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A Christmas tree near a painting of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is one of the decorations on display during a media tour of the holiday decorations at the White House in Washington in this 2011 file photo. According to Hamm, limiting your child's Christmas list to a few items can be an early lesson in budgeting and impulse control. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File)

Christmas lists as budget lessons

By Guest blogger / 10.14.12

Last year, as Christmastime was approaching, our two oldest children wrote letters to Santa listing all of the things they wanted. Our oldest child was mostly able to write the letter on his own, but our middle child needed someone to dictate for her.

In any case, both of our children ended up creating a list that was thirty or forty items long. They kept coming up with things that they wanted to add to their list.

Sarah and I struggled with how to handle the situation, but Christmas morning provided a great opportunity for it.

When they opened their gifts from their grandparents, their parents, and Santa, they found themselves gravitating toward just a few toys that they received, leaving most of the rest of the items in a pile.

I took our oldest child aside after a while and asked him why he wasn’t playing with those other toys. He thought about it for a minute and said that they weren’t fun.

“Then why did you ask for them?”

He thought about that question for a long time. We brought it up a few more times over the next few days, and it became a pretty valuable lesson for him.

* * *

So, now the holiday season approaches. Before too long, our children will be thinking about the holiday season and making their Christmas lists.

This year, we’re instituting a new rule: no more than four items on your Christmas list.

Why? This simple restriction will make them think about their impulses and desires. What items do they reallywant? Which ones are less important?

They’ll learn to separate their actual desires from their fleeting impulses, and that’s a valuable thing to learn.

* * *

This idea carries forward into our adult lives.

There are many things I see in a given day that I would enjoy having, but the feeling is fleeting. I’ll see an interesting book on a blog that I read. I’ll hear about an interesting new board game at Community Game Night. I’ll notice a pack of gum at the checkout aisle.

If I gave into all of those impulses, I would be broke. Not only that, I would quickly become numb to the pleasure of something new.

I’ve learned that it’s far better to occasionally enjoy a splurge than it is to constantly splurge.

For starters, being patient and slow with the splurges allows me to filter out the things I actually want versus the things that are short-term impulses. For example, going to a coffee shop is almost always a short-term impulse, so I very rarely do it (usually only in a social situation).

It also helps me appreciate the splurges. Instead of gorging on constant small impulses until I’m numb to the joy of a splurge, I spread them out a bit and enjoy the anticipation.

There’s also the factor of gaining a financial edge. The fewer splurges I have, the less I spend. The less I spend, the more money I have for the future.

Will all of this pay off for our children? I think, to some extent, one has to experience these things to really appreciate them, but we can certainly do our best to lead them down the right path. 

Brian Pleytez and Jacinta Johnson work in radio studio at the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South L.A. Hamm recommends volunteering at a local community group as an enriching, cost-free activity. (Robert Harrison/The Christian Science Monitor )

Community groups offer inexpensive recreation

By Guest blogger / 10.12.12

After discussing relationships the last few weeks in this series, we’re going to shift gears and look at ways to spend your free time without spending money – often in ways with a secondary benefit as well.

Almost every town or city you visit has quite a few social organizations of various kinds.

In our town, for instance, there’s a book club, a thriving parks and rec department with tons of athletic programs, several churches, and a food pantry, just to name a few.

Go to the nearest city of any size and the options explode. There’s a community theatre, a community band, a Lion’s Club, the Knights of Columbus, a Toastmasters group, computer clubs, book clubs, gaming clubs … the list is almost endless.

If you go to Des Moines, the nearest large city, the river of options becomes an absolute flood. You can find some sort of group for almost any interest or passion you might have.

Most of these groups have a few things in common. They collect together people with a common interest. They provide a group setting for activities that are difficult to do alone. They cost very little (often nothing) to participate in.

Community groups are a big win for a frugal person.

How do you find these organizations?

The best place to start is the website for your local community. Many such sites will provide a partial listing of the community groups available in your town (depending on how well the community is organized, the list is often quite complete, but it’s never perfect). You might also want to check the sites of nearby cities and towns.

When you find a group you’re interested in, look for a point of contact. Many groups have a website that you can find or, at the very least, have contact information on your city’s website. Start there.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more information. It does not mean you have to join. It simply means that you’re interested in the group and want to know more.

