme toxicity and damage your career.

It’s well worth your time to spend a few minutes a few times a day documenting what you’re working on and what some of the potentially troublesome interactions that you had were like. Being able to refer to specific actions and specific dates in detail at a later time may end up saving your career.

Avoid Office Gossip and Negative Talk

Negative workplaces tend to have a very active gossip mill, where negative stories are shared about others behind their backs. Gossip is poison to a workplace because it eventually creates an environment where lots of people don’t trust each other, and a lack of trust makes it very hard to get work done in any sort of collaborative way (or to even enjoy a day at work at all).

Just avoid it. If you hear office gossip, assume it’s false. More importantly, don’t say anything or add anything to it. Never offer anything on your own and if you’re asked about it, just shrug it off and say something noncommittal like, “I’ve never noticed that.”

If you find that some people regularly gossip, tone down your water cooler relationship with those people and find others to hang out with. Intentionally seek relationships in the office with people who don’t gossip and who almost entirely speak positively of others.

Do not let your reputation get tainted by being a gossip, even if it feels good. Don’t find yourself in a position to ever have to defend negative words you spread behind a person’s back. Don’t ever open yourself up to the criticism of “Well, you deserved the gossip about you because you were doing it to him/her!”

What about criticism in meetings where it’s warranted or requested? If that’s the situation, then some criticism is fine. You should never criticize anyone in a way that isn’t directly to their face and you shouldn’t say anything in a setting beyond one-on-one conversation that you would want anyone to say about you behind your back, ever. If you absolutely must criticize, focus on the problem as specifically as possible and, if you can, make sure to mention positives along with the criticisms.

Pick Your Battles Wisely, But Stand Up for Yourself When Needed

There are going to be times where you are going to have to fight for yourself in a negative workplace. You are going to have to stand up for yourself against unfair criticism and poor treatment. If you allow yourself to merely accept it, it will never get better and it will likely get worse.

My advice is to pick your battles wisely. Decide which issues are important and which issues are not, and decide clearly where the line in the sand is. If something crosses that line, fight that battle; if it doesn’t, just recognize it as something that isn’t genuinely important and roll with it.

Simply figuring out where your line in the sand is can be vital. For me, I decided that the big “line in the sand” for me was criticism of the code I was writing, which I knew was good code. For my various faults as an employee and person, the big thing I was confident about was the computer code I produced – it was well documented and formatted with good error handling and variable names and clear data structures, pretty much everything you would want. I would stand up and defend my code, but other things would wash over me. (I had other “lines in the sand,” but this was a clear one.)

When you choose to stand up for yourself, be firm and don’t back down. Make sure you know what you’re talking about and stick to your guns. At the same time, don’t get angry; if the other person gets angry, just listen to their anger but don’t respond with anger. Simply stick to your guns. It is hard to do this sometimes, I know, but if you give in to what someone else demands when it’s wrong and crosses your “line in the sand,” the results are not going to be positive for anyone involved. This is very hard, but it must be done.

Start Building Your Long Term Escape Plan and Give Yourself Light at the End of the Tunnel

One aspect of highly stressful and toxic work environments that compounds the negative feeling is the sense that there is no way out of this mess, that you’re stuck here in this swamp, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You should never, ever put yourself in a situation, good or bad, that doesn’t have light at the end of the tunnel.

If you feel like this, then you should start trying to build that light. Build a long term escape plan, starting today, and put as much effort as you can into making it work.

The first part, of course, is building a firm financial foundation so that you can afford to make a switch. This means doing everything you can to spend less than you earn, and that means cutting back on as many expenses as you can and putting that money aside. You should build yourself a small emergency fund (just money in a savings account for emergencies that you refill when it’s depleted – aim for $1,000 for starters, but more is always good especially when facing a big life change in the future) and then start paying off debts so your monthly bills are as low as possible.

The other part of this is planning for the next step in your career. Do you want to stay on the same path but just in a different position? Start really working on sharpening your resume and building professional relationships (especially beyond your workplace) and doing things at work (and beyond) that will look great on your resume, like big projects or educational endeavors. If you want a career change, focus strongly on the financial planning needed to make that happen and prepare yourself for that leap. Where do you want to be in two years? Start making that happen now.

Look on the Bright Side

A final strategy, one that’s always worked well for me, is to look on the bright side of things. There are always a lot of good things going on in your life, even if there’s stress and negativity on your plate, too. Reminding yourself often of the good things can really help with the stress and toxicity.

I keep a gratitude journal where, each morning, I note five things that I’m really grateful for in my life. Those are always universally good things. I try to stick with details – rather than saying I’m grateful for my kids, I look for something about them that I’m grateful for, like my daughter’s kindness or my son’s creativity or my other son’s burgeoning leadership. I try to avoid repeating them too often.

Over time, those gratitudes really build up. I can look through a few months of gratitudes and I can’t help but realize how great my life really is, even when parts of it are hard. That buildup seeps into my everyday thinking, too. I feel good about my life, even when some elements are challenging, and I attribute that to a constant focus on gratitude.

Final Thoughts

A high stress work environment is something that is incredibly damaging to one’s well being, both physically and mentally. It’s an environment that people should normally avoid, but many people find themselves “stuck” in such situations.

Still, there are many tools on the table that can help with such situations, from better practices for handling stress to finding ways to improve your workplace, from ensuring that you’re doing all you can to protect yourself from the chaos to building a better path to the future.

Take advantage of these tools. Build a better future for yourself. It’s all up to you.

Good luck!

