The Simple Dollar
There was a time about eight years ago when I woke up thinking about the possessions I had and the money I was earning. I was a collector of stuff and I was immensely proud of the money I was earning. Not only did I want lots of stuff for my own enjoyment, I also wanted to flaunt it to a certain extent.
Over time, though, I began to realize that something was missing in my life. There were things that I wanted in my life that were drifting farther and farther away from me.
I wanted the freedom to write for a living because I deeply enjoy the written word.
I wanted a strong relationship with my wife.
I wanted a strong relationship with my children and to raise them into a self-reliant and curiosity-filled adulthood.
I wanted time to read and enjoy books – not to collect them, but to read and enjoy them.
I wanted to build a close circle of friends that would stick with me through thick and thin (as I would stick with them).
My life was focused heavily on my income and possessions, but it really felt empty after a while.
Eventually, after I realized that I really needed to turn my financial situation around, I began to really focus on the things above as the center of my life. Each of them – along with another focus or two that I’ve added since then – pushes me to build a great life that I enjoy without spending money.
Writing only requires a computer and trips to the library to do research.
A relationship with my wife requires just time and attention, as does a relationship with my children.
Reading just requires time, along with those aforementioned trips to the library.
A close circle of friends mostly just requires time and attention.
Better health (a newer focus) requires time to exercise and attention to the foods I eat.
There’s no significant money being spent on any of these things, yet they fill up the vast majority of my time and attention. These are the components of a life that I’m happy leading.
For me, a major key to financial success was simply taking stock of my life and figuring out what I wanted most from it. When you’re not doing that, it’s easy to get distracted by the constant hum of consumerism that fills life in the United States, from the advertisements to the product placement within programs, from the social influences to the pressure to be seen as affluent.
Take some time to step back and ask yourself what’s genuinely important to you. What really matters in your life? Step back from the things you invest your time, money, and energy into and focus instead on maximizing those things that matter most to you.
You might find that financial success comes easier than you think.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that the average adult should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
For a long time, six to six and a half hours was a pretty typical night for me. I would go to bed at a reasonable time (between 10 and 11), but I would read for a while and then I’m usually awakened by a child around six in the morning.
The child awakening is still ongoing in my life, but today I try to have the lights off by 10.
Why? I make better decisions when I’ve had a full night of sleep. Without that, I tend to spend more money.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
If I’m not well-rested, I’ll find my defense mechanisms against impulsive buying are much lower. I’ll buy a book on the Kindle, even though I have several books from the library that I’m looking forward to reading. I’ll add some unnecessary things to my cart at the grocery store. These things cost money, and I end up with stuff that I don’t need or even really want that badly.
If I’m not well-rested, I’m not highly productive when working. I’m easily distracted and find myself browsing Twitter or other web sites. I’ll have difficulty coming up with the words I want to use. I’ll just stop at awkward points in my writing and struggle to find the next word or phrase. All of this adds up to low productivity when I’m supposed to be working, and that has a direct financial cost and an impact on the valuable time I get to spend with my family.
If I’m not well-rested, I’m prone to mood swings. I get upset and cranky at things that would not otherwise bother me. This is particularly true when I’m dealing with my kids. When they’ll do something that’s a normal thing for a kid to do – get messy in a mud puddle, for instance – a well-rested Trent deals with it just fine. An unrested Trent responds with crankiness. This impacts professional relationships, personal relationships, and quality of life.
Cutting back on sleep can often feel like a convenient shortcut. There were times in my life, such as my college years, when an all-nighter would provide much more benefit than drawback.
The problem is that I’m not that same kid who could stay up all night in college and still do okay on the 8 AM final. I might gain some productivity by putting off sleep, but I lose so much productivity and focus in the following day or two that it ends up being a net loss.
If I have something important to work on, I’m far better off going to bed, getting a great night of sleep, and tackling it in the morning. I’m more focused and much more able to solve the challenges at hand.
Get a good night’s sleep every night. Over the long run, your life will reward you for it in almost every way.
Water from your tap is perhaps the best bargain out there for your diet, your health, and your wallet.
For the volume of water that a typical person drinks, it’s practically free. It’s free of calories and has almost no health-damaging additives. Your tap is probably the biggest bargain in your house.
A big glass of water can achieve a lot of things for you for almost no cost.
It can encourage weight loss by filling you up before a meal as well as by replacing beverages that would add calories to your diet.
It can keep you from being dehydrated, which can improve your energy level and also help with heart health (as dehydration is very hard on the human heart). Dehydration also makes exercise much more difficult.
It can cure headaches like nothing else. A glass of water is my first response to any headaches I might have.
It can help with digestive problems, which can be caused by drinking too many acidic beverages. Water is neutral, and your body is designed for it.
How much water should you drink each day? The Institute of Medicine suggests that an adequate intake for men is roughly three liters (13 cups) of total beverages per day, with women aiming for 2.2 liters (or 9 cups) per day.
Notice that’s total fluid intake. Most Americans take in less fluid than that, and much of that intake is in forms other than water.
If you want to save money and enjoy some of the benefits of drinking water, I suggest striving for the adequate daily intake of water for your gender while also replacing half of your other beverages with water.
So, let’s say you’re a guy who currently drinks eight cups of other beverages a day – coffee, alcoholic beverages, and so forth. Those eight cups are pretty expensive when compared to water; you’re probably paying $0.50 per cup at least, which adds up to $4 per day for beverages.
