Saturday, September 30, 2017

Staying Ahead of Becoming Obsolete

Over the last several years of writing for The Simple Dollar, I have read literally hundreds of personal finance and investing books, coupled with many books on adjacent topics like personal growth. You would think by now that I would get the message, so why did I just spend the last few hours reading a recent personal finance book?

At my previous job, I wrote somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lines of computer code and maintained all of it. The thing was, even in my final months there, I was vigorously rewriting things to improve efficiency and writing completely new test versions of old software using new software methodologies. I spent long afternoons reading books on software development and data mining and algorithms, too.

The reasoning is the same in both cases: I was driven by a fear of becoming obsolete. In my previous job, I didn’t want to find myself in a position where I didn’t understand the latest software development and data mining techniques, even if I didn’t actively use them at work. Similarly, these days, I make a conscious effort to stay abreast of what ideas and changes are growing in the personal finance field, even if they don’t provide a radical shift to my core message of spending less than you earn.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Why? Many career paths, particularly those that pay well but even in many entry level jobs that don’t pay really well, change rapidly. The days where you could just go to work and do the same thing every day for thirty years is long gone. If you go into work every day with the same exact skillset and same exact set of ideas as the day before, eventually your job is going to change into something that you’re not prepared to handle, and when that happens, you become expendable.

Even worse, if you’re let go from a job and don’t have a skill set that’s relevant for current jobs in your field, you’re going to find a very hard time getting employed again. It’s because you’ve become obsolete.

Of course, you can always recover from that, but it will require a huge investment of time and energy to update your skill set and knowledge, and you’re likely doing it while in a position of unemployment or in a position where you’ve had to get another job in an unrelated area and are devoting a lot of hours in your life to your current job. Some people simply drop out of the workforce entirely at this point.

Becoming obsolete is a real risk in the modern workplace, but it’s something that you can proactively prevent. Here are six ways you can do that.

Strategy #1 – Make Lifelong Learning a Part of Your Job

Part of your normal routine at work should be centered around learning, period. If you are not incorporating some form of learning in your normal routine, if you’re not absorbing new ideas and trying new techniques on a regular basis, you’re either in an extremely entry-level position or you’re on the path to becoming obsolete.

How do you do this, though? Here are some suggestions.

If you’re struggling to come up with any downtime for learning, talk to your employer and find a way to make time. Approach this conversation from the perspective that you’re spending all of your time juggling chainsaws rather than spending some of the time figuring out how to juggle those chainsaws more effectively, which will lead to greater productivity in the long term.

Think about it. If all you’re doing is keeping things barely above water, there’s no way you can ever move into a situation where it’s ever anything more than pure panic mode. The company’s products can’t develop or grow when everything is on the verge of falling apart all the time.

If a company can’t afford even a little space for an employer to improve their skill set, they’re working to make you obsolete. Staying there is going to cause you to eventually fall behind the curve and eventually be unable to easily find new work. You do not want to work there forever, but if you stay, it becomes progressively harder to find a good new position to exit into. So, if your employer isn’t on board with some level of learning, you need to exit the scene.

On the other hand, if you regularly have downtime at work, you’re set. You just need to consciously start using that time for learning new things. Spend a portion of your day devoted to learning, even if it’s just an hour a day or so. Block it off on your schedule. Shut down distractions during that time and devote yourself to reading challenging materials and trying out new techniques.

Where do you even start, though?

Read periodicals and articles related to your field, and dive deep into any regularly-mentioned topics that you don’t have mastery of. For example, let’s say you’re a software developer who does some work in Javascript. You spend some time each day reading, say, StackOverflow, to keep up on things, and you keep seeing people talking about async / await. You kinda understand what it is, but not really. There’s your warning light. It’s time to buckle down, do some reading on what async / await is, and write some test programs for yourself to see it in action.

Let’s say you’re an executive assistant and you spend your time reading general publications related to business administration and your general field so that you can understand what ideas your boss is relaying to you. You might come across an article that talks about strategic meetings, but that’s not really something you’ve done and you’re really not familiar with it. Get familiar with it. Even if it’s not something that really falls in line with what you’re doing now, you can extract ideas from that bigger concept that you can use now, and you’re prepared to handle the concept if you move on to a new position.

Apply what you’re learning. You’ve been reading. That’s good. You’ve been testing out things where you can to see how they work. That’s also good. You’ve been integrating these new ideas into your thinking. That’s great.

Now, it’s time to apply those things, and that leads right into the second and third strategies.

Strategy #2 – Take on Challenging Projects

Many people who become obsolete – or have a fear of becoming obsolete – often have a tendency (and a track record) towards avoiding challenging projects and sticking to familiar things. This tends to pigeonhole people – you become known for one thing and your skills at that one thing become very strong, but what do you do if the need for that one thing goes away at work? What if it falls out of favor in your field?

The truth is that you need to have practical experience on lots of things, and the best way to get that is to get involved with tasks that let you bridge the things you’re already good at with some of those new things. Often, this means getting on board with challenging projects. Here’s how.

Make an effort to get involved with at least some challenging projects and tasks. It’s probably a bad idea to throw yourself completely into things that are outside your current realm of expertise, but it’s a good idea to fill at least some of your plate with tasks that go somewhat beyond what you know. This forces you to translate your self-learning practices from the first strategy into real workplace results.

Your goal should be to fill some of your hours with tasks that are outside of your core skillset. Not all – you’re likely to become overwhelmed and not be able to meet expectations – and not none, because that’s the road to becoming obsolete. You’re targeting some of your work hours.

Don’t shy away just because you don’t know how to do everything right off the bat. It can be very intimidating to take on a work project that includes steps that you’re unsure how to perform. Don’t let that intimidation factor make your decision for you.

Instead, perceive the project as having a few extra steps. Those steps involve learning the skills you need to complete the next step in the project. Perhaps you need to learn a particular API, or maybe you need to understand a particular protocol, or perhaps you simply need to understand the normal procedure for stocking new items.

Whatever it is, don’t resist it. Take it on. Learn how to handle that step, then do it. The thing to remember is that people generally are very forgiving of others who are trying to learn a new task, so you’re likely to get some breathing room and leeway, especially at first. Just simply say, “I haven’t done this part before, and I’m learning. Can you help?” The vast majority of people in life will help, and many will be impressed that you’re trying to learn.

If you’re stuck, stop and learn until you can apply what you’ve learned. Sometimes we’ll take on challenging tasks and discover that we’re in over our heads. The worst move to make here is to keep charging forward, which has a good likelihood of making things worse. The other mistake people often make is to give up. Neither solution is the best one.

The best solution is to put things on pause for a moment and figure out what that next step is. Watch a Youtube video of how to fix that pipe or how to fix this wiring issue or how to diagnose the strange noise. Ask for advice on a programming conundrum on an online forum. Talk to a coworker and see if they have any advice (but don’t simply ask them to do it for you – learn how to do it for yourself).

Strategy #3 – Don’t Resist or Fear Change

Change comes to all workplaces, and people that fear becoming obsolete tend to resist that change. Change means that the skills you once had may not be as useful, and it also means that you may have to learn a few new skills and routines.

Understand that your company has to evolve in order to be successful, and that you have to evolve to keep up with that evolution. Workplace change is going to happen, or else your company is going to eventually go out of business. It is impossible to keep on doing the exact same thing with the exact same tools forever, because the competition will figure out better ways of doing it and they will use that to make lower priced or higher quality products, and customers will move on. That’s reality.

When you resist change, you’re making the case that staying put is more cost-effective in the long run than changing. That’s sometimes the case, but the argument for change is almost always that it will generate more revenue or cost less money in the long run. You have to be prepared to demonstrate that it isn’t true, and if you can’t do that, you’re arguing for something that isn’t what’s best for the organization as a whole so that you can remain comfortable. That’s not a route to a healthy career.

Embrace change, especially when the benefits are clear.

Remember that fighting change is an effective short term strategy, but a disastrous one for the long term. The thing is, many people will still fight changes because they recognize that, in the short term, slowing down change or stopping change is beneficial to them. If they can squeeze another year out of their current skill set, then why not do it?