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Five Reasons You Shouldn’t ‘Sell in May and Go Away’

You may have heard the popular idiom that when it comes to your investments, you should “sell in May and go away.”

It’s unclear exactly where this comes from. Investopedia suggests that it may originate with an old English tradition in which aristocrats and other businessmen left London to vacation for the summer — which, if true, would be a hilarious basis upon which modern investors are making decisions. Others suggest that it simply reflects the fact that professional traders have historically taken time off in the summer, leading to lower trading volumes and lower returns.

But is there any truth to it? Are investment returns worse during the summer? With Memorial Day weekend approaching and the month of May almost over, should you be selling out of your investments right now?

The answer is a definite no, at least if your only reason for selling is because of this idiom. Here are five reasons why.

1. Past Results Are Mixed

Truthfully, there is some data supporting the idea that investment returns are worse during the summer months.

Adam D. Van Wie, CFP®, fee-only financial planner and COO of Van Wie Financial points to data from Bespoke Investment Group showing that the S&P 500 provided a median return of just 2.8% from May through September over the past 28 years, compared with 10.97% during the other months. Additionally, Dan Gallinger from The Motley Fool points out that two of the three worst performing months over the last 90 years have been in May and September, while three of the four best performing months occurred in December, January, and April.

But that data is hardly conclusive. As Van Wie points out, even the data from Bespoke shows a positive median return during the summer, and it also says those returns were positive 64% of the time. Selling in May would have largely led you to miss out on growth.

And recent years in particular have generally provided good returns during the summer months. Using Morningstar to analyze Vanguard’s Total US Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX), we see positive returns from May 1 through October 31 for five of the past six years, and annualized returns during that period of 15.8% in 2014, 18.6% in 2017, and 25.2% in 2013.

“This was an old adage or trend and it does not necessarily exist anymore,” says Sahil Vakil, CFP®, president at MYRA Wealth. “Astute investors have exploited inefficiencies in the marketplace, and reduced the predictability of low volume and decreasing stock prices.”

The bottom line is that the data does not consistently support the idea that summer returns are lower than normal, especially recently, and it definitely doesn’t support the idea that your investments are likely to lose money in the summer.

2. Past Patterns Do Not Predict Future Performance

According to Colin Overweg, CFP®, founder of Advize Wealth Management, the vast amount of stock market data makes it easy to find historical patterns that don’t hold any bearing on the future.

“The guru, chartist, or technician believes in these theories because he or she believes that history repeats itself,” Overweg says. “But there are an infinite number of patterns that one can find looking at historical data and therefore diminish any chance of using them to profit on. There is no theory that has been used to consistently out-perform the market.”

In other words, even if you were able to find a consistent pattern of under-performance during past summer months, there’s no reason to expect that that pattern would persist going forward or that you would be able to profit off it. It’s just as likely to be completely random.

3. The Real Danger of Market Timing

When the subject of market timing comes up, it’s often talked about in the context of avoiding negative returns. The “sell in May and go away” idiom is a good example of just that.

But there’s another, perhaps bigger, danger that market timing introduces, and that’s the fact that a large percentage of the stock market’s long-term return comes from just a few good days, and that being out of the market on those days could really hurt you.

“Missing just the 25 best single days from 1990 to 2017 would cut your S&P 500 annualized compound returns in half, from 9.81% to 4.53%,” says Dejan Ilijevski, president of Sabela Capital Markets. “Disciplined investors tend to perform much better than those who try to beat and time the markets.”

Negative returns are certainly harmful, but missing out on good returns is often even worse. And given that the stock market goes up more often than it goes down, being out of the market for a few months introduces a lot of risk.

4. Costs and Complexity

Even without the data showing that it’s not likely to work, the logistics of managing a “sell in May and go away” strategy would be tough to pull off.

First, selling your stocks each May would subject you to capital gains taxes every single year, in addition to any trading costs involved with both selling out of your stocks and subsequently buying back in. Given that cost is the single best predictor of future returns, and that lower costs are better, this would present a significant hurdle towards reaching your investment goals.

Second, dealing with both the sale and re-purchase of your stock investments each year introduces a lot of complexity and room for error, and puts more work on your plate than is really needed.

“Keep all things money related simple,” says Kalyn Hochstrat, a fee-only financial planner rooted in Idaho. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel or add unnecessary complications because someone, somewhere says it’s a good idea.”

5. Know the Difference Between Entertainment and Advice

Ilijevski cautions that there’s a big difference between snazzy idioms and actual investment advice.

“Catchy headlines are meant to attract viewership and readership, but the financial news media in general has nothing to do with investors’ best interest,” says Ilijevski.

A good investment plan focuses on setting meaningful goals, saving enough money, contributing to the right accounts, using evidence-based investment strategies, and sticking with your plan through the ups and downs.

Theories like “sell in May and go away” might sound good, and you may even be able to cherry-pick some data to make them look good. But they never take your personal goals into account and they should never be confused with actual investment advice.

They’re for entertainment purposes only, and your future is too important to think of them otherwise.

Matt Becker, CFP® is a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Mom and Dad Money, where he helps new parents take control of their money so they can take care of their families.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Building a Less Fragile Life

One of my main motivations in my own financial turnaround was to escape the paycheck to paycheck life that we were living. I had begun to realize that people were really depending on me – not just my wife and my infant son, but my “future self” as well – and by living a lifestyle that could be so easily disrupted by unfortunate events, I was doing all of them a disservice.

