Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ten Simple Investments You Can Make in Yourself for a Huge Return on Your Money and Time

So often, we think of investments as being purely about dollars in and dollars out. If you put $10,000 into an investment with an average return of 7% a year, how much do you make after ten years? Is it better to pay taxes on that money now when you put it in or when you start withdrawing later?

That’s great, of course, but I like to think of investment in broader terms. For me, an investment is when you spend some resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. – and receive something in return for that resource – money, time, energy, goods, personal capital, etc. In other words, almost everything we do in our daily lives can be perceived as an investment of some kind.

I tend to view a good life as being one that’s full of good investments. If you use your resources (money, time, energy, etc.) in a smart way, they’re going to give far more value back to you in return.

This post actually started as a conversation with my children, where I was explaining to them how some of the things you do in life have at least some value that comes back to you later on, and that the best things in life tend to happen when you’re reaping the rewards of having done a lot of those things and you can live in the moment on the crest of that wave. I’ll give you an example of that down in the conclusion.

First, however, I want to share a list with you of my ten favorite “investments” that I feel give me the best return on what I invest in them in my life. All of these involve spending some resource that I have, but the benefit I get out of spending that resource is far greater than the cost.

Investment #1: Getting a good night of sleep, one where you’re not awakened by an alarm clock
The best night of sleep that you can get is one where you fall into bed and sleep until your body decides it’s recharged and wakes you up naturally. That’s in almost direct opposition to the sleeping pattern of a busy person, which usually involves inadequate sleep and being awakened by an alarm clock that disrupts normal sleep patterns.

The cost: The cost of doing this is losing out on the last hour or two of your day. That’s generally time when you’re pretty tired anyway and aren’t doing anything particularly productive. You might miss out on a window of time to watch a television show or something, but it’s time where many people doze off on the couch or march through some household tasks at a really low rate of productivity.

The benefit: After a day or two of adjustment, you feel substantially better in terms of energy level, awareness, and clarity of thought. The way I describe it is that I swapped eighteen waking hours in a day for sixteen hours with almost double the energy and much clearer thinking. You also lose that miserable feeling of hearing an alarm go off when you’re really not ready to wake up yet, which means that days start off a little better.

Investment #2: Spending some time outside doing something where you move around
What I often do is go on a walk with my earbuds in my ear, listening to a podcast or an audiobook. I go outside, let a bit of sunshine hit my cheeks and hands and arms, and simply move around. I’ll just walk around the block at a steady pace, admire the environment, and then wind up back home half an hour or an hour later, usually having absorbed some of that podcast or audiobook, and feeling a whole lot better. If I can afford it, I’ll go to a park instead and go on a short hike in the woods – it takes more time but it pays even higher dividends.

Why? There are a number of factors. A small amount of sun exposure each day is very healthy as it promotes natural vitamin D production and good serotonin balance in your body. Mild exercise is also incredibly good for you – serotonin pops up here, but there are lots of additional biochemical and psychological benefits. Here’s just a taste of the benefits. You can spend that time learning and keeping your mind active, too.

If you actually have an outdoor task to take on, even better! Get to it! Mow the yard. Rake the leaves. Clean out the gutters. Trim the hedges. Plant something. Detail your car. Anything that gets you outside and moving a little bit each day is a good thing.

The cost: It burns thirty minutes or an hour where you could be doing something else. If that other thing is more valuable to you, then there is a cost to choosing this.

The benefit: There are a ton of biochemical and psychological benefits, as noted in the article above. Vitamin D production, eyesight benefits, serotonin production, improved sleep patterns, psychological health benefits, and the raw benefits of exercise in terms of losing weight and building muscle strength are all part of this. To sum it up: you’ll feel better in almost every way, especially if you make it a pattern, and there are some long term health benefits, too.

Investment #3: Eating simple but varied meals that are mostly fruits and vegetables
There are tons and tons of studies and theories out there on this topic, but there are a few essentials that they all agree on: eat a variety of foods, make the majority of them fruits and vegetables, and try to eat mostly unprocessed stuff. The arguments about whether to avoid wheat and about carb levels and so on are infinite and change all the time, but those core rules seem to stay pretty much the same. So stick to them.

It’s not real hard. Just eat something different at every meal. Switch it up a lot. Try new stuff sometimes to make your palate even bigger. Make sure you’re eating plenty of vegetables and fruits. You don’t have to eat stuff you hate, either. Try to avoid overly prepared or processed stuff, like fast foods or premade freezer meals, but you don’t have to go to absurd lengths to do it.

The cost: I’m hard pressed to think of a cost here. You can’t just endlessly repeat just one or two favorite meals, I guess? It can increase the length of meal prep if you mostly rely on takeout or fast food, too.

The benefit: Consumer Reports sums up the benefits really well: lower blood lipid levels and higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the gut, which results in lower risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type 2 diabetes. There’s strong evidence of better brain health in a varied diet that includes fish, too. You’ll feel better and think better in the short term, in other words, and it’ll significantly improve your long term health outcomes.

Investment #4: Apologizing when you mess up rather than passing blame
Think about the last time you heard a blatant excuse from someone who had made a mistake and didn’t want to accept any blame or consequence for it. Did it make you think more highly of that person? What about the last time someone genuinely apologized for a mistake and put it squarely on their shoulders? How did that make you feel about that person?

Now, transition those feelings and imagine you’re the person who made that mistake. Your decision about whether to apologize for your mistake or not is going to decide how exactly they feel about you. Are they going to feel like you do when you witness someone blatantly passing the buck? Or are they going to feel the surprise and respect that you do when someone genuinely apologizes for their misstep and looks to make amends?

The cost: It’s hard to do it. It is really hard to confess that we’ve made mistakes to others. It feels far easier to just pass the blame or kick the can down the road. Apologizing for a mistake you made requires swallowing a lot of pride and it may mean some consequences for the error you made, though the penalty is usually substantially reduced when you make an honest apology.

The benefit: Respect. A lot of it. Almost everyone tends to gain respect for someone who admits a personal error or failing and asks what they can do to fix the problem, especially when they do it sincerely and directly without even a hint of passing the buck. Virtually every relationship in your life moves in a better direction if you apologize for a mistake rather than passing it on, even if you don’t see it on the surface. That type of respect is the foundation of strong relationships. People who respect you will help you in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and you earn that respect through simple actions of strong character like apologizing for your errors.

Investment #5: Genuinely listening to people and responding to them
People like to be listened to. People like to be valued. People like to be remembered. People like to feel important. When you can do that for people, they like you. Period.

It’s not even hard to do. All you have to do is listen to someone when that person is talking. Don’t stand there thinking about what you want to say next. Just listen. Focus on what they’re saying, try to understand it to the best of your ability, and ask follow-up questions to get them to expand on anything that’s unclear.

When you do that, the person you’re listening to and talking to will naturally like you. They’ll value your presence. They’ll usually start asking for your thoughts on things. They’ll respect you a little and will become predisposed to respect you more.

The cost: It takes some time to just listen to someone. It also means you don’t get to contribute as many of your own thoughts to a conversation as you might otherwise, though when you do contribute, that contribution has more value.

The benefit: It strengthens virtually every personal relationship you have. Listening is like magic for building the strength of relationships. It helps your reputation, as well. Furthermore, you often learn quite a lot about things when you’re listening rather than talking because people give out a lot of useful info when talking.

Investment #6: Living in a place with easy access to work and food and social connection
If you live close to your workplace, you can walk or ride a bike to work, which in itself fulfills the second investment above. It’s also far, far cheaper than owning and driving a car. You can even potentially divest yourself of a car. If you live close to a good discount grocer and, even better, to your social connections, those same features repeat themselves. You invest less time and less money going to the places you need to and want to go. That’s a huge thing.

The cost: You might have to give up some other elements of what would make an ideal place for you to live. It might mean a smaller living space or an area that isn’t your perfect ideal. You might have somewhat higher housing costs, too, depending on where your workplace actually is.

The benefit: You slash your commuting costs. You slash the time devoted to tasks like commuting and getting food. You slash your time devoted to meeting up with friends. You slash your social costs because it becomes much easier to just hang out at each other’s houses or apartments. Simply put, this choice saves a lot of money and a lot of time.

Investment #7: Writing in a journal about what’s troubling you in life
Whatever aspect of your life that you happen to be struggling with, time spent seriously evaluating that problem, figuring out what the true source of that problem is, and then developing a plan to fix the source of the problem is incredibly valuable time spent. It costs you virtually nothing other than a bit of paper and ink and it can help you to resolve or eliminate all of the largest stressors in your life.

The cost: It takes some time on a regular basis. You have to be able and willing to criticize yourself.

The benefit: Your stress is lowered. Almost every major problem in your life is reduced, either in a reduction of the size of the problem or in a reduction of its impact on your life. You feel far more in control of things and feel far more ready to handle things that might come at you.

