Sunday, April 30, 2017

10 Ways We Sabotage Our Own Finances

While the U.S. economy has been adding jobs every month since late 2010 and several key indicators  point to strong economic growth, plenty of Americans still struggle. A Federal Reserve study from last year showed that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 to cover an emergency expense. And even though wages in some professions are growing, the rising cost of everything from healthcare to food to childcare makes it harder for the average family to get ahead.

Of course, not all economic issues can be blamed on outside factors. For every financial burden created by inflation, taxes, or lousy wages, there are a handful of self-inflicted financial punishments we create ourselves.

10 Ways You Might Be Sabotaging Your Financial Goals

Sometimes it’s a lack of planning that leads us to sabotage our own efforts, while other times it’s bad spending habits. Either way, it’s not always easy to change long-term patterns – especially when you don’t recognize a problem to begin with.

If you’re doing well on paper but not making the financial gains you crave, it’s possible the way you view money is holding you back. If you suspect maybe you’re the source of your money woes, you could very well be right. Here are 10 ways we sabotage ourselves and our finances every day:

#1: Trying too hard to keep up with neighbors and friends

Having friends who live large can make it that much harder to rein in your own finances – and that’s especially true if you try to keep up with them. If you end up in a situation where you’re spending like they do without the income to match, you could easily spiral into a cycle of stress, regret, and debt.

When it comes to money (or anything, really), always try to avoid comparing yourself to others. Doing the best you can with your budget may not leave you with lots of fancy stuff, but it will leave you better off.

And, let’s be honest: There’s a good chance your friends can’t afford their lifestyle, either.

#2: Using debt as an extension of your income

While a lot of people think of debt as the devil, it’s possible to use debt responsibly. Most of us need to borrow money to buy a house or reliable transportation, after all. And without a business loan, it can be nearly impossible to get your new start-up idea off the ground.

But debt becomes a problem when you use it without thinking. If you use credit cards to buy things you don’t need and can’t afford, you can wind up throwing hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars in interest payments down the drain every year.

Instead of using debt as an extension of your income, use it sparingly – and only when you must. By avoiding pointless credit card debt and the bills that come with it, you can keep more money in your bank account, where it counts.

#3: Buying the first thing you see without shopping around

Prices can vary on nearly everything you buy, from regular monthly subscriptions and bills to insurance products, clothes, groceries, and cars. If you don’t shop around for the best deal, chances are good you’ll overpay.

While some expensive purchases require weeks of research, you should strive to shop around for anything you buy – even small stuff. Fortunately, you can compare prices for most consumer goods online, and with very little ease. Heck, you can compare prices at almost any store on Amazon.com.

Whether you’re buying a sweater, a holiday gift, or auto insurance, make sure to compare prices with at least three competing businesses before you buy. That way, you won’t wind up paying more than you should without even knowing.

#4: Trading in your car every few years – no matter what

As of the first quarter of this year, the average car payment for a new car loan was $506 a month and 68 months long. With that kind of statistic hanging over our heads, it’s no wonder so many of us are struggling with debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck.

If you’ve gotten in the habit of trading in your car for a few one every few years, stop. Consider keeping your car a few years longer, paying it off (in full), and basking in the glory of debt freedom for a while. Once you’re no longer forking over that monthly payment, you may find a newer car isn’t even worth it.

Just think how much money you could save if you weren’t paying $300 to $600 a month for your ride! If you waited just one extra year before trading in, and pocketed the average car payment of $506 for just 12 months, you’d have $6,072!

#5: Paying the minimum balance on credit cards

Carrying high-interest credit-card debt is bad news. But paying only the minimum payment is an absolute disaster.

A family with a $10,000 balance on a card with an 18% APR who pays only $200 each month would need more than seven and a half years to pay it all off. Worse, they would pay $8,622 in interest in the process.

If you’re carrying debt, making minimum payments is only delaying the pain and adding interest to your bill. By confronting your debts head-on, you can pay them down faster and get out of debt sooner.

#6: Trying to save ‘what’s left’

Far too many people wish they could save money but can’t figure out how. So, they approach their finances in the most backwards way possible – they pay all their bills and spend what they want, then try to save “what’s left.”

If saving what’s left leaves you depleted month after month, try paying yourself first instead. By setting up an automatic deposit into your savings account on payday, you can ensure you’re saving money and not shortchanging yourself.

#7: Refusing to use a monthly budget

For some reason, many people see budgeting as something that stands between them and the life they want. But those who budget regularly see it for what it really is – a tool that can help you afford the life you want.

If you’re struggling with money, a budget could be exactly what you need. It doesn’t have to be restrictive, either. Think of a monthly budget as a plan for the money you earn — you’re simply prioritizing what’s most important to you. So if you want to plan for a splurge or a fun vacation, you can. Your monthly budget is there to guide your spending, reduce wasteful spending, and make sure you’re saving first.

#8: Picking up expensive hobbies

If you have an expensive hobby and can’t seem to save much money, you shouldn’t wonder why. Following a professional sports team, playing golf, or collecting antiques can easily set you back if you’re not careful.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have any hobbies; instead, make sure you can afford your hobbies before you invest in them. Are you saving money for retirement? Do you have a fully stocked emergency fund in place? If not, you may want to think twice and hold off before getting your scuba license or buying a new set of clubs.

#9: Forgetting to set up contributions to a 401(k) or other retirement plan

It’s easy to think you’ll “save for retirement later” or “start contributing when you earn more money.” But, what happens when you don’t?

What happens when you forget to sign up… and several years go by? What happens if you don’t contribute to retirement until you’re 30, or 40, or even 50? Unfortunately, we all know exactly what happens – you wind up short on funds and working until you die.

Whether you’re self-employed or working for someone else, it’s your duty to save for retirement as if your future depends on it. Because it does.

#10: Tapping into your home equity

Banks wish you would see your home as a giant piggy bank. That’s why most homeowners get mailers for home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and home equity loans ad nauseam. “Just borrow from the growing value of your home,” they’ll say, while never quite pointing out the obvious downsides.

While there are times when borrowing against the equity in your home makes sense — particularly if you’re reinvesting in the home, by replacing your roof, for example — it can be a tough cycle to break. If you continually borrow against the value of your home, you may never own it outright.

And isn’t that the whole point of home ownership – owning your home?

Stop Sabotaging Yourself, and Do This Instead

Are you guilty of any of these self-sabotaging behaviors? If so, there’s no better time to change than right now. Once you figure out what you’re doing that’s holding you back, you can figure out why. From there, you can create a comprehensive plan to stop shooting yourself in the foot and start getting ahead with your money.

Don’t let self-sabotage stand between you and your financial goals. Building wealth takes patience, perseverance, and grit, but it also requires getting out of your own way.

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:

What ways have you sabotaged your own finances in the past? What would you add to this list?

The post 10 Ways We Sabotage Our Own Finances appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

$1 Meal Tactics: Saving Big on Food Costs, a Buck at a Time

A little under a year ago, I wrote an article entitled Using the ‘$1 Per Meal’ Strategy to Save Big Time on Food Costs. In it, I discussed an eight-prong strategy for keeping a family’s meal costs under $1 per meal:

Strategy #1 – Plan Ahead
Strategy #2 – Base More Meals Around Sale-Priced Produce (and Meats)
Strategy #3 – Base Meals Around Low-Cost Staples and Store Brands
Strategy #4 – Take Advantage of Less Busy Times
Strategy #5 – Use a Slow Cooker
Strategy #6 – Extract Maximum Value from Leftovers
Strategy #7 – Extract Value from Scraps, Too
Strategy #8 – Keep Breakfasts and Lunches Well Below $1 per Meal

That’s the strategic backbone of how our family keeps food costs under $1 per meal most of the time, but it does take some work and some imagination to jump from that kind of “big vision” strategy to the practical nature of putting food on the dinner table.

What follows are a whole bunch of tactics that demonstrate very specifically how to take those above strategies and really implement them in your home.