Change things up. Move to drinking nine cups of water per day and four cups of whatever beverage you choose. Doing that moves you up to the daily recommended water intake, provides most of the benefits described above, and also saves you $2 a day in beverage costs.
Water is an incredible bargain. Take advantage of it.
A few years ago, I received a Kindle as a gift from my wife. It’s a pretty nifty little device, perfectly designed for reading the text of books.
The problem is that in order to read a lot of books, you have to buy them from the Kindle bookstore. Yes, there are other options out there – you can check out some e-books from your local library, for example – but the selection is often really limited.
Naturally, my frugal side wanted to find ways to really extract value from my Kindle. I wanted to find free books worth reading – and, it turns out, there are a lot of free books out there.
Many of them are trash.
However, there are a lot of diamonds mixed in with all of that charcoal. For example, virtually every work first published before 1920 is considered to be in the public domain and thus it’s pretty easy to find a free electronic version of almost every well-known book from that timeframe.
There are also writers who distribute some of their works for free, either for philosophical reasons or in the hopes that it will attract new followers to the other things they’re engaged in (public speaking, teaching, other books, etc.).
Over the past few years, I’ve been digging through a lot of these resources and cataloguing the books I’ve enjoyed. Here’s a list of 28 of them. Why 28? As I made the list, I kept the ones I really enjoyed and thought about and didn’t include the rest. Now seems like a perfectly good time to share this list.
For the most part, I’ve simply linked to the Kindle-compatible version of the book. You can download a free program for your PC to easily read Kindle books on your screen, so you don’t actually need an e-reader to enjoy these. If you use another device for reading, like Sony’s e-reader or the Nook from Barnes and Noble, a quick Google search will lead you to the resources you need.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
This is often known as a romance novel, but it’s actually a revenge story. The book tells the story of Heathcliff, a rather strange child who is adopted by a family and is later made to be their servant. Eventually, he runs away after being jilted by a lover, and when he returns, he’s obtained wealth and refinement, but also has a burning desire to destroy both of the families he believes has done wrong by him.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This book tells the tale of Pip, an orphaned child who climbs up and down the social ladder of Georgian England. There are a lot of wonderful things going on here: family loyalty, coming of age, a few nice action scenes, and some really memorable characters (of which every Dickens novel has a few).
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
This is a legal drama, believe it or not, that basically exposes how painfully the wheels of justice can turn and how some court cases can drastically affect the lives of many. It does delve a bit into specifics of how the law worked at the time in England, but get past that and you have an interesting novel with a lot of subplots that are all tied together by a painful and dramatic trial.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau spent two years living in a self-made cabin on Walden Pond and during that time, he took down his thoughts on the value of solitude and self-reliance. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking book on what it means to be an independent and self-reliant person, mixed in with some great tales of independence and nature.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
This is just a really wonderful action story, with double crosses, fights, romance, and humor. There have been countless film adaptations of this and the various sequels to the story, and no wonder – it’s just a really fun adventure.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
I have never read a better story about a person growing, changing, maturing, and developing a strong sense of right and wrong than this one. The slow change in Jean Valjean from the beginning to the end of this book, along with his interactions of people of various moralities, is simply wonderful to read. There are about a dozen deeply memorable characters in this novel who will stick with you for a long time.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is a horror story, but also a very timely commentary on the public face that people put out there while they sometimes hide darker things. Wilde can’t write a novel without incorporating some humor, but there is a lot of thoughtful darkness in this novel.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
This tells the tale of Siddhartha, a man who simply wants to understand how life works. He starts off being an ascetic in that he gives up worldly possessions, but eventually he moves on from there through various stages and eventually reaches some powerful conclusions about life.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is, hands down, my favorite collection of poetry. It includes my single favorite poem and countless other great poems, including the amazing I Sing the Body Electric. If you read a book of poetry in your life, make it this one.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
This is an amazing story about an individual driven to madness by the darkness of the Congo wilderness and the darkness of the reality of European colonialism of Africa. Marlow’s discovery of Kurtz after a long ride up the river is just chilling. The book was re-made into the powerful film Apocalypse Now.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
As my wife once said, “They don’t write romance novels this well any more.” While there’s a romance going on, the book also looks at upbringing, morality, education, gender, and marriage in upper middle class England in the early 19th century. Austen had great observations and could also create some very strong characters.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
A man survives for twenty eight years on a tropical island, surviving cannibals and attacks by mutineers while also building some semblance of a life for himself. It’s a powerful novel of self-reliance and adventure.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
There’s a wonderful adventure story here, but what makes Huck Finn stand out is the stark pictures of prejudices and education at the time is how Huck Finn largely ignores society’s ideas of right and wrong to do what he thinks is the right thing. He does this over and over again, which causes him endless problems with polite society.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
This is a wonderful telling of the story of a truly amazing life. Not only is it a great record of an absolutely vital early American, it’s also quite fun to read. Franklin is one of those people with such a varied and impressive life that you can’t help but be amazed with all of the things he achieved.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This is a harrowing story about workers in a meat-packing plant around the turn of the twentieth century. The descriptions of the work that they do will really shock you and make you want to investigate where your food comes from. The novel ended up having an enormous impact on the food industry in the early twentieth century.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this novel. It’s just a lot of fun. What happens if you take a very intelligent modern man and drop him into King Arthur’s world? That’s the premise here, and Twain tells it with humor and thoughtfulness.
The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
What sort of evil things might you do if you were invisible? And what does that say about the person that you actually are? Those are the real questions asked in this great science fiction novel.