Investment #8: Building a relationship with a mentor
A mentor is simply a person who serves as an example on how to live and can help guide you along the path of your life. A mentor might be a professional mentor, helping you guide your career or business, or that mentor might be a personal mentor, helping you navigate your personal life or spiritual life. Having a strong relationship with a mentor is incredibly useful, as it becomes someone that can help you steer your ship through rough waters and can point you in the right direction at life’s crossroads.

The cost: It takes time and effort and sometimes some money to build a good relationship with a mentor. You’ll want to repay some of the value they give to you, and the way you’ll often be able to do that is through spending time and giving genuine conversation, though occasional errands and gifts may be appropriate. It really depends on the relationship that forms.

The benefit: You have unparalleled personal guidance through almost every challenge that life deals you, from career crossroads to personal challenges, from figuring out your destination to figuring out how to dig yourself out of a mess. A mentor makes every knot in your life a lot easier to untie, and that’s incredibly valuable.

Investment #9: Building a skill that you don’t have but that you desire
No one in the world has the full set of skills that they need to handle all of the challenges that life throws at them. I’m absolutely awful at starting conversations with people I don’t know, for example. There are some professional skills that I definitely wish that I had, such as faster editing skills. I can name a dozen skills I wish that I had, but that I simply do not have.

The cost: It takes time and effort to master a skill, and it sometimes also takes money when you need to hire a teacher.

The benefit: You add a new skill to your repertoire. That skill, if well chosen, will frequently serve you in your personal and professional life, enabling you to take further career steps, build better relationships, complete a wider variety of tasks, and so on. The benefits very much depend on the skill learned, of course. Also, the process of learning a skill improves your aptitude for self-learning, making it easier to continue to add skills.

Investment #10: Taking a day off but using it meaningfully
Time off almost always reaps benefits. It allows you to relax and unburden yourself from a seemingly endless string of responsibilities, at least for a while. However, it’s very tempting to just waste that day off in idleness. There’s nothing wrong with leisure or hobby time, but that’s when you’re actively choosing to do something meaningful to you. Idleness is time spent doing nothing meaningful to you at all. Choose meaningful things, whether it’s personal tasks, hobby time, genuine leisure, or something else – whatever brings the most overall joy from the day.

The cost: You lose a day that you could have devoted to other tasks.

The benefit: It kills stress and worry like nothing else. It can still be quite productive, depending on what you choose. It can absolutely destroy the temptation to buy things, because the desire to buy often springs out of an unrequited desire to actually do something.

Peak Moments

For me, the absolute best that life has to offer comes together when a bunch of your investments pay off at once. Let me give you an example.

A few days ago, I was able to spend an afternoon playing a board game with some old friends. It’s a game we all know and love. I have good relationships with all of those people (investment #5 and, to an extent, #4). I was well rested (investment #1) and felt energetic but not full and bloated (investment #3 and, to some extent, #2). I felt in control of most of my major life worries (investment #7), so I wasn’t stressed out. I was spending that day in intentional leisure with those friends (investment #10) who lived close enough so that they are a frequent part of my life (investment #6). I felt good, I had no real worries, and was surrounded by people I cared about doing something that I enjoy. It was an absolutely marvelous day, built on the back of those investments.

Want another example? How about a professional one, directly tied to not only my income, but the quality of my professional life?

Back in 2007, I was really struggling with the direction of my life. I had started The Simple Dollar in my spare time and it was becoming successful, but it was nowhere near enough to be able to support my family. I was dealing with a lot of frustrations with my main job/career, too; I liked the people and about 20% of the work, but the other 80% was killing my soul and it was straining my family relationships with travel and other responsibilities.

So, one day, I gave my mentor a call (investment #8). He offered to go to lunch with me the next day, so I spent some time the night before gathering my thoughts (investment #2 and #7) and getting a good night of sleep (investment #1) so I could talk to him as clearly as possible. We went out for a healthy lunch (investment #3) and a long back-and-forth conversation with a lot of good questions (investment #5). He gave me the advice I needed to hear, which was basically to make sure I had the skills necessary to build my side gig up (investment #9) and then make that leap and give it all I had.

That lunch changed my life. About a year later, I went full time with The Simple Dollar, mostly inspired by wanting more time with my family, and I couldn’t be happier with the choice.

The real truth? Those individual investments really didn’t cost me much. I didn’t sacrifice a whole lot to get a good night of sleep or to build good relationships. I didn’t really sacrifice too much to build skills or to practice better listening.

Final Thoughts

Over and over again, though, the small investments I have made in my life have paid off tremendously. Those little contributions of time and energy and a little money when needed have transformed into some of the best days of my life, some of the best personal and professional choices I’ve made, some of the best personal and professional relationships I have, and so many more things. Without those investments, I would not have the level of personal, professional, or financial success I have been lucky enough to achieve.

Making great financial choices is a powerful step in life, but it becomes even more powerful when you pair it with good choices regarding all of your resources: your energy, your time, your attention, your personal capital, and so on. Invest all of them wisely and they will pay out dividends far beyond your wildest imagination.

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Unpaid Taxes and Your Credit

“…but in this world nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.”  –Benjamin Franklin

Welcome to tax season. For many people in the U.S., filing taxes can be something to look forward to, namely those who will receive a refund. For other people, filing taxes can also be a stressful experience if you know you’re going to end up owing your state or the federal government.

Hopefully if you owe taxes, you had the forethought to squirrel away funds throughout the year to take care of your obligation to your state or the Internal Revenue Service (actually, you’d write your check to the United States Treasury).

However, if you’re unprepared you should know that trying to hide from your tax obligation is not a good solution to your problem. Unpaid taxes can lead to a lot of unpleasant consequences, including tax liens which can cause you some significant credit problems if they end up on your credit reports.

Tax Liens and Your Credit Reports

If you fail to pay your taxes, does the IRS report the debt to the credit bureaus just like any other creditor? The answer to the question is no, they do not.

However, before you get too excited, you should realize that just because the IRS or your state taxing authority does not report the debt to the credit bureaus, it certainly doesn’t mean tax liens won’t appear on your credit reports some other way.

Tax liens are different from other negative items on credit reports due to the fact that they are not actually reported to the credit bureaus by the IRS or your state taxing authority. Instead, the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian) proactively seek out information regarding public records by utilizing services such as PACER, which allows electronic access to court records and other public record vendors.

How Long Can Tax Liens Remain on Credit Reports?

When it comes to the negative items on your credit reports, most information – whether reported by a creditor or sought out by the credit bureaus themselves – has an expiration date. That is to say, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) generally places strict and clear time limits on how long derogatory information is permitted to remain on a credit report.

Unpaid tax liens, however, are an exception to this rule. The FCRA never requires an unpaid tax lien to be removed from your credit reports, regardless of its age.

Paid tax liens, termed “released” liens, do have a credit reporting time limit, however. Released tax liens can only remain on your credit reports for up to seven years after the date of release. Unfortunately, during those seven years a released tax lien remains on your credit reports, it may continue to damage your credit scores.

Withdrawn Tax Liens

A few years ago the IRS introduced some new consumer-friendly policies which can apply to many tax liens. The policies, collectively known as the Fresh Start Program, give consumers the opportunity to have certain federal tax liens removed from their credit reports much more quickly than the typical FCRA required removal of seven years from date of release.

Under the Fresh Start Program, taxpayers with eligible liens can apply for a withdrawal of their tax lien under one of two circumstances. The first opportunity to apply for a lien withdrawal is available to taxpayers who satisfy their outstanding tax liens in full. The second opportunity occurs when a taxpayer enters into an approved automatic payment plan with the IRS and has made at least three consecutive payments toward exhausting the obligations. The credit bureaus, as a matter of policy, will remove withdrawn tax liens.

NOTE: While tax liens are currently part of consumer credit reports, the future may hold some consumer-friendly changes. The credit bureaus are currently considering the possibility of removing all tax liens and judgments from consumer credit reports and not ever reporting them again. While this is good news from a credit report perspective, it should not influence your correct decision to abide by your tax obligations.

Related Articles:

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Questions About Treasuries, Beards, Market Peaks, Camping, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Morality of government treasuries
2. Several loans with equal interest
3. Leaving New York
4. Camping or glamping?
5. Journal suggestions?
6. Frugal beard care
7. Worried about market highs
8. Cheap or free fitness suggestions
9. Getting paid less than others
10. “Chaining” no-spending days
11. Advice on trying vegetarianism
12. Podcasts on better financial choices

I get these really weird mild winter colds sometimes. They don’t drag me down into feeling miserable, but they just deliver one or two really annoying symptoms into my life.

I had one earlier this winter that was nothing more than a sore throat that stuck around for several days. Other than that, I felt fine.

This time, I have one that’s just an endless runny nose. Other than the fact that my nose is running like a leaky faucet, I feel fine.

I can’t wait for summer.

Onward to reader mailbag questions…

Q1: Morality of government treasuries

I have been a 60-year-old retiree from government employment for a year now. My retirement income is rather small and is from a previous employer (I’m plan to withdraw that small pension when I am eligible at age 62); so, I’m having qualms about whether or not I should withdraw the money I have in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) sooner rather than later.