The problem is that when change does eventually come, not only is that change going to sweep them aside pretty strongly, they’re going to find that their skills are even more outdated than the would have been had they simply embraced the changes when they were first proposed. They sacrificed long term stability for a few extra months of simplicity.

That’s a terrible exchange. Never, ever fight change because change seems harder than staying put. Embrace it now, because it’s easier to change when everyone else is.

Get ahead of change by learning about it and mastering it as soon as you see any hint of it coming. This loops back to the self-learning aspect: if you’re keeping up to date in your field, big changes will probably be part of your knowledge and even part of your skill set before they’re even seriously suggested at work.

If your company decides to switch to the hot new programming methodology, for example, but you’ve already learned about it, you’ve got a leg up. Change will be easy for you and, not only that, you can help others transition and appear to be an incredibly effective employee and even a leader.

Strategy #4 – Take Your Reviews Seriously

Many people fear becoming obsolete because they perceive themselves as already being on shaky ground at work for other reasons. Don’t let that mix of workplace challenges keep you from success. Instead, be proactive about your performance reviews, which provide a great window into your workplace status. Here’s how.

If you don’t have a regular review at work, ask for one. Many positions have a regular review process in which a person can sit down with their employer and assess whether or not that person is meeting the objectives of their job and what they can do to improve. If you don’t have a process like this at work, ask for one. Simply ask for a performance review.

If this seems scary to you, ask yourself why. What could you be doing at work so that this type of review isn’t a scary proposition? The truth is, if a review seems scary, then you’re probably running into fears of becoming obsolete or dealing with other workplace issues, and you should be proactively handling those fears.

Again, if you’re not sure how to proceed, ask your boss for guidance. Very, very few people in the professional world respond negatively if honestly and sincerely ask for help – they’re usually thrilled to help, especially if by doing so they make their workplace better. Having a better employee with a better skill set around is going to make your boss’s life easier, so they’re going to want to help you.

When you have a regular review, ask for suggestions on what you can improve and what upcoming things you can prepare for. So, you’re undergoing this review – now what? Obviously, listen for recommendations on areas that you’re weak in and use that information to improve yourself in the coming months.

However, it goes further than that. A performance review is the perfect time to directly ask what you can improve on and what you can prepare for. Even the best employees have areas of potential improvement. Even the most prepared employees have upcoming situations that they might not be ready for.

A performance review is the perfect time to figure out where you are weak and what’s coming up. That information spells out exactly what you can do to avoid becoming obsolete.

Base your learning around those upcoming objectives and those suggested improvements. Take the feedback from that review and use it to shape what you’re going to learn about next. Cycle that information right back into that first strategy and use it for input for learning.

If your boss indicates that you’re weak in an area, study that area. Become strong in that area. If your boss says something is coming in the future, study that something. Become strong in that something. That way, rather than becoming obsolete, you’re becoming stronger and more useful.

Remember that in most situations, your supervisor is telling you the truth, as you both benefit if a review is honest and taken seriously by the employee. As I noted earlier, in a normal employment situation, it is in the best interest of your boss to give you an honest review and to give you good advice on how to improve yourself and your work situation. If they have better employees, then it’s likely to reflect better on them to their supervisor.

Take advantage of that. Take your supervisor at his or her word and move forward based on their advice. They’re not going to suggest things to you that are going to put you in a worse place in terms of professional growth, because that doesn’t help them, either.

Strategy #5 – Be Involved in Professional Groups

Another powerful way to stay in touch with changes in your profession, to have a lot of opportunities for learning, and to build a ton of professional relationships at the same time is to join professional groups, particularly face-to-face ones, and go to professional meetings. Such groups are prime opportunities to meet people in your field and learn about the latest innovations in your career directly from them.

Here’s how to take advantage of this route for professional improvement.

Find professional groups online and in your area. Many professions have local groups that you can get involved with. You can find them online through professional associations in your career path or, lacking that, through services like Meetup. Look for any and all groups that may have something to do with your career and professional interests.

If you’re having difficulty finding professional face-to-face groups in your area, look for tight online communities focused on your field where you can share ideas. LinkedIn is a good place to start here.

Going to professional conferences and conventions is another great step along these lines. It allows you to compress many of the benefits of a professional group into just a few days that are jam packed with face-to-face interactions and learning. Many conventions often facilitate online groups as well.

Get actively involved with the discussions in those groups, both in terms of helping others as well as seeking out people who have knowledge you’re seeking. You’ve found a group or two – online or face-to-face. Now, get involved. If you see someone asking a question that you can answer well, answer it – do it with no questions asked and no thanks or benefit required. If you have a relevant question, ask it – many people will answer it as well as they can.

It’s that active exchange of knowledge that makes a community valuable, not only for you, but for everyone else involved. The more you participate, particularly in being helpful, the more others are drawn to participate and the more of a draw the group becomes.

Use learning as a tool for building relationships. Not only are such communities useful in terms of adding new knowledge and skills to your repertoire, it’s good for building professional relationships.

Those relationships come in handy. They can help you take the next step in your career by opening doors and opportunities. They can provide help when you’re trying to learn something new or add a new skill. They also can provide social fun and entertainment.

Get involved! You won’t regret it!

Strategy #6 – Use New Skills Outside of Work

If you’re struggling to find ways to apply some of your skills in the workplace, look outside of the workplace. There are almost always great opportunities for using skills in situations outside of our primary employer.

Here are some avenues to apply what you’re learning in real projects if they’re not available at work.

Look for projects in the community or within your passion areas to apply skills you’re learning but perhaps not applying at work. See if there are any community organizations or nonprofit groups or charities within your community that could use the skills that you’e trying to hone. Does an organization need some IT support? Could you set up a bit of custom software for some group? Could a local community group use some design help? Offer it up.

Remember, the goal here is to hone and master a skill that you want to practice while helping out a deserving group in your community. You most likely won’t make money from such an endeavor, but you will likely make some great connections in your local community.

Don’t be afraid to freelance outside of work, especially if it pulls you in new directions. Another option, of course, is to simply hang out your shingle for freelance work. This involves some self-promotion to find that work, but there are few things that will really put new skills to the test like a paid contract.

The thing to remember with freelancing and consulting is that, especially at first, you have to dig up the work. It doesn’t come to you. Don’t be afraid to seek out opportunities, even low income ones at first. This isn’t about making money, at least not at first. It’s about stretching your wings.

Intentionally choose extra projects that force you to stretch your skills a little. It can be tempting to just go back to the skills that you’ve honed over the years and just ply them again and again, but doing that really doesn’t help you to grow. It doesn’t do anything to keep becoming obsolete at bay.

When you’re looking for extra projects to work on, make an effort to choose ones that are likely to push you to use skills that you don’t normally use at work. Using those skills on a real-world project will really help your skill set to avoid becoming rusty and outmoded.

Final Thoughts

Obsolescence is a real fear in many professional careers. The skills that once carried you can slowly – or quickly – become skills that are no longer valued in your field, and at that point, you become expendable and it becomes difficult to find more work.

Don’t let that happen to yourself. Be proactive. Take steps to protect your career. In doing so, you give yourself more professional options than ever before.

Good luck!

The post Staying Ahead of Becoming Obsolete appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Making Youth Sports Affordable: A Playbook for Parents

An estimated 45.7 million American children ages 6-17 take part in one or more sports. For many of their parents, those athletic endeavors can cost thousands of dollars each year. In fact, spiraling costs receive part of the blame for participation numbers declining 9% over five years.

But there’s good news. While you can’t put a price on physical fitness, teamwork, and character-building, it is possible to lower the cost.

Making Youth Sports Affordable: A Playbook for Parents is here to help the families of young athletes cut their expenses, trim their budgets and life-hack their way to a sensible spending plan.

Table of contents

Costs and benefits of youth sports
Swapping vs. shopping/used vs. new
Fundraising: In person and online
General advice

Costs and benefits of youth sports

Between league fees, uniforms and equipment, lessons, and transportation, some parents can wind up paying four figures per year (or more) for every young athlete in the family.