The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
This is somewhat a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but this one is better and you don’t really need to have read the first novel to enjoy it. Several people become shipwrecked on a strange island where things don’t always happen as you might expect them to.
From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, as it is a very entertaining fictionalization of what people in the late 19th century believed that travel to the moon would actually be like. Mostly, this novel is a “space race” of sorts, with an individual overcoming all kinds of obstacles to develop and build a device to launch a man to the moon. The sequel Around the Moon is also entertaining, but more fanciful.
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
What’s the line between science fiction and horror? This novel rides that fine line. Doctor Moreau lives on a strange island where he creates sentient beings by combining the parts of various animals. The novel dwells quite a lot on the issues of pain in the name of progress and animal cruelty, while telling a strong story.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
I found Vanity Fair to be incredibly funny. It makes fun of society as a whole, particularly the hypocrisy of people and how they’ll willingly step on someone’s neck to reach a few inches higher. It ends up with an intriguing murder mystery, one that I used to frequently argue about with an old friend.
Roughing It by Mark Twain
On a rather different note, Roughing It is Mark Twain’s memoirs of his years spent in the wild West. Twain’s humor is evident here, but it’s also a great adventure story that reveals quite a lot about the nature of the old West.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
If you’re interested in knights, chivalry, and Robin Hood, you’ll enjoy Ivanhoe. It’s as simple as that. It’s a very fun adventure story, vibrant and yet realistic, though the language is just a touch dated in places.
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
This is a very powerful look at what morality is and how we can internally and externally determine right and wrong based on objective truth, not on the ideas of the society around us. More often than not, they overlap, but a sense of what’s right based on what we objectively know to be true is a much more powerful guide than just following what others tell us.
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
This is a wonderful adventure story set during the French-Indian War of the 1750s. Be careful when reading Cooper, though; if you’ve read one book by him, you’ll get a feeling that you’re just re-reading the same book if you read more. One is very well worth reading, though, and I suggest this one.
Accelerando by Charles Stross
Accelerando is a 2005 science fiction novel that Stross has released as a free e-book for anyone to read. It’s actually a series of nine somewhat interconnected short stories telling the story of a family before, during, and after a technological singularity – in other words, a merging of man and machine for a level of superintelligence that neither could achieve on their own. It’s a very enjoyable read with lots of thought-provoking ideas.
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
Little Brother is a 2007 novel by Cory Doctorow that describes how four teenagers respond to a terrorist attack in San Francisco. During the aftermath of that attack, the Department of Homeland Security tries to crack down on civil rights in the area, and the main characters fight back against it in various ways, often utilizing technology in a clever way. Much like Accelerando, this one is a great new novel that’s free for anyone to read.
Hopefully, you now have plenty to read without exploding your pocketbook.
Monica writes in:
Some of your recent articles have touched on an issue that has really troubled me for a while. I have two children, both in college. The oldest one is starting her senior and is likely heading to graduate school, while the younger is about to be a freshman.
Each month, I’ve put $500 in a checking account for my daughter’s use, so that she doesn’t have to work while at college and can focus on her studies. I plan on doing the same for my son.
Is this the right thing to be doing? What about when they graduate and are out on their own? When should I stop giving them money?
There really isn’t a “yes” or “no” answer to this question. Most of the time, I would lean toward not giving stipends to my children, but that’s far from a hard stance.
The biggest factor of all when thinking about whether to give a stipend to your children is their personality and success. To put it simply, are they in a position where they would be able to thrive without the stipend or putting themselves into that position? Are they actively advancing a career? Or are they not pushing themselves and relying on your stipend to maintain their standard of living?
I would be much more likely to give a living stipend to a child who is clearly working toward a situation where they don’t need that stipend.
So, for example, I would be willing to give a stipend to a college student who was demonstrating that they were building up a career for themselves. Are they getting solid grades? Are they engaged in extracurricular activities? Are they trying for and participating in internships? If they aren’t doing these things, then I would expect that they would have a job and wouldn’t need a stipend.
For people who have graduated from college, the situation becomes a bit less clear.
If you give someone a stipend, it becomes very easy for that person to treat the stipend as part of their income and inflate their lifestyle accordingly. For example, if you give someone $500 a month, they might use that to make their mortgage payment, making it possible for them to save up for a $6,000 vacation that summer that they wouldn’t have taken otherwise. That $500 isn’t really going toward the mortgage. It’s going toward the vacation.
While that example is sustainable if a person removes the vacation, many people take it even further and do things like take on more debt for more purchases, leaving them with a debt load that’s unsustainable without the stipend to help take care of the payments. If your stipend is putting the recipient into such an unsustainable situation, you’re actually doing them more harm than good.
This is where character comes into the equation, and for me, it makes all the difference. You have to be able to trust that your children are using the stipend in a positive manner.
What are some examples of what I mean? A person might use their stipend to make an extra payment on their student loan or their mortgage. They might use it to save for a down payment. They might use it to save for their next car to avoid the costs involved in an auto loan. They’re using it to save up for the foundation of a small business.
In each case, they’re living their life just as they would without the stipend. They’re merely using the stipend to accelerate improvements in their financial state.
To put it simply, rather than giving my children a stipend, I’d make a deal with them. Every month that they make their full mortgage payment, I’ll make an extra $500 payment on their mortgage, for example. Every $500 they save for their down payment, I’ll kick in $500. For every $500 out of their paycheck that they put into their 401(k), I’ll give them $500 to make up for the smaller paycheck.
In other words, I’d use the stipend to encourage good financial behavior. If my children naturally make good financial choices, this would be a bonus for them. If they don’t naturally make good choices, this might be a big enough carrot to cause them to change their behavior.