My main concern is over how my money in the least risky G Fund is invested, as follows (from www.tsp.gov website):

The G Fund assets are managed internally by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. The G Fund buys a non-marketable U.S. Treasury security that is guaranteed by the U.S. Government. This means that the G Fund will not lose money.

I invested this way because of my age and the fact that I figured that my investment was being put to best. In other words, it would not be used by companies who are pro-abortion and/or who don’t care about protecting the environment; however, the people at TSP don’t seem to be all that knowledgeable when I asked them as to where the money in this fund actually goes.

Do you know if the money in this fund is put to good moral and environmentally responsible use? If I learn that where it goes is against my principles, I can’t, in good conscience, leave it in there and thus will be compelled to take it out now.
– James

The G Fund that you describe here is invested in the federal government itself, not in businesses. In essence, the investments in the G Fund help cover our national debt.

Each year, the United States spends more money than it brings in via taxes. It has to make up for that somehow – it needs to bring in more money so it can keep paying the bills, right? The way it does that is by issuing treasury notes of various kinds. These are essentially promises from the government that they’ll repay you a certain amount of money at a certain time.

For example, a ten year treasury note is an agreement with the government that they’ll pay you a certain amount of interest every six months and then pay you the value of that treasury note in ten years. So, for example, you might be able to buy a ten year treasury note with a face value of $10,000 and interest payments of $100 every six months. The price of that note actually varies, and that’s what might make it a good investment. You might pay, say, $9,500 for that note, and then every six months for the next ten years, you’ll get $100, and then at the ten year mark, you get $10,000. The government gets $9,500 immediately to pay the bills and you get more in return over the next several years.

So, basically, the G Fund just buys a lot of those treasury notes (and variations on that idea, but they all boil down to more or less the same thing). The G Fund basically enables our country to pay down its debt.

Now, here’s the thing: those investments are very important. They provide a very secure place for people to put their money. Since they’re guaranteed by the US government, they’re about as safe as humanly possible. It is very important for the US financial system that the US government continues to issue such investments, and they’d likely continue to issue them even if we weren’t in debt (they’d find some other use for the money, I’m sure).

So don’t think of them purely as “financing the US debt.” The reality is that treasury notes just help our government meet its budget, and they’d do so even if we were bringing in enough taxes to cover our budget because the financial system of the United States needs those kinds of ultra-safe investments. Our nation would find other ways to spend that money, I’m sure.

Is that an ethically sound investment? Really, you have to make the call on that one. I personally feel that, as the ethics of investment options go, treasury notes are pretty ethical. I would not have any personal objections to owning such investments.

Q2: Several loans with equal interest

We are trying to pay off my wife’s school loans and regularly pay double our monthly amount due. We received a bonus this year and will most likely continue to receive that going forward if she stays at her current job. We would like to start putting this bonus $ toward the school loans every year to knock them out even faster. So my question is – does it make any difference, other than psychologically, how we apply this extra payment? Context: My wife has several loans with different balances but the same interest rate of 6%. Does it matter if we put all of the bonus $ toward a larger balance loan or completely knock out some of the smaller loans? Since they are the same interest rate does it make any difference at all?
– Sam

If they’re all of equal interest rate, the best route is to knock out the smaller loans.

The reason is simple: if you get rid of smaller loans, you reduce the minimum monthly payment you have to spend each month. In other words, if things became difficult in your life, you would be facing a smaller slate of monthly bills.

That doesn’t mean you should start budgeting in that way. The best thing for you to do is to not reduce the amount you’re paying in total towards your student loans, and instead convert that extra amount (the amount you would have paid toward student loans that are now paid off) into an extra payment on one of your remaining loans – ideally, the one that now has the smallest balance.

Keep knocking them out like this and you’ll be debt free in no time.

Q3: Leaving New York

I work a location independent job and recently found out that if I were to move, my salary wouldn’t change. I live in a very expensive suburb on Long Island and I feel like I am wasting a ton of money by staying here. New York’s taxes are famously absurd, plus the cost of virtually everything is inflated because that too is taxed. Moving to a state with no income tax would immediately save me over $10k/year, and although those states tend to collect taxes in other ways, all of those taxes are lower than what I’m paying now.

My wife and I are of the mindset that the grass is greener virtually everywhere other than here. But is it? We are concerned that moving would actually cost us money. We moved into our house four years ago, and closing and moving costs were close to $30k, moving again, especially a long distance, would be another ~$10k in closing and moving costs. The house has definitely appreciated since we moved in, but the best I could hope for is breaking even if I sold today.

We also just had our first baby and plan to have a couple more fairly quickly. School districts are going to be a very important factor going forward and I wouldn’t want to move somewhere to save money, only to have to spend that money on private school.

In my head, I feel like I’m looking for this utopia where cost of living is low, taxes are low, schools are great, there’s plenty to do, and we all live happily ever after. It also has to be close enough to a city that I can find work if I ever need to change jobs, and have a major airport nearby because I travel for work.

The bottom line is that we think we should leave NY, but we’re not sure if it’s truly worth it.
– Noah

I am one of the loudest advocates you’ll ever meet for the virtues of the upper Midwest. My opinion is that when you say “this utopia where cost of living is low, taxes are low, schools are great, there’s plenty to do, and we all live happily ever after,” you’re basically describing Minnesota and, to a lesser extent, the states surrounding Minnesota. With 100% complete seriousness, if I were able to choose myself where I could live, I’d choose to live just outside of the metro area on the north side of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It pretty much checks every box you’ve listed there, in my opinion. Honestly, my second choice would be “just outside the metro area on the north side of Des Moines” – and that’s where I happen to live right now.

So, do I think you should move? Yes. If there’s no particular family or social constraint holding you back, pack up the vehicle and get out of the area.

The real question, though, is should you move? I think you need to simply clarify what it is you’re looking for and then start doing some research regarding that. You can start by looking at a comparative list, like this one from US News and World Report. You’ll see both Des Moines and Minneapolis ranked quite high on that list (for good reason, in my opinion), but there are a lot of other options, too.

If you’re unhappy with the total equation of where you are right now, move. If you’re not sure where to move to, figure out what it is that you really want the most – or the handful of factors you want the most – and start doing research.

And then move to Des Moines or Minneapolis. You know you want to.

Q4: Camping or glamping?

I’m a 31 year old who has been dating a 28 year old for two years now and have been considering marriage. I go camping two or three times during the summer in national parks, usually with a base camp that I return to each day after exploring but with some overnight backpacking. I make my own meals over the campfire, etc. but I do rely on some items from my car, so it’s not as “roughing it” as it could be but it’s far from glamping.

This summer is the first time that our schedules line up well enough so that my girlfriend can camp with me. She seems on board with it, but I’m beginning to see that she’s kind of a spender. She wants to “upgrade” all of the camping gear and buy a lot of extra stuff and she’s hinted at the idea of staying in a cabin or some resort instead of tent camping.

All of this deletes the reason this trip is fun and it’s also massively increasing the cost of it. I want just a simple camping trip in my tent where I spend almost all the time just exploring and hiking and building a fire and cooking food over it. I don’t want to stay in a cabin or hotel; that stuff is fine, but it’s not what camping is for me.

How do I address this without causing a big fight? And should I be concerned about the costs and what that might mean for our married life?
– Tony

It seems to me that your girlfriend has a very different idea of what camping should be like than you do. That doesn’t mean that either one of you is “right” or “wrong,” but that you have different visions of what a “camping vacation” actually is. Clearly, your girlfriend has an image of something that involves more creature comforts than what your vision is. That’s okay – neither one of your visions is wrong.

My suggestion would be to simply ask her to let you lead on this first trip. Tell her that you want to show her what it is that you love about these kinds of camping trips, and then plan it in a way that you think will wow her regarding the best of what you like about it.

Keep her in mind when you plan, though. She’s clearly a bit reticent about some of the rougher edges of camping. Don’t plan any super-difficult hikes. Consider what will make your campsite as comfortable as possible. Maybe choose a park intentionally that will be very comfortable and have some amazing views on low-intensity hikes. Push yourself to make some delicious meals around the campfire. Pack along a bottle of wine and drink it around the fire (if that’s her thing). Take along extra precautions for keeping bugs at bay. Basically, plan a trip like you normally would, but add some flourishes that will make this whole thing sparkle for her.

If it’s not her thing, that’s okay. You don’t have to like all of the same things. You might want to consider letting camping be a personal thing for you in the future and allow her to have some personal adventures, too, but that you have other adventures that you share.

Q5: Journal suggestions?

You’ve mentioned a few times in the last year that you journal daily. What specific journal do you use? What do you write about?
– Eric

My preferred journal is just a blank one. I’m not really picky about what kind that I use, but I like it to have reasonably thick paper so that ink doesn’t bleed through to the other side and I can use any kind of pen on it. Quite often, I use gifted journals for this. I also have a pile of gifted (and a few purchased) notebooks from Baron Fig that I use for this, too. To summarize, just use a blank journal.