Don’t be afraid to give it a whirl, either. Find out when the next activity is and simply go. Tell the person who seems to be in charge that you’re new and that person will likely explain what’s going on and will probably introduce you to others in the group.

Community organizations can be a great source of social enjoyment, self-improvement, and entertainment, and they often cost nothing to participate in. It’s something well worth taking advantage of.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

Two passengers hug each other as they look at the flight schedule board at the terminal for German air carrier Lufthansa at the Fraport airport in Frankfurt, Germany in this August 2012 file photo. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/File)

10 cost-free ways to show your partner that you care

By Guest blogger / 10.11.12

It’s easy to fall back on the big moments to show your partner that you care.

You spring for a big gift on your anniversary.

You buy flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

You help the kids create something special on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

The rest of the time, though, can easily be filled with complacency. The demands of everyday life can be great, particularly in partnerships where both members are working full-time or one member has a highly demanding career. Add children on top of that and you’re brewing a recipe for eventual problems.

The best way to keep a partnership on track is to make it clear on a very regular basis that you love, respect, and value your partner. You don’t have to make a big show of it every day – that’s not the point. It’s the smaller things that really add up and provide the backbone of a loving relationship.

Need some ideas? Here are ten.

Tell your partner you really enjoyed and appreciated the meal they made.

If your partner comes home tired, tell them that you love them and appreciate the hard work they do and insist that they spend an evening relaxing.

Pick a flower or two on your way home from work and put them in a glass vase on the table.

When you’re just sitting there near your partner, hold your partner’s hand for a while.

Tell your partner that you love him or her every day.

Suggest an evening activity that you know your partner loves, even if it’s not something you’re thrilled about.

Write a short “I love you” note on a piece of paper and stick it in your partner’s wallet or purse.

Take care of a task that your partner usually handles and don’t mention it; if it comes up, just smile and give your partner a kiss.

If your partner needs to blow off steam, listen and don’t interrupt (unless you’re trying to understand), and don’t bury the complaints in unwanted advice.

Hug your partner as the first one of you leaves for work, and hug your partner when the last of you gets home from work.

These are such little steps. They take perhaps a moment and rarely cost anything. Most of the time, the biggest effort involved is simply thinking of them. Yet, when they’re done consistently, they become a big part of the foundation of a stable and long-lasting relationship, and a stable and long-lasting relationship improves.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

A sale sign is see at a Borders bookstore in San Diego, Calif., in this February 2011 file photo. In many relationships frugality with positive emotions behind it becomes something that pushes us both partners to spend less, Hamm writes. (Mike Blake/Reuters/File)

Promote frugality in your marriage

By Guest blogger / 10.11.12

Whenever Sarah makes a financially smart choice, particularly one that involves her doing something outside of her usual comfort zone, I usually make an effort to compliment her on it. She does the same for me.

When we’re choosing activities together, we often point out things that are free and use the low cost of that activity as a strong positive in favor of that activity.

When we’re examining bills and I notice that Sarah has kept her spending really low over the last month or two, including things like grocery shopping, I make sure to give her a high five with regards to it.

Simply put, whenever there’s a chance to encourage or positively reinforce Sarah’s frugal choices, I try to do it. She does the same for me.

The end result of that is a strong sense in our relationship that making low-cost choices is a very good thing in terms of making us both happy. Because of the positive reinforcement, inexpensive choices naturally seem like the positive thing to do.

What we’ve found is that the opposite isn’t true in this case. If you’re condescending about expensive choices, it often backfires. Whenever you inject negative feelings into a situation, even if there is reason for it, it usually ends up breeding negativity and resentment and, eventually, resistance and rebellion to the idea.

So, how can you bring this into your own relationship?

When you see your partner making a frugal choice – particularly one that’s a bit outside the norm – let them know you’re impressed. Give that person a pat on the back or a kiss and tell them that you love that they’re making choices with your mutual financial future in mind.

Do your best to exhibit financially sensible behaviors, too. Be a model through your actions for how to cut costs. Do things regularly that make financial sense, like making shopping lists or choosing low-cost entertainments.

Don’t freak out if your partner overspends. Just say nothing negative or positive about the choice. Instead, hold onto your positive comments and drop them when something frugal is done.