In any case, the stipend wouldn’t directly lead to worse financial choices. Yes, it’s true that they might be able to take out a home equity loan or something like that, but there is no way to give someone a stipend or a financial gift that eliminates such a possibility. The best you can do is use your stipend to point them in a sensible direction.
What about a child that’s going through hard times? I’d be willing to hand them a stipend if they’re showing me that they’re trying to escape from that hard situation. Depending on the situation, it might involve a job search or rehab or something else. People can take actions to solve the difficulties of their situation. If they’re not taking those actions, then they shouldn’t have a stipend to cover up the consequences of not taking those actions.
Always remember that you’re a parent, not a buddy, and that the most valuable thing you can give to your child is developing their ability to succeed in life for themselves. A stipend can go hand in hand with those things.
Almost any time you walk into our home, you’ll find a slow cooker on our countertop. We use it so often that we rarely put it into storage.
Multiple times a week, we’ll drop some ingredients into that slow cooker at the start of the day, turn it on low, and enjoy a home-cooked meal at our convenience in the evening.
Without our slow cooker, it would be very difficult for Sarah and I to have a low-cost delicious home-cooked meal on the table for our family every night. Instead, we’d be going out to eat much more often or preparing expensive and relatively unhealthy prepackaged meals.
Transitioning to using a slow cooker for your meals at home is pretty straightforward.
The first thing you need is a slow cooker. For a family, I recommend picking up a Crock-Pot SCCPVL610-S, as it provides six quarts of cooking space and a bunch of easy-to-use programmable features. For a single person or a couple, I’d point toward a Cuisinart PSC-350, a smaller model which is also programmable. However, your best bet is to watch Craigslist or look at yard sales, as slow cookers are items that sometimes pop up in those contexts.
Once you have a slow cooker, start experimenting. There are thousands upon thousands of slow cooker recipes online and in cookbooks. Search for whatever ingredients or dishes you like using Google and just add on the terms “slow cooker” to find anything and everything you might want to try.
A few tips, though.
If you need to cook a recipe longer than the recipe calls for, add a quarter of a cup of extra water. This is perfect if you’re going to leave the food cooking for an hour or two longer than the recipe calls for. The environment inside the slow cooker is a steamy one and extra water prolongs the magic and keeps your food from drying out.
Don’t overfill. I try to keep my slow cooker less than two thirds full. The reason for that is that if something boils or rises unexpectedly while you’re out of the house, you’re going to have a disaster on your hands when you return home. Most things won’t rise at all, but every once in a while, something in there will boil up unexpectedly.
If you find it’s juicier than you like, turn it on high and remove the lid. When it gets close to dinner time, I’ll check the slow cooker and see if the dish is juicier than I might want. If it is, I just remove the lid, kick it up on high, and check it half an hour later or so. Not only does the house start smelling delicious, the food ends up just right.
Don’t put anything frozen in the cooker (unless specifically directed to do so). Frozen foods tend to drastically alter the cooking environment inside of a slow cooker. Since frozen foods are so cold, they tend to really increase the time it takes for meals to cook in there, since it takes so much longer for them to get hot. This can significantly alter cooking times and can even be unsafe for your health. If I’m using a frozen ingredient, I make sure to at least thaw it before putting it in the slow cooker.
A slow cooker is an incredibly valuable tool for any busy family. It opens the door to home-cooked meals when time constraints – working parents, children with extracurricular activities – can make it difficult for a great meal to be prepared and everyone to sit down together at once, and since home-cooked meals are a real money saver over other meal options, a slow cooker can make all the difference in the world.
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. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.
Anyone who has ever paid attention to their health, even a little, knows that there is some correlation between their personal health and well being and what they choose to eat. Eating a well-balanced and relatively low calorie diet is good for almost anyone (though you’ll find yourself getting into a lot of debate when you get more specific than that).
A change in your food habits that leads to a well-balanced and relatively low calorie diet will pay dividends both in your immediate food bill but also in your long term health costs, your personal energy level, and your appearance.
At the same time, anyone who has attempted to make radical changes to their diet all at once has found it very, very difficult to stick with. We are creatures of habit on both a mental and a biochemical level, and there is a very strong push to maintain our current diet.
So, what do we do? Recently, I talked about utilizing a “buddy” to help with adopting a positive new habit in your life. Today, we’re going to look at the benefits of taking it one step at a time.
For me – and for most of the peole I’ve interacted with in my life – the key to success with any challenging habit is to take steps that are sustainable above all else. If you can’t sustain a particular routine in your life, you’re going to revert back to your previous routine.
Buddies help you build sustainable routines, of course, but another strong tactic is to simply take it gradually. Adopt a single new tactic – or a very limited number of them – and focus entirely on making those work in your life.
That’s not to say that there aren’t situations where you can throw a bunch of new habits at your life at once and make it work. Sometimes, people are faced with a major shift in their lives that forces them to make changes – or there’s a major value shift that causes them to re-think everything.
Most of the time, though, shifting a bunch of habits at once is very difficult and incredibly hard to sustain.
I’ll give you a specific example from my own life. One of my major personal goals has been to drop weight in a sustainable fashion, and I have seen success over a long period of time. My weight today is a good thirty pounds lighter than it was when I started focusing on my health, and it’s sunstainably lower. Over time, it continues to inch downward.