I haven’t really found that “pre-organized” journals really click with me. I’ve received several as gifts and the only one that has worked well for me is the Best Self journal, but it’s mighty expensive and I can’t really convince myself to buy more. I could see myself getting hooked on them if I had more of them, as they only last for 13 weeks. Most other pre-organized journals just don’t click with me.

Most of the time, I just write about whatever things are weighing heavily on my mind at the moment. I write about what that concern is in as much detail as I can, and then I burrow into it. I ask myself why I’m feeling this way about it, and then I spend a bit of time thinking about that, and then I just write down my “why” thoughts. I’ll often repeat that a few times. Almost always, I wind up reaching some deeper understanding of the situation and that usually points me to something I can do to improve that situation. I don’t always take myself up on the solution, but I do so often enough that I find real value in the process. Sometimes I’ll do journaling “exercises” that I find, but I usually just go back to writing about a problem or concern and hitting it with a series of “whys” until I find some kind of satisfactory conclusion.

I think that journaling has massively improved my life over the last several years as I’ve really figured out how to do it. Journaling is a lot more than just listing the events of the day. It’s really a tool for reflecting on one’s life.

Q6: Frugal beard care

I started growing a beard after the holidays and didn’t really think about caring for it. I figured I could just trim it with scissors or something. It’s starting to look unruly but decent beard trimmers seem real expensive and then there are tons of other things people suggest buying. How do I do this frugally?
– Marcus

Unless you plan on trimming your beard daily and expect near-perfection with every single beard hair being absolutely the same length, you’re going to be fine with a very low-end beard trimmer. You’ll be just fine with whatever beard trimmer is on sale at nearby stores. If you’re looking for a model to target, I can specifically say that this beard trimmer does a really good job. You’ll still need to use a razor to trim around the edges, though.

So, what about things like beard oil and soaps and stuff? Simply put, you don’t need any of it unless you start to have skin irritation or other issues that actually bother you. Don’t waste your money on it unless you actually need it. That’s not to say it’s not useful for some people, but it’s very much on a case-by-case basis. (Note that things like this do make nice gifts, though.)

Basically, just get an inexpensive beard trimmer unless you plan to be an every day beard-must-be-perfect trimmer, in which case there might be a reason for a higher-end trimmer. When I had a beard, I trimmed it weekly with a cheap trimmer and it was all good.

Q7: Worried about market highs

The stock market appears to be at or near a long term high. Should people “buy low and sell high” and start selling now? Trying to figure out what to do with retirement.
– David

You should almost never make a stock investment move in response to what the market’s current value is. I’d say “never,” but I’m sure someone will come up with an odd case for it, but timing the market like this definitely isn’t one.

If you happened to have a perfect crystal ball and knew the exact moment when it was at a peak and then would also know the exact moment when it reached the bottom, then, yeah, it might make sense to move out of stocks at that very peak and move back in at that very bottom.

The reality is that you don’t know when either situation is going to occur. No one does. Today might be the peak, or it might not hit until June, or it might not hit until 2020. If you move out of stocks into something safe and we have three more years of a bull market, you’re losing a lot of money. The same thing is true at the bottom. If you keep your money somewhere safe because you think the market is still going to go lower, you’re not only probably missing out on the real bottom, you’re also missing out on the dividends that you’d get by being in stocks during that period.

Here’s the truth: if you’re in the stock market for the long haul, meaning that you’re not close to retirement and you’re planning on that money for the backbone of your retirement savings, you should leave it in the stock market and keep buying shares and collecting dividends as it inevitably corrects itself. You’ll earn a lot of dividends on the way down, buy shares as they decline in price, and you’ll be fully in the market when it hits the bottom and you can keep buying and reinvesting dividends the whole way up.

Now, if retirement is getting close, you should probably be considering a move of at least some of your money into something safer, but that switch should not be driven by the current state of the stock market. It should be driven by your evaluation of how much you want to lower your volatility.

Q8: Cheap or free fitness suggestions

So here’s my situation. I want to get in better shape and I have been thinking about joining a gym. My favorite exercise by far is to walk and do light hiking kind of like you do. I don’t like doing “body weight exercise” at home and I talk myself right out of doing stuff like push-ups or squats. I don’t mind jogging but jogging isn’t making me stronger. I think a coach might help motivate me. Do you have other suggestions before I drop the money?
– Jim

My honest suggestion is to try rucking.

Here’s what you do. Get an old backpack that you have lying around the house and fill it up with heavy things. Old textbooks are great. Water bottles are great. A brick wrapped in an old towel is great. Try to get ten or fifteen pounds in it at first; you can up the weight later.

Then just go walking with that backpack on. Go on a long distance walk. What you’ll find is that going at the same pace as usual is hard and will get you out of breath. You’ll also find that your legs and many other muscles are sore when you get home and sore the next day from the extra work.

Over time, gradually up the weight. Don’t go beyond 35 pounds or 10% of your body weight, though, whichever is less.

I’ve found this to be just about my favorite exercise. It seems to combine strength training (my legs feel way stronger as do many of my back muscles) with cardio training (I sweat like crazy and I get out of breath), but it boils down to doing the thing I already love to do, which is walking and hiking.

Plus, it’s super cheap.

Give it a shot and see if it clicks for you.

Q9: Getting paid less than others

I work in an office with several other people doing almost exactly the same jobs. We do a lot of claim processing. I was the first in my group to be hired and it was during a period of a lot of turnover in the HR department so almost all of us were actually hired by different people.

I had a benefits question the other day and went into the HR office and a person was looking at my employee records. She told me quietly that I wasn’t getting paid very well and that they had been openly hiring people for my job at a salary that’s about 10% more than what I’m making with no experience required. I’ve been at the company for four years now.

I am trying to keep calm about this and find the right way to handle it, but I am really angry right now. I could understand new employees making a little more than I did when I was new, but there’s no reason that I’m making less than them with four years of experience and good reviews.
– Pete

First of all, you do not want to bring this up at work when it’s got such a strong emotional impact on you. If you’re going to get emotional or angry when talking about this or thinking about this, you should not bring this up. (However, I will say that if you’re struggling getting this under control, you should look seriously at your ability to keep your emotions in check, as that is a very powerful skill to have.)

Your first step should be to figure out who is in charge of wages at your organization. Who sets the pay? If you don’t know, go to the HR office and ask a few questions. That’s the person you should be talking to.

Schedule a meeting and present your case. Simply state that you’ve had conversations with your coworkers and looked at job postings and you’ve learned that, after four years of experience and positive job reviews, you’re getting paid less than someone freshly in the door and you’re getting paid less than many of your coworkers. Your goal should be to have pay that’s reasonably commensurate with your relative experience and history compared to an entry level employee, so what a new employee might be earning with standard raises over four years.

If they won’t reasonably meet you on this demand, then I would begin looking for different work. Freshen up your resume and start looking for employment elsewhere. If the starting wage is an industry standard, you’ll make more money by leaving anyway.

Q10: “Chaining” no-spending days

Wanted to share with you a strategy for cutting spending that’s really worked well for me this year. I have been “chaining” days where I don’t spend any money together.

Basically, what I’ve been doing is trying not to spend a dime for as many days in a row as I can avoid it. I’ll pay all of my bills and stock up on groceries and that stuff all on one day and I’ll buy a 30 day metro pass and so on and then I will see how many days I can go while spending nothing and living on what I have.

I’ve found that I don’t waste nearly as much money as I used to because on the days where I can spend, I am spending a lot on needed things like bills and food and a metro pass and usually one or two carefully planned fun things and so I don’t feel much need to splurge, and then I don’t splurge at all on the “no spending” days.

Thought I’d share a strategy that’s working for me! Record: 16 days!
– Tammy

This actually seems like a really smart and really fun way to approach overspending.

Sarah and I sometimes do money free weekends and even money free weeks and this just seems to take that and add the “chaining” concept to it by making it into a game to see how long you can make the streak.

Good idea! Perhaps other readers can use it effectively, too!

Q11: Advice on trying vegetarianism

I’m thinking of trying to become a vegetarian for health reasons and money reasons. A vegetarian diet seems pretty healthy and I like a lot of vegetables but I just normally eat meat for my diet. Any tips?
– Amy

A vegetarian diet can be super cheap, but as with any diet, it can be as expensive as you make it. I find it easy to be a cheap vegetarian because I already loved rice and beans. I will seriously eat rice and beans two or three times a day, so switching to being a vegetarian wasn’t really very hard for me. (I was encouraged but not required by my doctor and a dietitian to try it for unrelated health reasons, so I gave it a shot.)

My advice to you isn’t to go strict vegetarian unless there’s a specific additional reason to do so. If your primary motivation is frugality and health, I recommend sticking instead to a well rounded diet made up of inexpensive foods, but stick to staples and fresh foods rather than prepackaged and processed stuff. Buy uncooked rice and uncooked beans and eggs and fresh produce and, yes, even fresh meats, particularly poultry (chicken really is a bargain). Peanut butter is good, too, especially when the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.