Costs of competing

TD Ameritrade surveyed parents of children currently or previously participating in competitive youth sports to see how much they spent per child per month.

youth sports costs

Meanwhile, advocates point to physical, emotional and academic benefits that many children derive from participating in sports. The Aspen Institute cites statistical research comparing children who start playing sports at an early age with children who don’t play sports.

youth sports benefits

Fortunately, you can help your children enjoy the benefits of youth sports without emptying your wallet every season. Consider the following money-saving strategies when you put together your game plan:

Back to table of contents

Swapping vs. shopping/used vs. new

Think of buying sports gear the same way you look at buying clothes — in a race between your wallet and your child’s growth spurts, the growth spurts have a head start. That’s why it’s important to save money at every opportunity, which includes buying uniforms a little on the big side in anticipation that your children will grow into them.

The exception is athletic footwear. You want your child’s shoes and cleats to fit as closely as possible to help prevent injuries.

Growing into their gear

Err on the side of “one size up” when it comes to uniforms and equipment, because kids can grow fast from age 5 until puberty.

youth sports uniforms growth

Other ways to cut costs include swapping gear with other families and buying used instead of new. Ask around to see if your fellow sports parents have set up a swap program or if your community has a used sporting goods store. You may be able to find pre-owned gear on craigslist, eBay,, and other all-purposes websites, but the internet also has a number of sports-specific sites, such as:

(Play It Again Sports also has locations across the U.S. and Canada.)

Parents of multiple sports kids should consider reusing clothes and gear that belonged to older siblings. Unfortunately, children may object to the term “hand-me-down,” just as they would “used” or “secondhand.” If so, why not try some alternative phrasing?

  • “Broken-in”
  • “Gently used”
  • “Pre-owned”
  • “Repurposed”

Back to table of contents

Fundraising: In person and online

From car washes to bake sales, we’ve all seen fundraising campaigns for youth sports teams and leagues. If you’re considering this strategy, here are some tips:

  • Why not get creative? A talent show might draw more attention than yet another cookie dough sale.
  • Seek sponsorship. Financial support from a local business can be a godsend for youth sports.
  • Check with your local government to see if you need a permit for a fundraising event. Your city or county may have regulations dealing with anything from water usage (a red flag for car washes) to food safety (a red flag for potluck dinners).

On the other hand, technology offers new methods for fundraising that don’t involve elbow grease or government paperwork. Digital fundraising platforms you can use to help your child’s youth sports team include:


The “shop to support” service FlipGive lets you create an online shopping mall featuring prominent retail brands. The retailers donate a percentage of purchases made through your online store back to your team. Also, you can invite friends and relatives to shop at your store. FlipGive claims to have helped teams earn more than $10 million in cash back.


If you’ve ever held a fundraising event, you’re probably familiar with the refrain “Sorry, I don’t have any cash.” The nonprofit donation platform Qgiv addresses that problem by giving supporters the option of making donations by credit card, whenever and wherever it’s convenient for them. Qgiv has a 97% client retention rate and guarantees increased online fundraising.


If you want some professional help, fiverr® provides an online marketplace of freelance services including fundraising. Other services include website customization and social media campaigns so you can enhance your team’s online presence.

Back to table of contents

General advice

Consider limiting weekend tournaments.

Between registration fees, park fees and travel costs, a single weekend tournament could cost a sports parent hundreds of dollars, if not more.

Play for local teams rather than travel teams.

Travel teams, also known as club teams, can be hugely expensive. You could try to defray costs by carpooling or — in the case of elite-level teams that crisscross the country — redeeming airline and hotel rewards earned with your credit card. Still, staying local will help you avoid those excessive travel costs altogether.

Be wary of big-ticket items.

Every sports parent wants the best for their kids, but the costs of professional instructors and expensive, brand-new equipment just aren’t realistic for many families.

Register early if possible, and don’t be late.

Ask about early registration discounts when you sign your child up for a sports league. By the same token, you may face late fees if you don’t register on time, so be punctual.

Be a role model of responsibility.

Above all else, don’t justify overspending by thinking of youth sports as a financial investment.

While there are many benefits to playing sports, very few kids make the journey from youth sports to high school to college to a lucrative professional career. Consider boys basketball: According to NCAA data, only 3.4% of high school players wind up on NCAA teams, and those college players then have a 1.1% chance of turning pro.

Also, remember the basic concept of youth sports as an exercise in character-building. The life lessons your child learns from you, as a financially responsible adult, are at least as important as the lessons he or she will learn on the field.

The post Making Youth Sports Affordable:
A Playbook for Parents
appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Some Thoughts on Project 333

In the last week, a good half-dozen readers and a few personal friends alerted me to an interesting event going on in Ankeny, Iowa (which is a suburb of Des Moines, less than an hour from where I live). The event is a speech/Q&A session from Courtney Carver, the person behind the Project 333 movement – you can find out the details here).

Project 333 is something that’s been on my radar for a while, along with the whole “capsule wardrobe” mini-movement that’s been developing, so I’m interested in attending (though it’s competing with literally three other events that evening on my calendar).

So, what is Project 333 (and what is “capsule wardrobe,” for that matter)? The “capsule wardrobe” concept is an effort to be more minimalist in one’s wardrobe. It’s a community of mostly women, though there are men involved as well, who focus on finding ways to dress nicely and professionally with a minimum number of garments, which saves money and closet space.

Project 333 is merely a specific implementation of that concept, a way of turning it into a challenge. The challenge is simple: simply live with a wardrobe of 33 items (or less) for 3 months. How exactly you limit that is up to the reader, but Courtney offers up these guidelines: shoes, accessories, jewelry, and outerwear count toward those 33, but she excludes a wedding ring (if you never remove it) and underwear as well as casual clothes solely used around the house or at the gym.

I like the concept a lot, though I’m pretty confident that I do this already by default. Although I haven’t counted, I’m pretty sure I wear fewer than 33 articles of clothing outside the house and gym in a given three month period – that would include different shoes, shirts, and pants (I don’t wear jewelry or accessories besides my wedding ring or a tie on special occasions).

Here’s why this project really stands out to me.

One, it provides a challenge that’s long enough to become a habit. Depending on the specific routine, it takes between 30 and 120 days for a routine to transform into a personal habit. 90 days is a good target, one that pushes a person to make it through the difficult part of changing their clothing habits and adopt some new habits, but not so long that it seems like forever and drives people away from the start.

Two, it sets a challenging but achievable goal for most people. 33 items including shoes is a pretty strict limit for many people.

I have a pretty limited wardrobe, but even I have more items than that, counting all of my various shirts and pants. I started counting this up and, for me, it looked like this:
– 1 suit jacket
– 1 tie
– 1 belt
– 3 dress pants
– 4 denim jeans
– 2 shorts
– 6 shoes – one pair dressy, one pair very casual, one pair for hiking
– 3 dressy long sleeved shirts
– 2 reasonably dressy short sleeved shirts
– 1 long sleeved polo
– 2 short sleeved polos
– 7 t-shirts

That’s essentially what I would set aside for my 33 items. During the fall, I could easily live off of those if I kept my laundry up. It would be a bit of a challenge, but it would be achievable.

Three, achieving the goal pretty much forces you to rethink how many clothes you own and how much is really necessary. When I made that list above, I had to really think about what I needed in terms of clothing in my life. How often do I wear something simple and casual to the grocery store? How often do I go out in the community dressed nicely? How much clothing do I really need to cover those things?

When you start asking yourself questions like this in a serious fashion, what you begin to notice is the excess. If you’re considering whether 10 shirts is enough, having 40 in your closet seems like complete overkill. When something begins to seem like complete overkill, you find yourself far less interested in spending more money on it.

Four, it’s a strong push toward minimalism – and considering it in your life. When I look at that above wardrobe, I recognize that, if I needed to, I could probably cut the list down to about 15 or so. I’d cut the t-shirts in half, drop the suit, drop the casual shoes and either wear my hiking shoes or dressy shoes, and drop about one or two items in every other category.

If I cut it down that much, I start reaching a point where I could live entirely out of a duffel bag. This is something I would probably consider doing for a while if I were single again. It would be very tempting to load up a duffel bag and spend a spring, summer, and fall on the road visiting national parks and visiting friends, writing along the way.

Finally, it creates an opportunity to “box up” your excess clothes and use them for a “wardrobe refresh” in the future. After those three months, you can simply refresh your wardrobe by opening up your boxed clothes and completely changing everything up by using what you have in storage.