How do I sustain that change? I usually focus on one specific change at a time, usually a diet-related change. I’ll focus on eliminating a particular food from my diet, for example, and I’ll use that as a reason to expose myself to new recipes and foods. During a period where I avoided wheat, for example, I discovered quinoa, which has become a food that I enjoy very much.
Gradually, my diet has become much healthier than it was before. I am naturally drawn to better choices because I now know a lot of healthy foods that I really like. Without making a lot of small steps, I wouldn’t have this repertoire of healthy foods and I wouldn’t find it natural to choose them.
Right now, my primary habit change is simply to establish that a day that includes a nice, long walk is a normal day, whereas a day without one is not a normal day. I’m doing this by slowly incorporating a morning walk into my routines. I’m not so much worried about distance or pace at this point, just the idea that a morning walk is what I normally do.
If you want to slowly change your diet to a more sustainable and healthy one, try changing one specific thing about your diet. For example, just decide that when you go out to eat, you’ll only order water for a beverage. Change nothing else and wait a bit until that feels normal. Then, you might change it so that whenever you order a salad, you order the dressing on the side and apply it yourself. You might decide to stop buying whatever the least healthy snack is that you keep in your home. You might decide to order one breakfast burrito instead of two each morning. You decide to fill up your drawer at work with a healthy snack (like nuts) instead of less-healthy ones. Aside from these changes, you change nothing else in your life.
Once one change feels normal and completely sustainable, add another. Keep doing this until you gradually begin seeing results while still being happy with the choices you’re making. It takes time, sure, but if you do it this way, it will be a permanent change, and that’s the kind of change thar eally earns long-term dividends.
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.
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. Reasonable family grocery budget
2. Community festivals
3. Investing inheritance
4. The overzealous winner
5. Choosing between jobs
6. Money and pride
7. Salted butter for homemade bread?
8. Sneaking food into theatres
9. Moving, with or without car
10. Record keeping for exercise
I have the “joy” of living in a swing state in the 2012 presidential election, which means that we’re already getting political flyers and phone calls related to the presidential election. The congressional district we live in also seems to be one that both major political parties have identified as a target.
In the last few months, I’ve seen political ads and promotions of all kinds. Whenever I hear one that tells me how bad of a person a particular candidate is, I usually end up liking that person more because I know I’m not hearing the full story and I also know some political hack is out there trying to do a hatchet job.
I know I’m not the “typical” American voter, at least not as defined by the campaigns. However, I will say that if a candidate just came out and said, “I believe in X and it is the most important issue to me. I also believe in Y and Z. Other issues are more secondary to me. If I win this election, I will fight hard for X, Y, and Z.” and didn’t bother to drag the other guy through the mud at all, I’d probably support that straight-speaking candidate even if I didn’t wholly agree with X, Y, and Z.
Hearing that one candidate may have been involved in a corporation that once did something unethical doesn’t make me want to not vote for that person, nor does hearing that another candidate may have once been friends with someone who had some radical views or did something wrong. I can certainly say I’ve got friends who have some rather radical views on certain issues (both conservative and liberal), that I have friends who have done some wrong things in the past, and that I’ve worked for organizations who have made some ethical calls I don’t wholly agree with.
How about, for once, everyone just says what they actually want for America, tells me what they’ll actually fight for, and then doesn’t waste my time blasting the other candidate for being human?
It’s too much to ask for, I guess.
Q1: Reasonable family grocery budget
We are a family of four (kids ages 5 and 3). I like to eat healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies and whole grains, with little meat. Kids eat breakfast and lunch at preschool, but of course we do keep some snacks around the house for them in addition to fruit and cheese.
My question is, what do you think is a reasonable monthly grocery (food only) budget for us? I do the obvious things, like buy in season produce and stretch meat when we use it and use coupons and plan according to what is on sale. That being said, I do buy certain organic items (high pesticide fruit and veggies and meat). However, I find we are often spending close to $700 a month. I’d like it to be closer to $550 or even $600, but I’m wondering if that is just an unreasonable goal, given that I refuse to buy cheaper conventional grown produce if it is one of the dirty dozen and meat that is not grass fed and certified humane.
The USDA estimates that, for a family of your size, you could be spending anywhere from $546.80 to $1064.70 a month on food. Here’s that USDA report. If you want to aim for the low-end cost in that range, you should be subscribing to the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan”.
The problem is that you’re adding requirements to the food you buy that elevates the price. You won’t buy any of the “dirty dozen” of produce, you won’t buy meat that’s not grass fed and certified humane, and you buy some organic items. All of those things elevate your food bill.
If you want to aim for a lower price, you have to give up some requirements, whether it’s the specific food requirements you mention or something else. Everything has a cost to it.
Q2: Community festivals
I love going to the summer festivals in the towns near here, but every time I go, I seem to wind up spending a lot more money than I plan to. I know you like going to festivals since you’ve written about them before. How do you do it without spending more than you think you should?
My family also enjoys summer community festivals. There are a few tactics we use to cut back on the expense of them.
First, we always pack meals before we leave. We usually pack a cooler with sandwiches and other items in it. We also usually carry a snack with us that’s filling but small, like a bag of nuts. This keeps us from diving into the expensive festival food. We also carry around bottled water and refill them at any fountains we find.
Second, we watch for advance tickets. Many festivals will sell tickets in advance for children’s rides, concerts, and so forth, usually at a nice discount. If we’re planning on hitting a festival on a certain weekend, we’ll get tickets before we go.
A final tip: withdraw a minimal amount of cash. You’ll have some in your pocket, but not enough to go crazy. When you spend it all, it will seem like an expensive chore to go find an ATM, so you’ll be careful with your money.