Learn how to prepare lots of meals from that basic stuff. Trust me, there are a lot of things you can do with those cheap staples without just endlessly repeating things, especially if you have a lot of herbs and spices and learn how to use them. For that, I recommend this wonderful guide from The Kitchn.

Q12: Podcasts on better financial choices

I listen to podcasts while commuting every day and I find that they influence my thinking a lot. Do you have any recommendations for podcasts that really encourage smart financial thinking / spend less than you earn / financial independence thinking?
– Brad

Here are three that immediately come to mind.

Radical Personal Finance hosted by Joshua Sheats is probably the best purely financially focused podcast out there, in my opinion. Joshua speaks well, treats his topics with care and thoughtfulness, keeps it entertaining, and has a lot of great guests, plus I’m very much in agreement with most of his financial perspectives. If I ever did a podcast again (I made a mediocre attempt many years ago), I’d hope it could be half this good.

The Dave Ramsey Show distributes its full show as a podcast. Dave is an absolute master of the audio format and presents his ideas well. I don’t fully agree with Dave on a lot of things – for one, I think he’s overly optimistic about investments – but he’s extremely strong at feeling like a “coach” encouraging strong day-to-day financial choices.

The Voluntary Life hosted by Jake Desyllas is probably my favorite all-around podcast. It does not have anywhere near a strict personal finance focus – it’s more of an all-around self-improvement show. However, Jake addresses a lot of important life topics that run parallel to financial improvement and discusses them so thoughtfully that I consider this to be an essential listen for anyone addressing their money or their life with a thoughtful attitude.

These three shows – and their archives – should give you a ton to listen to going forward.

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

The post Questions About Treasuries, Beards, Market Peaks, Camping, and More! appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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10 Friends Who Will Ruin Your Finances If You Let Them

We’ve always heard a good friend is “worth their weight in gold.” But is that always true?

With some friends, absolutely. A good friend can be there for you when times are tough, help you celebrate when times are good, and make your day-to-day life a lot more fun. Unfortunately, not all “good friends” are good with money. And some friendships can be costly – especially if you have trouble setting boundaries.

Let’s face it: If you’re not careful, even a great friend can leave you broke. If you’re worried how your friendships are affecting your finances, watch out for these 10 types of friends who might throw you off your game:

#1: The friend who always wants to go out

We’ve all got that friend who never wants to hang at home. Given the choice, she’ll go out to the movies instead of renting a new release, plan a fancy sit-down dinner instead of trying out a new recipe, or hit the club instead of uncorking a bottle of wine at home.

When you suggest a Netflix movie night or basically anything that involves wearing pajama pants, her lack of enthusiasm is palpable. She wants to get out and meet new people and not just sit on your couch, she says.

While that’s great and all, the financial impact of all these outings can be costly. That’s why the best way to deal with this friend is to choose the outings you’ll truly enjoy and leave the rest.

#2: The friend who loves doing expensive stuff

This friend is nothing more than a juiced-up version of friend #1. The biggest difference is, he or she loves blowing cash on crazy-expensive events.

This is the type of friend who will invite you to see their favorite band when tickets are $100+ apiece. Not only that, but they expect you to go out to dinner beforehand and out for drinks after.

The upside that comes with this type of friend is that they can help you get out of your comfort zone. The downside is, their idea of fun often involves spending hundreds of dollars.

When you’re trying to save for the future, this type of friend can ruin your budget if you let them. If you want to keep the friendship regardless, let them know what you can – and can’t – afford. Then, stick to your guns.

#3: The friend who always promises to ‘catch you next time’

You know that one friend who always says they’ll pick up the tab next time? They claim they left their wallet at home or that they’re short on cash, then they expect you to pay the bill. The problem is, they never pay their own way when the “next time” rolls around. What gives?

While this friend might fool you a few times, you shouldn’t let them get the better of you over the long haul. Forgetting your wallet once or twice is probably forgivable, but never having any money on hand when the check comes is cause for alarm.

It’s okay to keep this friend if you set some boundaries. If they’re out of cash more than a few times, let them know you’re happy to hang out with them – at home.

#4: The friend who games splitting the check

When you’re on a budget and dining accordingly, it can be annoying when friends want to split the dinner check down the middle, regardless of what you ordered. This is especially true if your friends always splurge. There’s always that friend who orders filet mignon and six martinis, but thinks it’s perfectly fair to split the bill 50/50.

If you order salads and appetizers and drink water to save money when you dine out, you shouldn’t have to subsidize your spendy friends. You can thwart this friend’s efforts by insisting on a split check from the get-go. If they’re against it, it’s perfectly reasonable to tell them they’re being unfair.

Try communicating directly and firmly. Say, “I’m ordering a salad to save money, so I want a separate check.” You shouldn’t have to negotiate how to spend your own money, so don’t.

#5: The friend who shops for fun

If you pick up a friend who shops for fun, you may be in for a new level of temptation. Whether or not you enjoy bouncing from mall to mall, it can be disastrous for your wallet. As your friend shops for something unique and new, you’ll be exposed to new products, too. And if you’re not careful, you could wind up buying stuff you don’t need and can’t even afford.

This type of friend can be harmless if you set limits and stick to them. Just because you tag along for a shopping trip doesn’t mean you have to buy anything. And, as long as your friend never pressures you to splurge, it might be fine.

#6: The trust fund baby

When you work hard for every dollar you earn, it can be maddening to hang out with someone who was born rich. If they’re a big spender, it can leave you feeling resentful. And if they expect you to “keep up” with their level of splurging, it can wreak havoc on your budget.

It’s possible to maintain a friendship with a trust fund baby as long as they understand your limits and respect your limitations. The key here is letting them know what you can (and can’t) afford ahead of time. If they’re truly your friend, they’ll understand.

#7: The friend who wants to split stuff you don’t even want

Have you ever had a friend who wants to split the bill for stuff you don’t even want? It could be anything – an appetizer you don’t like at dinner, a private cabana on vacation, or a clown for a joint kid’s birthday party. If you don’t want it in the first place, why should you pay half?

The best way to deal with this type of friend is to make your feelings known. If you don’t want to pay half the cost of something, say so. If they put up a fight, it’s perfectly fair to call them out.

If you don’t, you could wind up paying for half of all sorts of stuff. With this type of friend, you’ll be better off if you create boundaries – and stick with them.

#8: The friend who sucks with money and doesn’t even care

If you’re someone who makes responsible financial decisions most of the time, maintaining a friendship with someone who’s just plain terrible with money can be hard. You may watch them blow their savings one minute, then listen to them complain about how they’re late with bills the next. No matter what, it’s not easy to watch people struggle when they’re the source of their own problems.

The best way to approach this kind of friendship is to offer advice when asked, and try your hardest to ignore the rest. As long as they’re not ruining your finances, it’s really none of your business.

#9: The one-upper

One-uppers are some of the most annoying friends you can have. If they’re not trying to have a better car or bigger house, they might focus on outdoing your relationship (at least in their eyes) or just looking better than you do (again, at least in their eyes).

If you’re competitive in nature, being friends with a one-upper can be costly, too. Competing to have the nicest stuff if never cheap, but it’s worse if you’re buying stuff you don’t need and can’t afford.

The best way to deal with a one-upper is to ignore their competitive nature and focus on their good traits. No matter what, the best way to win this game is not to play.

#10: The friend who gives extravagantly

Birthdays aren’t that exciting once you reach adulthood, yet there are those who continue celebrating and want others to do the same. This could mean they invite you to outrageous birthday parties (for example, a girl’s weekend in Lake Tahoe for a 30th birthday), but it could also mean they shower you with expensive gifts on your big day.

What do you do when a friend gives you a $150 bag for your 32nd birthday? Do you repay the favor once their birthday rolls around, or do you cheap out with a card instead? You don’t want to risk hurting their feelings, yet you can’t stomach spending hundreds of dollars on adult friends.

This is yet another situation where direct communication works best. Tell your spendy friend the truth – that you’re living on a budget and can’t afford to be exchanging pricey gifts. Be honest and hope they get the hint. If not, it’s their problem.

Final Thoughts

It’s perfectly okay to have friends who spend differently. The key is making sure you don’t let their bad habits bleed into your own life.

Also, keep in mind that a real friend will understand your position and try not to put you in awkward financial situation. If a friend is always pushing you to your financial limits despite your protests, it might be time to hang out with someone more respectful of your perspective.

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

Related Articles:

Do you have any friends that fit these descriptions? How do you set boundaries with spendy friends?

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

13 Delicious Ways to Use Leftover Rotisserie Chicken

Whether you ran out of time to make dinner, have a hankering for barbecued meat, or simply don’t want to cook, a rotisserie chicken could be the lifeline you’re looking for. With these skewered delights, you get a main course that’s smoking hot and ready to eat without having to do any cooking yourself.

Costco’s rotisserie chickens are especially popular, mainly because they’re still just five bucks and bursting with salty-barbecue flavor. But really, most major grocery store chains offer their own ready-roasted version of a delicious bird to take home. That includes Kroger, Publix, Safeway, and Whole Foods, to name a few.

