Monday, December 5, 2016

The Food Freeze: How We Avoided the Grocery Store for More Than Two Weeks

A few months ago, I peeked in our pantry and freezer to take stock of what we had before hitting the store. What I found shocked me.

I don’t know when or why it happened, but both spots were bulging at the seams.

In the freezer, I had accumulated frozen vegetables galore, frozen blueberries leftover from summer, and some random prepared foods (mostly breakfast stuff and veggie burgers). In my wall pantry, I had all kinds of random ingredients – things like bread crumbs, pickles, crackers, dip mixes, and potato chips. In my Lazy Susan, I had even more stuff: cans of vegetables and beans, boxes of mac-n-cheese, and like eight boxes of pasta and six jars of spaghetti sauce!

I had to ask myself why I was going to the store when I obviously had so much food already. I mean, I easily had enough food for two weeks or longer.

So, instead of heading to the store, I did something else – I sat down and made a list of everything we had, down to jars of jelly and condiments. Once I created a master food list, I decided that, after one last trip for last-minute stuff, I would figure out a way to use up the bulk of our existing groceries and avoid the store for a few weeks.

The Food Freeze

Not shopping for a few weeks was going to have financial and practical benefits, I thought. First, not shopping for food would obviously save us money. Since I generally spend $125 to $150 per week on groceries for our family of four, not visiting the store for two weeks would theoretically save $250 at the very least.

Another reason to eat up our food surplus? Avoiding waste. I hate throwing away food, so it was about time I took inventory of what we had and put it to good use. To me, throwing away food is like throwing away money! It rarely happens in our house, but I feel physical pain when a sack of salad hits the trash.

The only problem with avoiding the store was getting bread and milk. I solved that problem by vowing to visit the store just once over a two-week period to buy those important staples. My kids drink regular milk with dinner and use it on their cereal every morning, and they need bread for school lunches. No matter what, there wasn’t much I could do to avoid the inevitability of visiting the store for these perishable items.

Once we worked out those initial details, we set out to avoid the store completely for what ended up being longer than two weeks. Here’s how we did it:

We made soups!

By and large, one of the easiest ways to use up ingredients is to make soup. Trent has written about his love of frugal soups and stews on The Simple Dollar numerous times, and I’ve found making soup really is one of the best ways to create a meal with almost anything.

Using ingredients in our pantry and freezer, we made vegetable soup one week and vegetarian chili the next week. With a surplus of frozen vegetables in stock, this part was easy. We had these soups for dinner several times, then ate the leftovers at lunch. I even froze some extra chili we had because I made too much.

We got creative with ingredients.

Because some of the new recipes I found online required ingredients I didn’t want to go out and buy, we had to get creative using the “stuff” we had on hand. I made spicy bean tacos with refried beans instead of black beans, for example. I also used sliced American cheese (kinda gross, but it was fine) for any recipe that called for cheese, because that’s all we had.

The kids and husband didn’t seem to notice or care, and it was fine with me. Best of all, it forced me to use some ingredients that had been lingering in my pantry (that old can of refried beans only had a few more months of shelf life, for example).

We were intentional when it comes to menu planning.

The key to making it work was less about “making do” and more about being intentional. With a list of ingredients on hand, it was a lot easier to decide what to eat using the food we already had.

I like to play around on several websites that give you recipe ideas based on the random ingredients you enter. Whether you’re enduring a food freeze or not, these websites can be a lot of fun. MyFridgeFood.com is probably my favorite. After you log in, you just have to input the ingredients you have to get access to a ton of recipes that would actually work for that combination. MyFridgeFood doesn’t always offer the best recipes, but it is easy to use. Even better, it’s free!

We all ate stuff we didn’t want to eat.

You know how to get rid of eight boxes of spaghetti and seven jars of spaghetti sauce? You eat spaghetti – and lots of it. This part wasn’t fun, but it needed to be done.

I started with the jars of sauce that were the oldest, then made spaghetti on three different nights. Each night, I added a different frozen vegetable to switch things up.

While I like to make my own spaghetti sauce when I have time, our pasta surplus exists because I use spaghetti as part of my emergency food fund. The good news is, I saved the last few jars and boxes of pasta for the busy nights where I don’t have time to make anything fancy.

Two Weeks Without Groceries: The Results

Over the course of two-and-a-half weeks, I only visited the grocery store once. During that visit, I picked up two loaves of bread, a gallon of milk, and nothing else.

Better yet, we made a huge dent in our existing food surplus. We didn’t eat everything we had by a long shot, but we made considerable headway. As icing on the cake, we only spent $250 on food during the entire month.

While the experience wasn’t exactly fun, I would do it again. And honestly, the entire hassle reminded me to be more intentional and mindful of how we spend our money at the grocery store. Even though our grocery store bill is small (around $600 per month) most of the time, we have the potential to spend even less if we make mindful decisions about what’s for dinner every night.

Food is a big component of anyone’s budget, but it becomes a lot more expensive when we’re wasteful. The best way to avoid waste is to pay attention to what you have already – and use it.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. She blogs at ClubThrifty.com and teaches others how to write online at EarnMoreWriting.com.

Related Articles:

Do you ever avoid the store and eat what you already have instead? How does your family survive a food freeze?

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cutting the Cord? How to Find Cheap High-Speed Internet That Can Handle Streaming Video

By Chris Brantner

One of the things that nearly everyone can agree on is cable and internet packages are way too expensive. That’s why it’s incredibly important to figure out a way to get a great deal on a reliable high-speed internet service.

If you’re a cable cutter who needs a fast connection to handle your live streaming needs, there are a few things you should know in order to get the best deal.

Shop Around

One of the best methods is to look around at all of the offers and options out there. This can be a little daunting, but this tool helps sort through all your options and will help you narrow it down.

By comparing competing offers like that, you can then use the offers as bargaining chips against other providers to hopefully reduce your actual cost. A lot of the time, internet providers will match other deals or try and meet halfway. Even if it’s only a year-long introductory deal, you can always cancel and choose another plan after the deal expires.