Don’t preach. Honey is a much better lure than vinegar. Don’t insist on change. Instead, reward it. Don’t demand change. Instead, model it.

In our relationship (and many others), frugality with positive emotions behind it becomes something that pushes us both to minimize our spending while feeling good about it.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

A couple walk during a snowfall in an amusement park in Tbilisi, Georgia in this November 2011 file photo. It's important to be open with your partner about your finances, Hamm writes. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters/File)

Financial honesty is the best policy

By Guest blogger / 10.10.12

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens in a marriage. After a while, you become so accustomed to the person you’re with that you often think you completely know what their desires and goals are and where they want to be heading in the future.

That kind of complacency can be comforting. You can feel as though you have a rock to rely on.

However, people change. It’s usually not a sudden change. It’s usually a very gradual and subtle one, a change that isn’t apparent unless you compare someone over a span of years.

If you’re not careful, one morning you wake up to find a person that you barely know next to you.

The solution to that problem is to have regular talks about everything in your marriage – and finances are one important part of that.

Sarah and I try to have a discussion about our finances at least once a month. We look at where we’re at financially. We go over any financial “mistakes” that we may have made in the previous month. We talk about large upcoming expenses, too.

Perhaps most importantly, we talk about our goals and our vision for the future. Where do we want to be five years down the line?

That picture does not stay constant. It changes over time, just like Sarah and I change over time. The things we each want for the future are different than the things we wanted five or ten years ago. Mostly, the differences are small, but taken as a whole, they point to a much different picture than before.

If I were to assume Sarah’s dreams for the future were the same as they were five years ago and kept working toward those goals, we’d find ourselves in a disappointing place before too long. We’d be frustrated because we had been working toward something that was no longer wanted. We’d also be frustrated by the fact that there was a lack of understanding between us. Did I no longer know the woman I shared my life with?

These things can be devastating to a marriage over the long term. They form a steady erosion of trust and of the connection between two people.

The solution is to talk about it. Talk about your money. Talk about your future. Talk about the dreams you have. Talk about them regularly so your relationship is not exposed to personal drift.

There’s no better way to simultaneously ensure that you’re making the right financial choices for the future while also shoring up the strength of your relationship. I consider our conversations along these lines to be the most valuable financial move that Sarah and I make.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

Veronica Barber shows her ring to family members after she married Bart Maciejewski in Ventura, Calif., in this November 2011 file photo. Financial woes can often trigger relationship strife, but earning more money won't fix your problems, Hamm writes. (Chuck Kirman/Ventura County Star/AP/File)

Money won't save your marriage

By Guest blogger / 10.09.12

Money is often a major conflict in marital situations. Lots of little unexpected events and some bad spending choices can quickly add up to a pretty poor financial picture and that can poison a marriage.

Many people respond to this situation by thinking that they can fix everything by earning some more money. They add overtime at work. They take a second job. They start filling their hours with odd jobs.

The hope is that this will fix up the financial issues – and that will, in turn, fix up the marital issues.

The problem is that it rarely works.

Marriages fray because of one reason: the fraying of the relationship between the two people.

Money issues do not cause that fraying. They can certainly irritate it and cause the rift to grow worse, but they’re not the root cause.

The root cause is a lack of communication and time together, paired with misplaced trust and misunderstood expectations. You don’t cure that by throwing money at the problem.

You cure it by talking through your problems. Talk about your goals. Talk about the situation you’re in and how you can dig out of it together.

You cure it by spending more time together. Go on walks. Spend evenings together. If that means backing down from some commitments, so be it.

You cure it by asking yourself what you can do to make sure that the problem doesn’t happen again, and that doesn’t mean leaning on your partner to make a change. What can you do?

You cure it by listening to what your partner is actually saying instead of just waiting for your turn to talk.

More money alone won’t solve a marital problem. Fix the marriage first, then focus together on solving the money issues.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

This 2009 file photo shows financial guru Dave Ramsey in his broadcasting studio in Brentwood, Tenn. Hamm argues that you can get most of the advice in personal finance seminars like Ramsey's through books and blogs (for little to no cost), but that such seminars can be helpful for those who learn through listening and asking questions. (Josh Anderson/AP/File)

Are personal finance seminars for you? The pros and cons.