What would happen to all of them if I suddenly lost my job? It wouldn’t be a good picture. We weren’t all that far from being homeless or having to move back in with my parents or Sarah’s parents if that happened. What kind of future trajectory does that give my life? It’s not one I really wanted.

What would happen to everyone if I got sick? What would happen to everyone if my car broke down? What would happen to everyone if we were suddenly robbed? What would happen to everyone if we were evicted from our apartment?

I didn’t have good answers to those questions. The truth is that our life, as it was, was incredibly fragile. There were all kinds of things that could easily cause it to shatter into a bunch of pieces.

I owed it to my infant son, my wife, my future children, and my own future self to build a much less fragile life, one that would be harder to disrupt due to an unexpected event or two. Over time, of course, that goal transitioned into financial independence, but even that goal is really just an anti-fragility goal.

So, how exactly does one make their life less fragile? Here are a number of steps I’ve taken over the years to achieve this very thing.

Build an Emergency Fund

An emergency fund is simply cash on hand that you can use in case of an unexpected event. Typically, most of one’s emergency fund is stored in a savings account at a local bank, though some may keep a small amount of cash at home in order to cover more extreme emergencies. Credit cards generally aren’t good emergency funds because they will fail you in many events such as identity theft, natural disasters, electrical grid failure, communication network failure, and so on.

Having an emergency fund secures your life against many different kinds of small emergencies, such as a short period of unemployment, a car breakdown, appliance failure, many natural disasters, and so on. Simply having a couple hundred dollars in cash in your home or a thousand or two in cash at the bank makes those problems easy to handle when they would otherwise be rather difficult to overcome.

How can I get started with building an emergency fund? The easiest method is to simply take a little bit of money each week out of your checking account and put it into your savings account. Most banks allow this kind of transaction to be fully automated, so you don’t even have to think about it. Each week, $10 or $20 goes from your checking into your savings and you don’t even have to give it a second thought. After a year, that becomes a $500 or $1,000 emergency fund. I never shut my transaction off – if I find that my emergency fund has become unnecessarily big, I might invest some of it, but I usually just let it ride because there will always be an emergency at some point. Here’s a detailed guide to building an emergency fund if you want more details.

Eliminate Debt, Especially High Interest Debt

Personal debt creates fragility. If you put yourself into debt, you’re lashing yourself up to a monthly bill, which means that you have to be earning more money each and every month to keep the bills paid. If you don’t pay those debts, you may have things repossessed, face legal repercussions, and almost certainly see your credit score devastated. This puts additional pressure on you to keep earning money, and the consequences of unexpected expenses or a job loss become greater.

Of course, debt can be eliminated. Once you pay off a debt, you’ve lowered your monthly bills, which gives you more freedom to invest and save for the future and more flexibility in terms of life options while also increasing your ability to handle unexpected events.

How can I get started with eliminating debt? Start by making a debt repayment plan. A debt repayment plan is simply a listing of all of your debts, usually ordered by interest rate from largest to smallest (my preferred method) or by balance from smallest to largest. In either case, you make minimum payments on each debt and then make the largest possible extra payment you can afford on the debt at the top of the list each month. When the top debt is paid off, cross it off the list and keep going until all of the debts are gone.

Strengthen Your Resume

Perhaps the best possible thing you can do to keep your career safe and secure is to keep your resume polished and strong. Having a good resume that’s attractive to employers and widely available will make hunting for a new job much, much easier. It will make the difference between success and failure if you find yourself out of a job or need to seek out a new job for any reason.

A good strong resume isn’t just one that’s updated with your latest activities, but is full of items that are relevant and interesting to potential employers. You want to make it your goal at work to take on tasks that are resume-worthy and potentially interesting to employers so you can add them to your resume, and you’ll also want to take on opportunities that bolster your educational certifications and skill set.

How can I get started with strengthening my resume? The first step, of course, is to get your resume freshly updated and available. One great way to do that is to simply use LinkedIn. You should also keep a document that contains a well-formatted resume and cover letter that mirrors the information on LinkedIn. In addition, you should look at jobs that are available in your field right now that you might be interested in and make sure that your resume addresses what those job listings are looking for. This might mean formatting your resume appropriately, but it also likely means seeking out certain kinds of resume-worthy tasks and educational opportunities at work. As you do those things, add them to your resume and keep it fresh.

Build Strong Social and Professional Networks

When things get rough, a strong social network in your personal life and a strong professional network can help you through those challenging times. A great personal network can come through when you’re facing a personal crisis, providing help with things like emergency transportation or a place to sleep or things like that. A great professional network can do the same thing in your career, opening opportunities for you when you least expect them and also helping you transition to your next job when you need to.

Having those networks in place is invaluable when things go wrong, but it requires effort when things are going right, an effort that many people don’t put in. A strong social network and a strong professional network takes time and effort, but it can end up helping you far more than the effort and time you ever put into it.

How can I get started with building social connections and professional networks? Talk to people. Keep tabs on them by texting or calling or emailing or contacting them on social media regularly. Listen to them – don’t use this as an excuse to talk about yourself. Remember things about people and touch base with them on those things. The real key? When your friends or professional acquaintances need help, particularly when that help can be offered by you with little effort but can have a big impact on them, do it without question or expectation of anything in return. That builds goodwill, and that kind of goodwill is always a positive for you.

Eat Healthy Foods and Maintain Basic Physical Fitness

Just like the more financially oriented aspects of your life mentioned above, your health is also fragile. It can be hard to see it that way, especially when you’re young and really healthy, but your health will eventually slide off the rails if you don’t take care of your body from the beginning.