Once you pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store, there are plenty of easy ways to turn it into a meal. Add a few side dishes (vegetables, rice, etc.) and you’ve got a full-blown dinner. Carve some slices onto bread with a bit of barbecue sauce and you’ve got a BBQ chicken sandwich. Throw some slices on top of a big green salad and it’s practically a health food. With so many ways to parlay this bird into dinner, it’s hard for a rotisserie chicken to lead you astray.

13 Ways to Use Leftover Rotisserie Chicken

But, what do you do those rotisserie leftovers? At the very least, you can boil the bones and tendons for a couple of hours and make your own delicious chicken broth. But if your family doesn’t throw back an entire rotisserie chicken in one sitting, consider using the leftover meat to create a brand-new meal the next day. Here are some potential recipes and options:

#1: Rotisserie Chicken Alfredo Pasta

If you love alfredo sauce, adding rotisserie chicken to your favorite pasta dish is a smart move. The perfectly seasoned meat will fit in perfectly with your creamy alfredo masterpiece, and add a burst of protein to your dish to boot.

Boil and prepare any pasta of your choosing while you prepare your own cream sauce. This Food Network recipe promises alfredo sauce that’s better than Olive Garden’s, so it’s worth a try.

Plate your pasta, add sauce, then add some heated rotisserie chicken and parmesan cheese on top. And if you want to take the easy route, you can even buy a jar of alfredo sauce and use that instead.

#2: DIY Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Rotisserie chicken cooled in the fridge is the perfect main course for a DIY chicken salad. Most chicken salads call for chicken (duh) and additional ingredients such as parsley, dill, mayonnaise, lemon juice, or celery. Others add to those ingredients sweet, diced grapes, and even walnuts.

You can make chicken salad any way you want, but we suggest this Food Network recipe because it includes fewer ingredients than most. Add your chicken salad to a big hoagie bun, and serve with chips or vegetables for a healthy leftover lunch.

#3: Chicken Stir-Fry

Stir-fry is easy to make. Simply chop up some of your favorite vegetables, then heat them in a wok over medium heat with some oil and your favorite soy or teriyaki sauce. Add some chunks of leftover rotisserie chicken for the last few minutes of cooking, and you’ve got an easy chicken stir-fry on your hands – serve it over rice or noodles to stretch it a bit farther.

You can use whatever vegetables you have on hand for a stir-fry, but my favorites are snow peas, diced carrots, onions, green peppers, and broccoli.

#4: Chicken Fried Rice

Chicken fried rice is easy-peasy. This better-than-takeout fried rice recipe lays it all on the line.

You’ll need tiny veggies (think peas, corn, and diced carrots and onions), prepared rice, soy sauce, sesame oil, eggs, and garlic. Follow the directions for the perfect fried rice, taking special care to add your leftover rotisserie chicken for the last few minutes in the wok.

The best part about this dish is that it’s a complete meal in itself, with protein, vegetables, and grains.

#5: Chicken Quesadillas

Chicken quesadillas are delicious and easy to make. You’ll need tortillas, chopped up rotisserie chicken, shredded cheese, and whatever extra goodies you want inside.

Start by cooking your chopped rotisserie chicken with a packet of taco seasoning and water. In another pan, cook up your finely cut vegetables – green peppers, red peppers, and onions, for example.

Once your quesadilla’s insides are cooked, you can begin assembly. Pack the bottom side of a quesadilla with filling, shred cheese on top, then add another tortilla to make a sandwich. From there, you can brown your quesadilla and melt the cheese on your stovetop or in the oven.

#6: Chicken Nachos

Ooey-gooey-melty nachos. Is there anything better?

Rotisserie chicken works amazingly as a topping for nachos. You can make nachos any way you want – with salsa, sour cream, green onions, peppers, black olives, or other toppings mixed with warm melted cheese. Then just heat your leftover chicken in the microwave or in a skillet with oil, and shred it on top of your nacho platter to kick things up a notch.

#7: Spicy Buffalo Chicken Dip

While you can use any buffalo chicken dip recipe with rotisserie chicken, this one appears to work rather well. All you need for the perfect dip is ranch dressing, cream cheese, hot sauce, and mozzarella cheese.

Melt your ingredients together with shredded chicken, then serve with your favorite dippers. If you want to skip some of the carbs, serve your dip with carrot or celery sticks instead of tortilla chips.

#8: Homemade Chicken Pizza

Homemade pizza is easy to make, and you can use just about any toppings you want (or want to get rid of). Start with a store-bought pizza crust or dough (or better yet, make your own), and add your favorite toppings – including shredded rotisserie chicken, of course.

You can go one of two ways with this strategy: red or white. A red pizza with chicken might work best with a handful of your favorite vegetables, like peppers and mushrooms, with shredded cheese and marinara sauce; but you can also go crazy and use barbecue sauce instead. A white pizza might include onions and artichokes with a garlic cream sauce — or even ranch dressing, whatever floats your boat. Really, there’s no wrong way: You can make your pizza however you want.

#9: Club Salad

Another easy way to use up rotisserie chicken is to throw it on top of your favorite salad. Cut up your favorite greens along with your favorite veggies – like chopped carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and red peppers.

Warm up your rotisserie chicken and throw it on top of the salad. Serve with your favorite dressing, croutons, and shredded cheese on top. For even more protein, add some sliced hard-boiled eggs, too.

#10: Shredded Chicken Tacos

Shredded chicken tacos are another easy favorite. All you need to do is fix tacos like you normally would, but fill them with rotisserie chicken instead of beef.

Saute your shredded rotisserie chicken leftovers in taco seasoning for added flavor, then add it to your taco shells. Other toppings to consider include refried beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, shredded cheese, and sour cream.

#11: Garden Chicken Wraps

Another easy – and healthy – way to use up rotisserie chicken is to create a healthy garden wrap. Buy a pack of tortillas at the store when you pick up the chicken, then fill them with chopped garden vegetables, shredded lettuce, and rotisserie chicken.

To add more flavor, line the inside of your tortilla with your favorite spread as well, like honey mustard or mayo. You can even try veggie cream cheese for a creamy kick, or your favorite spicy cheese dip.

#12: Easy Chicken Noodle Soup

Leftover rotisserie chicken is perfect for soup — after all, you’re often left with lots of small bits of meat, and you can make your own free broth by boiling the leftover bones with salt, pepper, an onion, and a couple of carrots. This Easy Chicken Noodle Soup recipe simply instructs you to combine leftover rotisserie chicken with chicken stock, chopped onions, celery, carrots, and your favorite noodles.

Homemade chicken noodle soup might be the perfect food to get you through the remainder of winter. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with bread, and you can’t go wrong.

#13: Creamy Chicken and Kale Soup

This recipe comes courtesy of my neighbor, Beth: In a large pot, saute one stalk of chopped celery, half of a diced onion, and one diced potato in some olive oil. Add chopped rotisserie chicken and chopped kale. Add two boxes of chicken stock, three cubes of Dorot frozen garlic, and simmer until potatoes are done. Turn down the heat to the lowest setting, and stir in one block of reduced-fat cream cheese and 3/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese.

The end result? You’ll have a creamy soup full of vitamins and flavor.

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

Related Articles: 

How do you use leftover rotisserie chicken? Have you tried any of the recipes on this list?

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

12 Strategies for Maintaining Focus While Working at Home

I’ve been working from home on at least a regular basis for more than a decade, and on a full-time basis for nearly a decade. Over the years, I’ve come to learn quite a lot about what it takes to effectively telecommute for your work.

The number one thing? It absolutely requires the ability to focus.

Our homes are gigantic pits of distraction. There are always chores to be done. There are always sources of entertainment to distract you. Even worse, you don’t have any sort of threat of your boss looking over your shoulder to see if you’re still working. Either your boss is remote or you don’t have a boss at all.

Generally, the expectation of a person working from home is that they are delivering certain products on a certain schedule and that they’re available for some meetings. Outside of that, your boss and/or your clients generally don’t care when you do the work, just that it gets done and that it arrives on their desk when expected.

That encourages procrastination. That encourages a lack of focus. That encourages you to say, “Well, I need to get the laundry done and the dishes done and there’s nothing too urgent right now, so I’ll do those chores… and look, there’s an interesting segment on SportsCenter… and gee, this book sitting here looks pretty interesting…” and four hours pass.

If you do that too much, you’re going to be caught in a deadline crunch. If you get caught in too many deadline crunches, you’re going to start missing deadlines. If you do that very often at all, you’re probably going to lose clients, lose the perk of telecommuting, or even lose your job.

The key to solving that problem is focus. Being able to sit down at home and bear down on your work and get things done is absolutely vital to success when you’re working from home. It’s the ingredient that matters.

Over the years, I’ve managed to figure out a ton of effective strategies for focusing while working at home. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve learned.

Strategy #1: Set and keep a daily schedule.