Let’s say I have eight short sleeved polo shirts and I include only two of them in doing this type of challenge. At the end of those three months, I can put the two polo shirts in storage (provided they’re still in good shape), pull two other shirts out of storage, and it’ll look like I just refreshed my wardrobe at no cost whatsoever.

Projects like these expose the excess in one’s life. A person who might consider it completely beyond reason to live out of a duffel bag for an extended period of time might be willing to take on a project like this, and then come to realize that their current wardrobe is quite excessive and that they can, in fact, enjoy and appreciate a much smaller wardrobe.

The thing is, this kind of project template doesn’t have to be just about clothes. You can create challenges like this for all kinds of things. Such challenges push you to recognize how much excess you have in your life.

Here are a few challenges inspired by Project 333 that go a long way toward showing yourself how you can have a great life with a small number of things.

Challenge yourself to using just ten kitchen tools to make meals for a month. Try to make a different dinner each day using just a chef’s knife, a cutting board, a paring knife, a saucepan, a large pot, a spatula, a baking sheet, a casserole dish, a measuring cup, and a strainer, along with your stove and a slow cooker. See how many things you can make. Also, see how adept you get with those tools and how truly flexible they can be in your kitchen. It’ll probably inspire you to avoid buying more kitchen tools for a long time – and probably inspire you to get rid of some stuff.

Challenge yourself to use just one paid entertainment service for the next month. Use just your cable service, or just Netflix, or just Amazon Prime. Really dig into what’s available. Make yourself a nice big list of shows that are prerecorded or that you want to binge watch – a huge list – and then start digging into them. You may just find that this one service has so much good entertainment that you won’t need the others for a very long while, so you can safely cancel them.

Challenge yourself to cut a collection size down to a small cap, and then use a “buy one, get rid of one” philosophy for the next six months. Let’s say you have an enormous book collection. Your goal is to pare that collection down to a size that will fit on a particular bookshelf or set of shelves, and then if you buy a book, it has to fit on that shelf or you have to get rid of a book to make room for it. A challenge like this makes you look seriously at why you have so many books, whether or not you’ll honestly ever read these books again, and how good it feels to put those books in the hands of someone who will actually read them. Not only is it about reassessing what you own, it’s about what the value of a book is – it doesn’t mean much if it just sits there unread, gathering dust.

Project 333 is a great personal challenge to take on if you have a large wardrobe. It forces you to reconsider the sheer quantity of clothes that you own and instead makes you think of them in terms of individual quality and flexibility and usefulness. That’s a valuable change in perspective, one that can save you a lot of money. You can encourage similar perspective shifts by trying similar challenges in other areas of your life.

Good luck!

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Why Choose Financial Responsiblity?

Striving to have money in the bank, striving to have no debt, striving to reach a point where you can live off of what you have put aside in earlier years – those things are the exception rather than the rule in America. They go against the grain. Choosing to forego some momentary pleasures and to shoot for debt freedom is something that most people in America simply don’t do.

The numbers back me up on this. As I discussed about a month ago, 78% of Americans currently live paycheck to paycheck. Most Americans feel that they will always be in debt, and most Americans save less than $100 per month.

Choosing to pay off your debts, choosing to save money for the future, choosing to put yourself in a position where you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, those choices put you among a minority of Americans – a pretty small minority, actually.

Why do this? Why choose a different path? Why follow the road less traveled? I often talk about the “how,” but what about the why?

I spent some time thinking about why I choose to save rather than spend, why we live in a smaller house than we could afford, why our summer vacations are usually low-cost camping road trips, why I’m driving a 15-year-old car I bought off of Craigslist. Why choose those things, especially when I have the income and financial means to have a big house, a shiny car, and lots of travel?

It comes down to a mix of several factors. Let’s walk through them.


The most stressful period in my entire life, bar none, was the first few years of my marriage.

During those years, my wife and I spent a lot of money. We went on expensive trips. We went on expensive dates. We drove pretty new cars. We had the latest gadgets. We got involved in expensive hobbies.

How is that stressful, you might ask?

In order to be able to afford those things, we racked up a lot of credit card debt. We made minimum payments on our student loans. We made minimum payments on our car loans. We lived in a tiny apartment and never saved a dime for anything bigger. We didn’t even have an emergency fund of any kind.

Whenever I thought about the future at all, I would feel the stress of not being prepared for something big.

Whenever I went to check the mail, I was seized with the stress of knowing that there was unwanted bad news waiting for me.

Whenever I held my son, I couldn’t help but feel that I was failing that little baby.

All of those feelings were ones that I could hide behind a curtain of outward success. What people saw were the cars and the trips and the clothes.

What people didn’t see were the sleepless nights and the worry and the disagreements. They didn’t see the weight gain (well, maybe they did) or the frequent colds or the constant acid in my stomach. I managed to keep those hidden, inside of me, but they made my life a lot less joyless.

Of course, that hidden stress and lack of joy made it feel even more imperative that I keep up appearances and splurge in things that brought me short-term joy. Toward the end of this period in my life, I kept buying more and more and more things, seeking those bursts of pleasure from new things to erase the stress and internal strife that I felt, but it became less and less and less effective.

The thing is, once I really committed to spending less money, significantly less than I earned, all of that stress started to melt away. I didn’t worry about getting the mail any more. I didn’t worry about what the future was going to be like if anything went wrong – the sheer number of my worries fell through the floor. I stopped worrying about keeping up appearances through always having new stuff. All of that stuff went away.

I was simply left with a less stressful life. That lowered stress helped me to be a better parent, be a better husband, be healthier, and enjoy a lot of aspects of life a lot more. I sleep better at night and don’t completely fall apart in stressful situations, because those stress loads are easier to bear without the background stress of financial problems.

Stress isn’t my constant enemy any more.


When I first graduated from college and embarked on my career path, I deeply enjoyed it. I was involved in data mining in a research lab, where my job was essentially to mine many, many gigabytes of data for patterns and share those patterns with collaborators. I really enjoyed the work, and I worked for an employer who was very hands-off. As long as I provided what the collaborators needed and spent my free time doing interesting things that I could talk about in meetings, I basically had free reign.

Eventually, the grant that employed me wound down, but my work led to another job offer with a much different organization. On paper, I was doing the same work… but it wasn’t the same. There was an enormous amount of bureaucracy floating around.

I was lucky to work with people whose company I enjoyed, but as time went on, I felt I was spending more and more time dabbling in bureaucracy and maintaining things and living up to protocols that seemed pointless to me, and less and less time actually doing data mining.

I also began to spend more and more of my spare time working on work tasks that were far, far outside of what I was originally doing. I was fixing broken database installations, trying to figure out how to fend off cyberattacks, teaching people how to use email programs, and other such things that I not only didn’t enjoy, but dreaded.

My career had taken an unhappy turn. The thing was, I didn’t have a whole lot of leverage to do anything about it.

So I festered. I began to hate my job, even though I liked the occasional intellectual work I still did and I liked many of my coworkers (especially my two longest-lasting ones). I dreaded going into work.

The reality was that I couldn’t afford to make a major change. All I could really do is shop around for other positions and hope to snag one with a comparable salary. While there were options in my area, the community was so tight-knit that word got around if I were to interview anywhere, so it was very difficult.

It caused a lot of stress – yes, an additional layer of stress beyond the ones mentioned earlier – and it actually began to poison a lot of the aspects of my job that I still enjoyed. I just felt drained and unhappy.

My best option was some form of a career reboot, but it was a leap that I simply could not take while walking a financial tightrope. It was only after cleaning up my finances that I was able to reassess my career and feel secure enough to make a career switch without endangering my family.

The thing was, my career switch wasn’t really based on money. It was based on working conditions – did I enjoy what I was doing? – and on flexibility so I could spend plenty of time with my children as they grew up.

Because I chose financial stability, I was able to leave a job that I didn’t enjoy and switch to a new career that gave me flexibility and creative work that I enjoyed. I took a pay cut to do this, of course, but our financially stable situation made this relatively easy to do.

I would have never been able to do this without financial stability. Living paycheck to paycheck kept me handcuffed to an unhappy professional situation. Escaping that type of lifestyle freed me from that situation.


At the time, I didn’t really see it, but the money and career stress that I was carrying was not only affecting me as a person, but it was having an adverse effect on almost every relationship in my life.