This has a financial implication, too. As your health declines, the cost of health care will go up and up and up. You’ll spend more on doctor’s visits, medications, devices… the list goes on and on. Having healthy life practices at the very least delays those costs and can even reverse or eliminate them.

It’s not that hard to keep your body healthy, either. Just eat more plants and don’t overeat. Walk more and find some fitness activities you enjoy and do them. It’s really not hard. You don’t need to master some sort of secret diet or secret super fitness routine. Just eat better food, not a ton of it, and move around more.

How can I get started with eating healthier and becoming more fit? When you’re loading up your plate, put more healthy things on it. That doesn’t mean avoiding the less healthy things you like – just put more healthy things on your plate and eat them first. Then, stop eating when you don’t feel hungry any more, not when you feel stuffed. Rather than just sitting around in the evening, go for a walk, or get up a little earlier and go for a walk to wake yourself up. Find some physically active things you enjoy doing and do them.

Save for Known Expenses on the Horizon

There are big bills that come around regularly in our lives, but often less frequently than once a month. Insurance. Property taxes. Income taxes. In the cycle of paying monthly bills, it’s easy to forget about those extra expenses.

Over time, even bigger expenses loom. You’ll have to replace a major appliance. You’ll have to replace a car. Those things are coming and you know they’re coming.

The thing is, those expenses often pop up and hit you hard. They wreck your financial plans for the month. They force you to go into debt. They devour your “emergency fund” (even though it’s not an emergency). They expose the fragility of your financial life.

Don’t let that happen. Plan ahead.

How can I get started with saving for upcoming expenses? Make a big list of every upcoming expense and irregular bill that you can think of, how far off those bills are, and how big they probably will be. Then, for each bill, figure out how much you’d have to save each month in order to be able to afford that expense. Planning on spending $10K on a car in five years? That’s $10,000 divided by 60, or $167 a month. Then, start putting aside that amount each month. Do it by setting up an automatic transfer at your bank from your checking to your savings. Then, when the expense comes around, you’ll already have the cash and it won’t cause you any stress at all.

Live Below Your Means, No Matter How Secure Your Income Is

My fundamental rule of personal finance is to spend less than you earn. The reason for that is simple – if you live that way, you’re always going to have money with which to pay off debts and save for the future. If you live below your means, saving for retirement is easy. Doing the big, long term things that make your life strong and secure become easy.

There’s another advantage, too. If you’re used to living below your means, an unexpected drop in income isn’t devastating to your day to day life. If you suddenly have to get a lower wage job and you’re used to living below your means, it’s just a small bump in the road. If you’re not… well, your entire life is now in tumult. That means your life is fragile, and fragility is what we want to avoid.

How can I get started with living below my means? The easiest way to do this is to just automate as much of your savings as you possibly can. Have your workplace make automatic 401(k) contributions for you. Set up automatic Roth IRA contributions from your checking account. Set up some automatic transfers from your checking account to your savings account for your emergency fund and planning ahead for big expenses, as noted above. Then, simply learn how to live on what’s left over without accumulating credit card debt. It’s that easy!

Final Thoughts

A fragile life is one that can easily be disrupted. A fragile life is a stressful life. A fragile life sacrifices a solid foundation for forgettable short term pleasures. A fragile life is something to avoid.

If you use these strategies, you’ll make your life much stronger, much more able to avoid disaster and handle unexpected events, much more likely to expose opportunities that you’re actually able to take advantage of.

Don’t let your life become fragile. If it is fragile, it’s well worth the effort to strengthen it.

Good luck!

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Looking for Major League Deals on Minor League Baseball

I want to sit here and tell you how great a value minor-league baseball is and how it’s always a better deal than the money-grubbing majors.

I also don’t want to outright lie to you.

Minor-league baseball is unquestionably cheaper than the majors, with the cost of sending a family of four to a game coming in below $70. When Team Marketing Report last compiled its Major League Baseball Fan Cost Index in 2016, the average cost of taking a family of four to a game was $219.53.

But that value varies wildly by location. My neighboring town is home to the Hillsboro Hops of the Northwest League. They’re a Class A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and play an abbreviated 76-game season from mid-June through Labor Day weekend.

Their home stadium, Ron Tonkin Field, is named after a late, beloved local car dealer. The team does the usual minor-league promotions, including dressing like the 1980s Portland Mavericks and hosting a kids’ home-run derby. Local brewer Bridgeport provides the beer, and the mascot is a giant pre-brewing hop.

At a glance, they’re a great deal. Tickets are $7 for the Frontier Family Berm (a general-admission section on a mound of grassy dirt where free-range kids can roam), $12 for bleacher seats, $16 for box seats, and $18 for premium seats. The nearest Major League Baseball team, the Seattle Mariners roughly five hours away, sells its lowest-priced seats for $16 (or $15 for “value games,” but they’re available at ticket resellers for as little as $8).

The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and have finished a season with more wins than losses just six times since. The Hops, meanwhile, have made the playoffs in three of their four seasons in Hillsboro and have won the Northwest League title twice.

However, compared to other minor-league teams, the Hops look a little pricey. The Pawtucket Red Sox, the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, charge $6 for kids’ general-admission tickets, $9 for similar adult tickets, $13 for reserved seats, and $14 for field boxes. The PawSox are just a level away from the Major Leagues, regularly feature Red Sox players on rehab assignments, and are 45 minutes to an hour from Boston depending on the traffic. Meanwhile, the Red Sox short-season single-A affiliate Lowell Spinners just 30 miles outside the city (45 minutes from Boston by commuter rail) sell tickets for just $7 to $10.