A daily schedule that you stick to day-in and day-out is absolutely vital for keeping a steady forward progress on all of the tasks you have on the table (or digging for more tasks if you happen to have an empty slate at the moment). Walling off certain hours exclusively for work purposes is absolutely vital if you’re working from home or else you’ll find that distractions and other things keep interfering.

Personally, most days, I get up quite early – around 5:30 AM or so – and start writing, researching, and brainstorming almost immediately (I use the restroom, drink a big glass of water, and dig in). Other than a break from around 7:00 to 7:30 to see my kids off to school and do one or two minor tasks around the house (which I’ll mention again in a bit) and a break to stretch in the mid-morning, I generally work right on until noon. I do a bit more in the early afternoon sometimes, but that’s usually the end of my workday. I do this about six days a week, so if you do the math, that’s about a 40-hour workweek, give or take a bit (6.5 hours a day, six days a week).

I make that schedule almost sacrosanct. Nothing interferes with it if I can possibly help it. Before noon, Monday through Saturday, I’m working.

Because of that, I have a strong mindset that the morning hours are when I am working. I work before lunch, and anything else I’m doing then is something I shouldn’t be doing. That ensures that I always have a block of time within which to get my work done and that things won’t dig into that block of time unless it’s an absolute crisis.

That mindset – that you still have “working hours” and that time is devoted to work – is incredibly valuable. It can create something of a “mental switch” in your head, just like a normal workday at a different place of employment can do. At certain times of the day, you’re working, and it’s as simple as that.

Strategy #2: End each workday with a period of reflection on successes and failures.

The reality is that as you begin to adjust to working at home, you’re going to find some aspects of it very different and likely very difficult. It’s not easy to maintain focus and be productive when you suddenly don’t have a supervisor over your shoulder. It’s a real change to be at home alone working when you’re used to coworkers. It’s a different environment, too.

Those changes can really cloud your judgment and make for all kinds of challenges. As you adjust, you’re going to try things, some of them will work, and some of them will not.

That’s where a period of daily reflection comes in. It’s simply a period of time that you set aside for intentionally reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t in terms of working at home, and why those things are succeeding or failing. The purpose is to figure out ways to minimize or eliminate the problems and maximize the successes.

I personally use journaling as a tool for this. At some point each day, often during the early afternoon, I stop for a few minutes and think about the things that are going well and the things that aren’t going well in my professional life (and other aspects of my life). I then try to tease through those issues by figuring out why something is succeeding and, more often, why something is failing. What’s really happening here? How can I fix it? Can I even fix it?

By making this kind of thinking a regular part of your day, you’ll remain vigilant against many of the traps that working from home can lead you into, such as wasting more time than you think.

Strategy #3: Have a specific place in your home where you work.

For some people, a home office – a small room that’s intended for working – might be the right place to work. For others, particularly in a smaller home or apartment, an office might not be realistic, so a “working nook” or even a “working chair” might be more appropriate.

Whatever it is, identify a place that you primarily use only for work. The reason for this is twofold. One, it gives you a clear place to keep all of your work-related items, like your computers or your chargers or your “everyday carry bag.” Two, it provides a place where you can execute a mental switch into “work mode.”

This mental switch is surprisingly important. The simple move of having a specific place that means “work” in your head gives you a ton of little visual and environmental cues that it’s time to get down to business and stop doing personal things.

I’m lucky enough to have a home office – it’s a tiny little bedroom that’s also used as a library and game storage room. There’s a desk and some shelves in one corner that’s my work space. When I’m there and it’s morning – which I visually signify with light coming in the east window – I know that it’s time for me to be working. It’s a shockingly effective mental cue.

Strategy #4: Find an ‘alternative workplace’ or two outside of your home, and maintain a ‘portable office’ bag.

Sometimes, however, you can’t work from home. Perhaps there’s construction going on nearby or maybe your spouse is home and is distracting you. It might even be something where you just need a change in environment.

For those situations, having an “alternate workplace” is a good idea. It’s a place you can go that also signifies “work” in your head, but you are in a somewhat different environment. That change in environment can often spur on creative thought.

I personally use a study room at the local library as my “alternate workplace.” I tend to use it when I need to brainstorm, so I’ll go through the shelves at the library, grab a bunch of personal finance books and magazines, head into a study room, close the door, and get down to work. I take tons of notes and come up with article ideas and article outlines. The change in environment is really conducive to changing my thinking.

To make this easy, it’s well worth spending the time to have a “portable office” bag or an “everyday carry” bag if at all possible. The contents of that bag are simply all of the things you need to work effectively somewhere else.

My “everyday carry” bag is a North Face backpack that holds my laptop, a bunch of chargers and charging cables and backup batteries, a bunch of pens and notebooks, and a few reference materials, along with a few basic toiletry items. I know that whenever I need to change environments, I can just grab that bag and I have everything I need for work.

Strategy #5: At the beginning of your day, start loads of dishes and laundry.

This seems like a bizarre suggestion, but it is incredibly helpful for me personally in terms of keeping household distractions at bay. During my first break in the morning, when I’m getting the children ready for school, I also spend some of that time unloading and loading the dishwasher, putting clothes from the washing machine into the dryer, and putting a new load in the washing machine.

If things go well, I can start a load of clothes washing, a load of clothes drying, and a load of dishes washing all at the same time right after the kids leave for school and just before I get back to work.

When I do that, and I return to my workspace, I feel really productive that morning. It’s because in the back of my mind, I know that dishes are being cleaned and clothes are being cleaned and dried as I type. It provides a strong sense of multitasking without any need to break my focus.

Try it. If you have tasks around your house that are more passive in nature, like washing clothes or washing dishes or cooking a meal in the slow cooker, start those things before you settle in for work. You’ll find that the simple passive sense that personal tasks are being completed in the background makes you feel a lot more productive about your day and a lot less drawn to pull yourself away for personal tasks.

Strategy #6: Figure out which times of the day are most conducive to your focus, and work during those periods.

Some of us are morning people – I’m raising my own hand here. Other people work better in the afternoon. My sister-in-law is a complete night owl and seems to do her best work at three in the morning when her house is absolutely quiet. We’re all different. The key is to figure out what makes you really tick and take advantage of it.

What time of the day do you work most effectively? Are you like a zombie in the morning but start clicking in the afternoon? If that’s true, don’t be afraid to sleep in more and spend the morning doing mindless tasks and then settle in for a full afternoon of work. Are you someone who hits peak thinking right after arising from bed? Then start your workday as soon as possible, even when you’re still in your pajamas.

Pay attention to your own body and your own mind and figure out when the best time for you to work really is, then use that freedom that telecommuting gives you to work during those times. Save the more mindless personal tasks for periods outside of those times.

Strategy #7: Turn off digital distractions during those key focus periods.

So, you’ve identified your peak period for focus and you have a distinct place to work that’s got all of your stuff in place that you need. What else is important? The next step is simply eliminating as many digital distractions as you can.

Turn off your cell phone. Close your web browser. Disconnect from Wi-Fi. Turn off as many digital distractions as you possibly can in order to help you focus in on the task at hand.

The more distractions you have, the more you’re going to find that it’s easy to step away from your task and get sucked into something else, and every time you do that, you’ll find that there’s a loss in focus and concentration when you return to your old task.

Some of the worst digital distractions include notifications from your cell phone that emit some kind of audio or vibration, a web browser or other live updating window in the background of your screen, or an app on your computer that provides social media updates constantly. Turn off all of those that you possibly can. It’s fine to have them running at other times, but when you need to bear down on a task, they’re not helpful at all.

Strategy #8: Use ‘focusing audio’ by playing it in the background.

Unexpected noise can be a pretty significant distraction. I know I get distracted all the time by little noises of people going about normal activities in my neighborhood. I’ll hear a little clatter or the revving of an engine in the distance and I’m distracted.

What works for me in terms of solving that problem is to have some kind of background noise or simple music going at all times. An audio stream that’s conducive to focus can be incredibly helpful in terms of eliminating those audio distractions and helping you keep your attention where it should be.

For this purpose, I like to use the audio from the YouTube channel Relax Sleep ASMR. Almost any of their 10-hour videos will do the trick. Find one that seems to click with you. I particularly like their Arctic Ocean and icebreaker video and often have it playing in the background quietly as I work.

Such audio seems to effectively cancel out minor sounds in the area. It also seems to help some people – myself included – to focus better on the task in front of them.

Strategy #9: Try to get in the ‘flow’ as much as you can.

The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a mindset where people are so fully engaged with the task in front of them that they seemingly lose all track of the world around them. Every spare bit of their brainpower is sucked into successfully completing or progressing on the task at hand.

Wikipedia describes it like this:

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Every time you can achieve a “flow state,” you’ll find yourself getting a large amount of very good work done very quickly. There isn’t a recipe for everyone getting into that flow state because everyone works differently, but there’s often a combination of factors – many of which are strategies in this article – that increase the chances of a person dropping into a flow state.