It was hurting my marriage. Sarah and I had a lot of disagreements in that timeframe, which left me feeling unhappy about how our marriage was going to move forward.

It was hurting my ability to be a good parent to my infant son. I was already very stressed, so things like normal infant crying became even more difficult for me to handle and process. It is far easier to deal with an infant when you’re not burdened with stress in other areas of your life.

It was hurting old friendships, as I often found it difficult to communicate what was really going on with my life. As I’ve made clear, I began to feel like there was a facade that I had to keep up that wasn’t really representing how I truly felt, and I believed I had to maintain that facade for my various social relationships.

My poor financial choices and my paycheck-to-paycheck living was hurting my relationships with the people I cared about the most. I couldn’t be fully honest with them. Instead, I was often stressed out around everyone, something that was often apparent even as I tried to make it seem like everything was under control.

The solution, of course, was to start being honest about my financial state and start to really fix it. In a big way, that’s how The Simple Dollar started. It was a way for me to start to communicate and work through my struggles with finances and what I was changing to fix it.

My financial state was poisoning my relationships, and it was only through fixing my finances that I was able to start repairing some of the damage that I had done.


Whenever I look through my shelves and see an unread book, I feel disappointment. Whenever I look through my closet and find unused materials for a project, I feel sadness.

Those purchases represent money that was effectively wasted. I bought those items, put them aside, and simply did not use them. I could go to the store right now and buy those items without missing out on a thing, and I could have used that money in the interim for something positive.

I finally realized that an item left unused at home is a true waste of money. There’s nothing wrong with buying an item that you’re going to use in the near future, but when you buy items and simply put them aside with some vague intent of using them at some point in the future, you’re wasting money in almost every case.

When I see unused things, things that I don’t have an immediate plan for and haven’t used yet, what I feel more than anything is guilt. That’s not a happy feeling.

When you buy something that isn’t something you’re going to use in the near future, you’re making your financial state worse, and for what? The idea that you have something at home right now rather than having to go to the store and buy it should you ever decide you want to use it?

Even worse, I’ll often find that my interest in using the item has run cold if it sits there for a while. That object is now effectively lost money. Sure, I can sell it to recoup some of the loss, but then I’m investing extra time into that sale as well.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always perfect about this. I’ll sometimes buy things – board games in particular – that I don’t necessarily need. I’ll have unplayed games on my shelf and then still buy another new one.

I treat those missteps as teachable moments, things to reflect on. Why did I do that? What can I do to avoid repeating it?

Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at this. I’ve also sold off a lot of unused possessions and recouped a lot of money that I once invested in unused stuff.

More importantly, I’ve learned that I’m far better off doing things with the stuff that I have than thinking about stuff that I don’t have.

I’ve reoriented virtually all of my free time around doing things rather than collecting things. I watch movies rather than collecting DVDs, often renting them or checking them out from the library or watching them on Netflix. I read books rather than collecting them, mostly thanks to checking them out from the library. I play games rather than collecting them and trade off ones I don’t think I’ll play again.

The thing is, that simple change is actually pretty fulfilling even beyond the fact that it’s far less expensive. The truth is that most of my hobbies started off as being centered around doing something rather than buying stuff, but at some point, the wires became crossed. Rediscovering the joy of doing has been a tremendous positive change in my life, even without the positive financial considerations.


I once shared an excerpt from one of my journal entries from that time in my life. I’ll just quote it here:

Sometimes I feel like my life is completely without purpose and I’m just following some invisible pattern that someone else has put into place.

Today was a typical day. But every day is a typical day.

I woke up about 6:30 and said good bye to Sarah as she left. I watched the news for a while, got dressed, and headed off to work. I stopped at Gregory’s and ate a bagel and drank a cup of coffee while I read the paper. I drove to work. I got a few tasks done, surfed the web for a while, did a few more things. I went out to lunch at El Azteca and dropped $12 on a tasteless lunch. I sat at my desk most of the afternoon, thinking about the weekend and wishing I wasn’t a complete failure at writing. I stopped at the bookstore on the way home and bought three books. I went to the music store and got the new Basement Jaxx album that Charlie talked about. I listened to it on the way home and didn’t like it at all. I got home, tried to write a little bit while waiting for Sarah, hated everything. Deleted all of it. We went out to dinner. Now she’s watching a movie and I’m sitting here doing nothing.

I do all of these things almost every single day – but I feel like I’m going nowhere at all.

What I feel when I read this today is hopelessness. I see a person just aimlessly wandering through life, without any direction, without any light at the end of the tunnel. I see a person trying to find joy in stuff and not really finding it. I see a person feeling a huge amount of general dissatisfaction in life and not really understanding what the source of it is.

There are a lot of layers to unpack in that journal entry – and many others in the days and weeks preceding and following it – but, more than anything, it gives this sense of hopelessness, like a person running in a hamster wheel and never going anywhere and, even worse, not seeing any worthwhile place to go.

Fixing my finances was a big first step in fixing all of that. It gave me a goal to work toward, for one, but making progress on that goal also provided a stable platform for fixing other things going on in my life.

The changes gave me a ton of creative inspiration. They gave me the desire to try a lot of new things. They gave me a deeper enjoyment of the things that I had.

More than that, those changes gave me a sense that my life really could be better and the only real cost was to give up trivial things.

I saw that change in my finances. I continue to see that change in other areas of my life. If I give up something trivial and put something worthy in its place, my life becomes better.

Seeing that phenomenon actually work in my own life gives me great hope for the future. It shows me that if I have dreams, I actually can achieve them. I can make my life a better and brighter place.

Choosing financial responsibility turned on that light, when it wasn’t on before.

Final Thoughts

Making the hard choice to become financially responsible changed almost every dimension of my life. It drastically reduced my stress. It rescued my relationships with many of the best people in my life. It brought me to a much more joyful career. It mended my relationship with the things I owned and how I spent my free time. Perhaps best of all, it gave me hope for the future and showed me that I could have a better life if I worked for it.

When I talk about giving up some sort of treat, it’s not just walking away from something. It’s not about denying myself something. It’s about taking a step to build and extend the kind of life that I want for myself.

A great life does not come without sacrifices. There are always hard choices to be made in the moment. Do I buy this treat? Do I get out of bed to go on a jog? Do I eat this delicious slice of pizza? It’s so easy to take the path of least resistance.

But, at the same time, it’s really not that hard to choose the path that leads to a better life, either. If I don’t buy this treat, I still have countless things at home to enjoy. If I get out of bed to exercise in the morning, I still have a great day ahead of me. If I turn down that extra slice of pizza, I still have the company of friends around me. It’s still a great life, even in that moment.

Even more than that, though, making the slightly tougher choice represents one more building block in a much better life than the one I once had, or even the life I have now. It’s a life with more stability. It’s a life with more choices. It’s a life with fewer restrictions. It’s a life with more energy and more health.

That’s why, more often than not, I choose the financially responsible choice. That’s why Sarah and I eliminated all of our debts in two years, then bought a house and paid it off in four. That’s why we have a healthy amount of money in the bank and plan to walk away from work at about the same time our youngest walks out the door into adulthood.

It’s not just the how. It’s the why.

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Do You Have What It Takes to Succeed in Sales?

There are plenty of careers with a high turnover rate, but sales jobs are particularly notorious for driving people crazy then out the door. Chances are good you know someone who tried sales and failed, perhaps miserably. Perhaps you bombed at selling renter’s insurance or coupon books, and are still ashamed.

Well, you shouldn’t be. Why? Because dejected salespeople are all over the place. Companies who take a “sales approach” to growth experience a revolving door of employees, and many who try sales just aren’t meant for the job.

So, if you tried sales and failed, you’re not alone.

Case in point: Of the top 10 businesses with the least loyal employees through 2013, many of the bottom-rung companies were in sales. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (a life insurance sales company) kept salespeople for an average of less than a year. Aflac Insurance, a company with employees who aggressively hawk short-term disability insurance, also hangs on to employees for just one year on average.

A recent study from Aon even showed that job turnover in life sciences and technology sales is currently at a five-year high.