For Red Sox fans and New England baseball fans alike, that represents a huge bargain. Compared to what the Hops are offering for that price, however, it’s a steal.

In every market, however, the value of a minor-league baseball outing varies as you shop around. The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of Keizer, Ore. — a San Francisco Giants affiliate and the Hops’ rivals in the Northwest League — price their tickets at between $9 and $20. The Portland Pickles, a collegiate-level team in the independent Great West League, sets prices at $7 to $13. By comparison, tickets to an Oregon/Oregon State baseball matchup go for $6 to $13.

In fairness, these Oregon teams don’t have a whole lot of competition to deal with. Portland is a soccer town during the summer, with Major League Soccer’s Timbers regularly selling out (and starting at $30 at resale) and the National Women’s Soccer League’s Thorns averaging more than 17,000 per match at $10 to $70 per ticket. Beyond that, it’s a long drive for fans to just about any other location.

However, in Indianapolis — where the Pittsburgh Pirates’ AAA affiliate Indians are the only game in town — adult tickets go for $11 to $17 (kids get in for $10 to $16). In Charlotte, N.C., the Chicago White Sox’s AAA Knights play both ends of the spectrum: Regular tickets run from $8 to $19, while club seats go from $23 to $55. In 2017, the Knights led all minor-league teams in attendance, according to Flushing, N.Y.-based minor-league industry guide NumberTamer.

In markets where there’s a Major League Baseball team right next door, there’s a far better chance of getting a deal. The 10 minor-league teams surrounding the New York Yankees and Mets saw attendance fall 3.3% in 2017, despite the New Jersey Jackals of the Can Am League ($12 to $17), the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League ($10 to $15), and the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League ($12 to $15) all representing a far better deal than the Yankees (averaging $51.55 a ticket in 2016) or Mets ($26.02).

Even with the New York Yankees’ Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre Rail Riders ($10 to $14 — yes, AAA Yankees tickets are less than Single-A Diamondbacks seats) within striking distance and Phillies tickets sitting at an average of $41.50 in 2016, Philadelphia-area minor league teams have seen a 7.3% decline in attendance each year since 2016.

I’m admittedly down on minor-league teams. They pay for ballparks with local tax money (Hillsboro paid more than $1 million for Ron Tonkin Field), they move and fold regularly, and their novelty doesn’t always linger. For every Long Island Ducks, Somerset Patriots, St. Paul Saints, or Sugar Land Skeeters team that regularly exceeds attendance expectations, there’s a team like the Hops, which saw attendance peak at 3,774 per game in 2015 before dropping to 3,379 per game last year.

But the fact is, for the majority of minor-league teams, the price and their position (either in suburbs or in cities without major-league teams) is right where fans need it to be. A night out at a minor-league game that doesn’t require a babysitter can be a huge value for a family.

If families and fans want the best value for their dollar however, they need to treat minor-league baseball like any other commodity and shop around for the best deal.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Take That, 9-to-5: Two Brooklynites on How They Make a Living as Professional Dog Walkers

On a recent walk to my local park, I counted six people who were clearly professional dog walkers. You can tell who the pros are because they walk three to five dogs at once while wearing several fanny packs, a shoulder bag, and headphones.

It got me thinking: Dog walking appears to be a job with high demand, flexible hours, and lots of outdoor time. For someone looking for a side gig, a transitional job while looking for something more stable, or just a change of pace from the corporate 9-5, it could be ideal.

I spoke with two full-time dog walkers in Brooklyn to find out more about their day-to-day lives. I learned that depending on your work ethic, stamina, and ability to establish relationships with both people and canines, you can make a decent living for yourself as a dog walker in a major U.S. city.

From Cab Driver to Dog-Walking Maven

Liz is a short woman in her early 40s with an infectious smile. Five years ago, she was going to grad school by day and driving a cab at night to pay her tuition. Eventually, she got burned out and realized she needed a change, so she paused her studies and reassessed her priorities.

The switch to dog walking happened almost on a whim. “I realized that my friend Greg was one of the happiest people I knew, and he was a dog walker. So I thought I would give it a try,” she says. And like that, she was off.

She worked for a dog walking company for her first year, but it wasn’t a good experience. They treated her poorly and stiffed her on a few paychecks. She even ended up taking them to small claims court. Fortunately, she’d established good enough relationships with the pet owners she was working for that she secured work from six of them when she decided to branch out on her own.

Through relentless networking at the local parks and by doing everything she could to please her six regulars, she grew her client base up to the 20 or so pet owners that she works for today. Surprisingly, she doesn’t use a business card or have a website. “Word of mouth has taken me this far, so I don’t see the need to change anything,” she told me. “Plus, there are three million dogs in New York City, so it’s not like there’s a shortage of work.”

Indeed, dog walking has taken her far. She was making just above minimum wage driving her cab. “Sometimes, I was scared to take a bathroom break because I’d be missing out on money,” she said. Now, she clears between $1,500 and $2,500 per week, she lives in a comfortable apartment, and she only walks from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m..

Her rates vary based on several factors, but she charges around $25 for a half hour walk and $45 for an hour. She told me that basic “surge pricing” applies — you can make a lot more walking on holidays or at odd hours. When you’re walking multiple dogs at once, this adds up fast.

Another way she brings in money is by boarding dogs when their owners are out of town or need some extra help. It was a natural transition, since she already had gained the trust of the owners and the dogs. For this service, she charges day rates around $50 and overnight rates starting at $75.