I would like to invest this amount in a way that will get me a steady return over the next 10 or so years so I can upgrade to a larger home. I’ve read your blog about dealing with high interest debt first and will definitely be taking this advice first and foremost -along with starting an emergency fund.
The amount of money I would like to invest is $25,000.
I really don’t know where to start when it comes to investing. I am diligently reading through your blog along with the books you have recommended. Any advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
The big question most people wrestle with when it comes to investing is how much risk they can tolerate.
Some investments, like a savings account, offer almost no risk at all. They will give you a very steady and stable return over whatever timeframe you like, and there’s almost no risk of any sort of loss over any period. The problem is that the return is going to be small.
As you move up the risk scale, you start moving into investments that have a history of providing great returns over some periods, but losses over other periods. Often, these average out over a long period to have a nice return, but you might face a very long period (like 2000 to 2008) where you (at best) break even. Other long periods might have a very nice return – there have been ten year stretches in the past where the stock market returned well over 9% a year on average.
How much risk can you stomach with this money? Are you okay with breaking even if there is a good chance at a nice return? If that’s the case, I would look into stock index funds. If you’re not okay with that balance, I’d look at something less risky. A savings account is actually not a bad option for this, as you probably don’t want to lock down your money at the low interest rates that are available right now.
Q4: The overzealous winner
I love getting together with my siblings and some of our cousins about once a month for a potluck dinner and a game night. We play cards and board games until late in the night together and it’s a lot of fun.
One of my cousins is dating a guy who is threatening to spoil the soup. He’s really, really competitive, but he’s also pretty good at all of the games we play regularly. He trash talks some and he kind of raises the competitive flavor of our game nights to a level that we don’t like. We all like to win, but he’s pretty loud about winning and brags about things and seems to revel in beating people by a large margin.
How do we handle this and keep the wonderful flow of our game nights intact?
Take him aside and talk to him. Tell him that you appreciate that he enjoys game night, but that his trash talking and aggressiveness are on the verge of alienating the family of the person he’s dating and that will lead to some long term problems.
If he continues to do it after that, it might be a sign of some personality issues with the guy and it’s something that your cousin should take into consideration with regards to continuing to date him.
I’ve experienced similar situations in the past, and most of the time, a brief sidebar conversation helps a lot. If it doesn’t, the person usually finds themselves un-welcome in the near future.
Q5: Choosing between jobs
I’m 30 years old, single and in good health. I have student loan debt in repayment. I work in a freelance industry that only exists in a couple of cities in the US. I have spent the last five years working very regularly for a relatively large, successful company who provide me with frequent work, health benefits, 401k and FSA. That’s pretty unheard of in my world, so I’m very lucky. Some of the downsides are pretty typical- harder to get involved in new projects, to start my own initiatives, etc. On top of that, I’ve had a few issues where I’ve disagreed with the decisions the company has made on my projects, and it’s left me struggling with some negativity.
A good friend and former colleague who I admire started a company a few years back and has just received a windfall of work. I’m delighted, and he’s asked me to be involved immediately. The salary is about the same but no benefits. I would have work for several months, but after that his company may or may not get more work (true of any company I work for, but more so in a smaller one). I would also need to leave my current contract early, which is not great but wouldn’t necessarily sever ties with the current company.
At this point in my career, I’m eager to take advantage of opportunities for growth and development. Those can come from jobs or doing my own projects outside of work. My job at the big company leaves more time for personal projects, but the smaller company would probably offer a better chance at taking ownership of a project.
I’m extremely deliberative and I like to make decisions slowly, but I dont’ have that luxury here. I need to think fast, so any thoughts on what to consider or what you see as the most critical factors here would be very helpful.
What’s your situation going to look like if the new company doesn’t have work for you after those first several months?
Can you easily find new work? If that’s the case, then I’d strongly consider jumping ship. On the other hand, if your career path is a competitive one, stability will probably have more value.
For those facing a similar situation, there’s also the question of how many dependents you have. If you’re single, a risky career leap is a lot more plausible than if you have a spouse and children. You’re single, so you’re in the best situation for making such a leap.
You’re healthy, relatively young, and single. Those signs all point towards taking the leap. If you have at least some chance of finding good work if this doesn’t work out, I’d go for it.
I have found ways to keep our head above water, though. My job had a decent severance package. I have found a few freelance jobs, and I’ve written a few ebooks that earn me a trickle of money (but not enough to make it worth the effort). For several months, I’ve been bagging groceries at a grocery store.
I’m pretty much constantly trying to find work, but there seem to be way more people trying to find work in my areas of expertise than there are jobs available. But we’re surviving and that’s what’s important.
Here’s my problem. My older brother owns a construction company that’s doing really, really well. Twice in the last year, he’s offered to just write me a check for rather large amounts of money. The last time, it was a check for $100,000. This money was simply to keep things going well for my family, especially the kids. He has also offered to employ me as a personal assistant.
I’ve said no to all of the offers, but I keep thinking that it’s my pride standing in the way of better stability for my children.
What would you do in my situation?
It is your pride and character that’s refusing the money. However, it is likely that same pride and character that’s motivating your brother to make the offer to begin with. If you weren’t a hard-working and decent person, he wouldn’t be offering to write you a check for $100,000 to help you make things work.
If I were in your shoes, I’d honestly be most interested in that “personal assistant” position. I’ve actually witnessed similar situations, where family members have been brought into businesses. Sometimes, it really works out; other times it does not.