So, why do people quit sales? With low unemployment, it’s natural for some salespeople to job hop in search of a better deal. But, there’s also something more nefarious at play – something that leaves some people who try sales absolutely wrecked.

Whether it’s the pressure to perform, the constant push to reach sales goals, the ongoing bouts of rejection, or the fact that some people can’t deal with a variable income, the fact remains that some people just can’t deal with selling stuff for a living.

And, that’s perfectly okay. After all, not everyone is cut out to be a nurse or a math teacher or a lawyer, either. Since we’re all cut from different cloth, different jobs suit our tastes and lifestyles.

Nine Signs You Have What It Takes to Succeed in Sales

Still, all of this might leave you wondering what kind of people do succeed in sales. What kind of person is okay with hearing “no” all the time – or being hung up on relentlessly? What personality type is perfectly fine with contacting random people to peddle whole life insurance, cars, or vacuums?

Who on Earth is okay with earning thousands of dollars one month and zero the next? Just who?

To find out what personality types succeed in sales, we interviewed professionals who live and breathe this competitive industry. Who is destined for a career in sales? Here’s what the experts had to say:

#1: You have an understanding of human nature (but not necessarily an extroverted personality).

Many people assume you have to be extroverted to succeed in sales, says sales executive and expert Judah Ross, vice president of membership for his local chapter of the Global Inside Sales Association (AA-ISP). However, Ross says this isn’t actually the case. Out of the highly successful sales representatives he works with, Ross notes that the vast majority are just as introverted as they are extroverted.

What makes these workers successful is that they know when to turn on the small talk and when to keep to themselves. Successful salespeople also tend to have a deep understanding of human psychology and human nature, he notes. “They know what motivates people.”

You don’t have to be overly outgoing to succeed in sales. Instead, you need to know when to talk and which words might motivate your customers to buy.

#2: You’re intelligent and quick-minded, but not necessarily book smart.

While sales may not be rocket science, there is a certain amount of intelligence required to understand your customers and tailor your message to what they want to hear, says Jeff Goldberg, president and lead sales trainer at JG&A. If you’re not smart enough to pick up on cues from potential clients, you may miss out on a sale or lose it to someone who’s better at honing their message.

“You don’t need to be a genius, but you do need at least half a brain,” says Goldberg. “Sales is often a game of thinking on your feet.”

#3: You’re competitive and you want to make lots of money.

Goldberg says the best salespeople are the ones who have a real hunger for success – and even for competition. They desire earning more and achieving their goals almost at any cost, which is probably why they’re okay with the constant rejection and pressure that comes with a career in sales.

Young sales reps who are recently married and ready to buy a house and raise a family are typically good prospects, says Goldberg. Ex-athletes often make great salespeople as well, because they hate to lose and love to win.

#4: You’re assertive.

Salespeople who shrink at the thought of speaking their mind may not last long, says Goldberg. Why? Because they need to be assertive and willing to say things their potential clients may not like to hear. Heck, some potential clients may not want to talk to you at all. How can you get that first meeting if you don’t have the guts to speak up?

“Salespeople should never be aggressive, but you do need to be assertive,” says Goldberg. “You have to be willing to contact people who don’t know you, get them to agree to meet with you, establish rapport quickly and get them to open up to you.”

If you’re shy or like to hold back, it’s going to be tough for you.

#5: People like and trust you.

While we’ve all heard stories of sleazy salespeople, Goldberg says salespeople with the most integrity are the ones who perform well over the long-term. If you’re unethical or unfair to your clients, your career in sales will probably be short-lived.

Customers buy from people they like and trust, says Goldberg. If you’re someone who’s generally likable, you’ll probably do better in sales than if you’re hard to warm up to.

And while it’s easy to think salespeople are sleazy across the board – or that you have to lie, cheat, and steal to make a living at it – that’s not true at all.

The truth is, the salespeople who are honest get the most repeat sales and referrals. And those with the most repeat sales and referrals are the ones who earn the most money.

#6: You’re an optimist.

The best salespeople are those with a “half glass full” mentality, says sales and marketing consultant Aleksandr Biyevetskiy, founder of You need to be unrealistically optimistic in order to face multiple rejections but still believe you’ll come out ahead.

“Are you resilient?” asks Biyevetskiy. “You have to possess a high degree of optimism and interpersonal energy to face multiple rejections inherent to sales,” he says.

If you hate hearing “no” and let multiple rejections scare you off from pursuing new leads, sales is not for you. But, if you can hear “no” a few times and still think you’re on the verge of a breakthrough, a sales career might be right up your alley.

#7: You’re a good listener.

While sales professionals need to be able to state their case, they also need to earn their client’s trust, says Biyevetskiy. That’s why sales people need to be good listeners. While the sales process requires a lot of back and forth, the best salespeople know when to shut their mouths and listen for once.

“If people sense that you’re not really listening to what they have to say, then you’re not going to make the sale,” says Biyevetskiy. “It goes back to emotional intelligence, which includes knowing when to talk and when to shut up and listen.”

#8: You have a strong work ethic.

You have to have a solid work ethic to succeed in sales, says Yoni Pogofsky, managing broker at the Pogofsky Group realty in Chicago. Since most sales jobs let you set your own hours, someone who’s prone to slacking off won’t cut it.

If you show up to work at 10 a.m. and work until 3 p.m. because it’s a slow day, you’ll never make it, says Pogofsky.

“A successful salesperson needs to have a fire under them, and they need to start that fire.”

#9: You have grit.

The final marker of a successful salesperson is something that can’t be taught in school. To persevere in sales, you have to have grit and determination along with the mindset to keep going when the odds seem stacked against you.

It takes grit to contact complete strangers when there’s a good chance they have no desire to talk to you. It takes grit to show up to work with a positive attitude when you’re not quite on track to reach your goals for the month. And it takes grit to pick up the phone again when someone shuts you down, perhaps rudely. 

“Any way you look at it, you’re going to face a lot of ‘no’s’ when you’re in sales. This can really beat down the average person and discourage them from pursuing further,” says Ross.

But often times, it only takes one more call to finally get that “yes.”

The people with grit are the ones who reach for the phone, while those who lack it quit and go home.

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

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Have you ever tried a career in sales? How did it go?

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When Experiences Become About “Keeping Up with the Joneses”

There was a time earlier in my life where I was very concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses.” I ran with a crowd that was incredibly focused on buying new things, showing them off to friends and family and acquaintances and neighbors and reveling in their jealousy, and then also being jealous of the things that friends and family and acquaintances and neighbors had.

I remember, at the time, getting a brand new Blackberry the day it was released. This was during the era where the Blackberry was the be-all-end-all mobile device, as it was a pretty effective tool for answering email and sending texts on the fly in the pre-iPhone and pre-Android era. I remember showing it to people and seeing their jealously and loving it, then I remember being jealous not too much later when a better model came out and someone else had it.

I was jealous of the cars and clothes and houses that people had, and I felt a ton of pride in what I had and had a desire to show it off. This was normal within my social circle – if I were active on Facebook during that time in my life, I’m sure my feed would have been full of pictures of my latest possessions and likes and comments on the pictures of possessions of my friends and family and acquaintances.

Since then, my own life – and a lot of my own social circle – has undergone a lot of changes. We’ve really drifted away from that kind of materialism. There’s almost no discussion about the things that people have in my social group. It’s just not a part of the conversation.

The same is true for my own personal social media. When I look at what the people in my group post about, it almost never has anything to do with the things they possess.

However, I have noticed a different flavor of oneupmanship in the last few years – the “experience” oneupmanship.

Chasing Experiences, Not Things

There are quite a few people I know who are largely silent on social media unless they’re traveling or going to an interesting place or having an interesting experience.

They’ll post pictures from their cruise ship or from the resort or from the nation halfway around the world that they’re visiting.

They’ll post a bunch of pictures and commentary of their dinner at a restaurant that charges $200 for a plate.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame them for posting such things, not in the least. Those are great experiences to be having.

Instead, it’s the comments that trouble me a little – and, even more than that, my own reaction.

I’ll read the comments and notice that the post has a whole bunch of reactions, including a ton of likes and loves.

I’ll see that people have written that they’re “soooo jealous” of their vacation. I’ll hear about how that $100 dish looks “amazing.” And I’ll see people saying that they “MUST DO THIS” thing that costs hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The thing is, I sometimes feel that exact same way.