The ‘Giant Pot of Soup’ Tactic

Soup is one of the easiest meals to make. All you have to do is toss most of the ingredients in a slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, let it cook all day, (maybe) toss in another ingredient or two when you get home from work (like pasta), and eat half an hour later.

Here’s the best part: since this really is so simple, there’s no reason not to make a double or triple batch of it and store the extra soup in a bunch of smaller containers in the freezer. Why? You can reheat those containers in the microwave for a quick lunch at your convenience.

All you need is a healthy handful of small soup containers. You can use glass ones like these or cheaper plastic ones like these, as per your desire. Just eat soup to your heart’s content, then put all of the leftovers into several of these containers and pop them straight into the freezer.

I recommend labeling them with a piece of masking tape upon which the date and the type of soup is written; masking tape is perfect because it stays on in the freezer but is easy to remove and you can get giant rolls of it for a pittance.

The ‘Leftover Smorgasbord’ Tactic

One of the principles described in the original article is to try to avoid throwing away food. However, it’s easy for food to build up in the fridge over time and find its way to the back, never to be seen again in an edible form.

A much better solution is to simply have two or three meals a week that consist of a “leftover smorgasbord.” Pull out all leftovers from your refrigerator, make a plate of food (and/or a bowl), and reheat as needed.

Sure, it’s not the most appealing meal in the world, but it’s essentially a free meal, and if you top your leftovers with a few additional flavors, like hot sauce or a bit of cheese, it can be quite tasty.

The reason to do this three times a week is that you can be sure that leftovers are eaten within a three day range when they’re still safe. Sarah and I tend to eat our leftovers during the week for lunches, but on the weekends, we often have a leftover smorgasbord.

The ‘Easy Recipe Rotation’ Tactic

Most of our meals are prepared from a rotation of easy “framework” recipes. They’re ones that create a sense of variety because it’s so easy to vary the ingredients in that recipe.

For example, we have this baseline “enchilada” recipe – it’s not really enchiladas, but that’s our shorthand name for it – where we basically use whatever beans, salsa, and other flavorful ingredients we have on hand, wrap the ingredients in tortillas, put them in a greased 9″ by 13″ pan, put a bit of enchilada sauce on top, toss a bit of cheese on top, and bake it at 350 F for an hour. It’s almost impossible for this to not be tasty. You can make it with a lot of different meats, a lot of different vegetables, pretty much any kind of beans – it all works.

We have a baseline “pasta” recipe where we simply make a “sauce” out of sauteed vegetables and a bit of olive oil and serve it over pasta. We experiment with that simple “sauce” all the time, trying out different ingredients and different seasonings. It almost always works.

These recipes are really simple, and if you have a decent understanding of how to cook foods (like how to sauté three different vegetables together by cooking the firmer ones first and adding the softer ones later), you can almost cook these things on automatic using anything you have on hand – and anything often includes whatever happens to be on sale.

The ‘Omelet’ Tactic

This is something of a variation on the previous two tactics, effectively combining them together into one meal.

The reality is that a lot of leftovers work really well as the main ingredient in an omelet. An omelet, after all, is simply a few eggs beaten together, cooked in a skillet, and then folded around some ingredients, but those ingredients can be almost anything you wish. I’ve enjoyed spinach omelets and chili omelets and black bean omelets and Spanish rice omelets and stir-fry omelets. All of them worked really well at converting leftovers and changing them into something new because of the egg.

A three egg omelet costs about fifty cents in eggs and you can fill it with almost anything, so it’s a great meal idea to hold onto. Once you get handy with making them, you can cook them up really quickly and efficiently.

The ‘Seasonal’ Tactic

When fruits and vegetables are in season in your area, they’re dirt cheap. Since so many people have them in abundance locally and are trying to sell them, the prices tend to fall through the floor. What does that mean? It means it’s time to get creative with those seasonal items.

When sweet corn season arrives in August, for example, we’ll eat sweet corn over and over and over again. We don’t just eat ears of it, either – we find other ways to prepare it, like using it as an ingredient in salsas or serving it as a side dish or as an item to use in a taco bar. We’ll even buy extra ears, cut the corn off the cob, and store it in freezer bags.

If you’re not sure what’s in season in your area, watch the grocery flyers for any fresh produce that seems absurdly cheap or items that everyone seems to have at the farmers market. (Another tip: if there’s an item that everyone has at the farmers market, you’re probably going to have success if you try to bargain for a better price on it).

The ‘Wonderpot’ Tactic

Another great strategy that I often use is to take whatever ingredients happen to be on sale in a store, find out how long it takes to boil them to perfection, then start boiling water and adding the ingredients in order so that they’ll all finish at the same time. I add pasta at the exact moment that will cause the pasta to finish at that time, too.

When that time comes, I strain all of it, save about a cup of the liquid, add the liquid back in along with a few teaspoons of olive oil and maybe a can of tomato sauce if that seems like it would fit, stir it, and serve it.

A friend showed me this trick many years ago and called it the “wonderpot.” It’s just what we call this simple dish. It’s always a little different. It’s always flavorful. It costs maybe a dollar per meal for that evening. It usually generates a leftover lunch or two as well.

The ‘Loaded Toast’ Tactic

Whenever I have a small amount of almost anything left over from my meal the previous night, I’ll just eat it for breakfast or lunch the next day on top of a piece of toast. I just toss a piece of bread on the toaster, warm up the leftovers if it’s necessary, then load up the toast with the leftovers.

The only dirty dish generated is a dirty plate. The only cost is that of a slice of bread – maybe a dime. It works with almost any leftover that isn’t completely liquid – I’ve done this with everything from goulash to taco ingredients to fish filets to macaroni and cheese to rice pilaf. It’s easy to eat, too, as it requires no silverware.

This is my go-to lunch on many busy days. It’s just so convenient, so easy, and so tasty, and it changes the texture of the leftovers just enough that it seems fresh.

The ‘Egg Jar’ Tactic

I like to snack – especially in the mid-afternoon when I get a bit hungry between lunch and supper – but many snacks are super-expensive. Plus, I like the ability to just open the fridge and grab something when the munchies get to me.

My solution to that problem is to keep an “egg jar” in the fridge. It’s simple – all you have to do is hard boil a dozen eggs, remove the shells, and put them in water with just a tiny bit of vinegar and maybe a few seasonings. I like to toss in peppercorns and dill seeds.

I typically store them in an old apothecary-style jar with an attached lid. I put the dozen eggs in there, add a tiny bit of vinegar, toss in some peppercorns and maybe a couple of garlic cloves and some dill if I have any, then fill it with water until the eggs are covered and seal the jar. Whenever I want a snack, I just pop open the jar and grab an egg. The peppercorns and garlic and dill gently flavor the eggs. If you want different flavor for your eggs, try using soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce and try varying the amounts of liquids in there. Just play around with it until you find exactly what you like.

This mix allows the eggs to store quite nicely for at least a week in the fridge, and the cost adds up to maybe $0.20 per egg. It’s a great little cheap snack that packs a nice bunch of protein into very few calories.

The ‘Whole Chicken Crock Pot’ Tactic

This is one of my favorite strategies, one of the ones that we used to use all the time until we made some dietary changes for health reasons.

It’s simple. Whole chickens are cheap. Slow cookers make cooking whole chickens very easy. Combine the two. Just buy a whole chicken, remove the giblets, stuff the cavity with some tasty things (like, say, an orange separated into quarters), sprinkle the whole chicken with a bit of salt and ground black pepper, put the whole thing in a slow cooker with maybe a cup of water, and cook it all day long while you’re at work. When you get home, check the temperature and turn it up to high if the internal temperature of the chicken isn’t up to 165 F. When it’s done, the broth is amazing and the meat practically slides off the bone.

The advantage here is that whole chickens are very cheap, almost all of the meat is edible, you can use the chicken as the centerpiece of the meal, the leftover chicken can be used in all kinds of additional ways, and the broth itself can be saved and used as stock for almost anything you might want to use it for.