By Guest blogger / 10.08.12

Several months ago, I was contacted by a company that wanted to work hand-in-hand with me to develop a seminar series where I would take the ideas behind The Simple Dollar and convert them into a format not too unlike the seminars presented by Dave Ramsey and his group.

While I considered the idea for a while, I eventually declined the offer, mostly because of the enormous time commitment and time crunch that the project would entail. It’s just not something I want to add to my plate at this stage in my life.

The experience of considering the idea and drawing up a rough plan for it made me think quite a lot about personal finance seminars on the whole. If you’ve ever thought about attending a seminar by Dave Ramsey or something similar, here’s some food for thought for you.

A useful personal finance seminar has to give you something beyond what you can get from a blog or from a library. If you’re resourceful enough to have found The Simple Dollar, you’ve got what you need to seek out information online. Pair that with a trip to the library and you have access to plenty of low-cost information on personal finance.

Virtually every single principle that you might learn at a seminar is already available free of charge at one of these sources, so why would you pay for a seminar to just regurgitate those facts to you at a less convenient time and in a less convenient place?

The difference is presentation and coaching.

For starters, some people learn much better by listening than by reading. This can be addressed to a large extent by listening to podcasts and library audiobooks. If you primarily learn by reading, a seminar isn’t going to have a whole lot of value for you.

The drawback of audiobooks and podcasts for audio learning is that they make it almost impossible to directly ask questions.

If you’re reading and want to ask a question, you have Google. Just type in the key words in your question and you’ll likely get an answer pretty quickly. If you’re listening and want to ask a question, you either have to be willing to read for it or you need someone to answer your question.

I’ve been a “learn by reading” and a “learn by doing” learner all of my life. I often get very little out of audio presentations. When I was in college, I’d keep focused in lectures by producing the best notes I could possibly produce, which I’d study later. When I would attend academic conferences later in my career, I’d usually seek out the program ahead of time and print out the relevant papers by the speakers in advance to read during their presentation. When I want to learn a new skill, I’ll usually just take a how-to document, sit it in front of me, and start in on the task, turning to Google every once in a while if I have a question.

I don’t “learn by listening” very well, so seminars don’t feel very useful to me.

Chances are that if you’re reading The Simple Dollar, you’re probably someone who learns effectively by reading. That doesn’t necessarily mean you do not learn by listening, but it does mean that you already have a learning style that works for you.

If you can obtain all of the information you need for a relatively low price (in many cases, free) in a style that matches your learning, then there’s no need to invest your money into acquiring the same information in a different learning style.

In other words, if you’re reading this and you’ve consistently read The Simple Dollar or other personal finance blogs or books, you’re likely not going to get a great deal of added value out of a seminar. Everything that a seminar provides – general information, specific answers, and motivation – can be found in the written word online or at a library. Save your money and apply it elsewhere.

That’s not to say there aren’t people who do get value from seminar series. People who learn by listening and learn by doing without much emphasis on learning by reading are going to be the people that get more value from a seminar than anyone else. That group, however, has a very limited overlap with people who are utilizing reading to get their personal finance information.

Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. in this August 2012 file photo. Hamm suggests having multiple college investment funds, in case one doesn't perform well. (Elise Amendola/AP/FIle)

College savings: What's the best investment plan?

By Guest blogger / 10.08.12

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Emergency fund storage
2. A design for life
3. Exercise on the cheap
4. Parenting blogs
5. Not caring about future
6. Other savings beyond 529s
7. Communicating about college savings
8. Sharing child tasks
9. Cash in wallet
10. Book suggestions

Like much of America, I’m watching the Presidential debate (as I work on this post) and I’m reading Twitter reactions to the debate.

The one thing that strikes me is that many people have already decided who the “winner” of the debate is before ever watching it, and there’s no possible way the other guy can make a good point. It comes off like people rooting for their favorite sports team, but it goes on to the point where people seem to imply that the other guy is genuinely evil.

There are two people up on that stage. Both of them have worked their entire lives to get to that point. They’re both human beings who have made some mistakes along the way, but they’ve both got a lot of talent and they both have given a lot of that talent to government and other public use.

Neither one of them is evil. Neither one of them is talking about ideas that are evil. They’re just people with different ideas and different ways of presenting themselves.