Liz is happy to be out of her cab, but she also didn’t sugarcoat the physically demanding nature of the job. She describes herself as being “like a triathlete, minus the swimming.” She also pointed out that, at least in New York, the weather is a big factor in who can cut it in the dog-walking world. “Everybody wants to be a dog walker in the spring and fall,” she said. “It’s the 95-degree days and the zero degree days that weed people out.”

All that being said, she has no plans to stop walking anytime soon. She hated sitting all day in her cab, so she really appreciates the outdoorsy nature of the job. She also noted that she is grateful that she can set her own hours and prices. With all those perks, she’s happy to continue walking dogs for the foreseeable future.

From Telemarketing to ‘Hanging Out with Awesome Dogs All Day’

The other walker I spent time with was a tall, bearded man in his early 30s named Charlie. Four years ago he quit his “soul crushing” job at a telemarketing firm, moved back home with his mom, and started trying to figure out what his next step would be. All he knew was that he didn’t want to sit in an office all day. He grew up with dogs and loved them, so he thought that he might be able to hack it as a dog walker.

It was slow starting out. As noted above, there was a lot of competition in the neighborhood, and he had to work hard to get clients that weren’t former acquaintances. He only made $150 a week on average his first year as a dog walker, and he was grateful to be able to lean on his family to get by.

As he kept at it, things got better. He now makes enough to “keep a roof over his head” all on his own. Given that the average one bedroom in Brooklyn rents for $2,500 per month, that’s saying something.

He told me that the main keys to his success are his genuine love of dogs and his attention to detail. “I make it a point to learn everything I possibly can about each and every dog I take care of,” he told me proudly. As if on cue, a man and his dog exited his apartment just feet from where we were talking. “That’s a client,” Charlie told me.

“Hey Steve!” Charlie bellowed. He bent down to pet the Golden Retriever that was now at our feet. “How’s Sadie’s eye doing?” He then chatted with the owner about Sadie’s eye troubles using the vocabulary of a seasoned vet. He later told me that his attention to detail helps him win the trust of dog owners, who are “very picky about who they let walk their dogs.”

He charges similar rates to Liz: $20 for a half hour and $40 for an hour. He emphasized that this can change based on the amount of dogs he’s walking at once and the unique needs of the dog. Sometimes, he’ll do longer, solo walks for dogs that have special needs.

Also, like Liz, he has started to board dogs at his apartment. For that service, he charges $50 to board a dog for the day and between $70 and $100 per night if it’s a multi-day stay. On average, he’s pulling in $750 to $1,000 per week. That’s not quite as good as Liz, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either.

Unlike Liz, Charlie did not seem to mind the weather or the physicality of the job — but the stress of running his own business gets to him at times. If he doesn’t do a good job of rustling up new business when one of his longtime clients moves out of town, his wages can drop fast. He told me that he’d “never go back to telemarketing, but sometimes the security of a more traditional job sounds appealing.”

He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep walking dogs, but his upbeat demeanor and the fact that he clearly enjoys it makes me think he won’t be stopping anytime soon. He’s grateful that he’s making enough to get by in one of the world’s most expensive cities, and that he has the free time to think about his future.

“It’s not always easy,” he said. “But I also like hanging out with awesome dogs all day. It could be worse.”

A Note About Expenses

Charlie and Liz were understandably hesitant when it came time to talk about intimate details of their financial situation. I did learn that they prefer to get paid in cash, which – like many service industry jobs – can have some benefits when it’s time to file taxes and claim earnings.

They also said it’s prudent to get dog walker’s insurance, which they obviously pay for out of pocket. This costs about $300 per month, but covers them against fluke accidents and, as Liz put it, “protects us from crazy Brooklyn drivers.”

The Commitment Level

A tidbit I found fascinating is that neither Liz nor Charlie knew any dog walkers in the neighborhood who did it as a side hustle. They assume that part-timers exist, but they must be few and far between.

While there are services like Wag and Rover that offer the chance to find part-time dog-walking or pet-sitting work, Liz and Charlie don’t see them as credible avenues to gaining steady business. In our neighborhood, the owners want to meet the walker before they sign off on letting them take care of their pet all day, and they also like to use the same walker on a set schedule. Wag and Rover often fail on both those fronts, according to Liz and Charlie. That being said, those services are worth a shot if you want to walk dogs and don’t have many connections. `

Summing Up

While Chris and Liz prove that it’s possible to earn a living walking dogs, I thought it was interesting that they both had a rough time of it in their first year on the job. Their journeys sound a lot like the stories one hears about starting any small business: It will take a lot of sweat equity to get it off the ground, but it can be very rewarding once you do.

A word that came up again and again while talking to Liz and Charlie was “trust.” Once you win over the trust of the owner and the dog, you’ve pretty much got a client for life. So, if you’re both a dog and a people person and you’re willing to grind out a tough first year, dog walking could be an intriguing way to earn some decent money surrounded by furry clients and fresh air.

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The post Take That, 9-to-5: Two Brooklynites on How They Make a Living as Professional Dog Walkers appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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A Lifetime of Lessons

Over the past week or two, some of you may have heard the story of Sylvia Bloom, a secretary who, on a mid 20th century secretary’s salary, carefully amassed a fairly sizable fortune (around $9 million) by being very wise with her money. In 2016, Bloom passed away and donated most of her estate to charity, including a single large donation of $6.4 million to her favorite charity, the Henry Street Settlement.