You can do almost the exact same thing with a pot roast by using an inexpensive large cut of beef or pork, but that’s usually quite a bit more expensive.

The ‘Divide and Conquer with Children’ Tactic

This is something that I’ve found comes in handy if you’re ever in a situation where you have to take older children to the grocery store. Older children almost always want to feel responsible and involved in the adult world, so I take advantage of this. I simply give my oldest two children very specific tasks in the grocery store.

For example, I’ll tell my middle child to go over to the banana section and select a bunch of bananas that are just slightly green and aren’t brown at all. I’ll tell my oldest child a bit more challenging task, where I’ll tell him to go to the bread section and find the loaf of wheat bread that’s on sale and bring it back.

This serves a bunch of purposes at once. First of all, it’s teaching them how to shop in a thrifty way. Second, it keeps them occupied on the shopping tasks that don’t require much focus from me so that I can stick with the ones that do require some focus. Third, and perhaps most important, it causes us to spend much less time in the store, so there’s less time to get tempted by incidental things – plus, if my children are busy on tasks, they have much less time to get tempted.

I can blow through a shopping trip in much less time these days with my two older kids in tow than I do by myself. I just need to stay super-focused during that shorter block of time, which is good because it means a lot fewer incidental items make it into the cart.

The ‘Remixable Sides’ Tactic

Whenever possible, we prepare side dishes in such a way that they can be flexibly reused in a lot of ways.

For example, when we grill, we’ll often grill sliced potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil with minimal seasoning. We just slice up several potatoes, put them in aluminum foil that’s been lightly coated with a bit of oil or butter, add an ice cube and a pat of butter, and cook them until they’re done. They make for a very tasty side dish, but the best part is that the grilled potatoes can be reused in a ton of ways.

We might use those potatoes as part of a breakfast skillet meal the next day. We might use them in a soup or a casserole in a day or two. We might just chop them up and toss them with scrambled eggs. We might use them as a taco or burrito ingredient. Grilled potatoes are really flexible.

The flexibility of side dishes is a big consideration in our cooking. If there’s something we can easily reuse in something else later on in the week, we’ll just cook plenty of it now in a simple way that enables it to be quickly used later on. Grilled potatoes are just one example – we do it with things like fresh broccoli, asparagus, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and many other things. We prepare them the first time in a very simple way so that they can easily be reused later on in a more specific way.

The ‘Potluck Dinner Party’ Tactic

One of our favorite strategies over the last several years (sadly, we haven’t had one of these in a while due to scheduling challenges, but there’s one coming up soon!) is a running series of potluck dinner parties. It’s a way to have a cheap meal with a lot of friends.

On a rotating basis, one family in our regular group simply hosts a potluck dinner, usually followed by board and card games or sometimes a movie. That family usually provides the main course and then suggests a type of side dish or beverage or dessert for everyone else to bring. For example, one family might make a pot of soup and ask one family to bring dinner rolls, another family to bring a light dessert, and a third family to bring some shareable beverages.

This enables each family to just focus on one simple item for a dozen or so people. For example, two dozen dinner rolls is more than adequate to cover that many people. That person can decide if they want to just buy pre-made rolls or if they want to cut costs and make their own pull-aparts.

The cost per attendee is maybe $0.50 per person at the party when everything is added together, maybe more if they’re taking an easy route. The host often has leftovers of the main course, so something like soup is perfect as it can easily be frozen (see the first tactic in this article). Not only that, it gets a bunch of friends together for an evening without much more cost than an inexpensive meal at home.

Final Thoughts

All of these tactics fit well as part of an overall strategy to cut meal costs as low as possible and they demonstrate that you can have a wide variety of foods and have a nice social life while still shooting for a “$1 per meal” target for your food.

As always, pick and choose among these tactics and use only the ones that really make sense for you. If some of them just don’t fit, go on to the next one. Remember, some tactics will work well in your life and others won’t, but the set of ones that work well are going to likely be different for each person. Just pull the items that you think will click with you and use them to the best of your ability.

Good luck!

The post $1 Meal Tactics: Saving Big on Food Costs, a Buck at a Time appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Success Through Effort or Advice?

One big criticism that people have made about personal finance writers is that somehow their comments are invalid because they made much of their income writing about personal finance instead of “doing something.” I thought I’d address that today, starting with my own background on the topic.

First of all, I spent many years of my life working at a “typical job” that I would assume would qualify as “doing something.” I worked in a research environment for about a decade, most of it full time. Most of my work involved collecting and organizing data sets and helping to distribute that data in useful ways. I wrote software tools and worked with others to manage data sets so that researchers who needed specialized views on those data sets or needed to extract particular slivers of data could do so easily. Sometimes, I did actual small data mining projects for researchers. We’re talking about sets of data that were measured in the hundreds of gigabytes and later in the terabytes, so this wasn’t a small data set. I would call all of this a “real job.”

Later on in that career, I had a very secure job. I would have been in the field for a very long time, had I chosen to be. I had a great resume and a job with essentially endless funding and very good security. I had worked very hard to earn that position; it was through bolstering that resume and building a lot of good connections within that community that I was able to earn such a position. I walked the walk when it comes to the career articles I write about.

At the same time, I was unhappy with the state of my finances. I was working hard to recover from a ton of student loan debt and consumer debt, and I was working incredibly hard to turn my financial ship around. I’ve always enjoyed writing and at least trying to help others, so I simply started writing about that journey in a few places which eventually grew together and became The Simple Dollar. (I adopted an intentionally earnest tone right off the bat because I was more interested in being helpful than being witty – and I still am.)

My father always had “side gigs” growing up and it’s something he embedded in me, so The Simple Dollar started as a side gig. I treated it like a part-time job, devoting blocks of time to it most days. I enjoyed the writing, of course, but I also enjoyed tinkering with the site, figuring out how to make money from it, reading what other people were writing about, and so on.

For the first year or two of the site, it made almost no money. The income was measured in pennies, not dollars, yet I could see the potential in what I was doing. I could see the income steadily growing as more and more readers came to the site and as I built up more and more content for people to find via Google, and I could definitely see a point where I could earn enough money to survive on.

During that time, Sarah and I had a second child and it became clear that having one parent stay at home was probably going to be a huge money saver. I was also feeling very frustrated with some aspects of my job (while still loving other parts). Thus, with the income of The Simple Dollar steadily growing and the possibility of growing it faster by devoting more time to it and the money we’d save by me staying home and the huge reduction in my personal frustration, we made the decision that I would make The Simple Dollar my primary employment and walk away from my job.

That’s basically been the story for the last several years. The only thing that’s really changed is that I eventually entered into agreements with others to support various aspects of the site because I was getting overwhelmed with managing the site’s backend, negotiating with advertisers, dealing with requests, and so many other things. I tried to handle it myself for a very long time, then I began to hire virtual assistants to take care of specific parts of it, and eventually I just threw up my hands and came to an agreement with another company that enabled me to focus on the aspects that I enjoyed the most while they took care of everything else.

During all of that, I made six figures in exactly one year (possibly coming close one other year) – and during that year, I was absolutely miserable while working 90-100 hours a week, something that was just completely unsustainable. My writing suffered badly and my family suffered, too; I almost burned myself out entirely in terms of writing for the site.

So, yes, right now, I make a decent living writing about personal finance, but not one that I’m getting rich from. I make roughly a typical American income these days. I could be making more if I wanted to devote more time to marketing and other things, but instead I put value on things like being there when my kids get off the bus each day after school and blocking off devoted time to spend with my family each day.

At the same time, I’m very confident that I could still be working at my old research job if I had stayed there and the story would be roughly the same. The “child” of that project I worked on 10 years ago is still in existence, with some continuity in staffing (many people I worked with back then are still involved with the “child” project). I’d be making a little more income if I were still there, I think, but I would be traveling a lot and have a lot less time flexibility, and those benefits are worth the somewhat smaller income for me.