Whenever I hear someone say or imply that one or the other of the candidates “hates America” or is evil or invokes one of the many code words for “bad person” that people like to use (you can usually tell by how they use the word), it makes me sympathize for that candidate.

Even more, I lose a lot of respect for the person sharing such nonsense.

Q1: Emergency fund storage
My husband and I are very close to having 5-6 months living expenses saved in our emergency fund. We currently keep our emergency fund in our savings account at our local credit union. I think the purpose of an emergency fund is to have the money within arm’s reach in case of a financial emergency. However, it seems like a “waste” having that much money just sitting in our savings account earning very little (0.05%) interest. Do you have any suggestions for where to house our emergency fund? I would like this money to do some work for us, earning interest, while we have it. However, I also understand that it needs to be accessible (without any penalties) if we ever need it. 
- Emma

The problem is that earning a significant return on your money involves some risk.

For example, you could put that money in an investment account and have that money in stocks. In a broad-based index fund, you could reasonably earn an average of 8% a year on that investment, and you could pull the money out whenever you like.

The problem is the word “average.” You’ll have years where you gain 20% and other years where you lose 40%. It averages out over a very long period to a 7% to 8% return.

Of course, when you need that fund, you might be in the middle of one of those 40% down years, which means that the money you need might not be there at all.

For a reasonably small emergency fund – say, three months of living expenses – the drawbacks of putting your money at risk aren’t worth the benefits of the relatively small return you’d earn on it.

Q2: A design for life
My oldest son who is now 19 is obsessed with articles about how doing thing X will improve your income. If he sees an article that says having a beard will earn you $20 less per year, he won’t have a beard. He models almost everything in his life after these trends. This seems like a weird anti-rebellion to me and I don’t think it’s healthy. What do you think?
- Geoff

I think it’s good that he wants to improve himself, but I think the standards for it are perhaps misplaced.

It seems to me that he’s a prime candidate for reading the book The Millionaire Next Door, which actually spells out the life practices and habits of people with a healthy net worth.

He’ll probably be surprised at what they actually do. They tend to be frugal and rather modest in their possessions, for one.

Q3: Exercise on the cheap
Aside from running, do you know of any exercise routines that don’t involve joining a gym or buying a bunch of exercise equipment? I want to stay in shape but we just can’t afford the gym membership right now.
- Leon

I highly recommend the book You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren, which focuses entirely on bodyweight exercises – ones where you use the weight of your own body to get in better shape.

There’s very little equipment used in the book, and what equipment is used is often found around the house – things like a sturdy chair.

The exercises are straightforward, but they provide a pretty intense workout.

Q4: Parenting blogs
You’ve mentioned in the past that you read a selection of parenting blogs. Which can you recommend for a future first-time mother?
- Jane

There are a lot of good parenting blogs out there. The key is to browse a lot of them until you find one that matches the tone you like and balances entertainment and advice in a way that really clicks with you.

A few of my faves include Mom 101MotherlodeParent HacksDadcentric, and Geek Dad.

If those don’t meet your needs, explore the links you find on those sites to discover many other great parenting blogs.

Q5: Not caring about future
I’ve read your blog for months and what I’ve noticed is that almost all of your advice relies on caring about the future. The problem is I just don’t care much at all. I’m a 35 year old single guy. I haven’t dated for more than a decade and have zero interest in having a family. If something bad happens to me, I’ll just drop out of life. So why care about anything beyond the next motnh or so?
- Marcus

What don’t you like about your life right now? What could 25 year old Marcus or 30 year old Marcus done differently to cause those things to have less impact on your life today?

In five years, you’ll be looking back at 35 year old Marcus and asking yourself why he didn’t do some of the things he could have done to make your life better.

If you don’t work today to head off the bad things that can affect your life tomorrow, all you’re doing is guaranteeing that tomorrow isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.

Q6: Other savings beyond 529s
One of our priorities is to pay for our kids’ college educations so that they can avoid taking out student loans. We also want our kids to have as many options as possible when it comes to education and not to be limited by financial constraints. Thus, we’re talking about having to save up to several hundreds of thousands of dollars per kid (we have two very young kids and will probably have one or two more) even after scholarships and grants.