What distinguishes the two? The character of the new family member, mostly. If it’s someone employing their deadbeat cousin who doesn’t do anything, it ends up being a problem. If it’s someone hiring a hard-working brother, it usually works out. It sounds like you’re in the latter camp.
I generally use unsalted butter for everything. The only time you’ll find me using salted butter is if I’m using a recipe that specifically calls for it.
I don’t use salted butter because it’s really hard to control the salt content. All salted butter is not the same. Some brands are highly salted, while others have just a bit.
With unsalted butter, you decide how much salt ends up in whatever it is you’re preparing.
Q8: Sneaking food into theatres
My wife constantly takes food and drink into theatres in her purse. She’ll put two bottles of Diet Coke and a bag of chips into her bag before we go. Once, recently, she smuggled in a whole meal from Burger King.
This really bothers me. I understand that theater food is expensive and not that great, but it’s their right to set their own policies and you’re agreeing to them when you buy a ticket. What do you think?
My feeling is that the movie theater can set whatever policy they want, and you agree to that policy when you buy a ticket.
That being said, I do understand why people smuggle food into theaters. People don’t want to pay the inflated price for the food and drinks that the theater sells.
On the other hand, the movie business is a tricky one. Theaters make most of their money from selling food and drink. They don’t make much at all from the tickets – most of that money is passed back to the studios that make the films.
I compromise. I usually eat a meal just before going to the theater so that I’m not hungry or thirsty when I buy my ticket. However, I don’t smuggle anything in and if I find myself hungry or thirsty during the film, I’m perfectly fine with hitting the concession stand.
Private student loan, 4.25% variable interest rate, ~$12,000 balance.
Federal Stafford loan, 4.5% fixed interest rate, ~$12,500. I have worked for a nonprofit 501(c)3 for the past 5 years, and plan to continue to do so for the next 5. This means that in October 2017 this debt will be forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act, so I see no point in paying it off early. The balance should be at $5,000-6,000 at that time.
$15,000 in an ING savings account (about 5 months of expenses)
~$50,000 in various retirement savings accounts. Currently putting 5% of my salary into a 403(b).
In NYC I use public transportation to get everywhere, and I live in a neighborhood that has everything I need within a short walking distance. I will likely be working from home for at least the first few months, but I will need to drive to meetings and such a couple of times a week. My company will pay for the relocation, so I won’t have any moving expenses. My salary and monthly expenses should stay the same. I am saving about $1,000 month, which I am putting towards my private student loan.
Everyone I know who has lived there is telling me that a car is essential in LA because the public transportation system is terrible and the city very spread out. I am going to try to live in a neighborhood with lots of amenities within walking distance, but apparently those are difficult to find and often on the more expensive side. I just started looking into buying a used car, and I am shocked! I haven’t owned a car in seven years, and I’ve never bought one; my parents bought me a used car when I was a teenager, which I drove until it broke down in my senior year of college. I was expecting to spend about $5,000, but the only cars I’ve seen on that price range are 10+ years old with over 100,000 miles (I’ve been looking at both NYC and LA area dealerships). Ideally I would like a hybrid, 2007 or later make, and with no more than 50,000 miles, but the cars I am finding with those parameters are $15-20,000! For example, the KBB value of a 2008 Toyota Prius is about $16,500.
My inclination is to wait a few months after moving and see if I really do need a car, and make do with public transportation and my Zipcar membership in the meantime. I am worried that this will take a negative toll on my social life, as I don’t really know anyone in LA and not having a car will encourage me to just stay at home.
Assuming I really do need a car, I’m not sure what course of action I should take:
1.) Stop paying off my student loan now, diverting the money into savings. Pay cash for the car I want. Continue paying my student loan
2.) Continue to pay off my student loans, and buy the car I want with a large down payment (~$10,000) and finance the rest. I have excellent credit, so I should be able to get a good interest rate. If I took this route, I would put my extra $1,000/month towards whatever my highest interest debt is.
3.) Buy an older/high mileage car for ~$5,000, and put the extra $1,000 month into a savings account to eventually replace it with a better car. I fear I would be worried about reliability/safety/MPG if I went this route.
Get the used car, as long as you research it a bit first.
There are a lot of used cars around the 2006 model year range that can be had for $5,000 and offer pretty strong reliability, safety, and fuel efficiency. You’ve just got to study the models.
I’d suggest starting with FuelEconomy.gov to get a grasp on what kinds of models are available from that year. You might also want to look at reliability data in more recent car issues of Consumer Reports, as they’re more likely to reflect the reliability of cars made from 2004 to 2006.
Q10: Record keeping for exercise
Do you find it useful to keep activity logs for the things you’re working on? I’ve been trying to exercise regularly and I’ve been recording the information diligently in a journal my husband got me. Is that really useful or is it kind of a waste of time?
I think it’s useful for some people, but not as useful for others. It really depends on your personality and how your mind works.
For me personally, I find it really useful to track things. I find it a great personal challenge to chase after a personal record or maintain a streak of days where I’ve achieved a particular goal. That’s just how my mind works.
If you find that it’s not doing anything for you, don’t do it.
Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.
One of the biggest challenges of picking up a positive but challenging habit is finding the consistent motivation to stick with it. If you’re operating by yourself, it’s very easy to talk yourself into taking the easier path.
This phenomenon is true no matter what the habit is. From changes in how you spend money to alterations in your fitness, motivation is often a big determining factor when it comes to success.
I can certainly see it in my own life. When I was changing my finances around, my “buddy” was Sarah. We were constantly there, pushing each other to make better choices, talking over difficult decisions, and congratulating each other on good moves. There was a large social push to make good financial decisions, both for me and for her.