Another part of the reason that I chose to make the career switch that I made was the sense that I was directly helping far more people with The Simple Dollar than I was helping in my other position. While I could definitely see some real-world connections in the work of my previous career, I felt that much of the benefit of what I was doing was being filtered through corporate R&D departments and turned into products with negligible real-world benefit. I felt that the work I invested in answering a single reader mailbag question was more meaningful in terms of making the world a better place than an entire typical day of work at my previous job (even if the previous job was perhaps more intellectually demanding).

So, no, I haven’t “made my fortune” from writing about personal finance. Our family’s path to financial independence has been built on a long series of strong financial decisions, mostly oriented around our choice to consistently spend less than we earn. We have spent substantially less than we earn each year for the last 10 years, with our savings rate ranging from 20% to 50% in each of those years (with a higher savings rate coming after we paid off our house in full). We could do even better, as Sarah and I both see areas for potential improvement all the time. All of that would be true regardless of whether I’m writing about personal finance for a living or working in my old research job.

I’ve had experience making a typical career into a successful one. I’ve had experience building a side gig and turning it into a small business that provided my full-time employment. I’ve had experience facing a mountain of debt and cutting it down to size. I have experience living a modern life with a savings rate that’s substantially higher than zero. And I write about those things in a way that’s hopefully useful to other people trying to figure out how to do those things themselves, not much different than a successful gardener making a YouTube video about her tomato growing secrets. That’s my story.

That’s not to say that there aren’t personal finance marketers out there who have only made a living by marketing personal finance content that they basically scraped from other sites. Unquestionably, there are people like that out there. It’s just not what I have ever done and not really something I’m interested in. I’ve written somewhere in the realm of nine million words in the last 10 years and I’ve given away almost all of it on various sites, mostly The Simple Dollar, and I’ve made money from that solely through ad support and linking to Amazon or to financial institutions. I’ve written a couple of books, too – The Simple Dollar and 365 Ways to Live Cheap. That pretty much sums it all up.

I’ll end on this note: Part of the reason I often use such a personal tone on The Simple Dollar – and why sometimes the advice doesn’t apply perfectly to everyone – is because I am intentionally writing about my own experiences (or those of very close friends) as much as possible. I feel very uncomfortable writing about things I have not personally done or that I haven’t witnessed people I’m close to doing in a very up close and personal way. I often use myself as an example of a principle, both positively and negatively, because I know from my own experience whether something works or doesn’t work, at least in my personal situation. I’m mostly interested in sharing what I know actually can work, and that mostly means things that have worked for me. I know that those things can be done or if there are potholes in those things because I’ve seen them or done them or fallen into those potholes myself.

Of course, by extension, that means I run parts of my life almost like some kind of a personal finance lab. I am much more open to trying frugal strategies or side gigs or other things simply because I write for The Simple Dollar. I’m always trying different things to see how they actually work so I can write about them in some meaningful fashion. If there’s anything I do that’s not what a “normal” person would do, it’s this; I’m constantly trying out new things, most of which other people won’t try. I make stuff like homemade laundry detergent and then I revisit the recipe later – the vast majority of you will never do it, but a few of you will, and many more of you will appreciate knowing that you can save money by doing so and might use the strategy in a financial pinch.

In the end, I’m just writing about the things that work for me and how they work for me and how ideas make sense to me, and if you find value in that, I’m glad and I hope you’ll stick around.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Happiness and Spending Less Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Boredom. Sadness. Jealousy. Frustration. Anger. Loneliness. Hopelessness.

Those are emotional responses that I hear about all the time from readers who are struggling with adapting to spending less money. At first, they find it to be a fun adventure, but over time, that “honeymoon” wears off and negative feelings begin to set in.

I’ll be the first to say that those negative feelings can be hard to deal with. I’ve dealt with them myself many times. It’s easy to get so caught up in the things that you don’t have, especially when they came so easy for you in the recent past. When a behavior was just a normal part of your life not all that long ago, it was likely because that behavior brought something positive into your life (even if it was balanced out by negative elements), and those negative emotions are the natural response to losing those positives.

Here’s the hook: Having those feelings is fine, but getting lost in them and giving up because of them is not.

Happiness and keeping your spending under control aren’t mutually exclusive states, even if it feels tough right now. Here are some practical things you can do right now to help bring those two things together.

Explore tons of new experiences.

Fill up your calendar with things you’ve never done before that you can dabble in without much expense. Go to a community game night and play a new board game. Go to a farmers market. Go to a religious service. Bake a loaf of bread. Listen to a podcast. Grab three balls and teach yourself how to juggle. Learn how to change the oil in your car. Introduce yourself to all of your neighbors. Go to a meetup. Go to a free community concert. Go to a free community theater event. Participate in a community theater event. Join a fantasy sports league. Go to the library and check out an interesting book to read. Teach yourself how to knit (this will cost about $3 in supplies). Take a ton of digital photographs of every beautiful place or thing you can think of and share them online. Visit a free museum. Learn about a topic that interests you. Make some origami. Make a YouTube video on a topic that excites you. Learn calligraphy with a ballpoint pen. Learn the basics of drawing. Practice jumping rope. Experiment with different bodyweight exercises. I can list this stuff all day long.

Remember, boredom is a choice. If you’re bored, it’s because you’re choosing to be bored. The world around you offers more avenues for exploration and experiences than a human ever has time to dig into in their life. If you choose to sit at home on the couch and be bored, that’s on you, not on your spending habits.

Start a gratitude journal.

Each day, spend a few minutes thinking about five things you’re grateful for in your life as it is right now. What things do you already have that you appreciate? You can do this with a pen and any old notebook, or you can make an electronic journal using Evernote.

Here, I’ll start you off. Here are five things I’m grateful for today.

1. I’m grateful for the warm weather today, because I can just go outside whenever I like in a t-shirt and jeans and feel perfectly comfortable. I love the freedom of being able to just walk out my front door and go!

2. I’m grateful for my wife’s preparedness and how she thinks of things and prepares for them even when I miss them completely. She packed the backpack of our youngest child with a few items I hadn’t even thought about.

3. I’m grateful for my mother’s gentle cheeriness. She always manages to find that right amount of joyfulness when I talk to her that raises my mood without being annoyingly over-the-top cheerful.

4. I’m grateful for having some extra time today to fill however I want. Things clicked nicely into place to give me a nice window of unexpected free time.

5. I’m grateful for my daughter’s singing voice when she really concentrates on singing well. She’s got a very impressive vocal range with a low end that’s startlingly low for a girl of her age, and when she uses it well, it’s gorgeous.

All of those things are essentially “free” things that make my life better, and spending just a moment or two reflecting on them makes me realize that my life is quite abundant without spending a dime. In fact, if you make gratitude journaling a consistent thing, you’ll eventually wind up with the feeling that your life is incredibly abundant even without that extra spending you once indulged in.

Volunteer to help those less fortunate.

Quite often, we allow ourselves to be lulled into a state of believing that we have a bad lot in life, that the deck is stacked against us and that everyone has it better than we do. That type of thinking can quickly swirl into a backlash against spending self-control.

The most useful strategy for fighting against that cycle of thinking is to intentionally expose yourself to people who are substantially less fortunate than you, as it becomes a clear reminder of all of the fortune you actually do have in your life.

If you spend your time volunteering to help people who are struggling with physical, emotional, financial, professional, and other types of severe challenges in your life, it can make you aware very quickly that your life is incredibly blessed by not having those challenges facing you. Understanding all of the wonderful advantages you already have in life is an incredibly powerful way to put negative emotions about spending to have even more into check. You already have an abundance of goodness in your life, so why sacrifice your future to try to toss even more stuff onto a bountiful plate?

Use your financial progress as a point of personal pride by setting up a progress chart.

Whenever I’m feeling negative about making better day-to-day life choices, I often find that my positive feelings about those choices are greatly helped by actually seeing the progress I’ve made. For me, this takes the form of a simple line that plots my net worth over time, a line that’s steadily pointing upwards.