We’re aggressively funding 529 accounts for our kids but know that if we end up saving too much we will get hit with a 10% penalty for any income that doesn’t get used for education. Thus, it doesn’t seem smart to use 529s as the sole savings vehicle.

What would you recommend we use as a secondary savings vehicle here that might allow for some tax benefits if the funds don’t get used for education? We don’t qualify for a Roth and in any event we won’t be close to being 59.5 years old by the time our kids go to college. 
- Sean

Does your child qualify for a Roth for themselves? If they earn income in any fashion (even young children can earn money from modeling or acting or other things), they can put that money into their own Roth, which can then be used for educational purposes.

The catch, of course, is that the Roth belongs to the child, which means they can do whatever they want with it in the long run.

If I were you, though, I would just put it in an unrestricted investment account in their name. This gives them the most flexibility later on in life, which seems to be what you want given your 529 concerns.

Sean has a second question related to this one.

Q7: Communicating about college savings
Secondly, what do you think we should communicate to our kids about these college savings funds, if anything? I think they should understand that we have saved for their educations but I don’t think we should disclose dollar amounts (so that they can stay hungry for scholarships, etc.). Thoughts?
- Steve

There’s a balance here.

In my own situation, I didn’t even bother to seriously apply for schools I could have been admitted to because I was under the belief that my parents had nothing saved for me (which was actually the truth).

I think you can be vague about the amount, but if you can support any of their ambitions, you need to make it very clear to them that they can make it work if they want to apply to MIT or Harvard.

Q8: Sharing child tasks
I keep seeing the same sets of parents at many things that I take my own children to, like dropping them off at preschool or goig to soccer practice. It seems to me like it would make sense for us to find ways to share these efforts, but I don’t know how to get the ball rolling.
- Margie

It’s difficult to do this if you don’t have a relationship already built with those parents.

My suggestion is to build a social connection with some of them first. Invite some of them over to dinner at your home so your children can play together and you can get to know each other better. Ideally, they’ll reciprocate later on.

When you’ve built a connection, then suggest a sharing arrangement where you split the responsibilities for pick-ups and drop-offs.

We’ve done this with some of our neighbors with wonderful time savings for both of us.

Q9: Cash in wallet
How much cash should I be keeping in my wallet? It seems risky to carry too much (robbers or losing the wallet) or too little (caught without cash in a pinch).
- Joe

The simplest answer is to keep what you’re comfortable with. Some people feel better with more and others with less.

If you feel like you’re carrying too little, you’re probably carrying too little. If you feel like you’re carrying too much, you’re probably carrying too much.

I usually try to have $50 in cash nearby when I’m out and about.

Q10: Book suggestions
I was wondering if you had any suggestions for suspense/thriller authors or titles for me to read.
- Ronald

“Suspense/thriller” is a pretty broad category.

You might like psychological thrillers like Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson.

You might like technology-filled suspenseful novels with great action scenes like REAMDE by Neal Stephenson.

I had more fun reading Ian Fleming’s Bond novels (like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) when I was in my early twenties than almost anything I can think of in the category you describe.

Perhaps one of these options will give you something to work on.

In this September 2012 photo, Katie Myers shops at a grocery store's health market section in Sycamore, Ill. THe grocery store is full of potential bad decisions, Hamm says, but thinking long-term can help avoid mistakes. (Kyle Bursaw/Daily Chronicle/AP/File)

Getting bad spending thoughts out of your head

By Guest blogger / 10.06.12

I’m not necessarily talking about “big” bad ideas, like harming others. Those things deserve special attention and help far beyond a blog post.

Instead, I’m talking about the “little bad” ideas – the ones that are fairly innocuous but do subtle harm to you along the way.

Let me give you some examples from my own life.

If I’m at a shop that sells board games, I might be willing to tell myself that I “deserve” one because I haven’t spent any money on enjoyable things lately. However, I have several games on my shelf that I’ve not played much at all, and almost every game I own yearns for more plays. The idea of “deserving” something you do not need is a bad idea to have in my head.

If I’m shopping for groceries and I pass the cheese section, I might buy some and create a meal that utilizes it. Sure, I’ll use it in a meal, but cheese is not a really good option for one’s health. The idea that “this tastes good” is the best (and often only) reason to buy food is a bad idea to have in my head.