I’ll read or hear about someone’s fantastic vacation or amazing restaurant meal or their cruise and I’ll feel jealous.

I want that experience, too.

I want to “keep up with the Joneses,” not in terms of stuff, but in terms of experiences. I want to see the world. I want to taste the foods. I want to attend the shows.

The thing is, it would be very easy, as a fairly financially responsible person, to fall into that trap. It’s a tricky trap to fall into, too, because you’re not even accumulating any stuff to point out to yourself all of the money you’re spending.

So, how do I solve this?

One strategy, of course, is to just further trim my social circle down to people who just don’t take on expensive experiences – or at least don’t share them. That’s a non-starter. There are people that I deeply value in my life who have the financial means to travel to Paris or Tokyo every year, and they do so. It’s on me to deal with it, not on them. I would do the same thing as them if I were in their financial state.

Here are the five real strategies I use to handle that situation.

One, I think about experiences outside of the glare of social media and social relationships. I don’t consider what we’ll do for our family vacation next year while staring at gorgeous pictures of Tuscany that a friend posted to Facebook. Instead, I think about it after a day or two spent with my family and with time to think about what we really enjoy and what we can sensibly afford.

This often points me toward trips like our family vacation this past summer, where we camped at Yellowstone using a free national parks pass. That trip absolutely nailed the things that my family loves, and it happened on a shoestring budget.

When I think about delicious meals, I don’t stare at pictures of amazing restaurants that friends are talking about. Instead, I look around my own kitchen and wonder what I can create myself for my family.

My decisions about the experiences I enjoy are ones that I make far away from sources that might tempt me and might drive up my “jealousy” factor.

Two, I think about why I’m jealous. The easy answer might be that I wish I could go to Paris on a long weekend, but the real answer is that I wish I could afford a trip to Paris without any long term financial ramifications.

Thinking in that fashion, and realizing that it has less to do with the trip itself and more to do with recognizing that I’m not yet where I want to be financially, pushes me to do better. It pushes me to spend less on unimportant things so that I can have the important things.

It pushes me to not sweat about that trip to Paris right now, but to make smart financial moves so that when we do eventually take a trip like that, the real financial impact is minimal. I don’t yet deserve that experience because I haven’t yet achieved the financial change necessary to make such an experience happen without financial stress. Until then, it’s on me.

Three, I reflect on the financial state of those enjoying the experience. Some of them are at retirement age and are enjoying the fruits of thirty five years of financial planning and hard choices. Others are spending themselves into a deep hole of debt that’s going to add a lot of stress to their life. Still others can outright afford those experiences, but they’re lassoed to a high-stress career to be able to afford it, which takes away from the joys of daily life.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy foregoing most of those “great experiences” in order to be able to enjoy lower stress and contentment in other areas of my life. I don’t have any debt whatsoever. I’m building toward a state of financial independence where I won’t have to work at all, and if I push a little bit past that, I’ll be able to afford such things without any long term financial risk – but I’m not there yet. I have a pretty low stress life, all told, without incredible career pressure. I wouldn’t trade those things away for an annual trip to Jakarta.

Four, I consider what kinds of splurges are also meaningful to my family. If I were to make a list of ten things I would love to do if I were single and didn’t have to worry about anyone else, it would be a much different list than the ten things I’d most love to do with my family. Most of the things I’d love to do with my family are actually lower cost ones, because they involve travel that’s manageable with three children and they involve seeing things in North America that are inherently less expensive to visit.

My solo list involves things like visiting Jakarta. My family list involves camping at Acadia National Park. One of those is pretty expensive. The other one isn’t. Not only that, on the whole, the Acadia trip would be far more meaningful to my family right now, as it would involve lower stress on the parents while also including new experiences and sights for the children that sync up well with what they enjoy.

Finally, if I’m still struggling with experience temptation, I talk to my wife. Like most married couples, Sarah and I have a bunch of mutual friends, some individual friends, and somewhat different social experiences as a result. Often, she’s not exposed to the same “experience temptations” that I am, and vice versa.

So, whenever one of us is feeling jealous and wants to “keep up with the Joneses” with regards to some experience, we just talk to each other. Almost always, the other person will pop a hole in that bubble pretty directly by pointing out how the idea is pretty unnecessary, how it doesn’t really mesh up with our shared goals, and how it’s probably just driven by an empty “keeping up” mindset.

I can’t name how many times Sarah has effectively pushed a pin right into the balloon of a desired experience. I come in wanting to do something or go somewhere and she’ll point out how it is completely out of left field and doesn’t match up with anything. She won’t shout “no,” but will encourage me to sit on the idea and ask myself if it really makes sense in the larger picture of my life. The truth is, when I actually listen to her reasoning and think about it, I realize the desire is pretty silly. And I do the same thing for her.

Relying on a partner with whom you have great communication is an incredibly useful tool for keeping your worst impulses in check.

In the end, experiences can become all about “keeping up with the Joneses” as material items are, especially in the age of social media. The best tool that you have in your repertoire is to step back, breathe, and reflect on why you feel that way, especially if you have a partner to talk it through with.

Good luck!

The post When Experiences Become About “Keeping Up with the Joneses” appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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How to Set a ‘Spending Money’ Cap and Save More Every Month

There’s no right or wrong way to budget your money, just like there’s no perfect way to spend it. But, that doesn’t mean a little planning can’t help you get closer to your savings goals.

If you take the time to write out a monthly budget, you may find you’re able to better organize your finances in terms of how much to spend on experiences, savings, and regular bills. And, despite what anyone says, budgets don’t have to be restrictive. If you use a budget to create a comprehensive spending plan, you should budget for more than bills; you should budget for entertainment, vacations, and fun, too.

This leads us to the concept discussed in this post – spending money. Generally speaking, “spending money” is extra cash you keep on hand to pay for daily expenses like gas for your car and splurges like going out to eat. You can budget a set amount for this category, but you should ideally be able to spend it how you want.

Four Steps to Budgeting for ‘Miscellaneous’ Spending

Still, if there’s one problem new budgeters always face, it’s how much to set aside for spending money every month. No matter how disciplined you are – or how dedicated you are to your goals – you will need money to spend on a daily basis.

And, it’s not just as easy as figuring out the minimum amount of money you can get away with spending each day or each week. You work to pay bills, but you also need to live. Ideally, you should strive to find a balance that lets you spend some money now without detracting from your future goals.

Whether you’re budgeting for the first time or considering giving it a try, it’s important to know how to budget for life’s “extras” so you can set yourself up for success. Here are four steps that can put you on the right track:

Step 1: Track your spending.

Before you set a budget for your discretionary spending, it’s important to see some historical data for this category. The best way to see how you’ve spent in the past is to break out your bank and credit card statements to track your spending in each relevant category.

Once you have a few month’s statements to work with, tally up all your spending in important categories like:

  • Groceries
  • Dining out
  • Entertainment
  • Rent or mortgage
  • Utilities
  • Car payments
  • Insurance
  • Entertainment
  • Gas and transportation
  • Clothing
  • Random

While some of your expenses — like rent or car payments — should stay the same every month, you should have plenty of variable categories to consider. Start by evaluating each of these categories individually as well as which ones you want to add to your permanent budget.

For example, if you’re spending $300 per month on gas for your car pretty consistently, you should probably give that expense its own permanent budget category. And if your utility bills can be estimated, add those to your budget, too.

Everything else – everything within your control – should go into your miscellaneous discretionary spending category. For most people, miscellaneous spending might include purchases like:

  • Clothing
  • Coffee shops
  • Gas station purchases
  • Convenience stores
  • Makeup
  • Dining out
  • Lunch at work

Step 2: Define which ‘wants’ are important, and which you can safely scrap.

Once you have a good idea of how your miscellaneous spending looks, you might be mortified. If you haven’t budgeted in the past, but know you need to, chances are good you’re spending more than you want or thought you were.

With the cold, hard facts right in front of you, you can no longer hide from outrageous spending or pretend it’s not a problem. Before you come up with a miscellaneous spending limit for your budget, it’s smart to see which of your expenses can be whittled down.