When I look at that line, a line that starts several years ago at a point well below zero and goes steadily upward to a net worth far beyond what I honestly believed I would achieve in life when I started, I feel a blossoming of pride in my gut. My efforts really are worth it. They really have changed things. When I look at that starting point, I find myself remembering the worry and pain of my situation when I started this journey and how I’ve effectively melted away the sources of those worries.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished – not in the beat-my-chest-about-it-all-day-long kind of way, but in the warm way that fills my chest up and fuels me throughout the day.

Try doing the same. Make yourself a chart that tracks your financial progress. Make sure to include your low point, that starting point that was so bad you felt compelled to change. When you feel down about things, look at that progress you’ve made and feel proud of it. You should feel proud!

Come up with some low-cost social activities for you and your friends and invite them to participate.

Have a potluck dinner party. Meet to play Frisbee at the park. Have a board game night or a card game night. Spend a day together doing a home improvement project at one friend’s house, then spend another day doing one at another friend’s house, and so on. Volunteer together for a political or social cause you both care about. Go to the beach together. Go on a hike together. Go to a museum together. Start a book club and request a bunch of copies of that book from the library. Make some homemade foods together (like a giant batch of home-brewed beer). Make a ton of meals in advance together for each of you to pop in the freezer.

There are tons and tons and tons of ways to do social things without cracking open your wallet. Loneliness brought on by a sense that you have to spend money to hang out with people is the result of a lack of imagination or a lack of a will to suggest anything, not by the false idea that saving money has to be anti-social.

Use the abundance of stuff in your closets.

If you’re like me, you have items from a bunch of different hobbies stowed away in your closet. Dig them out and dig into those hobbies.

In just the last few months, I dug out a few pieces of home exercise equipment and started using them regularly. I dug out a calligraphy set and made some calligraphy with my daughter and oldest son (my youngest one preferred to make “ink stains on the table” rather than calligraphy). I found some paints and some miniatures and spent a rainy afternoon painting them with my children and my wife. I found some old piano books, gave them to my daughter, and went through a few of the songs with her. I found a harmonica and dusted off my rusty skills.

Almost all of us have items in our closets that are keys to unlocking some of our deepest interests. They just got stuck in the closet in a moment of hurry and then life got in the way. Dig them out. Explore them again. You may find more joy than you think.

Don’t consume substances that contribute to melancholy.

For many people, alcohol can fill them with a sense of melancholy and sadness; for others, alcohol just amplifies whatever they’re feeling anyway, so it can amplify sadness. Many other substances have similar effects on one’s mood; they can make an already sad mood even worse and can amplify problems.

Your best bet is to avoid all of that stuff if that’s how it affects you. If drinking makes you feel sad, particularly if you find yourself drinking alone, just stop. Take a break from it. Don’t let a substance drag you down into a pool of melancholy.

It can be hard to break an addiction. Focus on taking one day at a time. Surround yourself with supportive people who aren’t also tied into that addiction. Look for new things in life. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. I’ve watched loved ones break substance habits and addictions; I know you can do it.

Get eight hours of sleep a night.

The science is becoming more and more clear that the further a person deviates from eight hours of sleep, the more likely they are to have adverse health and psychological effects. It can be really, really tempting sometimes to sleep less than eight hours per night – I know it’s true for me – and for some, more than eight hours of sleep is a temptation, but you should be shooting for a long-term average of eight hours of sleep per night.

Some common effects of not getting enough sleep in the short term include mood swings, irritability, lack of clarity of thought, dissatisfaction, and lack of productivity. Many people who consistently get less sleep than necessary essentially fold their personality around these effects and thus don’t see the negatives, but they’re virtually always there.

If you find yourself really struggling with negative feelings regarding your spending choices, get some sleep. Try to push your weekly average toward eight hours per night and see how that makes you feel. Remember, if the options are watching another hour of Netflix or getting another hour of sleep, sleep is almost always the better choice.

Get outside.

There are simply a ton of benefits to spending time outside each day. We live in a world that encourages staying indoors most of the time, but our bodies and minds are designed to spend significant time outdoors. The various biological and chemical effects of being outdoors have profound positive effects on a person’s mindset and health.

If you’re not sure where to start, start by going on a nature walk at a park. Just stroll through the woods at your own pace. If you feel like you need to be doing something, listen to a podcast or an audiobook, but there’s a lot of value in just tossing distractions and enjoying the moment. There’s quite a lot of evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of so-called “forest bathing”.

Going outside is completely free. It raises your mood. It clears your mind. It helps improve your health. It puts your focus on things that don’t involve spending money. It’s just an all-around win.

Get some exercise.

Almost everything that I just wrote about going outside also applies to exercise. It’s something you can do for free. It’s something that has proven physical and mental health benefits. It’s something you can do to take your mind off of spending. It’s just a win in every dimension.

You don’t have to rush out there and start killing yourself, either. Take it easy. Go on a walk. Do what my son likes to do, which is turn on music he likes and do a martial arts form to the rhythm. Pick up some weights.

I want to pause here for a moment and note that the last three items – getting more sleep, going outside, and getting some exercise – are all strategies for which there are proven mental and physical health benefits. Of course, this begs the question of how exactly that ties into being happier with spending less. The answer is simple: all three of those activities are free activities that have demonstrable positive effect in terms of lifting your overall mood and sense of well being. No matter what is going on in your life, better sleep, more outdoor time, and more exercise will put you in a better mindset. You’ll be less likely to fall into mental states that are governed by negative emotions, and thus you are less likely to harbor negative feelings about the changes in your spending.

In simplest terms, if you do things that are known to improve your overall mood and sense of well-being, you’re less likely to be pulled down into negative moods by your spending choices.

Talk to a trusted friend.

My final tactic is to simply spend some time talking to a friend that you deeply trust. It might be a sibling or a close lifelong friend or a parent or an adult child with which you have a strong relationship. You just need to identify someone in your life who cares deeply for you, even with your flaws, that you deeply trust.

Just talk to that person. Let the conversation flow freely. Talk about whatever’s on your mind and your heart. Listen to what they have to say, and ask questions to learn more about their challenges and ideas. Let the conversation go on and on until you’re both in a pleasant place of being talked out, then hug or shake hands and go on your merry way.

Why do this? First of all, such deep social contact is an incredible mood lifter. Strong relationships are also a powerful reminder of the abundance that we already have in life. Furthermore, these kinds of conversations often serve the valuable purpose of relieving some of the mental and emotional burdens we’re carrying, which can make it easier to handle other challenges in our lives.

As you progress through the challenges of changing your financial life for the better, remember that there are always positive actions you can take today to keep yourself on a good financial track, even when you’re not feeling happy about the immediate state of things in your life. You can overcome those melancholic moments without simply throwing money at the problem.

Good luck.

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Don’t Expect God Alone to Fix Your Financial Problems

Let’s start this off with a disclaimer: I’m not the world’s most religious woman.

I believe in God – the idea that we have a divine creator. I believe in destiny. I believe there’s a plan for every single one of us, even if we can’t see it yet.

I believe in the goodness of people; I believe in hope. I believe that when you treat others well, those good deeds come back tenfold. But that’s where the order of the universe ends in my book.

You see, I also believe in grit. I believe the best way to improve your life is through hard work and perseverance. I believe that making smart decisions can make you happier, healthier, and yes, wealthier. I also believe that poor decisions can leave you broke, unhealthy, and miserable.

I know from experience that you can sink or swim, fail or succeed, shrivel or thrive based largely on your own efforts. And I’m fairly certain that God can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.

So, I humbly ask a favor: Stop asking God to fix your financial problems.

The longer you wait to help yourself, the worse off you’ll be.

Why God Alone Won’t Fix Your Financial Woes

If that comes off as harsh, I totally get it. But please believe me when I say my intentions are pure.

As someone who writes about personal finance for a living, I’ve experienced a lifetime of teachable moments that led me to believe this needs to be said.

When you’re struggling with money, it’s easy to place your salvation in the hands of someone else – in this case, God. And no one should criticize your belief in a savior or your need to pray for help.