Find Out About Download Speeds

One of the key things you should get from the internet provider is what type of download speeds you can expect. Upload speeds are helpful too, but download speed is what will make the difference in streaming quality. Quicker download speeds mean less buffering time when watching YouTube, Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu, or any other streaming service.

The recommended minimum speed for streaming standard-definition video is usually about 5 Mbps (megabytes per second). That means if it’s just you streaming from Netflix, you can probably get by with pretty low-speed internet. But if you’re streaming high-definition video or have multiple people in your home using different services at once, you should basically add an additional 5 Mbps per streaming device.

For reference, the average internet speed throughout the U.S. is about 12 Mbps. But for the 46% of people across the world with internet access, the average is only about 5 Mbps.

Of course, if you want to stream in Ultra High Def 4K, then you’re going to need a much faster connection. For that, Netflix has you covered with its monthly ISP Speed Index rankings. (Spoiler alert: Verizon FiOS is consistently at the top.)

Check for Any Data Caps

Data caps, common on smartphone plans, are now being adopted by cable and internet providers. They’re often used to combat cord cutting, which has eroded the growth in cable subscribers, or to charge people extra if they’re downloading a large amount of content.

Basically, with a data cap, when you go over the limit you have to pay a fee for whatever you download beyond the cap.

This means if you get sucked in one weekend binge-watching every season of “Breaking Bad,” you could get to the point where you actually have to pay an additional fee on top of your monthly bill. Who wants that? Nobody. I highly recommend staying far away from any internet provider with a data cap (we’re looking at you, Comcast).

To Bundle, or Not To Bundle

One reason many people have cable is because it might seem more reasonable for them to just get the bundled internet and cable TV package. They might think it’s worth the extra money, or just don’t want to deal with what they see as the complexity of cutting the cable portion.

This is a decent option for some, but the big thing to remember is that cable cutting really isn’t that expensive or difficult nowadays. Plus, that great introductory bundle price usually shoots through the roof after the initial rate expires. So, what might seem like a decent deal today could be a really bad deal six or 12 months from now.

A lot of times if you choose to avoid the bundle, the cable companies will try to spike up internet prices. But, that’s where the internet comparison tool I mentioned earlier comes into play. You can use it to find better deals or even use it to bargain down your existing provider to a much more reasonable number. In many cases, you’ll certainly be saving money.

Should Customer Service Be a Factor in Choosing Internet for Streaming?

Maybe. But honestly, you’ll be hard pressed to find any ISP that is known for offering stellar customer service.

That being said, some are worse than others. For example, Comcast is well-known for its nightmarish customer service stories. When it comes to customer service, you may end up making a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Cutting cable is a great budgeting decision, especially with all the great options on the market that make it so much easier. But all that money saved won’t do much good if you’re blowing it on an expensive internet package. Hopefully, you’ve got a better idea now on how to search around for the best internet deal and not get taken advantage of by the cable companies.

For more info on choosing an internet service provider, check out our complete guide here.

Related Articles

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Inspiration from Galileo, John McWhorter, Robert Louis Stevenson, and More

Once a month (or so), I share a dozen things that have inspired me to greater personal, professional, and financial success in my life. I hope they bring similar success to your life.

1. Galileo on learning

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” – Galileo

At first, I thought this quote was silly. How can you expect someone to have knowledge of a topic inherently within themselves?

That’s not what Galileo is talking about here, though. Galileo is talking about the willingness to learn and other foundational elements of character. A person with poor character and habits can’t be taught to have better character and habits. All you can do is lay the information at that person’s door; it’s up to them to do something with it, and that willingness comes from within.

I am close friends with quite a few public school teachers and they all more or less say the same thing: there comes a point where it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into teaching, the student is either going to make the effort to meet you in the middle and absorb some knowledge or that student will refuse and probably fail. Some students are chomping at the bit to learn; others learn a ton on their own and barely need instruction at all. Almost universally, they feel that the biggest (and best) part of their job is reaching the people who put forth that basic effort to learn but struggle to get there.

The number one biggest thing that you can do to succeed as a person is to put forth genuine effort in whatever it is that you’re doing. That simple step alone puts you ahead of a lot of people.

2. John McWhorter on why you should learn a new language

From the description:

English is fast becoming the world’s universal language, and instant translation technology is improving every year. So why bother learning a foreign language? Linguist and Columbia professor John McWhorter shares four alluring benefits of learning an unfamiliar tongue.

I summarized his reasons for those who don’t want to watch the video.

Reason one: if you want to really understand and absorb the culture, you need to learn the language that it’s spoken in, because without that you miss almost all of the nuance of communication.

Reason two: if you speak two languages, you’re less likely to suffer from dementia and you’re more likely to be a decent multitasker.

Reason three: learning and using languages is simply fun.

Reason four: we live in an era where it has never been easier to learn a language, especially with tools like Duolingo out there.

I’ve found that learning someone else’s language – or at least trying to – is one of the most effective ways there is to build a bond with someone from a different culture. It’s almost always a fun experience, particularly when you’re also helping them to learn your language at the same time.

I once worked at a shared desk with an individual from China. He was new to the United States and spoke very halting English, though he could read it fairly well. I made it a point to have several conversations with him in English every single day, but our relationship didn’t start clicking until he started teaching me how to converse in Cantonese – his native tongue. I was awful at it and he thought this was positively hilarious. Apparently, every other sentence out of my mouth was an unintentional obscenity. It helped us to bond, it helped me to learn just a little bit of Cantonese, and it also helped me to understand him a little better.

3. Robert Louis Stevenson on judging each day

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Over the past few months, I’ve been focusing quite a lot on planting seeds for the future. I’m not talking about literal seeds, of course, but metaphorical ones: things that won’t pay off in any real way today or tomorrow, but something that will pay off way down the road.