I have several personal tricks that work well for me – dropping distractions, listening to focusing audio, drinking black coffee and green tea on an alternating basis – but there’s no perfect recipe for everyone. However, I will say that flow states are the source of the vast majority of my work and I strive to get into those states as often as I can.

Experiment. See what things you do help you to drift into a state where you’re sucked into your work and lose track of time and space. Try to find the common factors that trigger such a mental state for you, and repeat them so that it becomes a common thing. The more time you spend in that state, the more you can get done, and thus the less time you have to spend in front of your desk and the more time you can spend doing other things at home.

Strategy #10: ‘Bank’ as much work as possible and use every droplet of focused time.

Telecommuting – and especially self-employed work from home – often puts you in a situation where you don’t really have blocked-off vacation times or sick leave. If you get sick, then you’re probably missing deadlines unless you’ve prepared for that illness.

Your best strategy, if possible, is to simply “bank” as much work as you can in preparation for that downtime. If you’re a writer, have a few “timeless” pieces ready to go in case you’re sick or have a personal emergency. If you make videos, do the same.

Another useful strategy is to establish timelines for projects that bring you to completion well in advance of the actual due date. For example, if you have a month to complete a project, shoot to have it finished in three weeks and plan accordingly. That way, if an illness or an emergency interferes, it doesn’t derail your work and it doesn’t reflect poorly on your organizational skills.

Strategy #11: Block off times for professional development.

When you work from home, it is incredibly easy to blow off professional development. It can often feel like the “unimportant” part of your day and when you’re at home, there are infinite things to distract you that seem important and enticing.

Don’t let that happen. Make professional development a regular part of your work schedule. You should set aside time at least once a week to sharpen your skills and learn new parallel skills.

For example, I intentionally set aside time to learn new things about personal finance, about topics parallel to the field like self-improvement, and about writing practices as well. I intentionally write things in completely different voices (think snarky, for example) just to practice and flesh out my writing chops. This keeps my writing skills sharp; they’re currently honed to be fast and solid rather than slow and great.

Strategy #12: Find small rituals that signify the ‘start’ of a block of work and the ‘end’ of a block of work.

This is another way to mentally signal yourself that your work day is starting. You simply do a certain number of things at the start of your workday and collectively they indicate that work is about to begin.

For me, that usually involves drinking a bunch of water, pouring a cup of black coffee, stretching a little, walking up the stairs, going into my office, turning on all the lights, and closing the door. Those steps, in order, signify a mental shift into work mode.

Your steps might be different – and, in fact, probably should be different. Just look for things to do that properly set the mood for working in your head and then make those steps into a “ritual” of sorts.

You can do the same thing at the end of your day, but I find the transition away from a work mindset to be much easier. Mine is usually just a block of journaling about my day, as mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

Working from home offers a ton of freedom and opportunity, but it also leaves the door wide open to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. Most of these mistakes and mis-steps can be avoided by simply having some smart strategies in place to encourage focus on one’s professional work.

These 12 steps are a key part of how I’m able to work effectively from home and maintain focus no matter what’s going on around me. Hopefully, they can work effectively for you, too.

Good luck!

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Friday, February 24, 2017

Status Symbols and Spending Less

I had a wonderful Facebook message exchange with a reader named Pete, who gave me permission to summarize our conversation but not to quote it.

Pete comes from a family where clothing is a huge status symbol. To dress in a nice suit at family events or in the community that he grew up in is a visual sign that you are an adult, that you’ve made it, and that you’ve achieved things that deserve respect. A cheap suit doesn’t convey those messages of status, nor do more casual clothing options.

In short, for Pete, the clothes themselves convey status and value that goes beyond the mere quality of the clothing.

Pete makes a good point, and it’s not just a truism for families, either. There are many career paths and community situations where the way a person chooses to dress conveys a certain status and can open you up to building certain relationships that would be otherwise closed to you if you show up in a rumpled sweatshirt.

Of course, there are some problems with that equation. For starters, it’s expensive. A nice suit can run into the four figures without breaking a sweat. That can seriously hamper the finances of someone starting out.

Another problem is that, even with a nice suit, there’s no guarantee of the status you want or the relationships you hope to build. You might have a great suit, but that won’t make a reputation you’ve already damaged and it won’t guarantee respect if you’re prone to sticking your foot in your mouth, for example.

None of those caveats change the fact that there are some benefits to investing money in certain status symbols. There’s no denying that. The question I’m much more interested in is how a person can get the maximum “bang for the buck” out of these kinds of status symbols.

In other words, how can our friend Pete get the maximum value for his dollar out of owning a “status” suit or two?

Here are some strategies I’d use.

Before you do anything else, decide whether a “status symbol” will really return meaningful value to you. Is a nice suit or a nice watch or a nice dress or a nice car going to open up enough community or professional relationships to really be worthwhile for you?

A person with a local business that thrives on community involvement and needs to cultivate a strong local reputation might find a great deal of personal value in appearing to have status in the community. On the other hand, someone who is self-employed or works in a research environment might find that status within their field comes from other sources and won’t get much value from a physical status symbol.

This is much more of an introspective thing. However, I will say that in my experience, status usually comes from reputation, and reputation usually comes from character. When I think of people I really respect in my local community, some of them do dress nicely and some of them do have status symbols, but many of them do not. The one person I immediately think of is usually found wearing a worn hat from the college he attended paired with a sweatshirt. His status is supported by a mix of friendliness and personal reputation, not by his clothing.

A status symbol isn’t “reputation in a box.” It’s a foot in the door, perhaps, but it’s up to you to build a reputation and it’s up to you to show character.

If you decide that a status symbol is right for you, first talk to a respected mentor with experience in this area. Find an older relative that you trust, or an older person in your workplace, and explain your situation. You’d like to buy a nice suit but you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of cash for it yet. Obviously, substitute whatever status symbol is necessary here.

What you’ll often find is that a good, trusted mentor will be able to find you that item you’re looking for at a surprisingly good price. They might even be able to give you one.

Early on in my career, one of my mentors helped me to find an amazing suit at a really great price, and another mentor simply gave me an amazing watch from his personal collection.

Why did they do that? Perhaps they saw some kind of potential in me. Perhaps they wanted to cultivate that relationship with me. It might have been simply a desire to pay things forward, or perhaps to give to me something they wish had been given to them early in their life.

Whatever the reason, mentors are often extremely helpful in situations like this. Don’t be afraid to talk to a trusted older relative or other mentor when you’re trying to “dress the part” or establish status in some other way.

Second, be patient and shop slowly. Don’t just run to the store immediately and throw cash at a problem like this. Remember, you don’t need that status symbol. Far from it. It’s something that will perhaps be useful, but it’s not something that you need to run out and pay full price for.

Instead, spend your time doing research and figuring out exactly what you want or need. Give yourself a variety of options. Then, start bargain hunting those options. You can sometimes find incredible discounts on things like fine clothing if you give it time and patience.

Don’t be afraid to utilize your mentors a bit here, either. Just let them know that you’re looking for a nice suit and ask them to keep their eyes open for any sales. Even if your mentor can’t hook you up with a personalized discount, they might be able to find you a really good sale.

Once you do decide to invest in a status symbol like this, use accessories to multiply the value at an extremely low cost. The example that I love to use here is using ties and shirts to add a great deal of variety to suits. Wearing a variety of tie patterns and shirts will make it appear as though there’s a great deal of variety in your wardrobe, when the truth is that you mostly just rely on one nice suit.

This is a huge money saver. It means that you don’t need to have a lot of expensive suits, just one or two. You just surround those two suits with a variety of different accessories – a variety of ties, shirts, watches, and so on – and you’ll pass off that single suit as being part of a widely varied wardrobe.

Also, take immaculate care of that status symbol so that you maximize the length of its life. If you’re actually investing a lot of money into something that’s largely for appearance and status, take care of that item. Maintain it properly. Clean it properly. Follow the instructions to the letter.

The reason is that you’re going to judge the value of an item like this by the number of times you use it. If you invest, say, $1,000 in a suit, if you wear it 10 times, it’s costing you $100 per wear. If you can wear it 100 times, it’s down to $10 per wear. Get it up to 250 and it’s down to $4 per wear.

Proper care and maintenance is going to extend the life of that status symbol. It’s going to enable you to get more uses out of that item before it begins to break down, look worn, or even potentially fail. The more uses you get out of that item, the better the value is going to be.

Think of it this way. Imagine your status symbol opens the door to one new connection each time you use it. That connection has value, right? The more uses you get out of that status symbol, then, the less expensive each connection becomes.

I want to conclude this article by clearly stating that I don’t think that status symbols actually build the kind of relationships that have value. They can help you get your foot in the door and can help boost your charisma, but they’re not required, and to actually build that relationship, you need to be bringing positive personal characteristics to the table, and no status symbol in the world can help you with that.

If you do decide that a particular status item is warranted in your personal and professional situation, be smart with that purchase. Seek help from a mentor. Shop around. Accessorize it rather than buying duplicates. Take care of the item. If you follow those strategies, you’ll maximize the value you get from that purchase.

Good luck!

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