If I’m at a professional gathering where there are a lot of people engaged in professional paths that I also wish to be engaged in, I often clam up out of shyness and intimidation. The idea that I have nothing of value to share and am better off not building relationships is a bad idea to have in my head.

Almost every single time, when I make a professional or financial mistake, I can trace that mistake back to a bad idea in my head.

I give in to temptation. I give in to shyness. I give in to a lack of self-confidence. I give in to misplaced values. I give in to marketing.

All I have to do to find these things is to just spend a few moments thinking about my mistakes and a core bad idea will eventually pop up.

Try it yourself! Think about a mistake you made recently. What was the poor idea in your head that caused you to make that mistake?

If you want to live a better life all the time, one of the most effective things you can do is to purge those bad ideas from your head.

Let’s take temptation for certain things. How do I purge that? I spend time regularly thinking about the future I want to live and I show myself that I’m making great progress toward that future. I think about some of those temptations, and I actually show myself with real numbers how giving into that temptation pushes back that future I want to live.

For example, let’s say I purchased a board game for $30 on September 1, then I give into temptation and buy another one on October 1. Saving for my five year vision requires that I put away $1,000 a month each month for the next five years. If I continue to buy board games at that rate, I’m directly pushing my dream back by at least two months. This frivolous temptation directly impacts my goals in a negative way, and so I begin to associate a negative with that temptation. It puts a real damper on it and makes it easier to ignore that temptation.

What about shyness? I spend time regularly focusing on the fact that when I see others being withdrawn in a group situation, I almost always either completely forget about them. Very rarely do I remember someone adding to the conversation and coming away with a more negative impression of that person (aside from people espousing hatred for others or exceptionally poor hygiene or complete domination of a conversation).

In other words, speaking up is almost always a positive for a speaker. They get remembered. Sometimes they begin to build a relationship with the people around them. They also sometimes extract information and ideas from the conversation that they find valuable. Virtually everything about joining in a conversation is positive.

In my mind, I begin to re-label joining in the conversation as a positive rather than a negative. This makes it easier to jump in the next time such a situation occurs.

This solution isn’t perfect. It takes time. It often takes repeated mistakes and repeated re-thinking of those mistakes to build up a new pathway. It also requires self-reflection and admitting to yourself that you’ve messed up and even focusing on those errors.

What happens, though, is that those mistakes begin to disappear from your life. It doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually you find yourself heading in a much better direction, and it all comes naturally.

A couple sits on rocks and watches a sunset at Manhattan Beach, Calif. Hamm recommends planning your honeymoon early, to avoid last minute expenses. (Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File )

Make your honeymoon memorable, but don't break the bank

By Guest blogger / 10.03.12

Sarah and I went to London for our honeymoon. It was cripplingly expensive, and we were still dealing with the debt four years later.

It was a wonderful trip, though. We have wonderful memories and a photo album full of great pictures.

The thing is, almost every memory I have from that trip focuses on Sarah. Sure, I remember seeing a few sights, but the trip was about the two of us, not about some expensive destination.

Our honeymoon could have been very close to home and it still would have been incredibly memorable without the weight of all that debt crushing us during the first few years of marriage.

In my own experience – and in the experience of others I’ve discussed the idea of honeymoons with –honeymoons are about the people involved. It’s not about the expensive trip or the incredible location. It’s about you and your partner getting the marriage off on the right foot.

So, how do you plan this?

First, start from scratch. Make a list of locations near you that you’d like to visit with your spouse-to-be for a few days. My list, for example, would involve a lot of national parks. Have your spouse do the same.

While you’re considering your lists, talk about the advantages of staying local. It will save you money for your marriage. It will allow you to focus on each other instead of on the location. It doesn’t prevent you from going somewhere that you both enjoy.

After that, compare the lists. If you have a place in common, then your decision is pretty easy. If there’s nothing in common, swap lists and circle one or two that you would enjoy the most, which will leave you with just a few candidates.

The most useful tactic is to start early. Talk about this shortly after you set a date for your wedding. The longer you have, the easier it is to find discounts and other savings on your honeymoon.

Keep your honeymoon focused on the two of you and you’ll leave with a healthy financial base for your marriage as well as a powerful connection between you.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

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