For me, the biggest seeds I am planting are my children. I’ve been dwelling heavily on the question of what I can do as a parent to help them to become functional, independent, successful adults. I want them to not only be able to handle adult and professional life on their own, but to want to do it. Not that they’ll forget about ol’ dad, but that they won’t need me to help them manage their daily life and that they’re making good choices on their own.

I’m also planting a ton of career and community seeds by trying to build relationships with people and break through my own natural introversion. This is hard for me – I’m just not naturally the kind of person that dives into conversations.

4. The Avett Brothers – No Hard Feelings

The Avett Brothers are my favorite musical act of the last fifteen years or so (along with Old Crow Medicine Show – maybe). I absolutely love their harmonization, their soulful Americana musical choices, and their laid back style. So, whenever they have new stuff out, I’m going to be sharing it here because their music has brought so much value to my life.

Although I absolutely adore this newest song, I almost always point people to the two brothers singing an acoustic duet of their great Salvation Song in a park on a cold day. You’re going to be struck right off the bat by the fact that it’s bluegrass-y to the core, but listen to the lyrics and how their voices harmonize and don’t be surprised if it hooks you hard.

Bluegrass music works for me because it takes concerns of the modern world and makes them timeless, or, depending on how you look at it, it’s about timeless concerns. It makes me realize that my grandparents and great-grandparents and their grandparents felt heartache and love and worries about the world, and my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will feel those same things, too, and it’s done entirely with the instruments they each could have used. It’s eternal. It’s the human experience. And it can be beautiful, even when it hurts.

5. Tom Bodett on the keys to happiness

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” ― Tom Bodett

Quotes like this that just break through the layers of modern life and cut things down to the basics really hit home for me.

Something to do. Someone to love. Something to hope for. That’s pretty much the definition of a good life. I put that right up next to Jim Valvano’s definition of a great day: you learn something, you laugh, and you cry.

Really, what else do you need in life? What else do you even want out of life? If you’re able to learn, laugh, and cry every day, and you have someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for… what else is there, really?

6. Ellen Goodman on normal

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” – Ellen Goodman

This is a life cycle that many, many Americans find themselves in. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why it occurs – people are chasing their dreams. I just can’t help but wonder at times whether those dreams really come from within or whether they’re delivered from outside.

In my own life, I’ve found that the greatest joy – even when I’m working hard on something challenging – comes about when I’m working toward my own dream. My own dream is financial independence. It is not a beautiful house. It is not a shiny car. It is not a $1,000 suit. It’s the ability to wake up some morning in the near future knowing that all of my basic needs are taken care of for pretty much the rest of my life and then deciding what the day is going to hold.

However, along the way to that dream, I want to be an involved father and husband and I want enough space so that I can recharge that creativity that I use to fuel my work.

That dream sometimes leads to different choices than others might make, and that’s okay. Just make sure that the things you’re working for are the things that you really want, not just what someone else tells you that you should want.

7. Time’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time

Earthrise - Apollo 8

A friend shared this image gallery with me a few days ago and I spent far longer than I should have browsing through this gallery.

Most of the images were familiar, but not all. Some shared iconic moments in history, while others simply showed everyday life. I thought of a couple that I might have included that weren’t there, but I think that feeling would be true of any such collection.

In the end, it’s a wonderful retrospective of the world over the last hundred and fifty years or so. It has a Western slant, of course, as it’s where photography was born and where it exploded in popularity so there’s much more to draw from, but these images do cover the whole world, from rich to poor, from West to East, from the variety of human experience.

Spend some time browsing through it. You’ll be glad you did.

'Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California'

8. Eckhart Tolle on unhappiness

“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” – Eckhart Tolle

I’ve learned over the years that whenever I have an emotional response to something – meaning that something makes me sad or angry or overjoyed – that emotion is almost always useless and often dangerous. Whenever I dwell on something with negative thoughts, it’s almost always useless and often dangerous.

The reality is that I have a lot of control over my emotions and thoughts. Yes, sure, sometimes emotions flood out, but most of the time, I get to actually decide whether I’m happy about something or whether I’m sad about something or whether I’m angry about something. I get to choose whether I think about things in a positive light or a negative light. It’s my choice, and when I make that choice, I end up shading how I feel about and how I respond to things in my life.

Take a person in your life. Any person. If you spend a moment thinking about that person’s positive traits – their humor, perhaps, or their honesty – you’re going to end up feeling a bit more positive about that person. If you spend a moment thinking about that person’s negative traits – their public outbursts, perhaps – you’re going to end up feeling a bit more negative about that person.

The thing is, you get to choose what you think about. You get to decide whether you’re going to dwell on their negative traits or their positive traits, and what you dwell on shapes how you feel toward that thing and how you respond to that thing. That’s your choice.

9. Dropbox Paper

I’m involved with a few different collaborative projects of different kinds. Most of them heavily revolve around sharing information and ideas – ideas for podcast episodes, ideas for visual designs, ideas for video storyboards, ideas for code structures, and so on.

These different projects have used different tools to share ideas. A couple just use email chains. A couple others use Google Docs. One seems to rely on an endless group Facebook message.

One of them, however, recently switched to using Dropbox Paper and it’s been a godsend.

Dropbox Paper is basically like a digital version of a giant piece of scratch paper where you can basically cut and paste and write anything you want. Everyone else (with a Dropbox account) can see it and edit it and it tracks the changes effortlessly.

It just works. There are other collaborative tools that are kind of like this, but this just works effortlessly for group brainstorming.

I’m trying to get some of my other projects to move to Dropbox Paper for idea sharing and brainstorming. I hope it sticks.

10. Seneca on aim

“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” – Seneca

Whenever I don’t have a big goal in life, I flounder. Badly.

I’ll fall back on just going through a daily cycle that just repeats the same things over and over without meaning, without heart. As hard as I try, my thoughts eventually turn negative.

I need something big to be working on. Without that big thing, I just regress.

It’s a deep truth about who I am, and it’s something that I think is true for a lot of people (though not everyone). If I have a direction, I get enthusiastic about building plans and executing them and working my tail off. I do everything I can to move toward that destination. Without it… I just idle in place and eventually I grow unhappy.