But it could be a problem if you have so much faith that you never take steps to help yourself.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen the exact scenario I’m describing damage lives for years. Plenty of friends and acquaintances suffer unnecessarily with credit card debt, budgeting issues, and income constraints. Many times, I have heard friends say they’ll just give their problems to God.

Praying for help is a beautiful gesture, but it’s not always enough. There are times in our lives where, to improve our lot, we have no choice but to back up our prayers up with action.

If you’re spending more money than you earn each month, you can’t expect a higher power to make the math work out. It’s possible you’ll have a revelation, receive an inheritance, or have your financial issues solved some other way — but chances are, the most surefire way to fix your spending habits is to change yourself.

But, you know what? Most people don’t want to hear that advice. Taking a critical look at your life and your own habits is hard. It’s a lot easier to ask God for help than to admit that you’re part of the problem. After all, that realization might mean changing your life in some uncomfortable ways.

We’ve all witnessed someone refusing to accept common sense advice that could improve their life. How many times have you heard someone say something like…

“I know I can’t afford this car payment, but I love having a nice new car! I’ll figure it out.”

“I don’t have the money for rent this month, so I might as well go shopping. God will sort it out.”

“My life is a mess, but I’m a good person. I know I’ll get what I’m due one of these days.”

Or, my personal favorite:

“This is all part of God’s plan for me. I have no power over my own life.”

That last one is probably the worst, mostly because people who believe they have no power over their lives have no incentive to make better decisions.

An acquaintance of mine is a perfect example of how damaging this type of thinking can be. Her financial life is in shambles, yet she insists it’s all part of a master plan. Between credit card bills, student loans, and poor spending habits, her family may never own a home. But she also admits to spending more money than they have, mostly because she doesn’t want her kids to “go without.” Recently, she charged an entire family vacation to her credit card without having any way to pay it off.

Her solution? She’s going to pray for one, because she doesn’t have one.

But the overdue bills keep coming, along with the problems they create. She could take steps to curb the family’s spending, she says, but she isn’t quite ready to sacrifice yet. And she insists that God is preparing to do amazing things in her life – if only she can wait long enough.

I’m not picking on this wonderful lady. I just wish she would stop using her faith in God as an excuse to sprint toward self-destruction. And I hate the fact that her situation might get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

Pray for Help, But Also Do This

It’s often said that, “God helps those who help themselves.” This isn’t to say that religion can’t be a catalyst for good things in your life. Instead, this phrase explains the painful truth that we often have to work for what we want.

If you really want a better life, you have to act. Realizing your spending habits may be part of the problem takes guts, but that’s only half the battle. Once you gain the courage to face your problems head-on, here are some steps to take:

  • If you’re struggling with poor spending habits, start tracking your spending from the previous month. A lot of times, seeing where your money is going in stark black and white is the best way to cultivate an attitude of change.
  • If you’re drowning in debt, explore the concept of budgeting to find new ways to pay off your outstanding bills – once and for all.
  • If you’re spending more than you earn, stop. Cut your spending hard – or quit spending money altogether – until you can find a balance between “needs” and “wants.”
  • If you can’t stop justifying over-the-top splurges, stop and take a long look in the mirror. Ask yourself what your family really deserves. Is it a lifetime of debt and “stuff?”

No matter what you do, stop asking God to fix everything while you quietly destroy yourself from within. Pray for self-discipline, not a money miracle. Stop burying your head in the sand while your problems get worse with each passing year. Demand to take back your power, and figure out what it will take to improve your life.

Once you stop expecting God to fix your finances and start taking steps to improve them yourself, amazing things can happen. But it has to start with you. It always has, and it always will.

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.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How to Handle a Job with Low (or No) Pay Increases

Jason writes in:

I have been working at the same job for the past seven years. It pays well and I am able to save about a third of my income between 401(k) and Roth and house down payment savings. The problem is that my salary is barely moving. I get great reviews but then I get only a “cost of living” raise that’s actually less than the increase in cost of living. I’m basically getting paid less in real dollars than when I started. Wondering what I should do and if I should move on.

The first thing you should always ask yourself is this: Have you been doing things that will create a strong resume for you and make you a tempting hire for other businesses? Do you have skills that will transfer well in your field? Do you have impressive projects to put on a resume?

Regardless of what you do with your current job, your focus should be on making sure that you have a great resume to shop around. If you’re in a position where you don’t have value to other employers, then you’ve ceded a lot of power to your current employer. You’ve made them into your only option, and that’s never a good place to be in.

So, your first action step should be to give your resume a polishing and evaluate it realistically to see if it’s ready to get you anywhere. If it’s not, start investing as much of your time as you can on projects that are resume-worthy and classes and certifications to build up your skill set.

You should also start taking steps to raise your profile within your field. It is never a bad idea to start building lots of relationships within your field, especially outside of your current place of employment. Start going to meetups related to your career in the area. Get involved in social media related to your career path, particularly in areas where you can show off your skills a little (like an online community focused on your areas of expertise).

These steps are twofold. They’ll obviously help you if you decide to switch to a new job, but they’ll also give you some leverage with your current workplace. You’re increasing your personal value, which means you have more poker chips with which to stay in the game.

What about your current job, though? As you go through the steps of preparing yourself for a potential move, take stock of your current organization. Do you enjoy the environment at the current workplace? Is the management flexible and treats you well, or are they cruel and uncaring? Do you have good relationships with your coworkers, or is the place poisonous? Does the organization as a whole seem to be on solid ground, or are things looking shaky? Do you enjoy the projects you’re working on or do you find them boring?

If you feel that your current place of employment is a good place to work and has some stability, then it makes more sense to keep working with them. If this is the case, have a sincere discussion with your manager – remember, if you’re in this situation, your manager is probably someone you get along with and trust to some extent, or else you’d be wanting to get out of there.

Simply lay out the situation. You’ve been a good employee for a long time. You have a competitive skill set and a lot of experience. You feel you have earned more compensation and, all things being equal, you’d prefer to stay with your current organization if they show you that your efforts are rewarded with a notable increase in compensation. If you’re unsure what you should be asking for, take a look at what people are getting paid with similar levels of experience at positions like yours in your area by using job listings. (Remember, this is only good leverage if you’re a good employee. If you’re not a good employee, they may decide that a new face in your position is a better value for their dollar. If you’re below average, paying you the average might not be the wisest idea.)

Your current workplace would have to be in a very poisonous position if your manager did not understand this. If your manager actually balks at this concept, then it’s a sign that you should be moving on.

What you should expect is that your manager will agree with you to some extent and then he or she will seek to reward you with additional compensation. Be aware that this might not be immediate. There are perhaps conversations that need to occur and budgets that need to be evaluated before you can get a raise. Your best route during this process is to occasionally touch base with your supervisor on the progress of getting a raise. If you begin to feel that you’re getting the runaround and nothing is going to change – being patient is good, but patience does have its limits – then it’s time to start seeking new employment.

If you find yourself in a scenario where new employment seems to be the best route, whether it’s due to uncertainty about the future of your workplace, unhappiness with the environment, or a lack of attention being given to your compensation, then the next step is to start looking for a new position.

The honest truth of the matter is that most jobs are won through relationships, not through applications. Most of the time, winning applicants are referred to a business by a current employee and it’s due to that personal reference that the position is won.

So, your first step in this process should be to ask around through your trusted professional relationships as to whether there are any appropriate positions out there for you. If you’ve got some strong relationships, have been helpful within those relationships in the past, and have a good reputation, it’s likely that at least one of those people will be able to point you toward a job that you could apply for within their organization or an organization that they have ties to. (In fact, this is exactly how I applied to every professional job position I ever held; it started with a professional relationship.)

Sometimes, you’ll find that this happens very fast, especially if you’re referred to a job at a smaller company. Small companies tend to be very agile with their hiring and can sometimes have a job offer for you on the table in just a day or two. At other times, you’ll find that the wheels turn very slowly. You apply and then wait for months and then have a phone interview and then wait for a month and then have another phone interview and then wait a month and then have a face-to-face interview and then wait for a month… you get the idea. This tends to be true for government jobs and jobs with very large corporations, in my experience. There’s no need to be impatient here, especially if you happen to like most aspects of your current job.