In other aspects of my life, where Sarah and I are not chasing a mutual goal, it’s much more difficult. The simple presence of someone that you’re accountable to that’s also cheering you on makes all the difference.
As was discussed yesterday, exercise has a pretty impressive impact on your financial state. It staves off health care costs and adds to your own energy level, allowing you to tackle more earning or money-saving tactics.
However, exercise is one of those “positive but challenging” habits described above. It takes a ton of internal resolve to succeed at this alone, and many people fail (at least in part) because of this. The force of the short-term desire to relax can easily take precedent over the long-term goals of exercise without some proper motivation.
An “exercise buddy” can provide that motivation.
An “exercise buddy” is someone that you’re essentially in a “mutual coaching” relationship with. You provide some of the role of “coach” to each other for the purposes of exercising. You encourage each other to actually get out there and do it. You provide positive feedback for success. You provide a sounding board for the other person’s ideas. You offer up suggestions. You do everything you can to ensure the other person can succeed.
Most importantly, an “exercise buddy” provides that short-term social pressure that can often be enough to convince you to get out of bed at six in the morning for a jog instead of hitting the snooze button.
Of course, you can have a “buddy” for pretty much any personally challenging positive habit that you’re trying to establish. All you need is to find someone facing a similar struggle, then agree to work together to ensure your individual successes.
Having a “buddy” can make all the difference if you’re attempting to achieve something that’s really personally challenging. If you’re struggling to achieve your goal, whether it’s exercise, money, or something else, a “buddy” can go a long way toward making it work out.
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.
I absolutely hate it when I throw things away. Few things frustrate me more than having a full trash can.
Why? I know that, on some level, I paid for the things that are being thrown away.
If I’m tossing the box that a prepackaged meal came in, part of the cost of that prepackaged meal was the box. The box wasn’t free.
If I’m throwing away the remaining scraps of a vegetable that I chopped up for a dish, those scraps were part of the cost. When you weigh fresh vegetables at the market, they do weigh the roots and the stems.
If I’m getting rid of a pan because the Teflon coating is coming off, the reality that I didn’t buy the best pan is coming home to roost.
If I’m chucking food from the back of the pantry or the back of the refrigerator, I’m paying because I wasn’t organized in terms of my food.
Trash is money lost. It’s packaging for products when at least some of the cost of that product went to pay for the packaging. It’s food that you didn’t find a use for and has gone to waste. It’s items that weren’t the optimal choice because you didn’t make the optimal choice.
One potential response to this is to become a hoarder. I have friends and family members who are loathe to throw anything away and find themselves collecting piles of largely useless items. They have old frying pans, empty cardboard boxes, and countless other items that simply doesn’t have a use.
That’s a questionable response because storage space has a cost. The more stuff you allow to accumulate, the more space you need to store it. It’s an incredibly common thing for people to have excessive living space in order to simply store stuff that they virtually never use, which means that all of their hoarded items is costing them.
I prefer a different response. I focus on buying items that minimize waste. In fact, if you look at many of your purchases through that filter, you’ll end up saving a surprising amount of money. Here’s how.
First, buy reliable items that you don’t have to replace very often. If you’re throwing away an item that you use with any regularity, that means you’re going to have to replace it in the near future. I’m quite happy to research a product and spend 20% more on it in order to significantly increase the reliability of the item. A more reliable item is one that requires fewer repairs (saving you money and time) and less frequent replacements (saving you time and money).
Second, make meals yourself from the most basic ingredients possible. Prepackaged foods generate a lot of trash. Most of the time, you can recreate the item – or make an even better version – by simply making the item from scratch.
There are a lot of examples of this. Instead of buying tomato sauce, buy some raw tomatoes, boil them, run them through a food processor, and strain it a bit. Instead of buying loaves of bread, make several of them yourself with a single sack of flour, a jar of yeast, a container of salt, and some tap water. Instead of buying individually-wrapped slices of American cheese, buy a block of cheese and get out the cheese slicer (seriously, compare this one – you’ll be amazed). In general, the smaller the volume of your waste, the closer to scratch you are with your meal and the lower the cost is.
Consider also using reusable containers for as much as you can. Instead of buying bottled water and chucking the containers, keep reusable containers in your fridge filled with water. Instead of using baggies for your sack lunches, put everything in small reusable containers.
Another tactic you can apply is to compost your vegetable waste. If you grow any sort of plants at all, you can get some value out of a small composter. Save your vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and egg shells. Turn the mix regularly and wait until it composts into rich brown or black topsoil, then apply it to the soil in which you grow your flowers or other vegetation.
You should also evaluate the other things you toss for genuine usefulness. Can you translate this item into real usefulness in the near future? For example, I’ll often save Amazon boxes, but that’s because I’ll use them for gift packaging in the future. I’ll save egg cartons and newspapers if I’m going to be camping in the near future. However, I won’t save a broken toaster because… well, when will I ever really use a broken toaster?
Recycling is also a better option than just throwing things away. We don’t live in a community with curbside recycling, unfortunately, but we do save many types of recyclables (paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, glass bottles, etc.) on our own and take them to a recycling center regularly. While this doesn’t strictly cut down on your refuse, it does ensure that it goes to better use than simply winding up in a landfill.
Most of the time, when you strive to minimize your trash with sensible approaches, you wind up with more money in your pocket. You also wind up adding less items to the world’s landfills, meaning future generations have a little less of our trash to deal with.