11. Casey Neistat’s final vlog

For about a year and a half, filmmaker Casey Neistat made a daily video that served as something of a record of his life. He experimented with all kinds of different things throughout the series, trying different things and using different filmmaking techniques to make them interesting and look great.

He’s choosing to end that series, and his reasoning is great. He basically doesn’t feel that it’s challenging him any more. He’s found a formula and a routine that makes it so he can just churn out videos, and for him, the joy in doing it is in discovering, not pumping things out. So he’s moving on.

This is basically a perfect example of why financial independence is so valuable. It’s impossible to do things in that way if you’re not financially independent or at least close to it. If you need that next paycheck, it becomes very hard to move on to the next challenge in life. You’re stuck with what you have.

That’s why creative freedom often rests on the back of either poverty or financial independence. Both enable you to take risks that you can’t take if you need that next paycheck to sustain your life.

12. Mark Twain on good cheer

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” – Mark Twain

Try this. It works surprisingly well.

Go to a public event of some kind and just make yourself be social. Make it your goal to put a smile on the face of each and every person in the room, one on one. Just make that your intent when you go there.

Go around and talk to each person. Be as positive as you can, especially if they’re down. Look for positive things to say and try to lighten the mood with a bit of humor if you can muster it.

Do this with each and every person in the entire room. See if you can raise a smile.

Do you want to know a secret? When you leave that room, even if you’re really introverted and socially worn out, you’re going to feel really upbeat. You’re going to have collected a lot of smiles and a lot of good little moments and it’s going to lift your sense of well being.

Even better, over the long run, if you do it again and again, you’re going to start establishing some great relationships. People are going to be happy to see you walking into the room. They’re going to start reaching out to you on their own and including you in things and in ways you never expected.

Make it your goal to bring good cheer to everyone. You’ll be surprised how much it does for you.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Planning Ahead for Extended Leave, Financially and Professionally

Quite often, when the topic of extended leave from one’s career comes up, it’s in the context of having children. People often want to spend a few years at home with their children when they’re young, returning to the workforce when the children are entering their school years, or even continuing to stay at home and providing a homeschooling environment.

That’s one big reason for such leave, but there’s another reason as well. Some people want to take a period of extended leave to build a business or chase other creative pursuits, while still others simply want an extended break.

My cousin and her husband, who I’ll call “Nina” and “Craig,” plan ahead often for extended breaks. Multiple times over the past two decades, Nina and Craig have taken time off from their careers to go on adventures. One time, they walked the length of the Continental Divide. Another time, they walked the length of the Appalachian Trail. Yet another time, they set off on a cross-country bicycling adventure. Each time, they planned ahead for the excursion, left their current positions on the best possible terms, spent a year or so on their adventure, and then went back to their regular lives afterwards.

At the same time, one of my closest friends, who I’ll call “Kevin,” walked away from his career for a two-year break during which he hoped to launch a woodworking business. During his spare time, he had developed a plan for this business, and he made financial choices along the way so that he could spend two years either making or breaking that business. Unfortunately, his business didn’t take off like he hoped and he’s back in his previous career path.

When I left my own previous career in 2008, I didn’t know whether it was going to be for an extended leave or whether it was a permanent change. I left on great terms, giving my boss plenty of notice and setting up as much documentation and information as I could before I left (I literally created a “wiki” of my work practices). I intended to spend that time focused on my family, but in the margins of that time I intended to keep building up The Simple Dollar. In a few years, it became clear that I had built something stable enough with The Simple Dollar that it could effectively become my career for a while.

What do each of these cases have in common? They all involve people choosing to take extended breaks from their career to try something different, and there are a lot of specific elements that they have in common, too, if you look closely. Here are some of the strategies that all of these stories have in common.

Build a Very Clear Budget

When you make the decision to move forward with an extended leave at some point in the future, your first step should be to build a very clear budget so that you know what this will cost. Like it or not, that’s going to add up to a lot of money. This is not a cheap proposition. Here are some things to think about while planning.

How much will you need to live on during this period? What is your true monthly cost of living? Furthermore, what money will you need to support whatever it is that you plan on working on? You can start by looking at your average monthly spending right now, then multiplying that by the length of your intended leave.

How will you pay for things like health insurance? Make absolutely sure that you’re covering irregular bills as well as the expenses that are currently covered by your employer. Walk through all of those expenses and know what you’re going to need to cover.

What about an emergency fund, so that an unexpected event doesn’t destroy all of your plans? Unexpected things are going to happen. Make sure that all but the worst events don’t derail your plans. You do that by having some significant flexibility in your budget, which means saving extra money that serves as an emergency fund.

Live Well Below Your Means While Preparing

The savings for this plan is going to have to come from somewhere, and the way you’re going to be able to build it up is by living well below your means as you prepare for the extended leave. If you can find ways to cut, say, 50% of your living expenses, then you’re suddenly able to save 50% of your take home pay.

Try all kinds of frugal strategies, even ones that seem kind of extreme. Completely cut the cord when it comes to television service. Eat all of your meals at home and take leftovers to work. Buy store-brand everything. Use mass transit to get to and from work and sell off a car if you can. Move to a smaller home or apartment. There are many strategies you can use here.

The more frugal strategies that stick, the lower your savings goal becomes as well. Remember, whenever you permanently lower your living expenses, that means that your savings goal becomes lower, too, because you’ve reduced the cost of each month that you’re trying to cover.

Have a Plan for Your Time, Too

While you’re getting your finances in order and saving up for this big idea you have, start thinking about how you’re going to spend your time, too. It’s very tempting, once you’ve taken a burden off of your shoulders, to just idle for a while, and that idling can turn into a long term pattern. If you take an extended leave and do nothing of value with it, what was the point?

If you’re going to start a business, develop a thorough business plan. Don’t just think about it. Write it. Revise it. Find mentors that will look at it and give you suggestions. A business plan is there to help you think through all of the potential pitfalls of a business idea, so take it seriously. It’s your blueprint.