Start with the easy stuff. If you’re spending $8 to $15 per day going out with the girls for lunch, ask yourself if you’re willing to brown bag it at least a few days per week. Spending a lot on clothing or the golf course? See what kind of sacrifices you’d be willing to make to lower the amount you’re spending in these extra categories.

Unfortunately, digging into the nitty gritty of your spending is at the core of building a budget that works. As you set your miscellaneous spending cap, figure out what you can live without and plan to make adjustments accordingly.

Also keep in mind that your current level of spending might be perfectly okay. If you’re saving for retirement, building an emergency fund, and meeting your other savings goals, then going out to lunch a few times per week or buying new clothes every month may not be standing in the way of your dreams.

Just keep in mind that today’s spending may prevent you from living the life you want in the future — or at least delay it by a few years. If you’re spending $15 per day on lunch five days per week week, that could mean you’ll have less money for dining out later on, once you retire. While you shouldn’t let this deter you from having fun, it’s important to think not just of how to spend today, but how today’s purchases can impact your future self.

Step 3: Define your ‘musts.’

Whether you want to reduce your spending or are pretty happy with where you’re at, it’s still important to define your “musts.” While you might need to go on a bare-bones budget to pay off debt or overcome financial hardship, most of us want some wiggle room in our spending plans. And even if you’re fine with your spending as-is, defining your musts can also help you prepare for any upcoming changes in your budget if, say, you lose your job or take a pay cut.

Your”musts” should include all daily spending you can’t live without. You need to put gas in your car, after all. You need to eat lunch during work, whether you choose to dine out or bring a boxed lunch from home.

Chances are also good that at least some of your miscellaneous purchases are important enough to your mental health that you want to prioritize them. And that’s the whole point of budgeting: to better use your limited resources on what really matters to you.

Maybe you’re unwilling to give up your daily coffee because it’s the best part of your day. Or, perhaps you’re willing to give up cable television or going to the movies if it means you’re able to shop for new clothes.

Budgeting is all about trade-offs, but hopefully you can work some of your “musts” into your long-term spending plan.

Step 4: Come up with a weekly or monthly amount.

Once you’ve considered how you’ve spent money in the past, what you’re willing to cut, and the ‘musts’ you want to keep, it’s time to come up with an amount to stick to in terms of miscellaneous spending. If you’re budgeting on a monthly basis like most people, you’ll want to reach a monthly amount of cash to set aside.

Let’s say your past miscellaneous spending has been unsustainably high, but you’re willing to give up a few things. Here’s how a person’s pre-budget and post-budget miscellaneous spending might look:

Pre-Budget Miscellaneous Spending:

  • Work lunch with friends five days per week: $15 per weekday or $300 per month
  • Morning coffee five days per week: $15 per week or $60 per month
  • Snacks at gas station convenience store: $80 per month
  • Clothes: $300 per month

Monthly total: $740 per month

Post-Budget Miscellaneous Spending:

  • Work lunch with friends two days per week: $30 per week or $120 per month
  • Morning coffee five days per week: $15 per week or $60 per month
  • Snacks at convenience store: $10 per month
  • Clothes: $150 per month

Monthly total: $340

As you can see, the person in this example found a few different ways to save money on random spending – without giving up their morning coffee run.

They eased up on going out to lunch every weekday down to just twice a week. Instead of fueling up at the gas station with the convenience store (and all its tasty temptations), they started filling up at the bare-bones gas station down the street. And they removed their stored credit card information from their favorite retail websites, making checkout just cumbersome enough that they stopped short of buying some shoes and clothing they didn’t need.

As a result, they were able to cut their miscellaneous spending from $740 per month down to $340 a month. Ideally, this should help free up $400 a month more for savings, debt repayment, and other long-term goals – including fun stuff like vacations.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve been trying to budget but keep letting your random purchases get you off track, the best thing you can do is create a spending plan for the purchases you make most. At the same time, you should strive to cut out or reduce spending on items that don’t bring you happiness or add real value to your life.

Also keep in mind that none of this will work if you don’t track your spending religiously and grow an emergency fund to cover the “what ifs” in life.

What if your roof needs repaired or replaced? What if your car breaks down? What if you have a medical emergency?

While your miscellaneous spending category may be able to cover some smaller unexpected expenses, you need a full-fledged emergency fund to cover the big stuff. Without one, you are destined to go over budget time and time again.

Remember, the best way to win at budgeting is to plan. And that means more than planning for your mortgage and car payments; it means creating a realistic plan for spending money, too. With a comprehensive plan in place, you give yourself the best shot at controlling your spending and making every dollar you earn count.

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

Related Articles:

How much spending money do you budget for? How did you reach that amount?

The post How to Set a ‘Spending Money’ Cap and Save More Every Month appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Halloween: Scary Good Ways to Save Money This Year

The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend a record $9.1 billion on Halloween this year, an average of $86 per household. Depending on your level of frugality, those numbers may shock you like no movie monster ever could.Halloween savings

Don’t panic, though. It’s not that difficult to celebrate Halloween without a petrifying price tag.

Consider the following advice about how to cut your costs on everything from costumes to candy to jack-o’-lanterns.

Get a discount disguise

According to the National Retail Federation, more than one-third of Halloween spending will be devoted to costumes. (Parents of children who idolize the hottest superhero of the moment can relate.) Fortunately, you do have some alternatives to shelling out big bucks for a brand-new costume, including:

  • Make a DIY Halloween costume. You might even be able to transform your child (or yourself) into a favorite character for less than $10.
  • Trade or buy gently used. Go online to look for costume swap events in your community or shop a reputable website.
  • Check out a thrift shop. You might be surprised at the kind of merchandise you find.

Be a smart sweets shopper

The most practical advice for saving on Halloween candy boils down to three tips:

  • Shop early before demand starts to nudge prices upward.
  • Shop for generic brands. (When the candy fever hits, will trick-or-treaters really care about packaging?)
  • Shop online to see if you can find candy at below retail prices.

Pick a pumpkin yourself

You could save money buying the pumpkin for your jack-o’-lantern at a roadside produce stand or a “you-pick-’em” farm instead of the grocery store.

Also, wait until a day or two before Halloween to start carving that fearsome face. Decomposition can set in quickly, leaving your jack-o’-lantern looking more like a deflated orange volleyball and forcing you to get another pumpkin.

Get crafty with decorations

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to give your home a charmingly spooky atmosphere inside and out. You could even save on electricity by illuminating your yard with energy-efficient CFL and LED lights.

Halloween Credit Cards

Save with your cash back card

Some cash back credit cards with rotating bonus categories provide an opportunity to focus your spending on Halloween purchases, including costumes, candy, and decorations. Here are a couple of examples of cash back cards with upcoming bonus categories that could help with your Halloween shopping list:

Category: Select department stores and Walmart
Rewards rate: 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases

Category: Target and
Rewards rate: 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases

Even though bonus categories don’t roll over until the first of October, go ahead and activate them now if you can.

Not all cash back cards have rotating bonus categories, but in some cases, their fixed categories can still be conducive for Halloween purchases. Consider the , for example. It offers 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%) and 3% cash back at select U.S. department stores. Supermarkets and department stores are, of course, two places you’re likely to find candy, costumes, and decorations.

So what can you do with your Halloween rewards? Depending on the card, your redemption options may include cash back, statement credits, merchandise, or travel rewards. No matter how you redeem your cash back, it still amounts to a percentage of your spending that goes back into your pocket.

No cash back card? No problem

Just because you don’t have a cash back card doesn’t mean you can’t save money with some plastic tactics.

You can buy partially used or unused gift cards at a discount on marketplace sites such as or Go to the website and search for gift cards redeemable at retailers where you plan to do your Halloween shopping. (You can also sell your unwanted gift cards if you want to raise some extra cash for your frightful festivities.)

Shop your card’s online mall

Another place to look for Halloween deals is your credit card’s online shopping portal — Discover Deals, Chase Ultimate Rewards®, American Express Deal Center, and so on.

Don’t fear frugality

Your enjoyment of Halloween doesn’t have to be dependent on how much money you invest in it. Visit a corn maze, host a scary movie marathon at home, or brainstorm your own ideas for having fun without turning your checking account into a nightmare.

The post Halloween: Scary Good Ways
to Save Money This Year
appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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