If you have a job offer in hand but you still like your current environment, go back to your supervisor with your job offer in hand and give them a chance to match it. This is the appropriate thing to do if you have a good relationship with your current employer and like your current work environment. Give them a chance to match your offer, and if they do, stay where you are. If not, well, you have a job offer in hand!

Another route, particularly if you have a lot of downtime at your current job, is to launch a side gig to supplement your income. If you have an unfulfilled interest or passion, a side gig can be a great way to bring that passion to the table and channel some energy through it in order to earn some income. Side gigs can take on all kinds of shapes and sizes – my father’s side gigs included small-scale commercial fishing and vegetable farming, for example, and my mother’s side gigs involved meal preparation and child care, while my own side gigs included building websites and fixing computers and my own children have an after school side gig on Youtube. You can start this process right now by brainstorming ideas for side gigs, then writing up business plans for the best ones.

The thing to remember in all of this is that your loyalty to a company has to be earned, not given. If a company does not treat you well, then you don’t have to continue working there out of a sense of loyalty. If you’re not being compensated in a way that’s reasonable compared to your experience and efforts, it really is okay to ask for a raise and, if you don’t get one, to look into moving on. Just make sure, before you start, that you’ve got a skill set and a professional network that will make it easy for you to move to a new job, or else you’ve given your current company all of the leverage.

Good luck!

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just a Little Patience: 14 Ways to Develop Restraint

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about nine techniques I was using to teach myself patience, because patience was (and still is) one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced on the road to financial independence.

The techniques that worked for me boiled down to three things.

First, try to see situations in your life from different perspectives. Step back and evaluate things from the perspective of your future self a year from now or five years from now or 20 years from now. Step back and evaluate things from the perspective of your children, from the perspective of your spouse, from the perspective of your friends.

Second, make big goals, then break them down into tiny day-sized pieces. What can you do today to achieve this goal? This puts the emphasis on things like frugality and automation and shopping around in terms of personal finance planning, which are the more successful strategies I’ve found.

Third, put the focus on enjoying the ride rather than pining for the destination. Rather than looking for the things that are missing in your day, look for the abundance of things that are there. Don’t get fixated on the three things you choose to do without when your life is loaded with infinite avenues of entertainment and fulfillment.

Those things are great principles to live by, but they don’t always feel applicable to the struggles of day-to-day living. How do you take those overall principles of patient living and really ingrain them into ordinary daily life, especially when that life is often incredibly busy and full of distractions?

Here’s a practical checklist of things you can do regularly – daily or less frequently, depending on your needs – to develop smart patience in your life.

Think about your goals and initiatives for today when you first wake up.

The first thing I do each and every day when I wake up – literally as I’m rising out of bed, using the restroom, and getting a glass of water – is to think about what I’m going to do that day. What habits am I working to improve? What tasks do I need to get done? How am I going to go to bed tonight with my life just a tick better than it was when I woke up?

For me, this usually takes the form of a to-do list, one that I keep on my phone. As I’m standing there drinking a glass of water, I’ll look at my list on my phone. It lists the things I want to keep in mind that day – habits I’m working on to improve myself and today’s key tasks. The number of things usually numbers between 10 and 15.

The habits I’m working on are ones that recur each day. I leave them on my to-do list all day long so that I see them throughout the day and check them off at night. The tasks get checked off as I do them.

How does this build patience? The thing to remember is that I’m not really looking for results when it comes to most of the things on my to-do list. Those habit reminders are not about results. They’re simply reminders of things I need to do today in order to keep bobbing in the right direction in life. Patience really builds when I combine this strategy with other ones on this list.

Review your day during downtime.

Whenever I have a few minutes of downtime, like when I’m driving my kids to soccer practice or waiting on the dentist, I use that time to reflect on my day so far and what’s still to come. Often, I’ll grab my phone and review that to-do list again – the one mentioned above, with all of my ongoing habits I’m trying to build on it.

Again, this just keeps me mindful of what my goals and initiatives are for today, keeping them fresh in my mind so that I don’t walk away from them because I’m not seeing results right now.

At least once a day, I take a longer block of time and actually write in a journal. I usually take one element of my life – usually something that’s bothering me or a mistake I’ve recently made – and expand on it a little, trying to dig into the core of what’s bothering me and see if there’s an applicable solution.

The advantage here is that I address little bumps in the road quickly before they develop into big problems. Impatience is often the result of processes that aren’t going as smoothly as we hoped, so by simply dealing with the little problems right away by thinking through them and coming up with good solutions, you prevent them from developing into big problems that can really freeze up the gears of progress and allow impatience to destroy what you’ve been working for.

Intentionally do things with minimal distraction.

A big part of patience is enjoying the ride rather than focusing on the destination, and one way of doing that is to simply focus on the moment. Focus on what you’re doing right now. Focus enables you to fall into a state of flow, where time passes without you even noticing it because you’re so engaged and productive. Focus also enables you to notice lots of little nuances and pleasures that a distracted mind misses, like the feel of warmth on your skin or the nuance of what a friend is trying to tell you.

The most effective method of doing this is to simply turn off your cell phone for a while. When you’re doing something that requires focus or which really rewards having your full mind at attention, just turn your phone completely off for an hour or so. Yeah, you might miss a social media update. So what? You might miss a text from someone. So? You can get back to them later. You can check social media later.

Turn off your phone when you’re settling in to work on a project. Turn off your phone when you’re about to do something fun. Turn off your phone when you’re spending time with people you love or care about. Let your focus be on the thing you’re actually doing and the people you’re actually with. Don’t let your cell phone be a crutch for your social or intellectual impatience.

Take on ‘micro-challenges.’

One technique I’ve found that really helps with building some extra life into long-term life changes that require patience is to have “micro-challenges” on many days, where I challenge myself, just for today (or maybe for just a few days), to do something extra challenging to push myself toward a new habit or toward a long-term goal.

For example, you might simply commit to spending no money at all for an entire weekend, making do with the things you already have on hand and on activities that are free. If you’re trying to lose weight, perhaps you experiment with intermittent fasting, where two or three days a week you simply choose to eat one meal later in the day rather than three meals.

These things are mostly meant to add a new angle or some “spice” to a larger goal that requires patience and give you a fresh angle on the strategies and techniques you’re using to move toward that big goal. It’s simply a way to keep a big goal from becoming completely routine, which means that it’s easy to get frustrated with it and give up. If you keep playing around with the tactics, it’s much harder to lose patience with it.

Ask three questions before making a statement.

This is an extremely simple strategy that I learned from a mentor that accomplishes a number of things at once. First, it improves your conversation skills by giving you a nice guideline to work from. Second, it requires you to be paying attention to what the other person is saying in a conversation rather than focusing on what you’re going to say next and giving you a bit of time through questioning to refine your thought. Third, it draws the other person into expressing their thoughts and ideas, making them feel important. Perhaps best of all, it teaches patience, by making you wait before you say something.

I’ve started consciously trying to use this strategy in conversations, not only to make my conversations better and improve relationships with people, but also to subtly teach myself a bit of patience in the moment. I don’t have to immediately jump in with my thoughts, no matter how important I think they might be. I don’t have to focus on me, me, me all the time. I can wait. I can listen. I can learn.

It’s so subtle and simple, yet it really does have an impact. I can feel my desire to jump into conversation streams lessening. I find myself being more interested in unpacking what the other person is trying to say and learning something from that. I find that when I do say things after doing this, the things I say are more composed and, dare I say, wiser and more considerate. It’s like a microcosm of the practice and benefits of patience.

Postpone impulsive splurges.

Sometimes, we just get hit over the head with some sort of impulsive desire to buy something. Maybe we see a book in a bookstore or an article of clothing that just looks so cute. Perhaps you want to buy a new item for the kitchen or maybe you want to upgrade your cell phone. The impulse strikes you and it’s pulling hard.