If you’re going to chase a creative endeavor, treat it like “work.” Make sure that you’re planning to spend a lot of time every day on that creative endeavor. Plan those days out now. Even better, start practicing your skills now in your spare time. Make drawings, write short stories, write some code – whatever it is that you want to do, start honing the underlying talent.

If you’re going on an adventure, plan at least the framework of that adventure. When will you leave? How long will it actually take (with some extra time thrown in to handle unexpected events)? What will you actually need on this adventure? What preparatory steps will you need to take to pull it off? Make a packing list. Make a timeline of things you need to take care of. Do the thinking now so you can jump right into the “doing” later.

Don’t Burn Bridges; Do Everything You Can to Leave Them Intact

This is probably the most important principle behind all of these stories. When you step away from your current career path for an extended break, don’t burn bridges. Do everything you possibly can to step away in the most positive fashion possible.

Give plenty of notice. Don’t just show up, drop a two week notice on someone’s desk, and then stroll out the door. That will almost always harbor negative feelings. Instead, when you give notice, give plenty of lead time so that the process for finding a replacement is as clear as possible.

Document your work. Make sure that you have thoroughly documented your work as much as you possibly can, so that someone else who comes in to replace you can pick up the threads easily. Make sure to show all of this documentation to your supervisor so that they’re aware that you took many steps to make the transition smooth.

Maintain positive relationships. Even if you’re frustrated by workplace relationships, take an extra effort to make sure that they remain positive during your final months and weeks at work. Don’t leave with an angry rant against anyone, even if you feel it’s justified. Be positive with everyone in your final days. Then, try to maintain some of those relationships even after you leave, even if it’s just through social media.

Make Sure You Have a Clear Path to Return

This is the flipside of the “don’t burn bridges” strategy. You want to make sure that the door is open to your return, so take those steps now as you’re thinking about leaving.

Talk to your supervisor about the prospect of returning at the end of your timeframe. What would you need to do to maximize the chances of that return? What small steps can you take now to make it possible? What about a few steps even while you’re gone?

Don’t let your knowledge completely atrophy while you’re gone. Spend at least a little time each week keeping up to date on the changes in your field. What new things are coming down the pike that you need to be aware of? Things will change while you’re away.

Maintain those connections. One great way of doing this is to start a blog or an Instagram about your adventure and share it with your old coworkers and supervisors. This keeps you as a real presence in their lives. Tag them in your posts sometimes and respond to any comments that they leave. If you remain at least somewhat on their radar, your return will seem much more plausible for everyone.

Final Thoughts

Walking away from your career in the middle of the journey can seem as scary as possible, but if you plan for that departure carefully, don’t burn your bridges, and keep the door open for a return, you’ll find that your adventure will have a much greater chance of giving you life-changing results while still keeping a bit of a safety net in place.

Good luck in wherever your adventures may take you!

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How to Get a Cheap Rental Car

For most people, the vacation planning hierarchy goes flight, hotel, then vehicle. But don’t treat your car rental as an afterthought — knowing your needs and conducting a little online research could save you a lot of money.

“You don’t want to pay for services you don’t want or need because you don’t understand them,” said Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group, which focuses on the car rental industry. By following our tips below, you won’t get taken for a ride on your next rental car purchase.

First, decide whether you really need a rental car

If you’re traveling to a major city like New York, Boston, or Chicago, you could be fine riding the rails, hailing taxis, or taking a Lyft or Uber. A seven-day MetroCard is good for unlimited subway and bus trips in New York, and only costs $31. As an added bonus, you don’t have to navigate gridlock traffic in an unfamiliar town or pay to park downtown.

Aggregate, don’t procrastinate

If you’ve determined that a rental car is the way to go, start by searching the aggregator sites for perspective. Hipmunk and Kayak compare prices from many different sites and are often the cheapest way to rent a car. If anything, it’ll give you a good baseline to start with.

Darkness, your old friend

Similarly, opaque sites like Hotwire or Priceline — where you may know the price before booking, but not the company — negotiate for “stressed inventory,” according to Abrams. “If a rental company knows that a particular vehicle is not going to be rented on a particular date, time, and location, they’ll off-sell it at a net-rate deal to one of these opaque channels.”

Pay up front

Budget offers as much as 35% off your rental if you pay when you book your car instead of when you pick it up. A quick search on Budget.com and Avis.com for cars at Los Angeles International Airport returned a 10% to 15% discount if you use the “Pay Now” option. That said, their “Pay Now” prices were about the same as Alamo’s normal price.

Check your credit cards

The Chase Sapphire Preferred®, Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, and Discover it® Miles cards all offer excellent sign-up bonuses and waived annual fees for the first year, and you can book a discounted rate directly from your credit card dashboard online.

Also, many people overlook their credit card’s rental car insurance options – look into your cards’ policies and use the best one to pay for the rental. “Understand what services come with [your credit card], because each offers different types of auto rental insurance,” Abrams said.

Bundle up

Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia… all the big sites offer discounts when you package your vacation, so be prepared to book your car at the same time as your flight if you see a good deal. For instance, booking a flight, hotel, and car through Expedia for a weeklong trip to Orlando netted a $191 savings on the car rental when compared to the agency’s website. Don’t forget to look at airline and hotel and credit card sites, too, which also promote bundled discounts.

Get your off brand on

Sites like CarRentals.com (owned by Expedia) and CarRentalExpress.com include local and smaller national chains in their search. Don’t be afraid of Ace, Fox, Payless, or other agencies with which you may not be familiar. “There are three companies that own the eight major brands that control 95% of the industry,” Abrams said. That said, don’t expect off brands to always be on target: We searched for a compact rental from O’Hare Airport and found CarRentals.com was about $20 more expensive than Priceline.

When in Rome…

If you’re traveling to Europe, check out MyTripCar.com, an online rental upstart that promises “honest car rentals” by analyzing fees, waiting times, and credit card holds. Don’t be afraid to search for locally owned companies, too, such as Dan Dooley Car Rentals in Ireland.