The article tells of some of Bloom’s habits:

The couple lived modestly in a rent-controlled apartment, though “she could have lived on Park Avenue if she wanted to,” Mr. Hyams said. “She was certainly not a spendthrift,” Ms. Lockshin added. “She didn’t have any minks.”

She attended public schools, including Hunter College, where she completed her degree at night while working days to make ends meet.

Ms. Bloom was known for always taking the subway to work, even on the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center, not far from the firm’s offices.

Just before she retired, Mr. Hyams said he saw the 96-year-old Ms. Bloom trudging out of the subway and headed to work in the middle of a fierce snowstorm.

“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and she said, ‘Why, where should I be?’” he recalled.

The article also relates several other similar recent events:

Like Ms. Bloom, Leonard Gigowski, a shopkeeper from New Berlin, Wis., who died in 2015, left his secret $13 million fortune to fund scholarships. Grace Groner, who lived in a one-bedroom home in Lake Forest, Ill., and directed that her $7 million estate go to her alma mater when she died in 2010 at 100, shopped at thrift stores and chose to walk, not drive.

Donald and Mildred Othmer, who settled in Brooklyn Heights, lived relatively simple lives; he was a professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn and she was a former teacher and buyer for her mother’s dress stores. They invested wisely in Berkshire Hathaway, run by a family friend from Omaha, Warren E. Buffett, and died in their 90s with three-quarters of a billion dollars, most of which they donated.

These stories have a few obvious things in common.

First, they center around people who spent their lives living below their means. In order to accumulate wealth, a person has to live by the mantra of spending less than they earn. This might mean high earnings or it might mean low spending (or both), but if you don’t keep your spending below your earnings, you are never going to accumulate wealth. Each of these stories centers around people who earned a relatively modest income and then lived below those means.

Second, these stories mostly center around people who earned a relatable income. It’s sometimes hard to relate to people who earn more in a month than many people earn in their lifetimes. It can feel obvious that such people would be able to accumulate wealth and donate it. What’s surprising in these stories is that the people involved were able to give such gifts without an enormous income. Sylvia Bloom earned a secretary’s salary; her husband earned a similar salary before he passed several years ago. This isn’t the story of someone who started a big business or earned a giant salary.

Third and finally, they center around people who used their accumulated wealth for a large charitable gift at the end of their lives. It’s that charitable gift, which is a very public act, that garners the attention that these stories receive. There are many others who accumulate wealth in a similar way that do less public things with their wealth. Perhaps they donate it anonymously or maybe they give it quietly to relatives. The thing to remember is that these stories got attention because of the way they chose to use their accumulated estate.

So what does this mean for me and for you?

You Don’t Need to Be Wealthy to Accumulate Wealth

It is simply not true that you have to have an enormous salary to accumulate wealth. Most of the people in these stories had salaries that were a tiny fraction of the wealth they accumulated. You don’t need to be making a million dollars a year to become a millionaire.

Instead, what you need is the ability to consistently spend less than you earn and then do something smart with what remains. That is the recipe to building wealth, no matter your income level. Over every measurable time period, spend less than you earn. Spend less than you earn each pay period. Spend less than you earn each month. Spend less than you earn each year. If you do that over and over and over again, you will eliminate all debt and build wealth, provided you do something more than stick the extra money in your mattress.

That doesn’t mean that the recipe is easy. It’s not. It’s actually rather hard to put into practice, though the concept itself is easy. Our culture practically begs us to spend a lot of money and that constant cultural and social pressure is hard to resist. It’s a constant and rather subtle pressure most of the time; we don’t even typically notice it in a conscious way. Instead, it constantly nudges and pushes us to spend money on the myriad of temptations around us. It’s even harder to pull this off when your salary is relatively low and you have to start making harder choices about what you’re going to do with your money.

Still, the core point remains: anyone can do this provided they’re willing to commit to a really simple strategy.

Keeping Your Eye on the Horizon Is Important

The people who achieve these kinds of results do it by keeping their eye off of the here and now and their eye on the horizon. Even if they didn’t strictly set a big savings goal for themselves, they were still looking ahead at the future and put substantial value on having money in the bank.

Some of them may have accumulated wealth to support themselves in the late stages of their life. Others may have simply fallen into the practice and stuck with it because it was natural. Still others may have had the big goal of giving it all to charity (or family) at the end of their days.

Whichever of those paths that they happened to be on, they were keeping their eyes on the distant horizon rather than focusing on the day to day. They saw great value in accumulating wealth because of the security and life flexibility that it brought and the huge opportunities that it provided at the end of their lives.

Humans are naturally short term thinkers. Most of the time, we scarcely think beyond the next week or two. Even our “long term” plans often amount to things that are less than a year in the future. In order to pull off building a long term nest egg, you have to consciously raise your eyes to the horizon and keep doing so until it becomes natural. You have to recognize that the day to day work of your life can be used to build the long term life that you want and that building that life is a huge priority, bigger than some of the day to day comforts and pleasures that you might desire.

Persistent Slow Effort Win the Race

On an ordinary salary, you’re not going to become a millionaire overnight. It’s going to take decades of sticking with a plan through thick and thin.

Let’s say you save 10% of your salary each year. For example, you make $50,000 and save $5,000 a year. To accumulate enough wealth to equal ten times your salary – $500,000 in this case – you’re going to have to stick with it for 43 years (assuming that you’re earning a typical 7% return on your investment). That’s slow and persistent effort with a big goal.

Let’s say you double that to 20% of your salary each year. To get to wealth equal to ten times your salary, you’re going to have to save for 29 years. Again, that’s slow and persistent effort with a big goal.