Here’s the reality, though. You don’t need that item. The want is strong, but it’s not a need. Thus, there’s nothing truly urgent about it. There’s no reason you can’t wait for a little while.

My strategy is to simply wait 30 days before buying anything that’s not strictly a need. Rather than buying something, I write it down somewhere. Usually, it goes on my Amazon wish list; sometimes, it’ll go into a note somewhere.

Not only does this force me to be patient, it pushes me to draw on that patience in the moment. It also saves me a lot of money, because I often find that if I wait for 30 days on that purchase, I no longer really want that item after those thirty days. You’ll find that once that happens a few times, you begin to really doubt how true those strong spending impulses really are.

I do keep a small amount of money around for impulsive experiences, like going out with friends. You can’t predict when a friend might want to stop for ice cream or go out to a movie or something like that. That money can be spent however I want, so I can still be spontaneous. I just use this rule when I’m dealing with purchases or unnecessary solo experiences.

Plan ahead for big indulgences and enjoy the anticipation.

If you do decide to spend money on an item or an activity that you want for personal enjoyment, don’t do it right away. Instead, plan for that indulgence down the road. Plan a vacation in advance. Plan a big purchase in advance.

Doing this achieves a bunch of things at once. Obviously, it teaches you patience, but the rewards keep going. If you’re patient with a purchase, you’re going to have a lot of time to shop around and get more value for your dollar, which means you’re going to end up spending less on this thing.

Even better, if you’re patient with a purchase, you’re also going to be able to really enjoy every drop of anticipation. Rather than just splurging and getting the joy immediately, you get the fun of thinking about something that’s coming up in your life. You effectively wind up extracting a lot more joy and pleasure from that purchase.

I’d far rather plan on going out with a friend on Friday than going out today. Why? I can think about that event for a few days and look forward to it. If I go out right now, I deny myself the joy of anticipation.

Chart your progress over time.

One of the best things you can do when you’re working on a big goal is to look for some sort of number through which you can judge your progress. For example, if you’re working toward a financial goal, you can focus on your net worth or the total of your debt. If you’re working on a fitness goal, track your reps or your speed or your max weight or your step count. If you’re working on a weight loss goal, track your calories or your weight.

The purpose of this is to keep track of the fact that you’re making progress, even if it’s not as immediate or as intense as you expected it to be. Each time you write down a number, you can look back at the last few numbers you’ve jotted down and see that you are, in fact, making progress. Your net worth really is going up. Your weight really is going down.

I find that actually making a graph of those numbers that creates a visual line of your progress is really helpful. Seeing my progress heading in the right direction always makes me feel good, and a graph is very visual in that regard.

Focus on how far you’ve come, not on how far you have to go.

When you’re trying to be patient with progress towards a big goal, it’s often intimidating and overwhelming to look at the tremendous distance you have to cover. If you started at $0 and your net worth goal is $1 million, building to $10,000 net worth is a great accomplishment, but if you’re staring at the $990,000 yet to go, it seems overwhelming.

Don’t look at how far you have to go. Focus instead on that $0 to $10,000 jump, which is pretty awesome. You’ve come far and you deserve to be proud of it!

From this perspective, when you look forward, look instead at matching your progress of the last month or the last quarter rather than focusing on a huge target. You moved your net worth up $10,000 in the last six months – can you beat it over the next six? I’m actually pretty sure you can do it if you keep up with your tactics.

Look at how your life was five years ago or 10 years ago.

Again, if you’re waiting impatiently on a big goal in life, rather than staring at that goal and obsessing, step back and look at your life now compared to the disaster that it was before you started on this goal.

If your goal is financial, you’re likely in way better financial shape than you were then. If your goal is health-oriented, your health is likely better. Whatever your big goal is centered around, it’s likely that you’re far better off now with regards to that goal than you were when you started. Look at how much better that aspect of your life is!

When I look back to where I was ten years ago financially, I almost weep with joy. I used to have a career that involved a lot of travel and a lot of office work time; I now have a career flexible enough that I can spend a ton of time with my kids. I used to be loaded down with mountains of debt; I’m now debt free. I used to have a negative net worth; now it’s quite positive. My life is far better today.

Take on a few long-term commitments.

Take on commitments? Yep. Few things will teach you patience quite like taking on responsibility for a long-term project in the community that needs a guiding hand.

You will constantly be faced with delays from unexpected sources. You will constantly feel like you’re taking one step forward followed by one step back. You will often feel frustrated and have this sense that nothing is happening.

Eventually, though, you’ll begin to make peace with it. You’ll begin to see that Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ll start to realize that cool-minded patience almost always results in better decisions and steadier progress toward the result.

When you see that at work, you’ll start to practice patience in other aspects of your life as well.

There’s nothing quite like a slow-moving project that you can’t just push forward out of raw force to teach you patience.

Review how you can make the most out of those things you’re responsible for.

Another aspect of being patient is that you often have plenty of time to really maximize your approach to whatever it is you’re working for. If you’re working toward a big weight loss goal, for example, focus on finding new strategies for causing your weight to drop. If you’re working toward financial independence, focus on finding new strategies for spending less or for investing more effectively. If you’re on a long journey toward completing a work project, look for ways to improve the project without a bunch of additional time or resources.

In other words, you don’t have to just sit still when you’re being patient. You can constantly evaluate the problem before you and figure out intelligent courses of action to take in order to improve your rate of progress or to improve the quality of the outcome.

I find that having a mix of strong curiosity and a natural restlessness, two things I possess, makes this strategy really effective. I’m drawn toward looking for ways to improve my situation and my progress toward my goals, even if the methods are like a drop in the bucket. Every drop matters, and I feel good when I figure out something new, even if it’s tiny.

Pause before you take action and ask yourself if this really makes sense.

Many of our biggest mistakes in life come from a simple lack of patience. We didn’t wait around to find out more information; instead, we jumped in head first out of pure impatience and got ourselves in trouble. We speak out about a situation before finding out all of the information. We jump into a course of action before we understand all of the drawbacks. Often, we dive into things just because they look promising at first glance.

Whenever you find yourself quickly making a decision, or you’re about to speak out against or on behalf of something you just learned about, stop. Ask yourself if you’ve really got all of the information you need to make a sensible decision. Do a little bit of homework and look at a few different perspectives on the issue.

I’m not always good at this in the moment, so I try to reflect on those moments later on – as I note above, I spend downtime reflecting on my day and the day to come. I’ve found that, over time, being patient with my words and my actions comes easier and easier. I’ve also found that having more patience with those things is almost always a benefit to my life and my relationships.

Remind yourself that mild discomfort is tolerable and doesn’t have to be immediately fixed.

One of the surest routes to impatient action is a sense of mild discomfort in modern life. We are surrounded by so many tools for fixing mild discomfort – endless sources of entertainment, online shopping at the click of a button, the ability to call almost anyone from anywhere at any time, endless diagnoses and “medical advice” about any physical discomfort, and so on. Because of those convenient “solutions,” it’s often easy to just grab at them and make the mild discomfort go away.

The problem is that we pay dearly for living a life without any sort of mild discomfort, a life with every want attended to. We lose patience. We lose money. We lose the ability to handle lots of ordinary situations.

The reality is that wanting something and not having an immediate fix isn’t a bad thing. It might be mildly discomforting to not have the thing you want right now, but is it really that big of a deal? Usually, it doesn’t matter – that mild discomfort will vanish on its own quickly, anyway. Alleviating it directly just costs us money and drains us of our patience and our tolerance.

If something strikes you as being mildly uncomfortable, don’t treat it like a nail and hit it with the “comfort” hammer. Instead, move on with life. You might just find that the problem goes away on its own, and when you’re used to that, a lot of problems seemingly go away on their own.

At the end of the day, patience is a skill that can be cultivated over time with lots of little practices in your life, just like any other skill. Use some of these practices to cultivate your patience and you’ll find it to be a valuable tool you can rely on throughout your financial journey – and every other long journey in your life.

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The post Just a Little Patience: 14 Ways to Develop Restraint appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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