Join the club

Big-box stores such as BJ’s and Costco both have their own car-rental affiliate programs, AAA has an exclusive partnership with Hertz, even college alma mater programs and the AARP can save you money. If you’ve paid your dues for the year, check to see if you can get some of that money back with a cheap car rental through your affiliation.

Sharing saves

Look for a ZipCar or Enterprise CarShare program close by. Car share options are great if you only need a vehicle here and there during your trip. However, make sure there’s a drop spot nearby, because you don’t want to eat into your savings by taking a taxi to your rental.

Peer-to-peer options

Operating in over 4,500 cities and over 300 airports, Turo is the Airbnb of car rental — basically, you rent a car from a person instead of a company. Formerly known as RelayRides, Turo boasts a 35% savings over traditional agency prices and offers $1 million worth of insurance per trip. We live in exciting times.

How to get a cheap rental car: Where the rubber hits the road

In addition to using the “Pay Now” option, there are a number of other ways to save money once you commit to your car rental:

  • If you can, avoid renting at the airport: With the exception of Manhattan, rates — and fees — are almost always lower when you rent a car in town rather than at the airport. If the price difference between an airport and city rental is more than a roundtrip taxi or subway ride from the airport, the savings might be worth the hassle.
  • If you can, book on a weekend: Enterprise, for example, offers $9.99 daily rates Friday through Monday at participating locations.
  • Weekly rates may be better than daily ones: Sometimes it makes sense to rent a car for five days even if you only need it for three.
  • Check your insurance: Your primary car insurance may have you covered. Also Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover all offer at least secondary car rental insurance if you pay for the car with your card. Remember, too, that selecting the agency insurance could actually invalidate insurance you already have through your credit card.
  • Never mind the bells and whistles: Rental car companies make a lot of their money on the add-ons they try to sell you at the counter. “Too often you have people buying the protection packages, what we call LDW—Loss Damage Waiver. They’ll buy navigation systems, which they don’t really need. The margins for rental companies are greater on those product lines than on the car itself,” Abrams said.
  • Fill up your own tank: While we’re on the subject, fuel plans at agencies are outrageously expensive. You’ll save big-time if you gas up yourself at a nearby station before returning the car.

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 16): Trimming Your Spending – Education and Miscellany

“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

Last time, we continued looking at the average American family budget, going through each category and examining how one could trim the cost of typical expenses in that category. Here’s the “average American family budget” that we’re looking at, along with links back to the earlier entries on those specific areas:

Housing – $10,080
Transportation – $9,004
Taxes – $7,432
Utilities – $7,068
Food – $6,602
Insurance (including things like pensions) – $5,528
Debt Payments – $5,252
Healthcare – $3,631
Entertainment – $2,564
Cash Contributions – $1,834
Apparel and Services – $1,604
Education – $1,138
Vices – $775
Miscellaneous – $664
Personal Care – $608
TOTAL – $63,784

Today, we’re going to take a look at the remaining categories on the list, particular education and vices. As you can see from the budget above, the average American family spends $1,138 per year on education, which averages out to about $100 a month, plus another $775 on vices, which adds up to about $60 per month. Remember, however, that this “average American family” includes single adults, married couples without children, and families with children, too, so not every family is going to be exactly the same.

Exercise #16 – Trim Your Education and Vice Spending

The rest of this article consists of a long list of specific tactics that you can use to trim your educational costs and your vice costs. As with the other savings articles in this series, it’s important to remember that everyone lives a somewhat different life and thus some of these tactics are going to seem useful and sensible to you, while others will seem like a stretch to you, and still others won’t apply at all. That’s okay. Ignore the ones that don’t apply. Make an effort to adopt the most sensible ones. Then, give the others a trial run and see if it’s something that can work for you. Commit to some of the challenging ones for thirty days and see if they work, or apply them during the relatively rare situations when those costs come up.

Remember, your overall goal is to cut back hard on the areas of life that are less important to you – the shallows – so that you can afford the “deep” areas of your life both today and tomorrow. Keep that in mind as you read each tip. Is this tip cutting back on something that’s really important to me, that amounts to a core life value? If not, why not cut it so that I can afford those things that really matter?

Let’s dig in.

Don’t use vices when you’re alone. I’m not going to stand here and talk about completely abstaining from vices. It’s going to take more than a personal finance blog to convince someone that smoking or drinking or drug use are something that is a net negative in their life. Given the up front cost and the long term health costs of such vices, the financial case against them is pretty easy to make.

However, I will say this: if you’re alone, try to find other ways to manage your emotions that don’t involve shelling out money or damaging your health. Try vigorous exercise, for one, or listening to upbeat music. Do anything you can to break a habit of consuming alcohol, tobacco, or drugs when you’re alone, because when you’re alone they don’t even provide a social conduit. (Of course, dropping vices entirely is the best route.)

Buy equipment used rather than renting a new version. This holds very true for things like musical instruments. Quite often, you’ll find that the cost of renting an instrument is fairly high, but actually purchasing a used version of that instrument is surprisingly low, sometimes only a few months’ worth of rent for that instrument. This exact scenario recently happened in our household, where a flute was offered for rent at a rate that would have paid for the used flute we outright purchased in just five months of rent payments.

You’re far better off buying a used instrument from a reputable manufacturer than buying a new instrument from some outfit with no reputation, too, when the prices are comparable. A used instrument from a reputable manufacturer is often perfect for learning and will last a long time, while new instruments from cut-rate manufacturers often end up breaking or have other design flaws (new instruments from good manufacturers are overly pricy for a new learner). The savings are tremendous from going this route.

If you plan on paying for an education in the future, start saving for it now. This is true for yourself and for anyone who is dependent on you. If you see educational costs coming in the future for anyone you might have to pay for, start saving for that expense now.