The point is this: you absolutely can put aside just a small fraction of your income and build substantial wealth, but you’re going to have to be patient. It’s not going to happen overnight. Patience is an enormous virtue in this journey.

Many people struggle with the patience needed to make this happen. It takes a long time to build wealth on a relatively small income and the pace of the progress causes a lot of people to give up hope. Don’t.

One great strategy to follow is to just automate everything. Make a regular contribution to your 401(k) and/or your Roth IRA automatic, deducted from your paycheck or transferred from your checking account automatically. That way, you never have to think about the decision. It just happens for you without having to make a conscious choice to save.

Trimming Back Big Expenses Has a Huge Impact

One common thread you’ll find amongst stories like this is that keeping the big expenses in life as low as possible is essential. The people that achieve these kinds of financial goals consistently keep their spending low on their housing and their transportation.

Sylvia Bloom could have afforded an apartment on Park Avenue later on in her life. Instead, she lived for her entire life in a modest rent-controlled apartment. She could have owned any car she wanted. Instead, she rode the subway to work every day and also rode the subway to her social gatherings, too.

This meant that she spent a lot less of her income on housing by percentage than she could have. It also meant that she spent a lot less of her income on transportation by percentage than she could have.

These are common themes in stories like hers. Most of their financial success was earned by spending modestly on the big expenses in life, like housing and transportation. People who have these kinds of stories typically live in houses far below their means and drive economy cars (if they drive at all). They also often eat most of their meals at home, as food can end up being a tremendous cost as well.

It’s those big savings that really make a difference. Small choices, like choosing to buy only store brand items, are useful, but if you’re choosing to buy store brands while driving a $70,000 automobile and living in a house that you can barely afford, it’s not going to add up to wealth.

Focus on the big costs in your life. The biggest parts of the budgets of most families are housing, transportation, child care (if they have children), and food. Focus on keeping those costs as low as possible by making wise choices in those areas. Choose the modest and economical vehicle. Choose the modest home. You’ll find that wealth is easy to accumulate.

Daily Choices and Lifestyle Inflation Have an Impact, Too

One of the surest ways to derail your financial progress is to slowly inflate your lifestyle. You talk yourself into a particular expense because of a short term desire, telling yourself that you can afford it, and it’s pleasurable for a little while, then it just becomes the new normal and you desire something else and the cycle repeats itself.

If that cycle persists, you find yourself no longer able to save for the future or, sometimes, no longer able to make ends meet, and your reward for that isn’t persistent happiness. In fact, your overall satisfaction in life doesn’t grow with more spending beyond a certain relatively low point (somewhere around the average American salary, depending on location). However, more spending can definitely add more stress and more job dependence as a counterweight to any joy you might get.

A much better approach is to keep your lifestyle in check. Keep an eye on your budget and how much you’re spending on various things like entertainment, clothing, food, and so on. If that number is creeping up, you’re seeing lifestyle inflation at work; make an effort to bring that number back down a little.

Remember, beyond meeting your basic needs in a reasonable fashion, additional spending doesn’t bring any lasting happiness to your life. It might bring a short term burst of joy, but that joy fades quickly, and it dulls if you keep repeating it – it just becomes a more expensive “normal,” and that’s the enemy of financial success.

Your Goal Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Contribution to a Charity in Your Estate Plans

These stories often get publicized because someone has used their lifetime of accumulated wealth to donate to a charity. Don’t get me wrong – that’s a laudable goal. Donating to a cause that provides help for the disadvantaged or provides a public good is always a wonderful choice as it helps to lift up all of society.

However, that doesn’t have to be your goal. Your goal might simply to be to help out your children or grandchildren. Your goal might be to give smaller amounts to lots of charities, or to start a trust of some kind, or to launch your own small charity or scholarship or something similar. Your goal might be an anonymous gift of some kind. Your goal might be to simply have security until the very end of your own life (in fact, this can pair well with the other goals mentioned here).

While stories like Sylvia’s are the ones that get publicity, there are many more people who follow a similar financial path who have very different goals, goals that don’t result in posthumous publicity. The key is to choose a big goal that’s really important to you. What matters the most to you? Is it security until the very end of your life? Is it helping out your children and grandchildren? Is it starting a trust?

Figure out that big goal, the thing that really inspires you. Remind yourself of that goal constantly until it becomes a natural part of your thoughts. When that happens, making choices with that goal in mind becomes natural, too.

Wealth Is Freedom

One final point that isn’t really addressed directly in Sylvia’s story or other similar stories is the idea that having wealth represents a certain kind of freedom. It represents freedom from a lot of life’s risks and freedom to have access to a lot of life’s opportunities.

At the first stages of a person’s financial journey, these freedoms aren’t as apparent. Often, a person’s goal in their twenties and thirties is to simply shed educational debt and get a firm career footing. Many people start their financial journey by trying to shed credit card debt or mortgage debt.

Underlying that beginning is a sense that debt restricts your choices and your freedom. Not having money in the bank restricts your choices and your freedom. Having bills that constantly roll in make this a clear truth in your day to day life. It really impacts your short term choices.

Where wealth really makes a difference is that it impacts your bigger long term choices. It impacts your career decisions. It impacts when you can retire and how nice your retirement is. It impacts how much you can help your family as they start to make their way in the world.

Wealth is freedom, and Sylvia’s story provides a path that anyone can follow to build that wealth for themselves.

All you have to do is have the courage to start and the conviction to stick with it. It’s up to you.

The post A Lifetime of Lessons appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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