There are two big reasons for doing this. First, if you have money in the bank, the financial burden of that educational expense becomes a lot smaller. It’s not going to crush your day-to-day finances nearly as hard. Second, if you save money now, it will earn an investment return for you, meaning that you’ll have more dollars when you withdraw it than you’re putting into savings right now. In other words, saving for that future educational expense is a much smaller burden on your life if you start saving now rather than figuring it all out later.

Use a 529 College Savings Plan to save for the education of anyone in your family (including yourself). A 529 College Savings Plan is a brilliant tool for anyone facing educational expenses in their future. In a nutshell, a 529 plan enables you to easily put money away for future educational expenses, and the bonus is that when you withdraw money from that account for education, you don’t have to pay any taxes on the earnings. So, if you put in $10,000 over the years and the account has a $15,000 balance thanks to investment growth, that $5,000 in growth is tax free, likely saving you at least $1,000 in taxes. If you use the plan in your own state, you’ll probably get some additional state income tax benefits, too.

Each state runs its own 529 plan, so look at the one in your own state first (particularly if you live in a state with state income taxes). Most plans are pretty comparable, with comparison sites digging rather deep to find significant differences between plans. I’ve been happy with Iowa’s plan for years.

Get electives and basic courses out of the way at a community college that transfers credits to your school of choice. The reason for this is very simple: community college credits are far less expensive than credits at a typical university, so if you can get credits at the community college level that transfer to the university you want to graduate from, you’re going to save literally thousands of dollars. Plus, it’s very likely that you can take those community college courses locally, whereas a university might not be easily available to you.

Many students follow a path of working while taking night time and weekend community college courses, then transferring to a university a few years later to finish up their studies and earn a degree from a much more prestigious school in just a year or two. This drastically cuts into their educational expenses because many of the credits were earned at the much less expensive community college.

Strongly consider a public university over a private one. When you’re considering which school to go to, don’t worry about going to the best school that you can get into. Instead, focus on the school that offers the best “bang for the buck,” and that’s often going to be a public university in your state.

Public universities are large, which can intimidate people, but they also offer tons of opportunity. You can often find classes there that you can’t find at smaller schools, plus there are often extracurricular opportunities that you just can’t find at smaller schools. Not only that, the tuition is almost always drastically lower, particularly if you’re an in-state student.

Strongly consider an in-state school instead of an out-of-state school. If you’ve made the decision to attend a public university, you’ll quickly realize that most public universities are far cheaper if you attend as an in-state student rather than as an out-of-state student. In other words, if you are a citizen of that particular state (and the exact qualifications of citizen vary, but they generally involve being a resident for more than a year), your tuition costs drop drastically.

It is almost always worth it, then, to either attend a public university in the state where you currently live or spend a year establishing residence in the state where you want to attend school before attending. In both cases, the cost of tuition will drop through the floor.

Strongly consider a school close enough to home that you can live there. If you happen to live within a reasonable radius of a public university, give strong consideration to attending there. This enables you to live at home for a few years, which eliminates your housing cost and likely a significant portion of your food cost.

You can simply “commute” to school each morning, stay as late as you need to for classes, projects, and extracurriculars, and then go home each evening. There’s no housing cost. There’s very little transportation cost if you live in an area with good mass transit. Your food is probably covered if you live at home. Basically, your only expenses are education-related.

Apply for every scholarship you can find that you’re eligible for. Yes, this can mean that you spend a ton of free time filling out scholarship applications, writing essays, and searching for new scholarships, but it’s surprisingly worth it. Many scholarships get fewer applications than you might expect (I’ve served on the review board for a few and you’d be surprised how few people spend fifteen minutes filling out an application for a shot at $500), which basically means if you fill out a bunch of applications and sell yourself well, you’re likely to catch a few worms.

I recommend starting this process as early as possible. One big reason is that many scholarships ask for your total amount of other awarded scholarships, so if you start early, you can keep that number at “$0” on as many applications as possible. Another reason is that the earlier you take care of it, the more time you have later for even more applications. You can pay for a very large part of your education through piecemeal scholarships.

Plan your courses carefully to minimize your semester count. At most colleges and universities, you pay for tuition by the semester or term, so if you want to reduce your total expenses, you need to reduce your total count of semesters or terms. It’s just that simple.

The best way to do that is to plan for it. Schedule a meeting with your academic advisor outside of the “crunch times” and come up with a plan that can get you to your degree in the minimum number of semesters. Make that plan with a little bit of flexibility because there will be times when you don’t get into every class that you need, but strive for the minimum semester count.

Fill out the FAFSA, no matter your financial situation. There’s almost nothing but upside from filling out the FAFSA, even if you think you won’t receive any aid. The truth is that you’ll likely receive more than you think, particularly if you have lots of family members.

Fill it out, even if it feels like a hassle and even if you doubt that it will help. It can do nothing but help.

Get the smallest student loans you possibly can. Many people are tempted to get student loans that help them to finance some lifestyle “extras.” I’m guilty of this myself; I got a larger student loan than necessary to help pay for a larger apartment than what I really needed, cable service, a new computer, and so on. I didn’t really need any of those things.

The best strategy to follow when you’re getting student loans is to live as absolutely cheaply as you possibly can. Live in a tiny apartment with a roommate – it’s not like you will spend a lot of time there. Have a minimal wardrobe and don’t update it unless clothes are falling apart. Eat as inexpensively as you can. Spend nothing on entertainment; let Youtube and other free online sources be your entertainment.

Go minimal when buying stuff before your first semester. Many people tend to overbuy on items that they “need” before their first semester in college. Don’t. Go absolutely minimal instead.

I took way too much stuff to college my first year. Most of it sat around completely unused. It was a waste of money, to be honest. The only things I actually used with any frequency were about a third of my clothes, my toiletries, my school supplies, and my computer. Everything else was unnecessary.

If I were to start college over again, everything I would take with me would fit in a duffel bag and I’m not even remotely exaggerating. I’d take about five changes of clothes with one extra “nice” change of clothes, a laptop computer, a Kindle, bedsheets and a pillow, some notebooks and pens… and, honestly, that would be about it. If I were moving into an apartment, I would get a few basic dishes and a pot and some silverware from Goodwill. Nothing else is really necessary or will even be used.

If you have a meal plan, squeeze every ounce of value out of it. Different colleges and universities have different value propositions when it comes to their meal plans. Whatever it is, spend the time to figure out where the best “bang for the buck” is in terms of your meal plan and then extract every dime of value out of it.

For example, I had a friend in college who had a “one meal a day” plan in the campus food service. He ate exactly once a day in there … but he got every ounce of value out of it, going through the cafeteria line several times and getting incredibly full. Aside from that, he would eat a granola bar occasionally in the early part of the day to “provide fuel.” He was a Dean’s List student and seemed to thrive on it.

You won’t starve without a three-meal-a-day plan. Trust me. Just take maximum advantage of whatever plan you do have.

Take advantage of student discounts. You’ll find that many businesses and services around your university or college offer a great discount if you show your student ID. Take advantage of that, not to buy extra stuff, but to get discounts on the stuff you’d already buy.

If you decide you need a haircut, for instance, choose a place that has a good reputation and a student discount. If you need dental work, see if any dentists offer good arrangements for students. If you need a new hat, are there any clothiers that have a student discount? Milk that discount for every dime you can get from it.

Utilize on-campus resources to help manage your basic needs. When you’re in college, you’ll often find that many of your needs are handled perfectly well by on-campus services and programs that are freely available to all students. Universities often have a fitness center or two, so there’s no need to pay for a gym. They often have free health care services. They have free internet, so you don’t need to pay for it at your apartment.

My favorite benefit is the piles of free food. When I was a student, the student organizations were always having meetings where they provided pizza or some other food that was just free for the taking for anyone who showed up. I would constantly dabble in various student organizations, going to their meetings, eating the free food, hanging out with people for a while, hearing about what the club was up to or maybe listening to an interesting speaker, and then heading out. Free dinner, free social time, perhaps a free interesting presentation – it was a good deal, and it kept my food costs really low.

Get maximum value out of every educational experience. If you’re paying for an education, wring every dime of value out of that education. Don’t just take a class – do all of the homework, participate in the online discussion forums for that class (if they exist), and go to office hours. Ask tons of questions – everything that you can’t resolve yourself – and don’t be afraid of “dumb” questions.

Take advantage of the out-of-class educational opportunties that your tuition affords you as well. Go to on-campus talks that seem even remotely interesting – and mingle afterwards. Go to any and all meetings related to your department where you might have a chance to learn something and mingle with the professors. What you’re going to find is not only do you learn a bunch of useful additional things, but that you start building some really valuable relationships with people that can help springboard you into a career opportunity.

Buy your textbooks used and then re-sell them. Unless there is literally no other option, you should avoid buying a new textbook for a class. Buy used ones instead and then re-sell them at the end of the term to recoup some of your money and invest it in the next round of textbooks for the next semester (or pocket it when you’re done).

The best way to buy and resell used books is to watch bulletin boards in the buildings that you frequent on campus as well as Craigslist and any specific messageboards for your university. I highly recommend posting your books for sale as early as possible before the start of the next semester and indicating which classes they might be used for. You’ll often find that the sale of one semester’s books basically pays for the next semester’s books.

Tune in next time for the next entry in this series, which will take things in a new direction…

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Three Things NOT to Do at Your Year-End Performance Review

The end of the year is performance-review time at many companies, which means that you’re probably reading this in between frantically reacquainting yourself with your goals for 2016, and wondering how to persuade your boss to give you a raise.

If you’re feeling a little nervous, take a deep breath. While annual reviews can be stressful, they’re also an opportunity to make your accomplishments known, advocate for yourself, and get on track for the coming year.

Go into the meeting prepared and with a clear head, and you could come out ahead. But first, let’s talk about what you absolutely shouldn’t do, if you want a productive and positive performance review.

Don’t…

1. Expect the worst.

Ideally, your manager is your partner, not your adversary. If he or she is any good at their job, you should already know where your weak spots are and what you need to do to improve, thanks to plenty of one-on-one meeting during the year. There should be no surprises in a performance evaluation, and if there are, that’s on your boss, not on you. (Provided that you’ve kept your ears open and that you’re receptive to constructive criticism.)

That said, not every manager is clear on their responsibility to communicate areas of improvement throughout the year. Some have trouble giving constructive criticism — even though research shows that workers want corrective feedback, provided it’s delivered in a helpful fashion.

Regardless, approaching your performance review like a trip to the principal’s office won’t help you get the conversation off to a positive start. Even if your manager highlights areas for improvement, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. In fact, it might show that he or she is willing to endure a tough conversation in order to help you achieve your potential at the organization.

2. Come in unprepared.

The biggest mistake you can make in a performance review is to wing it. For one thing, your lack of preparation will be evident, and give the impression that you’re not taking the meeting seriously — not what you’re trying to convey to the person in charge of your raise. For another, it’s hard to remember everything you’ve accomplished when you’re on the spot.

Start by gathering your materials, including your job description, goals from last year (if you were at the company at that time), and a list of what you’ve accomplished. Best-case scenario, you’ve been tracking these over the course of the year, and will just have to match your accomplishments against your goals. If you’re not quite that organized yet, go through your projects, folders, and inbox, and highlight your wins. Now’s the time to put a number and a dollar sign on what you’ve done. If you can demonstrate that you’ve made or saved the company money, you’ll be in a much better position going into your review.

3. Demand a raise.

It might surprise you to know that the end of the year is not necessarily the best time of year to ask for a raise. For one thing, budgets tend to be set. There’s no point in demanding a 10% raise if your manager only has a 3% bump in the budget.

That doesn’t mean that you should give up on getting more money. Provided your review is going well, the second half of the conversation is a great time to let your manager know about your goals for your future at the company. If you’d like to be promoted, for example, ask your manager what you’d need to do to get there in the coming year. If you think your current duties seem more relevant to another, more highly paid job, you can make that point. The goal is to help your manager see your path and help you make progress.

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